“Good morning, Houston... A precursory check on readings, show all systems are nominal on this fine morning… Well, my body clock says it’s morning – even though, I’m encircling the Earth at seventeen and a half thousand miles per hour, I’ll probably see sixteen mornings before your day is done.”
“…Copy, Major. We hear you loud and clear and congratulations on the inaugural deployment of FODOC, Space Force’s first Forward Operational Defending Orbital Command…”
“…Hey Mac, why the formal greeting?”
“Sorry Tom, orders… We have a developing situation down here and the president placed us into DEFCON-2 while you slept. We’re on Red Alert. Seems the Russians have deployed several mobile tactical nuke transports to their border with Moldova. We thought it best to let you get some needed shuteye after your lengthy launch delay.”
“Yeah, I had to pee in my suit, but I’m all dried out now – with fresh underwear.”
“Nice to know, Major, but not nice to imagine…”
“…Copy that… What’s the latest intel, Mac?”
“…The chief wants FODOC to be operational and ready for combat missions A-SAP.”
“That’s a job requiring three crew members, Mac… sir.”
“…We launched Jordi and Evans in separate missions while you slept. They should rendezvous with you in approximately 0900 hours, Houston time – fourty-five minutes from now.”
“Copy Houston. You could have woken me earlier… Why two separate launches?”
“Purely precautionary, Tom. We needed to minimise any risk from launching on such short notice. Both Jordi and Evans are each accompanied by a Pentagon advisor and a special military analyst, so you’ll have a crew and two additional President’s eyes in the skies to host...”
“As long as the government spies don’t get in the way, we’ll get along fine.”
“…Copy that, Major. Why don’t you grab some breakfast, before heading to the Cupola. AFT-1, our first autonomous supply ship, docked while you slept, so you can put your new crew to work unloading enough provisions to support seven of you for eighteen months.”
“…That’s quite a lengthy deployment, Mac.”
“Don’t worry, we plan to rotate you out in six for some R&R. We just didn’t want to leave you short on supplies, in case of unforeseen circumstances.”
“Outstanding, Houston. Very thoughtful, indeed.”
“Major, we’ll need to speed up the docking of USSF-2 and 3 in the fastest time possible, so we require you to operate the robotic arm from the Cupola to get them docked quickly.”
“…Copy, Houston… On my way.”
“We’ll keep comms across all channels fully open from here on out, Tom. We also have eyes on you from down here, thanks to the iCams left over from the days of the ISS being an observation vessel.”
“Very Big Brother, but understandable.”
“That drone camera following you is programmed to stay with you at all times… within reason, of course. After refurbishing the old ISS for Space Force deployment, eyes open at all times, is our top priority.”
“The refit made good economic sense. I mean, why let a perfectly good operational space station crash into the ocean, when you can get more miles out of it?”
“Refueled, refitted, and re-used, said the press release.”
“Yeah, I guess SpaceX taught us a lot about how to upcycle all kinds of potential space junk.”
“…You’ll find the galley coming up on your left. Grab some caffeine and some nutrients. It’s gonna be a long day.”
“Copy that… Whoa…! Nearly drifted past it. Still getting my space wings, Houston, but absolutely thrilled to be amongst the stars for the first time.”
“You deserve it, Tom. There may have been more qualified Astronauts for your solo mission, but no-one came close to your weapons experience with lasers… ‘Set-up before jet-up’ was the first planned stage motto…”
“I bet NASA never envisaged that one day their celestial science station would be used as a Zero-G, lightning weapon of destruction.”
“…I don’t think they would have sold it to us, had they known. We just convinced them of its value to the planet’s defence against any potential extra-terrestrial threats.”
“Yeah, even I was convinced by the idea of an inward-looking observation satellite converted to one of looking out for an unanticipated flock of visitors to our noisy planet…”
“…What escaped the most scrutiny was the small print on the contract mentioning that in the case of national security, looking in would once again be the main mission.”
“Purely in scientific jest, I must say that there’s a higher statistical probability of Poseidon rising from the deep, than there is of us making first contact… In our time, anyway...”
