DOMINGO STA. CRUZ TOOK a seat along the aisle in the first row, center box, within speaking distance of the empty stage. He was still behaving like a reporter although there would be no one significant to grill during the voyage home.
Neither the vice president of the former United States nor the commander of the "Intrepid" or any of the notables he’d interviewed before (all preparing for The Return in their peculiar ways). Many of the space station’s 400 persons were in the conference hall.
“Comfort in numbers,” Sta. Cruz thought to himself.
To the right of the Filipino, two doctors and two nurses continued ministering to the other passengers.
Sta. Cruz volunteered to be among the last to take the sleep shot. He wanted to stay awake as long as possible before they returned to Earth. Sta. Cruz knew it would be a terribly bumpy ride home.
“Terribly bumpy?” Sta. Cruz almost laughed aloud at the thought.
He liked that downplayed phrase. It tasted like a bad press release.
He’d been allowed to listen to the recorded voice transmissions of re-entries by other stations. The last one had an officer on the "Africa" broadcast a running commentary about the station’s re-entry.
The voice reported on telemetry, station status, crew situation and other critical indices. The voice went off the air on final orbit but the mikes on the station continued to transmit.
Then there were the screams. How could sedated people scream?
One of the doctors on the Intrepid said he had only one answer and Sta. Cruz recoiled each time he brought it to mind. Sta. Cruz shuddered and saw a mass of goose bumps infest his left forearm.
Sta. Cruz opened his briefcase, took out his paper notebook and quickly snapped the briefcase shut. The lowered gravity in the hall made paper shards, liquid medicine, cotton swabs and other light material hover slightly above the hardened aluminum floor.
Sta. Cruz watched, entranced, as a string of blue droplets, weaving like a sidewinder snake, shattered into small pieces on the bare leg of an American woman seated behind him on the opposite box.
The American brushed the droplets aside and suggestively ran her hand up her milk white leg, moaning softly as she rubbed the inside of her thigh.
Sta. Cruz could make out her white panties underneath her shimmering blue cocktail dress. He felt himself stiffen as the blonde American wife thrust her head back and continued to fondle her inner thigh.
“After re-entry, entry,” Sta. Cruz said to himself.
He smiled at his cleverness and made a mental note to get to know this woman better.
Sta. Cruz shook his head. He was back with the living. After taking a long breath, he began jotting down the jumble of flotsam in his mind: his first trip into space on June 9 four years ago; his first slip in micro-gravity; his first round trip on this mile-long station; the painless electro-neural transplants to counter Zero-G limb atrophy …
. . . February 21 . . . No! He wouldn’t dwell on that . . .
Frank Chemnitz’s glowing teeth. Sta. Cruz always wondered what Frank did to make his teeth glisten like xenon beams. Glisten. That isn’t the right word, Sta. Cruz noted with dismay. Flash would be appropriate but . . .
He was sorry that Frank and his cheerful wife, Debbie, wouldn’t be with him for this voyage home. Frank had been the only other newsman on board.
He and Frank had this great rivalry chasing down stories—real and imagined. Sta. Cruz missed the excitement of the scoop and their whatever-comes-to-mind conversations. Perhaps Frank and Debbie had made the right decision to leave without him.
“You had to fucking leave me behind, you selfish SOB,” Sta. Cruz cursed in his mind at Frank.
He felt a tear beginning to form in the corner of his eye.
“They looked like yellow mangoes!” Sta. Cruz thought to himself as a thought seized his imagination. He allowed himself that self-satisfied grin that follows a burst of creative insight.
“Ripe, yellow mangoes!”
His rambling thoughts wandered to the "Rodina" and how she descended into shimmering waves of atmosphere trailing a comet-like tail of fiery yellow light.
The Russian station first appeared like a brilliant yellow mango on the live satellite feed when it floundered into gravity’s grip. As it dove deeper into the exosphere, Rodina became a sparkling furnace of fiery colors as air molecules reacted violently with the different metals comprising Rodina’s hull.
