The World Builders Writing Club is a diverse group of aspiring authors who meet once a month and will be showcasing some of their work on the Free Library blog.
Please enjoy this first look at a new work-in-progress by one of our writers, and share your thoughts in the comments.
Valpartha: One Woman’s Quest
An Interplanetary Romance
By Dale Shillito
“Alright, Astrid, what’s your great news?”
I was sitting across from my Mom, Anitra Bremer at an old wood-paneled smorgasbord bar in Gamla Stan. I had brought her here to celebrate with me, although the medieval narrow streets and buildings of this oldest district of Stockholm, Sweden, stood in contrast to the space age news I had to tell.
“I got the job! I’ve been chosen to be explorer / earth science officer on the Europa expedition to Alpha Centauri!”
“Congratulations, Astrid! I knew you could do it!” Mom reached across the table and gave me a hug. Mom was, like me, tall, sturdily built, with naturally blonde hair and blue eyes. In her case the blonde was starting to gray. I felt especially close to her, since my parents had divorced when I was a baby.
Mom had worked in a steel mill in Kiruna, in the far north of Sweden. The town is extremely isolated, wind-swept by bitter cold arctic winds up to nine months a year, with an abbreviated spring/summer/autumn season of midnight sun compressed into weeks. I loved skiing and dog-sledding in the winter. In summer we’d hike or canoe on the tundra or below the tree line. In some ways I had an ideal childhood, but Mom always had me under constant pressure to succeed. Now I felt I could show her that I would live up to her expectations.
“I really didn’t think I had a chance,” I admitted. “There were nine men with advanced geology degrees competing against me for the job.”
“I’ve heard geology jobs are hard to get, now that fossil fuels are declining and renewables that don’t require mining are replacing them.”
“Tell me about it! Listen, I’ve been looking for eighteen months.”
We ate our meal, occasionally looking out over Lake Maleren, at pleasure boats sailing past.
“Do you plan to retire down here in Stockholm, Mom?” I asked.
“Yes, of course, darling. The far north is no place to live if you don’t work there anymore. Listen, I’m not an astronomer. Where is this Alpha Centauri your spaceship is taking you?”
“It’s the nearest star in the universe, four and a half light years away. Scientists detected what sounded like faint feminine voices coming from that triple star cluster. They believe there may be intelligent life there.”
“I understand the European Space Agency is sponsoring it. How long will it take you to get there?”
“…and ten years to come back?”
“No, Mom. We won’t be coming back. We’re to establish a permanent colony there.”
“Never come home? Oh dear! Are you sure this is what you want to do?”
“Yes, I want you to be proud of me, Mom. You always say success comes to those who go farthest to find it.” I smiled, toasting my hoped-for success with my glass of lingonberry tea. Mom lifted her glass half-heartedly.
“I am proud of you, Astrid. You’re twenty-six years old, and still have your life ahead of you. I’m now in my sixties, feeling like I missed opportunities in my life. If this is your chance for self-actualization, I suppose…you…must…take…it.”
“Self-actualization, Mom, that old Maslow concept? Yes, indeed! That’s what I want; true fulfillment of my potential. Like you say women sell themselves short when they marry and give up their independence to a man. Well, I’m not married, nothing to tie me down here to Earth. I’ve been reading about women explorers. History doesn’t give our sex its due for the courage and determination it takes for a woman to set off into the unknown, to risk to find what’s out there… This is my chance to make history! To explore new planets! New civilizations! I’ll be the first!”
I ignored tears welling up in Mom’s eyes. I knew it would be hard on her and had dreaded telling her. Trying to avoid eye contact, I chattered on while concentrating on my plate of smoked bokling and Skane potatoes smothered in chanterelle mushrooms and melted febodstot cheese.
I assumed Mom was enjoying her meal as well. When I did look up, I saw to my horror, Mom was holding her chest as if in agony. She was gasping for breath. Her face was pale and moist. “Never… see…you…again…? She mumbled. She seemed to be fading out of consciousness.
I knew at once these were signs of a heart attack. I gently supported her head and dropped her to the floor The maître-d’ called for an ambulance as I started chest thrusts and artificial resuscitation, having just learned these techniques as part of my training for the space mission. When the paramedics came, they quickly took over for me, and rolled Mom into the emergency vehicle for transport to the nearest hospital.
