(Space Truckin’ Part II)
Winter had never been a friend. The cold days followed by the colder nights stretched long into eternity. The days filled with a soul-draining gloom of gray skies and colorless dawns. It made the time drag on to the endless song of its own desolation.
And with all the dreariness of the dark tidings, you had to deal with the cold and the snow. Will wasn’t sure which he hated more. He had never liked snow, but being out in the cold was its own kind of torment. He was a warm weather man and there was no number of layers that would ever be enough to warm him when the temperature lowered to below freezing.
One would never know he was born and raised in Illinois. If it weren’t for the massive amount of Bears gear…blankets, jerseys, sandals, and even bath towels…it would be impossible to tell he grew up in the northern part of the state. A state where, once winter hit, snow came and didn’t leave until spring, where many considered forty degrees to be t-shirt and shorts weather.
He just wasn’t as warm-blooded as most people. As he watched the snow fall outside his window, he dreaded having to go out to shovel the long driveway. It looked like there was already five inches on the ground with no sign of stopping. Everything was white. His mailbox was covered, and only the faintest depression in the snow allowed him to make out the sidewalk.
It was early. He still had another hour before people in his neighborhood started their trips to work. Those who rode the bus would walk past his house, so he knew that if his part of the sidewalk wasn’t clear, he would receive another citation in the mail.
He saw his neighbors on both sides had already shoveled once, but their work was quickly getting covered in a fresh coat of white powder. He figured he’d wait another half-hour before starting. He hoped the coffee would warm him enough that he wouldn’t be too chilled.
“I thought you were going to shovel?”
A shiver ran down Will’s spine as he turned. There she was. The woman he had married three years ago. Her stomach bulged from the soon-to-be bundle of joy they both looked forward to, although they had been fighting a lot lately. When she approached, he realized there had been a sharpness to her tone.
He wasn’t sure why, but something about her made him uncomfortable. He felt himself getting angrier as she walked closer. It didn’t feel right. Why was he so upset with her? He couldn’t think of a reason, but just the sight of her caused his teeth to clench. He had to work to control his breathing.
Then the feeling passed. He picked up his coffee mug from the table and watched her as she smiled coyly.
“I will. Just wanted to give it a little more time before I headed out there.”
“Okay, well…” The woman approached and gently ran her fingers along his crotch. His reaction was immediate. “I was getting ready to take a shower and figured once you were done, maybe you could join me.”
She turned and walked toward the door. He didn’t remember where it went. The house seemed strange to him. She felt strange to him, like she shouldn’t be there.
“That is, if you feel up to it,” she teased, stopping in the doorway. He hadn’t noticed what she was wearing, now seeing only a towel wrapped around her. Her back still to him, it fell to the floor, then she was gone.
He quickly grabbed the shovel by the door and went outside.
* * * *
The hot water should have burned his skin. The steam swirled. The room seemed dark past the mist, but he still saw himself as he ran his hands along his skin.
Another shiver ran through him. He turned the knob and felt the spray get hotter, but it didn’t help. No matter how warm the water, it couldn’t push away the feeling of cold that had burrowed into his bones. The water burned his skin, the steam boiling his flesh, but the chill remained. It had become a part of him, like a limb. It was part of who he was and would always be there.
“Do you want some company?”
“Sure,” he said, even though he really didn’t. Something about that voice… When he heard it, it didn’t comfort him. He wasn’t soothed as he felt her hand run across his chest. She pressed her body against him. He felt the rise and fall of her breasts, but it was alien to him. As her hand went lower, he quickly spun to face her.
“What’s wrong?” She looked down, pouting briefly before glancing back up with a smile. She reached out, but he maneuvered by reaching in and pulling her into a hug.
“Nothing. I just finished up and was about to get out. You can finish.”
“You don’t want me to wash your back?”
He knew she wanted to do more than just wash his back. He couldn’t, though. He needed to get out of there. It felt too tight, too hard to breathe. The mist was heavy and hurt his lungs. She was too close to him. Why couldn’t he stand to be around her? She was his wife. They had a daughter together.
No, wife. They had a house. He was there with her. He loved her. He left to go on the road because he was an over-the-road truck driver.
His head throbbed as he reached for a towel. The mist evaporated and he could see the well-lit bathroom. He grabbed the towel and draped it around him as he emerged from the hot water.
None of this is right. I shouldn’t be here. I can hear a voice screaming at me, but I can’t quite understand it.
* * * *
Even though the room was filled with the hot steam from the shower, it was still cold. It felt like he had stepped into a walk-in cooler. He had driven a refrigerated truck for a while, but this was worse. It didn’t help that he was naked, except for the towel.
He didn’t wait to dry himself. He was cold, and he wanted to be anywhere else. He quickly ran to the bedroom and jumped under the covers.
“Too cold. Too cold. Too cold,” he chanted as he pulled on blanket after blanket. He had cranked the heat up before getting into the shower, making sure the dial was set at eighty. Still, the room didn’t have any warmth to it, and it was so dark, he could barely see the wall, even with the flashing light from the strip club across the street.
Wait, that isn’t right. We’ve never lived across the street from a strip club. We own a house.
