The planet moves below us. There are cloud formations there, as vast as any province, that drift like we do. Seas separate land masses and vice versa, and the contrast of blue and brown makes me a little nauseous, more so than the stupendous altitude. Some of us claim not to feel it, that somehow the lack of gravity conceals how disconnected we are from the umbilicus of the planet, but I am aware of it. I always feel like I am falling.
The orbital station is breaking up. Silenced alarms would be blaring out their messages of warning if the commander had not killed them hours ago. “We all know what’s happening,” he had said, just before closing himself off in the command module and putting a bullet in his head. No one had seemed surprised. I wondered where he got the gun, but mostly I was glad he decided to seal himself away from the rest of us. Swimming through floating globules of blood and brains would have been unpleasant.
No one is sure how the system failure happened, but it did not come as a surprise. We all knew the risks of the mission, we had all agreed to them, signed in triplicate and waived all our atmospheric security away. I used to hate flying, you know? Just normal airplanes, ones that hardly got that high at all. There was something about imprisoning myself in a metal tube that streaked through the sky at terrifying speeds that disturbed me. Living on the station had felt even worse, like being inside a soap bubble, one whose popping would mean an agonizing death for everyone inside. So, what was I doing there in the first place? Maybe I had a death wish.
You had to be at least a little suicidal to be an explorer. I had read the histories of the famous ones, the ones in the past who embarked on incredible journeys into the unknown. Most of them had died in their pursuit of new horizons, and I often wondered how satisfied they were with that. If they had been aware of their impending deaths, it must have sucked, especially for the ones who died without ever reaching an alien shore. Rotting away with scurvy on some floating wooden tomb in the middle of the uncharted Atlantic Ocean? Who would want that? And it was the chance at a better life that had motivated most of those folks. Up on the space station, we were all scientists. Sure, some of us were angling for book or movie deals, but the experience of space travel was becoming increasingly commonplace, and people tire easily of hearing the same story told with only minor changes. We were a mercenary gang of overeducated idiots playing Russian roulette, and the loaded chamber had come up for every one of us, all at once.
The station shudders and makes noises it is not supposed to. I keep my face pressed to the glass of the cupola, in that cramped windowed room where so many amazing moments in humanity have occurred. For me it had been the place to escape the rest of the crew and just smell my own stink for a change.
“It’s a hell of a thing,” I say, and sigh, my breath smearing the pane with fog. “A planet full of people down there, and not a damn thing any one of them can do for us.” I wonder what it will feel like to re-enter the atmosphere. Is it a slow burn, like sitting inside an oven that no one bothered to preheat? Or more of a flashfire, like a microwave on full blast? I do not want to die, I think, then realize that is a stupid thought.
Of course I do.
The station continues its slow fall to the Earth, and I along with it.
2015.02.27 – 2023.09.23