Eric Waters was the last astronaut. There would be no more after him. He sat at the desk in his tiny dorm room and looked at the meager pile of belongings he’d managed to amass in two years at Mare Imbrium Base, Luna. He had an e-book reader, a few articles of personal clothing, a laptop, and a photo of himself and his advisor in front of the prototype magnetic field generator that had landed Eric his NASA appointment. He also had the standard kit including uniforms, toiletries, and the small black case that contained his “passport.” The syringe full of poison had been part of the package since the Mars expedition disaster.
Mars had been the first step toward dissolution for NASA, and now Eric was about to take the last. It was 1:45 P.M. Greenwich Mean, almost time to close up shop. Sighing, he swept the clothes and other gear into his vac-capsule. The high-tech foot locker wasn’t big, but it easily held the lot and in the low gravity of Earth’s moon it weighed next to nothing. Eric balanced it on his shoulder as he headed for the building’s main airlock.
He mounted the capsule to his suit’s carrying rack, and carefully checked the suit over. He’d done the same thing earlier when he’d hiked to the main building for lunch. It was unlikely that anything had changed significantly since then, but taking things for granted got people killed. When he was sure everything was as it should be, he wriggled into the suit and attached the helmet. Then he stepped into the rack that held his air and belongings. Sighing, he turned away from the airlock.
It was less than fifty feet from the entry to the dorm’s control room, but it felt like miles. One by one he shut down the building’s systems until only air and power remained. The latter wasn’t his problem. Power would be cut off remotely after Eric had cleared the airlock, but the former…
He held his trembling hand over the cover of the evacuation switch for a good minute before finally flipping it aside. The exposed switch would pump the air into tanks for storage and redistribution. With a small simple motion Eric laid the last NASA training facility to rest.
He felt there should have been some ceremony to honor all the effort and blood that had gone into the astronaut program, but there wasn’t. Every single human being who cared was at the launch site trying to get NASA’s last mission ready before Congress could kill it too.
It was less than a mile to the launch pad and Eric covered it in a series of long bounds. The Phoenix was tanked up and ready to fly. She was an ungainly flattened cylinder, designed and built in microgravity with no intention that she ever enter atmosphere. Misshapen lumps and bumps marred her hull where various bits of equipment had been added as afterthoughts. These gave her the impression of having some kind of nasty skin condition. Eric smiled. She was the prettiest thing he’d ever seen. He lovingly touched his glove to the weld holding one of his shield projectors in place. There was a slight irregularity where the wirefeeder had hiccuped. To anyone else it would have been invisible. To Eric it was like a signature that said “I did this, no one else.” He smiled to himself and turned away. It was time to board.
They were at T minus one hour and counting. In the ship’s tiny fusion room Eric went over the final checklist with Nadia Gladysheva. He was glad to be working with the Russian. If anyone understood how he felt, it was Nadia. Seven years earlier she’d been the last trainee through the cosmonaut program. The Federal republic of Russia had ceded its place in space to commercial interests, just as the United States was about to do.
“Look at this pile of junk,” said Nadia, affectionately patting a bulkhead. “We must have ten thousand kilos of experimental equipment.”
“And all of it jury-rigged,” responded Eric. “Every scientist with a pet research project and some clout tried to get in on this mission. It’s like vultures circling a dying horse.”
“I don’t know. There will be many space scientists looking for work after this. If anyone wants us to succeed more than we do, it’s them.”
“I suppose, but it won’t do us any good. The new space corporations make some mighty big political contributions and they think NASA’s a dinosaur.”
“They’re right,” said a voice from the doorway.
Eric whirled in anger. The space-black face of Scott McGregor was split by a wry grin.
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” demanded Eric.
“NASA is a dinosaur. We’ve become a bureaucracy in the worst sense of the word.”
“Ha,” said Nadia, “so speaks the American. NASA is a gleaming and efficient machine compared to Russian bureaucracy.”
“She’s still a dinosaur,” said Scott.
“That’s not true,” said Eric. “NASA’s the last organization interested in doing real space science.”
“What about Consolidated Mining?” countered Scott. “They’re working on the first asteroid mining ship at this very moment.”
