Sook and I meet at the Bigelow Airlock. There is never much time. We never need it.
My space station orbits Earth’s equator every ninety minutes. I see sixteen sunrises per day. The temperature swings four hundred degrees. Sook’s Jiānkòng has a polar revolution of one hundred minutes. Newtonian math for traveling the radial bulge (Rb) y at velocity (v) x means we come within shuttle-shot twice every fifteen days. So, in ninety minutes Sook will launch back to her satellite on its second proximate, bi-weekly pass.
Until then, we float lazy river-style toward each other, unzipping our suits, only to collide like newborn colts, in hovering fervor. Our bodies have shed their meat and deteriorated from years of weightlessness. Our fluids have dispersed and settled into our faces so we look like bobbleheads. My bones resemble an orchestra of musical instruments.
In the U.S. BioLab, I study brawny microbials from a moon crater. They have vascular biceps on their flagellum. Sook helms her Chinese satellite, keeping tabs on her country’s borders as the war between Eurasian Hostile territories escalates.
The Space Station moves at five miles per second. I orgasm in a whopping 275 miles.
“I admire your efficiency,” Sook always says. Her English is superb. She gets every channel in her satellite. Sometimes she offers that the zero-G has redistributed hers — her G-spot, that is — and I’ll poke her heels and earlobes in hunt, thinking her pity is actually an honest-to-God truth, and that maybe I’m capable of something I’m not.
After sex, of course, I pass gas. Three years in space has made me a whoopee cushion.
“What is a whoopee cushion?” Sook asked once.
“Something made in China,” I said. “It distracts from the obvious.”
“What is the obvious?” she said.
“That I’ve fallen in love with you.”
“You cannot fall,” she said. “There is no gravity. And that is not the obvious thing.”
“What is then?” I said.
“Luke, our time is up.”
Out the porthole, a procession of international space junk crested the globe.
I still don’t know what the obvious thing is. We never circle back in time.
When Sook launches her shuttle toward Jiānkòng, I wave using the station’s large robotic arm built by the Canadians, hence its name: the Canadarm. The Canadarm is left-handed, which for some reason I feel is a very Canadian thing.
We jettisoned what lives we had to be in orbit — cargos of virility, fertility, family. Down there, you think these are patient, deferrable things. Up here, you understand the world doesn’t revolve around you. Lately, I’ve been occupied by what feels like a reJesusing. I think it has to do with the fact that I’ve been moving for three years but haven’t gone anywhere. It’s like I’m the only one on Greenwich Time. What else am I supposed to do but fall ass-backwards into love and sneak a little international, galactic nookie?
Sook’s radio silence for those one hundred minutes, she explains to Beijing, is “feminine care” and the men in charge smoking unfiltered cigarettes down there don’t probe. It’s magic how she gets under their skin with the idea that a woman can have a secret. They won’t ever ask after it, believing that their curiosity is a vulnerability.
“The stubborn stupidity of men,” I said. “We’re not so different in that way, in many.”
She said, “But we still are in most.”
I guide her into Bigelow with the Canadarm like one sets a fallen fledgling into its nest.
Which you’re not supposed to do, handle a baby bird, I know.
“Progress, Innov8?” Houston asks.
I had a flea circus as a boy. I wanted to be a ringmaster more than an astronaut.
Then the circus died.
“No,” I say. “The flagellum biceps are still at a diameter of twenty nanometers.”
“Keep at it,” Houston says. That is, keep exercising the bacteria, in a nutshell.
You make a vaccine from the dead of the very thing you want to kill. Our current theory? Bulked-up dead bacteria will make stronger vaccines than regular-sized ones. I look down at the United States and salute.
The sun sets. An hour and a half later it rises again.
“I was six when my father was sent to prison,” Sook told me once. “He worked in leases. In China, people own their homes but lease the land beneath them. He must have discovered something. He had no due process. He was refused counsel. He was convicted of ‘obstructing traffic.’ This year will be his thirty-seventh in solitary confinement.”
She scratched frost off the porthole, “I should feel lucky. Many have it much worse.”
“Our neighbor vanished for asking about Tibetan books for the schools,” she said.
“Still,” she said. “Many have it much worse.”
“Executions are carried out in vans. People pulled right off the street.”
“The number of annual executions is a state secret.”
For some reason, I thought of those fancy restaurants that don’t put prices on their menus.
