Ace of Spades

[Originally Published in The Washington Pastime (November 2011-Available Online)]

Hektor’s body floats by the window in front of the control panel every four hours. There’s an alarm on the watches NASA gave us before we came up here, set to the twenty-four hour UTC time standard. According to the watch, it’s 0900 and I have to go now, before Hektor comes and fucks my day up. More than it already is, obviously.

I float back to my cubicle and take a ten minute break from looking out the window, give Hektor time to do his rounds, then come back to the control panel and reset my watch for three hours and fifty five minutes. That’s the routine, three hours and fifty five minutes, a ten minute break, then reset.

I can’t forget to reset the watch. I can’t sleep for more than an hour here or there. I sleep too long and I might not hear the alarm and, resultantly, might forget to take my break, come back and reset the damn thing. Then I’ll be all disoriented and not know how much time has passed and will inevitably have to see Hektor float by the window again. The only thing worse than seeing the dead body of your best friend floating by in space is seeing the dead body of your best friend floating in front of the dead body of your home planet. I think I’m the only person who’s ever been able to say that. I’m not proud of that fact, and I don’t want to be able to say it again.

I’m absolutely sure about that too. There is nothing worse.

* * *

I wake to Hektor shaking me and I’m covered in sweat. My chest feels like there’s a twenty pound weight on it and I think It’s happened, the airlock’s opened, atmosphere’s running out, this is it.

Hektor pinches me below my jawline and it hurts like hell. I struggle, pulling my hand out of my sleeping bag then putting my palm to my neck, where his nails left a small welt. I glare at him.

“What’d you do that for?” I ask.

“You were screaming,” he says.

I sober up a little and look around my cubicle. The blinking green lights and netted straps holding everything in place so nothing floats around and bumps into equipment that doesn’t need to be bumped into, not if we want to continue living up here.

Hektor is rubbing his face. He doesn’t look so good. What used to be bags under his eyes have turned to luggage, and his cheeks are starting to show the imprints of his gumline. I remember very distinctly what he used to look like, it wasn’t that long ago that the change took place. Back home, Hektor and I trained together for months before taking off. We were friends before the mission, but that time brought us even closer. And it showed, on his face, the face of his wife when she cooked for us. I was like family to them, which was fun and new, considering I have no family of my own. Hektor looks lost now, though. His hands have a perpetual tremble, and I want to grab them and hold them so they’ll stop.

I look ahead of me, into the mirror across from my sleeping bag. I don’t look so hot myself. We’ve had to ration the food. Hektor suggested it.  Personally, I don’t see the point. We’re just prolonging the inevitable. I didn’t say this to Hektor, though. Partly because he already knows, partly because words have a way of sticking around up here, as if the pressurized atmosphere of The Box traps everything within, leaving it all to float around with us in zero-gravity, crashing into our minds and driving us even further towards insanity.

And besides, who the hell wants to hear something like that?

* * *

I had my earphones in when the beeping started, so I don’t know how long Hektor knew about everything before I did. I just know that everything kind of erupted while I was on my break. Breaks aren’t very long up here. There’s always one of two work components to focus on in the ISS, one being the research (which consists mostly of waiting for lab results) and the other being bureaucratic bullshit (which seems to be in endless supply). So, I was a little pissed off when Hektor took my concentration away from the game of Spades I was playing on my laptop, Nirvana’s “Aneurysm” blasting in my ears, trying very hard to drown out the constant hums and clicks and whams of the various machinery keeping the space station running. I had just put in a ten hour shift gathering the final statistical evidence for the fourth leg of my DECLIC-HTI experiment, a study of water near its critical point (when it transitions from liquid to vapor), which is extremely interesting to study up here where there is 1) no gravity and 2) no atmosphere outside of this artificial one. If Hektor had come to me with something pertaining to my studies, I would have been pleased, grateful even. But I’d finished up the report before I came over to my cubicle, so I knew it had nothing to do with that. I valued my free time greatly, as did most other astronauts during their six month stint in the ISS. It’s a known thing—an unwritten code between us all—that when a cadet is off-duty, save for only the most critical emergencies, they should be left the fuck alone.