“That’s not science,” snapped Eric, “it’s glorified engineering. They’re taking principles we developed and refining them for commercial use. If it weren’t for NASA they’d still be a half-bankrupt strip-mining firm. When the commercial interests control space, the real I didn’t know that before I started research is going to be deader than the surface of the moon.”
“That’s not what Congressman Thacker said in his latest address,” replied Scott. He mimicked the finance chairman’s motor-oil Kentucky drawl, “It’s time for big government to stop stickin’ its nose where it don’t belong and let the free market set the agenda in space.”
“He’s a bastard,” snarled Eric.
“Wait for it,” said Scott. “There’s more. He also said the Phoenix was the biggest waste of Federal dollars since the Advanced Stealth Submarine.”
“Isn’t Consolidated Mining and Refining headquartered in Kentucky?” asked Nadia.
“Yes,” spat Eric. “The only military spending Thacker’s against is the kind that happens in someone else’s district. But that’s got nothing to do with his ‘principled’ opposition to the NASA research mission.”
Captain Jessica Radford stuck her head in the door as Eric was finishing this sentence. “What’s got you so riled, Eric? Is Scott picking fights again?”
“I was just trying to take the tension off,” said Scott.
“Scott says NASA’s a dinosaur,” replied Eric.
“Really?” replied Jessica, turning her gaze on Scott. “So, why are you still here? Consolidated’s offering some mighty hefty bonuses to experienced pilots.”
“Hey, she may be a dinosaur, but she’s my dinosaur,” said Scott defensively.
“Ah,” said Jessica, laughing. “My dinosaur right or wrong?”
“Yeah,” replied Scott, sullenly.
“He quoted Thacker at us,” said Nadia.
Jessica’s dark eyes flashed dangerously. “On my ship that’s a hanging offense. Do you know what Thacker said this afternoon?”
“Apparently not the worst of it,” answered Eric.
“He called us a fat government bird made for roasting, and said this was one Phoenix that wouldn’t be rising from the ashes.” The bitterness in her tone was like over-brewed coffee.
Eric felt the same way. Phoenix was named in hope of a resurrection, but it wasn’t something anyone at NASA wanted to talk about. There was a superstitious dread that actually voicing it would kill their luck. To have NASA’s primary congressional foe spouting off on the subject on the day of their departure filled his belly with cold lead. No one had much to say after that and the four went quietly back to work.
Forty-five minutes later the Phoenix rode its flaming tail into the heavens. NASA’s last mission was on its way to Neptune.
“Eric,” said Jessica over the cabin speaker. “We have multiple radar traces on the scope. It looks like we’ve found you a dust storm. Do you want to try out your new toy?”
Eric let out a whoop as he reached for the intercom button. They’d been searching for a good concentration of space dust ever since they’d hit the asteroid belt three weeks earlier. It had begun to look like they wouldn’t find any.
“That’s a roger, Captain,” he said. “I’m on my way.” He grabbed the small bundle of his skin-suit and headed out the door.
“Hello Eric,” greeted Nadia, as he entered the reactor room. “I hear you will finally test your micro-meteor screen. Congratulations.” The fusion plant was her baby in the same way that the experimental meteor shield was his.
“Thanks Nadia, but it’s not really mine. Professor Garten came up with the idea and did most of the design work. I was just his grad student.”
Nadia bowed her head briefly. “My condolences, Eric. I was very sorry to hear about his Lymphoma.”
Eric smiled sadly. “Thanks. If he hadn’t pulled every string he could get his hands on, I’d never have landed that last cadet slot. Putting me here with this,” he patted the shield control unit, “was Garten’s final project.” He straightened his shoulders. “At least he lived long enough to see this mission approved.”
He leaned over and turned the computer on. As soon as it finished booting he began typing the commands that would activate the magnetic field generators. He felt Nadia watching interestedly over his shoulder. The meteor shield was a close relative of the magnetic bottle at the heart of her experimental fusion reactor. Her advisor and Eric’s had studied under the same professor at Harvard thirty years before, which made Eric and Nadia into the academic equivalent of cousins.
The next ten minutes were spent going through a carefully prepared checklist. Turning the shield on was almost anti-climactic. Eric slid the cursor over the “activate shield” button and double clicked. There was the faintest of hums as the reactor compensated for the added load, but that was the only indicator that the device was running.