Dad left parking tickets under the wipers until they disintegrated, flew a flag on his truck antenna, and was ejected drunk from the bleachers of my little league tournaments. He wanted to be shot into space when he died. He’s buried in a can on a hill with a decent view of the western sky. I wish he could hear me transmit, “This is for yelling at me to crowd the plate, you bastard!”
“But how do you know your father is still alive if you can’t see him?” I asked.
Which is maybe why she stopped telling me things like that.
I stick a piece of tape over the BioLab’s camera.
“We can’t see you, Innov8,” Houston says.
“The camera is malfunctioning,” I say. “I’ll fill out a Tech Diagnostic. But there’s been progress. The flagellum biceps are now twenty-two nanometers. I wish I could show you. But you’ll see when I land … ” My indigestion gurgles. The methane has made me sulfuric. I must taste like well water to Sook. I keep thinking about bushwhacking an acre, building a bait shop, getting someone pregnant. I can’t get the idea out of my heart.
“Land?” Houston asks. “No, no. You are to proceed to Phase Two.”
“Phase Two?” I say.
“Place them in the antigen unit to initiate vaccine production. Swab the control bacteria onto your teeth and wait. You will need to be specific with your condition throughout your quarantine, pre- and post-inoculation, until the camera is repaired.”
“How many phases are there?” I say.
“As few as two,” Houston says. “Depending.”
I’m somebody who was told that if I kept my nose to the grindstone, rolled up my sleeves, and kept my eye on the ball, then the sky’s the limit. So now I’m up here with a petri dish of unknown muscular microbials on my gums.
I’m somebody who is maybe beginning to feel warm, get the eyelid sweats, see spots.
I log: Feeling flushed. Eyelid perspiration. Spotted vision.
I’m somebody thinking about the time I put a fledgling back in its tree. You don’t do this because if a fledgling smells like a human — an intruder — the mother will abandon it. But I couldn’t stop looking at it in the grass, its open beak like a ceramic pitcher. I couldn’t just leave it. I learned later that when a fledgling leaves the nest it rarely returns.
Sook pounds on the Airlock, running out of oxygen. I let her in as fast as I can.
“Where were you?” she gasps.
“Didn’t you get my transmission?” I say. I’ve got bacne shaped like a two-foot microbial.
“Our time is up,” she says. “Look.”
But there is no procession of space junk, no Jiānkòng. My gut sinks, defying zero gravity.
What she’s talking about are these two humongous pink clouds over Eastern Europe. They look like lost-and-found tutus, and move like a flip-book animation of a toddler’s colorings outside the lines. Then there’s a bright flash over the Middle East, and a third pink cloud disperses. Then another flash and a fourth pink cloud over India’s peninsula.
“Oh, my God,” I say. “Sook, what in the hell are those?”
When I turn, Sook’s hands cover her full moon face. She’s crying out her fingernails. Droplets squeeze from beneath each cuticle and float. Her fluids have redistributed again. “They should have heard this from me,” she says. “They must realize I am not in the lavatory. They must know my secret—that I am here. I cannot go back!”
“You can,” I say, hunched with indigestion. “In seventy-two minutes.”
“I cannot,” she says. “I smell like you.”
The whole hemisphere that includes China turns an opaque pink, like a rash.
I admit, I’m so afraid that I fart. It propels me into Sook. She kisses me hard.
“I’m sick!” I say. “I’m supposed to be in quarantine!” I rush-float back to the BioLab with Houston calling and calling, and me not answering, them frantic with emergency, asking what the pink clouds are doing, Maydaying, relaying reports of intercontinental wilting and eroding, bruising and blistering, foamy aspirations and convulsions by the millions, while I take the vaccine to Sook and plunge it into her shoulder. “It doesn’t matter,” she says.
“It matters!” I say. “That was my only vaccine!” And I realize: I’m going home to that pink Earth. I’ve failed the mission. I’ll need treatment. They’ll hook me up to machines and flush me out and dismiss me from service, but I’ll be home.
If they try to keep me up here in quarantine there will be protests.
Sook corkscrews over my clammy head and says into my ear, “I fell in love with you also, Luke.” Though, I know in her voice it isn’t true. “But you should have saved that needle for yourself, you stupid man. You cannot save me.”
“But you could’ve died!” I say.
“I could have it much worse,” she says and floats into a ball on the floor.
We have circled back to the obvious thing.
Featured image: Towhee Bunting (John James Audubon, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Transfer from the U. S. National Museum, Smithsonian Open Access Collection, CC0)
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