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Junky Cosmonaut

My name is Ethan Kestler. About thirty minutes from now, I will forcibly eject myself from this spacecraft, with only my in-suit life support system to sustain me (a generous estimate for a healthy man in his mid-thirties: approximately fours and thirty minutes, less than half of which will be tolerable). To clarify, this is not suicide; there’s despair in suicide and although I do have despair, it’s not what motivates me to do this. There exists somewhere, on some plane, a scientist who uses me as the reactive element in his experiment. I must eject myself from this experiment for while its machinations are, fascinating—indeed, the very source of my fascination since I was very young—its fruits are the most significant horror of my adult life.

#

My wife’s name is Alana. We used to live together at 213 Empyrean Drive. I’m trying my best to entertain enough enthusiasm about the idea of my “legacy” to commit this all to audio because there is quite a bit of money attached to me and I would be an awful man if I didn’t leave it all to her, as much as she’d had to suffer as my wife. Suffer may sound too dramatic for what she went through and in some respects, it is; in others, it’s barely adequate. Most people speak to the dissolution of their partnerships as a slow process with no specific epicenter but in our case there was a very specific moment that triggered it, the day we lost our baby.

We lost the baby on a Friday. I say “lost” instead of “miscarried” because “miscarried” always struck me as one of those soft, pitiful euphemisms like “passed away” that you use because “died” sounds too harsh. In the case of a fetus, though, “died” isn’t even accurate. They’re only alive, to an extent, in as far as they’re being prepared to be independent and cogent beings. It’s the ideation of them that dies the harder death, our hypothetical conception of what they will grow to be. In that way, a fetus is half an idea and half a real thing, just like a ball in an athlete’s hands is half a goal and half the intention of a goal, and that line between ideating and the fear of failure is what cuts the hardest; you have to be on the other side of the line to succeed. The difference is, as a parent you don’t do much to entertain the notion that you’ll fail to bring the baby to term. Athletes are more realistic; they’re negotiating that fear of death at every turn.

I dreamt I met her, not as a baby but as a grown woman, someone resembling my Aunt Zelda but with Alana’s red hair; I didn’t know why but in the logic of the dream it was definitely her. That, to me, is the last I saw of her, and presumably the first anyone saw of her.

At about 11:30pm, Alana crept through the hallway on the way back from the bathroom, so as not to wake me. I shot upright in bed at what sounded like a large animal tumbling down our hallway followed by a flash of light through the seams of the closed bedroom door, like the hallway light had been turned on and off. Then I heard it: a high-pitched, “Oooo.” Next came another one, longer and higher like an owl until it finally broke:

OooooUNNGH!

The floorboards creaked, followed by a series of long low moans. Something inside me knew it was over and I didn’t stand for a full minute. If I didn’t see it, the possibility that nothing bad had happened existed just a hair’s breadth longer.

I referred to the feeling of losing the baby as The Crusher. Whenever positivity and natural goodwill attempted to resurface, The Crusher came along to sit upon and crush that uptick. I began to actively avoid food or music that I liked, certain that I would create a bad association with it and never enjoy it again. The Crusher was impossible to quantify, meaning you never knew quite how bad you were going to feel. It pulled from this bottomless well of black tar loathing that I never knew I had and whose depths where apparently vaster upon each visit. Over the course of those next few weeks, I realized that I was stuck inside that well in my mind. It’s hard to describe being psychically trapped but there I was, in the middle of conversations, in the middle of making dinner, in the middle of driving south on The 101, having a very specific idea of being stuck in this well to the point where I was entertaining escape routes, of which, I’d ascertained, there were none. Beyond that, I was sliding down deeper into morbidity, drowning in unbidden visions that were beyond what my imagination could generate on its own. At a certain point, the well was not a metaphor; I could see it in my mind’s eye, consistent in structure and dimension. The side was too sheer to climb, digging laterally was not possible as I had no tools, and lastly screaming out for help was not an option because this was not really happening and I’d risk getting committed if I tried to convince people I was stuck in a well.

Despite all this, It’s worth mentioning that I didn’t start using because of her.

#

I’ve only ever had two jobs: one as a marketing executive for a company that sold online ads for business courses (we sold the ads, not the courses) and then as founder of the Second-Wave Cosmonaut Initiative, effectively privatizing NASA and thus, all space travel.

I still remember where I was the day of the first clean launch, the way people remembered where they were on September 11th or the assassination of JFK, although I’ve never met anyone who ascribes that kind of significance to the first clean launch. I was in a bar in Reseda. I had just gotten off of work in Santa Monica but Alana was at her Mom’s in Moorpark so rather than hurry back I decided to go to the bar. I was already at my front door when I realized I didn’t have to be home. Going to a bar is not something I ever do but I don’t have friends in the Valley and I don’t keep liquor in the house so I looked online for the closest bar and The Red Baron was it. The server was visibly annoyed when I took his attention away from the two other patrons of the bar and grew more so when I didn’t know what to order. The bar just happened to be showing the launch on the TV behind him.

It was instantly weird: no explosive gas or big billowing clouds of smoke or anything close to what a space shuttle taking off looked like; just these vapors coming out of a shuttle whose design can only be described as a warped parallelogram. The mutterings about the technological innovations of the clean launch had escaped the majority of the public’s attention, including mine. This was purportedly NASA’s elaborate death rattle. Yet watching this, it looked like a victory lap in spite of its economic realities; I was transfixed and just wanted the bartender to place any drink in front of me that would end our interaction so I could focus on what I was seeing.

“Just give me whatever, please… a beer.”

