Pandemic Files

Ace of Spades

Originally Published in The Washington Pastime in 2011

The watches NASA gave us for the trek up here are all set to the UTC time standard. Mine beeps suddenly, drawing my mind away from the view out the main cabin. It’s 0900, which means I have about five minutes before Hektor floats by and fucks up my day.

I unbuckle from the captain’s chair and float back to my cubicle, give Hektor some time to do his rounds. At 0910 I make my way back to the control panel and reset the alarm on my watch for three hours and fifty minutes. That’s pretty much the center of my daily routine: three hours and fifty minutes at the helm, ten minute break, reset.

No matter what’s going on around me (and there ain’t much these days, let me tell you), no matter how fucked up my head is, I cannot forget to reset the watch.

I don’t sleep more than an hour here or there anyways, most I can get without waking up in fits. Been the case ever since the last time I overslept, the day I didn’t hear the alarm go off. Must’ve been weeks ago now. Alarm beeped and I wasn’t conscious to hear it, forgot to take my ten minute break and come back to reset the damn thing. Ended up spending an extra ten minutes in that sort of deep sleep that’s like time travel, leaves you waking up all disoriented. That’s when I looked out the window in the main cabin and saw Hektor.

His eyes are open, that’s the worst part. Open and icy blue and cold, staring at me in that way portrait paintings do that give the vast majority of them a haunting quality.

The only thing worse than seeing the dead body of your best friend floating in space is seeing the dead body of your best friend floating in front of the dead body of your planet.

It occurs to me that I’m the only human who’s ever been able to say that.

I’m not proud of that fact.

But I’m absolutely sure. There is nothing worse.

* * *

I wake to Hektor smacking me in the face, hard.

“Get up, asshole,” he says.

I open my eyes and look around my cubicle, dots of sweat floating off my forehead. My chest feels like there’s a twenty pound weight on it and of course the first thought to enter my mind is It’s happened, the airlock’s breached, this is it.

Hektor pinches me below my jawline and it hurts like hell. I struggle to pull my hand out of my sleeping bag and touch my neck, feeling the spot where Hektor’s nails left a small welt. I glare at him.

“What the fuck’d you do that for?”

“You were screaming,” he says.

I shake my head and look around my cubicle at the blinking green lights and netted straps holding everything in place.

Hektor rubs his face, and when he lowers his hands I notice the bags under his eyes, the way his cheeks are starting to show the imprints of his gum-line. I remember very distinctly what Hektor looked like before we came up here, wasn’t that long ago that he still had those boyish features. Sitting in his living room the night before deployment, eating the dinner his wife cooked for us, Hektor had looked positively radiant, laughing and clapping me on my back and spreading hugs and high-fives around the room.

Now though, floating in front of my cubicle and eyeing me like I’m the one who needs help, Hektor simply looks lost. His hands have a perpetual tremble, and I want to grab them and hold them so they’ll stop.

Ahead of me, across from my sleeping bag, is a small mirror bolted to the wall. For a second I don’t recognize the man staring back at me, his sunken cheeks and dark-ringed eyes.

“We might have to ration a little more,” he says quietly. “Need to make it last.”

I open my mouth and the words are in the back of my throat, right there, just need a little boost from my tongue to enter the artificial atmosphere of The Box, never able to be taken back. I can feel the individual syllables:

What’s the point?

I snap my jaw shut and shake my head, struggling out of my sleeping bag.

“Is that a no?” Hektor says tiredly.

“No,” I say. “I mean, yes. That’s fine.”

Hektor stares at me for a long time, seeming to study every inch of my face. For a second I wonder if he could somehow sense my un-uttered response. After a moment Hektor nods and turns away, floating back towards the control room.

I stare at myself in the mirror until the reflection starts to blur, then I turn away.

* * *

I had my earphones in when the beeping first started, so I don’t know how long Hektor was dealing with it before he notified me. Breaks aren’t very long up here. In the ISS, there’s two work components that pretty much need constant attention, one being the research (consisting mostly of waiting for lab results) and the other keeping in contact with control (mostly to assuage the endless supply of bureaucratic bullshit coming our way on a daily basis). Either way though, there’s an agreement between the crew that break time is break time, and unless something is in critical need of a specific breaking crew member’s attention, that specific breaking crew member should be left the fuck to their own devices.

