A young astronaut is left behind. Meet the man responsible for her fate.
My wife is living with her mother.
I have been placed under police protection, for my own safety. NASA belongs to the public. As soon as it was legal, the media obtained our mission reports, images, and radio feeds. Everyone, from here to Istanbul and back around again, knows that it was me, me, who made the call. My resignation has been demanded. My life has been threatened. Someone left a cardboard cut-out of Maria’s mission photo covered in pig’s blood on my front doorstep.
That was when Abigail packed her bags.
One of my buddies from an old comet mission told me I was an idiot for not letting Wilkinson take the flak. Wilkinson is a notorious prick. He would have left his own mother behind if came down to it. I believe his words were “She was a good man,” after they pulled him and the other two from the Pacific.
The fucking prick.
But I have a soft spot for mission commanders. I can’t help it. Maybe it’s pride, or envy. I understand the kind of pressure they’re under to successfully complete a mission, and bring everyone home.
That kind of pressure can screw you up, because you start seeing the world in cold ways. Ways that help you make split-second decisions to send a 27-year-old geologist to her death.
No, I didn’t want Wilkinson to fall on his sword. He’s only 33, for Christ’s sake. His kid just started school. His wife loves him. I’m the better sheep for slaughter. Abigail was always going to leave me. You didn’t need to read the papers to know that. We have been on the rocks for years now. She was just waiting for the right excuse, being the good woman she is. We never had kids. I don’t talk to my brothers anymore.
NASA is all I have left. Was…
“It wasn’t his call to make,” I told Scott after a few too many whiskeys.
“Like hell it wasn’t!”
“Well it’s done now. Nothing left to do but wait it out.”
And for Maria to die.
Today is March 22nd.
I am riding in the back of an unmarked government vehicle with an armed guard. I am going back to Mission Control. I haven’t set foot inside that room since I emerged fourteen hours after The Event to face Earth. PR made sure of that. If I look at my watch it will tell me that it is only 02:47. But I haven’t slept. I’m heavy in my shoulders, in my gut, which has shrunken almost flat these past couple of weeks. I had to cut holes in my belt to hold up my trousers.
I’m finally looking like the sad, miserable old man I am.
Today is the day our experts have estimated Maria will, most likely, slip into a hypoxic coma and pass away in her sleep. She has been eating, they tell me, but she no longer wishes to speak with Rob Hollingsworth, the new COMM for Mission Control. Hollingsworth is one of our best clinical psychologists. They set her up with him so he could talk her down from doing anything drastic. PR did not want her committing suicide, deciding that letting her pass away peacefully in a dream is far gentler to the public.
I can’t imagine what almost t23 days of talking to a shrink about your impending death can do to a person.
The sky above me is velvet-blue. The stars are glittering. Space is unforgivably beautiful down here. Up there. I’m tired, I won’t lie. And I have acid in my gut. I wanted a drink but they wouldn’t let me. I guess they want me cold sober for when I speak with her.
I don’t know why she wants to talk to me in her last hours when her parents have been at her side, figuratively speaking, every step of the way. I’m more worried about what they’ll do to me when I walk in, to be honest. But NASA has assured me that Maria does not want them there to see her die in brilliant high-definition. They have, gently, been removed from the room, using Mrs. Lauziere’s delicate state of health as an excuse.
As my shiny black government car pulls up to Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, I am trying to think of what to say to Maria. Media vultures are here. My car avoids them as best my driver can, although a few run after it, snapping photos. The windows are tinted, but my face itches. I almost laugh to think that I still care.
It’s all a numb blur of sterile lights and cold air as I cross into the white and fluorescence. Familiar smells, familiar things, they glide by as if in a dream. I walk on automatic to the Mission Control Room. I don’t need my big, hulking guard, some ex-marine kid. The halls are empty. Everyone is trying to work in the privacy of their own Earth-shattering heartbreak. No one wants to be around to see this.
The baby-faced devil dog brings me to the door, the one I’ve walked through a thousand times before the last time today. I freeze when I get there.
I can do little more than stare at the handle. It scares the shit out of me when he opens it.
I have to pick myself up, trying to maintain some dignity, and nod. I can see Maria’s eyes again in my memory as she looks up at the bridge camera. Her nod, only once, swift and determined.
I walk into Mission Control.
There is a dull blue gloom hanging in the dark air. No one is around. Mercifully, the main screens are hibernating. They’ve removed Hollingsworth.
With lead feet. I drag myself over to COMM.
I don’t realize my hands are shaking until I drop the headset, twice. I’m dizzy. I don’t want to do this, but I’m dying to. I can’t get her eyes out of me head.
I can’t sit down. I’ll shit myself. I can’t stand up. I’ll pass out. I have to brace myself against the console. My fingers move, hesitantly over familiar rhythms.
I try to open my mouth as the line goes live. A dry gasp escapes my lungs.
“H—“ I cough. I choke. I clench my teeth. “Houston to—Yuma…Come in, Yuma…”
I don’t want her to answer.
God, please, let her already be dead.
“Yuma to Houston…” Her voice is a wisp. “I’m still here.”
When I bring her video up on the main screen, I feel myself stand upright.
“Hi, Mr. Hall,” she says, a misty smile on her small lips. She looks buzzed, high on the creeping buildup of CO2 in her blood. I can see small pink ruptures at the corners of her eyes.
That’s how fucking good our computers are.
The feed flickers.
“Hello, Maria,” I hear myself say across the galaxy distance. “Please. I want you to call me Jack. How are you?”
“Tired…Jack. I’m really tired.” Her eyelids droop. She takes a deep breath, getting nothing more. I see the half-lit dark of The Canoe behind her. She’s slumped low in her chair, strapped down. Stray strands of her dark hair, almost blue on the screen, drift around her.
