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Frail Orbits

I didn’t sleep well. Pressing crowds of people dominated my dreams and nightmares. The noise of the crush of hundreds of thousands drifting up from the streets below our windows colored what little sleep I did get.

Daytime now, and I stumble through my routines, breathing easier now that everyone hides from an almost pathological fear of skin cancer. The only sounds from the streets are machinery and vehicles, all far away.

The sun’s rays drift through the blinds, casting harsh lines on the hardwood floor. Dust raised by my sweeping floats through the light, thousands and millions of motes all orbiting each other, fashioning rough ellipses as they slowly circle to the floor, gravity wrestling them to earth, or spiraling crazily upwards with unseen currents of air.

I stick the broom under an old radiator, pull some king-size dust bunnies out, then lean the handle against the wall and limp over to the table where the others are gathered. Jason eases his wheelchair over a little, giving me room to pull the old kitchen chair up to watch the game. Hearts, a game I learned to hate a long time ago and very far away.

I sit and rest my knees, only half paying attention to the game in progress. My eyes dance from cards to the rest of the room, wondering at the stark brevity of this place where old wood has replaced the steel and plastic and ceramic of years gone by, this new home for the five of us. Old boxing ring in the middle, ropes long gone and mat torn and tattered. Two old wooden benches sitting on the scarred floor, a three-legged stool lying near one of the benches. A water fountain that no longer works.

On the other side of the ring, five beds—cots, really—with curtains hung between them to give some sense of privacy, as though a room this large could not afford any one of us the space we had come to crave, but still give us the company we cannot live without.

Behind me, a small kitchen; microwave, gas-powered fridge, ancient toaster oven, a sink and a few cupboards. Beside it, the door that leads to the showers and toilets and rusted-out lockers. I often find myself spending time in there, taking in the smells. I have yet to admit it to the others, but it sparks a certain something in my memory, being in there. I suspect it is the same for the others. Why else would we be here, together, after so many years, but for memory?


I turn my head, join in the laughter as Tom rakes in the Black Bitch. A quick look at the score sheet shows that he was winning, but the thirteen points will put him behind Peter.

Around the table. Beside me is Jason, the oldest of us. His wheelchair is powered, but not smart. Luckily, the arthritis has not too severely affected his right hand, so he is able to steer himself, and play cards, without help.

Next on the right is Peter, cane hanging from the back of his chair, patch covering his left eye. Scars peek around the edges of the patch, remnants of the accident that took his eye and killed three of our comrades.

Beside Peter is Tom, next to me the youngest. He inherited this old boxing club from his uncle, set it up to live in and invited the rest of us when it became obvious we’d been forgotten. He still walks okay, and so far his hands have escaped the withering. I’ve seen him, though, sometimes, when he thinks no one is watching. How he’ll stumble, just a bit, or lean on a counter and grimace, sweat on his forehead breaking out like condensation on a face-plate.

To my left is Alex, the other one with a wheelchair. His has a powerful chip running it, though, so he only needs to talk to it to get it to do what he wants. But his hands work fine, which is good since he is by far the best cook among us.

I’m Randall, the youngest, still moderately spry at fifty-eight. Sure, my knees are starting to ache with too much work, but my family has had a history of joint problems. This was expected, and only barely hastened along. And so far my hands and back give me little trouble.

Alex takes a quick sip of whiskey and taps my forearm. “Go look out the window, will ya? I’m getting antsy waiting for him to show up.”

Old habits die hard. Alex gives an order, I jump to obey. Well, I slowly get out of my chair and shuffle over to the window, but the idea is the same. I do not hesitate, do not question. Alex gave an order that saved my life once, and it has remained difficult to see him in any light other than that of superior.

The street outside is still quiet, bare. The people in this area have no reason to go out in the day, no jobs to go to, no one worth the risk to visit. But there are many people near us, surrounding us. This I do know. The city is congested, crowded beyond belief, thousands flooding in each day as they run from one disaster or another, swelling the numbers to millions and millions.

My first night here I sat and watched as they came out at dusk, setting up small booths on the street, a market taking shape before my eyes. People; men, women, children, pressing in on each other, elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder. The noise carried to the window, barking, hawking, yelling, arguing, laughing. No room, no space between them.