“…That’s stretching the boundaries of rational logic, but I get your point… Push the red button in front of you to hydrate the coffee.”
“Copy Houston… and thank you for looking over my shoulder so super-advisory.”
“Unfortunately, due to the severity of the situation, you’re just a conduit for us to channel instructions through – that is, until the weapons systems are operational. However, without you, the delay to the arriving crews would put us past the allotted six-hour time frame to stay at DEFCON-2. We’ve never gone to DEFCON-1, so it’s up to you to make sure everything up there is prepared within the timelines.”
“Copy, Houston. Hey, this coffee’s not bad.”
“You can thank Coffee X for that.”
“…Outstanding, Coffee X. Mine eyes have been opened by the power of your bean. Okay, I’m wide awake and heading to the Cupola…”
“…Copy, FODOC… Be prepared for the greatest and most spectacular sight on board. I’ve had the past privilege to linger on the observation deck for hours, while under the view’s hypnotic spell… Did you know that you can see the great wall of China from there, and on a clear day, the oceans glisten like…”
“…Oh my…! What a majestic vision that falls before my once blinkered eyes. It is a glorious view to behold…”
“…Enjoy it, Major. I envy you. I was there before Space Force acquired it. Spent most of my free time exactly where you are now… Listen… you have some time to take it all in, before USSF-2 and 3 come into view in t-minus… 35 minutes from now - and counting. You have total manual control of the station until your new crew arrives to install the re-programmed remote-operational logic boards… So, until FODOC is transformed into a giant drone, welcome to the best pilot seat in the history of aviation and space flying.”
“Copy that, Houston. I will try not to scrape the atmosphere on my first day… You know, Mac, looking at the Earth from this magnificent view brings a lot of emotions to the fore…”
“Okay, we’ve got a few minutes. Describe it to me and let’s compare notes. What’s the first thing that comes to mind?”
“Well… looking up from ground level, we think of this vast atmospheric layer protecting us from the harsh environment all around us. But from up here in the penthouse of all penthouses, the atmosphere looks like a exhaled layer of cold, wispy air… I mean, from this perspective, Earth looks like a fragile living, breathing organism, relying on nature to keep it evolving, often winded by the human race gut-punching it with pollution, oil spills, chemicals, and constant conflict.”
“Yeah, I got philosophical too, while I sat there. Just wait for the head rush to hit you…”
“…It’s already hit me, Mac. It’s like I feel a sense of separation from my own being… Granted, I’ve only been looking at this beautiful blue-green marble sparkling in the blackness of space for a couple of minutes, but something inside me has suddenly switched a light on, illuminating a realisation that I really am connected to the planet, and that I only matter because it provides the means for me to matter. Does that make sense?”
“…It’s the Overview Effect.”
“It’s a state of mind that occurs to a lot of Astronauts when viewing the planet from a distance. It’s a logged and analysed phenomenon based on previous crew members who’ve been right where you are now, staring at the Earth for hours – trying to find answers to a litany of spiritual and philosophical questions. Some - like me, found that circling the globe, seeing the changing scenery and the interactivity of the biosphere, had an incredible aesthetic impact on their outlook to life. Eventually, it wears off. But not until your feet have spent a good deal of time back on good ‘ol Terra Firma.”
“Mac, it’s like I’m seeing things I know, but have not yet experienced. Like the Earth is just one big system that we’re all a part of - extolling a certain unity and coherence to everything… For the first time, I’m seeing the Earth as a planet and the sun as a star in a black sky, and not a blue sky. It’s like Earth is a… spaceship.”
“I hear you, buddy, and I get you. However, I’m sensing a distraction beginning to form here, so let’s return to the task at hand, ok bud…? Let’s reel in the euphoria and save it up for later...”
“How can I, Mac…? It’s so incredible…! It’s… Ecstatic…!”
“…Major… this is Professor Williams… I’m the assigned mission psychologist. Commander McMillan has asked me to step in and explain what you are really sensing at this moment…”
“I can’t stop crying, Professor… Uncontrollable tears are gushing out of me, floating around this… galactic Sistine Chapel. It’s like my emotions are reacting to a renewed sense of togetherness.”
