Commander Ernie Meadowbrook grinned.
ARES 15 was a week into its expedition to Mars, and the trip was running smoothly. It was a watershed moment for mankind, the colonization of an entirely new world, and as the mission's primary steward, Meadowbrook felt a tremendous sense of pride. Centuries from now, he thought, nearly chuckling to himself, he’d still be taught in history books. On both planets.
He opened his tablet and scrolled through the photos in his camera roll. Oh, Susan. She was the love of his life, and he’d lost her. He scrolled to the next photo, of Craig and Percy. Susan used to say he loved the stars more than their boys, and he’d never had the strength to argue with her.
It doesn’t matter, he thought, turning off the device. He was going to reserve them spots on ARES 16. Susan would finally realize what all that work had been for. He looked out the window for a beat, in the direction of Earth, and headed to the Command Center.
“Martinez!” Meadowbrook boomed. “Any updates?”
“Nothing to report, Commander. We’ll perform a flyby on double asteroid Scylla in four hours, then send the shots back to Houston.”
“Excellent.” Meadowbrook made his way around the room, chatting with Wu and Hanson, the module pilots.
“Commander,” they nodded, with a smile. He was well liked. Meadowbrook floated through the ship, checking in on the colony, many of whom has just Skyped into an elementary school in Santa Cruz, before returning to his office for a snack. Dinner was going to be freeze-dried beef stew, not his favorite, and he was fiending for something sweet. He spread some peanut butter on a flour tortilla and chewed absentmindedly for a few minutes.
After his snack, Meadowbrook brushed his teeth and washed his face. He reached for his case of toiletries, to take out his Chapstick.
“Shit,” he muttered. It wasn’t there. He’d probably left it in the Command Center. By Martinez.
He made his way back into the Command Center and over to Martinez.
“Hey, how’s everything going?”
“Good,” she said, looking up at him. “You ok?”
“Yeah. Yes. Of course.” He licked his lips and surveyed the desk underneath her glowing dashboard.
“You sure?” Martinez asked, puzzled.
“D-Did I leave my Chapstick over here, by chance?” Meadowbrook blurted.
“Oh!” She said, relieved. “If you did, I haven’t seen it. Maybe it floated out of your pod?”
“Right,” Meadowbrook said, nodding. Wu and Hanson looked at him in their peripherals as he hurried back into the corridor.
Meadowbrook passed floating scrambled eggs in the kitchen, floating loose leaf paper in the ship’s makeshift library and a floating stuffed animal that had escaped a toddler in the Martian colonizers’ quarters. But there was no Chapstick to be found. Now, he was passing through floating water droplets. He realized, with a jolt, that the droplets were his own sweat, trickling off his forehead. He licked his lips again. All of a sudden, they felt particularly dry.
He returned again to the Command Center.
“Any luck?” Wu called over.
“No. N-No, none,” Meadowbrook said, breathing heavily. He made his way over to Xavier, the payload specialist. “Xavier. Hey there. We packed Chapstick, right? It would be in Supply Compartment C, under Moisturizers and Lotions?”
Xavier tapped a few keys on his computer. “Checking … checking … oh, good!”
“We did?!” Meadowbrook slapped him on the shoulder in celebration.
“Oh, no, I just saw that dinner was freeze-dried beef stew tonight. Score. What were you looking for, Commander?”
“Chapstick! Did we pack Chapstick?!” Meadowbrook implored.
Xavier tapped away again. “Moisturizers and Lotions … let’s see … so we packed six different forms of sunscreen … even the one that’s SPF 75 … sheesh, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that stuff’s fake … shea butter lotion … man, that’s the stuff … deodorant … looks like they stocked up real good on Old Spice … that’s a little basic, I’m more of an Irish Spring guy myself … good amount of hair product, that’s a nice surprise … including NIVEA Just for Men Touch of Gray … but yeah, hmm … I’m not seeing any Chapstick.”
Xavier looked up at Meadowbrook. “Commader? You don’t look so hot.”
