Paper, Planet, Space
The shuttle’s airlock frames the orbiting station Gaia, bright against blackness, the cable between it and the shuttle stretching like a tightrope, maybe fifty meters. It looks long as eternity.
I open my palm to release my signature artwork, an origami dove, one of those that always open my installations. I turn both viewports of my helmet toward the dove, hovering in silhouette against the airless void. Got to be sure both the forward and dorsal cameras pick it up. Then I clutch the cable in both hands. Thank god the camera’s electrodes are synaptically controlled. I think about taking my hands off the cable’s synthetic umbilical cord even for an instant. A sudden burst of sweat drenches me under my spacesuit. With a low hum of vibration, the humidity controls whisk me dry.
“Is it still falling when it’s this far up?”
“Don’t worry, sir.” The shuttle crew member waiting beside me clips a link from my suit to the cable. How many space tourists has she conducted along this same adventure? “You can’t fall. Your auto safe will bring you in.”
Reel me in like a fish? I step off the shuttle’s bay, into the void.
“Captain Nguyen of Gaia here, Mr. Villafranca.” A Texas drawl crackles in my headset. “You’re doing fine, sir. Just don’t look down.”
“Thanks, captain.” I open my eyes. When had I closed them? Had the captain been able to see that through my faceplate? “I can’t even tell which way down is.”
“An astute observation. At this altitude, planetary gravity is too slight to register on our proprioceptors. But do me the favor of taking a deep breath. Your blood O2 level’s kind of low.”
“Nothing like a good whiff of canned air to put things in perspective.” I look back toward the shuttle. Already I’m several meters away. Another surge of panic. But the origami dove I set free floats beside me. How can that happen when we’re traveling god knows how fast? There. It’s caught in the shoulder joint of my suit. I take one hand off the cable, flick the dove loose. It vanishes from sight.
“Four hundred kilometers,” I whisper.
“Sir?” Nguyen again.
“Trying to remembering how far I am from Earth, captain.”
“Actually, Mr. Villafranca, you’re just over four hundred and seventeen klicks out. Gaia’s slightly below you.”
“So I’m up? And you’re down?” I stare along the cable toward Gaia. Then, beyond her eclipse, I see my home planet in its blue veil of sky.
“Breathe, Mr. Villafranca, breathe.”
I wave to Gaia, to Nguyen, invisibly watching me.
I take my other hand off the cable. I knew I wouldn’t fall, but knowing is one thing, reality is another. There’s no rush of wind to give me the feel of motion. My pressurized suit keeps the emptiness of space at bay. I’m free, free as a bird. I laugh.
“Mr. Villafranca, you all right?” the voice in my headset asks.
I take hold of the anchoring cable again and swung back and forth to give the camera implanted in the back of my head a three-sixty view through the helmet’s dorsal viewport. I’d rehearsed a shooting schedule before leaving the shuttle. Now, on the inspiration of the moment, I twirl, my movements at once constrained by the bulky spacesuit and wonderfully freed from the limitation of gravity.
I kick. Against what? I spin hand over hand, the cable a pole I can vault over.
Now I’m dizzy, a purely emotional reaction. My orientation shouldn’t matter to the flow of blood within my body, should it? I’m cradled by my suit like a child in the womb.
“Sorry, captain. It’s just so wonderful. I couldn’t imagine.”
The headset cuts out completely, probably letting Gaia’s captain express himself in ways he doesn’t want transmitted to mission control.
“Yes, Mr. Villafranca, it’s wonderful.” Nguyen’s lost his drawl completely. “But we’ve got two vehicles trying to stay synched at twenty-seven hundred kph, and we don’t want to leave anybody behind. So we’d all appreciate you coming aboard. Pronto.”
“Captain Nguyen, I presume?”
I’m bobbing gently in the microgravity of the Gaia’s closed airlock, helmet unclipped. I reach for the captain’s hand, miss, start to upend. “Sorry. Haven’t got my space legs yet.”
The captain steadies me. “Welcome aboard, Mr. Villafranca.”
“Call me Max. Hope I’m not the worst passenger you’ve had.”
“No, sir, not at all. At least you got your own ass−excuse the language, purely a technical phrase─got across the cable on your own power. There’s been some we had to sedate and haul in.”
“It probably is a nuisance, me dropping in like a tourist.”
“Not a tourist, Mr. Villafranca, that is, Max. A partner. Although you’re the first artist we’ve had on board Gaia. And I’ve got to say, that’s quite a tattoo you’ve got there.”
“Want a closer look? Designed it myself. They had to shave my head for the camera implant so I thought, hey, why not tattoo another face around the camera port?”
I turn. “Smile, captain.” I imagine a click of the tiny shutter, the look on Nguyen’s face as the camera lens nestled within the Cyclops design on the back of my skull winks a picture.