So, when Hektor tapped me on the shoulder, I gave him one of the most aggressive looks I could conjure. I mean, I was knee deep in a dime bid that was going very successfully. I pulled both Jokers from the deck on the deal, plus both high ranking deuce’s and the Ace of Spades. That’s five guaranteed books, not to mention the aces I had from the other suits. And from what my A.I. partner was bidding, I could tell they were holding too. I had this round in the bag, and with Kurt Cobain screaming in my ear about the cruelty of life, women, and heroin, I felt balanced enough to actually be relaxed up here for once. You see, The Box (that’s what I took to calling the ISS when I got up here) had an effect on me almost immediately when I got in it. 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 at NASA headquarters, fine. Five years to be exact, no problem. Five years to prepare for six months, sounds like overkill doesn’t it? No. No amount of training could 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 a 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 gather samples. But nobody really knows what’s out there, the details within the void. It’s a shit deal, and I spent my entire life aspiring towards it.

Up here, you rely solely on all this machinery to keep you alive, nothing but two feet of arm space no matter where you go. Without my free time, my laptop and my music, I don’t think I could do it. These things clear my mind, keep things in perspective, remind me why I pushed to get this far in the first place. Remind me of where I came from.

Earth.

So, I turned on Hektor when he bothered me, opened my mouth to scream at him and make it a point that this was not acceptable. Not really even recognizing that it was Hektor, not caring. Then I saw his face and all that anger was gone. Hektor’s a stocky guy, about six feet tall, pure Russian heritage. American-born but he’s got the look, which basically meant he looked like a jock but wasn’t. Not in a stereotypical sense, at least. Hektor was one of those guys who played football in college and got straight A’s and actually earned them. Did his Marine training in California 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 kill a few hundred people then came back and got his Master’s. Hektor wasn’t the type of guy to scare easily. I swear, on our way up here, we were sitting on two SRB’s with upwards of Mach 23 capability, 37 million horsepower, which was essentially equivalent to having twenty nukes strapped to our backs. And Hektor laughed. The whole way up, he cackled and wailed like a fraternity guy at a keg party. A real hard ass, thrill artist.

So when I saw the look of terror on his face, I couldn’t help feeling instant terror myself. Hektor and I were up there by ourselves, a ship having carried off two of our teammates a few days earlier. We weren’t scheduled to be replaced for another two days, 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 and hearing the beeping for the first time. Two faint tones, close together, barely audible over the cacophony of machinery.

“You might want to see this,” Hektor said.

I opened my mouth to respond but Hektor had already floated a 180 and made his way back to the control panel. So, I unstrapped myself from the wall, secured my laptop and IPod in storage and followed him.

When I got in, 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 red-light detection system that scanned the planetary surface for irregularities in anything from heat signature to abnormal cloud structures. Hektor came to a stop in front of the screen and I stared at it. There were a couple dozen little points of blinking light, four floating above the United States. I got a little closer and saw the exact positions of the U.S. blips: L.A., New York, D.C., Chicago. The rest were scattered across various areas on the planet, Japan, England, Russia, Korea.

“What’s the readout?” I asked.

“There is none,” Hektor said.

I glanced at him.

“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. The way he said it gave my stomach a jerk, like a lump of ice had just been dropped in my small intestine.

“What?” I asked.

Instead of answering, he floated past me towards the window at the other end of the control panel which looked out onto the planet we called home. We were positioned right over the Americas, the U.S. blazing up at us. Blazing. Literally. As in on fire. Staring through the small porthole window, I watched what looked to be a cloud of flames spreading slowly across the eastern and western coasts. Everything on both sides, New York, the Carolinas, California, Utah, all gone. Florida and Kennedy Space Center engulfed. In the center of the country, a blooming cloud spread across the state of llinois, down towards Texas, more specifically the city of Houston, Johnson Space Center. Control.

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

“Yeah,” he said. “I know.”

* * *

There’s no atmosphere out here, therefore no wind. No conditions to change velocity or fluctuate body mass depending on its proximity to 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. That’s why I can set my watch for every three hours and fifty-five minutes and get away from the window in time to avoid his eyes. His eyes are the reason I have to leave every time. He died with them open, and 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.

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. It’s a constant presence in front of the window. I can hear it rubbing against the outside of the ISS, making this long scree-ing sound, like nails on a chalkboard. I’ve gotten used to it now, but at first it was unnerving.

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 to me 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. He wouldn’t have tied himself to the ship if that were the case, he would have just jumped. He wanted me to figure out a way to get his body back down there. I haven’t. I don’t want to. I want to take that away from him; like I said, out of spite. But if he stays attached to the space station, eventually he and it and me will stop orbiting and get sucked into Earth’s gravitational field anyways. Then Hektor will get his wish.

