Fiction – “The Third Cosmic Crisis, As I Recall It” by Collin Blair Grabarek
A Star Was Dying
Its south pole pointed across 3000 light years toward earth.
I Wore a Quality Necktie to Work
We were gathered among dozens of blackened computer screens in the Johnson Space Center’s Mission Control Center, our arms crossed, none of us calm enough to sit. We wore terrible outfits, shirts too big or too small. Pants too short. Skirts wrinkled. My coworkers had just decided that, because of the intriguing pattern on my necktie, my outfit was the least terrible. This meant that I would make the most impressive staff liaison to NASA’s Sun-Worshipping Department. Hence, I would give us the best chance of securing the Sun-Worshipping Department’s help in averting the far-off fury of the dying star, which was discovered that morning.
This was the year 2354 CE. By then my plan to forget my coworkers’ names was in full effect, so I couldn’t plead with them intimately even though I wanted nothing to do with the sun worshippers. Instead I reminded them that the sun worshippers weren’t any help during the Second Cosmic Crisis. My coworkers asked what I was talking about, so I said:
“I mean the time we lost Stan and Laurence.”
“No, they weren’t any help then,” said Bob Prancle. “But neither were we, and at least they had the excuse of being half-naked. And mysterious.” He squeezed my shoulder. I remember Bob Prancle’s name because he was Flight Director during the Second Cosmic Crisis. He had squeezed my shoulder then, too.
“But sir,” I said. “This isn’t exactly urgent. We’ve got 3000 years to work with.”
“You never want to leave problems for future generations to clean up, let alone a gamma ray burst. Better to nip it in the bud. Besides, a nice stroll over to the Sun-Worshipping Department will let you enjoy the beautiful weather.”
“It is well over 90 degrees outside,” I reminded him.
“For July in Houston, that’s beautiful.” He leaned toward me, lips drawn. “That really is a nice pattern, Herman. On your necktie, I mean.”
I thought of Stan and Laurence. I thought of what I had done to them. “About the pattern,” I said. “Don’t you think the geometry is a little unsound?”
“Think of what happened to Planet 476-V, and tell me you want that to happen to earth. Now quit stalling.”
What Happened to Planet 476-V
A star’s south pole pointed across 3000 light years toward Planet 476-V. When that star died, a gamma ray burst shot like a spear of energy from its rotational axis. The burst raged across space, charging at the speed of light.
Three thousand years later, the burst crashed into Planet 476-V, and the planet’s thin and noxious atmosphere blew away like a sneeze in high wind. Luckily, there was no life on Planet 476-V. That saved the life on Planet 476-V a painful death by suffocation.
The Founding of NASA’s Sun-Worshipping Department
About two hundred years ago, in 2178 CE, an asteroid the shape of Georgia and the size of Rhode Island was slipping through space, heading toward earth. Because of this, a group of NASA researchers at the Johnson Space Center was examining new photographs of the sun’s surface, desperate for any clue toward building a fusion engine that could push the asteroid away.
They didn’t find their clue, but they found something else. No one knows what. By the day’s end they had burned the photographs, flushed the ashes down a public toilet, and barred the door to the public restroom. They fashioned a strange staff out of a plunger and a liquid soap dispenser. They banged the metal hull of a paper towel holder into skate-blades, which they affixed to their shoes. This happened on a Tuesday, but no one attempted to enter the restroom for the three days during which the researchers remained in seclusion. Most of NASA’s staff had already given up and gone home.
Because the experts said that there was no way to stop the asteroid. It had been detected too late.
And before any gung-ho survivalists had gotten too far along with their bunker building, a disheveled NASA representative explained that when the asteroid hit and the skies rained fire worldwide, all of the oxygen would be sucked up in a second. And if you were unlucky enough to have a spare oxygen source in your bunker, the tremendous heat on the earth’s surface would boil your racks of bottled water until the incredible pressure sent the bottle caps flying and then you would steam alive. Or all right, the heat alone would probably kill you first.
“Everyone might as well remain calm,” the disheveled representative added with a shrug.
There were holdouts, however, including our restroom researchers. The experts argued that holdouts such as these were optimistic in a pathological way.