“Whatever” beer was a bottle of Budweiser (apt, really). I touched the bottle and absent-mindedly left a few dollars (I didn’t look at how much nor did I bother to check for change). They were video tracking the thing all the way to the moon apparently, a flight that would take an unheard-of twenty minutes. It was the takeoff I was most interested in, the way it resisted Earth’s pull and looked so alien as it cleaved the blue of the sky, fashioning ever-lighter shades in its absence. The air around the craft turned an impossibly bright white—apparently scorching hot, hot enough to evaporate animal meat in seconds—without fuel emissions of any kind. It turned blue then red, pink, and orange like the horizon during a coastal sunset. And suddenly it was out of the blue and into the black.

That’s when I finally let myself take a breath, raise the bottle and down my first sip of the beer, which irrigated and nourished my now extremely dry throat. The bartender began speaking to me and I just mechanically nodded, transfixed as the ship cruised through space, abruptly shifting its orientation here and there until down and up became thoroughly meaningless, while the moon appeared to be drawing nearer to it smoothly as if along a string.

Before losing the baby, before junk, this was the start of the interesting part of my life. It was the first time in my adult life that I didn’t feel numb; or rather, everything seemed like numbness before this moment. I felt everything inside my body lightening, like turning thirty never happened, and I suddenly had the enthusiasm I had when I was eleven years old, reading the first book I remember as my favorite, The Inverted Parallax. Reading that was the first time I felt my imagination prodded.

The story concerned a future Earth where we discover that a fast-moving cluster on the edge of the Milky Way will “graze” our star system within a year’s time, obliterating every known planet and moon in our solar system with an influx of super-dense matter from stars 14 times the size of our Sun. The only way to prevent it is to send ships equipped with high-output gravity generators towards a set of supermassive stars, slowly attracting them towards our galaxy to create a defensive perimeter along the edge of The Milky Way thus forcing the cluster off-course and leaving our system safe. This is, however, a suicide mission; the pressure from the incoming rush of super-dense stellar material will crush the pilots’ ships. They agree wholeheartedly and after several tearful goodbyes, they set forth.

Their mission is successful but instead of dying they pass through the calm eye of the stellar vortex, sling-shotting them towards another system in time-space, one that is completely habitable and reminiscent of Earth but with less of a reliance on either technology or spirituality and more of a keen bodily awareness of scientific principles. The planet Thrakkat, whose people somehow never divided themselves from the natural world, eagerly accepted the mission’s pilots as one of their own. They live out the majority of their adult lives there, befriending the scientifically adept community of chemists, biologists, and astronomers, while taking partners and starting families in this utopian society. Eventually, they come to discover that they’d been sent a millennium into the past and that the system in which they’d grown to be old men was in the heart of the cluster they were sent to divert. The twist: their implementation of the massive gravity generators on this cluster initiated its long diversion towards Earth, the precise event that they’d been sent to prevent. It was the first time I thought that people gloss over the interesting parts of life, hurrying instead to the underwhelming inevitable.

#

It was years before NASA invited me to take my first shuttle trip that I started formulating the Second-Wave Cosmonauts Initiative (SWCI was an internal acronym; we never promoted it that way. I used it at a conference once and it stuck; people just liked it). Originally, this was to be my plan to enter the space industry, which is, of course, not an industry in that there are no attendant economic streams to space travel. But that was the whole point, I thought; I’ll create them: advertising, merchandising, investment opportunities. Why didn’t anyone think of this before? The answer is that our philosophy behind what space travel means to us began to atrophy despite the advent of the clean engine, which ought to have been a shot in the arm. The real shot in the arm, though, is never innovative products, it’s always innovative perspectives.

That philosophy had to evolve into something profoundly firm before we could carve competitive revenue streams. That philosophy etched itself onto my brain the night I watched the clean launch—space travel represents the greatest evolutionary step of the human race: exiting its environment and surviving. With no plans to terra-form or otherwise populate nearby planets and no feasible way to reach more remote habitable planets in a pilot’s lifetime, some argued that exploration qua exploration was becoming nigh on masturbatory. My gambit was that, inherently, there was a point. The point was only to keep going to space. Everything unfolds from this persistence; we become citizens of space, acquainted with it until the the next horizon presents itself.

Initially, NASA went into the red, scheduling seventeen manned missions that first year. That’s what I told them to do, without any additional influx of government money, and to the detriment of most of their successful unmanned missions, many of which were prematurely grounded or otherwise shelved. We sent more people into orbit in one year than we had in a decade, with no specific mission objectives; just to go. I distinctly remember the long spreadsheet of 4-6 digit numbers that represented the emptied savings accounts of every willing participant in Mission Control at the time. My heart sank when I realized each of these numbers represented someone’s future, potentially burned. And yet the thought of returning their money felt like a bigger failure than the attempt—at last, I was convinced of my own strategy.

The plan was to have a professional quality live stream for free viewing that we would monetize with ads; at once, simple, dumb, and ultimately effective. I didn’t know if people were going to be interested and at first the numbers were disappointing. We had until Mission 4 to break even; after Mission 3, we were about $2 million in the hole.

