“Why bother stocking a capsule with so much food?” I remembered asking one of the technicians before the launch. “I’m going to be in orbit for two hours, not two years.”
“We wouldn’t want you going hungry up there if you got stranded,” laughed one of them.
Peering down at Mother Earth, my vessel slowly drifting off course into the depths of the solar system, I no longer saw the humor in this. Earth’s oceans looked up at me coldly. The lights of its cities twinkled slowly as though they were bidding me adieu.
Within the crowded cabin there yet resonated traces of sound; the leftovers of the grim announcement from ground control. An unsteady voice had come through the com-line. “We don’t know what went wrong. I’m sorry… there’s nothing more we can do for you.”
But I knew. I knew exactly what had gone wrong. There had been some error in the calculations. I’d launched at the wrong angle and my capsule had failed to maintain its planned trajectory around the Earth. Somewhere on that blue planet below me, there was a mathematician or a physicist who felt like shit; an academic who was probably wishing that they’d spent more nights in college studying, rather than getting wasted and passing their courses with C’s. But how were they to know that their lack of discipline would someday kill a young astronaut?
From my position above Earth, I could feel their collective grief streaming into the cabin through the com-line. Still, I was not moved by their regret. Even if they could have strung together their respective sorrows into a lasso of thoughtfulness, it wouldn’t have been enough to haul me back to Earth.
I’d learned about such situations during my training. A space capsule has to be fired with precision if it’s to stay within the planet’s orbit. The slightest miscalculation can cause the vessel to get caught up in an ever-expanding orbit around the Earth, where it will eventually be jettisoned into the cold depths of the Milky Way.
Down below, people were probably grieving for me. This made me angrier than anything else; the thought of people grieving for me before I’d even died. My wife and son, my neighbors, my fellow astronauts; they were probably making prayer requests for me at their local churches, planning funerals, deciding which tie to wear to memorial services, negotiating the price of my obituary space in local newspapers.
I squinted at the planet but couldn’t decide whether I’d actually drifted any meaningful distance since I’d last looked out the window. Pressing the button to the com-link, I decided to try and talk to the folks at ground control.
“Can anyone hear me down there?”
There was silence.
“Anyone? Is there anyone down there?” I asked.
Again, there was no response. I’d probably drifted out of their range. Frustrated, I peered around the cabin. Various manuals and tools filled its every crevice.
“Ground control, are you there?”
I considered using some of the objects in the cabin to smash open the window, but realized it futile as I recalled the nature of the capsule. Its every component was tailor-made to withstand the wear and tear of space travel. I wouldn’t have been able to break it if I’d tried, and even if I could, it wouldn’t do me a whole lot of good. Whether floating about in space within the capsule or outside of it, my fate would be the same.
Unable to establish contact with ground control, I removed my helmet and took a breath. The air within the capsule was thin. At that moment, I realized my only option. I did something that every astronaut hopes he will never have to do.
I yanked the oxygen feed from my helmet, ruining the apparatus and effectively ushering my life to its end. The air within the capsule would probably last me a half hour if I remained seated and calm. After that half-hour, I’d lose consciousness. In this respect, my death would be painless at least, and I would spare myself the terror of waiting for the inevitable. It was more honorable this way, to face death and embrace it. Although most everything was out of my control, I found some slight comfort in the fact that I would be able to die on my own terms.
I rifled through one of the compartments and withdrew a protein bar. Watching the earth below me, I ate it slowly. ‘What a shame that all of this food will go to waste,’ I thought.
Suddenly, there came a voice through the com-link.
“Robert!” the voice called out to me from Earth. “You’re going to be all right! It seems we were able to correct the trajectory just in time. Stand by for instructions; we’re going to begin a proper orbit. We’ll have you back on Earth within three hours!”
I glanced down at the Earth. The people down there were probably rejoicing now, unaware of what their beloved astronaut, husband, father and neighbor had done.
“Do you copy?” asked ground control.
I picked up my helmet and toyed with the broken oxygen feed before responding in the affirmative. I wondered how this would look; how they would react upon opening the re-entry capsule and finding my corpse within.
“You’re lucky,” said the man from ground control. “For a minute there, we thought we’d lost you.”
The air was getting thin.
OJ Connell is a husband, father and dilettante from the American Midwest. Little is known about this elusive author, however it has been said that he enjoys Postmodern literature, Lapsang Souchong and other pretentious things. His work has appeared in various venues, including the Big Book of New Short Horror from Pill Hill Press. He likes cats, also.