“Shield active,” he said into his headset.
“Roger that,” replied Jessica’s voice, “shield active. We should be entering the dust cloud in about two minutes. Scott’s running the meteor tracking program now.”
Eric was too tense to sit still. “Damn, but I wish I could be up with the monitoring system.”
Nadia touched his shoulder sympathetically. “In any rational world that’s where you’d be. But with all of this,” her hand swept in a gesture which took in the various experiment pods that were attached to every surface in seeming random order, “and more up front…” She trailed off.
Eric sighed his agreement. He was lucky to have a dedicated command console. Over the past several years all of NASA’s non-research functions had slowly been privatized. And now, thanks to the unremitting efforts of Thacker and his ilk, even that function was being closed down.
Eric went to the port and looked out. There was nothing else he could do from where he was. If he squinted his eyes it seemed he could almost see a faint shimmering distortion like heat over a highway. It was wishful thinking, of course. The little reactor could never sustain the kind of power the shield would need to ramp up to visibility. But it would be so nice if he could just see that it was working.
“Entering micro-meteor shower,” said Scott.
Suddenly, tiny rainbow sparkles began to bloom along a plane parallel to the window.
“Wow!” said Scott, “Can you see this from back there? The shield isn’t just deflecting them, it’s vaporizing the little bastards.”
“Yeah Scott, I see it,” said Eric, forgetting for the moment all of his NASA-speak. “It’s beautiful, but I haven’t the foggiest notion why it should be-”
The blare of a klaxon cut him off and an electronic voice said, “Reactor overheat likely.”
Without thinking, Eric dived for his skin-suit. Nadia passed him going the other way. It took less than fifteen seconds for the pair to go from First Alarm to Full Suits.
Eric was hooking up to the Phoenix’s air supply when Jessica’s voice came over the com. It was unnaturally calm. “Reactor, we are showing a red light on the fusion board. Do you have that there?”
“Yes I do, control,” came Nadia’s voice, equally calm. “I have an overheat warning at stage two. I’m trying to lock it down.”
“Understood, reactor. If it goes to level three you will have fifteen minutes before I order a scram.”
“Acknowledged. At level three, fifteen minutes and then emergency shutdown. I’m working on i- Chorte! Sorry, control. Level three on reactor. Shutting down in fifteen minutes.”
“Shield, this is control. Shut anti-meteor system down now.”
“Shutdown in process, control.”
Eric wanted to scream. Instead he forced himself into the ritualized dance of proper command and response. The precise military language NASA used had been invented for situations like this one. It provided the emotional distance necessary to override the body’s natural fight or flight instinct. Even as his adrenal glands went into overdrive Eric’s hands were sliding calmly across the computer’s keyboard. He didn’t know what was wrong, but the fusion reactor had been fine until the shield started vaporizing meteors.
“Control, this is reactor,” said Nadia. “I’ve located part of the problem. The meteor shield is overdrawing. Repeat, shield is pulling too much power.”
“Shield, this is control. Did you copy that?”
“Roger, control. I copy. I’m experiencing software failure. My board is locked up. Initiating manual shutdown.” He reached down and physically removed the power plug from its socket. There was no apparent effect. He slammed a hand down on the board. “Control, this is shield. Manual shutdown has failed. Repeat, manual shutdown has failed.”
“Excuse me shield, did you say manual shutdown has failed?”
“Yeah, that’s what I said, Jessica. I pulled the plug and the computer clicked off, but I can still see those pretty little rainbow bursts out my window.”
“Well, shit,” replied the captain. “Scram reactor now, Nadia. I say scram reactor now.”
“Scraming,” came the reply, followed by a burst of the foulest sounding Russian Eric had ever heard.
“There’s no time for that, Nadia,” came Jessica’s voice over the com.
“Control, this is reactor. The computer has refused the scram order. The whole damn control system is locked up. I’m going to have to cut the feeds manually. This could take some time.” She’d already pulled her suit’s umbilical loose from the panel and was squirming into the space between the reactor and the hull.
“Reactor, what’s the status on the overheat?” asked the captain.
