Old Fool's Errand

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“Yeah, Houston, I see the damn button.” He growled into his headset. How could he miss it? It was lit up and blinking like a fucking Christmas tree light, shouting for his attention. Not to mention it was about the size of a Texas belt buckle, which was about standard for the control panel in front of him. A whole sea of giant, illuminated lights, each one of which could blink on Houston’s command. It was like some overeager parent’s horrifying vision for how to teach their idiot kid to fly a spaceship, and he hated it. No matter how many times he had told them he was nimble, had 20/20 vision, used to repair fucking pocket watches by naked eyeball, he could still see the irritating condescension in their eyes, the repeated, smiling ‘Mars is far away, sir.’ It might as well have been gramps, or old man for all the respect they meant, and he knew it. They didn’t think he was a crack operative specifically geared to make the most of this mission; they just saw him as a tired old world-weary man only a few merciful years away from colostomy bags and catheters.

Well, they had their just deserts now: he was up here, irreplaceable, and beyond reproach. Despite the long silence on the comm.

He started whistling Bowie’s Major Tom for the thousandth time, then stopped himself. Didn’t want to go too far down that road right now. Mars was, after all, still months away.  He glanced down at the back of his flight manual, at the chicken-scratched tally he had started keeping not long after he left lunar orbit: a heavy cluster of marks under a bold-faced ‘ME’, a few lone, scraggly marks under a less-emphatically written ‘Houston.’ He was winning, to say the least. It was juvenile, yes, but then that was the point: it kept him young.

“Hey Houston?”

The voice that responded was heavy with tired, long-suffering frustration.

“Yes, Wild Blue?”

He smiled: the only thing more amusing than abusing his captive audience was forcing them to use the absurd moniker he had given himself. Wild Blue. Nothing blue about him; even his eyes were hazel. But wild was increasingly true.

He belched loudly, then made a face; orbital food had come a long way since the early days, but the aftertaste was still far from pleasant.

“Send that one to Patty in 102.” He said. And then paused for a moment – had Patty been 102 or 207 at the home? Not that it mattered now, they were all far behind him, but – shouldn’t he remember?

With relief he realized it wasn’t his memory going - he’d never remembered in the first place. Patty had even pointed it out to him once. Not that it had made a difference; she’d had a good sense of humor. Which was why he’d almost –

Well, no need to go into that now.

Houston was silent, two hundred thousand miles away. Restless, he considered before toggling the radio again.

“What time is it down there?”

“3:27.” Came the tired, monotonous response.

The night shift. He thought to himself. Probably some rookie desk jockey -

“This your first time solo, kid?”

No answer. He smiled to himself, scratched another tally under ‘Me’. The pen was running out of ink. Soon it would join the others in the materials dump, ready to be jettisoned into space.

“Alright, Houston, alright.” He said, patronizingly encouraging. “You're doing fine. Anyone else there with you?”

The voice that came back was hardly encouraged.

“Engineering's here, and health.”

“Tell health I ran out of the blue pills.”

Longer silence on the other end. Then the response:

“He says ‘Oh well.”

He smiled to himself. Made another mark under ‘Houston’, more scratch than ink.

“Very nice. I like you, Houston. You have a wife, kids?”

“Sure.” Came the guarded response.

“Tell me about them.”

Long silence, then –

“Will it make you push the god damn button, or am I going to have to turn on the siren?”

“Oh, don’t try that.” He sighed. “Tripping the siren means waking the director.” He was genuinely disappointed in the kid, but mostly just bored. “And I get the feeling you want to get home to your wife at some point tonight.”

“No, I’d rather babysit an old man who can’t push a blinking damn button right in front of him.”

The response was just a little too quick for it to be calculated, which meant he’d hit a nerve. Probably with the wife, he thought to himself. Something happening there.

“Houston,” he smiled audibly over the open line, “That reverse-psychology trick won’t work on me.” No answer. “Engineering, do you want to walk me through why we need to shuffle the thrusters for the third time in 10 hours? Is something going on here?” Another long pause, then a different voice came on.

“Well, we don’t strictly speaking have to – “ it started, then picked up in pace before he could interrupt – “It’s just recommended –

“Go home, Houston.” He chuckled. “We’re done here tonight.”

The light in front of him kept blinking away, unchanged.

“Be a dear and kill the lights on your way, would you - ?”

His last words died away as the shrill sound of the siren rang out in the cabin. He sighed and shook his head heavily. Oh, Houston. They never did learn.

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