The Pioneers

The Pioneers
S. Baer Lederman

The crew consisted of the Captain, the Navigator, the Engineer, and the Science Officer. Not at first, though. At first they weren’t astronauts at all. At first they didn’t even have a spaceship, just a scuffed Airstream and their Cadillac Eldorado. They became a crew of explorers in the fall of 1961, the evening the Captain came home and announced that the family was moving. He’d found a position off world, far away in the wild and uncharted hinterlands of space. He hadn’t even kicked off his boots before sharing the news.
“Where?” the Navigator asked, turning from the stove.
“Alaska,” the Captain answered. “Oil money up there. They’re looking for men.” He leaned against the doorframe and scraped at a patch of chipping paint with his thumbnail.
“You really couldn’t find anything here?” the Navigator asked. She didn’t notice as the wooden spoon in her hand dripped tomato sauce onto the linoleum.
“It pays well.” He cleared his throat before continuing. “You wouldn’t have to work.”
The Engineer, who’d been reading on the couch, threw down her book and stomped out of the room. The Navigator turned her back to the Captain and resumed making dinner. And the Science Officer, who was lying on the carpet, doing his best to stay within the lines of his official NASA Mercury 3 coloring book, bowed his head and kept filling the pulpy pages with Technicolor. He heard the Captain’s work belt slide from his blackened fingertips and land on the shag with a dull thud. The Captain stepped over the Science Officer, tousling the boy’s hair before retreating to his quarters. Then only the sharp ting of pans and the scrape, scrape, scraping of the Science Officer’s pencils remained to fill the void.
The Navigator was mad, the Science Officer could tell. He made
a quick note of his observation. He was clever. He knew things – things
he knew he shouldn’t know. Like the fact that it wasn’t actually Santa that had given him his colored pencils. He knew Santa was actually his aunt, the Navigator’s sister, who lived in a big house in San Francisco. He even knew that Santa was supposed to be the Captain and the Navigator and he knew that the Navigator hated that they weren’t.

Two weeks later they drove north to begin a quick training exercise by the sea. It was a place the crew knew well. In fact, the Science Officer couldn’t remember a single summer where they hadn’t spent several days camped on that beach – except this one, of course. He knew everything about it: the best rocky hollows to find crabs, the places where starfish washed up after storms. He knew the story of how the Captain and the Navigator met on the pier when they were little older than the Engineer. The Captain liked to tell that story.
As they pulled into the parking lot, the Science Officer considered the place and decided the extreme pressure of the deep sea was an appropriate substitute for the vacuum of space. He imagined the Captain slowly driving the Eldorado over the sand and into the inky ocean. He saw the car’s fins cutting through the waves and stabilizing them as they made their way along the ocean floor. He imagined the thrill of seeing the lonely creatures winking and wriggling in the glimmer of the headlights. He imagined them skittering out of the kelp and performing for his amusement, sending up mushroom clouds of sand that were slow to settle. But when the Science Officer cautioned that they needed to roll up the windows before driving into the frothing surf, the Captain just chuckled and turned to the Navigator. She was gazing out the window and didn’t laugh with him.
They parked and the Navigator said, “Tommy, put on your jacket.” But the Science Officer was busy drawing his schematics. “Molly?”
The Engineer sighed, tossed her magazine down, and took the Science Officer’s notebook from him. “Put your jacket on,” she said.
“It’s my spacesuit,” the Science Officer corrected her.
Once his spacesuit was on, the Science Officer swung his door open and slid from the plush seat to the damp gray sand. He stepped cautiously, practicing how he would walk on the alien planet.
“Keep up,” the Captain called over the wind. The Navigator was already far down the beach. As they walked, the Captain pointed out the rocky formations that stood like monuments to their summers together.
“Remember when you two used to run around Black Rock at low tide?” The Captain asked, gesturing to a boulder that protruded from the surf. But the Science Officer wasn’t listening. He was collecting samples. Soon his pockets bulged with sharp-lipped shells that rubbed his thighs raw.
At dusk the crew walked to the end of the pier. As the beam from the lighthouse swept over them again and again, the Captain began to tell
the story of how he and the Navigator met right here, on this very pier late one August evening. He was visiting his cousins and she lived by the sea and they were both seventeen. He stopped when the Navigator shrugged his arm from her shoulder.
“Let’s go,” she mumbled, turning from the wind to light the last cigarette in her pack. “I’m cold.”
On the way back to the Eldorado, the Science Officer found a tide pool filled with racing minnows. The Engineer stood by him and waited.
“You stink,” she finally said. He looked up and noticed the stars above her glimmered like the frightened fish. “Get rid of the shells, dad’ll never let you bring those in the car.”
The Science Officer’s eyes welled with tears as he emptied his pockets onto the sand. But then the Engineer kneeled in front of him. “Here,” she said, “You don’t need all those rotting shells. Take this.” She pulled a smooth black rock from her pocket and placed it in his palm. “Just like Black Rock, right? Same color, same shape, same thing.”

