The leather-clad flask, a retirement gift, now empty, lay tipped over on the stand beside the chair. A single lamp cast a small, warm pool of light. These things, a television and a bed, made up everything worth mentioning in the room. He’d turned the TV off after the evening news had ruined his mood, and now he sat, frowning at nothing, lost in thought.
The item was a local story, shoved into the broadcast at the last minute, no doubt, about the renovations at the museum. They’d closed off that wing for a couple of months to make room for a new exhibit on hologram technology. The former inhabitant of the wing was going to be carved up and sold for parts, while they partitioned the huge room into several smaller rooms and a good-sized sound stage, to host concerts from beyond the grave for long dead pop stars whose names he could never remember. The cockpit they would probably send back to the Kennedy Space Center, to let the kids play in while their parents were bored on tours that seemed shorter every year. The tiles would get sent out, at least a few, to elementary schools, or bought up by collectors who saw them as trinkets. It wasn’t that low a fall, really, just part of the process, one more step towards irrelevance. Big museum, to a smaller museum, to a side hall, to parceling it out in scraps for whomever wanted a piece, making room for the next bright and shiny thing.
He gritted his teeth, and felt the falseness of them in his mouth. The dentist had told him they would feel and act just like the real thing, but he could tell the difference. The texture felt wrong, grittier, or not gritty enough, something others might miss, but he knew. It was what he was known for, back when he’d worked on it. His sensitivity, his connection to the ship. He remembered running his hands over the tiles, feeling for seams and cracks. Cracks that could, on reentry, grant the seemingly benign molecules of air passage into the fragile inner skin of the beast, where their speed and heat could wreak destructive, burning havoc. He’d always managed to find the flaws. He had never been wrong. The computers, with their algorithms and their laser scans, had been good, but his had always been the last word, running his hands along the hull, stroking her like a craftsman. Which, come to think of it, he supposed he was.
Not that it mattered now.
He briefly considered refilling the flask, thought better of it, and brought back the bottle. His joints creaking, he settled back into his chair, allowed himself a healthy swig, and fished his phone out of his pocket. He keyed in a number he hadn’t used in years. It was one of those nights, and he wanted to commiserate.
A sleepy voice answered. A woman’s voice. “Hello?”
He felt a drunken stab of shame, and stammered apologies, belatedly realizing the lateness of the hour. Could he, perhaps, speak to Tom? Was he still awake?
There was silence on the other end. Then the woman apologized in return, which confused the old man enough that he almost missed the part about Tom’s death a few months, almost a year (a year!) ago. It had been quick, and she hadn’t known how to reach everyone to let them know. No, there hadn’t been anything in the paper. Nobody much cared these days about folks who’d worked on the big ships back then.
After pulling himself together, he apologized again, gave his condolences. He didn’t really know what else to add, so he said goodnight and disconnected.
Was he the last one? The last one who’d worked on the manned ships? He went down the list in his mind: Joe went two, no, three years back. Mike and Ahmad were still kicking around, he thought, but he hadn’t heard from them in, well, it would be five years now. Mike hadn’t been doing so hot. Plenty of others, too many to count, disappearing with the years. He sighed.
Sure, they still had the commercial flights, non-orbital, just up to the top of the mesosphere, but once the satellites had clogged up the orbits, so much flotsam cluttering the sky, there wasn’t much call for it, except for the odd eccentric millionaire who got a bug up his ass to visit “space.” Now the big money was in orbital launchers, sending up even more junk. Communications, all very well and good, but they really didn’t care much about keeping people alive out in the big empty. No need, once we’d realized that it really wasn’t like the sea at all.
Even the sea, with its terrors and its seemingly endless expanse of water, had an end, had a human scale that, while vast, was not so vast that it could not be crossed by men of bravery and means. But space! Oh, space was a different matter, the distances boggling, withering. And at the other end, there seemed to be, not islands of exploration, not places where a man could make his way, remake his life, construct a new world, but simply more things that did not even consider humans at all. Nothing out there but clouds of methane poison and deserts of bitter sand, ice volcanoes and iron rain and crushing wells of gravity that did not love our small, insignificant forms.
Small wonder that the passion for space had dwindled. There was nowhere out there for us to go, and nothing to do if we got there. Nothing that the robots couldn’t do. And robots didn’t need oxygen, or food. You could make them in a factory and send them out by the legion. Shoot them off into the aether, and if a few didn’t make it, well, it was a loss, of course, but it wasn’t a person. Just make more, send them off again.
His job had been part of a different era, a different way of thinking. He’d been tasked with keeping men alive, safe from the prying fingers of the nothing just outside the atmosphere. Not that it was strictly nothing, of course. Particles both wild and tame flew through the nothing, and through those that had the temerity to come out into the nothing,the trails of their invisible flight scrambling cells into cancerous mutiny, or leaving no trace at all. Tiny meteors threatened catastrophic pinholes. Emptiness clawed at the windows, ravenous and pitiless. No desert was thirstier, no ocean deeper in which to drown.
