Intergalactic Medicine Show     Print   |   Back  

The Man in the Pillbox Hat
    by Mjke Wood

The Man in the Pillbox Hat
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

Owen laid the mobile phone back onto the smooth, yellow tree stump that served as his table. It had a full charge and three bars of signal. The only reason it wasn't ringing was because nobody was calling him. He didn't want it to ring, but until it did that knotted rope of anxiety that coiled in the pit of his stomach would only grow.

He was being stupid. He should have gone to meet Carol. He should be standing to attention, now, on the pitching deck of the USS John F Kennedy, the token male amongst the dutiful and obedient Astronaut Wives Club. He had chosen, instead, the company of his sheep and his goats on his hill farm overlooking Coniston Water. He had chosen to stay in a place where there was no TV and where the only mobile phone reception was up here, on top of the small hill behind his farmhouse.

He loved this exposed position and soon the rain would come, Owen could smell it in the breeze. He had no shelter and he didn't care. He had the rough bench that he had fashioned as a boy with his own hands; he had the tree stump table his father had crafted; he had mobile phone reception, of sorts; and he had the finest view in all England. What more could he ask?

Well, he could ask for the safe return of Carol, his wife. Carol Dawson, the first woman -- the first person -- ever to set a footprint on Mars.

He could ask. Part of him wondered, though. It was a nasty, selfish dark side that Owen hated and that he tried to lock away and subdue. But the creature was there, cajoling, asking the question: Do you really want her back? Really?

Because she had changed. How could it be otherwise? She had been to Mars.

And these thoughts had nothing to do with choice. A safe return was not a foregone conclusion, it never had been. But now? Well there were problems. The heat shield: the press were giving the crew fifty-fifty. Hell, fifty-fifty had been good odds at one time, in the space game.

Two things could happen: Carol Dawson and her fellow astronauts might soon be home, safe.

Or they might be ash.

And one way or the other the phone would ring.

It was something to do with explosive bolts. They knew about it from the start, two years ago, when stage-four separation had lit up the mission control panels like Blackpool Illuminations. Damaged electrical insulation they said. The shield could separate prematurely. Or not at all.

The six astronauts had considered the risk. There were two landers, either of which could be used for Earth or Mars re-entry. Ample redundancy. Until after they used one. NASA had weighed the risk and the political fallout, but had allowed the crew a vote. Six ayes. None of them had any intention of going all the way to Mars just to slingshot straight back home.

That was when Owen knew for sure that he had slipped down to second place, losing out to a red, airless, desert world.

He loved Carol, there was no question about that. He wanted her back with a yearning that bordered on physical pain. But would the Carol Dawson that had seen the sunrise on Mars be the same Carol Dawson who used to wake before dawn to come fell running with him, just the two of them, at peace with the mountain? Would she be the same Carol Dawson who used to sit with him on Dow Crag under the star-filled, new-moon sky, waiting for the gold of an Earthbound sunrise? Waiting for their sunrise.

They had been for a pre-dawn run on that final morning. They had shared their dawn moment with fifty photographers, fifty panting, sweating, disgruntled paparazzi, but that sunrise had not belonged to them, just as Carol no longer belonged to him. Now he had to share her with the world. Owen supposed he and Carol had been on the front cover of every newspaper on the planet that day. He didn't know for sure, though. He hadn't bought a paper.

Why don't they just stop at the International Space Station on the way back? Many had asked this. Call in for a few days. Tea and biscuits and a friendly chat with the Station residents, then bomb back down to Earth in a Soyuz.

Well, sorry, it doesn't work like that. You don't just slip into a gentle low Earth orbit, because when you come back from Mars you are barrelling. The way to slow down is to plunge into the atmosphere, performing a series of tricky aerobraking skips to burn off speed. It's a "pants on fire" maneuver, delicate, violent, and dangerous. Even when the heat shield is good.

There was a sound, a vibration from his phone. Owen snatched it up.

"Hello! Hello!"

Nothing. A phantom. A cruel trick of the wind.

