Biggest Times Infinity
by Shane D. Rhinewald | 3,994 words
Small. Just a speck lost amid the infinite universe. That’s how flight engineer Madeline Valenti felt when the commander broke the news. He never so much as twitched or blinked when he explained that there wouldn’t be any communication with Earth for awhile. Revolution and war raged below, he said, and the government had been dissolved, gutted. In turn, the space program had been stripped of funds and authority. No shuttle would be coming to take them home.
“I’m confident an interim government will form in time. Even anarchists beg for rule again when everything goes to shit,” Commander James Whitehall said. “Still, we’ll likely be up here beyond our original mission. That means no more devouring half a dozen dehydrated noodle bowls per day. And yes, I’m looking at you, Frank.”
Technician Frank Delzone smiled. “Just give me a parachute, open the airlock, and let me jump back home, commander. And since we might die up here, can I finally call you Jimmy? I’d even settle for Jim.”
“Commander or James will still do just fine. And if you want to sprinkle Earth with your space dust, feel free to jump. That’s just more rations for the rest of us.”
Madeline shot Frank a look and shook her head. His smile disappeared, and he stared at her with those wide, child-like blue eyes of his. At twenty-eight, he was the youngest of their six-person crew and closest to her own age. Still, she sometimes felt like a void existed between them as wide as the Milky Way.
Madeline hardly listened now as the commander talked about rationing supplies in an effort to extend their mission an additional three months. Instead, she stared out a radiation-resistant window at the blue and white landscape below. Earth looked so large from here, so close, yet more than two-hundred miles separated the crew from their homes. Despite the commander’s assurances that something would be worked out with the government, Madeline knew the NSS Kyber VII space station would be their tomb.
* * *
Frank found Madeline in her sleeping module, strapped in, eyes closed, her untied hair splayed on the wall behind her like an ink blot. She had hardly moved in the three days since the commander had broken the news, except to use the toilet. Instead, she remained in her cocoon listening to an endless violin concerto.
“You know the commander said to ration the supplies, not to starve yourself, right?” Frank asked. He floated toward the radio and turned the knob. “And don’t you have work to do like the rest of us? I still want your opinion on that coolant pump.”
Madeline’s eyes flicked open. “I was listening to that. And I’m not hungry. Nor do I care about that stupid pump.”
“Don’t take it out on me. I didn’t cancel the mission to bring us home,” Frank said, grabbing onto a latch and pulling himself next to Madeline. She continued staring ahead, not looking at him. He sighed. “They won’t just leave of us up here forever. The commander says so.”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
“Try me,” Frank said.
Madeline exhaled. “You’re not going to make a joke about it if I tell you how I’m really feeling? Promise me.”
“I won’t,” Frank said, though he’d never been good at keeping his promises. He supposed he’d learned that from his father.
Madeline turned eyes the blue-green of Earth on him. “Back home, we’re all big, all fated for something spectacular. You just have to walk down any sidewalk and you’ll see dozens of cases of this inflated sense of self worth. Or in your case, you can just look in a mirror.”
Frank laughed, but made no jokes, though he could think of a dozen raunchy ones about size.
Madeline continued, voice barely a whisper now. “I’ve been thinking a lot of about it lately. Even the depressed think their melancholy trumps all other; their sadness is the saddest of all. But you know what? We’re so small, so miniscule, at least compared to the power of a super nova. And that super nova? Nothing compared to the galaxy as a whole, which is but a dot in the ever-growing universe. Why are we important?”
Frank couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Well, I’m still big. Don’t you remember?”
“Screw you,” Madeline said with a shake of her head. Frank wanted to cup her chin and kiss her like he used to do before the commander caught them behind that bulkhead five months ago, legs and arms tangled, pawing at each other like first-timers in this strange environment.
“Well I know a good way to cheer you up,” Frank said. He grabbed her hand. “And if none of this really matters, who cares if Jim tells us to cut it out again? Maybe it wasn’t professional back then and more than a little taboo, but what does that matter now? There’s no one down below making the rules.”