Tom had seen me and come over, closed the blinds, put his hand on my elbow and steered me to one of the wooden benches, sat me there and left me alone. So did the others, for the whole night. I just sat there, hearing the noise, thinking about the crush. I imagine the others must have gone through this, one at a time, as each moved in, although we don’t talk about it.

During the day, though, it’s safe. No people, no noise except the rumble of anonymous distant machinery, a comfortable sound for all of us. A sound that proves things are still running, that there’s been no breakdown.

I walk back. “Nothing, Alex. Still plenty of time, don’t you think?”

Tom snorts. “Sonuvabitch always thinks there’s plenty of time. Drag his heels at his wife’s death bed, he will.”

Alex fixes Tom with a cold stare, the rest of us looking downward ever so briefly. After a second, Tom mumbles “Sorry” and we all turn our attention back to the game.

“You in this hand, Randall?”

I smile. “No thanks, Jason. Not interested.”

Peter guffaws. “You’d think after twenty-five years you’d get over being sick of this game, Randall. Sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Everyone laughs, even me. They can bug me all they want, but each one of us has more than one strange habit left over.

Another hand is dealt, they pass across this time. “What do you think he’ll be like?” asks Peter.

“Hard to say. You’ve seen him on the news, looking pretty fucking spry, standing with the President and all the other politicians.” He almost spits the word. “I imagine still working for the government, they’ve managed to give him the best medical care that we all missed.” Tom plays the two of spades.

We all nod, not bitter about his luck, understanding that he was touched by God since he’d first been selected. Understanding that the touch had become a caress after the accident, after our return.

Jason takes the first two hearts, swallows the last of his beer and opens another bottle. “Shitheads,” he mumbles, but with a smile on his face. Five years of this, holed up together and playing this stupid game, swearing and bitching at each other. But all still friends.

I turn my head, watch the broom for a moment. It seems to be calling to me. After a few seconds that pass for thought I get up and make my way back to the broom, start pushing the dust around again. As I push and sweep, I listen to the conversation that follows the cards.

“Why do you figure he wants to see us?”

“Fuck if I know.”

“Jack takes it. Who played the jack?”

“Maybe they’re starting the program again.”

“Ha! With what? Even if they do, what would they want with a bunch of sorry old cripples like us?”

“Fuck! I was going for power!” Laughter.

I stop sweeping, turn to them. “Maybe he’s coming to apologize for them.”

That stops them cold. I can feel my heart sinking, butterflies in my stomach, at the idea. I didn’t stop to think before I spoke, just said it.

Jason puts down his cards, backs away from the table and glides up to a window. I limp over and open the blinds so he can have a peek outside. “Too late to say sorry, don’t you think? Quarter-century after a so-called minor design flaw kills three of us, sends the rest of us on the slow boat, fucks us over and leaves us all shriveling up.” He bites his lower lip; I’m the only one that sees it quiver. I look away.

“Jason’s right,” says Peter. “Too late. Too fucking late. I’ll take their money, if they suddenly decide they can afford us, but I won’t take their apologies.”

The others push their cards away. The game is obviously over.

I finish sweeping the floor, push the dust and dirt into a pile, then slowly crouch down and sweep it onto a dust pan. What I miss I push back under the radiator, after standing back up. Too much effort to stay crouched down for too long. Besides, we all feel at home with some dust.

Tom’s notepad beeps. He gets up and saunters over as casually as possible, answers it. I strain my ears to try and listen in, but the sound is too small, too far away.

He disconnects, puts the thing down and turns to face us. “He’s canceling for today, says he couldn’t get a flight out of Denver until too late. Says he’ll be here tomorrow morning.”

Silence for a moment, then I say, “You mean I cleaned up for nothing?”

We all laugh, like I knew we would.

I dream the dream again. A giant anvil pressing on my chest, the pressure that makes me sweat, that pushes at bowels and kidneys I had thought empty, and then the release, the freedom that feels so glorious, proved so harmful.

