Constellation

by Lewayne L. White


Watching the world end was a lot like watching a string of firecrackers go off. There was the initial flash of a lit fuse, then the sequential bursts of fire as the chain explodes, one blast at a time, dancing across the surface of the once blue-green ball of Earth.

In the end, with firecrackers, there’s nothing left but the smoky haze in the air, the stink of the powder, and the ash being carried away by the wind.

From our perspective, orbiting the earth, there was no haze, no stink, and no ash.

Our air is recycled, purified, and with the help of some genetically altered plants, perpetual. At least as long as we feed and water the plants, and occasionally play classical music for them.

But, I digress.

I had a front row seat... Well, as front row as you can get when you’re in a space station, looking down as the once-fertile rock you came from is consumed by radioactive fire.

We’ll probably never know what idiot destroyed the human race. Which nation or individual triggered the cataclysm that mankind has feared since first recognizing mortality.

It probably doesn’t even matter.

How can you punish someone who was incinerated in the same blaze that took your spouse, your children, everyone you ever knew and loved?

Or hated...

I suppose that I can comfort myself with the knowledge that the quack shrink that nearly got me pulled from the mission is gone.

Issues with authority, my ass.

Bill Hallen and his annoying wife, Madge, won’t be sending that stupid yappy dog onto my lawn to do its business anymore. That little house rat is in doggy hell, being piddled on by fire hydrants, and bitten by postal carriers if there’s any justice.

Mort Jessup, the thieving car salesman that sold us that lemon is toast. He can fry right along with his crooked mechanic, Luke Bird.

Maybe this isn’t so bad.

John Burney, the attorney that tried to screw Katie after she divorced her first husband. He’s gone, too.

So’s the wife-beating ex-husband

Katie and Kyle...

That hurts.

But, every time I went up, I knew there was a chance I’d never see my wife and son again. I think I was used to the idea.

I just figured it’d be me that died.

Instead, I’m the one who’s still alive, along with the other six crew members of space station Constellation.

Space station Constellation.

What idiot came up with that name?

Guess it doesn’t matter, because he’s toast, too.

This is kind of fun.

Who else...

That Comp. teacher my senior year...

Toast.

The president. Hell, the entire government...

Poof. Gone.

The endless war on terror...

Zap. Ended.

No letter from the IRS when I don’t pay taxes this year.

No, they probably survived, like the cockroaches.

Oh, well...

“Hey, anybody in Command?” I say into the air, as I click on my chest mike.

There’s a long pause, then Denise Wallace answers, “Hal, did you see it?”

“Yeah.”

I heard a tremble in her voice as she said, “They’re all gone aren’t they?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Everybody but you, me, and the five other castaways.”

“Like Gilligan’s Island,” she replied. Then she actually giggled before coughing to cover it.

“So which one are you? Mary Ann or Ginger?”

“She’s Mary Ann,” said the gravel-rough voice of Gerard Delphi, the station commander. “Carrie Holt’s Ginger.”

“I suppose that makes me Mrs. Howell,” chimed in Felice Devereaux, second in command.

Wallace replied, “No, Wilson’s Mrs. Howell. He’s prissy enough.” She giggled again, and didn’t try to cover it this time. “No, wait. He’s the professor, isn’t he?”

For a second, her giggle infected the four of us, and we each began to laugh.

Not heartily.

No huge guffaws.

Just the wobbly sound of someone who’d hit that last straw.

“Hey, guys,” I broke in. “I’ve been thinking about what just happened.”

“Yeah,” replied Delphi. “Who hasn’t?”

“You realize that our families are all dead.”

After a long pause, Devereaux replied, “Thanks for killing the mood.”

“But,” I said, “So is every S.O.B. you’ve ever met in your life.”

After another long pause, Wallace clicked on. “My step-dad’s gone, rotting in hell where he belongs. So’s my husband, and his bimbo.”

Devereaux added, “My brother, his druggie tramp, and their crotch-sniffing Rottweiler.”

Then she giggled like a school girl. It was a sound I never would have expected from a woman as straight-laced and by the numbers as Felice Devereaux.

Wallace said, “How about that guy, Pilcher, in Mission Control?”

In a falsetto whine, Delphi said, “Gee, I wish I could go with you, Commander Delphi.”

“Could you imagine what that’d be like?” I asked. “Pilcher on the Constellation would be like the beginning of a bad joke.”

“He actually hit on me once,” Devereaux added. “I told him, maybe if he was the last man on Earth.”

“Almost had to make good on that one,” I said.

We all had a good manic laugh at the expense of poor dead Pilcher.

After a few moments, Delphi said with the reluctant, but authoritative, voice of a father who realizes he’s supposed to set an example, “We should probably figure out what we’re going to do next.”

We agreed, and collected a short time later in the Constellation’s staff room. It’s a long cylinder with a single table in the center and galley access along one wall. Like the rest of the station, the decor is a mixture of grey and white synthetics and gleaming chrome.