But when the researchers emerged on Friday morning, they calmly saved the world. One minute the asteroid was hurtling straight toward earth, and the next it was spinning off in a perfect spiral toward the Horsehead Nebula. The researchers’ explanation? “The portraits of Mother Sun taught us wondrous knowledge.”
Thus, the First Cosmic Crisis was averted in the nick of time.
Within days, the researchers-turned-sun-worshippers negotiated a salary agreement with NASA. NASA also granted them use of an airplane hangar on the grounds of the Johnson Space Center.
It is amazing what the sun worshippers accomplished in a public restroom. No one knows where they found the leather strips that tied the plunger to the soap dispenser.
A Quick Side Note about Grocery Shopping between 3:15 AM and 3:50 AM
There are never any lines. At least one study has concluded that this is the least shopped-during timeframe. If your all-night grocery store has self-service lanes, you never have to interact with any people. Maybe you encounter one or two in the aisles (usually the beer aisle), but you and they have an understanding: There must be no interaction. You’re like the opposite of secret agents. You’re like people who unwillingly cross paths in conspicuous places in order to not exchange information.
The bananas are severely overripe or severely underripe, if there are bananas left at all.
You can buy a week’s worth of groceries and leave the house only for work. Once you get used to not interacting with people, it becomes easier to forget your coworkers’ names. There is plenty of time to think about whatever you like, or about the mistakes you have made. There is plenty of time to not affect others.
If you’re looking for fresh bakery items, you’re out of luck.
How I Got to Know Stan and Laurence
Just three years ago, in 2351 CE, less than 400 years of space flight had led us to our first manned solar expedition. The two-person spacecraft was called Inspiration. Its ultra-heat-resistant hull would allow the crew, Stan and Laurence, to pass just below the sun’s surface.
It would take Stan and Laurence eight months to reach the sun. Unfortunately, our stress tests had determined that if two people spent eight months together with virtually no other human interaction, those people got funny ideas. After six months in our test chamber, our trial run left two test subjects believing they were in fact a single being. They agreed that they should use one of their mouths for eating and the other for drinking. They were overjoyed at their increased efficiency, positive that it would make them a more viable organism. When they wept for joy at this realization, one supplied the tears while the other wailed. We decided to end the test early.
We then developed a plan: Someone would talk with Stan and Laurence every day from earth. Unfortunately, we were all terrible interpersonal communicators. My coworkers in Mission Control decided that I was the least terrible. Their argument was: A) I remembered everyone’s name; B) I coordinated/attended a reading club for Houston-area fiction enthusiasts; and most importantly C) I was Capsule Communicator. It therefore became my responsibility to hold daily conversations with Stan and Laurence during the mission.
During the mission, I talked with Stan and Laurence 260 times. We talked for two hours at a time. I told them about pop culture, world news, news from the reading club. I told them about myself. They told me about themselves. We came to know each other very well.
Yes, You Are Right
There are less than 260 days in eight months. I kept talking with Stan and Laurence for 16 excruciating days after the Second Cosmic Crisis. During Talk 260, I told them that I could barely hear them because the com-link signal was dying, though it wasn’t. They said they understood. They did. I never told this to Bob Prancle. I doubt he or anyone else listened to the records, since no one has ever asked me why I would have lied to Stan and Laurence in their time of need. How I could have. What sort of person could do such a thing to the people he loved.
Why I Don’t Own a Cat
I was still scolding myself for wearing such a nice necktie when I arrived, sweating in the July heat, at the Sun-Worshipping Department’s hangar. There was no handle on the door—a dull metal slab slightly taller than an average door. When I knocked on it, a narrow viewing window slid open. A pair of blue, female eyes peered out at me. Around the eyes, an oily white paint had been applied to form a sort of mask. The paint matted the woman’s eyebrows to her skin. Judging by the bridge of her nose, the woman had a remarkably clear complexion.
“What is it?” the woman said.
“Hi,” I said. “Do you people—does your department—handle gamma ray bursts, by any chance?”
“Stellar breath is a fearsome thing,” the woman said.
“Therein lies the problem,” I said. “There is a dying star about 3000 light years away, and its—”
“I know him well, our hot-tempered uncle.”
