Rime of the Astral Navigator (Third Class)

The following entry was found amidst the wreckage of a spacebound shuttle which lost power and fell from the sky approximately two minutes after takeoff from the Carl Sagan Transworld Spaceport on June 22, 2031, killing all 227 passengers aboard.

22JUN2031 – The past three days have been a blur. After graduating astral-navigator (third class!) from PASCAL (Pacific Air Space Command in California), my friends and I headed out to celebrate at some wild gathering downtown. Godzilla’s, I think it was called. I’m not sure. There was a giant fucking reptile painted on one wall, I remember that much.

We piled three deep on the drive downtown, too broke to afford enough cabs. As we pulled up, one of the girls from my class grabbed me forcefully by the neck and thrust her tongue into my mouth, passing something into mine. Cat’s Eye. I recognized the bitter taste. “Enjoy your evening!” she said with a grin. I swallowed the capsule, resigning myself to a long and digitized dream…

At one point I remember being in the middle of the dance floor surrounded by a heaving throng of strangers, hypnotized by the bass line and flashing lights of some wild, half-naked act from Japan – eleven men in loincloths beating eleven gigantic Tyco drums made from some kind of translucent material while eleven topless girls played eleven neon violins as though their very lives depended on it. The night was a strobe-lit mass of sweat and hands and a thousand pounding hearts made the club feel like it was floating somewhere above a raging sea, lost between this world and the next. I could almost see the connections between each person in the room. My heart was an alligator, and a wild grin threatened to split my face in two. When the lights came up, a guy in a motorized wheelchair did donuts through the sticky swamp of spilled alcohol which covered the dance floor, surrounded by a crowd of exhausted people, clapping and whistling and cheering him on.

We‘d planned to leave early the next morning for a two-hour drive to an amusement park down the coast, but with half our group attempting to re-solidify their minds, we didn’t get on the road until almost noon. Adding insult to injury, we, the proud astral navigators of PASCAL-2031 got lost on the way to the amusement park– a year’s worth of intense training and memorization of nearly every heavenly body from here to the outer rim, and we had to backtrack three different times!

And then there was the traffic jam.

We sat in the heat of Satan’s personal stalemate for two and a half hours, theorizing and guessing at the cause for the delay. James placed the Roadster on auto and strummed his guitar while I cracked jokes, sipped flavored electrolytes, and did my best to make light of the situation until finally the heat was too much. I could take no more. In frustration, I popped the passenger hatch and stomped alongside in the 120-degree heat. James laughed, trying to cajole me back inside. “Come on back in, Mac!” he shouted from behind the controls. “You know there ain’t no fucking ozone layer left above this state!” His eyes glittered like a coal mine, wild black hair standing on end.

The heat was incredible. As I watched black ribbons of heat dancing drunken jigs along the highway, I remember thinking that I wished I’d canceled on this stupid trip. I still had to pack for my flight to CST and the connecting shuttle off-world, my mouth felt like an underground weapons test site, my head was still spinning from the Cat’s Eye, I had almost no money left, and here we were, crawling along like beaten dogs in this godforsaken oven, lost in traffic on the way to an amusement park in the next state. Traffic was so slow I could literally pace myself with the line of cars stretching on into tomorrow, and I swore loudly under my breath for several minutes.

Presently, I heard Macy’s quiet voice from inside the Roadster. “At least have some water.” She held a large, refrigerated canteen out toward me, complete with icy rivulets running down the sides. Sweet Macy. Always logical, always smiling.

I looked up at the faces of the people I’d come to call my friends over the past year, thinking of all the late-night walks and philosophical discussions over coffee we’d had, wondering who put the stars we studied up there in the first place. Shit, if it weren’t for them, I’d already be packed, sitting on top of my suitcase twenty-seven hours early in a dark, air-conditioned room watching the walls close in while the methamphetamine-addicted butterfly known as “pre-space jitters” ran a steeplechase through the obstacle course of my lower intestines. I don’t mind spaceflight, I just hate waiting. Instead, I was experiencing the here and now of life. It isn’t perfect, but it’s all we have. Be here now, right? “Mac, Mac, you got to come back!” sang James, idly strumming a series of chords on his most prized possession.

Laughing at myself, I climbed back in and took a long sip of water.

Later, we pulled in to recharge somewhere off the main road, the summertime stench of flamethrowers and piss assaulting my senses as I popped the hatch, stepping out to stretch the miles from my legs. Waiting in line, a tall, older gentleman in a broad-brimmed hat saw me writing in my journal, a habit I’ve maintained for years. “I bet I can tell your personality from your handwriting,” he offered.

You meet a lot of strange folks in the hydrogen lane, but for some reason, I cautiously handed it over– after thumb-locking the rest of my files, of course. He took my e-pad and examined it. He said me I was a strange creature, “…one of the strangest ones I’ve ever met. You aren’t destined to stay on in this world and, in fact, you come from some place far away from here.” And then he told me I was “filled with passion beyond my years.”

Okay, having an elderly and somewhat effeminate stranger tell me this in broad daylight made me a little uncomfortable, and I was grateful for the security of my dark glasses, nearly black in the glare of the semi-naked sun. We loaded up on supplies, I thanked him for his analysis, and we moved on down the road.

