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Michael Fiortio's two short story collections, Hallucinating Huxley and Freud’s Haberdashery Habits & Other Stories, were published by Alien Buddha Press in 2018. His writings have appeared in Ovunque Siamo, Narratively, Mad Swirl, Pif Magazine, Longshot Island, Beautiful Losers, The Honest Ulsterman, Chagrin River Review, The New Engagement and many other publications.
Tiny Blue Oceans
By Michael Fiorito
It was becoming hard to deny that he could suffocate as he sat motionless in the slight capsule floating between the Earth and the moon.
"Captain Collins, can you read me?" the voice from Command Control said.
"Yes, I hear you Command."
"We're working on the booster engine, Captain."
"Still work to do, Captain."
"Well, listen, I want to get home before Christmas." It was October.
"Yes sir, Captain," he said, followed by a long static sound. Then, “we want to get you home in time to cut the turkey."
No use in panicking, yet. Maintain cool under pressure. Losing the booster jets wasn’t the first thing to go wrong. A few weeks ago one of the communications antennae failed. Collins had to perform extravehicular repair on the module. It took days, painstakingly working with Command Control to remove the fried interface card and install a new one. It was a close call and lucky that the backup worked. Losing the antenna could have cut off all communications with Command Control, not to mention cutting off the flow of images and data.
While Command Control worked on the engine, Collins busied himself with preparations for landing, reviewing the landing protocols. There were a number of precise steps that had to be executed in sequence. One mistake could cost him the mission, or worse, his life.
"We're going to go offline for a bit, working in the lab to reproduce the problem. Signing off for now."
He heard a long static noise again, like a sound particle bouncing off the blue round surface of the earth, then racing toward the ship like a high pitched scream.
He studied the landing protocol manual even though he knew it by heart. He had always been good at memorizing things and he possessed an intuitive sense of how things worked. That's why he had been picked for this mission. Working with his father repairing antique Chevys was just as important as his engineering degree from Cal Tech. He could solve any problem, not just math problems. But he wasn't as good with people. People were way more complicated; they didn't come with manuals. People’s minds didn’t always follow the dictates of logic. He drifted back remembering how his wife got upset at him a few months ago for trying to fix her problems instead of just listening.
“This is just standard scientific procedure. You’re going to be okay,” he said, when the results from the reproductive tests indicated that she might be infertile.
“Why don’t you just say that you don’t understand how I feel?” she asked.
“Because I want to remain hopeful,” he said. “We don’t have a problem, yet.”
“Are you saying that I’m not hopeful?”
He didn’t reply.
“It’s not all about you. Sometimes you’re an insensitive asshole.”
He was shocked. He was only trying to remain positive.
Then she banished him from the bedroom to sleep on the couch. Even on the couch he couldn’t stop thinking about how she overreacted. He didn’t feel like he had done anything wrong. He wished he could understand her feelings, so he could tell her how to change. He loved her, though he only told her once, the night they were married. She cried for at least an hour; then they made love. I should tell her more often, he thought. She was like a volcano that night. But I can't. I just can't. It doesn't come out of my damned mouth.
As his mind raced, he looked up from the screen and out the window. There it was: Earth. Everything going on in the world is happening there now. War, joy, defeat, rape, murder, sadness and peace. All at once, everywhere. My father is dead in the ground somewhere down there, along with his father’s father, all the way back to primates and beyond – to reptiles, small wormy creatures – then just scum on the surface of a rock. The thought made him slightly lightheaded. Every car, river, mountain, and house – it’s all there on that one planet. He marveled at the blue white surface, how it was illuminated. It looked like a sanctuary from up here. Even nasty hurricanes cartwheeling across oceans looked placid. Gigantic nighttime thunderstorms flashing and flaring for hundreds of miles along the Equator appeared as light shows. And his wife was down there now, waiting for him. She was probably at the hospital, saving a heart patient at this very moment. Being one of the finest heart doctors in the Bay Area kept her a busy woman. Command Control probably hadn't yet alerted her to the possibility that the ship could be stranded. They hadn't yet reached that point yet. The point when saving him was futile. He put that out of his mind for now. For the moment he looked at the Earth and felt thankful. Here in all of this darkness, in this cold empty spot, he could see that the blue planet was on fire with life. Here was a place teeming with creatures, with trees and flowers. Here was a place, despite the wars and the evils people commit, here survived all known human existence. This tiny fragile little sphere hurling through space.