The viewing window slid shut with a clap, and the door opened slightly. I stepped into the hangar. Immediately the door slammed behind me. I turned in time to watch someone scuttle off into the darkened corner of the hangar. The place smelled like cinders and fresh paint. The floor was covered with quartz sand. Through a huge skylight in the center of the ceiling, sunlight fell upon a step-pyramid maybe twenty-five feet tall. The stones appeared hand-cut, the seams too irregular to have been manufactured by machine. On the upper levels of the pyramid, where most of the sunlight fell, a couple dozen people lounged like cats.
I owned a cat once. But not long after Talk 260, I left him at the door of an animal shelter. The note I taped to his cat-carrier said: “There’s no other way I can forget his name. Please note that my reading club loved him. Please note that he likes his back stroked while he eats.”
Stan’s hero was the moon. Horrible acne had cratered his face in high-school, and at only thirty-one years old his blond hair had thinned to pale wisps. Even though he’d accomplished so much, even though he had a wife he loved and a job he loved, even with all of that the acne scars ruined Stan’s self-esteem. “But the moon, man. Nothing’s more cratered and bald than that, and who have you ever met that doesn’t like looking at the moon? People risked everything just to walk on it. Shelley says she’s my werewolf. Every night when I come home, the moment she sees me she howls.”
Stan cooked gourmet meals in his spare time. He didn’t think he was very good at it. He thought being a chef was harder than being an astronaut. “It’s a close call, but with cooking you have to work wonders in a simple kitchen. It’s easier to believe you can work wonders when you’re floating in space.”
Stan loved his wife Shelley, but one time after he returned from a long mission in orbit, he asked her if she thought she would be better off with a man who was always there for her. That’s how Stan learned that werewolves can howl the word “no.” He never asked that question again, but sometimes when he was in space, when he and Shelley weren’t subject to the same amount of gravity, he wondered it.
Stan never liked novels. He didn’t understand what they were getting at. He appreciated a few of the classics, however. He appreciated Don Quixote, though he never finished it. He appreciated A Christmas Carol. “It’s simple and it’s true. I like a story you can believe in.”
I’m not convinced he finished that one either.
Laurence believed that soccer was haunted because the game clock doesn’t stop along with a pause in play. “They just add phantom minutes to the end of the game. You can’t see how many are left because the clock ticks up, but you know they’re lurking somewhere. They float around, light as air. You breathe them. They get inside your lungs and suck up your oxygen, and you’re suffocating. Then Boo! The ref blows his whistle and it’s over and you’re exorcised. Who the shit wants to go through an exorcism every time they sit down to watch sports?”
Laurence wore only tailored suits. He wore brown suits because brown looks good on a man with red hair. You don’t see many grown men with red-red hair, but Laurence’s was red-red. Laurence actually asked NASA whether they would consider a brown spacesuit for redheaded astronauts.
Laurence had no family because he played chess so well. He once played chess against fifteen players simultaneously and beat them all. Killed them all, was how he put it. “Can you believe that? How could a man go home to his wife knowing he’d done that? How could he look his children in the eye? I’m not saying you’d feel guilty. I’m saying when you’re that good at chess, you could see on their faces how far into the game they’d get before they fouled up and bit the big one.” He paused for a second. “Nobody should have to watch his family die.”
When I told Laurence that I wished I took things as seriously as he did, he laughed. “I’d like to strangle that wish to death.”
Why I Want Nothing to Do with the Sun Worshippers
Because they didn’t help Stan and Laurence avert me in the nick of time.
I Wear the Perfect Shoe Size
As I climbed toward the sun worshippers, they slinked away to the far edge of the pyramid. They each wore a sort of toga, deep red. The sun played on their exposed skin as they slinked. Strange shapes, drawn in white oil paint, covered their skin. I felt the shapes were letters I should know, or maybe equations. I tried to decipher them, but before I got a chance the sun worshippers had slinked away.
All but one. He lay on his back on the flattened top of the pyramid. His leg dangled into a round pool of still water that reflected the sky. He was murmuring. In the center of the pool stood a platform. On the platform stood a pedestal. On the pedestal stood a stone sundial. The way the sun worshipper lay there—just lay there—made my skull feel hot.
“I am in charge here,” he said. “Can I be of assistance?”