His job had been to get those men and women off the sweet earth, screaming through the atmosphere like baby birds strapped to the tip of a bomb, and then keep them alive while they were out there. Then to get them past the immune system of the atmosphere back down to the ground where they belonged. All in a day’s work.
But that was a long time ago. And the last ship, well, they weren’t even putting it into mothballs, were they? The shelter from the storm of emptiness, the ship that had kept them safe, they were just going to pull it apart. To make room for things that weren’t even real. He wanted to spit, do something, not just sit here, practically in mothballs himself. But what?
The knock at the door startled him from his thoughts. He checked his watch, cursing himself for losing track of the time. The nurse didn’t even bother to wait for him to tell her to come in. Without a word she unlocked the door (which he’d locked on purpose, thank you) and strode into the room, her bulk filling up most of it. He, in turn, didn’t bother trying to hide the bottle cradled in his lap. She looked at it, then at him, her lips pursed in disapproval. Shook her head.
“What have you been up to?” she said.
He shrugged. “Drinking.” He let his eyes unfocus, his shoulders slump. A plan formed in his head.
She gave him a look. “Yes, I can see that.” She sighed. “Can you make it to the bed? Do you need me to carry you?”
He shrugged again. Opened his arms, looked as pathetic as possible.
She shook her head again. “I swear. I don’t know why you drink so much. That stuff’ll kill you, you know.” She lifted the bottle from his lap by its neck between thumb and forefinger, like she would pick up a rat by the tail. Then she leaned over and eased him out of the chair and onto his feet. Beneath the cotton of her scrubs dotted with smiley faces, he could feel her strength, muscles concealed beneath a thin layer of fat. He fell into her, only partly pretending excessive drunkenness, he realized. Then, with a few deft motions as she attempted to wrestle his bones and skin over to the bed, he had what he needed. Still had the hands, he thought.
He suffered the indignity of her taking his shoes and socks off in silence, arms loose at his sides. He knew she wouldn’t bother trying to change him out of his clothes. Too much mileage for her in giving him hell about waking up in what he wore yesterday. Then she gently laid him back on the pillow and tucked him in, almost, but not quite, tenderly. He shivered at his own audacity, the thrill of it cutting through his boozy haze.
“Now, you try and get some sleep,” she said, standing over him, hands on her hips. “Tomorrow, I’ll make you eggs and bacon, alright? And remember what I told you. Don’t lock the door to your room after I leave. Alright, honey?” She only called him “honey” when she was done talking to him.
He nodded, closing his eyes. He kept them closed as she turned out the light, and heard the door close behind her. Only then, after hearing her footsteps fade down the hall, did he unpalm her keys, and find the one that he knew went to her car.
The cop that pulled him over was young, tall, with that swagger that suburban cops seemed to affect without even thinking. He was blond, good looking. With the lights still flashing in the old man’s rear view, the cop leaned in his side window, large halogen flashlight blazing in his hand.
“What seems to be the problem, officer?” asked the old man. He struggled to keep his voice steady.
“License and registration,” said the cop.
He fumbled the registration out of the glove compartment, and handed it to the cop, along with his wallet. He was pleased to notice his hand barely trembled. “Take your license out of the wallet, please,” said the cop, which the old man did.
The blinding glare of the flashlight turned its attention to the documents, and he blinked rapidly to try and clear the spots from his vision. He could smell himself – whiskey and sweat, the sour tang of adrenaline. The light swung back, burning his eyes out again.
“Not your car.” The cop said. Not a question.
The lie fell effortlessly from his lips. “My daughter-in-law’s. She’s staying with us.” He could feel his pulse threading his veins with quick, icy beats.
The cop considered this. Then, “Have you been drinking tonight, sir?”
“No,” he said, careful to breathe away from the direction of the window.
The cop maintained a skeptical silence. Finally, the old man asked, “Is there a problem?”
After another moment’s pause, the cop seemed to make a decision. “Says here you need corrective lenses.”
“Contacts,” the old man said, pointing to his eyes. The cop leaned in, checking for truth, or the smell of booze, or maybe the outline of contacts on the old man’s eyes, though he doubted the cop saw that well.
“They still make those things? You oughta get the surgery done. I had ‘em done a year ago. Best decision I ever made. Hardly feel the implants. And the reception? Excellent.”
The old man did his best not to sigh in relief. Didn’t want to give the game away at the end with a whiff of alcohol on his breath. “Too old,” he said. “I’m not a good candidate.”
The cop nodded. “Ah,” he said, handing the documents back. “Well, you drive safe tonight. You were going a little slow there. There is such a thing as being too careful.”
The old man nodded. “Thank you, officer.”
The museum was across town, but with the traffic, he made it in fifteen minutes, parked a few blocks away and walked. The sidewalks echoed in the quiet of the night with his footsteps. On arrival, however, he saw the flaw in his plan.
The museum was closed.
