The seal indicators clicked to green so I cycled the airlock. The soft puff as the last small overpressure in the lock merged with the rest of the station, and then, stillness. My eyes scanned the telltales on my suit, and they were green too, so the helmet came off. A smaller, petulant puff there. The station’s air was different than my ship’s air — and, by extension, the suit’s — different metals, different chemicals, and more of both. That’s just one more thing that keeps it from being home. Spartan, functional, clean; the station was many things, but comfortable wasn’t on the list. Everything that I needed was here, and very little that I wanted, but my wants were little in the first place.
I racked my suit, showered, dried, and sat. It’s time to unplug. I cued up some Beethoven, but I didn’t really listen. The accommodations up here don’t have the acoustics you really need, but the rhythms managed to come through okay. No headphones — if you have to suit up fast, they’ll only get in the way, and I don’t like the way bass comes in through the mastoid implant. I don’t like hearing anything through that speaker anymore. I like using my ears when I can, just wish it was more often. It was two days off before another ten out. I got some bilge whiskey and it did what it was supposed to. The hard echoes off the metal walls smoothed and my ears got out of the way so I could hear the music in my head, feel it like it was supposed to be when the edges of you blur and the beat takes your pulse.
That’s the best time to get on the Network and see what news Juno has for you. It doesn’t seem like you’ve been out so long when you can see the smiles and the eyes of everyone back home and have trouble focusing on anything else. It feels like longer when you see the kids and the wrinkles and the birthdays/weddings/funerals/reunions that are happening, have happened, are gonna happen without you. The edges aren’t edges anymore, the snowflake trusses on the bulkheads start to pinwheel, the idea of up is forgotten and everywhere is a down waiting for a fall that your brain can feel even though you’re still. It’s easier when I can blur and not feel like me, but I can feel like you, and then I know that I’ve had too much whiskey because if I can feel like you then I’m gonna be just as useless if an alarm goes off. You’re not the bad-ass that you used to be. That’s when I put the messages and the pictures and the memories away and look at the stars and the ships on the vid.
By now, the whiskey’s not causing the blurring. The gravity in the pod is just enough that tears don’t hide in the ducts. There’s more traffic outside than there used to be, and the tankers and transit and tugs are slow-motion explosions centered on the different stations nearby. With each star satellite solar-sail that passes, the grittiness of being out there in metal and grease and fuel blurs too, and I remember what they looked like before I knew the truth about what’s up here and how it’s all just more of what’s down there, only twice as hard and half as safe but you already knew that before we went up and then found out the hard way so you had to go back down.
You told me over and over again before you shipped out on your first tour, when you became my home and then left to do your duty, when we were young and I was lost in your eyes and your smile and your hair, you told me that you would take care of me, and that’s just what you did. The explosion on the other ship had hardly started before you told me to bank and step on it and the ship leapt away before I even knew what was going on. When the debris hit it was a surprise to me but your training kept you working when I froze at the controls.
If you were still in, they would have given you a medal. You sealed your suit and then sealed me off in the cockpit while you were making repairs and just kept talking me through where to go and what to do while the damage kept piling up on the ship until there wasn’t much ship left and you were still talking when the shrapnel took your leg and your air and your warmth. I heard your last breaths in my head because you can’t shut these radios off in an emergency because what if you accidentally didn’t hear something you’re supposed to. They didn’t think about not wanting to hear something you can’t un-hear.
When the rescuers and the salvagers showed up they told me not to look and I should have listened but you were there and then you weren’t and your eyes were glazed and your smile a rictus and your hair an icy halo. They asked if they should try and thaw you and I must have said yes but now I don’t know why and if I did say yes I was wrong and it didn’t work like I thought it would. They said there’s still hope, there’s always hope but what is hope but dreams and I don’t know if your dreams are the same as my dreams, dreams that you don’t share with me anymore because you can’t and maybe you shouldn’t because maybe the dreams you are having are the same as my nightmares and you just can’t tell anyone.
Once “Für Elise” starts I know it’s time to put down the viewer and try to sleep and see the good times and only the good times but the dark times come in the dreams but there’s still a little more booze to get me through the rest of the night and it’s only two days I’m left alone with myself and I can do it because you can’t be the strong one anymore.
I don’t begrudge you going home before me, and wish I’d gone with you, but now that you’re there, someone has to pay for the machines that keep you breathing and dreaming. It’s only another ten days out and back before this sham plays out again. This work is hard and I miss you and I’ll try not to die before you do.