I sit on the edge of my bed. Well, for the time being I can call it mine. The motel I have been calling home since the past week is a dilapidated, ram shackled building with a neon sign that reads ‘MOTEL’ with the E dimmed out, making it unflamboyant in the starry or even starless night. The unappealing double-storey structure has chipped-off paint and has seepage all across the walls. I am used to the beat-up condition so it does not really bother me anymore.
Today is the day, after all this time, after a lustrum of prolonged waiting, after five gradual years of remaining inactive. Finally!
A call came in a few weeks earlier, taking all my enthusiasm and concentration from the intense rugby match to my buzzing cell phone. I attended the phone call and a screechy, pumped up voice starts jabbering next to my eardrum as if nails were being dragged upon a chalkboard. I would have heard the man’s larynx vibrate even if I placed my mobile six feet away from where I was sitting. Despite his tone being full of energy, the news he provided me after clarifying my identity was music to my ears.
“Yes! Yes! Of course!” my dispassionate voice suddenly changing into a contented and exuberant one, just like that of the man cheering me up. An astronomical job offered to me after half a decade was mind-boggling. That time span was enough for me to convince myself that I was a failure; it was enough for me to transform into a person full of negativity. But just one question changed all that.
Thinking about entering space makes my stomach curl due to both, excitement and nervousness. Butterflies in my gut cause me to jump up and down like a child departing for Disney Land for the first time in his/her life. I cannot even cast my mind back to when I was a blissful quokka.
I take an electric blue tablet, with a gulp of water. The bitter residue of the pill caused a disgusted expression creep over my face. I swig in more of the colorless, odorless and flavorless liquid. Then, I move straight to the bathroom, fix my disheveled grayish white hair, brush my teeth, wash my face, clean shave my scruff and change into a pair of beige khakis, black moccasins and a black ‘Bee Gees’ T-shirt, which I always thought was really cool even though many people refer to my style as démodé.
After packing all my possessions, I take one last glance at the congested room, now a former abode, and lock the creaky, old, wooden door with a rusted key. Swiftly pacing towards the administration, I hand in the antiquated key and hit the road once again, the only difference being that this time I am headed for the spaceport and not another motel.
Five hours later, the digital clock in the car reads 10:09pm; the forlorn road seems to be stretching minute by minute. I impatiently keep my hands on the tough leather of the steering wheel, reminding myself not to over-speed.
Two more hours pass but now I see the vast area occupied by the modern white edifice protected by high iron grills from all sides. I take a turn which revealed a gigantic granite gate that was secured by guards and two ferocious-looking German Shepherds. After proving my identity, I am let in into the premises of geniuses. I park my car in the basement where I was led to; then a man in a gentian-blue uniform escorts me to the interior of the structure.
While briskly walking along the meanders of the long corridor, the man speaks up, “My name’s Alec. Oh! And welcome to the HOLO spaceport. Today I will be showing you around a bit so that you get familia-.” I blurted out, interrupting him, “No, no. No need to do that. I’m an astronaut. I am ‘familiar’ with all the stuff.” The officer turned slightly pink within his cheeks.
He was adamant to make me meet a few significant personalities of HOLO (which is an abbreviated form of the full names of a couple: Holland Owen and Luke Owen). It was greatly an honor to have met the Owen family members and to have had the chance to go on this mission – even though it is known to be the hardest one recorded in history – to get to mars, to see if there is life there.
“I am tired of living like this!” I thought to myself, “…fed up of walking the earth in an impecunious state. I know it is a precarious and a life-threatening mission that I have signed up for but I cannot just throw away an opportunity that fills me with content…”
Here I am, standing at the entrance of the vast room, inhaling the hard-work being done by the infinite masses. The atmosphere in the lab is tense and over-wrought, people scattered everywhere.
I soon realize that a bulky man accompanies me, seeming to be lost in his thoughts. Just a few minutes pass when I hear the clicks of a woman’s stiletto heels from behind us. Her sagging skin has been uplifted via various kinds of surgeries and the wrinkles are hidden from the heaps of make-up that she has applied, showing the color difference between her neck and her face. In a stubborn voice, she says, “I’m sorry if I’m interrupting your reverie but it is time.” And with that, she indicates us to follow her.
Outside, the scorching sun, escorted by the spacesuit I am wearing, makes me feel dehydrated. The much younger man looks over to me, reaches his rosy hand towards me for a friendly shake. I do the same, saying, “Brock Campbell and it’s nice to meet you.” He replies, “Same here and you can call me Wil Valderrama, short for Wilden.” And after flashing a smile, we both turn back to our positions.
