“Lester, are you afraid of god?”
Enterprise DXIII sailed the darkness with the serene grace of a colossal metal whale. The Solar System was but a little signal on the digital instrument panel. At this distance, home veered dangerously close to the corners of an insignificance so significant that rendered it inexistent. Lester occupied one of the front seats of the crowded hull, his middle-aged face marred with the scars of somnolence. Whatever nonsense Clinton muttered to him would be quickly dismissed from any profound thought, and given a scripted answer in return to satisfy his kind curiosity.
“Aren’t you tired of pushing that on me in a time and place where being a believer is not unlike…? I don’t know…” he took a little pause to massage his forehead and breathe “…being black in the 1950s or gay in the 1980s?”
Lester had spoken true words. Religion wasn’t illegal, prosecuted, or condemned in a sufficiently explicit form in late 21st century America, but a parasitic stigma had grown over it like a tumor over the years. A lifetime of kilometers away from Enterprise, in the minute turquoise marble, houses of worship lay abandoned by the state, people roamed the streets ashamed to have their crucifixes seen, and the occasional news of the stabbing of a preacher in some shoddy neighborhood didn’t raise enough eyebrows to impulse change in the name of martyrdom. In some states, new legislation to ban spiritual propaganda from selected forms of public view created turmoil in some communities but those proved to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
“I guess so. Maybe it’s me, seeing all these stars and lights in the horizon. Where no man…”.
“Let me guess: where no man has ever gone?” Lester’s contralto voice overrode Clinton’s soft whispers “Yes, little guy, we are the first people to ever venture this far from planet Earth, and no thanks to no god. It is thanks to science… and budgets. God can’t promise you will return home, Houston can!”
“Ugh, cut it out, Lester.” Exclaimed Sofia with a voice that exhibited the symptoms of a dwindling patience
“He’s just baffling Clint. You know we are fine with whatever you want to believe” she glared at Lester with a constabulary look.
“Yeah, sure we do!” added Lester with a synthetic enthusiasm and a roll of his eyes.
“It’s also so freaking funny how you keep naming Houston. Mission control hasn’t been there for years.
“Yeah thanks to that negligent Libertarian scumbag in the Oval Office.” Lester tried to mask the conversation as one of his tantrums, but Sofia’s ability to inject playfulness into every dialogue switched his mouth into an inevitable smile. “Listen I grew up with Houston. I don’t care if we are receiving orders from damn Puerto Rico, I’m keeping Houston.” He claimed with a conviction that was outweighed by the casual, laugh-coated tone the chat had acquired.
“Of course you are, old chap” giggled the lady.
Clinton took a deep breath and stared at the window pane. The translucent panel at the front of the cabin was the only real sensory contact the spaceship’s crew had with the outer space. Elsewhere, information was delivered digitally to the multitude of screens via coordinates, numbers and percentages based on the readings of sensors and the other synthetic stalkers that allowed Enterprise to pretend being another sentient life form floating in the cosmic void. The several-billion-dollar contraption was about the size of an old passenger airliner. A stately craftsmanship made of an exaggerated number of layers of reinforced titanium and carbon fiber, equipped with an implausible number of emergency shutdowns, manual overrides and evacuation plans. It was an ode to safety, meant to shield those inside from whatever catastrophic concoctions the cruel heavens might hurl towards them.
Clinton began a silent prayer.
In his late thirties, but with the blooming face of a young, passionate child of wondrous nature, Clinton was surrounded by a realized version of what he dreamt as a child. From an early age, he saw God in the stars. No, he wasn’t a bible-thumper, as one too many people in his life had jokingly called him. He hadn’t even read most of the scriptures, for he didn’t care about the wars, and the sacrifices, and the punishments. His interest laid just those parts that inherently commanded righteousness to reveal itself. He had earmarked two verses of the Romans as his favorite:
"May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."
"And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose."