So yeah, I was a little pissed when Hektor floated over and bumped into me, hard, pulling me away from the game of Spades I was playing on my laptop. I’m sitting there with Nirvana’s “Aneurysm” blasting in my ears, trying hard to drown out the constant hums and clicks and whams coming from the various mechanical parts of The Box. Understand, at the time I was coming off ten hour’s worth of research gathering statistical evidence for the fourth (and final, hooray) leg of our DECLIC-HTI experiment—studying water near its critical point of transition from liquid to vapor, something that is extremely interesting to conduct here because there’s 1) no gravity and 2) no atmosphere outside of our artificial one. Now, if Hektor had been coming to me with something pertaining to any of that, I would have been pleased, grateful even. But I’d finished up the report before I checked out, so I knew it had nothing to do with that.

So, when Hektor slammed into me, I turned and justifiably looked at him like he’d just pissed on my shoes. There I am knee deep in a dime bid with both Jokers in my hand, both high ranking deuce’s and the Ace of Spades. That’s five guaranteed books, not to mention my A.I. partner’s five bid, so I had that round in the bag. Between the game and Cobain crooning in my ears, I felt in that moment as balanced as I could ever feel up here, floating around in an air bubble for a six-month stint.

So, yeah, I kinda flipped on Hektor.

Then I saw his face.

Hektor’s a stocky guy, over six feet, pure Russian heritage. American-born but he’s got the look, you know? Like he could run over your best D-lineman and dunk the football over the goal post before doing a back flip into the stands, that type of look. Like a jock, though he was nowhere near matching that stereotype, not in the traditional sense at least. Hektor was one of those guys who played sports and was good at them and got straight A’s and actually earned them. Did his Marine training at Camp Pendleton then hit UCLA, got his Bachelor’s in Aeronautical engineering while breaking his own school rushing record three years in a row. Took a break to go to Iraq and complete a couple dozen combat missions before coming back to get his Master’s.

All this to say, Hektor wasn’t the type of guy to scare easily.

I swear, on our way up here, we’re sitting on two SRB’s with Mach 23 capability, 37 million horsepower, essentially twenty nukes strapped to our backs.

And Hektor laughed.

The whole way up, cackled and whooped and hollered like a frat guy at a keg party.

So when I turned on him, spitting curses, and saw the look of terror on his face, I couldn’t help feeling the same level of terror myself, instantly, without knowing yet what was going on. Hektor and I were up there by ourselves at that point, a ship having carried off two of our teammates a few days earlier. They weren’t scheduled to be replaced for another forty-eight, a ship with three astronauts shooting off from Kennedy at 0800 EST Friday morning. I thought the lack of bodies up here would have been a welcome respite, more space to move around. Judging by Hektor’s face though, this wasn’t the case.

“What is it?” I asked, removing my headphones. The influx of noises was like water rushing into an empty room, the frantic beeping drawing my attention to the blinking red lights flashing on the intercom to my left. Accompanying the flashing red lights were two faint tones, close together, barely audible over the cacophony of machinery.

“You want to see this,” Hektor said.

I opened my mouth to respond but Hektor had already done a 180 and pushed his way back to the control panel. I unstrapped myself from the wall and secured my laptop, following him.

Pushing into the control room, the first thing I noticed were the blips on the radar screen, the source of the faint beeping. The screen showed a map of Earth overlaid with a digital detection system connected to dozens of satellites orbiting the planet. The system’s main job was to scan the planetary surface for irregularities in anything from heat signature to abnormal cloud structures.

Hektor stopped in front of the map and looked at me solemnly as I floated up beside him.  On the map were over a dozen blinking red lights, scattered across the entire globe. Four of them floated above the United States, and as I drew in closer I could see the exact locations of the blips: L.A., New York, D.C., Chicago. Other major countries slowly started to come into focus as well: Japan, England, Russia, both North and South Korea.