“Control, this is shield. I’m at the reactor board. Overheat is at level three and holding.” Eric checked a quick readout. “The containment field should be good for another thirty-five minutes at this level. Nadia is working on the feeds, but that could take more time than we have. I’m going EVA to see if I can shut down the shield by disconnecting the projectors.”
“Negative on that, Eric,” said Jessica. “I need you to help Nadia. If we only have thirty five minutes you won’t have time to go EVA anyway.”
“I will if I don’t put on my hard suit. If I just strap on some mag-boots and a tank I should be able to get out there in five.”
“Are you crazy!?” Jessica’s voice rose fifteen decibels. “Without a hard suit you’re going to be a popsicle inside of ten minutes.”
“Better than a radioactive cinder,” said Eric as he headed for the lock.
There was only silence at the other end.
Eric clomped slowly across the outer skin of the Phoenix. The closest shield projector was mounted outside the reactor room window. It wasn’t a long walk from the airlock, but if he didn’t want to lose contact with the ship and float away he had to move slowly. The cold went through the skinsuit like it wasn’t there and he felt as if he were going to freeze solid. In the middle distance he could clearly see the tiny circle of the sun, but this far out its heat was negligible. He was still twenty feet from the projector when an electronic voice came over the com.
“Reactor overheat level four. Containment field failure imminent.”
“Control, this is reactor. The feeds are all shut, but I don’t think I got to them in-”
Nadia never finished the sentence. Instead, the small star at the core of the fusion reactor went nova. The containment field was designed for low grade fusion. It was never meant to handle the stress of a nova-type reaction. The magnetic bottle shivered under the strain. For just a moment more it held, but the miniature star would not be denied its freedom. A weak point on the hull side of the field failed. It was less than a centimeter across, but that was enough. A spear of superheated plasma shot out of the tiny nova, punching through the wall of the reactor, the reactor room’s bulkhead, and Nadia Gladysheva. The last cosmonaut died instantly as the middle two feet of her flashed into steam.
Eric was looking sunward, away from the ship, when the plasma erupted through the skin of the Phoenix. Across his entire field of vision the stars went away. They were replaced by a mad rainbow of color as the blast from the reactor struck the meteor shield and amped it up to a power level beyond all design specs.
Like a vampire sucking a corpse dry, the shield fed on the runaway energy of the nova reaction. The drain prevented a complete failure of the fusion bottle, a circumstance which would have vaporized the ship. Instead, all of the enormous power of the fusion overload went into the shield. Eric stared at the wildly coruscating field, transfixed. It was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and the most terrifying. In less than ten seconds it was over.
Before she’d died Nadia had managed to close the reactor feed lines. Without fuel, the miniature nova was unable to sustain itself. The rainbow of the shield faded and the stars returned, only there was something wrong.
“The sun’s gone,” Eric whispered into his mike.
“Could you repeat that,” said Jessica’s voice in his ear.
Mechanically, he responded, “I said the sun’s gone, Jess.”
“What do you mean, the sun’s gone?” snarled Scott. “It’s a bloody great big ball of burning gases. It can’t go away.”
But Eric wasn’t listening anymore. Despite the reactor failure, despite the sun vanishing, despite everything, his feet had carried him steadily on towards the nearest shield projector. Now he squatted near the bent and blackened remnants of that piece of equipment, but he wasn’t paying it any attention. He was looking at the ragged hole where the plasma jet had exited the ship.
By some twist of fate the explosion that killed Nadia had left her floating with her face just below the hole. When he first reached the damaged area it was still glowing redly, framing her features in a pulsing halo of fire and lending them an illusion of animation.
For a brief instant it had been possible to believe that she was alive. A closer inspection revealed the truth and the ravages of decompression. Eric didn’t want to believe it, but there was no question that his vivacious Russian friend would be going home a martyr rather than the hero they had all dreamed of. He reached a hand through the hole and brushed his fingertips across her helmet. The voice in his microphone called again.
“Eric. Eric, do you read?” asked Jessica. “Eric, please answer me.”
Eric didn’t know how long the voice had been speaking. He didn’t really care.
“Eric, are you there? Goddamnit answer me.”
Finally, he roused himself to answer. No matter how much he hurt, he had responsibilities. It was time to return to them.
“Control, this is Shield. I read you. I am on the surface inspecting damage from the reactor failure. There’s a hole in the ship’s hull. It appears to be about forty centimeters across. The shield projectors are toast. I think the overload cooked the whole system.”