The light continued to flash, the bright red almost hurting his eyes as it penetrated the darkness. He could almost see the lettering on the bedroom wall, but not quite. It didn’t matter. It probably said what dancer would wrap her legs around the pole that night. It was annoying, but he didn’t care. He just wanted to get warm. Nothing seemed to be working.
He pulled the covers tighter around him.
“Getting yourself wrapped up in your burrito?”
“What?” He looked at the door to see her standing there, naked. He looked away as another shiver ravaged him. The cold violently burrowed deep into him. He would never get warm again.
He thought he felt something when he had first gotten into bed, some kind of warmth. He had felt a heat scorching across his flesh, then it faded. Now only chilled air surrounded his already cool skin. There was no warmth left inside him.
“You always do that. You always run to the bed as soon as you get out of the shower. You would think with all the hot water that you’d be sweating. That you wouldn’t want anything to touch your skin.” She walked closer. “How about I warm you up.”
“I’ll be fine.”
But he wasn’t. He felt the winter’s touch reaching into his chest, making it hard to breathe. This wasn’t how it should be. This wasn’t how it was. He knew she was something else now. She was cold… She was a cold-hearted bitch. She was…
No, there had been another cold-hearted one he had dealt with. He tried to remember it. Somehow, he felt like she was still there, trying to get in.
Something was trying to pull at him. He felt the tug. The dark room beyond grew darker yet, slipping away. He watched as parts of it stretched away, elongating, becoming distant.
Then she was gone and everything was dark, except for the pulsating red light. It began to burrow in, attacking him in some way he couldn’t quite comprehend.
* * * *
He was alone in a black box. He recognized it, although he couldn’t see much. A haze had materialized, his slow breaths forming crystals in front of him.
It is beyond the freeze of the deepest cooler.
He didn’t know how he was still alive. He shouldn’t be. It didn’t make sense…unless there were some kind of backup system keeping him that way. Was there more to the box than he realized? He guessed that made sense. He wasn’t a tech, but only the gear-jammer behind the wheel of the proverbial space beast.
He saw the red flashing light from the tablet controls in front of him. He couldn’t quite make out the writing on it as his vision was blurry. He could just see the large text blinking at him, urging him to do something.
* * * *
“My water just broke,” she yelled. Even though her voice was calm, he heard it in her tone. There was anger seething there, but what did she want him to do? It wasn’t like he could change the weather.
The snow came down in a mass of white flakes. Everything was pale, color having been completely washed away in the blizzard. White covered the road, the shoulder, and the world around him. It was impossible to tell the difference between the interstate and the empty fields to the side of it.
When a shiver ran through him, he reached up, risking taking his hand from the wheel to hold it over the heating vent. The windshield wipers had a hard time keeping up, the frost and snow building up along the bottom. His hand met cold air, no warmth coming out of the vent at all.
An unfamiliar red light started to flash on the dashboard. It wasn’t the check engine light. He had seen that plenty of times before…usually right before having to sit on the side of the road for eight hours. This light was a triangle with an exclamation point in the center. It was bright, blinding him.
He heard her voice, but it sounded distant. She was yelling at him, her scream piercing, his anger rising. He should be worried about getting home, wanting to be there for their baby, but something was different. This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. He was there when his little girl was born. It had been one of the happiest moments of his life. Looking into that precious face as those large, round eyes opened for the first time to look up at him. Those chubby little cheeks and the hand that closed around his little finger.
The cold penetrated his bones. He heard the windows crack, snapping as they got colder than they were designed for. He saw the splintering of the glass, the spider webs forming in front of him.
He knew he wasn’t going to make it home. He wouldn’t see his daughter’s birth. The weather would be the end of him, the cold pulling him deeper into its grasp.
* * * *
He wasn’t in his truck. He wasn’t back on earth. What was he thinking?
The question had already been answered. He was anywhere other than there. Why would he stay there for his death?
I always thought I would die in my sleep…
But he was asleep. He was also awake and drifting in between the two states. He was losing himself to his unconscious mind, but what did it matter? He was dying anyway. He just wanted it to stay that way. He wanted to die in his sleep and not know when the time came.
Then there was the flashing red light that kept penetrating his dreams. Every time it felt like he could just slip away and enjoy the last moments of his life, that bright light would reappear and rip it away.
It was still there. He was pretty sure he was awake again, or close to it. It was hard to tell because there was so little light and a dense fog both in mind and vision.
The one constant was that he still felt bone-devouring cold. He could just make out the flashing red light coming from the controls. He tried to get a better look, but couldn’t. He felt like a prisoner in his own body, paralyzed by some unseen force.
But he hadn’t moved, had he? He remembered looking at the flashing red light on the tablet. The last time he was awake, it had been visible, but he had a hard time making out what it said. He couldn’t even see it now. Just the reflection of the flashing light as it lit up the small space.
That was where he was. Space.
He had been outside. His rig had some kind of leak and the damn automated system couldn’t fix it, so he had to. He had gone out in this suit, which looked more like a coffin than anything he had ever seen in old TV shows, and fixed the air leak. Once he had, though, the automated system kicked back in and he was thrown clear. His tether had snapped, leaving him behind.
