The Long, Slow Burn Home

Posted: December 4, 2020 in Uncategorized
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“The Long, Slow Burn Home”

by Mike Douton

“You can’t go in there.”

Standing outside my hospital room, they had no idea, the stranger and the nurse. No idea that I could hear them through the door.

“I need to evaluate her condition.”

I heard a hand on the door handle. I heard a footstep. I heard hesitation in a breath of silence.

“Doctor, she hasn’t slept since she was recovered by ISRO,” the nurse said. “She needs rest.”

I heard a laugh. It might have been mine. It came across my lips but it didn’t sound like mine.

“I am aware. Twenty-seven hours and counting since she was recovered by the shuttle from India and she won’t tell us how long she was awake locked in her suit,” the new voice outside my room said. “For whatever reason, she will not or cannot rest. That is why I am here.”

A longer pause and some murmurs outside.

“You’ve done it now.”

I glared at the woman in the hospital room with me. “Go. Away,” I hissed.

Chandra laughed. “Never.”

The door opened with a snap. I bit my tongue.

“Dr. Hobbs. How are you today? You’ve had quite the ordeal.”

I watched the man at the foot of my hospital bed. He wore his white lab coat over a blue button down like a stock photo tagged “Kindly middle aged doctor.”

He refused to look at Chandra. No one ever looked at Chandra. I tried not to. No matter how hard I kept my eyes trained on the doctor, I saw Chandra’s manic smile spread across her face.

“Doctor Hobbs?”

Chandra showed her teeth when she smiled. It was the brightest smile.

“Doctor?”

I closed my eyes. The ping of the heart monitor made my head throb in time with my pulse.

“You should answer the man,” Chandra whispered.

I opened my eyes and tried not to look at Chandra perched near the window.

“Yes, I will.”

“You will what, Doctor Hobbs?”

“I will answer,” I said with a glance at Chandra. “I am doing… well.”

The other doctor frowned over my charts. “I’m Dr. Darrell Theo. Dr. Hobbs, I know we never had a chance to meet before the Mars mission. I wanted to talk to you about what happened.”

“Which part?” I said as my eyes followed Chandra. She paced the room behind Theo. Chandra always got antsy when people asked me what happened.

No one ever asked her.

“Whatever you want to share with me, Allison,” Theo said. “May I call you Allison?”

“Allison. Not Ally.,” Chandra said over Theo’s shoulder. “She hates when people call her Ally. She told me while we had all that time to talk. Isn’t that right? Ally.”

I shrugged. “Sure.”

“Allison, I’m interested in how you held up after the accident onboard the Promise Explorer.”

Chandra rolled her eyes. “Everyone is interested in you. Always interested in the living, they forget about the dead.”

I turned my head to look at Chandra.

Theo frowned.

I forgot he was there. I tried to play it off as a stretch.

“Careful Ally,” Chandra said. “Don’t want to mess up the doctor’s psych profile of you.”

Chandra was by the window again. Smiling. Always smiling. “You better answer the man or he’s going to think something is wrong, Ally. You do not want him to suspect anything.”

“The ship exploded,” I said, keeping a side eye on Chandra. “Violent decompression if you want to get technical.”

For Dr. Theo, there was a very long pause with only the be-beep of the heart monitor to break it. That sound crept up faster as Chandra hovered near my ear.

“While you have been telling this story without me,” Chandra whispered, “I’ve gotten better at being dead.”

“That’s all?” Theo asked.

“I don’t like being dead, Ally.”

My eyes darted around the room looking for Chandra.

“But the only part of my body left on Earth is within you,” her voice echoed in my head from everywhere and nowhere all at once. “I need it back, Ally.”

A bead of sweat rolled down my cheek. The air caught in my lungs. I turned my head to look for-

“Allison.”

My head snapped back towards Theo. The sudden movement jolted my broken leg and the whomp of pain pierced through my exhaustion.

“Go ahead,” Chandra’s whisper said. “Answer the man.”