The transition is sudden, me standing with eight others on barren wastelands, breathing my own air, my own body odors, sharing them with no one else. The red and orange dirt and rocks, the sky a pale pink, the sun cold and unblinking near the horizon, smaller than it has any right to be.

I look to my companions, note with surprise that there is an extra one, not wearing a helmet, but I can not see his face, and although I can’t see through their face-plates, I can somehow see that three of my other companions are nothing but skeletons beneath the layers of protective clothing, bones shattered but still standing in this light gravity. I turn to warn the others, and am shocked at how stooped, how old they look. Two have fallen to the ground, pulling themselves along with their arms.

We rise then, nine of us in front, the mysterious faceless one following behind, like many space-suited versions of Icarus flying towards the sun, a star suddenly much closer and brighter then it should be. It flares brighter, and I hide my eyes, dip my head in fear and deference, feeling cowardly but knowing that fear will save my life. The star flares around us, expands, then turns into arrows of light, throwing the three skeletons spiraling away, smashing the face-plate of another.

And then the release and freedom that had felt so glorious, now only ominous and frightening. Rats with helmets and air supplies continually gnawing at our joints. Small, sad-looking men approaching us and removing marrow with large, animate, cartoon needles.

And all the while, a deck of playing cards floats through the air in front of my eyes, the Black Bitch sneering at me as she wheels by, and hundreds of voices murmur in the background, a pressing choir of humanity.

I wake up sore, as usual. I’ve slept on my arm funny, my knees ache more now than they will later. Sweat is pooled on my sheets, the air too humid by far. I can hear Jason’s chair buzzing around in the kitchen. He always wakes up first, spends the half-hour or more needed to get into his chair without help.

I slowly stand, then when I don’t feel ready to tumble over I walk over to the kitchen, wearing my boxers and nothing else. A curt nod to Jason, I pour a cup of coffee, take a sip, then wander to the bathroom and pee. When I come back out Peter is just trudging across the floor to use the head. Everyone else is starting to move, decades of discipline overriding years of pain.

Alex comes buzzing in after his trip to the head, starts getting out pots and pans, ordering me and anyone else nearby out of the way. “Potato pancakes today,” he announces, and we all scatter to let him have the peace and space he needs, knowing we’ll soon be full to bursting, Alex wanting to put on a good show for our visitor, even though he is not here.

More cleaning up, we all get dressed, then eat. Everyone is quiet, this time of day. The pains are at their worst first thing in the morning, each of us concentrating on keeping them down, small, out of the way. Chewing, clanking of cutlery on plates, the odd sniffle or crack of a joint, these are the major instruments of our opening soundtrack.

A car door slams. Out of place, that sound. Nobody drives anymore.

We stare at each other for a second, maybe two, then jump into action.

“Shit! He’s here!”

“Get the plates.”

“Randall, fix the beds.”

“Get a chair ready for him.”

“Drinks! We got any cold beer?”

“Beer? It’s six-fucking-A.M. Even I wait until nine.”

“Oh yeah.” Laughter.

“Why the hell didn’t he call first?”

“Too late now.”

A rap on the door. “Yeah!” shouts Tom. Wilson, the kid that Tom lets live on the bottom floor in exchange for doing errands for us, pokes his head in, speaks that strange language of the street. “Man d’stairs sayee gonna be see ya. Leminear?”

Tom nods. “Thanks, Wilson. Yeah, let him in.”

We all line up, like we’re there to shake his hands when he was first introduced to us, the man, chosen by the powers that be to show us the way to glory and history, to pull our suffering nation out of the hole it had fallen into and lead us all back to stage center.

The man, who despite all that happened, is still the one who holds sway over all of our lives, who is now back and maybe even riding the top, perhaps the crest of a new wave.

He walks in, and I can tell, can feel that we all sag a little.

A small, distant whine, tell-tale sign of small servo-motors operating a lightweight exoskeleton. A fanny pack, carrying a power supply and gyroscope. Hair thinning like a radiation victim’s, not at all like the thick mane of white hair we have seen on the news. Hands palsied, covered with liver spots.

“Jesus,” whispers Peter.