He was left alone out there to die in space. No one would come back for him because the ship was a one-man space truck. Much like the rigs back on earth, there was no second driver to split the work. The space trucks were so automated, he was there just to fill legal requirements.
And now his truck had left him behind.
Yeah, the damned electronic heap had probably become sentient and decided to get rid of his useless carcass. It would have been nice if it could have waited for him to be dead before dumping him out like yesterday’s rotten meat.
Maybe there was some truth to it, though. It was a waste of money to have him on the ship. Maybe some number cruncher had decided to code something in the computer to get rid of him and have the rig fly itself. There would be no problem for it to get to Mars without him. It would be the test case to get rid of other unneeded drivers. Then the number cruncher could point to this case and tell Congress, “See. We don’t need drivers. Our systems are so amazing, they can run themselves.”
The number cruncher wouldn’t be wrong, but it would suck for him because, well… He had to die in order for people to know that. It would also suck for all those other drivers because they would be out of jobs. It’d be hard to go back to just driving a rig back on earth. As much as he complained about it, he would never return to being a regular truck driver. How did you pass up the chance to be in space just to go back to driving a semi on earth?
Most of those drivers would probably end up killing themselves. There was a high rate of suicide among drivers who went from doing this back to driving on earth. It was just hard to go back to terrestrial travel once you’ve been to the stars.
Still, he got the shaft on this one. He was still going to be the one to die just to prove their test case.
The more he thought about it, the more he had a hard time not believing it, although he wasn’t sure how they manufactured the air leak. That was the only thing that didn’t make sense. It seemed like a big chance and a huge risk of money if he hadn’t been able to fix it.
Who knows? Maybe the system in the suit was more automated than he realized. Maybe he hadn’t done as much as he thought he had when he secured the hole.
This had been a long four months. He wished he could go home and see his daughter. He still remembered that last message she had sent just before the connection between the rig and his suit had completely lost range. He saw her angry face as she paced back and forth, upset with her mother for lying to her. If she hadn’t lied, they would have gotten a chance to spend some time together before he had gone back out. Her mother had, once again, done what she does—ticked him off and kept him away from his daughter.
He had obviously done something to the woman that had changed her. He had no clue what, but something made her always figure out ways to keep him from his daughter.
How had he ever been married to such an evil woman? She wasn’t like this before, he was certain of it, but something had turned her into this vile monster who now spit fire whenever she talked to him.
Now his daughter was affected by it, as well. He had hoped to always protect her from that. She was his baby. He never wanted her to see the way her mother screwed him over. It was his job, wasn’t it? He was to be the protector. He didn’t want her to know some of the evils in the world. Hers was supposed to stay perfect. Now that perfection was cracked and he didn’t know if he would ever be able to fix it.
She had asked if she could come out there with him. He wanted to say yes. It would make it easier to protect her and keep her safe from so many of the horrors she would someday face.
It would also mean losing her education and the future he envisioned for her. If he brought her with him, she would not be the computer junkie he’d hoped for. He wanted her to be one of the ones making the world, not one of the slaves to it.
What did any of it matter? He was as good as dead. She would have to stay there, which would be a good thing. She should never have to risk her life like he did. He wouldn’t want this for her.
He saw her angry face in his memory and he smiled. She would stay on earth, and she would be safe.
The darkness around him drifted again. He felt himself slipping back to sleep as the world around him grew heavy in his thoughts. He was more awake this last time than he had been, so the pull had to be stronger to drag him into the realm of sleep.
This time, maybe he would get lucky. Maybe the world around him would just slip away and he wouldn’t wake up.
And then sleep fully took him.
* * * *
He didn’t sleep well. He didn’t know why, but he had been up and down all night, constantly going to the bathroom. That wasn’t normal. Sure, he had been out drinking all night, but it was good to be back in Wisconsin, where the craft beer flowed free and the trash talk was loud. Being a Bears fan in a Packers bar was always good for that.
Maybe all the space travel was getting to him. Something about all those months in space made you want to drink beer within hours of stepping foot on soil. It couldn’t be good for his liver and was probably one hell of a shock to the system. Yeah, then following the beer with shots couldn’t have helped things.
All that additional gravity pulling on him as he drank glass after glass hadn’t been easy on his stomach. He had puked three times before he somehow found his way back to his hostel room.
Damn hostel. He hated not having a real home to go to. He was always back on earth for such a small amount of time before he went back into space, it was impractical to have a full lease, and most apartments didn’t rent short-term.
The hostel was close and was cheaper than a hotel, but they sure didn’t like him coming in at three a.m., drunk, unable to remember which room he was in. When he did find the right room, he had fallen onto the wrong bed, waking the occupant to quite a surprise as Will vomited for his fourth and final time that night.
Will had woken in his own vomit, the proper occupant of the bed having vacated. When the owners told him he was no longer welcome, he wasn’t surprised.
He would have to find another one soon. Either that or a cheap motel. He planned on going to see his daughter later in the day, so he would find someplace near where his ex-wife and her new rich husband lived. Whenever he was home, he tried to be as close as possible, much to the frustration of the new man stealing his life.
Why should he care if he aggravated the man? What was his name? Thomas, Tomas… He had some fancy name that started with a “T”. Will didn’t pay much attention. He was more frustrated that they made his daughter give up his last name, and they did it while strangling him with his bank account. He would either have to pay an arm and a leg in child support or allow his daughter to have a new life as a “Smithers”.