The blistering sun, that has started to sink down in the horizon, has just about baked my back when the obstinate blonde appears with her red-blood high heels now informing us to move ahead towards the colossal, modern, stream-lined rocket. The titanium white of the missile-shaped spacecraft glimmers under the searing weather, making the daylight look dark.
We approach the aircraft; eagerness to fly it building up inside me with every step I take. A line of soldiers on both sides look straight ahead, pokerfaced just like Wil.
Once we reach the rocket, I gaze at the electric blue stripes of the transport above me; it looks like Burj Khalifa. Wilden calls out, “Impressed, huh? It’s called SPORTAC-110.” I just nod; my heart in my mouth, I climb the rusted stairs that lead to the entrance of the spacecraft, holding the railing, which has gone crimson-brownish, with one hand, and my helmet with the other.
As I do get inside, I take a deep breath, battling the tension and the anticipation away. The HOLO employees finally are out of sight the instant Wil closes the compartment door behind me, locking it. I move ahead to the rocket body, finding all the facilities needed for us to survive the probable months in this ship. Advancing, I get to the flight deck, followed by Wilden, who has already taken up the job of flying the rocket, leaving me to be the co-pilot.
I examine all the buttons; breathe in the air, the atmosphere of a spacecraft, leading me back to all the previous memories of a successful me five years ago. A small smile creeps upon my slack face, but in under a minute, I snap back to reality, buckling myself up. He says, “Ready, sir?” And all I replied with was, “Oh, I was born ready” and then with a click of a few buttons, the engines reverberate and the countdown begins….
As soon as we blast off into space, I catch a glimpse of the whole world underneath me: the aligned roads, the deserted area, but in the distance I even see the shabby houses, the modernized skyscrapers, the residential areas and millions and millions of dots that represent people walking, running, jogging.
Space looks the same. No updates; it is unchanged, just like I left it the last time I visited it. The infinite stars, just like silver glitter thrown on a black chart paper. The galaxy is a peaceful escape from the catastrophic planet of Earth. My mind lingers to thought of having a life here, which undoubtedly is unattainable. Déjà vu strikes – well, it had to –due to the distant spheres that represent the planets. The surface of the fields, even from far away, seems smooth as if carved to perfection.
Wilden intervenes between my contemplation and I, the sound of him clearing his throat distracts me, bringing me back to this world.
A few days, actually almost half a month, has passed. We refer to SPORTAC-110 as our new home, the rocket where we have to spend the dawdling eight months. Seems impossible – probably even is. We consume our rations cautiously.
As I have, once more, become used to the ‘scenery’ up ahead, the galaxy that was intriguing a little while ago is now just emanating a nostalgic vibe. One thing I have learned during this whole expedition is that Wilden is a quiet guy…or maybe, just maybe, he is a shape-shifting robot. Nah! But I still let the thought roll in my mind until it has become a knot that cannot be undone.
I grab a bottle of carbonated water and rush back to my cushioned chair. As soon as I buckle up my seatbelt, a jerk sends me straight forth until the pitch-black surface, glowing with lemon yellow and neon green lights, and the deck and I are at a hair’s breadth. Bewildered gazes are exchanged and both of us hastily unfasten our seatbelts, pacing towards our spacesuits and helmets, then directly heading to the heavy door that leads outside to the deadly environment. A high-pitched squeal of, perhaps, a heavy object being dragged on the surface of the top of our ship makes my ears stand up immediately. We stride outside our vehicle to see the cause of the dragging sound and the jolt that left us puzzled.
The feeling of being uplifted, as if I were a feather, makes me want to bury myself in my memories but I manage to fight them off. Before me is the ship, with the top layer scraped off, revealing the dark shade of metal with screws fixated to keep the structure in place. “I think the outer surface only got damaged, and it is only a portion that has been spoilt,” Wil says. I reply, “Yeah but what hit it?” He comes back at me by saying, “Probably debris of a satellite that is now in the orbit…” I nod, searching for that large chunk of whatever it was in the vast empty space but failing to find anything. As I am looking through the area, he casually raises the question, “Hey, would you mind checking if the shuttle still works?” I was always dreaded by the question.
This isn’t the first time anything has gone wrong with the spacecraft; almost every tour to space consists of a failure or dent on the used rocket. Hesitant, I answer, “Umm… sure but I have to tell you that I am not much of a spaceship flying person.” He bluntly says, “And you are certainly not familiar with the term.” Before I have time to tell him off, he makes a giggly sound, quickly adding in, “Just kidding. I mean how bad can it get?” My insides burning with rage, I think, “I’ll show you” and thump my heavy footsteps inside the metallic floor.