To my relief, Mission 4 turned everything around and then some. I was about to plead for an extension as I couldn’t imagine us breaking even, let alone soaring into the black just one mission later. It had been my hope that the live stream of the shuttle launches would grow to become a nail-biting thrill. Apparently, they were; the first few were uninterrupted with some banner ads. By Mission 4, we saw a huge spike in viewers. Then we got really lucky when the shuttle had trouble taking off. It sounds awful in retrospect but the fact that the launch looked doomed for a moment is what made us our fortune. With Mission 4’s live stream, we were trying a more aggressive advertising technique where you would get commercials during the stream but if you paid a flat fee, you could watch it uninterrupted. People were dying for up-to-the-minute progress updates so not only were almost all of our regular viewers paying in, they were calling their friends and family to check it out and they were telling them to pay as though there were no other option. And we were the only game in town: it just wasn’t popular enough for anyone to carry the stream so we had a complete monopoly on reporting this incident.

It may seem objectionable and exploitative to discuss this near-disaster as a money-making venture, but the fact is that the money and interest of the general public kept the space program afloat when it was in danger of becoming irrelevant, setting the stage for a new renaissance.

That’s when an Egyptian venture capitalist by the name of Basim Haqqi began conducting his own research. His marketing team found that in addition to playing really well with the college crowd and the 20-somethings (we knew that), teens aged 12-18—a demographic that actually buys things—were tuning in to these launches. They were over half of the 52 million hits we got on our biggest view for Mission 8. And over half of those were girls, or rather, women (well, girls) aged 14-18. One obvious reason was Calvin Forester, the 6’5” dashing black physicist in Mission 8’s crew. But we were getting 30-40 million hits on other Missions without runway-ready lookers like Forester. Actually we hit 45 million with Mission 6 with a very Plain Jane high school biology teacher on board, a white Jewish woman from Toronto named Naomi Marks. Hers and Forester’s missions were our highest rated and once again, tested highest with teen girls, aged 14-18. From this data, I formulated the same conclusion as Mr. Haqqi: outsiders on space missions are marketing gold.

You have to understand that I am not nor ever been about making money for money’s sake. Well, Mr. Haqqi is, and I definitely realized that no matter how excellent my concepts were, money was his ultimate concern in this endeavor. But the acquisition of marketing dollars through targeted ads and merchandising were only the means to execute my two-fold plan: (1) to create an economically competitive space industry—in the same way that professional athletics is an economically competitive industry—to the point where it influences social structures and possesses sufficient swagger to act on its whims, and, in doing so, (2) to get myself into space. I probably could have found easier ways to generate revenue but after witnessing a clean launch, the thought of going to space was so thrilling, it consumed me and I wanted to share that sensation like a missionary.

The discovery that outsiders rated higher than trained astronauts (we still referred to them as astronauts at this point) was the game changer for both aspects of that plan. I’d just assumed that they’d let me fly at some point, either as a courtesy or at least out of a sense of obligation if it came down to my prodding them for it. That it was now imperative to include “non-trained” (we do not say “untrained”) astronauts in launches (imperative, at least, in the economic sense) was amazingly more than a wish fulfilled; it led to a profound aesthetic sea change in the space administration, one that favored a new kind of space traveler, who was cosmopolitan, creative but not necessarily scientific, and totally apolitical as the nationalistic “space race” was completely irrelevant by this point. As a means of distinguishing this second-wave of space traveler, I suggested we resurrect the outdated Soviet appellation, cosmonaut, to maintain a respectful distinction for professional astronauts, and (although I never admitted this to anyone in Mission Control before now) because it was the aesthetically superior term.

I should confess it was at this time that I first tried junk. It sounds strange even to me that after years raised in social circles amongst lefties, artists, and iconoclasts, I didn’t so much as stumble upon heroin until I began spending all of my time amongst programmers and investors.

It was an accident. I was pitching Mr. Haqqi on a new line of space travel-themed foods while on a jet from London to LA. Mr. Haqqi was distracted and apparently not interested in my pitch, his focus steering towards his 30-year-old bottle of Balvenie and the 22-year-old body of his companion on our trip, his wife’s jet-haired yoga instructor, Alexandra (“Zandra is okay, but never Sandy,” she’d explained to me, unprompted, both times I’d met her). It was embarrassing to be the obvious impediment to two people who want to fuck so I gulped down my frustration and pretended that my pitch was over. I pretended to excuse myself to the restroom, where I forced myself to piss a few drops from my mostly empty bladder. On my way out of the restroom, I heard their moaning at the end of the corridor and even smelled the scent of pussy in the air. Perhaps it was the altitude but I was amazed at how quickly I resolved to enjoy myself, however slightly, by finding some uninhabited portion of this rather large private vessel; My tablet sat in my jacket pocket and I was more than grateful for downtime to revise, or research, or—should those prove fruitless—simply browse porn. Expecting every room to be empty and equally intriguing, I poked my head into the first door on my right that fortunately led, as I’d ideally hoped, to Mr. Haqqi’s study. The soft amber glow of Mr. Haqqi’s illuminated teak cabinets housing a variety of scotch to make Joyce blush was already proving to be more than an adequate refuge. At the very least, he owed me a shot of whatever scotch sat on the highest shelf and the cavalier-ness of putting my feet up on his desk as I read.

It was upon casually inspecting the left-hand drawer for a pen that I noticed the bag of white powder. It didn’t look, smell, or taste like cocaine. Oh shit, I remembered thinking, this is fucking junk! In a small black leather case was a completely clean and unused kit, that looked so elegant and refined with its compartments tailored to the tie, needle, and spoon, it was as if Marks & Spencer’s had it custom made for him (not impossible, actually). I couldn’t stop giggling to myself for maybe a full minute at the sheer absurdity that I was on a private jet, drinking from a bottle of scotch whose value is roughly the list price of a heart transplant, and a bag of (probably) obscenely good heroin. It’s strange to me that the decision to shoot wasn’t really that significant. At the time, I just assumed I had all the time in the world to do something incredibly stupid. The moment I felt the not-at-all-unpleasant pinch of the needle against my bulged vein, an unfathomable wisdom shaded everything in my cosmos and then I knew I’d been right.