He hated thinking about the man. Every time he did, Will’s temper flared, pushing him to drink and fight. The man had stolen her from him while he was up there making a living, supporting his family. All the effort and energy he had put into their marriage wasted. It wasn’t fair.
No matter how hard he tried to push them away, the dark thoughts kept coming back. It was hard not to brood. He had eight months of solitary, so that was familiar to him. Even when he was home, he no longer felt at home. The brooding was a feeling that welcomed him, a friend who was there to put an arm around him, no matter how low it sagged his shoulders.
In the painful morning light, the dark thoughts stayed with him. He was alone to walk the streets, looking for a place to stay, looking to find some kind of connection to this world he felt like a stranger in.
He found a phone and called the only number he knew by heart. He hoped she had kept her phone, the one he bought her after the divorce.
It only rang once before it went to a recorded message. It wasn’t her voice. The computer-generated one told him the number he had dialed was disconnected. He stood there, dumbfounded, holding the phone to his ear.
He stood in the phone booth. When was the last time he had been in a phone booth? When was the last time he had even seen a phone booth? How had he found this one? Why hadn’t he just bought a prepaid phone like he normally did?
Those questions and more kept assaulting him. He hadn’t noticed how the day became night, blackness surrounding him.
He was no longer in a phone booth. Gone were the handset, as well as that computer-generated voice telling him his wife’s number was no longer in service.
Ex-wife, he reminded himself. Sometimes it was so hard to remember that in these dreams. Everything was jumbled, and things slipped from one truth to another.
What was truth? It was so hard to remember what really happened and what these dreams created as their own.
He had to be in a dream.
He looked around, unsure of where he was. Remnants of his fight last night came back as he watched another fist come at him. He was outside himself and saw three men forming a circle around him.
He was in another bar, one of the many he had been to after he came home this time. Who knew what the fight was over? Had he knocked over the guy’s drink? Maybe Will just said something political that irked him. It was so hard to keep up with what was going on. Being in space for so long, he was out of touch. How could he have known that some flavor of the week celebrity was an actual candidate and, to his greater shock, was being taken seriously?
None of how or why the fight started mattered. It was just his anger boiling up inside him. His daughter was gone and he may never see her again. Space was such a cold-hearted bitch, it rivaled the woman he had once called a wife. He had barely survived one, and every time he went up, there was a chance he wouldn’t survive the other.
What if he didn’t make it back? He would never see his daughter again. This whole time at home would have been a waste…
And that woman wouldn’t let her see him. She had sent his daughter away, had changed her numbers, had moved. It made it hard for him to find them.
Yes, he had become a drunk, but he was still her father. Sure, he fought a lot; however, he had never been that way when he was married. This was the man his ex-wife had made. What reason did he have to be better? His daughter made him better, but he didn’t even have that now.
The fight was gone…if it had ever been real. None of this was. It was all a dream within dreams. Something else was happening and he didn’t want to be a part of it. He was tired of being a part of things. Whenever he was, it always shattered. He was done with it all. What did it matter anyway?
* * * *
He knew he was awake again and crying, but tears weren’t there. It was too cold for that, the chill now a constant ache. There was a change in the darkness around him, his thoughts were no longer all over the place, and he could focus on the display flashing red before him.
Press here to confirm life.
Yeah, he knew that wasn’t true. There was no chance of rescue. Sure, he was only a truck driver, but he knew enough from his years out there to know that it would be nearly impossible for them to rescue him. Even with all the science mumbo jumbo that would have retrieving him as hard as finding a needle in a thousand haystacks, there was also the cost. It would be too expensive to rescue some dumb gear-jammer. It would be cheaper just to leave him out there.
None of it mattered. He was never going to see his daughter again. Worrying about all this was exhausting, and what was the point.
When he fell back to sleep this time, maybe everything would just fade away. Let the dream just take him. If he were lucky, it would be a peaceful one, his last thoughts one of joy.
He didn’t have too many great memories. His childhood was too long ago, usually feeling like a dream that had some vague qualities of truth. His marriage, while it might have been good at one time, was marred with the aftermath. All he had was that little girl he once held in his arms.
* * * *
Babies were the most precious and amazing creatures on the planet. It didn’t matter what species, either, because they were all adorable. Even the most vicious of predators or the ugliest of creatures always had that element of beauty at the beginning of life.
But the most amazing of all of was the human baby. There was that chubbiness in the cheeks, the way the mouth opened and closed while the eyes stayed shut. Those small little hands that grabbed your finger, held on, and clutched their way into your heart.
Then there was the baby’s first smile.
How does a baby learn to smile? How was it that within hours of making their appearance into this world, they were able to smile, lightening even the darkest of hearts? They reached in and touched that spot in your chest. Before you knew it, the tears started flowing as you saw this new life, the happiness spreading.
Will would never forget the first time he saw that smile. He had been on the road so much while his wife was pregnant, but he was there for those long hours of labor. He was glad he had been when he held his little girl for the first time and welcomed her into the world.
