In orbit around the Earth, they were safe, safe and isolated from the depths of space by their craft, their suits, their technology. They were safe from the vacuum, the cold, the radiation, and small chunks of debris. They were as safe and comfortable as in their kitchen sipping tea and reading the Times. "Martha, will you fetch me some toast? Thanks, you’re an angel." Thanks to the wonderful technology of their deep space craft and its marvelous systems, designed by the finest minds of 22st century Earth and swaddled as they were in their cradles of poly-alloy something, they had not a care in the world. Not a one.
"What was that?" Justin breathed into his helmet microphone. "I think I heard something."
A voice responded. It was helm control. "I dunno," he whispered, as if asleep, "I think we’re approaching the outer atmosphere. Sometimes the heat makes things creak." At least it sounded like creak. It could have been creep, or weak. Justin couldn’t tell.
"Um, okay." It wasn’t important, he guessed. The helmsman was a stout sort of fellow, predictable and faithful. He always showed up on time, checked the craft, before launch. He was a by-the-book sort not prone to imaginative thinking, but he did his job, which was good enough surely, and probably what you want in a helmsman.
Justin looked around at the relaxed forms of the other passengers. They were scientists, like himself, but perhaps not like himself. They were fascinated by things other than a little re-entry. They obsessed over big problems or small problems, tiny little worlds or grand grandiose big big worlds. Make the little worlds bigger, they’d say. Make the big worlds smaller, would reply the others – two schools of thought, Justin reflected, two schools of thought that always end up in the same place.
Justin was awake now, and he couldn’t close his eyes. The Earth was this big beautiful ball of blue, crystalline blue, shiny, reflective, shimmery, but calm, peaceful, enveloping. It’s like you could just reach out and touch it, squeeze it, wrap it all around you, he thought, just roll around on it. Man, he thought adjusting his poly-alloy something pants, been out here too long – getting turned on by this big blue ball in space. Geez.
"Hey, Melinda," he whispered though the microphone, "did you get the data you were looking for?"
"Hmmm… you talkin’ to me, Justin? Yeah, yeah, I got what I was looking for. Gracias a Dios. They were there just waiting for me. I stepped around the corner and there they were as if they had chosen me. The mission was un exito total."
"I’m glad." He had had no such luck. His first opportunity out here had netted him nothing, nothing, and now that he thought about it, nothing. Maybe when they got back, he’d see if maybe he could salvage at least something of this nothing of a trip. "I’m glad for you Melinda. Couldn’t have happened to a better person. You know you’re the best."
"Thanks, Justin. You’ll get something, soon, I’m sure."
There was that weak, creeping creak again, trickling over-head. "There it is again? Did you hear that? What the hell is that sound?"
The whisper came again, "Look, it’s nothing to be worried about, the hull’s heating up. It does that, uneven heating, causes uneven expansion, uneven compression. It’s all taken care of. Now, newbie, if you want to make yourself useful, lie back and close those big weepy eyes of yours. I’ll get you back to your mama’s arms before you wet yourself, I promise." And he clicked off his mic.
To Justin, the break-up seemed almost in slow motion. There was a shudder, and the pieces came off like big giant flakes of rust spinning out and away into the blackness their edges glowing faintly, discolored like the petals of a dying flower.
And down they fell.
…to be continued