“What’s the readout?” I asked.

“There is none,” Hektor said.

I slowly looked over at him, raising my eyebrows.

“There has to be a readout,” I said.

“There isn’t.”

“Ok,” I said, nodding, though I didn’t know why. “Ok. Get Control on the li-”

“There’s more,” he said, and the tone of his voice made my stomach jerk, like a lump of ice had just been dropped in my small intestine.

“What is it?” I asked.

Instead of answering, Hektor floated past me towards the window at the other end of the control panel looking out onto the planet we called home. The ISS travels at roughly 5 miles per second around the planet, which means we orbit earth once every hour and a half or so. Right then, the ISS found itself positioned right over the Americas. And as soon as I floated over and looked out the window, I could see why Hektor had looked the way he had when he came to get me.

From our vantage point, it seemed almost like we were staring at a drawing, one that had been set on fire so that the corners burned first, moving inwards towards the center. A cloud of flames spread slowly across the eastern and western coasts towards the midwest. Everything on either side of the country—New York, the Carolinas, California, Utah—were all gone. Florida—and Kennedy Space Center—engulfed.

And in the middle of the country, down near the bottom, all of Texas burned brightly.

More specifically, the city of Houston, and Johnson Space Center.

AKA Control.

I turned to Hektor, and I guess my face mirrored his then, because all he did was look back at me and nod.

“Yeah,” he said. “I know.”

* * *

There’s no atmosphere way out here, therefore there is no wind. No conditions to change velocity or fluctuate body mass depending on its proximity to strong gravitational fields. That’s why Hektor’s peek-a-boos into the control panel are so regular.

Every four hours, give or take a few seconds.

It’s the reason I can set my watch for three hours and fifty-five minutes and get away from the window in time to avoid his eyes. I wish he hadn’t died with them open. The first time I saw him cross the plain of the control panel window, it seemed he was accusing me. As if this was all my fault. And, of course, I know it can’t be. Not all of it.

The Box had an effect on me almost immediately when I first got up here. The moment that air lock snapped shut and the pressure hit me, my perspective shifted. At first, it wasn’t a very good shift. I mean, I trained, fine. Five years to be exact, no problem. Five years to prepare for six months, sounds like overkill doesn’t it?

It isn’t.

No amount of training can prepare anybody for being up here.

Nothing could prepare me for being resigned to what basically amounts to an air bubble sitting in the middle of an endless vacuum, for the ever-present threat of that air bubble bursting and releasing me to the vast emptiness of a space that nobody understands. Sure, we hypothesize. We study. We grab samples.

But nobody really knows what’s out there, the details within the void.

I grab a bag of raisins from the dwindling box of rations strapped to the wall near the main airlock. I stare at the airlock for a moment, picturing what’s on the other side.

Part of me wants to cut the rope that keeps Hektor tethered to the station, so I don’t have to follow this routine anymore. I see the rope now, through the tiny porthole in the airlock. When I come back to the control panel, I can see it out of the main cabin window too, looped on itself and floating in front of the glowing planet. I can even hear it sometimes, scraping against the outside of The Box, making this long scree-ing sound, like nails on a chalkboard.

I want to cut the rope and push Hektor towards the sun. Make him the first human to be cremated in such a manner. I want to do it out of spite, because I know that’s not what he wanted. It was pretty clear what Hektor wanted, even before he did what he did. He wanted to go back home. He wanted his body laid to rest there, in the ashes of our planet. He did not want his body floating aimlessly through space. It’s why he tied himself to the station. He wanted me to figure it out for him.

But I haven’t. And I don’t want to. But, inevitably, if he stays attached to the space station, he and it and me will stop orbiting and get sucked right back into Earth’s gravitational field anyways. Then Hektor will get his wish.

I don’t want him to. I want to cut the rope. But I can’t get rid of him. I need the routine.

Three hours and fifty five minutes, ten minute break, reset.

Besides, I don’t have the energy to cut him loose.