Of course it was closed. It was the middle of the night. What had he been thinking?
Would he knock? Who would hear? And what had he planned on doing anyway? Smuggling it home to hide in his garage? He imagined her tied to the roof of his car, an enormous sofa, like back in his college days. They’d had photos all over the news of her piggy-backed to a jet when they’d moved her to a museum the first time. The last time, there’d been a small article, hardly even a note.
He saw movement in the lobby behind the glass doors. A man in a brown uniform danced a vacuum cleaner across the carpet, the music from the headphones he wore supplying the rhythm to his work. He boogied and pushed the cleaner, smiling, eyes half closed. He would have danced right out of sight, had the old man not pounded on the door, open palmed, making a low booming sound through the glass.
The janitor looked up, startled. He pulled one headphone from his ear and turned off the vacuum cleaner, then cautiously approached the door.
“Museum’s closed, man,” he said. His voice muffled through the glass.
“I know,” said the old man.
They stood there, looking at each other for a minute. Then the janitor shrugged and made to turn away.
“Wait!” the old man said. The janitor turned back.
He struggled, casting about for anything to say. “I used to work on the shuttle.”
The janitor squinted. “So?”
That really was the question, wasn’t it. So what? “I just. I wanted to see it. Before.”
The janitor’s face softened, a little. “Man, I can’t let you in. They got cameras. They see you, it’s my ass.”
The old man felt his resolve collapse. The hectic fire of alcohol and outrage guttered and went out. He nodded.
Something in the look on his face must have reached the janitor, though. He fought with himself a moment, lost, looked around furtively. “Shit.” He shook his head. “Alright. Come around back, okay? Five minutes.”
“Around back” was quite a large patch of real estate, and it seemed considerably more than five minutes that the old man skulked among the bushes and the drainpipes before one of the doors opened and the janitor peered out.
The old man made his way as quickly as he could, and the janitor led him through a loud and complicated series of rooms and halls containing ducts and large roaring boxes that he assumed were the air conditioning system for the museum. They yelled to be heard above the noise.
“Alright! You got ten minutes, okay? Then, the night guard comes through! He catches you, you found a door unlocked and you never saw me before! You got that? Don’t get caught!”
“I got it!” the old man replied.
They moved through quieter and quieter rooms, until they came to a final door. “I’ll be here in ten minutes,” whispered the janitor. The old man nodded.
The room was vast, almost the size of an airplane hangar, with that hollowed out sound of large, enclosed spaces. Small podiums and stands housing exhibits and explanatory diagrams dotted the floor.
And there, at the center, there she was.
Most of the lights had been turned off, but a few spots, hung in the far darkness of the roof beams, still softly illumined her hull, so that she seemed to glow from some internal light. He made his way to her across the huge room. She was just as he remembered even this many years on. But there was no one else to remember, was there?
He rubbed his bare hand along the tiles. He’d have used gloves, back in the day, thin things made of special fabric. He figured no one would object now. The tiles felt hard and smooth beneath his wrinkled fingers. They kept the air pretty clean in here, not a lot of dust. He felt a few places where the seams didn’t fit as well as they used to. Probably wouldn’t matter. Her days of soaring past deep blue, out into black, were long over. He imagined her, gliding through space, belly out towards the big empty. Inside, a small crew, protected from silent, screaming death by a thin shell of metal and ceramic. Air recirculating, scrubbed and rejuvenated, rebreathed, tasting vaguely of other people’s insides. He smiled, patted her huge, slumbering flank. She lay there, quietly, dreaming of booster rockets shoving her into the sky, of the blue earth turning beneath her, the air pushing back so hard it burned her skin as she brought her cargo safely home. Of endless moments of weightlessness, where she danced nimbly on the edge of the world, watching a dozen sunsets a day.
And who would make another like her? He was the last, or nearly the last. “We put a man on the moon,” they always said, but who would put them up into space, let alone the moon, after he was gone? They didn’t remember how. Men like him were the reason they once could, and he wouldn’t be around long. How many more sunsets did he have before his last one? He imagined flying up into orbit, extending his life by a hundred sunsets in a last ditch effort, still not enough.
He was almost done. Like her.
There was the janitor, hissing at the door on the other side of the hanger. The old man took a last lingering look at her. He wanted to scratch on a tile, his name, some evidence that he’d been here, but it seemed wrong somehow. He wasn’t sure the keys would make much of a mark anyway. He turned to go. The last shuttle, the last maker taking his leave of her sleeping bulk.
As he reached the door, the janitor leaned over to the wall, hit a switch. The lights clicked off. He locked the door behind them.
Scott Lee Williams lives with his wife and a cat in Brooklyn, where he writes stories and thinks thoughts.
You can read more of those stories and thoughts at his ongoing daily project Four Each Day (http://foureachday.blogspot.com), where he posts a four line story everyday. Most of the stories are even basically true.
There’s also Twitter (@scottLwilliams), where he sometimes tries to be funny. Say hi! Thanks so much for reading.