She smiled up at him, eyes closed, her little hand wrapped around his pinky. He heard baby-like noises. Not those little sounds they made, but that of adults when they tried to talk to a baby. He smiled, thinking someone else, other than his sleeping wife, was in the room, but when he looked around, he was alone and those noises came from him.
It was the most amazing experience. He thought he was ready for it, but he wasn’t. It was something new, a connection he never thought he’d have. There was a bond that formed the second she had been put into his arms, and he knew that no matter what, he would do anything to protect her.
“I love you, and I will do anything, anything to always be there for you, to always protect you, to make sure you have everything you need. You will always be safe, and I will be there for you. I will teach you to ride a bike, show you how to fish, and when your first boyfriend takes you out, I will be there sitting on the porch when he brings you home…”
Will got choked up. It was like he was making a promise to her… No, not a promise. This was something more, something deeper, something like an oath. It came from within his soul and, by God, he meant every syllable.
“And when that special day comes, I will be there to walk you down the aisle. I will always be here for you.”
There it was again. That little smile. Her eyes weren’t even open, but somehow she knew.
Will looked up to see a doctor standing there. He was a tall, skinny man, but had a very welcoming smile that touched his eyes. He guessed he would have to be very warm to work in such an environment and deal with so much life every day. This man helped give joy to the world.
Will nodded as he tried to form the words, not realizing how dry his throat had become. He felt like he hadn’t spoken to anyone in weeks.
“They are so precious. When you hold your baby in your arms for the first time, you realize what your life is all about.”
“Yeah,” he whispered, a fresh wave of tears suddenly flooding him he clutched onto the little bundle.
He looked down at her through his watery eyes. Little droplets fell from his cheeks, one falling onto her soft skin. Her eyes fluttered open and those large, round orbs looked up at him.
The smile returned. He responded with his own.
“So, are you going to just give up on that little girl?”
Will heard his own voice. He looked up to where the doctor had been, seeing himself standing there. It wasn’t the young man he had been when she was born, but the one he saw every time he looked into a mirror. The man glared at him, his arms crossed.
“I would do anything for her.”
“But you’re not.”
“Yes, I would.”
“Then why are you allowing yourself to just die? You’re not even curious to see if there is someone out there coming for you. You saw that message. Something is happening, but you’re just giving up.”
Will turned away from his older self and started bouncing his baby as he walked toward the window of the room. The little girl cooed against his chest as he started to hum “Hush, Little Baby”. He would sing it to her, but as much as he tried, he couldn’t remember any of the words. So he hummed it, feeling her little hands reaching out and clasping his shirt.
“Do you remember when she was three and burned her hand? You had only turned your back for a minute and she climbed up onto the stove and reached out to grab the skillet.”
The tears came back as Will looked out the hospital window, seeing the LifeFlight helicopter sitting on its helipad.
Of course, this isn’t the same room we actually had when she was born. This is the room we had later, when her mom had been admitted into the hospital with a failing kidney.
“You rushed her to the hospital. You didn’t even think about it. You heard that scream, then her cries. You just scooped her up into your arms and you were gone. The hospital was twenty miles away. You drove the whole way, telling her all the jokes you could think of to take her mind off her pain.”
While we waited for her mom to come out of surgery, I took Angie, who was almost seven, down to the helipad. The pilot was extremely nice and gave her a tour of the helicopter, showed her where they saved lives, and even allowed her to sit in the co-pilot chair.
It was all to take her mind off how scared she was while we waited. The waiting is always the hardest part.
“How many times have you held her and told her you will always be there to protect her and look out for her, whether it was telling her a story to keep her distracted, telling her jokes to make her forget the pain, or even just taking a walk with her because you wanted to spend time together.”
“I need to take her,” the doctor said.
Will spun around. It was too fast for his little bundle to handle. He felt the little arms and legs squirm, then heard the bubbling gurgle as she spit up. He tried to calm her, but didn’t take his eyes off the doctor standing where his older self had been just a minute ago.
“She needs to be taken care of.”
“I’ve got her.”
“She needs someone who’ll be there for her.”
“I said I’ve…got…her.”
Will heard the anger in his voice and felt the heat in it. That fire burning, growing as he recognized the doctor. He hadn’t met him too many times, but he would never forget the face of the man who had stolen his life from him. The man who was now married to his wife and raising his daughter. The man who helped lie to him, supporting his wife when she told Will Angie was away at camp.
Will held the bundle closer. He was afraid he held her too tightly, but couldn’t stop himself. He wasn’t going to let this bastard take her from him. He had taken her teenage years away from him, but Will was not about to let him take her first moments. Those were his. She was his. She would always be his.
“You left her. You always leave her.”
But he hadn’t. She had been taken from him. First by his witch of an ex-wife, then by this bitch known as space.
No. I am leaving her. I am leaving her by not trying to get home.
He saw the flashing light. He had no idea what it meant, but something was happening. He should be doing something to get back to her. There had to be a reason it was flashing, asking him to confirm he was still alive.
It just doesn’t make any sense. There is no way the company would ever waste money and resources on saving my life. I am alone, left to die, so why even bother?
