Friday Night Story

Lost in Space

I never dreamed I’d be here on my 58th birthday, drifting among the stars. There was a part of me that had given up on touching space at all.

It wasn’t always that way. As a boy, I believed Bradbury’s estimation that we’d all be tourists to Mars by 2001; by 2010 we had all realized space tourism was for those with millions to fritter on a single trip.

In fact, as nepotism grew in world governments, it seemed like the days of the non-millionaire astronaut were dead. Then, when world governments looked poised to destroy one another with nuclear weapons, humanity launched a final, noble experiment, called in America and Britain the Avalon project. Avalon was a self-contained space-station, requiring no resupply, and no contact with the Earth, an orbital biodome to house 400 of the world’s greatest minds.

And that’s where my part in the story begins. I’m not dumb; I think I might have cracked the world’s million brightest, but Avalon was never in my cards. Sharen was. I used to tease her about training in classical physics. The world didn’t prize theorists, the money had for a decade been in weaponeering, so the field was choked with weaponeers. I don’t know that I could have loved her the same if she built better bombs; I do know she would never have had a place on Avalon.

For years, the earth shook, as man fought over oil, water, food. During those same years, Avalon toiled in the name of a better future. I spent that time corresponding with Sharen. She had been distant since she graduated, always lost in some research; our distance now at least added pretext.

I never told her about the engineering I took, or the journeyman jobs I did, all with an eye to the sky. I told myself I was doing it for me, that it was about following a life’s dream- but I was never good at lying, least of all to myself.

And finally, I got my assignment. I sent Sharen a message right before I boarded the space climber. When I got to my apartment on Avalon (really a glorified mop closet- the original designs hadn’t planned for support staff), there was a message waiting from her. It was both ecstatic and dour- and she wanted to see me for lunch. I was excited and terrified, uncertain what my future held.

I never got to find out. I was sent out that morning in a small experimental ship on a bit of minor maintenance on the hull, patching a few dents caused by debris collisions. An explosion inside Avalon knocked me loose from the hull. I fired my thrusters, but the station had been knocked from its stable orbit, falling faster than I could match. Over hours, the station drifted into the atmosphere. Avalon was never designed for reentry; the stress caused the station to break in half, sparking another explosion. Half of the station continued deeper into the atmosphere, where it burnt up; the other half was splashed across the sky in pieces.

Governmental reports were uncertain. It could have been terrorism, a quiet act of war, or the product of the fledgling Chinese or Japanese space programs taking on more than they could handle (and although no one dared point a finger at the American, European or Russian programs, we remembered their flaws, too).

The ship I was in had been designed as a microcosm of the station; algae tanks scrubbed the carbon dioxide from my air, and a water system cleaned waste water for reuse. Nutrients from shed skin, sweat, waste, all were combined with excess algae into a paste that kept me alive. I was unaware of these features when the Avalon crashed. I drifted aimlessly for a week without realizing it, only to find that I had not died of dehydration, and was not hungry, either. The ship was built for deep space research and exploration. It ran on thrusters powered by solar panels. In one of its clawed arms was an electron microscope. Housed in its belly was a chromatograph.

There’s a great cloud of debris from Avalon, most of it dust particles- spanning a distance nearly the same as the moon’s perigee. I’ve spent years now, sifting through the wreckage, collecting Sharen’s cremated remains. I’m not sure what I’ll do when I’m finished; I don’t know that her parents would want a second funeral- perhaps I could spread her ashes across the sky, a new constellation amongst the stars. But that’s a question I’m not ready for, and I have work to get back to.

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