“Dr. Hobbs,” Theo said. “I’m really concerned if you’re-“

“Ok,” I said with an exhale. “But I’ve already told the general. I am not a pilot. Neither was Chandra. Emergency protocols on board. They walked us through resetting the navigation.  Mission Control … Mission Control… they…” The pain from my leg and the exhaustion in my head pulled my focus away. I had to force the words out of my mouth. “Mission Control has all that in the… the debrief.”

“And by then your trajectory home had already destabilized and-“

My eyes lost focus. I tried to hold them open. Open. My head nodded to the side. I shot back upright.

“…stay awake…” I murmured.

Theo was gone. Wait. No, he was on the other side of the room. I must have made a face.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“I… must have nodded off.”

Dr. Theo shook his head. “You were just telling me how Dr. Patel reprogrammed the navigation after the Promise Explorer missed the gravitational boost from Rhea.”

“I was?” I didn’t remember. I spied Chandra out of the corner of my eye smiling. Smiling that bright smile. My head felt full of sand. I jabbed a thumbnail into my leg under the blanket. The prick of adrenaline cleared my head for a moment. “I thought we were talking about my debrief with the team from Mission Control…” I trailed off from the look on Dr. Theo’s face.

Chandra appeared beside me. “Are you sure that was you?”

“That was ten minutes ago, Allison,” Theo said. “If you need me to come back-“

“I’m ok,” I interrupted. “I, uh, the new orbit missed the gravitational boost from Rhea. JAXA’s Mohri engines are fast but only if they’re pointed in the right direction. I was up there on the long, slow burn home. Without enough food. Or water. Or air. I told all this to the general already. And NASA. And JAXA. And ISRO. And-“

Theo put up a hand. “Ok.”

He wrote something on his clipboard. Chandra peeked. The manic smile returned.

“You’ve talked a lot about how Dr. Patel saved what was left of the ship-“

I cringed at Chandra’s name. I tried not to talk about her. I would have remembered saying her name. It made me remember… other things.

“-but can you back up the narrative?” Theo asked. “Can you tell me about the accident?”

I looked at Theo. I glanced at Chandra. I bit my lip as the word ‘No’ hovered on the end of my tongue.

“Can you humor me, Allison? Mission Control is being stingy with the transcripts of the debrief.” Theo shrugged.

“Yeah, Ally. Whaddya gonna do? Don’t leave Theo hanging.”

I glared at Chandra. Theo looked to his left and frowned.

I let out a huff. “Fine.”

Chandra was over by the window again. She leaned over, watching the readout on my heart monitor. Beep. Be-beep. Be-beep.

“Must be nice,” she said. “The dead get jealous, you know. Of the living. Do you know how empty it sounds in my head without a heartbeat? I never knew how loud my veins were until someone stopped them from moving.”

Chandra’s manic smile faded.

“The dead get desperate to feel alive again, Ally.”

“Allison. Dr. Hobbs.”

I jerked my head back to Theo on the other side of the room. I tuned him out. Forgot he was there. Thought I was alone with Chandra. I twisted a fold of the hospital blanket in my hands. It took slow, deep breaths to keep that be-beep sound under control.

“Allison, I’m worried about you.”

“Why? I’m fine. I’m excellent.”

Chandra laughed. She was over by the door now.

“Allison, you survived an accident in space-“

“Yes.”

“-you barely survived.”

“Better than the rest of the team,” Chandra said.

“You are extremely malnourished,” Theo said. “The IV is all that’s keeping you alive.”

I looked away from both sets of prying eyes. My stomach gnawed away at me. The IV didn’t help the empty feeling. It was so much like up there before I… so much like up there. One little bite of food would fix it. One, tiny, bite. But I sent away the hospital breakfast. Chandra’s laugh echoed in my ears when the smell of sausage made me wretch.

Be-beep. Be-beep. Dr. Theo was patient. He looked at me with the clipboard held under his arm like he didn’t have a care in the world.

“I watched them die, Dr. Theo. All of them. When the forward module ruptured I watched Stephano claw at his suit as it shredded around him…”

The rogue meteorite shattered the Promise Explorer’s hull. Too small for our sensors to give us any significant warning but big enough to doom us. Commander Stephano Garcia Lorca was strapped in the port pilot’s seat closest to the breech. Shards of titanium hull perforated his suit. Blood flowered into the zero gravity. Violent decompression pulled it out of the hull breech. Stephano’s blood crystalized in the cold void.

