Short story. Inside the ship, missing re-entry.
It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.Neil Armstrong
The feeling, he realised, watching the pale blue dot grow smaller by barely noticeable, increasingly fatal increments, was like straining to see family wave goodbye in his wingmirror before turning a corner.
Yes. Drifting away from Earth felt very much like that. An almost ordinary feeling and not as terrifying as he imagined.
He had passed by the Moon’s gravitic tide, barely a breath by astrological measures, yet many miles too far to survive now he had missed the trajectory that would have catapulted him home.
Watching the figures of the machine code that held the length of time that he would live, he thought of his children, his wife and mother.
The radio crackled, asking him for readouts of vital systems, life support remaining, then the voice broke from the mechanics of process and softened.
“Are you okay out there?”
He laughed. Flipped the switch to allow open send and receive signals continuously. It would drain his power faster, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to be conscious for the maximum fourteen hours of existential dread he had left.
“I’m doing great considering.”
There was a pause. Murmuring in the background, he caught the words wife, still not answering and keep him talking and he smiled. Her phone would be low on battery or turned off at work to save power most likely. He’d asked before leaving when she would replace it; she offhandedly said she would as soon as this one ran out of power permanently. Knowing his wife, she’d be more likely to replace him than her phone anytime soon. Pragmatic as ever. He wouldn’t change a thing about her, not even for the chance to speak to her again.
The woman at the other end of the line sounded old. He tried to imagine his wife at her age. Who she would be living the rest of her life with. Would he treat her well? Would she love him the same as he did? He hoped she would find someone else soon, for her sake and the kids.
“Well I always thought I’d die of cancer. The radiation from all the trips, see?” Casting out an arm he gestured to the blackness outside and smiled with a twist of the lips. “The older boys all said space would finish you. That it at least beat Alzheimer’s or… I always thought it was better to die first, you know? That way I don’t have to deal with anything. My,” Memories came upon him, feelings and scents bright and alert in his overfiring brain.
Her hair tickling his nose in the morning. The quick squeeze she’d give his arm before leaving, too busy with lunches and coats for much else. The day he proposed and she dropped to her knees too and kissed him between each breathless yes.
He nodded with a cough. Would she hear this? What should he say? Maybe he should say all the things he felt he was supposed to and then he’ll get some ideas of his own? She deserved something special for these last words, but the words weren’t there. He swore weakly and quietly. Holding her would be enough to show her, but he was here, swallowed by space.
“Yes.” The band on his finger felt warm as he cradled his left hand as though it was being held. “Who else?”
They spoke for about five hours. The old woman’s name was Alma and she was a good listener, as expected from Mission Control and when her shift was coming to an end, she had stoutly refused to leave. What he hadn’t expected, was for her to be so witty at a time like this. They’d joked about what sort of media deals his wife would get once he’d died: Interstellar Affairs had been his genuine favourite. That company funeral wasn’t meant to be part of his benefits, that he really ought to return the vessel once aliens had found his bones and grafted flesh or cybernetics to them. He’d asked Alma if she believed in aliens and she’d pointed out choice people in Mission Control and that they were probably amongst us already. Mock outrage sounded from her mic and he laughed with them.
His wife still wasn’t answering. It gnawed at him that he was unable to speak to her, but now his life was measured in hours countable on his hands, he felt strangely at peace that she was fine and something arbitrary had happened. At least she would always have these few hours of conversation to remember him by. A souvenir of her first, brief marriage and an interesting story for her to tell future lovers.
So what happened to your first husband, Chloe?
Oh, he was lost in space.
He snorted, rubbing his arms and debating whether to put on his helmet as well as the rest of his spacesuit. Inside the pale cabin, tiny flakes of ice, particles of his breath, danced and shone around him in the zero gravity, giving everything an ethereal feel.
His breath hadn’t fogged the air immediately, it had taken hours to start as the distance away from the sun had increased, losing what little warmth there had been in the squat cabin with increasing haste.
“I think I’m going to freeze to death,” he proclaimed, breathing out an exaggerated column of shimmering, crystallised air. “It’s just under zero in here. Equipment is going to start failing unless I can get it up.”
There was a pause as Alma check something, murmuring and keys striking.
“Looks like the door control is going to be first to fail. But at least that’s not something you’ll be wanting to use, hm?”
He twisted suddenly, as though sitting up on a chair, but instead without gravity he spun. He had spun a few times in the last few hours, remembering the delight it had given him the first time he’d done it in space. He looked at the door, and through the porthole-like window in it, at the Earth.
“What is it?” Alma asked suddenly, having heard the scuff of a spacesuit being donned. At no immediate response, she rose her voice. “Talk to me now!”
The man halted, catching something from the air as he affixed his gloves and looked around the icy cabin once more. There was nothing personal, other than a wooden photo frame of his family velcroed to the wall. He took it, affixing it firmly to his chest with an unaffixed safety line. Confident it was secure, he began to reply calmly.
“Alma, I’m not going to drift away and let myself go up here – no, listen to me. I appreciate you keeping me calm, but this is happening. No matter what I do, I’m going to, well, I’m going to perish up here and there’s not a lot I can about that. No rocket is going to make it in time, even if they’d set off as soon as this miscalculation happened, and the most I can do now is choose how I’m going to go out.”
He looked out the porthole at Earth. His home nation was visible at this rotation and he took it as a good sign.
“I’m going to end this as close to home as possible. You can’t contact my wife still, so the least I can do is try to do it myself. Maybe… maybe she’ll see a blip, a light, when I burn up.”
“Listen,” Alma spoke, quietly and intently over the sudden thrum of noise around her, “you won’t make it. The lack of friction will help, but kicking yourself off the side of the craft won’t give you enough momentum to reach atmosphere – and that’s even if you don’t hit a satellite before that point. The best thing you can do is to be humane to yourself and let yourself die in comfort.” The professional urgency fell from her tone and age crept into her voice. “Please don’t do this.”
The answer came as a hiss of sealants locking. The first door of the airlock was closed and no other answer would come.
This was inspired by reading about the alleged audio recordings made by the Judica-Cordiglia brothers, where cosmonauts were recorded in all sorts of distress in failed space flights between 1960 and 1964. These were all almost undoubtably hoaxes concocted by the brothers, but they’re horror stories that light up the imagination nevertheless.
After all, you don’t have to be claustrophobic to fear being locked inside a tiny metal box and flying away from the Earth with dwindling oxygen…
A brief Wiki page listing the eerie recordings: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judica-Cordiglia_brothers
As you can see, I’m working on short fiction at the moment and always liked the idea of nameless protagonists in them to give the story a sense of unease about the narrator or simply to let the audience imagine themselves in the scenario. Let me know your thoughts in the comments and whether you think it works in this context – hopefully it does to some extent!
Catch you next post for something more light-hearted that I have planned…!