Careful What You Ask For
Beside myself is a lonely place, somewhere I really want to be. I mean, I’m an astronaut, floating above the crowded Earth, chatting into my radio mic and keeping up the camaraderie and professional banter. Hundreds of people are hearing, watching, and monitoring my every move. Do you blame me for yearning to join my mental doppelgänger who’s got it so easy, free to behold the wonder all around the two of us?
Sure, you can’t afford to be a loner in space, where, as the old tagline so enticingly told us, “No one can hear you scream.” You and your fellow “star-sailors” are a team. You count on each other to stay alive for those few, precious days you get to be the luckiest guy or gal there is.
I hope you can tell I love my job, because I do. And my crewmates are my brothers and sisters. But sometimes even the closest family members have to get away from each other. Problem for me is, you go to work for NASA, your entire life’s under a constant microscope, no more so than when you’re in orbit.
But what’s the point of visiting the edge of infinity if you have to share the experience every second with everyone?
The radio crackles—funny, the signal’s been crystal clear so far this entire EVA. I tap the side of the helmet of my MMU. Quinn’s talking to Mission Control: “Houston, this is Atlantis. We’re showing a sudden problem with—.”
Silence. Then, my own breathing, like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, my favorite movie. I swallow hard. I look up and wonder if I’m going to see the Star-Child floating there, pondering his new, glittering toy.
I go into pure muscle memory, verifying all systems. Everything’s go. Untethered to the orbiter as I am in the MMU, I really am alone now.
“Um...guys? Hello?” I clear my throat. “Zinczenko to Atlantis. Comm check. Over.”
I’m facing away from the orbiter, and even the ISS is out of sight. Helluva time for this experiment of a solo EVA. “Houston? This is Zinczenko. Do you read me? Over.”
That same breathing-punctuated silence. Okay, it’s official: in NASA parlance, something’s hinky. The systems on the orbiter are completely down. They’re not even relaying my signal to Mission Control.
I fire my jets and steer the suit around. Atlantis is dark, all of her windows opaque. Her power’s out, and the backup isn’t kicking in. My mouth’s dry while a bead of sweat tickles my cheek. This ain’t good.
My training continues: Stay away from the ship; a sudden power reactivation could dangerously set in motion the cargo bay doors or the Canadarm or a thruster. Stay put, and wait for the all-clear. I grimace—Katie, one of our Mission Specialists, is probably screaming right now about her wheat experiment.
I power the MMU down to “Safe” mode. I’ve been out here—I check—forty-seven minutes—the suit can sustain me for a little over another five hours, with half an hour of emergency reserve. After that, well...I really will be alone then, won’t I?
That’s a lot of time to think. First about stupid stuff. I need to get that check in the mail. I need to make that phone call. I gotta get some food in the apartment. Then, as the minutes stretch into a couple of hours, thoughts turn in another direction.
“Shep, darn it all!” I crashed through the woods after the old Bluetick. The sun was going down, filling the sky with reds and oranges and purples.
I couldn’t even hear the coonhound, a gift from Old Man Bradley (Dad had told me to drown the runt). I stopped and strained my ear. I shuddered at the tingle up my spine. I’d been all throughout these woods outside of town my entire life—I’d plum lived in them for thirteen years—but they might as well have been the planet Zog for all I recognized them at that moment.
I gulped, my new Adam’s apple still weird feeling.
“Shep-p-p!” I called. My voice broke, and I cussed, because I knew my mom wouldn’t like me doing that. She wanted me to stay her baby forever. Around that time, though, my folks’ opinions had stopped mattering so much, and I stopped wanting to be around them.
I ran back the way I had come, the way I knew would return me home. Every step of the way I muttered every obscenity I could think of (“wetnose”, “buttsniffer”, “possum-crap-roller-inner”). I reserved my worst (“Heck!”) for when I approached the broken-down trailer and saw that broken-down mutt bounding about the hardscrabble we called a front yard.
I rushed up to Shep and dropped to my knees and grabbed him to me, his tail whap-whapping my arms. It was only then I noticed Mom and Dad’s shouting from inside the trailer.
“How dare you, Fred, tell me I’m the reason he shot himself?!” Mom screamed. Something glass smashed against the tin wall.
“C’mon, Shep! C’mon, boy!” I called, hopping up and nearly tripping over my feet that had recently turned into flippers at the ends of my lengthening, sore legs. I raced down the gravel road running the length of the trailer park, Shep trotting beside me. I glanced up and saw Brad leaning against a gnarled oak, the end of one of those new, strange-smelling cigarettes he and his friends rolled themselves glowing in the twilight. There was still enough light I could see the scowl that had become my brother’s permanent expression.
“C’mon, Shep. C’mon, boy.” I smiled and laughed while a tear fell down my cheek.
All the crap I’ve experienced in my life. Mom and Dad screamed at each other right in front of us the whole time I grew up in that white-trash dump. The middle son Mikey gave up at fifteen and committed suicide. Brad and I remained behind, feeling like worthless brothers. Marjorie left me after six years of turbulent marriage. I see my beautiful daughter maybe twice a year, if I’m lucky. And now I’m floating stranded 250 miles above the Earth. And what’s got my brain so much in a twist? Memory of one random day when I was thirteen when my dumb dog played keep-away.
I glance at the still-dark orbiter. I drop my cheek against the faceplate. Safe to say, I’m feeling kinda blue. Who am I kidding? I’m feeling friggin’ royally sorry for myself. My eyes are open, I’m staring at the Earth racing by at 17,240 mph, but I don’t really see it.
I squint and give a snort. I feel that mental doppelgänger give me a kick in the can. I lift my face and look ahead, really look this time. Funny how something so beautiful, so much a miracle, can become so routine.
Swirling whites. The sun off a perfect ocean blue. The twirling greys of the mathematical precision of an Atlantic hurricane. As a Ph.D. meteorologist, I can tell you every scientific detail of the intense low pressure tropical cyclone below with its eye of God staring back at me as if directly into my aching soul. But right now, that example of the most destructive phenomenon on Earth is just...beautiful.
Difficult as it is to peel my eyes away, I glance up.
Because of the rare circumstance of all the orbiter’s lights switched off, the velvet of space is studded with more stars, more promises of worlds and adventures and new friends in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio. As Sol-soaked as that velvet is, it’s still so pure a black that it hints at perfection. Indeed, the edge of infinity.
I’m laughing, and tears freely flow down my cheeks, as my radio comes alive. I wonder in that moment if it would’ve mattered if it had ever come back on.
“Oy, Seth, what you findin’ so funny?”
“‘Funny’?” Katie demands, aghast. “That guy never laughs.”
Quinn continues, “You almost just became permanent space junk.”
I finish my laughter. I clear my throat. “Just something between me and a friend out here.”
“Boy-o, how ‘bout you say we get you back inside this can? Mission Control’s callin’ us home.”
“My wheat!” Katie wailed in the background.
I grin, and feel kinda mean doing it. “It’ll be good to see you folks again.”
“Old man Atlantis decided to go dead in the water for a while on us, but we coaxed the old bucket back...” Quinn’s words drift off in my brain as I fire the MMU’s jets and contemplate returning to my friends. Family. Life down there, life I’m gonna rejoin. My daughter, whom I’m going to show something she’s never seen from her daddy: a real, honest smile. -William Parsons