Read The Four Fingers of Death Online

Authors: Rick Moody

Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General

The Four Fingers of Death (12 page)

BOOK: The Four Fingers of Death
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“Ah, the conversations favored by the condemned,” I said. “I think we get freeze-dried pork for one of the holidays.”
“Huevos rancheros,” José offered. “Cap’n Crunch. I would have surely liked some Cap’n Crunch.”
Jim unbuckled, swam across the cabin to check some gauges and digital readouts. In the course of this, he gave me that look that he had given me through the many months of training, even when there were no capsule assignments. The look said,
Whatever it is you’re about to say, don’t say it
. And what had I done to deserve this? I am a pleasant, charming man! Anyway, while Jim was calibrating whatever it was he was calibrating, I typed an assessment of the liftoff into the computer, which would be transmitted back to Mission Control. I told them—because I’m the first officer, and therefore the word slinger on the mission—that, as people, as citizens of Earth, we now had “one eye on the Great Beyond.”
October 7, 2025
It has been a week now that we’ve been in space, in a cramped, ill-decorated residence that would barely qualify as a studio apartment in the crowded housing markets of Kingman, AZ, or Devil’s Paintbrush, NV. Yes, readers, it’s true that the magnitude of creation is unthinkable, at least out the window it is. The planet Earth seemed to recede from us, to the tune of thousands and thousands of miles a day, but Mars scarcely appeared in our ken. However, we were much more consumed with our floating apartment. It was remarkably claustrophobic. And it smelled awful. You know how adult males get to working up a powerful funk, almost immediately? Well, we smelled bad. And there were three of us. And the shower, which was little more than a modification of the recirculating, filtrating shower that they used on Spacelab (nothing gets thrown away at NASA), barely helped. We’re allowed one shower a week, and today was the big day. After we were done with the shower, the water circulated into the regenerative thermal system, where its proximity to some of the nuclear technology superheated it under pressure, to kill the bacteria, after which, in this pressurized loop, it ran near to the hull, where it cooled significantly. The process of annealing sterilized the water, but that didn’t and doesn’t mean it’s not brackish and foul. I’ve brushed my teeth with it, because what is the alternative? What kinds of minerals were accumulating in there, and how long would this water be potable? There have been a lot of estimates on the subject, and that’s why we had a rather ample supply of water down in the cargo hold.
Most of the time we were in the capsule we were at an even 68 degrees Fahrenheit, and so we didn’t need much clothing. Under these circumstances, our imperfect ability to wash was that much more on display. Good hygiene, it turned out, occurred during a brief period in human history. The past, with its rotting teeth and syphilis, was our future.
To put it the obvious way: there just wasn’t that much to do up here. What, you might ask,
did
an astronaut do on a trip that would take months upon months, when there was nothing to look at but certain constellations that were not going to change position much in the whole of our journey, and also the planets that were not much closer than they look in your backyard telescope? The Hubble telescope had a better view than this! We were getting digests of all the major news sites e-mailed to us, and we had television and web broadcasts, although these broadcasts may not have been the ones I would have chosen. We had our own electronic messages and videos. There was an exercise bicycle downstairs, near the science officer’s station, but to visit it would mean interacting with José. We were meant to be on a diet of an hour a day on the exercise bicycle, which stationary bicycle had a jack for your personal digital device, and I could easily have plugged in and ignored José, but I would prefer in some other way to meet the minimal standards suggested by the American Medical Association: a half hour of space exercise three times a week. At night, which was not night, because
everything
was night, night was permanent, and the distant twinkling of the hydrogen fusion ball known as the sun did nothing to remediate the borderless night, we watched films, when we could agree. Surprise! José preferred action films! My arguments that all action films were about the reimposition of authoritarian regimes and the ratification of violence (politics through other means) were not taken seriously, but it is perhaps correct to say that I did not advance these perceptions in anything but a lighthearted vein. Captain Jim Rose nearly always selected romantic films. I found this out of character with his two-hundred-sit-ups-for-breakfast personal regimen, and with his past in military intelligence. And yet whenever we discussed movies, Jim lobbied for something where a tough-hearted guy or gal (always played by America’s sweetheart, whoever this was in any given age) wilted in the face of the one true thing. After the film, the cabin lights automatically dimmed. We can sleep standing up, kids, because there is no
up
in the cabin. This allows all three of us to strap in against the wall, which is not a wall, because a wall is something on the side. These prejudices evaporated quickly.
I will be posting these diary entries on the web, every day, or as often as is feasible, along with some video feed when circumstances permit. I was playing online chess with some guys in Cleveland earlier, and they kicked my Anglo-Irish posterior. Jim is not a chess player and thinks that the entire notion of playing games with people back on Earth is not consistent with universal exploration. But I thought I would play chess on Mars, so that I could be the first chess player on Mars, as I would be so many other firsts.
Did I forget to describe our dinners? Jim Rose had peculiar tastes in food, as if he were still trying to provoke his parents. He often mixed together dehydrated packets of miso soup and peanuts and raisins into one dish and just squeezed some gel from one of the gelpaks. He would eat this mush all at once, along with some small cubed pieces of beef sprinkled on top. When he ate this mélange, he got a very serious expression on his face, as though someone intended to take his rations away from him. Now, we were, you may have heard, allowed certain personal requests for what had been packed into the food storage area on the capsule, and Jim specifically asked for miso soup, because it was easy and contained protein. I asked for ribs, though I knew I wouldn’t get them. José, who often ate by himself while calibrating distances and fuel requirements for the rovers, wouldn’t tell us what foods he had asked for specifically. Like he wouldn’t tell us much else. It was all written in stone well before we the astronauts got here, the exact number of calories we were going to consume, the days on which we would be allowed to trim our hair, when we would fire sludge out into space, et cetera.