That and the blood rushing through my head are the only sounds I hear for several seconds, and then he moves forward again, awkward motions reminding us with every step what grace and dignity and power seem to have been lost. Then Alex glides his chair forwards and extends his hand. “Sir. It is good to see you again.”

“Thank you, Alex. The same to you.” His smile and voice are still the same, and we all step forward now, take turns greeting him, basking in the individual attention that he is able to turn on each of us, even if only for so brief a moment.

And then we find ourselves sitting around the table, Tom bringing coffee over for us, sitting and just catching up, reminiscing about training, about this scientist or that team member, remembering family and friends no longer with us, even those who left by choice. And it’s funny, we feel so good about these things, even the painful memories, because he is there and he is sharing all of it with us, and he is telling us about some of the bad things that happened to him, proving he is a leader right to the end.

But then he tells us why he’s there, and it all comes crashing down.

“The President wants to get the program up and running again,” he says. His smile is huge, fierce-looking. His eyes glare with an intensity and a sheen of fanaticism that I recognize, although I would never have given it that name before.

Everyone shuts up, and now it is quieter than when we first saw him. Eyes are downcast now, at least mine, but I’m sure the others are as uncomfortable as I am. I can’t bear the thought of meeting his eyes right now.

He lets the silence go for a few more seconds, and then says, “The Pakistanis and the Turks have offered their help. They supply the booster and some of the crew, all we have to do is use one of the surplus vehicles sitting in the VAB, truck it up in four or five jaunts and have it fit together.”

Still, silence reigns. We all stare at him. I feel my insides begin to churn, but I know I look very calm outside.

He looks around at all of us, meeting each pair of eyes for just a second. When he looks to me I realize with shock that he is taking our silence as approval, perhaps even worship. But then, that isn’t so surprising.

He continues. “We, the President and I, need your help. Congress and the Senate will have to be swayed, the media, and through it the people, will have to be convinced. We all have a certain . . . cache with different aspects of the population, and certainly with some very important members of the government.”

He pauses, takes a sip of his coffee. I watch him grimace, realize that he is probably used to better, much better, but that he drinks it to prove he is one of us.

As soon as that thought comes to my mind I shake my head. How can I be thinking so ill of him so easily? This is the man who I trusted with my life, and who accepted that trust and saved that life! But still, but still . . .

“Of course,” he says, “the Turks and the Pakistanis will want to be a part of any mission. This is proving to be a sore point with several members of Congress, but it can’t be helped.” He shrugs, a move I recognize as being calculated to be disarming. We still remain silent.

“The central point of the mission will be to reestablish America’s prominence in the exploration of space, of course. The intent is to take one of the Mars vehicles, probably the Kennedy, and go to the moon. Use the bulk of the ship to carry enough supplies to set up a more-or-less permanent base. As you know, even the current space-faring nations haven’t done much more beyond orbital factories.

“The Turks have offered us space on their low-orbital, something we can lease to get back to basics, do some fairly basic mission training and the like. We would, of course, also have to rent their shuttle. But the consultants loaned to us by Rand and Microsoft have assured us that in the end it will all be cost-effective.”

Jason finally breaks our silence. “What is it you want us to do?” His voice sounds tight, constricted.

“Why, make appearances, course. Shake hands with politicians and civilians, smile for the cameras. Remind people of the glory this nation and its space program once had.”

“Glory!?” Peter practically roars the word, slamming his cane hard on the edge of the table. We all flinch. All of us. “You call what happened to us glory? I lost three of my best friends out there, as well as half my sight. We, all of us, even you, lost so much of the strength in our bones from floating almost aimlessly for five fucking years until the Chinese, the Chinese, managed to get a rescue mission to us! What the fuck have the Chinese done lately, anyway, besides fall in on themselves in chaos and starvation?”

He holds up his hand to stave off interruption, then waves it around to take in our surroundings. “And what about this? I sure as hell don’t see any glory here! Fucking agency and fucking government use us up, spit us out, give us a pension that barely gets any one of us by. Civilians don’t want to hear jack shit about us, they got enough of their own worries, giant hole in the ozone, that shit they call air to breathe! Money and population problems like we never even dreamed about!