It unfolded in stages, each one seeming like the ultimate. The shot initiated a warm rumbling that began in my feet and extended to every part of my underside. This rumbling was the fundamental that kept building, feeling ever warmer until I had the sense that I was rising up out of my chair. I closed my eyes and went with it—the sensation felt even stronger. Gradually, the rumbling peaked and subsided beneath my arms. At once, I felt lighter, like I was floating upwards, gaining speed exponentially. The rumbling turned inward. First my arms and feet, then my back each burst into a tingling sensation as the rumble dissipated from each location. Once the final and strongest rumble dissolved against my tailbone, I felt untethered, propelling through a rush of celestial concentrate, like entering the core of a star. I wanted to sit there forever but even just a glance at the cocoon of light was an eternity inside this sentient rush. If some part of me felt that this could go on forever, another part of me knew that there was indeed a destination and as soon as I’d formulated the thought, I was there: a cavernous sigh rippled through the fabric of space and sucked me in to a silence where I might sleep for lifetimes or longer if I could only conceive of such a thing. The moment I embraced it, I began a descent through the spheres back to the plush leather chair inside a jet hovering a few thousand feet above Earth’s surface.

Long before I’d returned, a plan began to seed itself in my consciousness, a plan to return here one day. It was set in motion and I’d never have to consciously take it part in its unfolding. If I’d had to be conscious of it, I don’t think I could have ever gone through with it. I pocketed one more dose to take me there when the time came.

#

By the time Alexandra and Mr. Haqqi found me—alone and on my knees, my focus shifting from the stars in the night sky to the amber desk lamp reflecting off the window—it had been six hours since I’d shot up. Initially, I hadn’t noticed the door open but I heard a loud celebratory hoot and turned around to see Alexandra holding a magnum of champagne, dancing in her white lace bra and panties, while some modernistic electronic Bollywood-esque music blared behind her. Mr. Haqqi was in his boxer briefs and dancing as well, snapping his fingers in the air as he gyrated his hips back and forth against Alexandra, shimmying and blowing kisses in the air. Both of them are perfected human specimens with olive complexions and lean, slightly muscular bodies. Mr. Haqqi looked about ten years younger than 42, with a decent set of abs and pectoral muscles. Alexandra was slim but not a waif, with sensual lips and a tight round ass that jiggled just the slightest bit each time she planted her heels in the carpet. Despite myself, and the judgment I’d cast upon them, earlier, I smiled. Objectively, they looked very, very happy in that moment.

With slow, impossibly patient movements, I made my way back to the leather armchair I had wanted to wheel towards the window to keep apace of the gestures of the sky. Before I could return, Alexandra plopped in my lap, deftly leaning the seat back and kicking her legs up.

“E-than,” She spoke with a sultry voice that had a little smokiness to it, looking into my eyes with a playful, uncommitted sexuality. “You need to come out and play with us. Don’t be alone so long, it’s sad.”

I chuckled. “It’s okay, uh… Zandy?

“ZANNNDRA!” She yelled, far too loudly in my ear. There was no offense taken apparently, as she then planted wet kisses on both my cheeks then poured champagne down my throat (I resisted slightly but really, come on…). Mr. Haqqi clapped and sat down on the desk next to us. When Alexandra caught sight of him, she leapt in a short elegant bound off of my lap, landing with both feet on the ground. She pushed Mr. Haqqi across the desk and leaned over him at an impressive 80˚ angle while standing straight upon impossibly long tanned legs atop six-inch heels, looking positively Amazonian like a Brazilian Wonder Woman.

“You!” She stabbed her finger into his chest. “Meet me in five minutes.”

“Bay-beh, I have to talk with Ethan—”

Alexandra clicked her tongue. Mr. Haqqi was smiling and feigning innocence. She flashed five fingers then marched out like a petulant yet smug child that knew it was going to get its way, flashing a peace sign over her shoulder at us.

“Hoo! Fun girl, no?” Mr. Haqqi clapped his hands together so hard, I was startled out of my chair.

“Yeah, um… definitely.”

“You’re a good guy, Ethan. You’re honest and loyal and that’s rare.” he gestured in the general direction of Zandra, who was surely impatient by now, “In this life, we get one or the other, even with the people we care about most. If we get both, we’re blessed. Honestly, the only thing that really bothers me about you—and don’t take this personally…” Mr. Haqqi perused the shelf and poured himself a drink of the medium shelf scotch. He took a deep sip and made a pleasant grimace, smiling through gritted teeth as I desperately awaited his conclusion to that sentence. I was surprisingly relaxed and objectively asked myself why my blood wasn’t boiling; I had no answer. It was liberating to realize that I didn’t care what he thought. “…But you’re such a fuckin’ schoolboy.”

That was all. We both laughed. I didn’t want to bring up what I had done but he took another pull from his drink and his tone dropped to something altogether more funereal.

“You look fucked up, man.”

“I’m sorry?” I wanted to care.

“I said, you look fucked up, Ethan. Your eyes; I can see it in your eyes.”

There was no point in lying though I chuckled as the thought crossed my mind.

“It’s because I am. Fucked up, I mean.”

Mr. Haqqi cracked up when I said this. He covered his mouth, laughing while his eyes bugged out. This should tell you how good of a guy I am that he was this surprised to see me high.

