Our Modern Hope
Embarrassingly, it didn’t take much for Mitchell Lacombe to overcome his inclination to vertigo two years ago and sign up for the Spaceketeers. His mother nagged him to put away the video games, get off the couch, and do something worth a damn. The world needed somebody to step up, she had said, so why not him?
And then she threw out the clincher: If things went wrong, it seemed a better way to go than wasting away in bed, crapping one’s self, and losing one’s mind.
That’s how he found himself in a cozy hunk of silica and aluminum, spinning around in zero-gravity, searching for that one thing that would supposedly turn matters around for the folks back on Earth–a giant rock named Messiah-6.
“Hang on, Mitch.”
Carolyn’s face took up nearly all of the fuzzy CRT monitor. Her blue eyes were focused on something above her pixie-cut brunette hair while her shoulders rose and fell as she reached across her console, hitting various switches.
“Hang on? To what? I can’t believe you guys forgot to build useful handholds on this thing.”
“Not my job,” Carolyn said absently. “Besides, time. There wasn’t any. Plague and all that, right?”
Her quaint East Anglia accent was as charming as always.
Mitch closed his eyes and pretended he was on a merry-go-round back at Houghman Park near his childhood home. The pace seemed to be the same, but it had been thirty-odd years since he’d played there. Of course, there were no cooing pigeons, no rush of wind picking up and tossing sand from the sandbox, and no little girls chasing him around, stealing kisses. There was only the sound of a very loud, very constant vacuum emitted by the surrounding machinery and its temperature control systems.
Every time he swung around, he looked at himself in a reflective piece of metal covering the rear of the space shuttle. It’s usually difficult to tell when your body has changed drastically when you see it every day, which Mitch had done over the past two hundred and thirty-eight days, but the emaciation was obvious. It wasn’t just the protruding cheekbones and increase in wrinkles on his face. It was also the continual looseness of the two jumpsuits he changed in and out of on a daily basis.
On the other side of that mirrored wall was a giant rocket holding almost a hundred million liters of liquid hydrogen, ready to send him hurtling toward the designated asteroid with maximum impact. On the opposite side of the ship were what could only be described as four giant claws with sharpened, two-hundred-meter ‘fingernails’ made of medium carbon steel. The theory was that they would withstand the bang-crash-smash of being shoved into the dense rock at ludicrous speed so they could latch on like a giant brooch. The force of the rocket would nudge the asteroid out of its orbit and hopefully send it moseying toward Earth along with its enormous supply of rhodium. The experts said the rhodium was the key to a vaccine and, well, the planet was fresh out.
But before engaging in the suicidal maneuver, Mitch had to line the ship up at the proper angle. If he was off by half-a-degree, those still alive on Earth could roast marshmallows over an open fire and watch him fly over the planet on his way to Alpha Centauri.
Not that he had to worry about the math. That was Carolyn’s job. He was really there just to be the Spaceketeers’ hands and eyes–to make sure he did what he was told and to right anything that went wrong with the ship. If half of the world’s population hadn’t been decimated, Mitch would have been far, far back in a line of individuals best suited for this task. But pickings were slim and he found himself at the top of the list. Turns out that most qualified people, even given the circumstances, were not up for a suicide mission.
He unzipped his breast pocket, pulled out a foil-wrapped, freeze-dried ice cream, and ripped it open. He took a sniff. The artificial strawberry overpowered the vanilla and chocolate. He thought that if they were going to send a man to his death, the could have at least found a way to produce a mint-chip variety. Neapolitan was getting old. He took one bite of the chalky substance, grimaced, and put it back in his pocket.
“Okay, got it. You ready?” Carolyn asked.
“Oh, God, hold on,” Mitch replied, dipping his head toward the straw poking up from his left shoulder, washing the taste away with his waterpack. Puking inside this tin can was not an option if he didn’t want to short-circuit something vital.
“Okay,” he said, tonguing a remaining chunk stuck between his molars. He fired up the miniature suit jets hanging off his long sleeves, sending him slowly toward the console.
When he arrived, Carolyn read off a series of numbers which Mitch punched in on the tiny keypad in front of him.
“And that’s that,” he said as the ship slowly reoriented itself. He turned toward a second monitor which was connected to a camera outside. There he saw the lone hunk floating what seemed a considerable distance away. “So that’s her, huh? The people’s ugly, pockmarked savior?”
“I hope so,” Carolyn said. “Otherwise, this was a colossal waste of all sorts of everything, I’d say.”
“Well, since you have nothing better to do now,” she continued, “you may as well get ready for the press conference. Are you ready for your closeup, Mr. DeMille?”
Mitch’s eyebrows narrowed.
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