You may be interested to know about sleep cycles. True: we were not meant, throughout the trip, to be awake at the same time. That is a waste of resources. Once we were on course and had settled into the routine of weightlessness, we would begin sleeping in shifts. At this point, the regimented dimming of cabin lights would become temporary, for whoever needed to get a little shut-eye. We’d be overlapping for a couple hours. I was scheduled to be on the swing shift for a while, or at least I thought it was the swing shift, but these terminologies seemed pointless. I didn’t really know the date until the web portal I was using told me so.
José just came up from his hatch to discuss the latest results in X-treme lacrosse, the contest sweeping the nation. I wasn’t sure who was playing.
“Come on, my man,” said José. “You aren’t telling me that you don’t know who’s playing in the finals of X-treme lacrosse?”
José looked disappointed, because we still had two months and a few weeks before we even reached the Red Planet, and then a year while we waited for the orbits of Mars and Earth to near each other again, and then six months back. If we had nothing to say to one another in all that time, if we actively despised one another, it was going to be a long trip. But there was a season for discord and a season for rapprochement.
I could tell there was something going on in José’s science lab that he wasn’t telling us. We were supposed to be making crystals for use in satellite navigation, telemetry, and so forth. Crystals are better manufactured in the vacuum of space, as you know. We were intending to create the groundwork for a crystal-manufacturing laboratory in space, in fact, that would be staffed sort of like the oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Workers would have tours of duty. This was another attempt by NASA to turn a profit. José claimed that he was doing these kinds of experiments, but he showed no results. Just yesterday, when Jim was asleep, José scuttled up the hatch to say, “Look, brother, you know that the search for life beneath the poles is the military priority of the trip, right?”
Why did he keep saying this sort of thing? He stood there looking at me, and his eyebrows were so grown together that they looked like they could take flight from his forehead. And that unsightly scar of his constituted a second smile, a malevolent, snickering intention.
“José, you do your job and I’ll do mine. I may have to smell you, but that doesn’t mean I have to make small talk with you.”
“Hey, they’re listening in Houston! Show a man some respect!”
“They won’t hear this conversation for, oh, about ten minutes. If they are awake and taking an interest.” Because that’s how long it takes radio waves to get back to Earth, ten minutes. From this distance. By the time you read this blog, José might very well have moved on to another topic entirely. Though he had so few. In fact, when the conversation didn’t go any further, he turned his back on me and rappelled back down the ladder to his warren of scientific contraptions, which may or may not be about the search for life under the ice caps at the poles, depending on your level of twenty-first-century paranoia.
And now some more facts. Our craft is called the
Excelsior
, and as I’ve said, is one of three ships. Each night at 1700 hours, Earth time, I was accorded the good fortune, as communications officer, to talk to the astronauts from the other vessels, namely the
Pequod
and the
Geronimo
. The total number of astronauts on those vessels, as you would expect, was six, two of them being women—the science officer on the
Geronimo
, Debbie Quartz, and the first officer on the
Pequod
, Laurie Corelli. Without being offensive, if at all possible, I would like to note that after a week of having failed to see a single woman up close, I
did
start to have little fantasies about each of them, in my naps, and in my semi-sleep. Did Debbie and Laurie really exist? Were they as soft as I remembered? Yes, there was something soft in my recollections, and let us say that this thing was a woman! It was only occasionally that they were brisk and peremptory and did their jobs better than the rest of us.
On the night I want to tell you about, it was Laurie who signed on first from the
Pequod
. She hailed in the usual way, before asking how I was doing.
“Not bad,” I replied. Actually, my wife, who, as I have indicated, had lately been cohabiting with her restaurateur brother, had remarked in a recent message that she was proud of me, though I tend to think that this message was staged by the people at NASA. This note actually made me feel a little lonelier than before.
“The novelty has kind of worn off,” I remarked to Laurie, “but what’s new over there? Still looking at our taillights?”
“We haven’t picked up any speed on you yet,” Laurie said. This kind of scripted banter nauseated me. Laurie looked, on the video screen, as if she hadn’t been able to wash her hair much. It was dark brown and pulled back, a little disarranged. Behind her, in the rear of the camera’s fish-eye view of the
Pequod
, I could see that Brandon Lepper, the one guy on the mission I found even more suspect than José, was trying to edge into the shot. You know how in space movies there was always one guy who got eaten by the aliens? I hoped that Brandon Lepper would be that guy. In the videoconference uplink, he was doing curls with some free weights, which was stupid, because they didn’t actually weigh anything, and wouldn’t until we got to Mars. Laurie was elaborating on the virtues of Olympus Mons. She really wished we were landing there instead of near the southern pole. “It’d really be something to tell my son that I was going to be on a mountain that is 69,000 feet high.” This was a scripted comment, since I happen to know that Laurie’s son has some developmental problem, like many other kids these days, and despite his uncanny ability to compose serious orchestral music on his computer, he wants, by all accounts, almost no interaction with his mother.
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