There was always this flaming passion in the chest of blissful Clinton when he observed the firmament. It was an impatient wish to fly there and experience it corporeally. Why would a Deity dangle such stunning creations in front of man’s eyes, only to have it placed in the realm of the untouchable? Who would He call, if anyone, for the privilege of playing among those bright beacons and whatever fantastical figures that surrounded them, from the ground crudely covered by the earth’s atmosphere? Even now, after years of the most rigorous education, an assortment of degrees, thousands of hours of experience (though not nearly as much as his shipmates), and the opportunity to participate in NASAs first manned flight out of the Solar System, Clinton felt he wasn’t as close to the works of his most admired artist as he would like.
“Why is there only one window on this thing?” he inquired with a quiet yet tragic dissatisfaction, like that of an older child that doesn’t receive what he wants for his birthday.
“We’ve gone through this, little guy…” Lester replied in a compassionate way that still struggled to shake off the patronizing tease.
“I know, I know, genius. They take up valuable space that is needed to fit the stuff that makes this thing fly and not explode. Isn’t that what you would say, grandpa?” interrupted the young man in fiery sarcasm, which only made his older comrade laugh. Lester playfully stroked Clinton’s head in return.
The crew of three sat in a small table and ate their freeze-dried delicacies from plastic containers. Corn chowder, tuna salad, and ham sandwiches on Rye bread had been crushed by the burden of zero-gravity, and the dozens of artificial processes that allowed them to stay edible didn’t make for the most gourmet of cuisines, but they sure were ways ahead of the purees in tubes of toothpaste that men in their positions swallowed during the first baby-steps into space more than a hundred years ago.
Dinner was a mostly peaceful affair. The trio commented on the news, as well as whatever silence-filler anecdotes could have happened to them in that time-lapse. Sofia went on and on about how NASA had arranged a video call with her granddaughter for her 6th birthday.
“Yeah, they told me today. On Wednesday I’ll have little Luana on my screen!” Liquid emotion poured in small amounts from her soaked pupils. “It’s been so long…”
Rugged Lester rested his palm on her shoulder and Clinton issued a warm smile.
“Wonder what it will be like when we come back.” Added Clinton “Everyone will be there. Three years will have passed. I miss my bed already!” he said as he pushed his head back in an act of yearning.
“Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I don’t want no TIME people in my house, no fancy parades, just gimme my wifey Marla, her fine stew and a nice movie.” Lester’s speech showed that years of education and training that created one of the finest examples of human being in the Agency were just bells and whistles over a very simple man, tough one whose exterior shell was rough, rather intimidating.
Just as the three occupants of Enterprise were cleaning up their waste, their perfectly programed environment was disrupted by a surge of instability. There was the trembling of the white lights, the spontaneous resetting of the screens in the cabin, and a subtle tremor whose subtlety was a million times amplified by sheer uncommonness.
Then, came another tremor.
Then, the lights started a confusing dance that oscillated frantically between life and death.
There was the sound of metal cringing. Then tiny sparkles that were the screams of copper strings snapping.
Lester held onto a pole on the wall, his body being brutally beaten by inertia as his feet struggled for balance. Both he and Clinton, who had been pushed into a seat by those same intrinsic ghosts of physics, stood completely muted, their faces wrinkling in complete shock, their brains switching to instinct-based survival as the crushing of their manufactured shell became more violent.
“What in the name of…?” shouted Sofia in commotion, before another quiver slammed her body to the ground. “Shit, put on your helmets!” she screamed as her limbs fought their way out of the floor
Time slowed down to a crisp as all the computerized systems of Enterprise succumbed to the pounding and the hull became pitch black. Debris cracked the precious hull with mercilessness and cracks let the void of space into the treasurable sanctuary that was explicitly built to keep it out. Glass shattered, aluminum deformed with dry thumps, and suddenly, with the blink of an eye, the spaceship had just become floating wreckage at the mercy of the cosmic vacuum, with three occupants still inside.
“Is everyone OK?!” called out Lester, now grasping to hold onto something solid. He had managed to reach for his helmet and his confused eyes scanned the place trying to construct a stable image out of the hundreds of sightings that had been flung into his unstable pupils. A jolt of relief relaxed his body momentarily as he saw Clinton, still grabbing onto the seat, helmet firmly secured to his head.