Are you sure you’re not too busy? I wanted to say. Instead: “It’s about the impending gamma ray burst.” I scowled. “Well not really impending, but Bob Prancle likes to nip things in the—”
“I can be of assistance,” he said. He pulled his leg from the water, slowly, and rose. He stood over six feet tall. He had the sort of full, even beard I wished I could grow. Closing his eyes, he craned his neck and let the sunlight bathe his face. “Mother Sun sympathizes with you. You may prevent this Second Cosmic Crisis.”
I tightened the muscles in my back. I wanted to strangle the man. “Third,” I said.
He opened his eyes. They stared directly into the sun. “What shoe size do you wear?”
“Nine and a half.”
“Perfect,” the sun worshipper said. “You will do perfectly. Wait here, and please remove your shoes.”
He stepped down the back of the pyramid and descended a staircase that plunged inside it. While I waited, the other sun worshippers began to creep toward me like cautious animals. They stopped just beyond where the sunlight fell strongest.
The bearded sun worshipper returned with an armful of equipment: some sort of boots, a long translucent shaft, and a small compass. He looked at my feet.
“You haven’t removed your shoes,” he said.
“Why didn’t you save Stan and Laurence?”
The sun worshipper held out the pair of worn, leather boots. They resembled ice-skates, but in place of the blades were stiff, translucent feathers. When I didn’t take them, the sun worshipper blinked. “You will need these,” he said.
“Not until you answer me.”
“Take care when you put them on. The feathers are delicate.”
“Not,” I shouted, “until you answer me.”
The lesser sun worshippers retreated into darkness, whispering.
I trembled. I couldn’t see through the tears or the world spinning; I get dizzy easily. I continued: “Were you too busy lying around to save them?”
The sun worshipper’s face remained lax. “We do not meddle in catastrophes of human birth.” His eyes narrowed. “We do not correct your faults.”
I lost a stretch of time, but when I came to I was seated with my legs in the tepid pool, my pant-legs soaked. I was numb and shivering. The skates were on my feet. In my lap rested the compass and the translucent shaft. The compass’ needle never budged, and its directional etchings were arcane letters similar to those painted on the sun worshippers. The shaft’s ends consisted of a sharp point and a handle scored to provide a good grip.
The sun worshipper stood on the platform in the center of the pool. “The compass will guide you to our uncle,” he said, “and the lever will find purchase in his fire.” He grabbed the sundial and, gritting his teeth, pulled it clockwise. The stone grated as it turned. The reflected sky in the pool grew darker, though the actual sky remained as bright as ever. His voice was strained when he spoke again. “Breathe freely, no matter what your instincts tell you, and try not to think of time. You will be beyond it.” He pulled again, and the reflected sky turned the red of late evening. With another pull, deep blue replaced the red. Another pull left nothing but stars and blackness.
The sun worshipper sighed and wiped sweat from his brow. “As a parting gesture, know that our uncle’s tantrum embarrasses Mother Sun. She regrets the trouble her brother has brought you. Now, please stand.”
I will sink, I would have said a few moments ago. But now I didn’t really care.
I stood. I shot downward, slipping below the water’s surface, but in an instant the water disappeared. I scrambled for a moment, flailing my legs, until I felt the feathers catch something in the blackness. I realized I was breathing easily. There was no sound. There was only outer-space, a countless number of pinprick stars, and the gleaming earth behind me. I looked up, and through a rippling disk of water I could see the unsteady silhouette of the sun worshipper standing at his pedestal. I tightened my necktie because it seemed like the right thing to do.
A Quick Side Note about Mail
Most mail is not very significant. So long as you pay your bills on time, you can discard the remainder of your mail without reading it. You will not win any sweepstakes, but you will be fine. And personal mail means nothing once you’ve forgotten everyone’s name.
The Second Cosmic Crisis
All right, I suppose I have to. So.
We hadn’t accounted for something. We were arrogant, and Stan and Laurence paid for it. The mission had gone smoothly for 244 days. Then came the moment of truth. As Stan and Laurence approached the sun, they reported that the heat-shields were working like magic. Their special visors allowed for direct observation of the sun with no risk of retinal damage, and man was it something. The fire danced in helixes over the blazing surface that seemed to crack and bubble like baking cheese. It looked good enough to eat.
“I thought the moon was beautiful,” Stan said.
“That’s power,” Laurence said. “God that’s power.”