He looked down at the bundle in his arms. The pink cheeks stirred something inside him. In the cold surrounding him, he felt a warmth emanating from the depths of his soul as he remembered the song he sang to her that first time he held her. The real song, not the one he hummed to her in his dream. The one he had heard on the radio in their rush to the hospital. He would always remember it because of how true it would always be. This time, he didn’t sing it, but mouthed the chorus. I saw God today. Maybe there actually was a God out there and Will just needed faith.
He placed a gentle kiss upon her forehead, then opened his eyes.
* * * *
The light still flashed, the cold still there. But he felt a change. There was a warmth building, pushing back the chill. It came from deep within his core and worked outward.
Before, there was only the cold. It was all he felt, encompassing everything he had thought he was. He had been frozen by it, unable to move. He didn’t think he would even be able to reach out and touch the screen, let alone the flashing button.
Now he had hope flowing through him. He felt it. He just had to reach that screen.
And he tried.
He desperately wanted to move his hands, his arms, anything, but he found he was still trapped in the arms of the forever chill. No, no, no. It can’t end like this. He was in Death’s grip, the strong fingers of that long hand holding him tight.
Then there was that warmth again.
He tried to reach out for the tablet, which had once been affixed to a metal arm he could control. That arm had snapped, and the screen now floated just out of his reach. He just needed to reach it. He worried more about how the cold would affect it, hoping it would still recognize his touch.
When he touched it…
His arms didn’t move. In his mind, he felt them moving toward the screen floating near him, but they weren’t. It was in his head, just like the dreams that kept trying to pull him back into them.
He felt them threatening to take him again. He was so tired, it was hard to tell when he was awake or when he was dreaming. Will had slipped in and out of dreams so much, he wasn’t sure if this was real or if he was only partly awake, watching his inability to do anything.
“Come on, you waste of space,” he grunted through clenched teeth. It was good to hear the faint sound of his own voice. It was distorted to his ears, but he felt the air and tasted its chilled metallic taste.
Air… He couldn’t have much left, and that iron taste probably wasn’t good. Whatever the little suit used for oxygen had to be nearly depleted.
Meaning he had more reason to hurry and touch the flashing button.
He tried to reach out again. Nothing. This time, he actually felt the inability, not just saw it.
Come on. Don’t just float here.
But the cold was too deep. He felt it in his bones, reaching deeper, pushing against the small warmth he had experienced. Death was in the little suit with him, and it was not going to give up easily.
Why should he fight so hard, and what would hitting that little button do? There wasn’t anything to hope for, nothing out there for him. There was no way he would ever see his little girl again, so there was no point.
You don’t know that. You have to try.
There it was again. That strange force inside him. It was warm and comfortable. He almost laughed when he had the brief thought of being in a microwave, warming from the inside.
Was the warmth even real?
He felt a tingling in his fingers, the sensation spreading. It wasn’t intense, but like a hum of electricity building up inside him.
“Lord, I don’t know if that’s you, but please, help me make it home to my little girl,” he prayed. He had never been a religious man before, but if it meant he’d get home to his baby, he was all for it. Whatever worked, he would do it. He had to.
He reached out to touch the tablet floating near his hand again. It wasn’t too far. It would just take a little twitch of his finger and a slight twist of his arm. He saw it out of the corner of his eye as his gloved hand started to shake.
I’m doing it. I’m really doing it.
There was a sudden jerk to his suit and he felt himself spinning around, a sense of gravity pulling him to the back of the pod. Outside was dark, the star-filled sky he had grown accustomed to was gone. Worse, he saw the tablet disappear from sight.
No, no, no! Not now. Not when I am finally fighting to live.
He had to get it, but his body felt alien to him. He could barely control a finger, let alone his arm to reach around and find the device.
Where is it?
He craned his neck, trying to see where it had floated off to. The flashing on the screen should make it easy to see.
Is that it?
He thought he saw something red reflecting off the pod down near his leg. How the hell did it get down there?
He knew how. It was free to go wherever in the small pod. It could just keep bouncing around and he would never be able to get to it.
It was so hard to work with no gravity, no invisible force to keep objects in perspective. The tablet could be floating anywhere. He could be floating anywhere. It was outer space, that endless stretch of nothing that went into infinity.
Another jerk to the suit and he felt the sudden thrust as he was propelled against the lower portion of the pod. The strain was strong against his weakened legs and his knees buckled as they slammed against the front of the pod. He was wedged lower into it than he had ever been before. Pain shot up his knees, even through the suit he wore. The world around him, the world he had come to know as his life-pod, felt like it had started collapsing around him.
“Dammit!” he cursed through clenched teeth. His bones protested the force pulling him down. He struggled to pull his hands free from where they had lodged behind him, and as he did, he felt something tap his arm. He saw the blinking red, knowing the tablet was caught between him and the side wall. If he adjusted his body just right…
Damn, he only needed to get his hand free. All he had to do was tap on the screen, acknowledge he was alive.
But what would that do? There was no way he would be saved. Whatever was happening outside wasn’t some kind of rescue. Was that what he really thought? How could he even begin to hope? That tablet wasn’t going to do a damn thing for him.
So what was slamming him around like a piñata?
A comet. He was caught in the gravity well of some comet that had flown by. It pulled him around. As he was caught in its wake, there would be some gravity. That same gravity that kept all the ice particles together now pulled him along.