“What the hell was that?!” shrieked the younger man in horror, his limbs in a twitch so nervous that one could practically see the blood pumping full force inside his arteries.
“What do I know? Something hit us. Space debris or… or… yeah it must have been space debris” stammered old Lester, who, in his calm assertiveness strived to hide the rush of utter fear that was beginning to propagate inside his self like a poison. “Where’s Sofia?”
Clinton, blinking compulsively and pulling his body awkwardly as he tried to regain the self-control the shock had taken from him, crawled around the hull, grabbing onto whatever stable thing he could, in order to locate the woman. He found Sofia lying on the floor. Her helmet was on, although not tightly attached, and the most generous of often unforgiving chances had secured her elbow to the leg of the table. “Sofia!” yelled Clinton. There was a wholly urgent absence of response which prompted the man towards her. He saw a small puddle of blood. “Lester! She’s unconscious and bleeding!” But the sounds coming off Lester didn’t coincide with his. The older man was onto something else.
“Enterprise to San Jose, enterprise to San Jose. We’ve been hit! Enterprise to… Oh you motherfucker!” Lester’s rough voice roared with distress before turning to Clinton “We are cut off. The whole system has turned to shit” Whispered him as misery choked his anger and forced him to retreat into himself.
Clinton tried to reanimate Sofia. One, Two, Three. Twenty-six, Twenty-seven, Twenty-eight, Breathe again. Another thirty, another gasp of air. A prayer. Three more, words of spiritual charge rushing out of Clinton’s mouth as if he had his mind locked in making some sort of connection. Sofia’s eyes lazily opened as she carried the weight of her body like dried-up cement. “Good lord, woman, are you alright?” Questioned Lester as his partner took a heavy lungful of freedom and silently muttered “thank you” to the nothingness.
All Sofia could do was producing a doubtful nod as she found herself back in reality. Her body trembled. “Is it Wednesday? Did Luana call?! Please tell me she didn’t!” Her delusions startled her male counterparts, who placed her in a seated position and tightened her helmet.
“No, sweetie, Luana hasn’t called yet. Tell us about you. Can you breathe? Can you move?” Probed Clinton as he examined her injuries. “Oh shit. Look at this, Lester.” A visible frown powered by the deepest of frustrations surfaced in him as he took a peek at her small bag pack.
“Her oxygen supply… Damn it” exclaimed Lester at the sight of her punctured device. His eyes fixated down, as if he didn’t dare to raise his head and look at the mess that had piled up in front of him.
“Lester she won’t last for more than a couple of…!” Clinton’s body trembled; the notion of death clogged into his throat and couldn’t find a way to come out of his mouth. “Lester, man, is there a way to tell San Jose what happened here?!” Clinton was comfortable to hold doubt. At least doubt had a place for hope, unlike the thought of demise. The couple seconds before Lester could respond were filled with what seemed the closest thing possible to an ignorant bliss. Sure, they already knew, they were on their way on the fastest vehicles the Administration had at its disposal. Everything would be solved.
“The entire communication system on this thing is useless.” Lester’s words seemed fiery bullets bursting the bubble of optimism that had formed around Clinton’s stream of empty suppositions. “But I did send a distress signal from the emergency transponder. It’s not a sophisticated thing unfortunately. The thing could take… I don’t know… half a day to reach Earth from where we are”.
Clinton began a silent prayer.
The possession of the abstract forces that the young man summoned filled him with a serenity that was so out of touch with the situation it seemed to serve a cruel comedic purpose. Lester squinted at this sight, adopting a stance of reluctant acceptance.
“While you do your thing I’m gonna tend to the lady.” He procured, protruding his body across the inexistent gravity, he managed to reach the back of the cabin and retrieve a small bag of water. “You need hydration, Sofia.” He spoke to her in an almost fatherly manner, despite the woman being actually older than himself. The long wave of messy hair that had already started fading into a dull grey framed a rounded face in leathery, wrinkly skin of a smooth brown shade. Her perky Latino features conveyed the expression of a loving woman, even in the face of agony. Lester slipped the bag of water into her helmet and she strenuously sucked the protruding straw like it was the most titanic of chores.