They prepared for entry. They set their course just below the sun’s surface, a sort of tangent, and they fired their engines.
At first everything went fine. They collected images and video that streamed back to earth. Then they lost all propulsion, all but emergency power. Back at Mission Control, we could hear them flicking switches, barking at each other. And suddenly they were riding one of the fiery helixes.
“Trouble,” Laurence said, and the sun flung Inspiration into deep space.
There Is No Scientific Explanation for What Happened to Stan and Laurence
The sun rejected them.
Toward the Third Cosmic Crisis
It takes little effort to skate in space. A few good pushes get you going. You glide along, on and on, until the feathers and whatever they’re grabbing hold of eventually slow you down a little. Then you push a few more times.
The compass had started to work the moment I slipped below the pool. It pointed me toward a brilliant dot in the distance, and that’s where I skated. I can’t imagine how long I was out there, skating. Suffice it to say that even if I had skated at the speed of light, at the speed of a gamma ray burst, it would have taken me 3000 years to reach that star. But I was beyond time, so I won’t do the math. I know that I never got hungry. I know that I never got tired.
Somewhere along the line I passed a comet the size of a two-story house, frozen in place. I corrected with my skates and glided over to it. With the lever’s pointed end I chipped loose a piece of ice from the comet. It wasn’t cold to the touch. Temperature didn’t exist here either. I flicked the ice into space. I skated to the comet’s tail, a seemingly endless cloudstream of rock and ice and dust. I swung the lever like a bat and knocked a softball-sized rock into oblivion. Nothing moved unless I moved it.
As I skated, I would occasionally realize I hadn’t been thinking of anything for who knows how long. Even then, there was plenty of time for thinking. I thought about Stan and Laurence mostly, and my cat whose name I couldn’t remember. I ran through all of my talks with Stan and Laurence, and when it came to the cat I ran through all of the times I had stroked him while he ate.
Then I did it again and again and again and again and again and a—
By the time the brilliant dot had grown into a brilliant soccer-ball, I had decided that I missed my cat.
Sixteen days after the sun flung Inspiration into deep space, the Mission Control Center was empty except for me. There was nothing any of the flight controllers could do other than talk, and I was Capsule Communicator.
“We’ve got a good bit of food left, of course,” Laurence said. “We’ve talked about not using it, though.”
“Only because I’m sick of losing at magnetic chess every time.”
“That’s just it. One look at you and I’ve seen you die anyway. Not to mention I’ve killed you over and over.”
“I think it’s better for Shelley, in the end.”
“We could play a different game, you know?”
“We have other games?”
“Chess becomes checkers easy.”
“Do you think we’ll end up feeling like one organism?”
“I’ve got a little of that already.”
“Me too. Hey, Herman, Laurence and I have got a little of that already. What about you? Man you’re quiet today.”
I panicked. I thought I could no longer bear to talk with the living dead. I stopped crying long enough to tell Stan and Laurence that I could barely hear them because the com-link signal was dying, though it wasn’t.
I asked them if they were still there.
“Of course we are,” Laurence said. He didn’t sound angry or sad. He sounded embarrassed.
“Yes, of course we are,” Stan said, also embarrassed. “But we understand.”
“We really do,” Laurence said. “When the shit goes south, Stan and I have agreed to go in full spacesuit, helmets and everything. We’ll close our visors. It’ll be easier if we can’t see each other.”
“I really do think it’s better for Shelley, in the end.”
“I think it’s better for all of us,” Laurence said. “I really think that. We’ve appreciated the company. And we understand.”
The Truth about My Reading Club
I never really liked novels either, Stan. I just appreciated the company.
The Third Cosmic Crisis (Part 1)
The star was so huge that even when I was hundreds of miles away from it, it filled my field of vision. At last I reached it. Fixed in place, fiery helixes hung from it like flaming tangles of hair. I scooped a handful of the star’s orange body and sniffed it. It smelled of nothing. When I shook my hand the stuff wriggled like jelly.
It took a good while to skate to the star’s south pole. When I got there, I plunged the lever into the frozen fire. It stuck fast. I gave the lever a little tug, and the star turned an inch as if all of that tremendous mass meant nothing. The jelly on its surface shivered, and the fiery helixes swayed. I got my bearings, maneuvered myself behind the lever, gripped the lever like a push-bar, and began to skate.
