THE GAP IN THE LIGHT
Space. We all know it as the expansive stretch of darkness that leaves us in awe as children and in stupification as adults. The size won’t even fit into our imaginations, and yet we still consider it to be the final frontier. The only problem is that we should not be focusing on space when we still have things in our own minds to figure out. The real frontier is the human mind, if you want to get poetic, but we aren’t here to be poetic. We’re here because you want to be an astronaut for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Well, speaking as one of the only astronauts to survive NASA’s most risky mission, that’s a stupid idea.
You don’t believe me? Typical. You young astronaut wannabes all think you’re the cream of the crop, you’re cleverer than the ones who died, better than the ones who never made it back. Well I can tell you, those men and women were the best damn crew there ever was, and they didn’t make it back. You think you little shrimps can make it when the best of the human race couldn’t? You’re wrong.
I know, you must be thinking “but you’re here, you survived.” Let me tell you something. I did not survive. I did not make it. At least a part of me died inside the vacuum of space, and I’m never going to get it back. Think on that before you take your test. Think on this story before you decide to follow in my footsteps.
“So you’re only 19, huh?” Noire leaned on the conference table, her long, thick brown curls still free to bounce around her shoulders despite the order to rein them in.
“King Arthur was coronated when he was 15,” Jones replied matter-of-factly, shrugging.
“Great. A history nerd as well as a space nerd,” Fletcher said sarcastically, but a sharp glance from Pearce put him off it.
“Noire, do not mess with Jones,” Schwarz said sharply, entering the room with his usual grand presence.
“Timekeeper?” The flight director Dimitri Krivov spoke over the speakers in his clipped tone.
“T-Minus 3 hours and holding,” the PA replied, reminding them all of their crippling responsibility.
Everyone nervously glanced at the speaker, pretending to be the strong astronauts they were supposed to be. Except for Jones, who quivered and looked down at her shaking hands, not bothering to disguise her fear.
The silence was too thick for Blair, who said, “you gotta work on your
English, Schwarz.” The room settled into a more comfortable silence, the easy friendliness Blair had portrayed having eased the slight tension in the air. Blair and Schwarz had obviously known each other for some time, a mysterious friendship no one knew the particulars of.
Ainslie Blair was a Scottish engineer who liked to joke that he was “The real life Star Trek Scotty” among other things, while Luka Schwarz was the exact opposite, severe at the best of times. His job at NASA had started when he was twenty-five years old after five years as an intern at DLR in Germany. He had, of course, been recruited directly out of college and was the second one to be called in for Project Erebos. No one bothered to object when he requested to be commander.
“So, you schwein. We will be together for a very long time,” he said, breaking the silence. “We have exactly one hour until the launch, and we should use this time to-¨
¨Commander Schwarz?¨ Hana Kuro raised her hand, as though in class. The surgeon’s beautiful face was in its normal line of careless neutrality, and she looked almost bored.
¨Kuro?¨ Schwarz smiled thinly, annoyed at the interruption.
“My medical supplies,” she said simply in her smooth, almost perfect English. “They are not enough for the trip. The bandages will barely cover one wound and the antibiotics and anesthesia are not enough by far.”
“I am glad you bring this up, Dr. Kuro,” Schwarz said, “the supplies for this mission are hardly remarkable, but they will be enough for-”
“But sir, I have brought this up before. Never have my requests for more supplies been answered,” Kuro interrupted, being the only person in the entire group brave enough to.
Schwarz’s brow furrowed, and the entire group held their breath.
“Timekeeper,” the impatient Flight Director asked, cutting him off before he even began.
“Still T-Minus 3 hours and holding, sir,” the Timekeeper, Jason Nasso, replied with a smile in his voice.
The grainy static of the PA turning off prompted the entire group to return their gazes to the slowly festering argument, the Japanese surgeon now standing to face the commander.
“Sir,” she said forcefully despite being almost a foot shorter than him, “you must understand how dangerous this mission is. Without proper medical supplies-”
“I know,” he replied, with slightly less energy than usual. “but this project has to seem low priority compared to Project Attis. All the effort is going into disguising the true nature of this mission.”
Shocked, Kuro reeled back. “But sir,” she said, “this project could save the lives of the people living on the colonies. Attis is nothing but a research mission.”
“There is too much at stake, Kuro. The public mustn’t know the reason for this mission until it is deemed a success.” Schwarz said sharply through gritted teeth.
“But what if it fails?” Kuro’s eyes widend in fear.
Jones looked up from her hands. “We all die and the public never knows,” she said, stone faced. “Only the commander and myself knew the plan.”
“And when were we going to be told?” Blair exploded, his fists on the table and his body partially out of his chair.
“The original plan was to tell you before training. But it was deemed safer to wait.” Schwarz said calmly.
“And who else knew?” Fletcher demanded. “Your precious American and who else?”
“Jones only knew because NASA told her before recruiting her,” Schwarz replied.