“That can wait, Eric. You’re near a port, aren’t you? Can you see Nadia? The reactor room’s in vacuum and we can’t open the hatch. She hasn’t been responding.”
“She won’t, Jessica, not ever again.” If there was any reply, Eric didn’t hear it. Gently, he touched Nadia’s helmet one last time, and then he stood. “I’m coming in. There’s nothing more I can do out here.”
He was shivering uncontrollably before he’d gone three feet. He might have no concious memory of the time he’d spent staring into Nadia’s face, but his body knew that he’d been out in deadly cold for far too long. Scott met him outside the lock. If he hadn’t, Eric would have died too. His hands were too stiff to work the controls.
Eric winced as Scott rubbed salve into his frostbitten fingers.
“You’re an idiot,” said Scott, “you know that, don’t you? Did you think you were immune to cold?”
“No. I thought I could manually disengage the shield. I wish I’d thought of it sooner. If I had, Nadia might still be alive.”
“That’s bullshit,” said Scott. “Even if you’d gone out the minute the alarm went off you’d never have made it to the generators in time. It happened too fast. You know that as well as I do.”
“What I know,” said Eric, his tone deadly quiet, “is that the system that I brought aboard this ship failed. It failed and my friend died because of that.”
“That’s true,” said Jessica, “but it’s not currently relevant. We have a more immediate problem.”
“Hey,” said Scott. “Cut the kid some slack. He’s hurting pretty bad.”
“No,” she said. “Self-pity isn’t something that we have time for. While you were bringing Eric in and getting him out of his suit, I was looking at the navigation systems.”
“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked Scott.
“Eric was right about the sun going away.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’m sorry,” said Jessica, “I misspoke. The sun isn’t exactly gone, it’s just…” She trailed off. “Let me try again. I used the spectroscopic telescope to find a couple of reference stars. The only problem was that when I used that data to point the ‘scope at the sun it wasn’t where it was supposed to be.”
“What are you trying to say?” asked Scott.
“I’m getting there, but I have to edge up on it, because it scares the liver out of me. I took a sighting on where the sun should have been and I did eventually find it. It was right where it was supposed to be, but it was a lot dimmer.”
“What?” said Eric, as realization hit him, cutting through his despair. “Did you double-check the figures?”
She nodded grimly. “We’re a long way from home, boys. I did some rough calculations. If I’m right about the apparent size of the sun we’re somewhere way the hell out past Pluto.”
“But how did we get there?” Scott asked. “Assuming, that is, that you haven’t just flipped your lid.”
“Look,” said Jessica, “there’s no reason to take my word for it. Why don’t we go look at the instruments and see what we can find out. You have no idea how happy I’d be to discover that I was hallucinating.”
It took about an hour to establish that they were indeed a very long way from home. In the eight seconds that the shield had been hyperactivated by the reactor failure they’d traveled eight billion kilometers, over seven light hours.
“What happened?” Eric asked for about the thirtieth time.
“I’ll tell you what happened,” said Scott. “Your advisor didn’t invent a meteor shield. He invented a hyper-drive.”
“I think you’re right,” said Jessica. “He did one more thing as well.”
“What’s that?” asked Eric.
“Well, as grateful as I am for the way the shield took the bang out of the reactor, it was only a delaying action.”
“I don’t think I see where you’re going,” replied Scott.
“If we can’t get the reactor running again we’re going to keep drifting until we hit Alpha C.”
“That’s not all the good news,” she continued. “In addition to setting us well on our way to deep space, the shove that the shield generator gave us pushed us off to one side. We’re on the wrong side of the sun for contacting Earth. For the next three and a half months we’re completely on our own.”
Eric relaxed his grip on the arc welder. The blue pinpoint sputtered and went out. He flipped up the smoked glass visor and eyed the patch warily. It was as pretty a piece of welding as he’d ever done, but”…
“Are you sure this is going to work?” asked Scott from the doorway. He was wearing his full hard suit, as was Eric.
