“The good news is that after the Wipe, things were different. What people survived, moved closer together, trekking on foot for sometimes months to make it to an area where they stood a better chance of survival. Without cars, planes, trucks or many other forms of transportation, and no phones or internet, the people in the middle of North America were cut off. They either chose to live in secluded villages or make the journey to one of the coasts. Even as our infrastructure began to improve, people were still scared of another disaster, and the population had shrunk so much that people didn’t migrate too far into the interior of the continent.”
Willow nodded. I wasn’t sure how much of what I said mattered to her, but I enjoyed sharing my thoughts and insights about home.
“What about money? You said your family wasn’t well off?”
I quickly grabbed a drink of water before continuing as the monologuing was drying me out. “Well, for a while we were all probably what you would consider poor. Bank records were lost in the Great Wipe and so every person with money in the bank had nothing. All that people had was what cash they had on hand. People tried to trade gold and silver for goods and services, but were laughed at since the most valuable things were food, medicine, clothing and skills. Most people tried for a while to live without currency, but it quickly became clear that it would not work because not everyone had something to trade. Can you imagine trying to trade a book for food?”
“Yeah, I wouldn’t expect people would get far trying to trade a trashy romance novel for a steak,” Willow chimed in.
“My family was as generous as we could be in feeding people from our farm. We accepted pretty much any trade. Clothing, metal, tires, art, help fixing the barn, and even books none of us had any interest in reading. It didn’t take long for money to become important again and in a year, there were a number of local trading currencies. Schools started back up, but apprenticeships and high-end careers required paying for education. And once you got the job, being a doctor, nurse, or welder, you were often paid in local currency. My family never had much in the way of money.”
And we never would, I thought to myself. Because I had failed.
“With you being a doctor and Asher’s skills as an engineer, I’m sure you two will do well back on Earth.”
“Me and Asher?” I half laughed.
“I’m not blind. I see the way you two look at each other. And I think it’s wonderful. It’s so good the two of you found each other out here. Who better to spend your life with than someone who understands what it’s like to be displaced in time?” Willow paused. “Heck, I actually feel sorry for Skyler that he will be alone, the only person twenty-eight years out of his time. Any one he might be interested in would be young enough to be his child. They wouldn’t understand him or the way he views the world. He’ll be a living relic of a world long forgotten.”
I hadn’t thought of that. I sat with my mouth closed, staring at the mountains and the lake, glittering with sunlight. I took a deep breath through my nose, and wished I could smell something other than the sterile atmosphere of the ship.
“It almost makes me glad I won’t be going back,” Willow said wistfully. “It’s one thing to be alone out in space by yourself. It’s another thing entirely, to be alone on a world surrounded by people.”
The next night I ate with Asher, after receiving a wink and a grin from Willow on my way to sit in the dining area. Asher’s frustration meant that eating dinner together was primarily an opportunity for him to relieve his stress by ranting about everything that hadn’t worked, or the limitations of the technology that we had aboard the LD. I tried to comfort him, but his focus was on the energy barrier.
“I know what to call it now,” Asher said prepping another fork full of thick green mash that was supposed to be broccoli and potatoes.
“It’s a potential energy conversion field. Any energy we put into it, only strengthens it. We’ve been calling it the PEC field.”
“Willow, Skyler and I.”
“Ah,” I said feeling excluded.
“But, I still can’t figure out how the probes got through!” Asher slammed his fork onto the table. “I’ve come up against so many problems that I haven’t been able to immediately solve, but usually after working on it for a while, or having a team to work with, I figure out something. Some kind of workable solution or theory. I could spend years looking for a solution to this puzzle.” He absentmindedly put his hand to the pendant of his faith he wore around his neck. “I’ve been praying for Dio to help me,” he shrugged, “or at least give me patience. I’m running out of that almost quicker than I’m running out of time.”
I was a bit surprised at Asher’s outburst, but I also understood. I was fighting with my own unsolvable puzzle, dedicating every last processing cycle not being used to find a solution to the PEC field to trying to help Willow live longer. I moved my chair closer to him and leaned onto his shoulder. I felt him lean back against me.
“I’m so happy you are here with me,” he said quietly.
Skyler came storming into the dining area. “Hey boss,” he said in his unique blend of sarcastic and friendly tones, “the simulations of the emitters are ready for review.”
“Can’t you see I’m busy right now?” Asher replied.
“Hey boys, get along,” Willow croaked from her cryopod. “I can go check on the results without you two…”
Asher stood up, and I pulled back so I wouldn’t fall over. He looked at me, excitement and anxiousness in his eyes.
“Go, there will be other dinners,” I said, though deep down, I hoped he would stay.
He immediately rushed off with Skyler and Willow to engineering.
“I hope you find some peace and answers,” I whispered as the large engineering doors slammed closed.
I didn’t see Asher or Skyler again for two days. The pair of them seemed only to leave engineering to sleep, grab food, or use the washroom. Willow tried to keep me informed about what was going on, but in her excitement and exhaustion, she spoke above my comprehension. I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if we did get through the barrier.
On the third morning, Asher rushed from engineering. His whole face was smiling. “I think we did it!”
The engineering doors opened again and Skyler and Willow walked through. Willow leaned on him for support as they walked to her cryopod.
“The simulation says that it should work,” Willow said, lying down.
“We can get through the PEC field!” Asher said. He was almost bouncing with excitement.
The bridge door opened and Emeric walked through. “You called?”
“Yes, sir. We think we have a solution to get through the PEC field. Our simulations say it has a one hundred percent success rate. We can still win the AU prize! We can still return home successful.”