Madeline smiled faintly. “A lot’s changed, Frank. That was a mistake then and would be a bigger one now. If you’re not going to listen, then maybe you should go. Don’t you have to do a spacewalk today to look for gamma degradation?”
“What’s it matter?” Frank said. He let go of her hand. “We’re all going to die up here anyway, right, Maudlin Maddy?”
Frank pushed away from the wall and floated out of her module, wishing he could apologize for mocking her and tell her how he really felt. Instead, nothing came out of his mouth, not even a joke. Their orbits seemed to be drifting farther and farther apart.
* * *
“Two aces,” Frank said, putting the magnetic cards on the table.
Craig, the Kyber VII’s grizzled mission specialist, stroked a graying beard that looked like Medusa’s hair without gravity to keep it in place. “Three nines. You’re going to owe me a lot of money when we get back home.”
“If we get back,” Jens reminded him. The small, wiry science officer put his own cards on the table. “And I’ve got a full house. So it looks like you’ll both owe me.”
“How’d you get another full house?” Craig asked. “And stop with that pessimistic talk. Someone will come for us. The commander says so, and he’s been at this longer than me. It’s all just politics and bullshit.”
Jens shrugged. “Well let’s hope. Another hand?”
“I should go check on Maudlin Maddy,” Frank said. It had been more than a week since he’d given her that nickname, and they’d spoken little in that time. Every time he tried to engage her, she just turned up the volume on her radio. At least she came out her quarters now, though. Of course, she moved through her tasks aboard the station like a mindless drone, not saying much. Just yesterday she’d been so careless she almost started a fire in Lab 6.
Jens shook his head. “You know she hates that name.”
“He’s like a little kid in the sandbox pulling the hair of his crush,” Craig said with a laugh. “Frank’s not the first man I know to think he found love between a girl’s legs on a long space mission.”
Jens smirked. “I can’t blame him. She’s one of only two females within two hundred miles of Earth. And Pam’s not much of a looker. I think our little Frank’s infatuated.”
Frank shook his head. “No. I do love her. And not just because we…”
“You just think you love her. She used to like you and doesn’t anymore. It’s all about the challenge, kid,” Craig said. “Best get over it. It’s a bad idea and against policy…well, at least when we had policies. Plus, you’re two very different people.”
Frank frowned but couldn’t argue with Craig’s assessment. In fact, he liked Madeline because they differed so much. He liked the way she could talk so fervently about things he knew little about: art, architecture, and symphonies. He also liked the way she used to chide him when he talked about baseball and his favorite Mexican beer. “You’re such a guy,” she would say. “It’s a wonder you’re so technically brilliant. You’re a strange one, Frank Delzone.”
Frank pursed his lips. “So what are you saying? I should stay away from her?”
Craig put a hand on his shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “If we get back to Earth, there are billions of other women. And they all love an astronaut.”
Frank frowned. Instead of going to check on Madeline, he retreated to his sleeping module, crawled into his tethered sleeping bag, and dreamed of Earth.
* * *
On the day their original space mission would have ended, the commander called the crew into the main cabin. Madeline emerged from her module to listen to the news she suspected would be bad. Sometimes she wished she could swim through life with a smile plastered on her face like Frank.
When Madeline arrived, the commander said he hadn’t received any word from Earth but threw out the word hope, though Madeline saw little reason for it. No shuttle would be coming for them today like had been scheduled. Nor would one ever.
The commander said they still had plenty of supplies, though Frank and Craig had taken to drinking vodka in recent days to “conserve water.” At first, the commander had protested their alcohol consumption but then relented, realizing no one had accountability anymore. Madeline wondered why he even still pretended to care; maybe it was the only way he could hold himself together.
“Thanks for the uplifting meeting,” Frank said, raising his baggie in mock salute. He sucked on its straw. “What kind of sobriety tests do you think they do in space? Make you float in a straight line?”