Owen inspected the phone for the fiftieth time. Full charge. Three bars. When they called, he would know.

He placed the phone back onto the tree stump. He stood and stretched and revelled in the solitude that surrounded him. Not quite solitude. In the distance, an ant-like procession of day-glow ramblers; red, yellow, orange; slogged their way up the Walna Scar Road towards Goat's Water and the summit of The Old Man of Coniston, an arrow straight formation of humanity, each consumed in his own world of pain and wonder. They were not sitting at home glued to the TV, praying and keeping vigil like every other member of the human race, as the media would have us believe. Nor did they pay any heed to the lonely Astronaut Husband who stood on his hill watching them, waiting for his phone to ring.

Perhaps it was this very solitude that had drawn Carol to the red planet. Plenty of solitude on Mars. But no wind in your face. No rain.

Carol had never had aspirations of becoming an astronaut. The irony of it was, it had been Owen's idea. He, on the other hand, had never desired the life of a hill farmer. That had been Carol's idea. Funny how things turn out.

They had met at Lancaster University. Owen, the son of a farmer, looking for a way to escape the loneliness and the sheep and the rifle-bullet rain. Carol, the daughter of a city banker looking for a way to escape the corrupt construction of deceit that had become her family home, choosing Lancaster above Imperial College or Cambridge just so she could run away to the mountains at every weekend opportunity.

When Owen's father had become ill, Owen had been forced to quit university. Carol had stayed, had achieved exceptional grades in her geology degree, which had in turn become a PhD in exogeology.

Owen's opportunity to escape the hill farm came a few years later when his father finally relaxed his tenuous grip on life. But it was an opportunity that Owen didn't take. His hatred for the rain and the stupid sheep and the solitude had slowly changed. It had matured into respect, then had transformed into a deep and committed love for the mountains.

"Look at this," said Owen one day. They'd been married a year. He showed her an advertisement in New Scientist. The European Space Agency was looking for exogeologists to seek out the best landing sites for a new program of robotic Mars probes.

"I know," said Carol. "No good for me. The job's based in Noorwijk."

"So?"

"The Netherlands. It's not an easy commute."

"We'll work around it. You have to try, Carol. This is your thing."

So she tried. And got the job.

Then China sent its Huoxing probe to Mars. It was unmanned but big enough to carry five taikonauts. NASA got the message. They wanted someone to teach a crash course in Martian geology to their spacemen. Carol was sent over on a short contract, but it turned out she was brighter, quicker and, as a competitive fell runner, considerably fitter than her pupils.

Eighteen months later Carol Dawson found herself strapped into a silver-blue capsule on top of a hastily contrived Saturn X stack at the Kennedy Space Center.

"Why you?" asked Owen. "It's a test flight around the moon. Why do they need a geologist?"

They weren't just test-flying the Saturn X. They were test-flying Carol Dawson.

They were also test-flying Owen. It was desirable that the astronaut wives and husbands also had some of the Right Stuff. Owen rebelled. He dressed the part. He turned up at Mission Control wearing a powder blue pillbox hat, circa 1969, and got even more column inches than his astronaut wife for his efforts. NASA was not amused, but Carol still went to Mars. Because she was the best.

Owen hadn't noticed that the rain had started, he was so wrapped up in his memories. The rain strafed across his granite set features with all the apparent effect that it had on The Old Man of Coniston itself.

And his phone was ringing.

The phone.

Owen stared at it. He picked it up. He wiped the spots of rain from the screen. Caller ID showed it was Gus Harris, the director of flight crew operations.

Owen let it ring in his hand. He took a long breath. He arranged his face in a neutral mask, ready to swing either way depending on what the next few words would bring.

He put the phone to his ear and thumbed the reply button.

"Hello?"

http://www.intergalacticmedicineshow.com/cgi-bin/mag.cgi?do=issue&vol=i43&article=_003

  Copyright © 2022 Hatrack River Enterprises   Web Site Hosted and Designed by WebBoulevard.com