It isn’t just a weariness thing either, though I am weary. Weary from staring at what used to be Earth, the gray clouds covering the barren land, glimpses of burning red funnels every couple of hours, fiery tornado-like super-storms that started appearing not too long after everything was destroyed. The planet glows a bright orange, glimpses of the ocean still occasionally visible, no longer blue, but a muddy gray.

It unnerves me almost as much as Hektor dying that I haven’t shed a tear since this all began. Not for the planet I’ve lost or the few people I’ve known throughout the years who are all almost surely now dead. The childhood friends, my estranged parents, my ex-girlfriends, old teachers, passing acquaintances. They all sit around a large table in my head, but my face is stone, emotionless, cold. I think about how different Hektor and I were, how the faces he saw in his head were much closer than mine, his wife, his daughter, his dad with the bad hip and obsessive love of golf.

Yeah, it’s partly weariness and spite why I won’t cut Hektor’s rope. But it’s also an actual lack of energy.

Resources are running low. I think Hektor knew that. I think it’s part of the reason why he did what he did. For himself and for me. Release himself, give me more time to figure out what I want to do. Both honorable and cowardly if you ask me. And for that, I have spite.

Just not enough to matter.

* * *

I can’t find Hektor, which should be impossible. There’s not much to The Box, just a big network of tunnels that all basically lead into each other. So he has to be around somewhere.

I float around a corner and there he is, staring at the main airlock chamber near the control room. He’s floating there with his legs crossed and his hands lying flat in his lap, looking like Doctor Strange from those Avengers movies. I want to approach him but I’m suddenly afraid to. So I just say his name. He looks over and his face is more haggard than ever.

“There’s nothing down there anymore, is there?” he asks.

I try to pretend I don’t know what he’s talking about, but I can’t. His eyes are haunted, tearless. He looks worse than sad. He looks like a man that used to be sad and has now lost even that emotional capability.

“We don’t know what happened,” I offer. “There could be—something could be in the works.”

He nods and looks back at the airlock. I rack my brain for something else to say.

“Right,” he says, the word hanging in the air, oppressive. “We don’t know.”

* * *

I sat in my cubicle with my earphones on the way I always used to do on break. Only this wasn’t a break—not in the traditional sense, at least.

Now I was simply trying to drown out Hektor, with little success.

At some point it started to sound like a wild animal had infiltrated the control room, gnashing at the microphone as if the device were a taunting hand poking through his cage. He wouldn’t put it down. I’d stopped trying to take it from him an hour earlier when he’d taken a swing at me, unsuccessful in our current zero-gravity environment. Hektor’s voice mimicked the ISS’s mechanics, grinding monotonously. Every few seconds he would burst into another shouting frenzy:

Control?” A deep breath, then “Control, fucking answer me!

It had been twenty four hours since the first beeps pierced the artificial air—since the first blips sprang up on the radar screen and exploded across the map like measles—and Hektor hadn’t slowed. He hadn’t even slept, as far as I knew. I knew I hadn’t. I didn’t think I ever would again. I didn’t know much of anything actually, which was the worst part of it all.

Hektor suddenly came flying around the corner, gripping onto my sleeping bag to keep himself from crashing into the panel of lights behind him. His eyes were wide, mouth set in a strained expression, something between a smile and a grimace. It was painful to look at, and I averted my eyes as I removed my earphones.

“I think I got Control,” he said, breathing hard.

My heart immediately pounding in my forehead, I unstrapped myself and pushed after Hektor towards the control panel. Hektor pressed a few buttons and screamed into the microphone again.

Control! You still there?”

He released the button and a burst of static came through the speakers. I pushed up close to the panel, straining my ears to hear anything beneath the rush of white noise. Faintly, in between waves of hissing, I recognized a human voice. I put my ear right up to the speaker.

“Things a(inaudible) political tur(inaudible) cadets somebo(inaudible) abort mission fo(inaudible)”

Hektor and I glanced at each other and Hektor quickly grabbed the mic.

“Control, I’m not getting you clearly,” he yelled. “Abort what?”