“Despite the pain, it was a beautiful way to go,” Chandra said. “Wasn’t it, Ally? The crystals looked like fairy dust.”

Theo looked relieved to get something out of me. He pulled up a chair on the side of the bed nearest my broken leg. Chandra sat on my good side near the window.

My eyes closed and it was hard to open them back up. My head lolled to the side before I could stop myself. I shot upright with a sharp breath. I forced my eyes wide until the air burned them. I pinched my leg under the blanket. The needles of pain pulled my focus back. Be-beep be-beep be-beep. My heart rate spiked.

“Let it go, Ally,” Chandra’s voice echoed in my head. “Just let it go.”

“Allison, if you need sleep-“

“No!”

Theo looked taken aback. “I can come back later.”

“No. No, it’s ok. I’m fine,” I insisted.

Chandra laughed. She was near my pillow now. “You sure about that?”

“Allison,” Theo kept his tone low. “The nurses said you have not slept since the Promise Explorer was recovered by the ISRO shuttle.”

The adrenaline spike faded. I felt shifty and twitchy. I jabbed all my nails into my leg.

Theo noticed.

I shook my head. “I can’t sleep.”

“Why?”

My eyes grew heavy.

With the structural integrity of the forward module compromised, the breech grew. Decompression stole our air and pulled me against the belts. The void wanted me. It wanted us all. Anything shook loose by the breech tumbled into space. Stephano’s body freed itself from the seat. The void took him. The module broke apart, failure cascading into failure. Commander Shinji Aoki’s hands flew over the controls. He looked over his shoulder at us. The decompression in the forward module pushed us further off course every second. Shinji knew this. Shinji knew what little chance the Promise Explorer had to get home, it was not like this.

His eyes were sad.

Shinji slammed his gloved fist down on the emergency decouple button. The Promise Explorer broke into two. Redundancy controls in the aft module meant we had a chance to limp home but partial systems failure meant the hatch did not close before decoupling. Chandra unbuckled and closed the hatch before decompression could pull her away. The decoupling ring sent Shinji on an arc to drift somewhere between Earth and Mars for eternity.

“Shinji was alive,” I whispered. “He talked to us. Drifting away. Until…” I trailed off.

Theo leaned toward me. I shied away from him. That brought me closer to Chandra.

“Tell him,” she whispered in my ear. “Tell him how Shinji’s last words were for his mother. How she wanted him to be a poet. How he tried to compose a haiku for her as the cold void of space froze him in his suit. Tell him that Shinji laughed that his haiku wasn’t any good as he died.”

I shook my head. My hair whipped around my face. It still smelled like the inside of my spacesuit.

“Tell him or I will.” Chandra echoed. “Let me finish the story…”

My mouth opened. My body felt far away. “Shinji told us…”

My throat felt cold. The air hitched in my lungs. I brought a hand to my mouth but the worlds fell out like someone else put them there. “He wanted to-“

I forced out a cough. It drowned out the words. I doubled over, shaking. Dr. Theo jumped up and came to my side. He said… words. The blood pounded in my ears and I didn’t hear those comforting platitudes. I locked eyes with Chandra.

Chandra was frazzled. She was meticulous in her appearance, always made sure she was put together well like a proper professional, it was the most mussed up the other woman had been since… since I last saw her in space.

“Allison. Dr. Hobbs,” Theo had a professional consoler’s voice. “You need to remain calm, but if you don’t process what happened to you, nothing will improve. This is nothing to be ashamed of-“

Chandra chuckled in my ear.

“I did what I had to do, Dr. Theo.” I glared at Chandra who was by the window now. “I survived.”

Theo sat back in the bedside seat, but he looked ready to leap. He made more notes and kept one eye on me the whole time. The tapping of his pen drilled into my head. I shuddered at every punctuation mark.

“I did what I needed to do.” I tried to keep the desperate defensiveness out of my voice. “Communications were lost when the Promise broke apart. I couldn’t die up there. I looked into the void and it looked back at me. I couldn’t die up there.” I squeezed my eyes shut like I could hold the world at bay if I didn’t see it.