“Wow, man. You are full of surprises! And what would Missus Ethan say about this?”

“Nothing.” I answered him confidently, simply, and—somehow—ambiguously. I liked that.

“I don’t believe that.”

To that, I just smiled. He didn’t expect this sort of thing from me, I know, but right now it appears that he’s so surprised that he’s questioning other things that he’d taken for granted. Like maybe when he cheats, his wife is also not being faithful and doting at home. Like maybe Zandra doesn’t worship his dick or even his money and just needs to be near him so she can be near other things, people she couldn’t meet otherwise, places she couldn’t find alone. Yes, this was weird for him and for me too but I had about five months left until I was going to be a dad and I had a couple of feelings left to feel for the sake of being well-rounded. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was enjoying his confusion at my moral complexity, but I don’t have it in me to delude others for longer than a few minutes. I poured another drink, again from the top shelf, and clarified.

“She won’t say anything because she won’t know.”

Mr. Haqqi was visibly less nervous now that he had a handle on my process here. “Oh, look at you! Mr. Boy Scout throwing away his merit badges.” He waved his finger at me like one does to a child. “A-jeeb, we say in Arabic; very strange of you, Ethan.”

At this point I got defensive; The very last thing I needed right now was his judgment. “Look, Basim: I love my wife but I can have a fuckin’ internal life that doesn’t always include her.”

“And your baby? If you become a junky, what happens to her? Your baby’s gonna have a junky for a daddy?”

“I won’t become a junky because I won’t get addicted.” Of that fact, I felt supremely confident. I inhaled a deep lungful of air and went on. “And I love my life. That all makes my transformation into a junky an impossibility. That isn’t self-control, either; that’s just how I am.” Mr. Haqqi stared at me while I went on this impassioned diatribe. I felt like I was winning him back and that made me happy. Mr. Haqqi nodded and had a look on his face like he knew I was going to say that. I wanted him to stop acting like he knew where this was all going. And I wanted the whole thing to be less damn serious. “But really, I was just so fucking bored on this very, very long flight.”

That did it. Mr. Haqqi laughed and clapped in that way he often does. I liked that. It made me feel like I’d put on a good show. Whether or not I was being honest, I guess this was a show. It was time for the encore, though I wasn’t the one presenting it; Mr. Haqqi dropped that bomb:

“You know, that shit you took is not just junk.”

My skin felt cold. “That right?”

“It is junk, but it’s more than that, too. Experimental shit. Psychotropic opioids. You like?” Perplexed over what to make of this, I just smiled and sipped scotch. There was really nothing else to do. Mr. Haqqi toasted me. “Ethan, I gotta go but let me tell you, that took some balls, man.”

I toasted him back. As he stumbled out of the room, I remembered my question. It took me a moment to speak up; I almost didn’t ask. At the time, I had no idea why. “Speaking of balls, Basim, what do you think about sending me up?”

He froze and glanced over his shoulder, though we didn’t meet eyes. He turned and still wouldn’t look at me. It almost seemed as if he were trying to discern what I meant by this vague statement though I knew he knew what I meant.

“The next mission, in two months. I want to go up. I want to be a cosmonaut.”

My heart was sinking; he was still giving me that look. There’s only two people who can decide who goes up: me, because I confirm what’s marketable, and him, because he writes the checks. Beyond that, any unwashed idiot in a bio-suit can fly. I’m not necessarily marketable enough to meet our current numbers though I’m more than willing to say that I am. If you were to ask me right then and there, I would tell you he wasn’t buying it. I took a deep breath and started pitching him on it.

“Amateur numbers are still quite—”

“Sure.”

“Sure?” I choked on my own saliva when I realized what he was saying. “What does ‘sure’ mean?”

“You going on the next mission. You becoming a cosmonaut. Yes. Fine. It’ll be brilliant.”

“Oh.” It had been too easy. Everything I’d been working towards sealed with a conversation that I almost didn’t have the wherewithal to make happen. And if what happened next in my life was any indication, this was a conversation that may never have happened. “Okay, then.”

“I’d love to go too, bro. But, you know, I take these heart meds and I don’t think my doctor would approve. Or my father. Or my shareholders. Haha.”

Though I was acting very cool on the outside—like we’d been on the same page all along—inside I was bursting with the amalgamated glee of receiving a blowjob while hitting a home run in the World Series. Just moments prior, it had appeared as though things were about to go very, very poorly and I’d end up regretting everything I’d done and said on that jet—especially the junk.

Now, looking back, it all seems like empyreal perfection.

#

“That might be the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard.”

Gutted doesn’t begin to describe the way I felt when Alana rejected my already-well-in-motion plans to go on the next mission. To be fair, she didn’t know this was some big dream of mine. It seems ridiculous to say it out loud, but I’d never expressed it in as many words, always presuming she’d picked up on my intentions through osmosis or something. She assumed this was designed as a publicity stunt and that I could take it or leave it, otherwise I don’t think she would have been so harsh. Even then, I was hesitant to tell her that it was indeed, a big dream. If I didn’t tell her, I could pretend not to care and be a bit more dispassionate and effective while arguing.

“You know, it’s actually quite safe.”

“Uh, it’s not safer than you not going at all!”

“Statistically, it’s a lower risk than jaywalking.”

“One word: Challenger.”

“That’s not fair. Compared to what we’re using these days, those poor bastards were riding a hot-air balloon.”

“Jesus Christ, Ethan. I cannot believe we’re discussing this! You…are going…to be…a dad.”