“No, of course I’m not. In theory all that the reactor vessel does is supply a magnetically active conducting surface for the fusion bottle to conform to. The patch should work almost as well as the original reactor wall. And if you believe that, I’ve got some land at the Luna retirement center I’d like to sell you. It’s got a lovely crater-view, and when we get around to installing an atmosphere it’ll be on some of the finest shorefront in near-Earth space.”
“You know,” responded Scott, “as tempting as that sounds, I think that I’ll have to find some other way to invest the enormous salary that NASA pays me.”
“Your loss. Now, why don’t you close that door and I’ll try jump starting this thing.”
“All right, but if it goes boom, is the door going to make any difference at all?”
“Well no,” said Eric, “but it provides the illusion.”
“Right.” Scott ducked into the hallway.
The pressure door closed with a sharp clunk and Eric was alone in the reactor room. He said a quiet prayer, asking Nadia to intervene with whichever Russian Orthodox saint watched over nuclear plants. He flipped the switch. At first nothing happened. Then the reactor indicators began a slow climb. When they hit eighty percent he locked the feeds down. That was as high as he dared push it.
Eric was hunched over the shield computer, trying to figure out what had happened when the field took the power spike from the reactor. It wasn’t easy. Because the computer was unplugged when the nova hit the shield, he didn’t have any data. Of course it was the only part of the shield system that hadn’t been slagged by the overload, so he had to take what he could get.
“How’s it coming?” asked a voice over his shoulder. It was Scott. There was something about his tone that brought Eric’s head up with a snap. The pilot slid into the room with Jessica right behind him.
“I don’t know. Given another couple of months maybe I’ll get somewhere.” He smiled grimly. “Of course it’s going to take us at least that long to get home, so…”
“Funny you should put it that way,” said Jessica. “Scott and I have been doing some figuring of our own up front. We need to talk.” Her voice was flat.
“I don’t think I’m going to like this,” replied Eric.
“Probably not,” said Scott. “No matter how we ration there isn’t enough in the way of consumables to get three people home.”
“I hadn’t thought about that. I’ve been too busy with the reactor and the shield to think it through. What if we radio in as soon as Earth comes out from behind the sun? Could they send a ship to meet us?”
“No,” said Jessica. “Consolidated won’t have their asteroid miner done for at least another year, and there’s nothing else that could do us any good given the possible launch windows. We’re completely on our own.”
“How bad is it?” asked Eric.
“We only have enough food and air to get one of us home, and that’s if the other two check out within the next ten days.”
Eric grunted as though he’d been punched in the stomach. “So, what do we do, draw straws?”
“No,” said Jessica. “Scott and I have already decided that it’s going to be you.”
“Look,” said Jessica, “the Phoenix is NASA’s last gasp. You know as well as I do that this mission was named in the hopes that we’d emulate legend and find something out here that would justify our existence. That’s Phoenix’s real mission.” She paused for a second. “Your meteor shield, faster than light travel, is that something. If NASA can produce that, then there’s still hope for the program. The only problem is that no one is going to believe it or give NASA proper credit without a living breathing astronaut-hero pushing it all the way. That means one of us has to make it home with the news.”
“Why me?” asked Eric. “Either of you would make a better hero than I would, Jess. You’re both decorated military pilots. I’m just a physics geek. Hell, I can’t even fly this bird.”
“You’re the man who knows the shield,” said Scott. “Garten is dead. You might be the only person who can build another. As for piloting, that’s all done. The Phoenix is aimed for Lunar orbit. All you have to do is not touch anything. Look, this is NASA’s last mission, and you’re her last astronaut. After you left the academy they closed the door. That’s powerful symbolism. You can use it as a club on people like Thacker.”
“I thought you said NASA was a dinosaur.”
“I also said that she was my dinosaur. Sure, NASA’s a flawed beast and I bitch and whine about her problems, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care about being shut down. I love the grand old dame, warts and all. Don’t you see? This is a chance to do more than just keep her tottering along for another year or two. If this hyper-drive thing works out you could bring back the glory days. I’d give everything I’ve got, my life included, to do that and call it a bargain.”
Eric shook his head in denial. “I don’t want the job.”
“Too bad,” said Scott, “you’re elected.”
Jessica nodded. “We already took our passports.” She dropped a pair of empty syringes on the console. “We’ve got about fifteen minutes left.” She leaned down and kissed his cheek. “I’m so sorry, Eric. We’re leaving you the hard job.”