Or it could be an asteroid. He’d been near the asteroid belt when he had been ripped from his rig. Maybe he had floated into the belt and was now caught in the pull.
Yeah, or he could be getting picked up by aliens.
Was he desperate enough to think aliens would pick him up out in the depths of space? This was getting ridiculous. He was about to die, crushed to death by the force of something he couldn’t see, and he blamed it on aliens.
The pod shook again, violently slamming him up and back down. He tried to push against it, the squeezing of his legs cramping the muscles. His back screamed in protest, and he felt the tablet wedged into his side. The pull in the pod was now at an angle, pushing his body against it.
He had to shimmy a little. The pod was now vibrating, so he used that force to slide along the wall. It allowed him to get away from the pad. He worked his body so he could see the large red triangle and the flashing red light. It was near his hand. All he had to do was adjust a little to the right and turn his hand so he could touch the screen. He almost had it, as long as the pod didn’t shift again and slam him in another direction. He was almost there. Just a little bit farther…
Got it! The flashing on the screen stopped and a symbol appeared. There wasn’t any text, but it looked like two objects, one roughly the shape his pod. The other was much larger, a line stretching between the two.
The shaking of his pod stopped and he felt a shift. With all the violence he had endured, he had forgotten about the freezing air around him, but there was no mistaking the sudden warmth he felt. It was faint, but something radiated around him, like a heater had been turned on.
Before he had been disconnected, he had heat. Where had it come from? It would have been around him, much like how it felt now.
The gravity stabilized and he suddenly felt normal in the small pod. It wasn’t like the free floating he had come to know. This was even more recognizable, like the half-g of acceleration-forced gravity he had been used to on his rig.
It all felt so…right. He couldn’t explain it, but everything made him feel like he was in a comfortable place, like the hand of God had come for him.
Then he felt the weight of everything pulling at his eyelids, an exhaustion like he never felt before coming over him. He didn’t know why, but he smiled as he felt himself fall away to the long stretch of sleep.
* * * *
Moments came and went, leaving only a fading faint impression. Then those were gone. White walls? Flashing lights passing by? Light came and went. Things went dark, then got bright.
He couldn’t tell what was going on. It felt like time passed, but was mashed together in slow, dull moments.
The only thing that had remained, the constant wrapping around him, was that the cold had returned.
* * * *
The first thing he felt when he woke was something cold touching his skin. No. Multiple things touching him. He felt it around his arms, his legs, pressing against his forehead. He was hunched over something.
When he heard a crash around him, he jumped, fully awake. He tried to pull himself up as the world around him came into focus, but he was stopped short by cold metal around his wrists.
Where was he? Where was his suit? How was he not in the pod? No, this wasn’t right. He was in a room. That was impossible.
I’m still dreaming. I’m in another nightmare.
But, as he looked around, he knew he wasn’t. It was a simple room with stainless steel walls, a door that had a large round wheel in the center of it, and a stainless steel table he was currently handcuffed to. They were attached to a long chain that ran through the ring fastened in the center.
If he didn’t know any better, it looked like an interrogation room from one of those old cop shows. The main difference being the futuristic steel walls and the hatch door rather than a regular one.
The sound that had awoken him had been the twisting of that wheel and the release of the latch. He watched as a woman stepped into the room. He studied her, trying to place her.
She had a stern, pinched face as she glared at him. It didn’t take long for him to realize she was studying him, not coming any closer.
And it was true. He was in a room with another living person. It didn’t make sense. He didn’t know how it happened, but he was alive and she was there—a living, breathing, honest-to-God person.
“I’m alive?” His voice was dry and gravelly. He didn’t know how long it had been since he had tried to talk.
“Of course. You are here with us on Mars. We wasted a lot of money to bring you here, but don’t worry. You’ll be able to pay us back in payments.”
He looked at the cuffs and the table. He was definitely alive. The cold steel was too solid, his body too sore.
“What’s going on?” he asked, pulling against his chains.
“Settle down or you’ll have to be sedated.” The woman didn’t come closer, staying near the door.
He tried to do a she said, but it was hard. So much rushed through his head. Questions of how he was saved and why he fought against wanting to thank the woman while outraged about being confined to the table.
He saw the fear that kept this woman from getting any closer. Something in the back of his mind whispered to him, warning him that he needed to be careful. He focused on taking deep, long breaths until he felt himself relax.
She watched him curiously. When his shoulders relaxed, she nodded. “Good. As I was saying, you are on Mars. The company is suing you for negligence and fraud, so we’ll soon be sending you back to earth for your trial. I am here to determine whether you are sane enough to stand trial, or if you’ve been suffering from Coffers.”
Will felt the color drain from his face as his mouth dropped open. None of this made any sense.
“What do you have to say for yourself?”
He didn’t have anything to say. This didn’t make sense. He was dumbfounded.
“What did I do?” he whispered.
She seemed frustrated and had a hard time looking at him. He tried to plead with her with his eyes. It came off like a desperate, broken man, and it wasn’t long before the tears came. They hurt because of the dried roughness around his eyes.
“Unlawful negligence, vehicular manslaughter, and damage to corporate property in access of one million dollars.”