“And what made the rest of us sit in the dark? Who else made the decision to leave the foreigners out of it?” Noire sounded livid, her French accent growing stronger by the second.
“I did.” Amanda Bates had lingered in the doorway and now stepped through.
“It was safer to leave you out of it,” she sighed, falling into an empty chair. “If we were to be exposed, it would be better to let the officials take credit.”
The room fell silent as everyone attempted to take in what had been said. Noire twizzled a curl around her finger, Pearce had his face in his hands and Jones sat hunched in her chair, trembling
“But the project is not that dangerous. If it were revealed it would not be too bad,” Preto finally reasoned from her secluded corner. “And the newspapers, they would think it suspicious that all the major countries got together to create a research mission, no?”
“They know that the mission is to explore around Terra, but beyond that, they know nothing. If it were revealed what we were doing, people would panic. Terra holds a lot of our people and resources and the black hole is growing more dangerous,” Pearce said, crossing his arms and leaning back in his chair.
More silence, only deepened with the departure of Amanda, who mumbled something about Dimitri. At least, the silence was there until Schwarz interrupted. “But this changes nothing. We all knew the mission was dangerous when we signed up. Plus, the launch is in roughly an hour and we have no time to back out.” He stood, pushing his chair into the wall with unintentional force. “I will see all of you in an hour,” he said, before stalking off.
Pearce had stopped smiling half an hour ago. Stone-faced, he marched down the hall which showed no signs of life. Jones had been left in the conference room when the rest of the crew departed, and he was worried about her, though he probably would never admit it. He’d only grudgingly left her, after fierce protests, her voice muffled from its place upon her arms. She seemed to have been crying when he left, her shoulders shaking no matter how hard she tried to disguise it. She was obviously scared of the journey to come. One might suppose Pearce was scared too, though his ramrod posture might suggest otherwise. He hadn’t admitted to himself how frightened he was, at least at that point. Somewhere in his mind he knew that never traveling farther than Germany wouldn’t help him prepare for the long journey ahead.
Jones had taken her head from her arms but was still slouching in her seat in the conference room. She turned, took a deep breath and attempted to pull herself together. She gulped in large mouthfuls of stuffy air and pressed her palms into her eyes, watching the stars appear, so much smaller than the ones she would see soon. Telling herself to keep her head, she stood, her fists clenched on the back of the chair, her knee on the cushion. She crossed her arms and put her head back on her forearms, attempting to press away the headache forming behind her eyes. She’d been stupid to think that she, a mere cowardly weakling, would be able to travel into space with the astronauts trained for the job at least a year before her. She was 19, and thus the baby of the bunch, and she acted the part, much to her disdain. She gulped in more air and stood.
Fletcher stretched out on the couch in the lounge, preparing himself for the launch by reading trashy magazines and eating even trashier doughnuts. Why the eggheads at NASA needed a lounge was beyond him, but it beat the one-star-hotel quality of the bed in his room. Swiping a magazine off the coffee table, he smiled slightly. At least this trip would be a little more entertaining than his old desk job at CSIRO. His job in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation had mostly been to bow and scrape at the higher-ups and the government to convince them to let him do something for once. So essentially, he just drank bad coffee and stalked people on Facebook. The very idea of sending Fletcher the Monkey (their nickname for him due to his “greasemonkey” mechanical engineer habits) into space would, to them, be the equivalent of reverting back to the old idea of sending up chimpanzees.
Noire sighed and released the scrunchie with a loud snap. She looked into the mirror and observed the change in her features. Her normally pleasing (slightly) prominent cheekbones looked harsh in the flourescent lighting and her lips seemed to have lost their color. Her eyes looked cold and unfeeling versus their usual melting chocolaty kindness and she shivered at the sight of them. Her hair, now restrained, looked flat and average. Hastily removing the hair tie, she swept her hair up into a higher ponytail. Still not pleased, she shook it down over her shoulders and considered it carefully. They almost hadn’t hired her because of her abundance of hair, since it would “be hard to take care of” and “a nuisance.” She’d snorted and ignored them. She was regretting that now. Blowing a whispy away from her face, she clenched the sides of the sink and attempted to think of another tactic.
Blair lounged against the column outside the outer building, smoking his last cigarette. It was most likely for the best that he wasn’t allowed to smoke on the ship, since all the air was shared. Besides, he’d needed to quit anyways, for ages. Smoking for two years wasn’t as bad as twenty, sure, but doctors had told him when he started “quit now before it gets hard.” He’d never been one to quit while he was ahead so he’d ignored them, and here he was, a flight engineer by the skin of his teeth. They didn’t want to hire him at all, but essentially all of Scotland would have protested if they didn’t, so here he was, a smoking astronaut. He blew smoke out of his nostrils, like a steaming dragon, and looked up to see Schwarz. He wore his flight suit, presumably since after the meeting, but was not sweating or showing any sign of strain. “You are a dummkopf, Blair,” he sighed and Blair put out his cigarette. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” he replied.