Pushing with what little strength the chore required, I began to turn the star slowly, the goal being to turn it 180 degrees so that its muzzle of a south pole would no longer point toward earth. I closed my eyes and imagined I was in one of a million chambers in the largest revolving door. How long was I pushing in real time? Months? Years? I don’t know, but I came to know that revolving door very, very well. I memorized every whorl in the fingerprint smudges on the glass in front of me. The rich smell of the grease that let the door spin so smoothly became familiar and, finally, normal.
At some point I noticed two figures in a chamber thousands ahead of mine. They were Stan and Laurence, pushing along, never turning to each other or to me. I pushed harder, as if pushing harder would help me close the distance between us. I gritted my teeth and pushed, but Stan and Laurence matched my speed. I thought: If only I could get to them somehow, if only I could talk to them for a little while. I thought: If only this stupid door weren’t here, if only there weren’t this door and I could get to them. I thought: Oh wait.
I opened my eyes with my heart pounding and there was the star again. I had turned it maybe seven degrees too far, so I turned around and started pushing it the other way. For the first time since I’d left the hangar, I felt a little impatient.
The Third Cosmic Crisis (Part 2)
I thought about a lot of things as I skated across the 3000 light years to earth. I thought about a little less as I skated the 93 million miles to the sun. And I thought about a little less as I skated the who-knows-how-many miles to Inspiration. Mostly I thought about my trajectory and hoped I had it right. Part of the time I thought about my trajectory and hoped I had it wrong.
I had it right.
Inspiration hung in the blackness like nothing had ever happened to it. Floating outside of it, I started to tremble. I felt a little dizzy, and I didn’t feel impatient at all. I decided that I had better gather some data.
I circled the spacecraft over and over. With the lever, I knocked on the dark metal and confirmed that the heat shields had held up perfectly. I checked the engines to see if I could locate the cause of the failure. I checked the whole thing for structural damage. I told myself: The data I am gathering might prove useful for future missions, so this is important research I am doing.
But eventually I realized that when you’re beyond time, there’s no point in trying to buy it. Stalling doesn’t exist.
The cabin was white and edgeless and littered with floating chess pieces, frozen in space. I brushed aside a black knight and a white pawn and took my seat below Stan and Laurence.
They hung apart, but not far apart, in their bulky suits. Stan’s fingers were curled just slightly, and his knees were pulled into his chest. His feet were crossed. Laurence’s hands were fists. His arms stretched outward, and his legs hung loose. His neck tilted back as if at the last minute he’d been struggling to think of something. Their black visors were drawn. I smiled at them. I told them:
- I no longer coordinate a reading club.
- I no longer attend a reading club.
- I no longer own a cat.
- I no longer buy fresh bakery items.
- I no longer look forward to bananas.
- I no longer read personal mail.
- I no longer receive personal mail.
- I still pay my bills on time.
- I still arrive at work on time, but only because there hasn’t been a manned spaceflight since yours and if there was I would tell Bob Prancle that with all due respect I can no longer perform the duties of Capsule Communicator, and I would apologize.
- I apologize.
Before I left I searched all of Stan’s pockets and all of the cubbies and drawers in the spacecraft, but I could not find a letter for Shelley. When I opened the pantry, my breath caught in my throat. It was empty. They had eaten all of the food.
I removed my necktie, rolled it neatly, and placed it in the empty pantry. I kissed each man’s visor, and I sealed the door on my way out.
In Case Thoughts Froze
As I skated home, it occurred to me that everyone else might not have been beyond time. Maybe an unspeakable amount of time had passed on earth, above the surface of the pool. Out there it could be the year 6,000,000 CE, or some new era altogether.
But that didn’t seem logical.
So I knew I had better hold tight to the lever and the compass. I had better take care of the skates. The sun worshippers would be waiting for my return, and if thoughts froze like objects, then the sun worshippers were trapped in a state of nervous anticipation. They had loaned out priceless equipment, and they had no reason to trust me.
About the Author
Collin Blair Grabarek is an MFA candidate at George Mason University. He is the Assistant Fiction Editor of GMU’s Phoebe: A Journal of Literature and Art.