“No tears left, Ally?” Chandra snorted.

“It’s ok, Allison.” Theo said. The warm tones of his voice were back. Honed over hundreds of patients like me. Yet none were a thing like me. “No one blames you for anything. The world watched the Promise Explorer drift closer. The Indian shuttle that recovered you expected a funeral, not a rescue. The world is in awe of you.”

I forced my eyes open. I was dangerously close to drifting off. I dug my thumbnail into the raw patch on my leg, the pain keeping my eyes open a moment longer. I looked to the window. Chandra watched the sun set beyond the glass.

“It will be night soon,” she said. “Dark like the void of space.”

I shook.

“Allison.” Theo sounded like he was approaching a scared animal. “What happened to Dr. Chandra Patel?”

“I don’t know.”

“LIAR!” Chandra bared her teeth at me, fists clenched at her sides.

“She was with you. She survived the decompression. You told me yourself,” Theo said.

“No I didn’t. I lost track of her in the rupture,” I blurted out.

Theo frowned. “That’s not what you said a few minutes ago.”

Be-beep-be-beep-be-beep.

Chandra’s manic smile showed too many teeth. “That machine is going to give you away, Ally. Sure you don’t want me to tell the story for you?”

A cold that rivaled the void of space crept back into my throat. The numbness slid its tendrils up into my mouth, my tongue-

I bit my tongue. I swallowed the foreign words. The trickle of blood in my mouth chased the cold away.

“Allison. There was a lot of… blood in the recovered module. Especially around the airlock.”

“Yeah. Well. Zero gee. Little bit goes a long ways.”

“That would not account for what the ISRO recovery team saw,” Theo said. “Tests show it was Dr. Patel’s.”

“I don’t know what happened!”

“Ha!” Chandra laughed. “No one believes you.”

“Dr. Hobbs,” Theo got up from his chair and circled the bed to where my heart monitor and IV were. “Just how much of the Promise Explorer’s supplies survived the accident?”

“Enough,” I blurted out. “Barely. Just for one person.”

“I am worried about your well-being, Allison.” Theo said. “I can see the number one thing you need for your recovery is sleep. We can worry about everything else after you wake.”

“No I can’t sleep,” I rolled towards him but without sleep, my brain was a half-step behind the world. I pawed at him but missed completely.

Theo hooked a syringe into my IV line. “This sedative will help you sleep.” He rolled me onto my back. “Don’t fight it Allison. We’ll get you all the help you need to remember and recover.”

“She already remembers, don’t you, Ally?” Chandra hissed.

The sedative made me heavy. “I did what I had to do…” Words felt like a jumbled mush in my mouth. “I survived… I didn’t let the void take me…”

The door opened and the nurse was still outside waiting for Dr. Theo. “And you’re a hero for it, Dr. Hobbs. Now rest.”

He left.

He left me with her.

Chandra loomed. “They won’t call you hero for long.”

“Go away.” The words were weak. My eyes drooped. “Can’t sleep. Stay awake.” It took all my focus to keep them open.

“You don’t get it, Ally,” Chandra said. “You are stuck with me. The dead want nothing more than to live, Ally. All that’s left of me is within you.”

I turned my head away from her. Now she was on the other side of the window, face pressed up against the glass, gasping. Her eyes glittered in fear.

Chandra’s hands pounded against the airlock viewing port. I secured the lock.

“Why?!”

I could not look her in the eyes. I flipped the switch to pump the air back on my side.

“Survival.”

Night fell outside the hospital window. Chandra gasped outside the glass. Vacuum stole the air from her lungs. Her skin paled. Capillaries in her eyes burst.

Her dead red eyes stared at me on the other side of the airlock.

“There wasn’t enough air for us to both survive. We lost too much air in the rupture. You would have done the same.” I turned my head away.

And right into Chandra’s red-eyed stare.

We fell into memory.

I was in the airlock. I looked into my own face on the other side of the port. My cold stare cut into me.

Chandra’s voice spilled over my lips. “Let’s turn the tables, Ally.”

