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Here is "The Old Spaceman," one of the stories in the collection and winner of the 2004 MARCON national short story contest. Enjoy.
The Old Spaceman
There was an old spaceman who lived in our village. As sometimes happens to people who fill their lives with adventures, he had never married. His family had died long ago and most of his friends had met spectacular deaths among the stars, plunging into black holes or exploding in space.
Consequently, he liked it when our little gang of five or seven kids would come over for a visit. He had exotic gems from other planets; the mission tapes from new worlds he had explored; and in his basement he even had a complete mock-up of a space cruiser command room. If he was in a good mood, and if we begged hard enough, he would let us run “missions” that were more exciting and chaotic than even he had known, I'm sure. We counted him as one of the wonders of our domain, along with the abandoned steel mill and the waterfall near the frog pond.
But there was something wrong in his home. It's not that it was a permanent building, like the town hall and the storage depot. There were several other ancient stone and steel houses in our area. It wasn't in the smell of it or the old man‟s attitude. It was something visual, something that made one blink and involuntarily look around. After a while, it became disorienting. There was definitely something wrong with the monitor screens. Their color always needed adjusting and he wouldn't let us fix them.
Ryan spent the most time over there. He was training to be a spaceman himself. They would talk about propulsion systems and physics at a depth that both awed and bored the rest of us. One night as we were sitting by a campfire, listening to the wolves and roasting chestnuts, I asked Ryan what was so different about the old man's home.
“It's a specific wavelength of light,” he said, “kind of a reddish-orange. It's missing. He's changed all the lights so that they don‟t show it, tuned it out of the monitor screens, and if you look around…nothing—no paintings or clothes or anything has a color in it anywhere near red-orange.”
“Why is that?”
“I don't know. I noticed it a couple of months ago and I wanted to ask him, but he doesn't want to talk about it.”
“What did he say when you asked?”
“I never did ask him. I just knew we couldn't talk about it.”
“How did you know?”
“I just know, Okay? And don't you ask about it either.”
After that I thought of nothing else but how to ask the old man about it. The next time we were over there, I scrutinized his house, even sneaking off into the forbidden corners such as his sparse bedroom. Nothing that was even remotely red-orange was to be found. My initial plan was to just ask him straight out. But Ryan was right. Somehow, when I faced him with the intention of asking, it was as if he could see the question formed in my brain. At those times, he looked at me so sadly that I grew embarrassed and fidgety and talked about something else.
So I ran an experiment. At school I made a sun visor. It was a simple design; I actually only made it so that I would have something to dye red-orange. The next time we went to his house, I wore it. When he opened the door, his face was lit with his usual delight at seeing us. Then he saw me and my visor. I had never seen a person collapse in on themselves before. He physically seemed to shrink as his normally straight shoulders slouched and his suddenly very old-looking face sagged.
“Not today, boys,” he muttered sadly, “I'm not feeling too well.”
I passed his house on the way home that night and, through a window, saw him sitting with his eyes closed and his face pained, clutching at a large blue-green gem from his collection. I didn't wear the visor again, and we were able to visit as usual afterwards. But, he would always look at me differently from the other kids. When we first arrived, he would look to me anxiously to make sure that I didn't have the visor. Then, during the visit, he would suddenly stare at me and I could almost hear him thinking, 'Does he know? Will he ask?'
Of course, I should have let the matter drop once I knew its potential to hurt him. But young boys are designed to explore mysteries. If there are none to solve, we invent them. Here was a real puzzle, more absorbing than Nintendo, that I could not solve simply by asking someone. The answer had to be found elsewhere. So, I began to study the old man. I used the Web to read his old service records, even his mission logs. His life held more than its share of trauma. He had served with distinction in the brief human war with the Parazo civilization. Many years later, he became ambassador to that race. He had been in the initial survey crew for eight new planets, four of which held entirely new sorts of dangerous predators or pseudo-life forms that killed a substantial number of the crew before they figured out how to deal with them. After his retirement from the Space Corps, he had become a minor celebrity, giving lectures, cybercons, and maintaining friendships across dozens of worlds.
These researches gave me new lines of questioning. I would ask him about this planet or that battle, and he would launch us off on a dizzying story. Still his enthusiasm for these stories seemed to be fueled by his relief that I hadn't asked him “the” question or yet touched on the secret.