“I know,” I tell her. “You’re doing great, kiddo.”
She smiles. “Thanks. At least I’m not hungry. Had a great last meal. Mac and cheese. Tasted like rehydrated heaven.”
I smile and something painful pulls at the corners of my mouth.
“You need anything?” I don’t know why I asked that. She needs a goddamn miracle.
But she shakes her head, slowly, drunkenly. “No. I’m okay…just tired.”
“…They tell me you only have about an hour left of good air.”
“Yeah. They told me that too.”
“You’re brave, not wanting your parents to be there.”
She shakes her head. “I don’t want them to see me like this. It’s hard enough they can’t bury me.”
I nod, the pain sharp. “Did you say your goodbyes?”
“Yeah. But I’m tired. I’m really tired…”
“I know, kiddo. I know.”
She takes another, deeper, shuddering breath. Her eyes roll back and flutter. She slips forward, but shakes herself, comes around again.
“Stay with me.”
“I’m trying,” she laughs faintly. “You know, I had Confession.”
“I didn’t know you were Catholic.”
“I’m not. But Mom and Dad are…they were mad when I told them I wanted to be a geologist. They wanted me to be a doctor. But they never expected met to go into space.”
“Neither did my old man. He wanted me to be a farmer. Carry on the family tradition.”
“You? In overalls?” She started laughing, high and tinkling, like a silver bell.
Oh this kid. Just a kid.
“Yeah,” I chuckle.
“You look awful, Jack,” she says quietly. “I hope you’re not beating yourself over this. You know I would have done it with or without you. Or the commander…I knew what to do.” She looks up, off screen, a sudden tremor going through her throat. She’s red around her nose. She’s been crying. I can’t blame her. Christ, now I’m crying.
“Maria, bad things happen to good people,” I say, collecting myself. “But it’s good people, truly good people like you, that stop bad things from hurting others. You saved all their lives, Maria. You’re our hero. Everyone down here, Christ, Maria, they all love you.”
She gave me a teary smile. “Yay.” But her lips fall. She’s trying not to cry again, in front of me. I push the heels of my palms into my eyes.
“Damn it, you’re making me soft.” I try to smile. She tries. We’re both as pathetic as we seem.
“I thought you’d hate me,” I tell her, my voice rasping on the edge of something dangerous. “Scream me, or something. After what I’ve done to you? Leaving you there like that?” I trail off.
“At first I did,” she says, so softly. “But when you’re alone, and you have time to think…and you know what’s coming. I mean, I signed up for this. I knew what going up meant. Jack, I’m not mad anymore. I’m just…” She shivers. “I’m really scared, Jack.”
“I know, kid. But you know what? It’s not going to be that bad. You’ll get sleepy. You’ll close your eyes. You’ll drift off into a dream and then it’ll all be over. No pain. Just falling asleep.”
She nods her head. It hurts me to watch her try to breathe, her chest fluttering.
“I want you to stay,” she asks, whimpering. “Please? I don’t want to die alone up here. Please, Jack?”
I ease myself into the chair. “Of course I’ll stay with you. I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”
She starts crying, big tears spilling out of big blue eyes.
“Did I ever tell you guys the story about why I can’t eat sausage pizza?”
She shivers, sucks in her breath. “N-no.”
I smile up at her, my cheeks shining wet. I brush at my eyes.
“Well Scott had ordered this huge pizza, we’re talking enough to feed half of NASA. And the idiot ordered it right before we were scheduled to go up in the Vomit Comet.”
She starts laughing.
For the next forty minutes or so, I tell her my war stories. Try to make her laugh. The video feed is getting rough. Yuma is getting further and further away with every passing second. No one told me if she was going to pass on a good camera feed or not.
As her hour runs down, Maria is getting worse. She mumbles and her head slopes down to her chest. I have to call out to her, again and again.
“Hey, kiddo. Come on, now. Stay with me. I haven’t told you the one about the Great Rabbit Affair of 2017.”
She blinks, but she’s looking off screen. “Jack?”
I stand up, my heart pounding. “I’m here, kiddo. I’m here.”
She gives a small gasp. Her eyes go wide. “It’s beautiful,” she whispers. Her hands move to her harness. The video flickers. “I can see it. I see it…Jack?”
“I’m here. What’s that, Maria? What do you see?” She’s completely lost it, her brain suffocating. She starts fumbling at her harness. “Hey hey. Where you going?” I can feel panic rising in my chest. There’s a warning red light spinning in the background. The screen is displaying her oxygen levels at critical. The alarm is faint.
“It’s so beautiful, Jack.” Maria gets herself free, her lips parted in awe, her eyes half closed. She starts to rise from her chair, beautiful. “I didn’t know it was…Jack? Look. Look at it.”
“Maria, hey! Come on! Put you’re harness back on. Don’t, don’t go anywhere!”
“Jack?” she asks me. “Jack?”
“Yeah, kiddo. I’m here. I’m here!” I’m shouting at her, waving my arms. “Maria Maria, look at me!”
“They’re beautiful, Jack,” her voice says as she slowly drifts off-screen, until all I can see is the empty, red-flared Canoe. “Oh my god…Jack. Look.”
“Maria, please,” I beg, falling to my knees. “Come back. Come back.”
The feed flickers, snaps, and disintegrates. I hear a burst of static and we go LOS.
Loss of Signal.
Loss of Hope.
Loss of Maria.
I scream, whipping off my headset and sink down into the dark of Mission Control. I’m screaming too loud to hear them kick in the door. I’m screaming too loud to hear someone from PR try to tell me to get a hold of myself.
Bring her back. Bring her back to us, to me.
Please. Oh God, please…