“Describe to me what it is you are feeling…”
“…Each one of us humans are connected by the planet, right? Like one big family of related individuals. But as I speedily pass over what I interpret from here as the invisible boundaries of religion, politics, race, and property – all I am able to comprehend, is the terrible impact such divisions have on Earth’s surface. I can see erosion and clear, man-made patches in the middle of dense rain forests. I see thinning glaciers and the advance of humankind onto the native habitats of indigenous animals that humans are ignorantly pushing to extinction. But the most concerning of my visions, are the dark clouds of mass destruction looming over embattled nations below. In particular, the one I am tasked to target – should it be deemed necessary by warmongers.
“…That’s quite elucidating, Major, and I’d like to respond to that – if I may. I have encountered this sense of euphoria in some of your colleagues that have previously returned from the ISS… I understand from reading your bio that you are a student of literature, is that right?”
“Well, if you have ever studied ancient literature, you would be aware of the term, Savikalpa Samadhi...”
“Can’t say I have, Prof.”
“It’s the highest of spiritual states of consciousness – each state being a Samahdi, second only to Nirvikalpa Samadhi – total infinite bliss.”
“I’m not following you, Professor... Oh my God, I feel like I’m getting a rush of… clarity… What is happening to me?”
“It’s perfectly natural, Major… May I call you Tom…? Tom, you are experiencing a state that alters your concept of time and space, and you may feel like you’re in another reality. Your body may be experiencing a trance-like state, while your consciousness is fully perceptive of the blissful experience within. In clearer terms, you see things as you see them with your eyes, but you also experience them emotionally and viscerally, as with the feeling of ecstasy - a sense of total unity and oneness.”
“You’re making me sound like some sort of 1960s Hippie, Prof.”
“Precisely. It’s a kind of cosmic hippie state, but without the artificial stimulation to get you there.”
“…Then, I’m high as a kite looking down at a beautiful oasis in the middle of nothingness, with stars and more stars surrounding us. A living sanctuary set against the backdrop of a universe that stretches beyond infinity.”
“Tom! This is Mac again. Snap out of it, Major! May I remind you that time is of the essence, buddy.”
“It’s so beautiful… Oh, how wonderful… I love you planet Earth…”
“…FODOC, this is USSF-1 awaiting docking instructions… Tom, you okay. It’s Jordi. Looking forward to seeing you again...”
“…Copy, Jordi… Welcome to mankind’s planet destroyer. We’ve got lasers and nukes, zappers and tappers. A full house of Space Force aces in a stacked deck of cards already dealt… I’ve got eyes on you, bearing one-five-one. You’re a Go to fire your stabilising thrusters, while I grab and hold onto you like a long-lost lover… I know you’re listening in USSF-2, so don’t get jealous, Evans. There’s enough love in here for everyone.”
“Major… It’s Professor Williams again… I need to make you aware that your heightened sense of Samadhi may have an adverse effect on your interpretation of reality…”
“Copy, Prof, Houston, Mac… and all of you beautiful planet huggers below.”
“Houston, this is USSF-1 confirming successful coupling. Berthing is now complete.”
“Didn’t I tell you I’d insert you right, Jordi?”
“Copy, Jordi. Houston confirms locking procedure is go for rapid pressurisation and transition to boarding.”
“Houston, this is USSF-2… We appear to be immobilised in the grip of the robotic arm. Can you confirm?”
“Tom… What are you doing?”
“I’m having an epiphany, Mac, so I may need some re-clarification on the mission...”
“Copy that, Tom. But first, let’s get your crew members on board… okay, buddy?”
“Houston, this is USSF-1 awaiting entry… FODOC, Jordi’s knocking on your door… Tom… you gonna let us in, pal…? We come bearing gifts.”
“…You come bearing tools of destruction, you medieval nonces of nothingness…”
“USSF-1… hold for further instructions.”
“…Tom… It’s Mac… What seems to be the delay?”
“What happens after DEFCON-2, Mac?”
