|Photo by Kris Kehe|
When Bill, Vladimir, and Hayes woke, they tried to talk through ragged throats. To hear, Albert leaned in close enough to smell the vomit on Hayes’s breath. “Wish I had my gun,” he said.
Albert crept to the robot bay. He put in his earbud and called. He didn’t wait long before MASA’s crackling voice poured into his ear. “You thought about our suggestion?”
“I want you to talk to us all.”
“Is that best in their state?”
No, Albert thought, but he was tired of being the only one to wrestle with the choice. “Treat them like crew, not invalids.”
When Albert announced MASA wished to speak with them, Vladimir and Bill, even Hayes, raised their chins from the vomit bags and their bloodshot eyes searched his face. Omar counted pills, flicking each one so they collided in the tray. Albert set up a microphone to catch Bill’s whisper, “We need to launch.” He paused to catch his breath. “Soon I won’t…won’t be able to fly.”
“You cannot fly now,” MASA said and Albert relayed it to the crew. Hayes’s face sagged back to his vomit bag, and Albert looked away. “No one can fly at this time. Flight is too dangerous in this pod.”
“What about food?” Omar said. “And going home? Is another rocket on its way?”
“We must determine why IMP1 exploded before we launch IMP2 and risk more lives, and IMP2 has not passed inspection.” Albert’s mouth tasted foul as he relayed the message. “But you can continue your work. Think of all you will accomplish during months on Mars.”
“And then?” Omar said.
“Then you decide. There are cyanide capsules onboard to minimize suffering.”
It took a moment for Hayes’s pain-addled brain to process the implications of MASA’s words. He set his jaw and said, “Parade.” Poor Hayes was losing his mind, an effect of the sickness, or medication, or trauma. “Parade,” he repeated.
A parade had been planned to celebrate their return, a ticker-tape welcome in New York City, the first stop on their tour of the astronauts’ home countries. Albert, who dreamed of their celebrity before the launch, had forgotten. He mentioned it to the crew, and light returned to Hayes’s eyes.
“Without your return, it is not an efficient use of resources,” MASA said.
Hayes crumpled, and Omar bolted out of his chair, scattering pills as he charged Albert, yelling in his face as if Albert made the decision. “This disaster is Chernobyl and Challenger combined. You will leave us here to die. This is all we request: Have the goddamn parade.”
“We will consider it,” MASA said, and the line died.