Frank laughed and swam across the cabin, never looking at Madeline. She envied his ability to find humor in their situation and hated him for it too. Looking at him made her head jumbled, cloudy. She remembered their first time together all those months ago and the way he rationalized his performance issues by blaming the low pressure.
* * *
“You’ve had enough.”
Frank opened his gummy eyes to see Madeline floating before him like something out of a dream, ethereal and beautiful. He reached out to stroke her cheek, but she intercepted his hand. Her other pried the vodka baggie from his left fist. His father had always said that vodka made everything better—one of the only lessons he ever taught his son. Despite the pounding in his head, Frank had to agree with the bastard.
“One more sip, please,” he said, grasping for the straw. His mouth tasted like cotton. “I was just trying to…”
“Conserve water. I know. You’ve said it a dozen times.” He expected a laugh or a chuckle, but Madeline just shook her head. “You’re plenty drunk enough. The last thing we need is puke floating around the cabin and clogging up the air filters. If we’re going to die up here, at least let’s do it breathing clean air. Let me help you back to your module.”
“Wait,” Frank said. He took her left wrist and pressed her warm palm to his face. This would be as good a time as any to tell her. Screw what Craig and Jens or any of them thought. “I love you, Maddy. I always have. Since the first day I met you during training. Remember that time we stayed up half the night talking about…”
“You’re just drunk.”
“No,” he said. His tongue felt like a slug drying on hot asphalt in his mouth.
“An hour ago, you told the commander you loved him,” Maedline said, pushing him back toward his module. He couldn’t resist. “Then you told Pam you loved her and said she was prettier than Craig seemed to think. After that, you hugged Jens for at least ten minutes while whispering how he’d always be your best friend. So yes, you’re just saying silly things.”
Madeline guided Frank into his quarters and slipped his arms through his sleeping bag. Her face lingered near his, so close he could feel her breath on his neck. His skin prickled, and he reached out to take a handful of her hair, remembering the first time he’d seen her. Madeline had come to the training class late, hair wind-blown, almost as unkempt as it looked now.
“Don’t be weird,” she said, prying his hand away.
“Don’t go. You’ve barely talked to me in weeks. Tell me about that museum in New York you like so much and all those painters with funny names I can never seem to pronounce with my stupid Boston accent…”
“You don’t understand,” Madeline said.
As she moved out of the cabin, Frank whispered, “No. It’s you who doesn’t understand.”
* * *
Madeline stared at the sun until her eyes burned. It called to her, and she pushed away from the space station, floating toward its light. She powered her boosters, accelerating her departure. At two hundred meters out, she glanced back at the Kyber VII. It looked so insignificant—just a shiny, tin can about to be swallowed by the infinite darkness.
The commander’s crackling voice came through her earpiece. “Madeline, where are you going?”
“To check something,” she murmured.
“You’re supposed to be looking at that broken coolant pump, not taking a day trip.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she whispered. She wondered why she’d even bothered to put on her flight suit to do this walk.
“What doesn’t matter?”
The sun beckoned her, welcomed her, wanted her. What did a broken coolant pump have on the source of all life? They’d been left up here to starve and die. Why not just drift off into the great unknown instead? For the first time in weeks, she felt a sense of tranquility, of understanding.
Madeline looked back as the space station turned into a pinprick and then disappeared.
“You’re almost out of radio range, Madeline.”
Madeline ignored the commander and continued drifting. She’d never see her sister again, or her niece who must be walking and talking by now. She’d never have children of her own either. Or even go on another date. Not with Frank; not with anyone. And why had she wanted all that any way? They seemed like foolish dreams. Insignificant compared to the universe.
Her thumbs left the accelerators when she heard Frank’s voice.
“Maddy, come back. It’s not about the coolant pump. I understand.”
She cursed. Madeline glanced at the sun, then back in the direction from which she’d come. With a sigh, she twisted around and blasted toward the Kyber VII station.