I watched my hand reach for the buttons on the other side of the airlock. I reached out with hands that weren’t my own for the door handle, felt the lock hold strong. The hiss of escaping air filled my head. I exhaled before decompression could swell my organs. My feet, my hands went numb as the oxygen faded from my body. I tried to draw in air that wasn’t there. Panic crept into my head. I felt lips that weren’t mine form the shape of “Why?”

Synapses slowed. Vision faded.

“Survival,” my own voice echoed in dying ears.

Darkness.

“I had every opportunity!” Chandra yelled in the void. “I could have let you drift away into the black with Stephano. I could have let you fall away as nothing more than space debris with Shinji. You were a dazed waste of resources. A threat to my survival, but I let you live!”

I shook my head. A shock of air filled my lungs. I came up from Theo’s sedatives. Blinked against the florescent hospital lights.

Chandra stood at the foot of my bed, scalpel in hand. She placed it on her ashen wrist.

“What will you do when they find out how you went all that time without food?”

Raw emptiness clawed at the inside of my stomach. No food for five days. The rupture took too much of the supplies. I rationed as much as I could. The new orbit added time to the trip home. Still a week out. No food left.

Except I never opened the other side of the airlock…

The scalpel slid across Chandra’s skin. Dead blood came out in sticky globs. Black-red orbs drifted around the hospital room. Remembered hunger pangs gnawed at me. Bile churned in my stomach.

“I live in your head now, Ally. I can remember. I know how my own flesh tasted on your lips.”

I turned away from her.

“No. You don’t get to forget, Ally, because I cannot forget. The scrape of the scalpel as you cut to the bone. The coppery tang that stuck to the back of your throat. The cold sliver that wiggled down your throat when you swallowed it whole because you couldn’t stand the squish of raw meat in your teeth.”

“Stop it,” I whispered.

“Why should I?”

I closed my eyes tight as if that might help.

“Look at me damnit!” Chandra yelled. “Look at what you did.”

A touch of ice slid into my head.

The ISRO shuttle tracked an intercept course with Promise Explorer. A rescue mission. Jubilation. Relief. Panic. Shame. ISRO was all that and a little blip on the one working Promise Explorer screen heading my way, still days out. I left it inside and cycled the airlock for my impromptu spacewalk. Earth, Mars, my rescue, all blended into the background of the Milky Way. I was alone, and about to get more alone.

I needed to be alone when ISRO found me.

I threw Chandra’s helmet into the void. Her boots. Gloves. The bundled wad of her suit. What was left of Chandra drifted out of the airlock. I still couldn’t look at her red-dead stare. I kicked her away from the ship. Chandra’s dead arms, stripped to the bone in places, reached back towards me as she drifted into the void.

The scalpel I used… it was the last thing to go. I held it in my gloved hand.

“Do it,” Chandra’s voice echoed in my head. “Leave ISRO nothing but a ghost ship.”

“No,” I threw the scalpel into the void after Chandra, no, after the dead thing. The tainted steel flashed the sun’s light at me once, twice, before I lost it against the background of stars.

 “Go away,” I moaned. “I survived. Just go away.”

Chandra was in my ear again.

“I am a part of you now. You stole the air from my lungs Dr. Allison Hobbs. You stole the blood from my veins and the flesh from my body. You will never be rid of me now,” Chandra said.

The sedatives dragged me into sleep.

I woke to Dr. Theo’s voice. “I’m glad you’re feeling better, Allison.”

I wasn’t. Not really. I felt distant. Out of sorts.

“I-

“I must admit, the sleep helped a lot, Dr. Theo.”

Who said that? It sounded like…

I opened my eyes. How did I end up out of my hospital bed? Why was I sprawled out in the chair? Theo stood in front of me, facing away. Wasn’t he talking to me?

Theo chuckled. “The human body can recover from a lot with good old fashioned rest. Humans are survivors like that.”

I stood. Wasn’t my leg broken? Theo didn’t hear me, didn’t know I was there. I reached out to him, grasped nothing in my fingers.

Around Theo, I saw my bed. I was laying in it. I saw myself.

A smile spread across my lips. A manic smile. A bright smile with too many teeth. Eyes that weren’t mine anymore looked past Theo and right at me.

“The spirit will go to great lengths to live, don’t you agree?”

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