He stared at the needles and the bottom dropped out of his heart. It didn’t seem possible that something as simple as a needle could end something as complex as a human life, but there was no doubting the message of the syringes.
“I-I can’t do this,” Eric faltered. “It’s going to take months to get home. I’ll never make it. I’ll crack.”
“No,” said Jessica. “You won’t. If you do, it’s all over. There won’t be any more missions. I went through the same academy you did. I know what it takes to make an astronaut. You can’t let it end with you, anymore than Scott or I could. That’s why we’re checking out now. I don’t want to die. There’s too much to live for. But there’s only one way that the Phoenix can rise, and that’s for the right person to make it home. If that person were me or Scott I’d expect you to take the same route I’m taking now. But that’s not how it worked. The job is yours, Eric. You have to finish the mission.”
There was an expectancy in her voice and he knew what she needed to hear. He gave it to her though it cost him most of his soul.
Eric took the syringe from its case. Carefully, almost lovingly, he attached a sterile needle. When that was done he set it aside and withdrew a length of rubber tubing from the medical kit. Using his right hand and his teeth he tied the tubing tightly around his left arm. After a few seconds the vein inside his elbow rose to the surface. It reminded him of a dolphin coming up for air. He grimaced.
“I can’t do it, Jess, I just can’t.”
Picking up the syringe he jabbed the needle quickly into the vein. He covered the plunger with his thumb. He rubbed it back and forth. Back and forth. The moment passed. He stopped. Slowly, almost shaking with the effort, he removed the needle.
“Got to finish the mission,” he whispered.
Blood welled up at the center of the prick. The bright red globule expanded and broke loose to float across the cabin. Eric stared at the hole it had come from. Beside the fresh wound there were more than a dozen others, running the gamut from a white scar six months old, to a brown scab.
“Dammit, Jess, I never wanted this. I’m no hero.”
He pressed a cotton ball into the hole and released the tubing. The needle went into a small container of bleach. He was still a long way from home. He might need it later.
Eric leaned down and pushed the button that sent air pumping into the corridors of the academy dorms in Mare Imbrium. It had taken fifteen years for him to get there, fifteen years of hard work and political knife fighting, but Jessica had been right. The last astronaut carried a weight beyond all proportion. It was a weight that he’d thrown around with abandon in pursuit of his cause. Oh, there’d been sweet moments; watching Congressman Thacker go down to one of the worst defeats in electoral history for example, and none so sweet as this, but it was a weight that he had to carry on his own back, and he was tired. Terribly, terribly tired.
After the ceremony he walked across the barren lunar field to the Phoenix. It had been returned to Mare Imbrium and installed in a place of honor. Inside, in the place where the reactor had once been, were four coffins. Three cradled the remains of heroes, the fourth waited.
The airlock worked like new. The Phoenix was given the best possible care. Inside he stripped off his suit and went to look in on his old friends. He brushed his fingers across Jessica’s casket.
“Well Jess, the Federated Extra-solar Development Agency isn’t exactly NASA, but it’s damn close.” He laughed, a short bitter sound. “You know what’s ironic? They aren’t calling them astronauts any more, so I’m still the last and I always will be.”
Eric lifted the lid of his coffin. Inside, on the pillow, was the hypodermic he’d carried next to his heart for the entire long trip home. It had taken thirteen months, many of them spent looking at sanity from the wrong side of the line, but he’d survived. He’d made a promise, and he’d kept it.
Eric reached into the coffin and pulled the syringe out of its case. He attached a new needle and brought it up to rest against the skin under his left elbow. Then, very deliberately, he pushed. There was a faint pop as the point broke the skin. The needle slid in. He could feel the cold steel embedded in the pulsing vein.
“I finished the mission,” he said to the air and placed his thumb on the plunger.
For ten minutes he stood there unmoving. Finally he pulled the needle from his arm. The ampule was still full. In a ritual he’d performed a thousand times he placed the syringe back in its case. It was not yet time. With a fresh hole in his arm, and another in his heart, he turned his back on his friends once again. He owed it to them.
For the last astronaut the mission was never finished.
Copyright © Kelly McCullough 2001. May not be reproduced without the author’s permission.