Later, I gazed out the passenger window at the other vehicles whipping past, studying the odd physical manner with which people fill their immediate surroundings: hands on joysticks, heads propped on seats, fingers grazing buttons, a foot propped up on the dash, arms over seats. As we passed a low-slung sport cruiser, I peered down through the bubble; a young girl looked up at me from behind her wraparound sunglasses, regarding me just as cool as ocean air. Her hair was done in tight bunches which stuck out from her head in all directions. She wore tight silvery shorts and a thin t-shirt. I smiled and waved at her. She grinned back, stomped on the accelerator, and vanished into the distance.

We finally got to the park, but I can’t find the rest of my notes. I’ll do them again later. It was worth the trip, anyway.

Now in the preflight departure lounge of the Carl Sagan Transworld Spaceport. I surprise myself with my changing tastes in women. Men are attracted to breasts first, it’s only natural. Then we advance – or at least we’re supposed to. We find attraction in their eyes, their mouths, legs, neck– Japanese men are wild for the nape of a girl’s neck– but feet? This is news to me. Still, I find myself studying the toes of a young woman a few seats away. I doubt she’s headed up; she doesn’t have the look of a spacer, but I can’t take my eyes off her perfectly manicured toes tucked up on the edge of the faux-leather couch, so smooth and dusty brown.

Why, oh why, on the day that I’m scheduled to leave for a three year stint in orbit, do I develop a passing crush on a stranger in a spaceport lounge? Looking at her makes me wish I had a camera, or that I’d at least learned to draw. She’s curled up on the seat about twelve feet away, wisps of wavy brown hair piled upon her head peeking out from beneath a blue work bandanna. Her head rests on the faux-leather seatback, and I can’t even begin to describe her face. Words fail me. I watch her shoulders rise and fall beneath a worn grey t-shirt as she dozes in the fading light of day. I can’t help but watch. This picture of innocence, frozen like a postcard on the edge of all my tomorrows, is the image I want to take into space with me. I’ll look down at the swirling blue sphere below me and know she’s down there, somewhere… I glance at my watch. I only have about an hour left on Earth, but I’m too shy to speak to her.

Millions of strangers pass through Carl Sagan Transworld each year– she and I are just two more. Now she’s frozen forever in my journal. I wonder whose journals I’ve ever been featured in, if any. I travel enough; I must have crossed someone’s path.

All around me, people are sprawled out, waiting for their boarding calls, sleeping, chatting, reading eBooks, staring aimlessly at the media grids floating near the ceiling, or goggled into some ‘gram. As the sun drops once again in the western sky, we shall never see Sunday, the twenty-second day of June, 2031, again. At the sound of the tone, the time will be 20:50:10… 20 seconds… 30 seconds… that moment is gone, and so is the next. And every minute after, another wave of passengers flows like a human tide from the tunnel behind me, parallel universes in flip-flops and lightweight traveling garb.

The Carl is like a long and complex hallway adjoining billions of bedrooms and living rooms and bathrooms, an indoor universe for strange aliens wearing nothing more than a bathrobe and slippers. Each one carrying their ID, a boarding pass, and an overnight bag, each one headed someplace different. Comfort is important to your state of mind. I have learned that, if nothing else.

The trendsetters and go-getters are the ones I feel sorry for, spot-welded into their stuffy black “power suits” on the way to some important meeting, dragging their ubiquitous black Lifecenters behind them and breathlessly yammering the details of trade negotiations and presentations into their headsets.

I turn to examine the balding pate of the gentleman sitting next to me, deciding his thinning black locks would be the perfect place to stage a mock war between two opposing armies of toy soldiers. “Guerrilla Warfare in the Black Forest.” Hmmm. I see that he has a case of dandruff. Make that “The Black Forest in Winter.” (A soldier’s entry: “We have all but given up hope waiting for reinforcements, supplies, and shampoo. Many of the men have resorted to cannibalism. All hope is lost, war is Hell.”) I think of the friends I’m leaving behind who’d get a laugh out of that, and wonder if I’ll ever see them again.

My stomach grumbles loudly, churning from the “double-beef mega-burger” I wolfed down in the cafeteria. I don’t usually eat meat from fast food establishments, remembering all too well the Mad Cow Plague of ’15 that claimed 10,000 lives. I ordered a Gardenburger, but the tone-deaf Arab working the counter didn’t seem to give a fuck about my specific “dietary needs”. My tongue tastes like Satan’s armpits, I’m running on three hours sleep since Thursday, my socks are sticking to my feet, and thanks to the can of hyper-caffeinated Thunde®heart I gunned down to keep from missing my boarding call, my heart’s fluttering like the eyelashes of a fifty-foot transvestite in a windstorm. Lucky for me, the industrial pink hand soap that resembles the orgasm of an atomic survivor is drying out my skin. As my face dries, my eyes are literally being pulled… wide… open! Sleep is a five letter word.

As many places as I’ve been, I always expect the next jumpjet I board to go dead and fall from the sky immediately after takeoff. When that finally happens, when the veneer of bullshit is suddenly ripped from my eyes like duct tape from my consciousness, will I be the calm one, or will my thoughts betray me, reaching back to a single moment in my life that I’d prefer to do over? (“I should have talked to that girl in the departure lounge at the Carl… I should have eaten that second slice of key lime pie….”) Which begs the question: which of the passengers will fling open his seat belt with careless abandon at the final moment, howling with laughter because he and he alone Got It Right?

Well, there’s my boarding call. I’ll write more after takeoff…

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