Illustrated by Jim Garrison

It’s too hot in here. Funny, isn’t it? Millions of miles out in space, staring at the Horsehead Nebula like it was Coney Island down below this here little-bitty closed-in rollercoaster car of a United States V-19 SkipCraft.

And it’s too hot. You’d think the contractors who low-balled this bird to Uncle Starship could have spared the expense and made it cold as the grave. No, it’s stuporously hot, so hot a fellow could sleep… and sleep… and sleep….

I have no idea how long this bird has left for life support. Nearly every dial and gauge shattered when I exploded the bolts that bound Skip to Ship, the USS Merrimack, flying the United States of North America Registry across her underbelly a mile wide, in enough paint to cover a whole block of tract houses back on Earth. The last thing I saw when I blew the bolts was the American flag looking down at me in shame.

And that’s the worst part, you know? I don’t have that shame coming. At least I don’t think I do. I’d already sent out a Distress Blip on every Federated Military Corps signal within twenty parsecs.

I was going to come back for the girls, who might or might not have made it to another Skip before the asteroid sheared the Merrimack in half like a stone knife and it was every man for himself, women and children first. I hope they got out first. I really do. I couldn’t find them. Jessie stopped wanting to be found a little while ago. Even on a ship, a woman can make that so.

This whole situation was, as we say in the Corps, Not Designed For Success. Me and Jessie just had a lot of young and crazy in us both, a lot of young and crazy that didn’t mesh up. The old folks say that those who marry in haste repent in leisure, and when you add a kid into the mix, a million billion miles out in space, then BOOM. Ground Zero. And now I can’t…

Now I can’t go back. The Merrimack, Jessie, our little Lenora, all of it is nothing but black char, drifting apart, following the expansion of the cold universe further and further out into its own particulate roots, until everything comes back round again and we are all reunited, swept up by that great river of entropy returning to the place where it meets the Almighty sea.

Back into God’s loving hands, at the far rim beyond our flawed perceptions that even drove Einstein nuts in the end. A hundred years ago, that old swabbie said that God doesn’t play dice. Einstein certainly wasn’t either, when he left the plans for the Relativity Engine in trust to be opened a century after his death.

Couldn’t have come in better time, too. The Federated Soviet Free Market Republics were about ready to blow the United States of North America to kingdom come, and we them, over a blood feud that made the Arabs and the Jews look like a debate team.

Hell, hardly anybody even used the hydrogen bomb any more after 1978. We had much better ways to be barbarians. Or we did, before U.N. Secretary General Malzberg made it a war crime to own a nuclear stockpile. (Lotsa countries still do, but they get found and blown to hell in Space when we catch ‘em. )

That must have been a strange time to be alive. The fresh-faced corporals who were my history teachers when I grew up explained it to us again and again, but my off-Earth generation couldn’t understand until we got done with our own misspent youths and went back to the old country to learn by going where we had to go, figuring it out for ourselves.

I slouch forward in my seat, bending back to the Manual Override cluster underneath the main console. Main Console has been summarily removed by Brute Force And Massive Ignorance, Sir ( as we used to say in Zero-Gee Basic Training at Ft. Eisenhower on Luna) and now lies in a heap behind me on the steel flooring surface where those weird-looking roaches that grew in zero-gravity slither up through the cracks and make their unholy noises until I blast them with the Freon hose spooled into Repair Station One behind me.

The roaches shatter like glass, sometimes in mid-pounce, and never a moment too soon. It passes the time, while I figure out if there’s any radio frequency worth descrambling, any band left running my ear up and down for the faintest signs of commerce, life, any kind of life at all, D—n it all, her eyes, her sweet eyes that turned to hating me after I tried so hard to keep it all together and not let anything that got to my folks get to her or Lenora, I never had time for Nora, always just had one more thing to do before I could relax and…

It made me a monster, she said. The military made me a monster. Living in Space made me a monster who forgot how to live with people. Honest to God. The way I looked at it, it was our shotgun wedding that made me a monster, and the harder I tried to make an honest family out of all of us despite that, the more flak I took from every …

The more…

Why, the more I botched it up. I look down at my hands, now, and the Skip looks different inside when I do. There’s black mold around the edges of things. My hands are whiter than they should be. My wedding band’s gone, and then it hits me again, it hits me that THIS IS GUNNERY SARGEANT RICK HOUGH, UNITED STATES FEDERATED MILITARY CORPS 9220156, PLANET EARTH, ON ALL NEARBY CHANNELS, DO YOU HAVE A COPY?

There is black mold at the edges of everything. There was a pill in the First-Aid kit I can’t remember if I’ve even thought about yet, the one that lets you sleep a long, long time, the Bio-Stasis hyp that Watson at MIT invented for the Military.

I know two or three long-line riders who’ve had to take the stuff, miners and repairmen who know they’re going to have to be out in the Asteroid Belt a long time and occasionally lose contact with their train of freighters or ice-pushers or whatever the case may be.

Those long-time jocks tell me the stuff makes you go crazy, and you can’t control when you swim up out of sleep or back down into it. Must be like waking up on the operating table under general anaesthesia. No thanks. I better not…

I don’t even know if the radio works any more. I’ve gotten no verification, and I have so few tools. I keep… I keep slipping away, there was this stuff in the First-Aid Kit, I didn’t quite understand what it was for, but I guess it must have been some kind of psychoactive…

I was going to come back for Jessie and Nora. I told myself I was. I really was. Even though she left me, said all those nasty things and then went and ran around with those two other guys behind my back (she did, she did, no matter what she says she did,) before she swept up our little daughter who she says I ignore when we’re fighting, and when we’re not, but I’m the man, God d--- it, someone has to keep things running.

That ungrateful b----. She always has to throw it in my face how she put me through Tech School. She has no idea of the contributions I made, the sacrifices, while I was going. Nor will she. I mean, someone has to watch the world while they’re sleeping. Someone has to…

Going faint again. That pill I took from the First-Aid kit. My face reflected in the porthole window looks hunted and haggard and hollow of eye. The stars dream contentedly in their vast dance, soothing to watch. This is the long trip out through Space. The long trip out does not end. There may be no return. God doesn’t play dice. There may…

Oh. I must have dozed off again. This… this Skip is a wreck, there’s black mold everywhere, and the calendar doesn’t even…

Scan. Nor does the radio work. Apparently. I must have been out a long time. I must—

Oh, God. JESSIE!!! NORA!!!

I close my eyes, and wait for the scream to stop coming from inside me. The Freon hose lies within easy reach. That comforts me greatly, you see.

It’s too hot in here…


[THE END]