From the author: "THERE'S A BOMB underneath me and it's about to go off. It's called the Alexandria, third shuttle in the Tycho Space company's arsenal. I'm lying on my back, booted feet in the air, waiting for the launch on a mission to repair the Sagan telescope. The acrid stink of sweat fills the cockpit, the smell of fear but I'd rather die than miss this flight."
THERE'S A BOMB underneath me and it's about to go off. It's called the Alexandria, third shuttle in the Tycho Space company's arsenal. I'm lying on my back, booted feet in the air, waiting for the launch on a mission to repair the Sagan telescope. The acrid stink of sweat fills the cockpit, the smell of fear but I'd rather die than miss this flight.
Commander Leywood and Pilot Benquayle, strapped in their seats above me peruse last minute checklists. Below me the two Payload Specialists Raemon and McBride crack nervous bad jokes. The countdown is a death watch beetle ticking away the seconds of our lives. This claustrophobic grey space in which we sit shrinks our horizon. The confusion of switch-and-display screens that cover the walls have labels like "fire suppression" and "smoke detection," terrible phrases that you don't want to hear in a spacecraft.
I flex my idle fingers in my orange suit. “Bright as the golden lotus,” Kella had said back in Guiana when she first saw the space suits, orange as a Buddhist's robes. She'd laughed, collapsing with her cough.
My situation never seems so bad when I think of Kella. My hard-arse military attitude evaporates. Kella's health hangs by a single strap on a shredded parachute, a strap that's about to break. Sometimes I think if I can hitch a ride to the stars surely I ought to be able to catch her on the way down. But I can't, she'll have to find her own way.
“Secure your visors, please.” I slam down my helmet at CapCom's instruction and seal it. I lick my dry lips and breathe bottled air.
Almost like Kella I cannot breathe as I listen to the static. T-31. My fingers curl around the armrests and dig into the plastic despite the spacesuit gloves.
T-10. Main engine start.
The spacecraft begins to rumble. The spacecraft roars.
The Alexandria's not much of a lady, she vibrates so badly my teeth start to chatter. But this is it, the moment I get what I want—well, almost. I'm no saint, I'm an ex-navy pilot, I've killed people, I would kill to save Kella. Damn it, the Alexandria's shaking like the world is about to end.
Through the tiny window the sky shifts and I’m forced back into my seat with a ghastly pressure. It’s hard to breathe with the acceleration but we soar into the air like an F-16 bird. Outside pale blue turns to night, the rockets drop away, the engines cut-off and I’m floating, a battle-scarred soldier suspended in the aether.
Three men, two women on an orbiting picnic to repair the Sagan telescope. When said telescope was launched aboard an Atlas rocket it was meant to discover new worlds around other suns and hunt for honest-to-mercy aliens, but its mirrors failed to unfold, its motors jammed and at present it's just a lump of space junk.
“You can open your helmets now, Alexandria, if you want to.” Sandoval, our CapCom today is terse, all business like.
I release the catch and as I lift my visor I’m greeted with the collective sighs of my crewmates in orange. We have a disease, us astronauts, one contracted young, for some of us just as deadly as Kella's. We have this longing for space, this need to fly, to kill ourselves if that's what it takes. Since I was a small boy launching homemade rockets from my backyard I've had this disease. Snuffling gunpowder from stolen fireworks I damn nearly blew up my parents house.
But now I have my cure. My spirit drifts as light as my body and the cure hasn't even killed me yet. I've made it into orbit, what can be better.
The spacecraft spins and I glimpse planet Earth through the window, a blue marbled swirl, marvellous, magical. Everything is going so well. It's going too well.
We dine on tasteless sausage and sour juice from a bag then after checking the spacecraft systems we retire to bed. Surprisingly I find I can sleep in my sleep sack despite the thrill of the day. Terror can be exhausting. And worry for a loved one left behind.
It's in the night that I suffer the first disturbance to my perfect journey. Commander Leywood is shaking me awake. “Pete, wake up.”
I'm surrounded by sleeping fetal forms, floating. My jaw stretches into a grin though I have a ferocious back ache. In zero-g your vertebrae stretch. At least I'm not space sick like Pilot Benquayle.
"CapCom wants to talk to you," says the Commander softly.
She hands me a private headset and my stomach clenches. For a moment I think I'll get sick too. It must be something about Kella. Why else would just I be woken in the night?
I take the headset back into the cockpit for privacy--we sleep on the lower deck. Through the window the sun is dropping below Earth's horizon radiating colour from east to west in an astonishing 1960s-style rainbow.
I put the headset over my ears.
"I'm here. What is it?"