It’s sort of sad that the last refuge of mankind looks like a cross between the Starship Enterprise and an antiquated Russian sub.

Delphi sat at the head of the table. Devereaux at the opposite end. Both held digital inventories of every single item aboard the Constellation.

Between them, on one side, sat Denise Wallace, myself, and Benito Santiago. Harold Wilson sat across from me. Carrie Holt sat across from Santiago.

Most of us held mugs of coffee laced with some of Delphi’s contraband Scotch. The bottle itself sat in the center of the table, within easy reach if we needed fortification.

Santiago had regular coffee with cream and sugar and gripped the mug with hands as steady as stone.

Wilson fidgeted with his water, his trembling hands causing the cup to make tiny clinking sounds whenever it bumped the table.

“Well ladies and gentlemen,” Delphi began. “It appears that we are on our own. All attempts to contact the Earth have proved useless, either because of interruption by the EM pulse of-”

“It’s because there’s no one left,” interrupted Wilson, his voice creeping into higher ranges with each word. “There’s no communication because there’s no one there to hear it.”

“We don’t know that,” snapped Holt, openly revealing a southern twang she usually tried to conceal. “Maybe they just can’t reach us.”

“There is no one left,” replied Santiago, in a bass that deserved to be on stage. “No one we can help, nor anyone who could help us.”

Holt thrust a finger toward Santiago. “You don’t know that!”

“I was in contact with Mission Control when it happened,” he said, voice mellow and soothing. “I’ve been attempting to re-establish communication since then. There is no one we can establish contact with.”

“That doesn’t mean there’s no one alive down there,” Holt snapped.

“Everybody calm down,” barked Delphi.

Wilson ducked his head and sipped his water.

Wallace sighed. “Even if they’re alive, they can’t get us back home. This isn’t Star Trek. We can’t beam down.”

Holt glared at everyone.

“The fact,” continued Delphi, “is that the entire surface of the Earth has been scoured by nuclear explosions. Every scanner we have indicates that there is no one.”

Holt started to open her mouth. A glance from Devereaux closed it.

“With our solar cells, we’ve got oxygen, power, and gravity indefinitely,” Devereaux began.

“Unless the sun burns out,” I interrupted.

Wilson’s eyes caught mine, and I saw absolute terror.

“Jesus, Willie. I’m just kidding.”

Holt pointed a long slender finger at me. “This is no time for jokes, you bastard.”

“Sure it is,” I replied. “The entire world just lit up like a Roman candle. We’re probably the only living things within a million light years.”

“Don’t forget the plants,” Wallace said.

“Right. We’re the only living things,” I glanced at Wallace, “other than the plants, within a million light years. Everyone we’ve ever loved is dead.”

Holt glared directly at me, now.

“You’re right, Delphi. She’s Ginger. The red hair, the flashing eyes, the beauty mark. She’s the total Ginger package.”

Holt blinked. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Gilligan’s Island,” replied Wallace.

“Gilligan’s...” She leapt to her feet and leaned across the table. “Are you all mental?”

I shrugged. “Maybe. But, why shouldn’t we be?”

“Because... Because...”

Holt sat down, clearly steamed, but unable to articulate it.

“Exactly. We are the human race. We’re all there is. We can be whatever we want, do whatever we want. Isn’t that at least a little cool?”

Holt’s lip trembled. “I... We...”

I shook my head. “Jesus Christ, Holt. Our entire lives, we heard about some nuclear "threat" around the corner. But, it’s always been so vague and ill-defined that it’s never seemed real.”

Holt nodded slightly.

“Now that it’s real, it’s hard for me to take it seriously. If I do take it seriously, I’m going to completely lose my mind. Retreating into madness won’t help us survive.”

A single large tear slid away from Holt’s eye.

I looked down at the bright shiny new wedding ring on her finger.

“Let me take some of the sting away,” I said. “You remember Pilcher?”

Her nostrils flared. “I remember.”

“He’s dead. So’s that... What’s his name? With the little chain on his bifocals?”

“Port,” replied Santiago. “Gary Port. Collected Trolls.”

Holt blinked. “Those little naked things with the bushy hair?”

Santiago nodded. “Heard him trying to impress some tech with the size of his collection. She told him that if she wanted to see a naked hairy guy, she’d have stayed with her husband.”

Holt coughed a few times, and took a swig of her coffee. As soon as she placed the mug back on the table, I refilled it from Delphi’s bottle.

“We need to stop worrying about the Earth,” I said. “It’s not part of the equation anymore.”

“The equation is s-s-s-seven plus one,” muttered Wilson. “Seven astronauts, plus one s-s-space station.” He giggled for a second, glanced around, then ducked his head and sipped at his water.

Devereaux and Delphi exchanged glances, clearly concerned about Wilson.

“Hey, Willie,” I said.

Wilson glanced up at me.