Lester, Clinton and the remnants of a Sofia formerly equal to them in strength sat adrift in the emptiness. They rested on the floor, grabbing onto nearby fixtures to defy the vacuum’s intrinsic urge to send them floating onto infinity. There was nothing to go out to. Not even danger, just a vaguely distinguishable panorama of cosmic bodies that could only feed desperation to the eyes; eyes that could perceive their images, attached to bodies that would never reach their materiality.
Clinton looked to the stars. Closer than ever before, yet so dismally distant in only fueled his irritation. He came so far, risked his life and left everything behind, yet, everything looked the same. Stars were brighter, spots more colorful and even a shape or two could be distinguished. But it was still too far away. It was God, again, playfully teasing him with his compositions and inviting him to play in a childish manner, more provocative than ever. “You came so far. Come on, you can make it!”
But he wasn’t to. His body, his own self, as freely as it floated, still stood protected in heavy clothing and tied to a giant, decomposing shell going nowhere. His vision of the grandiosity was still only fed by a couple of holes of various sizes on the walls, and the frames where the windows used to be placed.
“Sofia… Answer me.” Demanded Lester. His keeping of her conscious and alive had become a game he had become too absorbed in. “Come on, Sofia. Tell me about your daughter, Tanya. Tell me about Luana! Come on. You will see her on Wednesday, on that screen, won’t you?!” A very sane Lester became content himself on the sight of these declarations, as if that little game he was playing to stimulate his wounded teammate was a signal that everything was fine.
“Yes. She’s so beautiful! The Administration said on Wednesday at 2pm terrestrial time they will put her on the line!” Sofia answered. The power in her voice had declined and all she could do now was whisper, only at times did her actual mature voice of tenor range show itself. “Tanya told me that when I went back home, I could move into her house and be with Luana… For as long… for as long as I want” Her eyes gleamed with hope at this last affirmation.
But Luana wouldn’t call. Wednesday had already passed in earth as they spoke; more than twenty-four hours had been thrown to the waste by disarray, and the screen that Lester pointed to, radiated a condemning white noise.
“Clinton. The transponder has stopped responding. We don’t know if there was any message.” Old Lester shoot those words out of his mouth like giant nails that lodged into a celestial coffin.
Young Clinton had been silent for hours. Every inch of his body craved to be transported to the home of his creator. “So. That’s nice. The signal might have still reached Earth. Maybe they have tracked us. Something in here must still be on.” His sanguinity seemed to Lester delusional. Best case scenario, Clinton was faking assurance. Worst case scenario, he actually believed that.
“Clinton…” started Lester, prepared to blow his partner’s cover of harmony.
“Before you say anything. Yes, there is an almost zero chance of that happening. But… honestly. Do you have something better to do? When there is nothing to do, let me tell you pal, you’re not better off crying about it. Just let time pass while you expect something. At the worst, it passes faster and you die sooner and happier.” The speech took Lester by surprise. He was used to being the patronizing one. But in this situation, where rationality and the ability to contain oneself was at best unnecessary, at worst hindering, Lester felt like a child in need of protection, of protection from a mind more out of touch with reality.
He thought about all those times as a young man he filmed videos of his friends, beating a young altar boy in a parking lot for claiming sex before marriage was immoral. Those videos were all the rage at some inner-city schools. He never actually beat anyone himself, but the sickly pleasure of watching bible thumpers getting what they deserved was hyped by his contribution. He took pride in it.
Lester was forced out of the past at the sight of Sofia choking. “Clinton! Help me out here! She can’t breathe!” He announced in desperation. Young Clinton propelled himself to the resting spot of his teammates, but all he could offer was his presence. Sofia had started spitting red. “What… Wha… Why is she doing this? Has she run out of oxygen?!” he inquired.
“Do I look like I know, little guy?! This seems like internal injury… come on, help me hold her head!” Lester responded, the anxiety and urgency made his coarse voice all that much terrifying when he yelled, like he was about to destroy something in confused madness. The way he said “little guy” this time turned a playful call into a threatening taunt.