“I’m not sure, bud. That’s entirely in the hands of the Pentagon.”
“They’re going all the way, aren’t they….”
“Yes, there’s a good chance of that, Tom. It’s what the ISS was re-outfitted for. That is its sole purpose now.”
“If you could only see and feel what I’m experiencing in this moment… The very thought of damaging our fragile planet further, makes me want to puke.”
“I’ve been there, Tom. I understand, but we may be on the brink of war down here. Look, how long have we known each other, twenty, twenty-two years? I’m under forced pressure to spin you a yarn, but I can’t. It would be a betrayal of our friendship, so I’ll just shoot straight from the hip on this, as there’s no time for philosophical musings in this situation. The president wants FODOC operational immediately. If the Russians don’t comply with our requests to stand down, you and your in-limbo crew are under strict orders to initiate contact and take out their mobile nuke transports…”
“Go ahead, Jordi.”
“How long are we gonna wait for the green light to allow us inside…?”
“Hang on, Jordi, I’m trying to insert a sense of urgency into Tom’s thick skull…”
“…Hey…! There may be an issue developing, Houston… USSF-2 has just come free of the robotic arm…”
“FODOC, please confirm Jordi’s report… FODOC…? TOM…!”
“…Houston, this is Major Thomas Franklin, commander of the re-christened the New Intergalactic Space Station – or N-I-S-S, after the birthplace of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great – who moved the Old Rome to a new capital… I can reassure you that there is no need for concern… I’m sending both your crews back to you, immediately.”
“Tom, think about what you are doing, bud… You’re not making rational decisions at the moment… Goddamit…! Houston, FODOC has initiated undocking procedure and has pushed us back towards Earth.”
“USSF-1, you are authorised to try a manual docking procedure.”
“Negative-negative, Houston. FODOC has initiated a burn sequence in the re-supply ship to alter its trajectory. He’s moving… away from us!”
“Jordi, does he intend crashing that thing into Earth?”
“I wouldn’t know, Mac… It looks like… Hold, Houston… It looks like… yes, he is… FODOC is moving away from the planet. Tom’s taking it out of orbit.”
“Dammit, Tom! What the hell are you doing…?”
“…I’m saving our beautiful blue-green marble from the doomsters, Mac.”
“Not what, Mac… Who… and that who - is mankind.”
“You won’t survive on your own out there in deep space.”
“With a crew of one, I have approximately ten years of supplies and provisions. You saw to that with the resupply ship that arrived while I slept. Who knows, I may not last that long, but rest assured, the laser weaponry you all desperately need, will be safely away from humans bent on conflict and disharmony.”
“You won’t change anything, Tom. The military will just use other methods.”
“I’m hoping they’ll try talking for once…”
“You naïve fool… This is not an epoch moment. This is suicide…”
“…What do you think I’ll find out there, Mac...?”
“…Darkness, loneliness, and despair...”
“I’d have that - plus overwhelming guilt, if I stayed, Mac… I’m choosing the righteous path where the vast openness of the galaxy awaits to welcome and embrace a returning child, born from its stardust… I’m just simply speeding towards my celestial homecoming…”
“…Jordi, Houston recommends a re-entry burn for you and USSF-2. Let’s get you home… We’ve lost the Major to something I can only describe as… an oddity of Space…”
“…Hey, that reminds me of the very song that made me want to become an Astronaut…”
“What in hell are you talking about, Tom…?”
“Here, am I sitting in a tin can,
Far above the Moon,
Planet Earth is blue,
And there's nothing I can do…
…This is Major Tom to Ground Control… Mac… The stars indeed look very different today… Please tell my wife I love her very much…”
“…I think she knows that, Tom… Tom…? Do you copy, Tom…? Can you hear me, Major…? Goddamit! He’s terminated the uplink and downlink… Pentagon, this is Houston… FODOC is not responding… Please advise…”
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Great story that seems to have had its genesis in a great song. The story is engaging and insightful to the point of being a wonderfully-scripted cautionary tale. David Bowie would be proud, Chris!
Great feedback, Delbert. Thank you so much.