Preto rolled her eyes at the ceiling and stood, her lips pursed into a tight line. Jones still cowered like a baby in her seat, and Preto couldn’t stand it. She’d stayed with the American even after Pearce left, sitting silently in her corner of the room with her legs crossed and her hands folded in her lap. She listened to the sniffles and the gasps without a sound, a solitary eyebrow raised at the open weakness the girl before her showed. She’d never liked open weakness, personally, as she’d had to show her strength many times a day when working alongside men. Jones had finished her stupid breathing exercises by the time Preto made her presence known. She stood from her chair, brushed off nonexistent dust and said simply, “Shut up you stupid girl,” before swiftly leaving the room. She didn’t care if the girl hated her after that, she hadn’t come to be liked.
Schwarz knew the crew thought he was nuts, but he didn’t really care. Like Preto, he wasn’t there to be liked, but to be honored. He sat at the desk of Flight Director Krivov, his fingers beating out a bored rhythm on the arm of his chair. Krivov had doubtlessly called him here to talk about the lack of respect his crew held for him. The door slammed shut and the rhythm stopped, his hand coming to rest on his lap. Krivov plopped into his chair behind the desk, scratched his neck and looked at Schwarz. He sighed and shuffled the papers on his desk for a second before sniffing and finally making eye contact with Schwarz. Despite being a quiet man, Krivov was the best problem solver Schwarz had ever met. Quiet yet analytical, he always knew what to do. At least, almost always. When he looked stressed in the way he looked stressed now, Schwarz knew he had reason to worry.
Kuro sat in her closet sized office and toyed with her hands. She clasped and unclasped them, balled them into fists and spread them wide. It was her favorite way to relieve stress, one she had learned as a child. She wrung her hands out and leaned back in her chair, closing her eyes. She breathed evenly, or tried to, and strained to remember what her father had taught her about meditation. She only managed to give herself a headache, and she placed her fingers on her temples and rubbed. She’d never believed in rubbing away headaches, but at this point she was willing to try anything. She sighed raggedly and leaned forward, putting her elbows on the desk. Sweeping her hair off her face, she ran her fingers through it, inhaling deeply. She sat there for a few minutes, attempting to calm the roaring waters of her mind with a long forgotten lesson from her father. Eventually she opened her eyes and muttered, “That man will get us all killed.”
“Timekeeper,” Krivov asked.
“T-minus 3 hours and counting,” Nasso, the Timekeeper, replied.
Jones trembled in her flight suit and the rest of the crew looked on quietly. Even Fletcher remained silent. They all knew they would have to depart to the White Room in the next minute, but everyone had a sudden urge to linger in the safety of the conference room. Schwarz was set to give his last-minute speech until Kuro stood, and, without a word, left the room. With a glance to Schwarz, Preto also stood to leave. Slowly, the entire crew filed out, no one daring to say a word. Jones shook, but Pearce fell behind and put an arm around her shoulders, quietly whispering something to her that made her gulp and nod.
Schwarz was the first one in the White Room, standing with silent grandeur in the corner, watching the rest of the crew file in. Preto and Kuro entered side by side, in step, with Blair behind them and Fletcher slightly behind. The entire group watched Pearce practically drag Jones in, her frightened demeanor a stark contrast to Pearce’s tense gait. The silence followed the two in and hung in the air like a hazy smoke and every member of the crew held their lips taught.
“Close-out preparations commencing,” a new voice said over the PA, and the sound of clomping footsteps echoed down the hall. Jones drew in a shuddering breath and wrapped her arms around herself, her bulky suit sticking out from her body. The rest of the crew collectively sighed and waited.
“T-minus two minutes.” The ship remained silent but for the creakings and settlings of all machinery, the crew retaining silence but for the occasional answer to a yes or no question from Control.
Every member of the crew simultaneously closed and locked their visors, the faces of the humans gone, replaced with reflective nothingness. No smiles would be seen, though no smiles happened during this time anyways. Only the last names of the astronaut stamped on the suits distinguished one from the other identical NASA clones. Clones who would sit, almost completely powerless, while the world fell away.
Time flew by, but at the same moment it crawled by, deliberately tantalizing and yet pointless. To try to speed it up or slow it down would be pointless, though humans had never tried. So they sat, the crew of Erebos I, the first and hopefully last Erebos mission drawing nearer by the second. Jones, now calm, looked on as Noire and Pearce began their duties as pilots, while Schwarz ran over the plan in his head, Kuro turned her mind to Attis, Preto prayed and Fletcher and Blair attempted to keep their minds from straying to the images of everything they were leaving behind.
“Five.” Jones clenched her hand into a fist.
“Four.” Pearce bit his lip.
“Three.” Blair clutched the armrests.
“Two.” Dr. Kuro closed her eyes.
“One.” Commander Schwarz swallowed his fears.
“We have liftoff.” The entire crew released the breath they hadn’t known they’d held.
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