I leave the pod and the galaxy opens up before me, the vastness of space behind the windshield of my celestial craft. Stars and planets are suspended in the silence of the universe. It’s a sight I’ve grown accustomed to in my duty of fighting for what is good as a starship trooper.
The lights on my dashboard flicker as I skillfully guide the craft around a rogue piece of comet rock. The e-star communication network clicks on and I hear the familiar voice of a comrade.
“A smooth ride today?” he asks.
“All clear so far,” I respond. He’s in a craft in some other part of the cosmos. You can never tell with our assignments.
“It’s been a long battle.” He sighs. “The hours I spend out here.”
“The life of a warrior. It’s not meant to be easy.”
“It’s like I live in this thing,” he says. “Hey, is your craft running on full spec operation? Command base says they’re getting some funny readings. Did a hose come off?”
I slam on the brakes of the tractor. The cultivator rocks to a stop behind me. One of the hydraulic lines had been dragging through the dirt, wrapped around the bottom of a disk. I pull the parking brake and slowly descend the steps into the field. My starship needs attention.
• • • •
Gary slams the basketball on the asphalt and then sits on it, panting. He tucks his face into the inside of his wife beater.
“I don’t know how you guys do it,” he says, his chest heaving. “I went by a farm and they had their tractor lights on, working in the field at night. In the field all friggin’ day too.”
I sat down on top of the three- point line, my arms over my knees. I nod, trying to conceal that I, too, was breathing hard.
“I never hear of you guys taking vacations. Aren’t there things you would like to do?”
“Of course,” I say. “Lots of things.”
“I suppose that’s the price of a wholesome lifestyle.” Gary slips a pack of Marlboro Lites from his front pocket and bites into it, coming up with a cigarette in his mouth. “Still,” he says. “It must be in your blood or you’re born into it or something, because I couldn’t give up doing all the things you never get to do.”
• • • •
The thing about being in the company of stars is that although you see one right in front of you and it seems like you’re about to enter the edge of its gravitational pull, it can still be thousands of light years away in the empty background of the universe.
The solace of the celestial craft becomes part of you as much as the daily rounds for intruders from the dark planetoids and rogue lunar mischief. The interior of the craft is as familiar as part of my body and, in some ways, it feels like it is.
Besides the infrequent transmissions of other starship troopers, I am my own company, and my thoughts are what help me pass the day. Sometimes I wonder what was gained and lost with the choice of being a starship trooper, but then soon I’m dodging an astral storm or chasing a black hole bandit and have to focus on the task at hand.
• • • •
Gary slumps over his beer and pulls the label off the bottle in pieces. It is a habit the bartender chastised him for over and over, but one that he can’t help. I’m captivated by the neon sign that flickers and sheds pink light over the whiskey rack.
“You know what I’ve been thinking?” he asks.
“I truly don’t,” I say.
“You must spend a lot of time by yourself.”
Gary’s grandparents were dairy farmers. Talking about it when we’ve run out of things to say is another one of his habits. The bartender gives me a knowing look because she, too, is used to our conversation patterns.
“Being alone for so long,” he continues. “What I mean is, how do you put up with yourself?”
“The radio helps.”
“It’s a fairly solitary existence. How do you do it?”
“It’s just what I was made to do,” I say, not able to think of a better explanation.
“Do you ever have doubts about being a farmer.”
Ryan Dennis is the son of a dairy farmer from western New York and a literary writer. He has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, the most prestigious award for an American essayist. The Dennis Family still dairies and maintains a 100-plus-cow herd of Holsteins and Shorthorns.