• Excerpt from Luke Herzog’s ‘Fishbowl’

    For a week, the mushroom clouds left red dots on the astronaut’s eyes—bloody phantoms dancing in his vision, taunting him. Closing his lids offered no respite from the torment. It had been four days since the bombings stopped, but the fires raged on. Abrams knew it wasn’t healthy, taking every opportunity to spare a glance at the destruction below. But he couldn’t look away. He was determined to bear witness to man’s darkest hours. It was the least he could do, for the guilt was all-consuming. Floating above, watching Armageddon from the safety of their little palace in the sky. Abrams felt his stomach twist.

    He was no less fascinated by his colleagues, 230 miles above the worst case scenario. Each astronaut coped differently. Topfsky had retreated into her calculations, murmuring about fallout and wind patterns. She hunched over hastily ripped notebook paper so filled with equations and notations that she’d begun scribbling over previous ones. Discarded pages spiraled around her now, as if she was the star in her own solar system. Florez’s diet had become irregular, to say the least. Caring too little to add water to powdered coffee and Kool-Aid, he scarfed them down dry—a nebulous cloud of brown and purple dust plastered to his face and followed him about. Even Dixon’s incessant toothy grin had long since been supplanted by a forlorn smile and furrowed brow, his light humor having descended into darkness and cynicism.

    They passed over the half of the planet cloaked in shadow. The fires were more distinct against the black backdrop, flickering like torch bugs on a warm summer night.

    Abrams was stirred by the sound of conversation, an almost alien concept as the hours passed, usually reserved for discussion of raw data and bleak hypotheticals. The buzz of consoles and the perpetual scratch of pencil lead had become white noise during their dark vigil for the human race.

    “Ya spelled apocalypse wrong, darlin’,” chided Dixon. The towering Texan hovered parallel to the engineer, face-to-face but upside-down. His goatee and shaved head made him look right-side up. Topfsky’s eyes flickered, then she continued her scribbling.

    “So I did. What’s it to you?”

    He shrugged. “Ain’t the end of the world.” Dixon smiled weakly. Topfsky looked disgusted.

    “What are you working on?” Abrams turned his attention from the window and pushed against a bulkhead, launching himself toward the other two.

    Topfsky sighed. “I’m writing an account of all that’s occurred. The better question is— why aren’t you?” Abrams’s nose twitched. “What if ours is the only record to survive? Future historians might depend on our account… It might be all they have to go on.”

    Dixon raised an eyebrow. “Never had ya figured as a writer, Topfsky.”

    “Why so surprised?”

    “Just always thought you wrote in binary.”

    She pushed him away, enough to send him floating backwards, and tugged a strand of hair behind her ear. “Jackass…”

    Red appeared beside her, scratching at his chin and rolling his eyes as the Texan flailed for a handhold. The man’s actual name was Clifford Kaznach. Dixon was responsible for the nickname—a not-so-subtle dig at Kaznach’s Communist connections, though the man-child insisted he was referencing Clifford, the Big Red Dog. Nevertheless, it caught on. Abrams suspected that even the Russian had taken a liking to it.

    “God, I’d like to sew his mouth shut,” Red whispered in flawless English. He nodded toward the view of the destruction below. “And I wish we could draw the blinds, too, you know?”

    No, I don’t, thought Abrams. “Yeah.”

    “So I was just talking to Duvvur,” Red continued.

    “Does the commander want another meeting?” Once the bombings had ceased, Commander Duvvur had called for a vote. Stay or go. Remain in orbit and hope rations—and the station itself—hold out long enough for a safe return, or attempt a landing on a toxic world. They had long since lost contact with Earth; the choice was theirs and theirs alone. For all they knew, the planet was, too. The debate was long and intense. Opinions were evenly split. In the end, Duvvur cast the deciding vote. They would stay.

    Red had been in the minority. What’s the first thing you do when you hear your house is on fire? You run home, he had reasoned. But the blaze was only spreading. “No, the commander doesn’t want a meeting, but…”

    Abrams eyed Topfsky. She appeared thoroughly immersed in her writings. Abrams knew her tricks well enough by now. “The aft.” Red agreed.

    By now, the aft was in disarray. The sour smell of unwashed men and sudden indifference blanketed everything. Free-floating materials nestled in every nook and cranny. Crumpled papers and food crumbs, even wandering wrappers and packaging, drifted alongside the two sleeping bags affixed to the walls. Red and Florez spent a lot of time here. Years of training and a mission together had even left their disorganization symbiotic.

    In the room’s corner, Dixon had stashed a contribution—a golf club, a shiny pitching wedge in honor of the swings Alan Shepard attempted on the lunar surface over half a century earlier.

    Several scattered novels, Red’s favorites, glided throughout the compartment like circling vultures. Abrams snatched a book floating between a paperback edition of The Hunt for Red October and a tattered Agatha Christie thriller.

    “From the Earth to the Moon,” he read.

    Red moved closer. “You know what Jules Verne did, right? You know how the first three men got to the moon?” Abrams shook his head. Red took the book from his hands. “I’ll have to lend it to you sometime.”

    “So what’s the problem?” Abrams asked.

    “Rations.”

    “I know, I know. We’ve gone over this a dozen times. Nine crew, only supposed to be six at a time.” The crew of Expedition 146—Abrams, Topfsky, and Sho—had arrived only three days before the first bomb fell. During this transitional phase, Expedition 144 hadn’t yet departed. The end of the world had been poorly timed. “We figured we’re good for about six months. By then…”

    “But that’s if all goes well. Sadakov and I went over the math again. The numbers are worse than we feared. What we didn’t take into account was the real possibility of the station’s systems deteriorating. Or space junk. If satellites start failing at an alarming rate—there’s already enough debris in orbit, now it’s going to increase exponentially. If we can’t avoid it…”

    “Lots of ifs.”

    “I’m well aware. If bad weather hadn’t delayed your expedition’s launch. If final diagnostic tests hadn’t brought up that glitch. If I hadn’t been so damn sentimental as to insist on one more sunrise from space…” Red glanced down at the 144 insignia on his breast pocket. “I can’t help but feel we’ve overstayed our welcome.”

    “You’re not blaming yourself—“

    “You would have a better shot at survival.”

    “And you would be an ash heap.”

    Red rubbed his temples. “Six months at most, Abrams. And that’s while rationing to the extreme. That means hunger for half a year. And that’s if orbital decay doesn’t screw us first.”

    “We’ll find a way. The bombings seem to be over. We’ll establish contact again, you’ll see. Surely someone will remember we’re still up here, eh?” Abrams hoped he sounded sincere.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on November 29, 2017

    Topics: Columns & Contributors, Front PG News

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