Her monotonous voice said the words, but he had a hard time focusing on the meaning. These were crimes. Actual crimes that he was going to be put on trial for. How was that even possible?
“I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The room seemed to get colder, and he wanted to take his chained hands and wrap them around his body to find warmth. The air coming through the filtered vents had such a chill, he felt it on his skin.
Was it all in his head? Did he really feel the room dropping in temperature?
“Because of your mishap, your ice shipment came in unmanned. The corporation was heavily fined. We had to pay out a large sum of money for your rescue and—“
“Why did you do that?” He didn’t mean to cut her off, but he couldn’t think of a better time to ask.
The first emotion finally registered as she looked up from the pad she had been reading from. She was stunned. Was it because he wanted to know why he was accused, or because she wasn’t used to people cutting her off like that? He hoped it wasn’t the latter because the last thing he needed now was to piss this lady off, but he wanted to know. Shouldn’t he know why the hell they were charging him with this stuff?
They’re making an example out of you.
The thought came from nowhere, but as the voice echoed in his head, he had a sinking feeling it was true. But make an example out of him for what? What purpose would that serve?
“Why was I saved? It doesn’t make sense. I’m a nobody. Some cheap truck driver paid to haul ice from point A to point B. I’m not someone important.” Will had to swallow past the lump in his throat before he continued. “So why come save me?”
She didn’t want to meet his eyes. It was obvious with how she tried to find something to look at on her tablet. He saw it in her face. She didn’t want to face him, but why? She had been so full of herself before.
“Well, it’s because you’re cheaper alive than dead,” she finally said.
“You are cheaper alive. If you were to die, the company would have to pay your spouse twelve million dollars, as well as pay for your children’s educational needs. If we recovered you alive and injured, we would only have to pay your family one million. It was cheaper to recover you and have you live out the rest of your days as a vegetable than to just leave you out there.”
His jaw dropped. It was cheaper to save him than to let him die? He should be happy to hear that, but something about it being on paper, a financial decision that allowed him to still breathe, made it all wrong. He was only alive because of a clerical calculation that had shown the cost of saving him more viable than to let him die.
So if it hadn’t been cheaper, they were okay with just letting him die. He knew that. He had always known that. In fact, he had spent time in the pod expecting to die. So why did it upset him so much to hear her say what he already knew?
“So you thought there was a chance I would just be a vegetable? That means you were reasonably sure I was still alive.”
“Mostly. The survival suit you decided to take for a joy ride has built-in cryogenic capabilities. While having never been tested on humans, it has had a seventy-three percent success rate on monkeys, although only five percent have had full recoveries.”
His head hurt. He didn’t want to hear more of this, but he wanted to know why he was still there, still alive and talking with the woman.
“That’s f’d up. I was just some dumb lab rat for you out there.”
“Mr. Wozniak, you were hired to be subjected to tests. In your employment agreement, you stated you acknowledged this new form of space travel had risks and that there were new technologies you would be working with to help the corporation achieve its goals. You signed up for this.”
“I signed up to haul ice. I’m a truck driver. Hauling things is what I do.”
“You signed up to sit in a room and be isolated for eight months. How much ‘hauling’ have you actually done?”
He wanted to argue that it wasn’t true. He had once been a truck driver. Now he was a space trucker. It was who he was. Saying he was just there to be a lab rat, paid to sit in a room as it flew across space… That wasn’t him.
But how could he argue? It had been his life for the past six years.
“Mr. Wozniak, you stopped being a driver long ago.”
His head dropped. He wanted to cry. He wanted to go home and see his daughter, spend time with that precious little girl he had once held in his arms. He wanted to hug her, be there with her as she prepared to go off to school.
“What do you want from me?” There had to be something. She wasn’t telling him all this for no reason. She wanted something from him, and he realized he was tired and done with all the bull.
“We need you to sign an agreement. You plead guilty to all charges, accept responsibility and say there was no fault by the corporation. By doing so, we will get you home. Your imprisonment will be logged as your flight home, so you will spend no actual time behind bars.”
He felt a chill again, the room around him growing colder. This time, he knew it wasn’t a dream. He was sure he was awake. He was in hell, and it had started freezing over. He knew what he wanted to say to this woman. He wanted to tell her she could take her agreement and stick it where the sun didn’t shine, but they were a long way from the sun. It didn’t shine out there as well as it did back on earth.
Back on earth… He could see his daughter again, spend some time with her. If he wasn’t doing these long runs any more, he would be able to stay there and be there for her. They could do all the things he promised her they would.
But that also meant he would have to agree it was his fault the company dumped him out in space, saving him later. If he did that, would he ever be able to look his daughter in the eyes? He already knew the answer.
And if he was home, would they ever actually do those things, like go to Disneyland or Soldier’s Field? He doubted it. There would always be another excuse, and why not? That was never going to be his life. Earth was never again going to be his home.
The chill grew deeper. He was sure he would never get rid of it. It had become a part of him, and as the shiver ran down his spine, he knew he was okay with it. The cold wouldn’t kill him. It would only make him stronger.
He looked up to stare her in the eye. It made her uncomfortable. Good. He wanted her to be uncomfortable. The cold became steel running through his veins, a fire burning a new fury deep within himself.
“Yeah, well… You can go f—”
* * * *
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