Sta. Cruz reported the Rodina’s re-entry as a routine re-entry, the second he’d seen first-hand in his four years on Intrepid. It wouldn’t do to make something special out of it. That would be in bad taste. And mangoes weren’t in his style menu then.
Quite heartlessly, he wondered whether Rodina had landed with a thud. The mangoes falling to the ground in his backyard in Quezon City always landed with a thud.
He recalled a moment when, while making love to his wife, a clump of mangoes came crashing down to land with a loud thud on the hard soil. The sudden clatter cost him his erection, much to his wife’s dismay.
He came home the next day to find that his wife had spent the morning stripping the tree of all its mangoes, ripe and unripe. They made love all night without distractions.
He willed himself to believe that his wife and five children were at some safe haven. They had traveled to her hometown to spend a week with her parents when everything, everywhere changed forever all at once on February 21.
Post-event satellite pictures from last year showed the Visayas pretty much the same. The region had abundant microwave activity, which was a good sign.
“They’re safe,” Sta. Cruz said to himself for the God-knows-how-manyeth time. His wife – Jesus, how did someone so beautiful end up with an ugly mug like him – was probably still making heads turn wherever she went.
They’d been through hell, mainly because of his jealousy, but she’d stuck with him because, as she put it, “I love you to death.”
Loud wailing. Startled, Sta. Cruz turned to see a hysterical, elderly American woman thrashing wildly on a gurney. A doctor hastily pumps her with more sedative. The old woman lies unnaturally still.
“She’s gone,” one of the nurses mutters.
The nurse pushes the gurney to the far side of the hall, fastens the dead woman with plastic restraints, covers the dead body with a green blanket and collapses the gurney’s legs.
There are a dozen other dead bodies strapped on gurneys beside the newcomer. All the gurneys are anchored to floor clamps.
Sta. Cruz writes down what he’s seen as notes for a story. He doesn’t have an angle yet but one should come to him soon. He still has time to transmit his last story to "Double Alpha" station before Intrepid re-enters.
His palms begin to sweat and Sta. Cruz finds that he doesn’t want to do any thinking for the time being.
He looks around again. The hall, more brightly lit than usual, is almost as quiet as the graveyard of space despite its being half-full of people.
Some, like the Filipino, are walking around. Women are sobbing quietly into the shoulders of their husbands or lovers. A number of men talk shop in hushed voices. Many are in prayer.
Sta. Cruz didn’t want to be part of any group when they re-entered the atmosphere, although he knew it would make him stronger if he were with someone at the moment of atmospheric impact.
But he decided that embracing that battered leatherette briefcase he always took with him would bring him closer to that communion with his family he’d been seeking those four deeply lonely years orbiting the Earth.
His watch read 1210 GMT. Re-entry in two hours. The doctors would come for him soon.
Sta. Cruz began to breathe heavily, violently. He knocked his head back, opened his mouth, looking for all intents like a man having an asthma attack. His hands began to tremble and he began to sweat despite the coldness. He was afraid.
One of the doctors noticed and came over.
“You need one of these,” the doctor said, opening his left palm.
Sta. Cruz took the large gelatin sedative.
“Will I still need the shot?” Sta. Cruz asked.
“I’ll be with you in half an hour. Better take the pill now. It’ll calm you down quick.”
Sta. Cruz smiled wanly.
“Need someone to talk to?”
Sta. Cruz didn’t know what to say.
“It’ll be a lot better if you were with someone. Most everyone else is in a group. You might want to consider having someone’s hand to hold on to during re-entry.”
Sta. Cruz swallowed the pill, and nodded.
“There’s nothing left to write anyway,” Sta. Cruz said without looking at the doctor.
The doctor left. Sta. Cruz looked around him.
He knew most of the people in the room; he felt comfortable around a number of them. He’d rather have been with Frank and Debbie.
The urge to have sex suddenly possessed him and he looked around for the American wife. He couldn’t find her. She was probably doing it with someone else, he thought.