“You got anyone you don’t like? Someone you really can’t stand?”

Wilson blinked a few times, then said. “M-m-my room-mate, Geoff. He always leaves his t-t-toenail clippings on the coffee table.”

After a pause, he added, “I really hate that.”

“Well, you know what, Willie?” I said calmly. “Geoff will never leave a clipping on your coffee table again.”

“I d-d-don’t have a coffee table any more,” Wilson replied. Then, his lip twitched upward for a second.

Wallace blinked. “Did you just make a funny?”

Wilson’s lip twitched again, then he smiled fully.

“I g-g-guess I did.”

“Better?” I asked.

“No,” he replied. “But I stopped shaking.”

He had. His cup no longer skipped around on the table top.

Wallace tipped Delphi’s bottle toward him. “You want a shot?”

Wilson shook his head, then nodded and extended his hand toward her.

After Wallace topped off his cup, Wilson raised it tentatively to his lips. He took a sip, and scrunched up his face.

Devereaux raised an eyebrow. “You’ve never had Scotch before?”

Wilson shook his head. “I was a math prodigy,” he replied. “I never did anything before. Just numbers, numbers, numbers. Willie figure this. Willie figure that. Willie, what’s the square root of 25,659?”

“What is the square root of 25,659?” I asked.

“160.184,” he replied without missing a beat. His lip twitched slightly again. “Guess I can’t escape it, even at the end of the world.”

Wallace shrugged. “Well, we can make that a new law. Willie cannot be required to perform mathematical calculation without a specific and necessary purpose.”

Wilson’s lip twitched again. “I think we have more important issues.”

“Indeed we do,” Delphi said, before anyone else led the conversation any further astray. “Let’s start with supplies.”

We then discussed how much food we had...

Enough to get by, as long as none of us were gluttons, and didn’t mind eventually going vegetarian.

Chances of getting back to Earth... About zero, though we did discuss the possibility of using the stabilizer jets to leave orbit.

However, burning up in the atmosphere and plummeting uncontrollably to the ground seemed a bad idea. Drifting aimlessly in space further away from Earth’s orbit wasn’t much better.

We finally fell to rules, regulations, and the rest of the pretensions of civilized society...

We agreed to go on about business with the same chain of command we currently used. It seemed the most stable, and, as a souvenir of Earth, sort of comforting.

Besides, I could always stage a coup later if I didn’t care for the current regime.

Just kidding...

Probably...

Finally, Delphi closed the official meeting by leaning forward, and resting his elbows on the tabletop. “Well, ladies and gentlemen. This should take care of any immediate issues we have in our current situation. The next few days will determine a lot about our future. We’ll just do the best we can.”

We all gave vague assent.

“Now, I suggest we all try to get some sleep.”

More vague assent, emptying of Delphi’s bottle, then somber silence.

Eventually we all drifted our separate ways.

Rather than return to my cabin, I wandered out to what is officially known as the “Observation Deck,” though it’s most often referred to as “The Fishbowl.”

The Fishbowl is, as its name suggests, a giant transparent globe. It is dimly lighted, and meant to be relaxing.

However, the floor is also transparent which has a dual effect. It allows you to see stars below you, creating the illusion of floating in space while seated on a stiff, uncomfortable couch. And, it causes the worst vertigo imaginable, if you’re not prepared for the illusion of floating in space on a stiff, uncomfortable couch.

Still holding my coffee mug, I sat on one of the aforementioned couches, and stared out at the winking, glittery universe.

Andromeda chained in space, awaited her hero, Perseus.

Cygnus, the swan, flew through the eternal night.

Orion hunted the vastness of space.

The creatures of the Zodiac danced across the sky on their wheel of fate. The total destinies under their power now reduced to seven.

The siren call of those shining points in the night had drawn me to them since my childhood. For as long as I can remember, I dreamed of leaving the Earth and living among the stars.

Now, I had been granted my wish.

I was to live forever among the stars...

and all I wanted to do was return to Earth...

Katie.

Kyle.

I stood and heaved my coffee cup toward the flickering distant lights. The cup ricocheted off the triple thick material of the windows, and skittered away with a flat metallic stutter.

I leaned my head against the cool window, and felt a tear slip away from my eye, then another. I slowly slid to the floor, coming to rest on my knees.

The tears flowed more freely, and I considered how nice it would be to just stay there, slumped on the floor, and forget about everything for a while.

Then I considered how easy it would be to pop an airlock and...

An arm slid across my shoulders, and Denise Wallace whispered, “You know you’re going to have to clean up that coffee.”

I wiped at my face. “And if I don’t?”

“You never know. Delphi’s king of all people, now.”

“Long live the king.”

She leaned against me, her head resting on my shoulder. “Finally letting it hurt?”

I might have nodded.

“Let me take some of the sting away,” she said. “You remember that...”


Copyright © 2006 by Lewayne L. White

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