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Day One

posted Mar 18, 2012, 3:48 AM by Gordon Doherty   [ updated Jan 27, 2015, 3:37 AM ]

My eyes hang on the studded porthole: the vast blackness of space glares back in return, judging my form with an austere distaste. I stand moments from stepping out into its infinity.

‘Connor? You good?’ The intercom crackles.

Reality pinches me. ‘I’m good. Just getting psyched.’

‘No worries,’ the intercom replies. ‘Just…when you’re ready.’

            A stutter of nervous laughter escapes my gummy lips, startling me, scraping like fingernails into the tension packed airlock. When you’re ready.

            ‘I’m hearing you,’ I reply. ‘I don’t fancy depressurisation either – it’s not really my thing. I’ll be out there in five.’

            The intercom buzzes with a chuckle. ‘Then there’ll be a cold one waiting for you in here in ten – happy spacewalking!’

The intercom fizzes out and I’m utterly alone again. A wry smile hangs on my face despite the awful stirring in my bowels. I turn to the space-suit, a limp skin, and the glass helmet, like an upturned goldfish bowl, devoid of life: this is the pitiful veneer that is to protect me from the hostile vacuum outside. I see my features ripple in the bevelled surface of the helmet, and then my eyes jump to the engraved nickel nameplate above the suit. Jessica Connor. Sounds like someone I used to know. Someone who used to be a wife and a mother, until bitter fate intervened and left…me. I twist the dulled gold band on my wedding finger and peer out into the blackness again, I can see the distant blue green ball of Earth, and part of me wants to cry out to turn around, to escape the terrifying fragility of being shrouded inside a tiny speck of metal hurtling through the void.            

 From the outset, danger had been our unwanted passenger. As soon as they found oxygen pockets and curious radio pulses emanating from Pluto, a research mission was always on the cards. But it had started badly, and then stumbled onwards and haphazardly upwards. Moments after launch, the emergency oxygen tanks were jettisoned – well it was that or risk a sixty three percent chance of giving the southern states another grim fireworks show. Next, having pierced the atmosphere and broke free of the Earth’s gravity, we had only just dulled the thrusters when bang! Spray from a distant meteor shower, smaller than a handful of driveway pebbles, hammered through the right wing of the shuttle. Luck had proved elusive so far. And now I had drawn the short straw for the repair spacewalk.      

I step forward and lift the suit. This is for real. I’ll be out there; more naked than the day I was born, exposed to the wrath of the universe. I think back to the relentless training mantras, snapping and clicking the suit into place with efficiency and without emotion, my mind playing the slideshow of each buckle to be clipped, each seal to be pressed. But then there is something else – like the flicker of a terrible form coming at you in a darkened room, coming at you fast.

I’ve tried so hard for so long to lose those memories: the wreckage of the yacht; the numb procession of the funeral and the coffins. But so much of me cannot let go of even these terrible snippets for fear of the precious times before that may go with them.

            ‘Be strong,’ I mouth, fixing my gaze on the porthole. With a hiss my helmet locks into place. Now I am the goldfish at the mercy of the dark ocean outside, my respirator heaving rhythmically like breakers on the shore.

            I depress the first button. The airlock is sucked clear of air, sound and reality. Just me and my terror in here. Then I rest my finger on the next pad. Open, it reads. My mind screams no, no, close, get inside, they’ll understand, you’re not ready, don’t do it!

I hit the pad.


            The void yawns before me. A dreadful certainty that I will fall like a stone into its inky depths turns my blood to ice and my skin to fire. Hands instinctively grapple for the airlock rim, heart hammering on the anvil of my ribcage, head quivering, eyes bulging. I’m hanging there, staring into the void. But my eyes see something different, something lost. 

            ‘Why do butterflies have all different spots and colours?’ Kelly mused

            I turned to her, squinting through the peachy afternoon sunlight and catching the sweet scent of honeysuckle. She sat in the long grass with mud on her fingers, a matching shade of chocolate cake on her lips and a painstakingly crafted daisy chain clasping her fiery pigtails. A crimson winged creature sat on her knee, and the pair were motionless, spellbound with each other.

            ‘So that their mums and dads can tell them apart!’ Craig strode up behind her and lifted her from the gingham picnic blanket, bear hugging her. ‘That’s why you have two bright blue eyes and a pretty smile!’           

            ‘Don’t look back,’ I whisper through trembling lips. I close my eyes and wince at the prospect of washing the memory from my mind. But despite the salty tang of tears lacing my lips, I do it.

I let go and step out.

            Like an insignificant particle of morning mist, I’m hanging here – I haven’t moved even an inch from where my step ends. The rim of the shuttle fills the periphery of my vision, cradles me. But nothing above, below or in front. I twist to look down at the charred wing. An icy calm stills my heart – my mind wiped of emotion. I press my thumbs onto the booster control. Drifting forward, the blackness offers no resistance as I float into its jaws, and land like a cherry blossom on the pockmarked surface.

            I pull the repair kit from my leg strap, again the training mantras fill my thoughts. I kneel to the swiss cheese patch on the wing and rhythmically bolt the foil patch over it. A ten second job. Time to go back inside. But something within me disagrees.

I feel a boldness in me - at this most treacherous of moments. Time is precious, but we can spare a minute. I don’t recognise the sentiment, but the voice in my head is definitely my own – a curious blend of what I used to be and what I’ve become. I feel a faint hand of reassurance touch my heart, defying the chill of the unknown shrouding me. Bemused, I tuck the repair kit back under the strap and turn to sit on the wing and behold the shrinking blue-green swirl of Planet Earth.

Everything, every ounce of my happiness and the tons of sadness, was conceived, lived and died inside that sphere. Tucking my arms under my legs, I think back to my childhood: a summer’s evening holidaying in the countryside, where I watched the sunset on top of the hill by the farmhouse. My parents were not with me, I was alone while they were indoors preparing supper. But I could feel them. I knew they were with me. Mesmerised, the sun had dipped and at once the landscape was transformed into a dark and chill night. But still I knew they were with me.

That memory hangs in my mind, just at the point where the sun slipped away. I feel the most unexpected emotion - faint, but it’s definitely there: a sense of freedom. I lose touch with my surroundings as my mind looks to old times, for once without pain. I am weightless, but for the first time in so, so long, I am unburdened.

I see the Earth shrink into an aquamarine smudge, hanging there like a period point. It shrinks still further and I feel my breath become short once more, my tongue searching my mouth for moisture. Then a shiver dances across my skin as, suddenly, it is gone. All that is left is the ethereal glow in my retina of where it used to be.

Where Earth used to be.

I look once more at the less than special patch of blackness where Earth had been only moments before. I am not afraid, but I feel my spirit keening for it to return.

‘Don’t look back…’ I whisper, standing. I know they are with me.

            I thumb the booster control and lift gracefully towards the shuttle airlock. The three men and four women on this shuttle are my world, and the six month oxygen supply on board is now more precious to us than every diamond ever mined. As I float towards the airlock, I cast a gaze along the shuttle side and into the unbroken shadow that lies ahead.

            The dark side of Pluto beckons silently.