I hated when she took that tone with me, like I was being impulsive and reckless. In retrospect, I wish I’d been able to somehow turn off every desire in my brain and just fall in line with her whole argument. Instead, I lied.

“Fine. You obviously feel very strongly about this. I’ll have them send someone else instead of me.” It was a side effect of my eagerness to fulfill this wish that I was so lazy with the subterfuge. Alana flinched like she’d felt a snap of whiplash; I don’t typically give in that easily. Still, she bought it.

“Okay, um…okay. What do you want for dinner?”

I said I didn’t care. She said she’d make rabbit stew. It was a full ten minutes before she started to cry. I remember distinctly: she began crying while she chopped the carrots. I’d remembered because I thought it was strange that the carrots and not the onions were making her cry. She set the knife down and leaned against the counter. I started rubbing her arm to see if she was okay and that’s when she finally let her tears out in earnest. Then she began apologizing to me through sobs. “I’m sorry, Ethan. I’m sorry I didn’t let you do something you wanted to do. I’m really, really sorry. I mean it.” My heart sank. I didn’t say anything; I just kept rubbing her arms and shushing her until sobs settled into sniffles. She went on. “Just when you said that. The only thing I could think in my head was the word, ‘widow’. It wasn’t even that I imagined the shuttle crashing or anything like that; I just kept seeing that word flashing in my brain and I couldn’t turn it off and I—”

“Sh-sh. It’s okay. I’m not going.” I know I sound like a monster for still planning to go and at this point, I wouldn’t disagree. I’d compartmentalized this space mission apart from every other commitment in my life so in a way, I wasn’t betraying anything or anyone; another person was going to do those things. I was a spy in my own body and the worst part is that it was all kinds of fun.

Dinner was delicious. We made love that night, which was rare at this point in the pregnancy. She initiated, probably fueled by the trauma of my near-death in her mind. We got down to it like savages, drunk on each other’s stink. I fell asleep with my hand on her baby bump. The next day, I asked Mr. Haqqi to arrange for someone to fly in my stead, someone who would be unavailable for the launch until the very last minute and for whom I would serve as a last-minute replacement. This replacement would occur so close to the launch, there would be no time to announce it and only those watching the broadcast (which Alana, thankfully, never did) would be aware of my presence on the craft. Mr. Haqqi was so sympathetic to my situation, he’d even suggested I adopt a name and a disguise: grow a beard and bleach my brown hair—a style I’d never cotton to in a million years—to ensure no one noticed when I got on board. He even offered to pick me up from my house—he’d bring breakfast including Alana’s favorite latte in The Valley—to deliver the pretense that we were on our way to the airport to fly to Dubai for a fundraising trip, all for the sake of bolstering an alibi beyond second or third blush. There’s no one better than an adulterer to cross your ‘T’s and dot your ‘I’s when manufacturing a lie.

As it turned out, none of that ended up being necessary.

#

I was sleeping on the chair in my office, two floors up from Mission Control, the morning of the launch. I woke up smelly and unshaven from several days’ worth of neglect and didn’t bother to so much as brush my teeth, much less disguise myself before the launch. I was taking a shot of bourbon every time I thought of my wife’s stomach, plump with our baby.

#

It was exactly fourteen days prior to the launch when I received a phone call from Mr. Haqqi. It seems that the “dummy” cosmonaut who I was to replace on the flight was getting mightily attached to the idea of flying. This man was his business partner U. Gene Gibraltar, a man who was now threatening to expose Haqqi’s affair with Zandra and—this was the really fucked-up part—reveal the identity of their out-of-wedlock son who could potentially stand to inherit all of Haqqi’s fortune when he comes of age. “You see my problem here, Ethan? This bastard Gibraltar, I mean…I’m really, really sorry, man.” Incredulity and numbness contended through my nervous system until I finally slapped myself. This bullshit billionaires’ soap opera was preventing me from my dreams. I didn’t know what to say. I just dropped my phone to the ground without saying goodbye.

At that point, Alana walked back into the kitchen. She’d brought me my favorite breakfast: strong french roast with a spoonful of cream, an everything bagel with lox cream cheese, cucumbers and tomatoes, and a handful of strawberries. She smiled that beaming smile she gets from a full night’s sleep. Her baby bump looked glorious—lovely and round. I was so disarmed by this scene, my lower lip trembled and I began to cry.

“What’s the matter, honey. Did something happen?”

I took the tray from her and set it down. Then I nuzzled my nose into her neck. I breathed in deeply the smell of her lavender soap. If I could somehow manage it, I thought, I will never leave the crook of her neck again.

#

When I went to bed that night, there were no omens foreboding what was to come in a few short hours save for the fact that my wife did not go to bed with me and never did come to bed before it happened. She felt “up” and wanted to eat and work a little.

It was 11:30 P.M. Alana made that sound:

Ooh.

Then this:

“Ooooo…UNNGH!

The weak spot in the floorboards creaked, leaving just that moan. It was over.

Alana wanted to be alone after she lost the baby; it seemed she was repulsed by any human presence, much less mine, on the most fundamental level. She couldn’t even look at me. That’s when the sick feeling in my stomach from losing the baby quivered and turned into real tears flowing down my cheek. It took that—my wife being unable to find comfort with me—to break me; not the deluge of uterine blood that hit our floors, not her sitting spread-eagle on the wood while gathering the blood between her legs, not her finally crying and resting her head on the blood-soaked floorboards; that all looked so unlike my life, I couldn’t process it as real. That’s how real horror feels—like numbness.