“And then we hear that you got it good, that the President listens to you, values your advice. You got nice suits, enough food to eat, a comfortable place to live. And man,” Peter leans forward, almost hisses this part, “I envy the fact that there are people out there who care enough to listen to what you say. Me, I got a sorry bunch of broken-down ex-astronauts who run to hide in a corner first chance they get to keep from going nuts, surrounded by more people than any one of us can handle. Not that I fucking blame them. I just thank God that your body is as screwed up as everyone else’s. I couldn’t have handled you being perfect there, too.”

We are all deathly silent for a moment, me from shock. Then Peter gets up and starts to hobble away from the table. Jason wheels his chair away as well.

“Wait! Please.” We all turn and look in shock, never having heard the word please from his mouth before.

He’s standing now, leaning on the table and sweat beading on his forehead, looking at Peter and Jason, fear and anger seeming to intermingle on his face. He breathes deeply for a few seconds, and then speaks again.

“There will be room for you, for me . . . all of us.”

Silence for a moment.

And then, “What do you mean by room?” I ask.

Now he looks at me, stares into my eyes with that intense look that I would once have died for. “Room, Randall. First, get you all out of here, get you set up with the best possible medical care, then get you on the road and selling this thing. Then, if this is fast-tracked as easily as we think it might be, there would be room for us on the third flight, at latest the fourth.” He stops speaking and sits back down, looking very satisfied now.

It hits me, suddenly, what he means. I’m almost sick to my stomach, the excitement at the possibility, the terror of being lied to once again.

Alex pinches the bridge of his nose between two fingers, rubs his eyes in exhaustion. “For real?”

“For real. No one else has the background, a selling point even considering our ages. Of course, the work we’d be given would be minimal compared to what it was the last time out, but just think. No more pain because of gravity, no more fear because of crowds.”

“Jesus,” I whisper. I look up to the ceiling, imagining.

Again there is silence, and then Tom says, very calmly, “Fuck you. And fuck the President, too. I’ve been yanked around enough to know when the rope is being pulled tight again. I think I’ll take my chances here, rather than get crapped on all over again.”

I gape at Tom, and then see with surprise that Jason has turned and is wheeling his chair away again. “Same goes for me,” he calls over his shoulder. “I’ll take my chances with what I know, this time.” Jason and his chair disappear into the old locker room, Tom behind the screen to his cot.

He looks helplessly at their backs. I can tell that he wants to say something. A look crosses his face and I think, I know, that he wants to order them back. But he stops himself, lowers his head and looks at his gnarled hands, clenched into fists and leaning on the table.

“We . . . you have all suffered intense pain because of what happened to the program. Peter.” He raises his head and fixes Peter with the look. “Peter, I’m so sorry about Liz. I wanted to come to the funeral, but they had me sequestered in a hospital, trying to stem the tide.”

Tears well up in Peter’s eyes, but he fights them down. Liz died fifteen years ago, killed herself because she, like all our wives, couldn’t handle being married to a fucked-up alcoholic former astronaut. But she had chosen a more permanent way to forget.

“I hate to dredge up old pain like that, Peter. I just, I just want you all to know that I never did forget about you. That I haven’t spent these years ignoring you and trying to shut you all out.” He takes a breath, and I watch with awe and fear as his jaw trembles. “I knew that there was only one way for me to help you all. But it took so God damn long to get there.”

He looks to the curtains where Tom and Jason have gone. “I wish they could know.” Then he turns away.

Servos whine, the exoskeleton helping him walk to the door. He stops halfway and looks at us, sadness in his eyes. “We were a team, even a family. I am sorry for all that’s happened to you,” he looks around the room, “but what has happened means I can only help you now. And only if you can help me.” He turns again and shuffles out the door.

We are still for a moment, and then Peter hobbles over to the door as quickly as his cane and bad knees will let him. He pauses as if in thought, then turns and looks at me, then Alex. He is afraid and sad, I can see it so clearly. And then he follows out the door.

Alex tips his head down, chin almost resting on his chest, eyes closed tight, and then he doesn’t move.

And me. God help me, I don’t know what to do. I walk over to the window, dragging my chair behind me, and sit, waiting.

Perhaps when the crowds come out tonight. Maybe then I’ll know.

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