By James Wesley Reid
THERE WAS A MOMENT when I was tethered to a sheet of tiles, hooked in place and searching for something so mundane as a wrench.
There was another in which I heard a warning, and a shout.
And then, a tug. Backwards, into nothing. I kept silent as it happened, found a measure of calm, remembered my place.
Johnny wailed. Johnny sobbed and cried and whined so hard in my ear I switched off his band. Let him die alone, if that’s his attitude. Blonde-Johnny, with the stoically dimpled chin and the bright blue eyes. His kid would be in mission control. Sorry, Johnny.
You get prepared a lot for accidents in space, we’ve got fifty routines for everything. I’m prepared for leaking suits, fires aboard ship, collision warnings, and radiation. We spent four days training for a toilet malfunction. But you don’t get training for an explosion during an EVA; not like that, that magnitude. The two of us still on board; if they’re alive, they’ve got a hard day ahead.
The rest of us outside, five crew, have a short day ahead.
I saw Anna spin away, wondered where she’d end up. She answered me quickly enough, popping her helmet, freeing her beautiful red hair to the vacuum of space. Her pale skin burned, her body swelled, and I figured she had just enough time to wish she could scream before the vacuum boiled the water in her blood.
Jesus, I said.
There was a pause, and then,
He ain’t listenin’, man.
Already out of sight, Greg’s voice, a rich Southern drawl, sounded great.
What the hell happened? I asked.
I was hoping you’d know, he said. Capsule depressurized.
More like material fatigue, he said.
Material fatigue, Sam.
Right. No point blaming someone now. No point at all.
Where are you? I asked.
Fuck knows. I ain’t stopped spinning. Can’t see a damn thing.
And though it wasn’t true, I said me too. I had no spin at all, felt like the sail on a ship, caught tight in a breeze. I saw the blown-out wreck of our shuttle drift away, saw Anna’s body up close, the dim reflection of my eyes in my visor.
You think this is it? I asked.
Yeah, he said. I do.
Three days left is all we had, three days and we’d have been ready to dock at Pluto station. Today was meant to be last-minute repairs. Routine, last-minute repairs.
I had a shrink on Earth who said routine could kill you.
The static of another radio band sputtered in my ear, filling my helmet with more end-of-life crackle.
That you, Deere? I asked. Her voice, accented different, the almost Cajun twang of a Mars kid, was distinct enough. I didn’t have to ask.
It’s me, Sam, she said.
You in trouble?
Yeah, Deere said. I’m in trouble.
I nodded, not that she could see, and tried to gauge her direction. I’d lost sight of the shuttle, and was floating free enough. I’d orbit the sun, for a little while. Out here I’d be sharing the path with Pluto. Pluto’s my favourite. That’s all right.
I’m sorry, Sam, she said.
This is my fault, she said.
No it’s not.
I got sloppy, I—
Greg’s voice shot through the com. Deere. Shut it. Ain’t your fault. Ain’t anyone’s fault. We figure it was material fatigue, something wore out. That’s it.
But you two have kids, she said. And I—
And you’ve got a mom, Greg said. Ain’t easy on no one. Now I figure they can hear us back home. Let’s make it a good final show, all right? Less of this stuff.
We’ve got time to prepare, I said. Four and a half hours before they know what happened, time delay this far out.
Hey, Houston, Greg said, You might have guessed, we’ve got a problem.
Big damn problem. I laughed and sucked a little soda from the straw by my lips. Dr. Pepper is not a bad last meal. That’s a life lesson to pass to your kids.
Sam Pessl’s book of wisdom.
We’ll take it in turns, I said, nearer the end. Work on your words. Make ’em good. Don’t forget anything, you won’t get a second turn.
Debris from our shuttle caught in the same rotation as me floated through my peripheral vision. Fly on by, I thought. I’m not dying in litter.
In the front pocket of my suit, I had my multi-tool, and a pen. My wife had it engraved; what it says is between me and her. I pull it out and set to work.
If anyone recovers my body, I hope they read what I’ve written on my suit. Spacesuit memoirs are a whole new genre, and I always wanted to be remembered for something.
First I wrote down Johnny’s anguish, second I wrote down Anna’s panic, and third I wrote a thing or two to my wife. Some advice to my kids. Don’t swing on a foul ball. Don’t eat bad shrimp. That took all the free space on my legs. Don’t eat bad shrimp, it says, right on my knee.
Deere’s voice on the comm startled me after an hour of drifting, stellar penmanship.
I’m running low on oxygen, she said.
I checked my gauge. An hour left, and it’d be fumes.
I’m running on empty, Greg said. Suit’s fucked. Ain’t got long.
Where are you? I said.
He took a deep breath. Nowhere, he said. It’s beautiful, Sam.
Beautiful? I asked.
I’m lookin’ at the stars, and they’re lookin’ at me, and I can hear them talk. They want my atoms back. The universe wants the energy that was Greg McCarthy. Wants the carbon, and the oxygen. Every bit.
I couldn’t imagine.
Feels like going home, he said.
Deere and I are silent. Greg’s laugh is soft, and muted, and sounds like it’s been lost underwater, or across a thousand miles. Guess those are my last words, he said.
Good words, I said.
When Greg’s kids hear that, a couple hours from now, I hope they realise their dad’s not gone. They’re smart kids. They’ll get it.
Before long, Deere’s voice, the last I’ll ever hear, whispers through the comm.
I’m sorry I messed up, Sam.
I did my best to picture her face. I could’ve loved a face like that. Her voice didn’t sound afraid, but I caught the edge of tears.
You didn’t mess up, kid.
Definite tears. I could picture them on her cheeks, didn’t like that. I wasn’t lying. She didn’t mess up.
You were a goddamn marvel, Deere. A goddamn marvel. Are you sobbing over there?
Don’t you sob, I said. You were a goddamn marvel. You let your mom hear you say that. She’s heard me say it, let’s hear it from you.
The last sound I heard, before her final sentence, was a sniff. Not an afraid sniff, or a tears sniff, or the sniff of a kid who messed up. That sniff was brave.
I’m a goddamn marvel, Sam, she said.
And that was it.
In silence, I got back to writing on my suit. I copied Greg’s last words, and I copied Deere’s. I thought about all the things I knew how to do, too late to do them. Thought about all the people who didn’t know I forgave them. I forgave every damn thing.
They don’t tell you that right at the end you get perspective.
They should tell you that.
I’m writing my last words down now, or what I hope they’ll be. Maybe I’ll crack at the end, and sob. Maybe I’ll lose myself in the beauty of the stars, or maybe I’ll miss my kids so bad I can’t say a thing. But I think I’ll say this.
My name’s Sam Pessl, and I was born in the Bronx. I have a wife, and two kids. I went to the store on Sundays to buy us breakfast, and my wife fell asleep whenever we watched movies. I flew in space, just one time, but I flew. It felt amazing.
James Wesley Reid is a writer and teacher from the U.K. His work varies in topic, from a story about LGBT bears to a story about fishermen and robots. He’s been published in “Bartleby Snopes,” “Strangelet,” “Bete Noir,” “Dogzplot,” and elsewhere.