She wouldn’t answer me, no matter how many times I called her name, no matter what I said to console her. She spent the whole night out there on the floor, soaked in her own blood. Eventually, 6:30 AM hit and I couldn’t keep my eyes open. The blood had clotted onto the floors. I remembered thinking our floors were ruined. I walked into our bedroom and literally fell asleep, landing unconscious on my face from a standing position.

It was only while asleep that the gears began turning in my mind and I started to process the whole thing. That was it. We won’t try to have another child; Alana won’t put herself through that again. She won’t risk that disappointment of losing a second child. She’s done and that means I’m done. We will not have a family. I felt like I’d dreamt all that until I woke up later that afternoon to find my pillow damp with tears. I walked around the house and everything looked caked over with this white film; I couldn’t clear my eyes or see straight at all. Walking into the kitchen, I could make out Alana through the haze, sitting at the dining table, facing the window. At this point, the haze was so frustratingly thick, I deliberately knocked my head against the wood cabinet in the hopes that I could see straight afterwards. It worked but unfortunately it startled Alana who dropped the bottle of red wine she’d been holding, sending it crashing to the white tile below. We were both frozen, staring at the second deluge of red liquid to cover the ground in our home. With that, she made my decision for me.

“You have to leave.” She didn’t qualify this statement and truly she didn’t need to. She wasn’t leaving me; she was letting me go. I just nodded.

That’s how it ended. If there had been more to me and I’d opted to move on to the next stage of my life, I’m sure we’d have reconnected, possibly even reconciled. I can’t quite explain what switched inside me from that point on but the long game in life ceased to matter. The only thing that made sense was a simpler point-to-point wiring of reality. The whole notion of working towards a future fizzled; suddenly that white film was gone and the circuitry of my new world made itself known. Every phenomenal or imagined aspect of reality became a source of pain; water, air, humans—every joyful thing on Earth was suddenly and drastically inverted into the perfected utensils of Hell. I felt as though I was being hunted and extracted from the Book of Life. In light of these unexpectedly dire circumstances, I took my second trip. It was not going to be the transcendent leap I’d hoped for, but the pain was unbearable and demanded to be dealt with.

#

The second time was like an inverted version of the first: I felt that rush focus itself inward. Instead of my body propelling forward into the vastest realms of space, I felt that vastness compress, converging towards a point centered right in the middle of my forehead. It felt like God was drilling the heavens into my skull. I watched as that limitless celestial wash compressed itself and just at the threshold of a pressure that would have caved in my cranium, it actually asked me for permission to do so. There were no words spoken, it just wanted me to express my willingness.

So I did. It was at that point that the rush drilling itself into my brain began to take form. Star-like specks congealed into recognizable shapes, shapes that slowly took dimension like topographic maps converging into a sea of human faces and bodies, glowing full of light. A swirling morass of illuminated humanoid wraiths whirled in a vortex, expanding and contracting its circumference from as narrow as a pinprick to wider than the visible night sky. Amongst them, I caught eyes with a woman who was a motionless light inside the vortex. She saw me too and she flew back towards my direction to offer me her hand. The first time, it was too sudden and I missed it; she got caught in another revolution of the vortex and flew far away, small as a pinprick. I never lost track of her though, and this time she flew back from a different angle. As she approached me, she aimed herself to arrive behind me. I thought she would miss me again until suddenly I felt myself rising up. I looked back and saw that it was her carrying me as we both floated up towards the eye of the vortex. Floating and rising ever higher, she reoriented me to face her.

She was a beautiful young woman roughly my wife’s age. In fact, I saw much of my wife in her and immediately became enamored of her face; there was then no doubt in my mind that this was what our adult daughter would have looked like. How I was seeing her now and how somewhere in the universe there was a conscious notion of her as an adult when she never survived to be an infant, was completely beyond me though it was only a question I asked myself when this vision subsided. Inside the depth of this vortex it all made perfect sense.

Her stare cut holes in my brain, amplifying the only thought worth thinking: Alana returning from the bathroom, just before a deluge of blood spilled from her uterus. I tried to push the thought away but the woman, this grown facsimile of what may be my daughter, drew closer, asking, “Let me see…” The holes in my head were getting deeper. “Let me see… Let me see…” Her insistence made me want to hide but there was no way I could. Alana was lit up in my head, stark as the moment I found her. A flood of light cast upon her; she flinched from the brightness and the scene grew so impossibly real, I was there, repeating the horror. For some reason, we were seeing her from above and behind, from what was an impossible vantage point for any person in our house. It would have to be coming from the wall, or more specifically, the crown molding. This could only be the view from our security camera.

Suddenly, it all became clear: this woman was not my daughter. “Shh” she repeated, smiling and rushing towards Alana, nullifying the vision in a swarm of grey. Everything went black and the vortex collapsed in on itself. It all happened so fast, stripped like the details of a dream upon waking.

I returned to consciousness in the backseat of my wife’s Subaru. The sunlight played with the cloudy watermarks on the back seat window. One of them looked like her, I swear it—that woman or spirit or banshee that impersonated my adult daughter. I mashed my cheek against the glass and tried to mimic the wheezing sound my wife made the night she lost the baby.

The only thing left to do was prepare for my first mission into space and my last day on Earth.

#

My next destination was the home of Mr. Haqqi where I’d inelegantly attempt to acquire the rest of the bag of psychotropic junk. As I’d expected, he wasn’t willing, yet I debated him continuously and dispassionately.

“Absolutely not.”

“I’ll pay you everything I have for it.” I was so effective at keeping the boiling terror in my brain at bay, I was honestly scaring myself.

