Talkbacker, 'Dwight', the latest newcomer...
Commander Kalvin Patterson knew more or less to the second when radio contact would be broken with Houston. He tried the normal back-up, then switched off the whole bank of air-ground systems and switched them on again. No difference. Holy shit; this means there’s nothing Dan, Ciara or anyone at Mission Control Centre could do to obstruct his plan. And he fought to prevent the smile from bursting onto his lips.
The CCTV panel the same: every screen was dead. No visual surveillance whatsoever. He turned to look full into Dan’s helmet. Looking pretty anxious, was he, huh? But out-of-his-head too. He picked up Chiko in his gloved fist, gave him a stroke of the finger over his smiling face, and showed their lucky saviour to his Number Two. “He’s gonna look after us in this crisis, buddy,” he said in his self-contained helmet, “like he always has done until now.”
He chuckled to himself. Yeah, the little chimp had done his work well: smuggling aboard the sedative in his tummy pouch. The fuckin’ little hero.
Kal told Dan they would still be able to do their walk. No contact. He tried different settings for their audio link: they would inspect for external damage to heat tiles: nose and front wing-edges. But no response, as planned. He floated, helmet to helmet, and gestured: we’re gonna press on with our extra-vehicular inspection in spite of these failures. Kal knew MCC would refresh the systems. In 136minutes, to be precise. He pushed off towards the hatch and tugged on the rope. Yeah, it was secure, but poor Dan McConnery hadn’t moved.
“Time to go, buddy,” said Kal, pushing back to him. It became a wrestling bout, like old times... hundreds of times... only this time they rolled in slow motion. The slow roll put memories into his mind: college, their years together through Airforce Academy... and three years with NASA; but then his thoughts met Ciara and his stomach tightened into the usual hatred.
And Dan? He wouldn’t be thinking anything, coherently.
So light and pliable for a guy of 184 pounds. Slowly rotating, flipping an arm or a leg like a fish in the middle of a matt metal tank. Kal was grinning now, as he detached the EMU from its bracket and turned Dan into position. All those practice session in his private operations room at home: putting Dan into his suit ready for his walkies. Like squeezing a skunk into a sack. He attached the hoses and tested them, and activated the supply. He was chuckling now; almost laughing as he turned to his own suit, and in another four minutes he was suited and turned on himself. It was time to truss the skunk.
He drew Chiko from his breast pocket. He drew the tensile plastic clips from Chiko and placed them in the air next to the chimp. “One for the left hand,” he grinned, cuff to waist, “and one for the right.” A little pull to rotate the skunk, and the third clip fastened the loops, boot-to-boot. A helpless baby, who was ready to be told exactly why.
Kal peered visor to visor at his Number Two. “Dammit. Keep your f***in’ eyes open,” he shouted. “You gotta be more aware than this, you bastard. You gotta KNOW what you’re losin’.” But the minutes were passing and he had a schedule. It was time for the photograph.
He drew it from his front pouch, measuring 7" x 4" and taken on March 24th, 203 days before. Oh yes, it had been quite a day, that Tuesday. The two of them having a ball beside the creek making that raft, with Ciara frying crabs and she and Kal laughing themselves silly when she threw the tomato and knocked Dan clean off his perch with a spa-doosh, and Kal hauled him onto the bank like a wet walrus. He focused on the photo and brooded. Dan and Kal sitting at the garden table, with Ciara bending so that that beautiful smile of hers was between theirs, with one arm on her husband’s shoulder and the other holding… cupping… caressing Kal’s cheek in her hand. He straightened Dan with one hand and brought up the photo with the other. “Seen it before?” he sniggered, knowing they had a copy of it in a silver frame in their dining room.
And it was that March evening that she had walked with him through the shrubbery in the grey-blue dusk of Maine and turned to him with a halo of pink weigela behind her. “Thank you, Kal,” she had said with the lamps from the house reflecting in the moisture of her eyes. “Thank you for the gift of your wonderful friendship for my guy.” Her hands hung on either side of her loose white skirt, her sun hat in one and her sun-glasses in the other, where they had been since before they had watched the sun-down, and she looked straight at him.
“I can’t explain my special regard for you,” and her face seeming to widen in the half light as if she was between a smile and bursting into tears. “I can only say,” and her voice was thick, “that if I had not met Dan first, it would have been you who was my husband.” And she had gone on to enfold his cheek in her lovely hand at the table, comforting him in his loss.
“Damn you, Dan McConnery,” he cursed and planted the photo, picture inwards, on the guy’s visor. The camera had caught the moment of birth of his hatred. It had become his new friend, that hatred; his companion of every day; and now the green venom swelled again inside him, hot and writhing. He withdrew the photo, gripped it in his two gloves, and tore it down the rift.
Ah, that looked much better. No husband. “A disappearing act,” he laughed, and took the two adhesive strips from the monkey, peeled them from their strip, and attached them, top and bottom. He grinned at the loser, gave him a wave, and pressed the tabs onto the plastic. “It’s what she’ll be doing from now on, pal.”
He gathered the debris: strip and torn off husband, in his fist and planted them in his pocket: “For ‘disposal at sea’,” and the idea struck him as one of his best jokes. He tried to check his watch as he laughed, then saw the humour of that too: why check the time when you know step by step your program for the radio black-out.