* * *
Frank arrived last in the main cabin. He blinked, and everything came into focus slowly, all eyes on him. The commander shook his head. He’d been telling Frank for a week to stop drinking so much, but his orders mattered little now.
“Nice of you to join us, Mr. Delzone.”
“I ran out of vodka,” Frank said with a shrug.
“That’s almost the end of it,” Jens added. “And then what?”
“Then there’s Jimmy’s secret stash. That tequila he keeps in that locker in his module. Don’t let him fool you. He’s breaking all the rules too.”
The commander shook his head. “You’re a lost cause.” He turned to the others. “Just make sure he doesn’t break anything important.”
“We’re all a lost cause. Just ask Maddy,” Frank said. He glared at her. They’d done nothing but fight in the two weeks since she had returned from that spacewalk that almost killed her. She complained about his drinking; he complained about her obnoxious violin music.
The commander ignored him. “Well, there’s no news, as you all probably expected.”
“So we really are going to die up here?” Jens asked.
The commander shrugged. “It’s been two months with no transmissions. Every time I try to make contact with Mission Control, it’s nothing. Still, there’s no reason to give up entirely. We do what we’ve being doing and stay busy. Keep your mind off our situation, if you can.”
“For how much longer?” Maddy asked.
“However long we can. We’re running low on food, though, so I have to ask that we cut our rations by half. Otherwise, we’ll be eating our boots in a month.”
“If I have to eat any more of those grainy potatoes, I’ll kill myself,” Craig said with a grunt. He didn’t seem to be joking.
Frank thought he might do the same if they ran out of vodka.
* * *
“That’s the end of it?”
“That’s it,” Jens said.
Frank smacked his parched lips and put them back on the straw. He sucked every drop out of the baggie and then released it.
“Want to play cards?” Jens asked.
Frank rubbed his aching eye sockets. “Does Craig?”
“Craig won’t come out of his module. He’s worse than Madeline now. He’s just in there clutching a picture of his family.”
Frank swallowed. “Maybe we should all be doing the same. Maybe it’s time to spend whatever time we have left with the ones we love…even if they’re just in pictures.”
“Not you too. You’re supposed to make wisecracks until the end,” Jens said.
“Without vodka, I guess I’m not feeling too funny.”
And with that, Frank went off in search of Madeline. He knew she’d send him away like she always did. But maybe when he told her that he’d been sober for five minutes, she’d be more willing to listen. Now he knew how she felt.
Small. And alone.
* * *
Madeline pulled up her logbook on the laptop and read an entry from training. In it, she detailed her work—every technical detail—but also rambled on about this new guy in her class who told the funniest jokes. It seemed strange, like someone else had written it. What had happened to that person?
She closed the screen. “Frank, I don’t want to talk to you or smell the booze on you or listen to your jokes.”
“There’s no more booze,” he said.
“I still don’t want to talk. You were supposed to make me feel better about things, but if anything, you’ve only made me feel worse these past weeks. I’m barely holding on here. I hardly feel like I exist.”
“I understand. Really,” he said, and Madeline wished she could believe him. After all, what else did they have but each other?
She sighed. “What do you think it feels like? Starving to death, I mean.”
“We can always eat Craig when he dies first.”
“No jokes,” Madeline said.
“Sorry,” he mumbled.
“I’ve come to terms with death,” she whispered. She paused. “At least I think. But it’s the starvation that bothers me now. Does it hurt, do you think?”
Frank looked away, then back at her, as if fighting something. “Only the first time.”
Madeline ripped her laptop out of the wall socket and flung it at him, though he just swayed to the side to avoid it.
“Out. Now. I don’t even want to look at your anymore, Frank.”
“Don’t bother,” she said, tears forming bubbles on her eyelids.
Frank said softly, “It’s a defense mechanism. The jokes, I mean. I’ve never been good at expressing myself. I think if I can make someone laugh, it’ll make things better.”