I love your author bio! I hope you find what your novel is about, I'd love to read it!
Thank you, Kar Lynn. There are so many options - now that I've been writing short stories. I'm tempted to use one or two of my previous characters; however, I'll know when it's the right time. I can already feel the story approaching.
Wow Chris! What an intimate look into the struggles of an astronaut. We see all the pomp and circumstance that goes with the missions, but we don't get to see the human struggles that go with it. I love the philosophical views he has, but it's scary how quickly that becomes dangerous. Gripping story for sure! Thanks for sharing!
Kar Lynn, Thanks for the great feedback. As fraught with danger as it is, I'd jump at the chance to see that view.
It’s difficult to pull off characterisation and plot development through dialogue alone but you managed it.
Thank you, Graham. It's always a challenge to write an all-dialogue piece. Glad it worked for you.
Unusual to see an entirely dialogue-based story on here, but it worked super well! Also you did Tom's transition from regular astronaut (if that's a thing!) to excitement, euphoria and beyond in a gradual, believable way. Nice work!
Edward, thank you for the great feedback. From time to time, I like to try my hand at all dialogue. This is my third story in this format.
OMG, Chris, to take song lyrics (epic ones, btw) and substitute words for melody is a gutsy move. I've seen storylines involving great art and sculpture and historical events, filling in whatever blanks there may be. This, as they say, is a new frontier (speaking for myself) and I'm honestly impressed how effective it was. I will say the song always made me experience sadness and a longing; my reactions here were more cerebral - interesting in itself. There's a lot to explore here, Chris! Love it!
Susan, Thank you so much for the great feedback. I set out to write this piece as a back story to the song, with no intent on using the song as a thread. I hope it worked. Comments so far are very positive, so I'm glad of that. The song is a great song and as you say, it does have a sad undertone, but so many catchy lyrics that in a way, leaves me uplifted after singing them... and, I can't get them out of my head.
That's interesting - I didn't view the work so much as a back story but more a reimaging of a classic - frankly, I think it works on both fronts and the tie is unmistakable and, at the very least, a tribute. (I still find it thumbs-up gutsy though)
Thanks Susan. I like your take on it.
“Copy that… Whoa…! Nearly drifted past it. Still getting my space wings, Houston, but absolutely thrilled to be amongst the stars for the first time.” I think the blend of imagery and voice (colloquial language and technical speak etc) brings this story to life. And thanks for spinning out a story in homage of Bowie; the stars look very different today- and our planet too with all the problems ground control are throwing at it. Well done, a creative take on the prompt.
Thanks Rebecca. I had hoped the Bowie reference would not be out of place in my take on the song. After finishing the piece, I found myself asking, "What now? Does he continue on or realise that loneliness in deep space is worse than sharing his world with people that want to harm it." Maybe, a future Reedsy prompt will inspire the sequel... or prequel.
Naturally, the song was in my mind as soon as I saw the title :) The conflict here is clearly a kind of spiritual or philosophical awakening, a realization of how self-harmful a lot of what we humans do, is. What I really like about this is, the realization happens when he sees the world from on high. So it literally becomes a matter of perspective, where the ambitious people back home are short sighted and can't see the whole picture. I don't know if I'm sold on the security situation here, where a lone actor can subvert such an importa...
Michal, thanks for your great feedback. The ISS is frequently maneuvered to avoid potential collisions with space junk. It's normally done by computer, manually programmed by NASA. They manage it by firing up any of the attached cargo ships or crew transports to change its trajectory, so it is possible to do the same from the onboard systems. Well... I'm sticking with that. 🙃 I may have to emphasise more, the scheduled circuit board changeover that will give complete autonomous control to Houston - taking away the ability to do so from on-b...
Excellent dialogue-driven story about an astronaut with a conscience. Nice way to end with Bowie's lyrics. And I agree with Delbert's comment, the chanteur would take pride in this creative fictional rendering.
Mike, Thank you for your wonderful comments. I hoped this story would be accepted as an extension of the great song. Since starting the story, I just can't get the song out of my head and find myself spontaneously bursting out singing its chorus...