Uh oh! Part of me reminds me what I am about to do is wrong; however, the other part encourages me to do what is to come. I tightly lock and secure the door and run through the sections of the ship until I am at the deck. I place myself on the ‘king’s throne’. My head hurts; I clutch a handful of my white hair in a fist, letting out all the pain in the form of a bellow yelp. I dig my fingernails in the scalp of my head, as if that would prevent the demons inside me stop controlling my mind.
Five minutes of just sitting there, I adapt to the throbbing in my brain and proceed towards the infinity buttons. I take a deep breath. One side of me tells me, “Do not.” I hesitate; the other goes, “Do it.” I end up pushing the start button, hearing the sound of engines starting. I let out a smile, but that is not all. After making sure all the hums in the shuttle are absolutely clear, I buckle up and just as I am about to take off, I hear a thud on the door which is on the other side of the rocket. I ignore it and advance towards the steering. I take hold of the round object that lays in front of me, attending to the thuds at the backdoor, and blast off!
I sit in the head chair that I have possessed, uncomfortably yet comfortably at the same time. Mixtures of emotions run through my veins, making me feel uneasy. Sweat beads along my bushy brows at the thought that I left Wilden in the vacant space. I heard him scream at me, profanities leaving his mouth; I heard every bit of what he said until he was clearly out of sight. This is not the first time I have done this. People say something as a joke and I take it seriously, bursting into a fireball. I think about the episode that took place a while ago as guilt continues to overcome me….
Gradually, I move towards the planet, like a child taking his first steps, that has threatened to take away my life due to various reasons that can affect my landing on Mars; the most obvious being the thinness of air on the red sphere. I tighten my grip on the steering wheel and accelerate. Optimism fills me because of the hazy voice in my head repeating the same sentence over and over again: You are going to be the first man to land on Mars.
Drifting through the black and white canvas, my eyes become weary and heavy at the monotonous background and I start to doze off….
I wake up at the sharp sound of beeping and open my eyelids to see blinking red in the whole compartment. I realize the system has been overheated due to the speed and as soon as I am about to fix the simple problem, an asteroid-like object is visible, tumbling through the scene towards my direction. The timing is certainly not perfect; as I am about to move the ship, the humungous item hits the right side of the rocket, chipping a few pieces of glass, which allow the air to suck out. The shuttle is spinning vigorously; dizzying me and forcing me close my eyes shut.
The spiral movement does not stop but I squint my eyes open to get a peek of what is happening and I spot a hole in the middle of nowhere. As the shuttle gets sucked in that hole, I let out a mumble of an “Oh no!”
Am I dying? All the haunting memories come to life before me. Vibrant hues flow in a loop. Recognizable tones can be heard but the words do not make sense. I am oblivious of what is happening around me. Is this what death feels like? I cry for help even though I know no one would come to save me. The pandemonium lasts about two minutes according to my watch and then here I am, standing on the barren land of God knows what planet. I gag as I am thrown off the porthole with no notice of my rocketship.
I can assure you that it is not Mars; the surface is not crimson as it should be, instead it is flaxen. I glance through the region, finding nothing but a carved-out, wooden sign that reads NEBASKAS. I feel the plank which shows no symptoms of decomposing, meaning that someone must already be here and would have put this up recently. I also notice the sky which has streaks of not only orange and pink but also green and gray as well as the two suns, making it much brighter and hotter than Earth.
I saunter ahead, heedless of my surroundings, until I discern a voice going, “Aye! Who are you?” I swish around, surrendering in front of the man. All that goes through my cloudy mind is that I deserve this; my minor mental health issues and overconfidence led me to this point.
The man is not alone; he is bordered by a mass of bodies: human and inhumane. I let out heaves of my breath, judging what is seen.
My cracked voice speaks up, “I am Brock Campbell; an astronaut. I was sent on a mission to Mars but I ended up…here.” The supposed leader talks back, “We all were. There is a connection you see. Look I do not expect you to believe what you are witnessing…I mean the creatures amongst us but I have to tell you that this is your home from now on.”
My pupils dilate, “What do you mean? Is this like jail?” He makes a sour face, replying, “No one’s ever found a way out of here…” and with that I let out a grunt and a sigh, convincing myself that nothing can be done and that the hazy voice inside my head will never come back to encourage me.