And that brought him back to more important steps: re-set his oxygen flow… to extend its life. Hah! It’ll last him ten to eleven hours; and his suit heater: colder but longer. He has to see his loss all day; for as long as possible. He won’t SEE it, of course, in his dark helmet, but he’ll have to face the shape of his photo and know it is a torment of endless loss; he has to SUFFER!
He linked his Number Two to himself with the rope and initiated the depressurization. 90 seconds for the readings to match and he opened the airlock. Through the aperture they were greeted with endless black, twinkling with specks of brilliance. Was the guy taking it all in? Did he understand the score? He grappled with the floating suit and peered between helmet and photo.
“Do you know what’s happening?” he demanded, giving him a shake which swivelled the two of them on an axis. He made out his eyes, frozen wide, perhaps in horror. But whether he was shitting himself or not it was time to walk, and Kal steadied himself and pushed his crew through the portal.
And that’s when the bastard came to life. To awareness. He spread himself across the airlock, tank to boot, and planted himself in resistance. His elbows fought, his body straightened, his legs stiffened: he would block the way.
Kal grinned with delight. That was more like it: the full pain of his position: brought to the brink of the precipice. Whoops! More resistance. A struggle. What a laugh! Just a burst of fury in the sack, and it was easy to fold his half-sedated body and thread him through the hole.
Outside, the splendour of their star-speckled arena engulfed them in black, with a mighty white orbiter at their backs. So the time had come. He slipped the webbed rope out of his crew’s loop and rolled his helpless carcass until his face was opposite his own. He was surprised: he didn’t feel like chuckling now. This was execution. One last tapping on the guy’s visor to point to the photo; one last wave between buddies; one last check of the horrified look in those eyes - although they didn’t seem horrified any more, the stubborn son-of-a-bitch - and he rolled him round to face the way he was going.
He sobered himself for the moment. On Earth, the depths of space begin ‘up there’. Not here, they don’t: outer space is here, in one step. The void.
He laid his tank against the hull, gathered his legs into the tightest crouch he could, and made out to himself it was Ciara doing it as he pushed with full force, one leg slightly more than the other... and off he went.
Kal swelled with a burst of victory; of total release. There goes the fastest running back, 2001, in the whole of Maine. In a slow spin and a tumble, so that he will see the unreachable planet over and over. Could be he’ll make out his home, or the Kennedy base where his wife is waiting for them.
He threw the debris after him. Now let’s see: with our flight travel speed in high Earth orbit at nine miles per second, and an additional push of maybe 12-15 mph, Dan the tumbling man will be travelling at 32,415 mph and out of our line of orbit. Anytime now his mind will be getting the full picture: food enough in him to last his remaining lifetime, but thirst… oh dear, so thirsty! And always the black shape of the photo and what he had lost. And then, when his batteries ran down, he will freeze rigid: solid meat, with the frost of his dying breaths filling his helmet. Never to be discovered, of course. Like looking for a needle in a haystack… or in the whole American prairie, more like. But it was time to pull himself away from the diminishing white figure; there was an inspection to do for his own safety, and being out here was dangerous.
The nose and the wings were undamaged and Kal re-entered the shuttle. He gave Chiko pride of place in his slot beside the main burner panel and spent the two minutes, thirty seconds he had left checking the systems before contact would be restored by Houston; doctoring files and cookies so that all tracks were gone. He grinned. He had designed the on-board system himself, seeing its possibilities; if anyone could fix it to suit themselves, he could. Then the systems came alive, he heard the bleep of contact, and the panicked voice of MCC came through.
“He checked his clips,” he explained in horror. “We checked each other’s clips. I checked Dan’s clips and he was secure.” He was in shock with the mystery, coinciding with having no life in the boosters and no manoeuvrability. “Break it to her gently,” he had urged them. “For God’s sake, be gentle.”
He piloted the shuttle through re-entry, returning to Ciara, and brought it to land single-handedly. He knew that his walk from shuttle-meeting vehicle to reception was dramatic; tragic; the single returning hero. Into the building with his entourage of carers. He saw her behind the glass, her fist clutched to her mouth in grief, but then he saw her wave. Oh he could live on that wave through the full twelve months of comforting... until he judged she was ready to become his wife.
Anders Claiborn met him at the entrance to Quarantine.
“Great achievement, Kalvin. The launch-on-need is already up there, at 80,000 feet by now. Gabriel and Siobhan, with Raph commanding.”
Kal nodded, and secretly chuckled. The LON shot was meant to dock with the IS or respond to a transmitting shuttle; not a silent hidden dot which could be any damn place.
“Come and look at this.”
Kal followed to the quarantined gallery overlooking central command.
“We’ve picked up his suit heating,” said Claiborn. “This transmission is from the new Herschel thermal telescope... yeah... that one we just put up there. And thanks to that, it’s 99% certain the LON will be pulling him into their shuttle in little more than three hours. You know Dan, Commander. He’ll be fine. There he is on the main screen.”
Kalvin Patterson missed a breath as he looked at the screen-focus of the operations hall. A white speck in the middle of a black display. Steady and warm. Coming home after all. Ciara’s husband.