The Lost Journey of the Stalwart

They were cold, but they would suffocate before hypothermia set in. It had been a terrifying notion at first, but they gradually came around to the idea that there was nothing to be done and so there was no reason to keep panicking about it. It simply was.

If anything, Houston had been more distraught. They were distraught over their inability to help the astronauts a million miles away, drifting peacefully. They felt they had betrayed them somehow by being unable to bring them back home to their families. Sam Burley, deep lines around his eyes, had let out a long sigh before absolving the command center of any guilt.

“It’s just bad luck, fellas,” he had said. “Space shit. Odds are somebody was going to hit something some time”.

It was the other way around in this case. Some kind of debris moving faster than they were had torn through the oxygen and disabled the controls. They had no idea what it could have been. A small meteor? Man-made garbage come back to haunt them? Some kind of alien weapon? The latter would have been exciting, at least.

All they knew, this crew of three, was that they were stuck on a ship pointed towards the vast nothingness of space with no way to turn back home. The oxygen was limited, the heat was failing, and contact with Houston was spotty at best.

The captain, Burley, asked that his wife and children be told he loved them. The mission specialist, Anthony Palumbo sent his love back to his siblings and nephew. James Ryman simply wanted the control team to get rip-roaring drunk in his honor.

“Shoot for the stars,” he said, “has a new meaning now. Try to vomit in the shape of Orion’s Belt. Or the Milky Way. I’ll be happy with Polaris if it’s all you can muster.”

His request was met with laughter, distracting everyone from the tears streaming down their faces. They said a few more goodbyes and then shut off contact. The astronauts settled in and waited to die. There was some comfort, anyway, that they wouldn’t have to go alone.

“I hate space food,” Palumbo finally said, breaking a silence that had lasted nearly an hour. “We put men on the moon, sent a satellite on an accurate nine year trip to the edge of our galaxy, but we still can’t figure out how to make space food not taste like dog shit.”

“You’re still chewing on that jerky, though,” said Burley.

“Well, yeah. I’m not exactly spoiled for choices when it comes to a last meal.”

Palumbo sighed and leaned his head back against the hull. They had strapped themselves in for bed and were now huddling into as many blankets and clothes as they could muster. It didn’t help much.

“There is one thing I’ve been wondering,” he said. “It’s a bit personal, though.”

“Might as well ask,” Ryman said.

“What about your wife, Jim? Why didn’t you tell Houston to send her a message?”

“Ah, they’ll probably give her one anyway. ‘James wanted you to know he would always love you. He died a hero, doing hero’s work, definitely not suffocating in a giant can. The nation is proud.’ Something like that.”

“But what if they don’t?” Burley asked.

The other two astronauts were unsure if Ryman would answer. When he did, he opened his eyes to look at both of them.

“About a week before liftoff, my wife asked me for a divorce. I say asked. She demanded. Hired some movers to pack all my shit into a storage unit she took out for three months.”

“Jesus,” Burley said softly.

“Ah, man. Jim…”

“The last time I saw her, I wept. I’m not really proud of that, but I didn’t know anything was wrong. We fought, but couples fight. You know? I was excited for this mission. Excited to go into space. I thought she’d be excited for me. With me.” Ryman shook his head. “Anyway, the way I figure it, maybe Houston will just tell her I wasn’t going to make it back and she’d feel guilty. Lord knows, I told her I loved her plenty of times over the years. She knew it. Maybe not hearing it again would make her remember how she used to love me.”

“Sorry we threw you such a shitty bachelor party,” Burley said.

Ryman barked out a laugh. “Does that mean you didn’t smuggle any strippers on board, Captain?”

“Or booze?” Palumbo asked hopefully.

“‘Fraid not, boys. Just us. One last ride.”

The ship went quiet again at that. Outside, the vast emptiness of space felt heavy against the hull. There were incredible sights out there, amazing, beautiful, terrifying things. The majority of space, though, was just cold and blank, and here they were just…coasting through it.

“Heh,” Palumbo said.

“What’s funny?” Ryman asked.

“You won’t find it funny.”

“I won’t?”

“Well, you might. I don’t know.”

Ryman rolled his eyes. “Just tell me, man.”

“Come on, Tony,” said Burley.

“Alright, alright.” Palumbo cleared his voice and started singing softly. ” She packed my bags last night pre flight. Zero hour nine a.m. And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then.”

“Oh, you bastard,” Ryman laughed. “I miss the earth so much. I miss my wife. It’s lonely out in space on such a timeless flight.”

“Might as well join in,” Burley muttered. “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time.”

“God, that falsetto,” Palumbo said, wincing. Burley continued on undeterred.

“Till touch down brings me round again to find I’m not the man they think I am at home, oh, no, no. Come on boys!”

They raised their voices in unison and sang, “I’m a rocket man! Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone!”

They all burst out laughing and settled further down into their makeshift beds. The air was getting thinner. They hadn’t done themselves any favors by using it to belt out lyrics. That was okay. Why drag it out?

“Ah, man,” Burley said softly. “You think they’ll name anything after us?”

“They’ll probably name a guilt trip after Jim.”

“Oh, go to hell. If you had a wife, you’d have done the same thing.”

“Maybe. Jim! You should have asked Houston to relay a cryptic riddle to your wife and set her off on a treasure hunt.”

“A treasure hunt to what?”

“Who cares? Something dumb. The landfill. Fuck her. She left you.”

Ryman considered that. “I should have. Dammit, Tony.”

Sam Burley chuckled. His head was growing light. “What do you think this thing will hit first? An asteroid, a planet, or a star?”

“I’m hoping Venus,” Anthony Palumbo said. His breathing was growing shallow.

“We’re going the wrong way.”

“Saturn, then.”

James Ryman smiled. “It’s been an honor, gentlemen.” He leaned his head back against the hull and closed his eyes.

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