I don’t want him to, but I can’t get rid of him. I need the routine.

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

I don’t have the energy to cut him loose anyways. 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 storms every few hours. 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. But not enough. Not enough.

* * *

I can’t find Hektor, which adds to the stifling feeling of this place. There’s not much to the space station. It’s just a big network of tunnels basically, with us free-floating through them. Nowhere to hide, really. So, Hektor has to be around somewhere. I turn a corner and there he is, staring at the boarding/disembarking airlock chamber. He’s floating there with his legs crossed and his hands lying flat in his lap, looking like a Zen master or something. I want to approach him but I’m afraid to suddenly. So I just say his name. He looks back 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, but now he’s just given up.

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

He nods and turns back to the airlock, resuming his Zen pose. I stare at him and 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, trying to drown out a lot more than just the machinery now. I couldn’t listen to Hektor anymore. He was like a wild animal in the control room, raging, gnashing at the microphone as if it were a taunting hand poking through his cage. He wouldn’t put it down. I’d stopped trying to take it from him. His voice mimicked the machineries grinding monotony, every thirty seconds bursting out in a spat of frenzy:

Control?” A deep breath, then “Control, are you there?

Almost twenty four hours since the first beeps had 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 know if I ever would again. I didn’t know much of anything actually, which was the worst part of it all.

Hektor popped his head around the corner, holding himself steady against the wall. He’d pushed himself out of the control panel too quickly and almost floated right into a wall. His eyes were wide, his mouth set in a strained expression, something between a smile and a grimace, his teeth glistening. It was painful to see his face like that, and I averted my eyes as I removed my headphones.

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

My heart broke into a race and I unstrapped myself, pushing towards the control panel. Hektor pressed a few buttons and spoke into the microphone.

“Control?” he said. “Control, you still there?”

A burst of static came through the speakers and I leaned in closer, straining my ears. Faintly, in between waves of hissing, there was a 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 for a minute and the tension in the control panel was thick, stifling. Then there was another burst of static, followed by one word that made me wish Hektor hadn’t tried to contact Control in the first place.

“(inaudible) Help.”

Then the line broke, and there was no more.

* * *

I wake up to the alarm on my watch beeping. I turn it off and my heart jumps into my throat. I look up slowly and Hektor 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 two days. I wish I hadn’t fallen asleep.

I look away and close my eyes at the same time, and realize I can’t do this anymore. I just can’t. I turn and float back into the corridor, to my cubicle, look at my stuff. My laptop, my IPod, my headphones. A second of contemplation and I make a decision. I grab my IPod, leave my computer behind and make my way past the control panel. I can’t help it; I glance in and see Hektor as he’s moving out of sight. His eyes are the last thing I see before I float past the opening and head towards the airlock.

* * *

I’m sitting in the control panel when the alarm goes off, louder than the tiny blip of the radar screen. This one wails through The Box, jolting me from my reverie. I would jump if I could, but as it is I just float painfully into the machinery behind me as I turn to look at the control board. The “breach” sensor is blinking and the speaker above my head is screaming, shoving a needle of pain deep into my forehead. I turn to the computer screen, enter the alarm code and push disengage. The sound cuts off, but the sensor is still blinking. I pull up a map of the ISS on the computer screen and it tells me that the airlock disengage controls have been activated. My blood thickens, my skin prickling and I shiver, grabbing the sides of the opening into the hallway next to me and shoving myself towards the opposite side of the station.

I turn the corner and the shield door is down, already locked tightly into place. There’s a small window near the top and I 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.

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

He keeps staring at me, silent, eyes droopy. My chuckle turns to a full-blown laugh, a cackle actually, and I try unsuccessfully to remove the insane tint to it.

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

Instead of answering, he returns to 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, if I was lucky.

So I float there and watch helplessly as Hektor finishes securing the wire then turns a little to look at me through the wire.

“Hektor,” I say, and my laugh has transformed into something bordering on sputtering. My vision gets blurry, then damn near incoherent and I swipe at my eyes. “Come on buddy. You don’t have to do this.”

“Do me a favor,” he mouths at me, and 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.”