I sat alone in the waiting room, blaming myself. Why had I broken the news that I was never coming back so casually, so callously, so uncaringly? After an eternity, I was called to the desk where I was met by a surgeon.
“Astrid Svenson?” he asked. “I understand you gave your mother CPR before the ambulance arrived. If so, you probably saved her life.”
“She’s still alive?” I asked hopefully.
“Yes, she’s weak, but we’ve stabilized her heartbeat. She’s in ICU being carefully monitored.”
Tears came to my eyes in front of the doctor. “It’s all my fault!” I cried. “I got her upset.”
The doctor reassured me. “It’s certainly not your fault, Astrid. The Scandinavian diet is notoriously hard on the arteries. Her doctor suggested for years that she try a Mediterranean diet, low on fat with lots of vegetables and fruit. She’s stubborn. You must know that.”
Unable to see Mom in intensive care, I went back to my apartment and basically sulked. Of course, I knew she was stubborn. So am I. It runs in our family. Another stubborn member of our family was my Aunt Ingrid, Mom’s younger sister.
I returned to the hospital after being informed that Mom had been moved to a private room. Aunt Ingrid was there seated in a chair watching television. Mom appeared to be asleep. I knelt over and kissed her. Tears were in my eyes.
“Mom, I’m sorry,” I whispered. “I didn’t mean to shock you that I wasn’t coming back.” Mom said nothing, but I thought I saw her wink. I stood up and turned around.
“Hello, Astrid,” Ingrid said. “The surgeon said Annie may need coronary bypass surgery. Be prepared.”
“How would I prepare for that?”
“Quit your job, and be ready to take care of her full-time when she comes home.”
“I’m just about to start a new job. I’m in training right now.”
“That will make it easier for you to resign.”
“Resign? This is the start of the career I dreamt of all my life! Why don’t you resign?”
“I’m six months short of retirement. I want my full pension.”
“Well, I’m due to leave on the Europa, that ESA spaceship bound for Alpha Centauri. It leaves for space in six months.”
“You’re a selfish, ungrateful daughter, Astrid!”
“Mom always said I should pursue my dreams, no matter what the cost.”
“Well, she certainly didn’t include her own life as one of your ‘costs’.”
“Let’s make a deal. I’ll take care of her until I’m ready to leave. You take care of her after that.”
“No deals. It’s your responsibility to take care of your mother.”
Mom opened her eyes and sat up in bed. “Ingrid! Some sister you are! You’re the selfish, ungrateful one! All these years, Astrid has been a faithful daughter while you rarely even came to visit. We all have to make sacrifices if Astrid is to be a success. I’ve accepted that I’ll never see my daughter again when she leaves for space. It’ll be hard, but it needs to be. You’ve taken me for granted for far too long, only venturing up north to Kiruna when you needed to borrow money.”
“Annie! That’s not true. I-I just don’t take the cold very well.”
“Is that why you went to the Mediterranean when I gave you money to pay ‘back bills’?”
“All right, I’ll take care of you when you get out of here, but I’m not quitting my job.”
“I never asked you to,” Mom said. She turned to me. “Astrid, I want you to go! It’s an adventure I might have taken myself years ago. I know you’ll make me proud of you, and I’m sure whatever you find there will be wonderful. You said the scientists heard women’s voices from Alpha Centauri. The feminine voice I want to hear is yours. Please keep in touch when you set out on your journey.”
My training sent me to the European Space Agency’s headquarters in Paris, France. I loved the city at first sight. Living in Stockholm, I had of course heard of the Left Bank art colony, the sidewalk cafes, the cathedrals and palaces. Stockholm had variations of all of these, but certainly not on such a grand scale! I was floored to see original Da Vinci and great Renaissance paintings at the Louvre, saddened that few Scandinavian artists were on the walls. My mom had recovered enough to travel to Paris with Aunt Ingrid while I was there. It was wonderful spending that last week with her there. The three of us toured the city on my days off. All too soon it was time for her to return to her doctor in Stockholm, and for us to sadly say farewell, forever.
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