Both men maneuvered around Sofia as she strived for gasps of scarce air. Finally, she seemed to cease the will to move, instead lying on the hull, still tied to the floor. She didn’t know a lot about death, but she pronounced the following words as if she knew they were going to be her last. “If you talk to Luana. Tell her I’m not available. Tell her “pupa” loves her and wishes her a happy birthday.” Her eyes then dried up of their former glorious soul. The glow that had accompanied her even in the deepest pits of sorrow was now dissolving in the vacuum, spreading out of what was now only a body.
Both Lester and Clinton remained frozen by disbelief. There were no tears. Just tremors. There was no grief, just confusion. This wasn’t their beloved teammate departing the world of the living, this was the most recent discordant event in a series of happenings that seemed to happen away from reality, a halt in time, that would soon end and everything would reset to its original position dominated by order.
Clinton began a silent prayer.
“Just. Stop. That. Bullshit!” Demanded Lester in abrupt rage. “Just. Stop. It!” This wasn’t Clinton’s jokingly mocking yet sympathetic older teammate. This was a monster. This was a man who was letting out deep, long-harbored hatred. Clinton was paralyzed in fear as the buff man spit flames of abhorrence in his direction. “You know why every day more churches are burned by angry mobs? You wanna know why the government has outlawed spiritual gatherings in public places?! You wanna know why religion is a taboo you can’t talk about with anyone but close friends?” Interrogated Lester, veering close to his young partner by the forces of nothingness. “It’s because of that bullshit, you imbecile! Your fucking colleague has just died. You are stranded in outer space without any certainty of returning home. And there you are. Instead of figuring out a course of action, you are talking to your imaginary friend! You are holding your buddy in a pedestal trying to make peace with him instead of reality. You people work for your god, you don’t give a shit about the rest! Trying to convince us that you are happier than everyone, when in fact, all you do is seal yourself off from all the shit you make other people go through, you selfish little bible-thumper. We are going to die. What are you going to do about it?!”
These last words resonated inside Clinton like a shockwave. Ignoring the beast that was onto him, only a meter or so away, he glanced once again at the Universe. Millions of little lights of different colors and shapes, sharing immensity so immense that even that word wouldn’t do it justice. Wasn’t this so much bigger than whatever Atlas could ever hold in his back! And now Clinton, no titan but a mere mortal had it at his fingertips. This was the closest he would ever get to the lights. And now, he was going to die, being eternally seduced by the spectacle that would leave him wanting more.
Without warning, Clinton opened the emergency door with an assertive grab and boosted himself to the border.
“What the fuck are you doing you psycho?!” Cried Lester in elemental fear.
“You’re right. We are going to die. And we need to do something about it. I’m not going to spend the last chunk of my time sitting in some dark hull until my oxygen runs out. I’m going there” he stared again at the black heavens “I’m running towards the stars. Think about it. This is the most basic freedom you will ever have. The freedom to die, Lester. Get out of that thing, and die out here, where no man has ever died before. It’s the best death there is, Les!”
And so Clinton jumped; his eyeballs humid with nervousness, but also a gigantic glee. No longer was God dangling his precious creations in front of him only to hide them in the realm of the untouchable. He was among them, and better yet, he was going to die among them, in the very house of his creator, in the void that lifted his body like a feather and made him levitate. Oh, what a pleasure to be free from the shackles of gravity, of oppressing reason, of the prison of safety!
Lester looked at him dazed. Emotion overcame the man as his colleague drifted farther apart. “Clinton!” He called out once again, as if making everything he could to not let go.
“Lester, are you afraid of God?!” Shouted Clinton from the distance.
Yes, he was afraid of God. But in the face of certain death, fear became excitement. It became a complement. And so Lester took the leap and jumped into the oblivion. The millions of stars that surrounded the two men, who were wandering further apart each second, witnessed the most incredible transformation. Two human beings escaping their artificial containers, and leaving their humanity to become one with the universe. They would not be seen or heard from ever again by another person. Only by God, who welcomed them with open arms as the two men - minds tired, hearts fulfilled, glided towards an ever-increasing infinity, on their way to finally touching the lights.