“I don’t need to laugh right now. I just need someone to understand. I need to feel like it’s not just me alone in this universe. I need to know there’s something more.”
“Go,” she said.
This time, he didn’t argue, just turned and swam out of the module. After he had gone, Madeline retrieved her run-away laptop. She opened it, put her fingers to the keyboard, and typed with no expectation that anyone would ever read it:
I’VE NEVER FELT SMALLER THAN I DO TODAY.
* * *
If being in almost zero gravity would have allowed for running, Frank would have done so. Instead, he pulled himself as quickly as he could through the modules, hand over hand. Yesterday Madeline had sent him angrily away, but today she’d want to talk to him.
“Maddy,” he said. “Maddy. Did you hear? They’re coming for us. We’re finally going home.”
Frank continued pulling himself along, his arms aching, his heart thumping. An hour ago, he’d been thinking a quick death might not be such a bad alternative to starvation. But the commander had delivered the good news: they’d be back on Earth in a week. The military had restored order in the capital and authorized one more space flight.
Maddy,” he said again.
At the entrance to her module, he halted. Inside, he could hear a symphony playing so loudly it was no wonder she hadn’t heard the commander call for them. Frank pulled himself through the hole and pushed himself backward immediately, so forcefully his head clacked the overhang.
Blood filled the cabin, suspended as if time had stopped. His throat constricted, and for a moment, he stopped breathing. And then he saw her, floating as if on a cloud, a limp form, arms outstretched like noodles.
She still felt warm when he grabbed her, and as he turned her over in his arms, he prayed, shouted, and cried. He kissed her cheeks, cheeks which still felt like living flesh.
But no breath escaped her lips; her chest failed to rise and fall.
That’s when Frank saw the slashes along her left wrist, running parallel to her arteries and veins.
“We made it, Maddy. They’re coming for us,” he whispered, brushing her waving hair. “I’m going to take you home and everything will be okay. We’ll go on a proper date. I know a great bar in Boston. And you can meet my mother, and we can go to that museum in New York…”
“She’s dead, kid. Can’t you see?” Craig said from the entrance. “Come out of there.”
“But they’re coming for us.”
“I know,” Craig said with a nod. “I know.”
“I love you, Maddy. I always have.” Frank kissed her face. He remembered what she told him about feeling small all those weeks ago. “No one’s small, especially not you. Screw the universe. We’re never small to the people around us and those who love us. And I love you. You’re bigger than whatever’s bigger than the universe to me. The biggest times infinity.”
Frank choked on the last words; he wished he would have told her sooner.
* * *
Frank craned his neck for a better look, following the flickering dot as it moved across the star-filled sky.
He patted the picnic table. “Hop up here, honey.”
His daughter crawled up beside him and nestled in the crook of his arm. “What are you looking at?”
“Do you see that there? It’s moving just the tiniest bit.”
“Is it a comet? Can I make a wish?”
“Go ahead. Make a wish,” he said. “But it’s not a comet. That’s the national space station. The Madeline Valenti.”
“The one I’m named after?”
He ruffled her hair. “No, silly. You’re not named after that tin can. You’re both named after a great astronaut and an old friend.”
“You don’t talk about her much.”
He pulled her tighter. “Have I told you today that I love you?”
“At least a dozen times,” she said, squealing as he tickled her.
“Good. And I’ll say it a dozen more tomorrow. Do you know what’s out there, beyond the space station?”
“Stars. Lots of them. My teacher says more than anyone can count.”
“You’re right. Do you know what that means?”
“Infinity,” she said, looking up at him beneath eyes droopy with sleep.
“Yes. And you mean more to me than all that. Don’t ever forget it.”
— — — — —
Shane D. Rhinewald © 2013
— — — — —
About the Author
Shane D. Rhinewald is a communications professional by day and writes speculative fiction by night (except when there’s hockey on TV, of course). His fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, Everyday Fiction, Plasma Frequency Magazine, Alt Hist, and many other venues.