The stories themselves satisfied me for a while. We were like boulders awash in the roaring stream of them. Word began to spread and the seven or so of us became ten, then fifteen, then parents started coming over, too. Ostensibly, they were only bringing the younger children to listen, but all of us were equally enthralled. A webspot was set up, and you can see the last ten of these yourself at http://www.masondixonpublishing.com/spaceman.
But, my desire to solve the mystery would always return, stronger than before. I gave reports on him at school; virtually toured every ship he had flown; even studied the planets he had explored, all the time looking for that color. Finally, I learned enough to make a guess.
He had been lost in space for two years, alone, in a small scout ship. Before that, his log entries and his career had been brash, almost reckless. Afterwards, he was just as brave, but that courage was more direct, more thoughtfully applied. It was the biggest turning point I could find in his life. I struck.
The next time we visited him, I had a carefully wrapped present. I had built a small replica of the scoutship. It was as accurate as I could make it, except for the fact that it was red-orange. When he opened it, his eyes shot around at the dozens of smiling, friendly faces surrounding him. But then they were drawn, mesmerized, back to the little ship. He sighed once as a man preparing to lift a great weight. Trembling slightly, he held it up and gazed into it. Then, slowly, simply, and without his usual jokes and embellishments, he told us all his secret.
“It was supposed to be a routine survey mission. I was gathering samples and taking readings in the Trifid Nebula. A piece of space debris knocked out my engines. I couldn't steer, couldn't communicate because of the interference from the material in the nebula. At first I was frantic. I tried everything I could think of, from working on the engines to turning all the non-essential wire in the ship into a huge antenna to boost my distress signal. Nothing worked.
Then I noticed the light.
“I was traveling through a million cubic miles of ionized hydrogen. It was a glowing plasma, lit up by the energy of the nova that had formed it—glowing this color.” He nodded at my little ship. “It was beautiful. Too beautiful. I found myself looking at it more and more. I took to turning off all the ship's lighting and letting the light from outside pour in through every window, every view screen. I became able to see the minute variations, the vortexes and waves passing through the plasma. Slowly, I began to understand that even there, as close to uniformity as is physically possible in the universe, even there there was still more to see, more to learn, more to understand than could be explored in two lifetimes.
“The absolute, unwavering charity of it shook me to my core. My ship and I were tumbling through pure beauty. That I was there and that I could perceive it filled me with such a burning, overwhelming gratitude that everything else began to fade from my mind.
“My ship supplied me with food. I ate, slept, and exercised. Not because I cared about my body anymore, but because I needed to keep my senses and head clear and sharp—the better to read the brilliant scroll unwinding before me. Fourteen hours a day I stared into the swirling mists. Two hours I forced myself not to, so that I could be struck anew by the beauty of it each day. I slept eight hours.
“One day, I was suddenly out. The ship's momentum had carried me clear of the cloud. Half the windows and viewscreens showed a black space with white stars. The other half showed my color, although I was carried further from it every second. That's when I went insane. I raged about in my little ship, begging it, pleading with it to come about, plunge back into the nebula. I even tried to "will" the ship around, but I was powerless to turn back—just as I had been powerless to prevent myself from going through.
“The human voice responding to my ship's automated distress signal broke through my madness. It had been broadcasting, forgotten, useless, into the plasma. From somewhere my training kicked in and I gave the correct responses. Two years had passed. Two days later I was on a cruiser headed for Earth…” His voice trailed off. There was a long pause.
“For a long time, I thought I was all right. I could tell that I had changed, but I was still able to function in the world. Quite well, too. But in the last few years, whenever I see this color, I'm right back on the ship. I can feel the nebula taking me away, away from my home, away from Earth, away from you people, my friends. The whole of the universe will not let me hang onto this little piece of it.” His voice trailed off again. This time he did not resume. We all filed out slowly. The younger children and the older women kissed him on the cheek as they passed. No one had turned on the recorder.
A few months later, he moved away. Some people said he had gone to a retirement community on a low-g planet. But a year later, I received an anonymous e-mail with the schematics for a tiny one man ship. Its hull was 80% viewing port, fully self contained. One aspect of the control program was highlighted. When the life signs of the pilot stopped, the whole ship opened like a flower and launched him into the living mists of plasma.
I, of course, became a Spaceman.
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