Then another long static hiss.
"Yes Command. I read you."
"Captain, we may have found something."
He looked at the clock. He knew they had about ten hours. After that the ship would not have enough oxygen for the trip back. They'd already used all of the surplus tanks.
"Ok Command. Shoot."
Command Control directed him to the steps he had to take. He couldn't do all of this himself, though he wished he could. He had to rely on someone else. It infuriated him to rely on others.
Then a series of call and responses.
"Check," said the Captain.
Command continued reading off check points. Then.
"Failed. The unit is not responding."
Now a hiss, then a long silence. Collins stared at the monitor. He felt a pulse of panic torque his spine, like an electronic whip had just sent a spark coiling through his body. He looked out the window at the blue planet. If only I could just jump to you. There you are and here I am, stuck.
"We'll keep trying, Riley."
"Roger that, Dalbert." For the first time there was a hint of despair in his voice.
"Hang in there, Riley." Command paused. "We're going to bring you home."
With nothing else to do, he worked his way over to the food cabinet, climbing on the array of bars that allowed him to move around in zero gravity without floating into walls.
Three hours passed.
"Captain Collins," he heard after he'd finished eating.
"We have a surprise for you." The voice was interrupted, after ricocheting off of the moon and bouncing back onto the earth, only to beam back to the ship.
"We can turn to video, if you'd like. Your wife, Natalie, is here."
Hearing his wife's name both comforted and frightened him. I'm not sure if I want her to see me. But I need to see her.
He looked at the clock. Time was running out.
He hit the mute button. He needed a few moments to collect himself.
"Ok, command. Switching to video."
"Riley, how are you doing up there?" she said, her voice cracking, trying to reign in her emotions.
"Hey sweetie, see, it's just like any other Saturday working on the car."
"I know honey," she said, wiping a tear from her eye.
"Still got a few tricks in the bag," he said for the both of them, even though he knew this was like reading last rights to him.
"Well, I've been at the hospital all day, working overtime," she said "trying to keep my mind off of my husband flying around in space."
"That's good, honey. You're the best doctor they have."
"I don’t know," she said, "but I never sleep well when I know you’re out there."
"Falling asleep is what these guys are doing," he said, forcing a smile. "They better get on it."
"I know, I know honey," she said, "they're all working hard for you. For us." Her eyes glimmered, even on the screen, the blue surfaces like the blue of the Earth's oceans. He had never noticed that. The oceans flowed through her. She drank their waters, ate foods that were fed by their abundance. She was a living, breathing intelligent creature that stepped out of the oceans and onto the shores.
"I love you," he finally said.
"I love you too," she answered, her voice breaking up from crying and then splintering from interference. The "too" was digitized then stretched by a frequency pitch, the sound then broke into bits and bounced off the interior of the capsule.
“If anything happens to me up here,” he said, “I want you to be okay. Everybody needs you,” he said.
“You’re going to be fine, Riley. They’re going to get you home.”
“Yes they will,” he said, transfixed by the blue of her eyes. She was made of wind and rain and of oceans and mud.
“I’m going to go now, Riley. I’ll be back in a while. I love you,” she said, getting up from the video monitor. She threw kisses at him, rubbing her eyes with the other hand.
“I love you, too,” he said, the words sounded hollow in the capsule.
Now Riley stood looking at Dalbert. His eyes too sparkled with moisture. Riley realized that something was coming over him. He was seeing how much alike all people were, how all people are containers of water, breakable and soft.
“We have a few more tests to run, Riley,” said Dalbert.
Riley looked at the clock. Not much time left. Numbers. Time. He calculated how much time they had before it was too late. All of his life, he couldn’t help adding, subtracting, deriving percentages. That’s the way his mind worked. This little fact of calculation now made it clear that if they didn’t solve the problem in the next two hours he would surely die.