Sta. Cruz knew he could have most any girl on the station now, even the ones who’d brushed him off before. He’d lost count of how many women he’d had. That was one good thing about this extended trip: you never got lonely.
His mind, already feeling the numbing effect of the sedative, began prying open its other hidden rooms. Instead of feeling sleepy, Sta. Cruz felt surprisingly awake, more aware, as if a brighter light had been lit in his fogged brain.
Remorselessly, as if he were a helpless tortured prisoner, his mind hurled him back to the horrible facts that he’d buried in its many secret rooms.
Re-Creation. It was that word they used to describe the unimaginable worldwide destruction that began February 21. In less than a day of unspeakable terror, the world Sta. Cruz had left behind changed beyond recognition—forever.
The first video images were horrific. Cities around the world sucked into the ground by massive quakes; new volcanoes emerging violently in backyards; islands ripped apart as if they were brittle toast by monstrous waves.
And fires, fires everywhere. It appeared as if much of the Earth remained covered in a thick cloud of smoke and ash, making night the eternal moment. Billions were dead and the survivors were fighting for their lives everyday.
Re-Creation. As if she were a moody youngster in a tantrum, the Earth had decide it was time to change her look by cleansing her skin with fire and flood.
Technological civilization still existed, however. Some ground stations around the world built to withstand a nuclear war had withstood Re-Creation and were the only links the fleet of orbiting space stations like Intrepid had with survivors on the ground.
It wasn’t the end of the world but Sta. Cruz and the few thousand other survivors orbiting in space couldn’t imagine a terror worse than Re-Creation.
God had turned his face from humankind.
And the orbiting survivors were becoming fewer. "Lincoln" had been burned to ashes—and her crew of 500 with her— when she re-entered three years ago. Rodina had followed. Then "Humanity." Then Africa.
Close to two thousand space survivors dead on re-entering the planet they had left behind. Without station keeping fuel, all the stations would return to Earth to die.
Now it was Intrepid’s turn.
Then it would be the turn of the other 14. Double Alpha, the largest, would be the last to go.
Everyone up there would be reduced to cinders as their stations plunged earthwards at more than 50,000 kilometers per hour. Only a few heavy pieces would survive re-entry to smash themselves to destruction on the new, alien surface of what had once been the Earth.
And he had heard the terrible screams of sedated survivors as the atmosphere burned them to ashes. Even sleep would be useless against the indescribable pain inflicted by the searing heat of re-entry. All of them would die the most painful of deaths imaginable.
Sta. Cruz began to cry in fear. His body trembled as if he were having an epileptic attack. He heard himself scream out in panic.
He envied Frank and Debbie who had evaded this awaiting horror by entering an airlock and opening the door to space.
They died embracing each other, tumbling wildly, spinning out of sight over the curve of the Earth. He would have joined them if Frank had told him to.
“Damn you, Frank!” Sta. Cruz shouted at the top of his voice.
The medical crew was on Sta. Cruz at once. The still sobbing Filipino was led to a large group of survivors in prayer. Sta. Cruz, his eyes wide open but unseeing, felt a damp towel being drawn gently across his forehead.
He didn’t bother to see who was holding it but his ragged breathing slowed and his trembling subsided.
He felt a sharp twinge of pain as a needle pierced his right arm.
Domingo Sta. Cruz found himself with his lovely wife and laughing children in their well-kept backyard at the small piece of Earth they called home.
He was gazing lovingly into his wife’s hazel eyes when Intrepid came into final contact with the atmosphere. He kissed her tenderly and held her tighter to him as Intrepid began to disintegrate.
With the sound of her heavy breathing and his children’s beautiful voices in his ears, Domingo Sta. Cruz returned to Earth with the 400 other men and women on the space station Intrepid.
There were no screams to be heard.
Domingo Sta. Cruz was home.
(Published in The Manila Times, March 16, 2003)
|Future Earth dies.|