The fear electrified her fingers. She felt the prickle of urgency throughout her arms and legs. In training, she'd been taught to modulate herself, to notice when her heart began to race. "Our emotions interfere with our ability to think and problem solve," the trainer had said. "You must use techniques to calm yourself." For her, the most effective had been box breaths. She inhaled to a count of eight, held it to a count of eight, breathed out to a count of eight, and paused for eight before inhaling again. Then repeat. Then repeat again. She wondered if her heart rate was starting to decrease. At least the pounding of her pulse seemed to be less pronounced.
She hadn't noticed that the cockpit emergency lights were on that something was wrong. It was one of the engines. It hadn't separated from the craft, but had burned up on its own, overheating and causing the emergency lights to go on. Her life's ambition, to reach space as an astronaut, had now been realized, but she would not be returning to earth. She would orbit and last as long as the water and food reserves would, she thought. Or, she would reach desperation and do something foolish, attempt a landing, crash and burn up in space.
She fought with herself to control her thoughts. "No," she thought. "The first thing is to try to reach ground control," she knew. She depressed the communication device. There was crackling on the other end. Heat from the still connected engine must have damaged it. Her mind flashed back to the other times in her life when she'd not known how things would go. Her mother had breast cancer. She'd held her hand and felt her own waves of nausea when the chemotherapy was too much for her mother to bear. Against all odds, her mother had survived. More than that, she'd gone on to live another thirty eight years until the Good Lord had taken her away. Then there was the time that Lonnie had wrecked his motorcycle and ended up in the ICU. That hadn't gone so well. She'd grieved tears that only a parent predeceased by her child could know. She and Bill had grown apart, and the death of Lonnie only made the gulf wider. It was then that she'd volunteered to fly the mission. She had nothing left to lose, right?
She depressed the communication power button again. The lights were on, but there was only static on the other end. Another box breath and she knew that her heart rate had dropped. She would turn off the red light. Maybe then she could gather her thoughts.
It was difficult to maneuver in the spacecraft. Although she'd done simulations at NASA, they hadn't replicated the feeling of being weightless. Now she felt tired and she wished that she could simply turn around, as she was able to on earth, and simply disconnect the emergency lighting. She rotated. It was too much. She missed the switch on the first pass. No matter, she thought, I can do it again. But then, she saw it. She'd drifted up to the bay accidentally. She'd simply let herself go, and there it was, hanging in space, the blue marble.
She remembered as a child being fascinated by the view of earth from space. It had looked so pretty, a tiny kaleidoscope sphere, with mountains and oceans and deserts. But now, when she looked, she could only see how tiny and fragile it was in this vast, cold space. She could hear her breathing, measured and slower since she'd made efforts to control it. The many others who had breathed before her lived on that tiny planet, the third from the sun.
She couldn't stop herself from thinking about them now. There had been prehistoric men, men who scrawled on caves with stones or ink procured from plants. They probably hadn't known that they were leaving behind a legacy of pictographs that future generations would see. There had been others, much different. Caesar, she thought, who had lived through wars and conquests, deceits and victories, later eclipsed by other chapters of history. As she reviewed a historical timeline, she thought about how each life had been only a blip on the radar of time, the most famous and infamous, when viewed in terms of temporal existence, had been so insignificant. And now, she thought about her own mission. She'd be lying if she said that she hadn't enjoyed the accolades.
She'd studied hard to get here. She'd been first in her class, male or female and had been in top physical condition at the Air Force Academy. She'd suffered hardships while there, and told no one. All that time, she'd fed a secret wish. It had been a wish for significance. She'd wanted to do something meaningful. Classmates who'd gone to work for research labs had made lots of money, but to her it had meant nothing. Why work for the trappings, she thought? It was so easy to become distracted. But now, while looking out at earth, she saw that her own ambition had been but another type of distraction. Significance. A chimera. She would be lost to the great swallow of time just as easily as the others had been. Her mission was infinitesimal compared to Caesar's reign. Had she really ever believed that it mattered?
Something was crackling. It must have been the communication system. She depressed the power button again and spoke, "Cassiopeia to ground control." She thought she heard something. Amid the crackling of the sound system, she strained to hear it. Then it stopped. Her eyes were almost closed, she realized. She'd been straining to cut off her other senses in an effort to hear. "Cassiopeia to ground control, are you there?"
Nothing. She found herself drifting back to view earth. It hung in the atmosphere, tiny, vulnerable. She thought now of the animals. There were the tiny Florida deer that she'd seen from time to time on her way to astronaut training. They were small, with spindly legs. They had no means of defense, she thought. She now felt an affinity for them. Like her, they had no pro-active means of avoiding death. Running away, she thought, or orbiting until I'm rescued, if ever. On the deer were even tinier insects, the deer tick, a butterfly, those animals were even smaller. Some were so sensitive to predators, to changes in the environment that they were endangered. So precious, she thought, just existing on that tiny planet, so different from the other planets. They will not last, she thought. Their existence, like mine, only fleeting. We will not last.
Strangely, this thought did not make her panic. Instead, she felt at peace. She'd always been laser-focused on achievement. Now to be in pursuit of such things seemed so silly and pointless. Mistakes she'd fretted over, worried over the psychological testing she'd undergone, overtraining physically, because she'd feared she wouldn't be strong enough for the mission. Those things didn't matter. They were things that only she had cared about, and now she saw them in their true light, small and insignificant.
It was beautiful, really. To live on that tiny planet, third from the sun. What did matter, really? The only important thing was to co-exist, she thought. The only legacy that she could leave would not be one of objective significance. The only thing that mattered would be subjective significance, what she had done that had meaning for another singular person, or another singular living being, with the rest of her achievements forgotten, or gorged by the insatiable appetite of time.
"Are you there? If so, respond! Cassiopeia, if you are there, please respond!" She heard the voice coming through over the communication system. It jarred her out of her reverie and she swam back to the communication system.
"This is Cassiopeia. I thought I'd lost you," she said. "Engine four failed to disengage, I think there's been heat damage to the craft."
"Hang on Cassiopeia, we are with you."
And there it was. So many miles away, those fragile earthlings hard at work in a lab in Florida. They had no idea that their mission was futile. Or did they? She'd been box breathing for so long now that she feared she'd made herself lightheaded. And now, when she passed by the bay again, and saw earth, she no longer panned the rest of space. It was as though she had zoomed in, with the planet becoming larger and larger until she could see that clouds were not part of the planet, but hung miles above it, preventing harsh UV rays from destroying the fragile life that inhabited it. She imagined speeding through the sky and then downward, seeing trees and swimming pools and finally the NASA base, ground control. She could imagine Jimmy Ness, her chief engineer, seated before his motherboard. He'd be wearing his headset, and she could imagine his light blue eyes focused on the controls, oblivious to the black nothing that surrounded them all. All he would know was his colleague of some fifteen years, hanging in space, and what he would need to do to bring her in.
"Cassiopeia, we have a team working on the burning engine now. Please standby. We're going to get you back home."
"I'm here," she heard herself respond. "And I see you."