“No … Chapstick?” Meadowbrook muttered, incredulous. “Not a single tube?”
“Well,” Xavier said, typing, “there’s a couple hundred tubs of Vaseline in there. That’s sort of the same thi-”
“THAT’S NOT THE SAME THING!” Meadowbrook exploded. Sweat was now cascading down his forehead, and running in a river down the bridge of his nose. It was collecting on his upper lip, which he continued to lick, while the skin under his nostrils quickly turned red. He turned to face the rest of the crew, which had completely stopped what it was doing.
“Commander?” Hanson was holding a tube in his right hand. “I get it. I’m a Chapstick guy. You can use mine while we sort this out.” He tossed it across the room to Meadowbrook, who looked at the label.
“Blistex. So this is what you think of me, Pilot Hanson. Blistex.” Meadowbrook removed the lid and slowly turned the tube clockwise, up and up and up, until 80% of the lip balm was outside of the cylinder. Then he broke off the wax and smushed it against his chest.
“HEY! WHAT THE HELL?” Hanson tried to lunge at Meadowbrook, but Wu held him back. The rest of the crew was shouting at Meadowbrook.
“What's your problem, Commander?” Martinez said. “It’s just Chapstick.”
“Just Chapstick?” Meadowbrook mused, now suddenly very calm. “Oh, no, no, no. Wait until the Martian colony learns there are no reinforcements in the supply compartment. Some will lose their tubes, like me. But most will simply finish them. And what, then? I give us five days before the ship is completely out. A week, tops.”
“We’re scientists! We can figure out the formula!” Martinez shouted.
“We won’t be able to replicate it in time. Even if we do, a bunch will want the blue one. The colonizers will be at each other’s throats. And that's assuming the chapped lips haven’t taken them first.”
“He’s right,” Hanson said, sighing. “We have no choice, really.”
“Call Houston,” Meadowbrook said. “We’re going home.”
The Command Center erupted in confusion anger.
“Don’t do this!”
“See reason, Commander!”
“We can fight this!”
“Oh, how I wish we could …” Meadowbrook murmured, delicately licking his lips. “Martinez, make the call. That’s an order.”
“Y-Yes Commander,” Martinez said, her hands shaking. A dozen pairs of eyes watched as she opened the channel to Johnson Space Center. “M-Mission Control, this is ARES 15, reporting plans to abort Operation New World, I repeat, ARES 15 plans to abort Operation New World. Over.”
“ARES 15, this is Mission Control,” the intercom crackled, “did you say ARES 15 is aborting Operation New World? Over.”
“Oh god …” Martinez looked lost.
“Mission Control this is Commander Meadowbrook,” Meadowbrook leaned in, taking over. “Yes, we must abort. I repeat: Houston, we must abort. We recently discovered we forgot to pack Chapstick. Over.”
There was a long pause. The entire Command Center held its breath. Xavier had his head in his hands. A row of engineers locked their arms together.
“ARES 15 …” the voice said, “Roger that. That sounds absolutely brutal. Permission to set the course for home. Over.”
Meadowbrook pumped his fist. They were going back.
“You heard the man,” he addressed the room. “We’re turning around. Let’s get some schematics up and running and figure out our timeframe here. Any chance we can reverse Leapfrog the moon and get home late next Tuesday? The CVS around the corner from me closes at 10.”
“Commander, if we change course now, we might come dangerously close to double asteroid Scylla. At the least, we’ll experience some fire from its surrounding dust storms.” Martinez pulled up some charts on her screen.
“We’ll be good, Martinez. Just put your faith in me. That goes for all of you.”
He looked around at the crew, at Hanson and Wu and Xavier. He felt overcome with fondness for them, and knew in his heart that they’d be alright. They’d all get home. To their blue and green home, not the dusty red one 34 million miles away. He’d get his Chapstick, and he’d pick up three extra, for a woman named Susan and two boys named Percy and Craig. He knew they'd be proud of him.