There was nothing but more static for a minute. The tension in the control panel was thick, stifling. Then somebody finally spoke again, a string of unintelligible noise ending with one word that made me wish Hektor hadn’t tried to contact Control in the first place:

“-Help.”

Then the line broke, and there was no more.

* * *

I wake up to the alarm on my watch beeping and my heart jumps into my throat. I click it off, turn slowly to face the main cabin window, and there he is. Staring at me, his eyes ice blue, his mouth gaping. His hand is frozen in a claw, as if he scratched his way out of this life. The metal rope is tied around his waist, triple-knotted next to his left hip.

I haven’t seen him in weeks. I wish I hadn’t fallen asleep.

I turn away and close my eyes at the same time, and within the darkness behind my lids I come to the realization that I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t.

Floating back to my cubicle, I look at my stuff: my laptop, my iPad, my earphones. I stare at them until my eyes blur, then I grab my IPad, leave my computer behind and make my way past the control panel.

And I can’t help it: I glance in and see Hektor just as he’s moving out of sight. His eyes are on me right then, but they somehow look less accusing. As if he knows what I’m about to do. I watch him until he’s gone, then continue on to the airlock.

* * *

I’m sitting in the control room in a half-conscious daze when the airlock alarm starts blaring, louder than any other alarms on the ISS. This one wails through The Box, jolting me from dark thoughts. I would jump if I could, but as it is I just float painfully into the machinery behind me. In the top corner of the control panel in the helm, a digital image of the ISS is displayed, with a thick red outline around the main Airlock and the word “BREACH” blinking bright above it.

I quickly turn to the keyboard on my left and disengage the alarm. The sound cuts off, but the sensor keeps blinking. I click on the map of the ISS and it tells me that the airlock disengage controls have been manually activated. My blood thickens, my skin prickling as I grab the sides of the control panel and push myself towards the tunnel to the main airlock.

When I turn the corner, the shield door is down, already locked tightly into place. I float over to the small window near the top and peer in at Hektor, without a suit on, holding a length of metal wire in his hand. He’s tying one end of it to a metal bar next to the airlock control panel. I bang on the door and Hektor looks up tiredly.

“Heck,” I yell, then chuckle, make sure he can see me smiling. “Buddy, what are you doing?”

He keeps looking at me, silent, eyes droopy. My chuckle turns to a full-blown laugh, a cackle actually, and I try unsuccessfully to remove the hint of insanity from it.

“Come on, Heck,” I  say. “This isn’t funny. Not even a little funny, man.”

Instead of answering, Hektor continues securing the wire around the metal bar. I bang on the door some more, look around for a way to open it. The only way, though, is to head back to the control panel and do a manual override of the security system. But I don’t want to leave Hektor alone over here. And, I think with dismay, if he opens the airlock before I get to the control panel and then I open the shield door, the entire space station will be depressurized in under 15 seconds.

I’d be dead in a minute, maybe less.

So I float there and watch helplessly as Hektor finishes securing the wire around his waist then looks up at me again.

“Hektor,” I say, no longer laughing but sputtering. My face feels swollen, my eyes bulging in their sockets. “Come on buddy. You don’t have to do this.”

“Do me a favor,” he mouths at me. I reach over and flick on the radio transmitter, his voice filling the speakers of the space station. It’s so faint beneath the whirring and clacking of machinery that I have to move closer to the speaker above my head, near the shield door where I can still see his face. When I do, I hear Hektor perfectly, watching his mouth form the words half a second before they reach my ears.

“Make sure I make it back,” he says, then pauses and adds “Good luck, friend.”

My eyes widen as Hektor turns away and ties the rope tighter around his waist, a triple knot. I slam my hands on the glass, scream, yell, curse. I grab at the door handles and plant my feet on either side and yank as hard as I can, beads of sweat floating off my forehead. Hektor keeps his back turned to me, and I watch fearfully as he presses a few buttons on the airlock controls. His finger hovers over the large red button that will disengage the outer door, and I turn away, grabbing the walls and pushing myself as hard as I can towards the control panel again.

He won’t open it if I get the shield door open, I think. He wouldn’t kill us both.