“What, you think I need your money? Everything you have I spend in one day.”

“Then just give it to me as a favor.”

“No, my favor to you will be to call the police, my friend.” Very much unlike me, I decided to pull something really awful.

“I can call the police too, Basim. But I can tell them about more interesting things than experimental heroin.”

“You bastard.”

“No. Your bastard.”

“Fuck you, Ethan. What’s the matter with you?!”

“It’s not good, Basim.” I wanted to tell him but where to stop? How could I explain what I saw this morning? It had gotten all too fantastic.

“What about that shit about having something to live for?”

“That’s unfortunately no longer the case.”

He was silent. What do you say to someone who tells you that? Nothing—that’s what I was banking on. However, he wouldn’t be Basim Haqqi if that’s all it took for him to give up.

“You are being stupid right now and I’m not going to let you do this.”

“Yes, you will.” I’d never spoken that defiantly in my life. I didn’t even know what I was going to do to back that up.

“Then tell me why. Why would you go back on your word? If you feel so strongly, make me feel strongly too; the way you did when you convinced me to invest in the Initiative. Make me feel that way about…this.”

I wasn’t ready for that. I truly had nothing to say to him. I just stood there, stone-faced. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel strong in my conviction that I should be on the next mission with a bag of the psychotropic opioids while I dissolve into deep space. The fact is, I was already there in my mind. This was a momentary nuisance, a by-product of the phenomenal experience. Speaking seemed crude so I chose to remain silent.

“Alright, well, if you have nothing to say—”

His phone buzzed and he removed it from the pocket of his polyester track pants. Whatever the person on the other end told him made the blood drain from his face almost instantly. He kept saying, uh-huh and the occasional wow. He hung up the phone and shot me a horrific look. At last he asked me something that might’ve shocked me if I wasn’t already terrified by my own demons.

“Ethan, tell me honestly: you wouldn’t…kill someone, would you?”

“What?! No.” I was too numb to even process this accusation. My pulse didn’t quicken. Mr. Haqqi shot me a sideways glance, his mouth agape, glancing dumbly at the phone in his hands.

“You know who that was?” I shook my head. “Gibraltar’s people. He died last night. Of an aneurysm.” I nodded, still unsure what this had to do with me. “In his sleep. At like 11:30.” My face turned white; I felt it starting. “They said his…that his temple caved in at a point, like he’d been drilled in the head. There was no sign of struggle or a weapon.” I touched my forehead and remembered everything in that vision so clearly it outshone this reality. That was what finally cut me deep.

Mr. Haqqi rubbed his mouth and started fishing around in his pocket. “Too fucking weird, man.” He tossed his airstrip passcard to the ground and walked back into his house. There were no words exchanged. He just repeated the same thing a couple more times. “That’s just too fucking weird. Too fucking weird.” Then he walked back into his house. I picked up the keys and felt a surge run through my body. I felt like a spy with no mission, engaged in deep metaphysical espionage for its own sake. Before I left his property I had a tormenting sensation that I’d split into two consciousnesses and one half of me wasn’t telling myself something that the other half of me knew. This sensation followed me around all day until I found the psychotropic opioids in Mr. Haqqi’s office at the airstrip and began to focus on my last trip.

#

The morning of the launch, I could’ve probably been admitted to an emergency room, so severe was my alcohol poisoning. There was a plank that I maneuvered my legs onto, and it was all I could do to hold back vomit. The news feed was saying I was some kind of artist—a sculptor from Greece, I think?—and that I looked “groggy cool”. My apparent composure was fortunate only for the sake of not getting kicked off the mission; I didn’t particularly care what anyone thought—ironic, because this was our biggest launch ever. My family became very, very rich today. At 35 years old, I could have retired.

Providence kept me here—I was a total mess but something wants me on this ship. As we boarded, they asked each of us our names: I flashed a peace sign, everyone laughed. Once aboard, I’d expected to need some sort of distraction to refit my suit’s glucose IV with an opioid one. There was nothing but distraction abounding as every cosmonaut detailed their flight experience and mourned the loss of the man I had always been intended to replace on this mission. Of course, no one from the press recognized who I was, and just as well. I folded my suit into a port adjacent to the airlock, and with every pertinent task relating to my final hours at last sorted, I plugged in my caffeine IV and let my mind wander.

The shape of the vortex from my opioid vision quests rushed back to my mind. It seemed to be a fingerprinted form of my infinity, a vision of the cosmos from my vantage point. I’d spent my first journey into infinity exploring the extra-human beauty of the universe. I saw things I was probably not supposed to see. The next journey was indulgent and dangerous—I’d allowed myself to be hunted by an assassin, specifically a reaper of consciousness; I knew that now. Whether she led me there or I led her there was the last question to plague me before I inserted the opioid IV.

My logic is convoluted but that doesn’t mean it isn’t sound. I said goodbye to my family and hoped they would forgive me, if not now, then somewhere in eternity. The last thought I want to leave with anyone concerned for my well-being is that I could not be happier at this outcome given the circumstances. Here, there is no judgment, only awe and peace. It’s perhaps fitting that such a biologically untenable setting as deep space—combined with the nullifying opioid high—should so simply meet every need that the most complex circumlocutions commonly known as “lives” could not dream of satisfying. Here, I will burn my whole candle in one blessed night. To the cries and confusion of my cabin mates, I open the airlock and allow the cosmos to suck me out in a rush and drill its beauty into my brain again. Smiling, I can only wave to them as they stare in horror from their seats. I’m leaving this world, alone, and high on the unbearable light of our only star.

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