The next morning, they were ready for the mission to begin. The Captain attached the Airstream to the back of the Eldorado and off they went. The last stop in their familiar world was a station by the edge of town. After refueling the Eldorado, the Captain climbed into the pilot’s seat and said, “Here we go!” He handed his coffee to the Navigator so he could work the shifter.
The bumpy ride up the onramp and through the atmosphere scared the Science Officer. He turned to the Engineer, but her face was hidden behind a copy of Seventeen. From the cover, a pretty girl smiled at him. He blushed, momentarily forgetting about the jolting and rumbling, and he soon grew used to it.
During the first few days, the Captain would veer off course often to show the crew wonders unlike anything the Science Officer had ever seen. Mountains that looked like dwarf planets covered in lush alien trees, cliffs as craggy and dark as fissured asteroids, valleys cradling nebulous tongues of stardust and water vapor that refracted into brilliant streamers of light, which seemed to migrate north with the pioneers. But as days passed, the Captain made fewer and fewer stops.
The Eldorado soon felt cramped, especially compared to the infinity of space surrounding them. They slept in the Airstream every night, but with all their instruments and tools and gear, it didn’t feel much better than the car. At first, the Captain and the Navigator slept on the bed while the Engineer and Science Officer laid bedrolls on the floor. One night, as he drifted off, the Science Officer could hear the Navigator crying outside the trailer. Her hissing, whispered shouts and the occasional angry rumble of the Captain’s voice filtered through the riveted aluminum. The Science Officer tried to get up, tried to collect his notebook and go outside to observe, but the Engineer pulled him back down. She draped her arm over him and stroked his hair until he fell asleep. From then on, the Captain slept in the backseat of the Eldorado.
A day before they were set to arrive at their new home, they passed the aftermath of two gigantic star cruisers that had collided and ripped each other apart. Through fat, clotted snowflakes, the Science Officer watched as they grew closer and the blurred colors from the police lights cast shadows over the twisted shapes of the intertwined celestial bodies. He had seen something like it before. He’d been in the car with the Navigator, back when she used to smile and paint bowls of oranges and sunsets and tell him how wonderful his drawings were. They were on the freeway, singing together when another rocket ship zoomed past them. A few minutes later, they saw the ship again. It had smashed into a lane divider, spewing glass and fire across the entire cosmos. At the time, the Navigator had tried to cover the Science Officer’s eyes. But not this time. The Captain and the Navigator had surrendered to the Eldorado’s silence and neither of them noticed his face pressed against the porthole.
Sirens and flares and curiosity had slowed traffic to a crawl. Without anything more than the sound of his scraping pencil, the Science Officer observed the scene and documented his findings.
“Hey,” the Engineer said, laying her book in her lap. The Science Officer turned away from the glass to face her. “What happened to your colored pencils?”
“I used them all,” he replied. “I’ve been making lots of observations. I’ve almost filled my whole notebook. Wanna see? I have diagrams and lots of–” but he could tell the Engineer wasn’t listening. She was looking past him as he spoke.
When the flashing lights and twisted metal were finally behind them, she said, “I’ll buy you some crayons when we get there,” and resumed reading.

Finally they arrived at the far-off ice planet. The Captain detached the trailer and they left it in orbit, landing the Eldorado on the surface to explore for the day. There was much for the Science Officer to note: ancient mountains of snow and ice that glowed in the afternoon light, fields full of shaggy creatures that wore crowns of bone, peaks so tall the clouds couldn’t even reach them. They even pulled over by a frozen waterfall whose sharp icicles looked like the spines of a giant white porcupine. The Captain wouldn’t let anyone walk on the surface because he felt it was too dangerous. But the Navigator didn’t listen. She wrenched the door open and approached the waterfall. In the center of the frozen fall, one perfectly clear icicle rose from the ground like a massive glass tree trunk. She felt its soft ridges and took a drag of her cigarette, ignoring the Captain’s orders to get back in the goddamn car. But he didn’t get out. He just watched her and waited.
When the Navigator finally returned, the Captain took them to town without any more stops. They had dinner in a clam shack that overlooked their new sea from the end of the wharf.
“I know it’s hard to say goodbye,” he said as they finished their meal, “but look at this view!” He jerked at the bay with a piece of oily cod. “We’ll be living by the water, we’ll have a big house, a studio for your mom. You kids will love it. I promise.”
The crew left the restaurant as the strange sun fell below the unfamiliar mountains. The lighthouse beam grew stark in its sweep across the frigid bay. They piled into the Eldorado to return to orbit – their last night in the Airstream – but before the Captain could start the engine, the Navigator got out and walked to the water’s edge. The Captain followed her this time. He grabbed her elbow but she pulled away from him.
The Science Officer opened the door and slid to the ground, notebook in hand. Behind the Captain and the Navigator, a mountain of ice drifted across the bay. The wind stung the Science Officer as it brought somersaulting clouds over the mountains and whipped the surf into froth. The Navigator sobbed and yelled and when the Captain grabbed her shoulders, she slapped him across the face. Spray from the crashing waves reached across the rocky beach, chilling the Science Officer’s cheeks. With panic welling in his throat, he dropped his notebook and began running towards his father and mother. But his sister caught his hand.
“You forgot your spacesuit,” she said, guiding him back to the car. She picked up his notebook and put it on the Eldorado’s trunk. Then she slid her hands under his armpits and said, “Jump.” She hoisted him onto the Eldorado’s fin. “Hold your sleeves.” She guided his arms into his jacket.
Hand in hand they walked up the rocky beach to where the wind carried away the Captain’s and the Navigator’s words. They rested on a smooth log that had washed up on shore.
“Show me what you’ve been working on,” the Engineer said. With greasy fingers, the Science Officer flipped the pages of his notebook, explaining the findings of their journey to the Engineer. And in between smiles and nods and the occasional gasp, she looked to the mountain peaks and the setting sun, her hands buried in the pockets of her spacesuit.

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