I push back a little, my eyes wide as Hektor turns away and ties the rope around his waist, a triple knot. I slam my hands on the glass, scream, yell, curse. I grab at the door handles and jerk my body around, breaking into a light sweat with the strain of trying to pry the thing open. Hektor keeps his back turned to me, and I watch fearfully as he turns and presses a few buttons on the airlock controls. Then I turn away, grabbing the walls and rushing towards the control panel again, determined to override the shield door before Hektor opens the airlock. He won’t open it if I get the shield door open. 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 over, Hektor’s floating there, hands already frozen in the clawing grip, mouth already gaping. Eyes already an accusing, icy blue.

* * *

We floated in the control panel waiting for Control to contact us again. But we’d both stopped pressing the buttons, and Hektor had long ago lost his voice from screaming into the microphone. Now we just floated there watching the planet consume itself. Glimpses of the ocean were still visible occasionally. They were no longer blue, though, but a muddy gray. Hektor was closer to the window than I was and I heard him sniffle every few seconds. It unnerved me to hear that sniffle, mostly because I hadn’t shed a tear myself. Not for the planet I’d lost or the few people I’d known. The childhood friends, my estranged parents, my ex-girlfriends, my future girlfriends I’d never met. They were all in my head but my face was like stone, emotionless and cold. I wanted to give Hektor something but I had nothing. I knew 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. So I just floated there and watched him watch what remained of earth.

* * *

I don one of the EMU space suits that are next to the shield door, glancing through the window at the open airlock, the taut wire tied to the metal bar, the other end tied to Hektor’s waist. I put my iPod earphones in, turn on a random playlist and shove the contraption in the suit with me. U2’s “One” blasts into my ears as I grab the oxygen tank next to the suits and put the mask over my face and turn the valve, feeling the coolness of pure oxygen pouring into my lungs, flushing the nitrogen from my blood so I can put on the rest of the suit and not get the bends. It’s kind of like scuba diving in that way; the atmosphere in the space station (a mixture of oxygen and nitrogen) versus the pure oxygen environment of an EMU are too different to just jump from one to the other. My chest rises and falls until my head is light and I feel a bit giddy, then I hold a deep breath, take off the oxygen mask and throw on the EMU helmet, locking it in place. The controls for the EMU are in the arm of the suit and I press the bright red button near my wrist and there’s another cool burst against my cheeks, my ears popping as the suit pressurizes and the iPod switches tracks to Radiohead’s “Creep”. I turn around and shove myself and the bulky outfit down the hall to the control panel. Grabbing hold of the handle above the panel to secure myself, I bring up the atmosphere controls, override the safety protocols and backup security and shut off the ventilation and recycling systems. Then I pull up the airlock chamber controls and type in the disengage code and the alarm goes off above my head. I flinch when it starts wailing but keep pressing buttons anyways, grabbing onto a handle and holding myself steady as a loud whoosh blasts its way into the control panel and the shield door creaks open, exposing the open airlock and releasing the station’s artificial atmosphere into space. There’s a long minute when I think I won’t be able to hold onto the handle for long, when it feels as if my helmet is going to fly off and take my head with it, when it feels like the disorientation of rapid depressurization is going to make me let go of the handrail and shoot into space. Then, in an instant, everything settles, and my iPod switches tracks again. Alice in Chains “Man in the Box.” Fitting. I let go of the handle and make my way towards the airlock.

In the chamber, I fumble with the wire that keeps Hektor tethered to the space station, finally get it untied, brace myself against a wall and pull Hektor in, foot by foot, grabbing the wire with each hand and grunting as I bring him closer to me. I avoid looking at his face when he appears and, as he gets within grabbing distance, I hold him around his waist and move carefully towards the airlock opening, peeking out into the deep beyond. The darkness behind me is complete, in front of me the burning earth too bright to look at directly. The airlock is facing the planet, which makes it a lot easier.

I spread my feet apart and shove them into the little cubby holes on either side of the airlock doorway. Turning Hektor so his face is towards earth, I let out a wail of exertion and despair, using every last ounce of strength I can muster to push Hektor towards our home planet as my iPod switches tracks one final time, Oasis’s “Wonderwall.” My feet slip as he floats away, the image of his lifeless body and the lifeless body behind him filling my vision as I relax my own. The space station is visible in my peripheral, and I glance at it, lights blinking, floating there and waiting to fall back to earth. I move in the opposite direction, though, away from earth, towards the unknown, keeping an eye on Hektor as he gets smaller and smaller then bursts into a small bit of flame, becoming once again a part of the place we both called home.

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