I reach the control panel and the computer screen. The map of the ISS has a bright red blinking spot where the airlock is and I stare at it until I hear the first scree against the outside of the station. When I look out the window, Hektor’s floating there, hands already frozen in the clawing grip, mouth already gaping.

Eyes already an accusing, icy blue.

* * *

I don one of the EMU  suits hanging next to the shield door, glancing through the window at the open airlock, the taut wire tied to the metal bar. I slip my earphones in, open the music app on my iPad and press shuffle, shoving the contraption in a pocket before securing the suit. U2’s “One” blasts into my ears as I grab an oxygen tank and face mask, pulling it over my head. Checking the gauges, I turn the valve and pure oxygen pours into my lungs, flushing the nitrogen from my blood so I can put on the rest of the suit and not get the bends. After a moment my head is light and I feel a bit giddy. I take a deep breath and pull off the oxygen mask, immediately putting on the EMU helmet and locking it in place. I press the bright red button on the control panel near my wrist and there’s another cool burst against my cheeks, my ears popping as the suit pressurizes.

Bono’s voice fades out and the iPad switches to Radiohead’s “Creep”.

Shoving myself and the bulky EMU suit down to the helm, I grab hold of the handle above the control panel to secure myself with a strap that I lock into the wall. I bring up the atmosphere controls and it takes me a moment to remember how to override the safety protocols and backup security, shut off the ventilation and recycling systems. I pull up the airlock chamber controls and type in the disengage code and flinch when the alarm goes off above my head, my hands flying across the keyboard.

When I’m done, I grab onto the captain’s seat, bolted to the flooring, and hold myself steady. On the control panel’s main screen, the word “CONFIRM” sits in bright red letters. I take a deep breath then press enter on the keyboard. There’s a heavy clicking sound that seems to echo throughout the ISS, then a loud whoosh blasts its way into the control panel as the airlock’s shield door opens. The rush of atmosphere expelling itself into the void of space nearly tosses me out too, and I have to wrap my arms around the captain’s seat to keep myself from being taken. There’s a moment when I think I won’t be able to hold on much longer, when it feels as if my helmet is going to fly off and take my head with it. Then, in an instant, everything settles.

The iPad switches to Alice in Chains “Man in the Box” and I’d laugh if irony was still something I found amusing.

I let go of the handle and float back towards the airlock.

In the chamber, I fumble with the wire that keeps Hektor tethered to the space station, finally getting it untied and bracing myself against the outer door frame to keep Hektor from pulling me out of the ship. I pull him in slowly, like a trophy catch in the ocean, foot by foot, grabbing the wire with each hand and grunting with the effort. When he appears, his outfit seems lumpy on him. I avoid looking in his eyes, get to within grabbing distance of him and hold him around his waist, back facing me, moving us carefully towards the open airlock and peeking out into the deep beyond. The darkness below the ship is complete. Straight ahead, the burning earth stares directly at me.

Thankfully, the airlock is facing the planet. Which will make this easier. If such a word can be applied to this situation.

I spread my feet and shove them into the little cubby holes on either side of the airlock doorway. Turning Hektor so he’s facing earth, I gather as much strength as I can, pool it into my arms and legs and let out a wail of exertion and despair, using every last ounce of energy left in me to push Hektor towards our home planet.

As I do, my iPad switches tracks again to Oasis’s “Wonderwall,” and I curse at it.

My concentration falters as Hektor moves rapidly away, and before I can reset myself and regain my grip on the airlock chamber my feet slip and I bounce off the side of the door frame, floating out of the ISS. I spin slowly as I sail away, so I’m able to see Hektor’s lifeless, space-suited body floating back towards Earth. The space station is visible in my peripheral, lights blinking. Waiting to follow Hektor, in time.

My trajectory moves me in the opposite direction, away from earth, towards the unknown. And as I spin slowly, Hektor fades in the distance, getting smaller and smaller until his body bursts into a tiny spark of flame and then he and Earth are gone, replaced by an endless expanse of darkness dotted with distant stars.

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