5600 words, short story
Our elevator has stalled some thirty kilometers above the surface of the Earth, and my first thought is not heroic: I need to start fasting, lean up these haunches in preparation for the Donner decision trees that most likely lie ahead. There’s food for a month below the floorboards, but thirty kilometers? Looking at my three fellow passengers, hot-shot scientists all, it is distressingly easy to imagine our mini-society devolving into tribalism; it’s obvious that in this group, I am most definitely the Piggy. They seem calm, however, which calms me. For now, at least, things are stable.
Our elevator pod is just a hollow disc, twenty meters across and four tall, one of six identical space palettes stacked unceremoniously on either side of the climber. We four have been slotted in at the bottom, as is our right as “live cargo,” so we can use our pod’s special bail-out hatch if necessary. This is not how real astronauts ascend—I’ve checked.
Pod 5A provides little room in which to hide, and though my writerly instinct is to mole up in my sleeping tube and avoid all social contact, our predicament does provide a unique chance for a profile under stress. This is what I have come for: a view of this emerging class of bored intelligentsia, the over-credentialed yet under-employed. Through them, perhaps I can glimpse some insight into our modern iteration of the human condition. And perhaps I’ll learn the true location of Atlantis. My first impressions have been strong, but utterly unhelpful.
There’s James Dennett, a twenty-nine-year-old physicist who is tall and strapping and blonde and southern. His Texas drawl could fill an auditorium (let alone a tiny elevator pod), and his chin is so cleft that can’t shave all the way inside it so that a little tuft of beard hair pokes out no matter what he tries. Though thorough research has turned up no evidence of a history in sport, my quivering ego projects onto Dennett an undeserved air of linebacker stupidity (along with an imagined history of questionably consensual encounters with innocent college girls). He is, I am ethically obliged to point out, impeccably polite and friendly, which is honestly part of the problem; Dennett looks like he could run for President, and lose votes for not seeming real enough. He has a PhD from Cornell, significant work experience, and has almost two million dollars in debt.
Next is Anna Petrovic, a thirty-one-year-old engineer whose family emigrated from Hungary when she was fifteen. She’s impeccably pretty, but so slim and gangly that with her hair pulled back she looks like some stick-figure impression of a woman. She wears thick but form-fitting clothes that go with her Eastern European backstory and has that peculiarly Slavic sort of social remove, quiet without being demure, unassuming without forsaking confidence. Her job on-station will be to keep the equipment performance within acceptable limits, run the installation’s many daily calibration routines. “It’s mind-numbing,” she told me early in the first day of our climb. “After three days in the simulator, I wanted to absolutely kill myself. The thought of doing it for three months . . . ” I ask whether the recruiting psychologists know of her problems with the work, which gets a laugh, as if to say, “Does a dancer tell the judges about her eating disorders?” Her post-doctoral degree has given her a net worth of negative $450,000.
Last, and most akin to myself, is a short but muscle-rounded twenty-eight-year-old named Kingsley Pan. A half-Asian mathematician from Brooklyn, Pan has a tongue as sharp as it is quick. He is constantly making passes at Petrovic, though the references are just oblique enough that she can ignore them without losing face. Our first meeting was in the loading bay, just a few hours before stepping into the pod, when he asked me if I wanted to get into any sort of mutually beneficial porn sharing arrangement. I did not, but mostly just because I doubted our tastes would line up well. If the rejection fazed him at all, he hid it. “From what I hear,” he said, leaning close, “it can get to be an absolute fuck-fest up there. We’re talking about young, frustrated over-achievers who were selected for fitness, and who don’t exactly have much experience being idle. Trap them in a boring tin can for months at a time . . . ” Pan shook his head and we turned together to eye Dennett and Petrovic like two cackling old maids. “I give it two weeks,” he said quietly, “before they’re on each other.” I never got any financial information out of King, but I suspect that any debt-shame that did exist came from having too little, not too much.
Pan is the only one who seeks me out to comment after our sudden vertical halt. “That’s not supposed to happen,” he tells me. “The lifts have an external power source. We can’t be out of juice. I didn’t hear any kind of mechanical failure.” Pan’s mind has a scab-picking quality with which I can identify, so after several minutes of silence, I turn to him and skip straight to the million dollar question.
“Why are you here?”
I’ve gambled three months of my life on the idea that the ultimate answer to that question will reveal something about modern American nature. What will it reveal, precisely? The writers of yesteryear wouldn’t have dreamed of coming here without at least a hopeful guess in mind, but I have somehow convinced myself that predictions of that sort would be poor journalistic form.
Truth be told, the question is stupid in its essence, like asking a grieving family what they’re feeling. After all, I joined the mission for the exact same reasons they did: I’m young, intelligent, talented, and ambitious—but that’s all. I have not, thus far, developed into a Mozart-like savant, nor have I been able to chemically induce any of the revelatory neuroses of the Hunter Thompsons of the world. When my editor asked me if I would serve three months in space (plus the one-week ascent), it seemed like a way to show my enthusiasm for the job. For my scientist co-passengers, the transaction is even more straight-forward: $70,000 US for a quarter-year’s work, and access to what is still an undeniably bitchin resume bullet point.
Pan mentions these things in his answer to my question, but then says something I’m not expecting. “These missions, they’re like a sleep-away camp for scientists,” he says. “It’s an escape, the foreign travel adventure of a neurotic careerist.” He talks like a writer, the bastard, but he’s right. After a pod-average eleven years of post-secondary education (excluding my curve-depressing statistics of course), the extreme change of scenery must be welcome. To those living with the PTSD anxiety of chronic unemployment, the monkish live-for-work lifestyle of the stations is enticing. Though it’s hard to get an exact number from some of the more secretive corps, it’s estimated that at any given moment the sky is workplace to as many as 150 people like my old-young companions.
Work like this is increasingly becoming a rite of passage for the new class of mega-proles, people with the social credentials of a CEO, and the income of a cocktail waitress. They live like the upper class because they’re already successful, and the world just needs some time to notice. The cognitive dissonance that emerges when the world remains oblivious could drive just about anyone to drastic action.
My companions are sufferers of late-onset adulthood, and I would shun them gladly if I weren’t a premiere member of the infected. In the bloody aftermath of the coming class war, my body will be stuffed and displayed in a museum, a statistical outlier they’ll use to scare young parents into using math tutors and regular corporal punishment. Quite naturally, I assume any war involving my generation will end in a loss for our side.
This elevator will drop us at the second gate it passes, from which Pod 5A will spend a further forty hours climbing a lateral ribbon to Brahe Station. Brahe is one of the geo-synch setups, co-leased by four medical and pure-science research corps. It was one of the very first research stations built, which means both that it is shockingly small, and that it’s played host to more than a dozen historically significant experiments.
My companions will see none of the glory of those early days, however. They have no following in the industry, no co-author credits in popular papers, no side-careers in molecular genetics. These are physical scientists, and I am a writer, and we are for the first time in human history of totally equal social utility. Work pool inflation has rendered us all fit for little more than cargo shipment. Dennett has a PhD in the study of the very the fabric of the cosmos, and will administer the experimental procedures of the land-lubbing professors who financed the trip from the surface. He will not know what hypotheses he is working to falsify, nor the results of his experiments; double bind? Try totally blind. The company is excluding him, this broad-shouldered charmer with a genius-level IQ, as thoroughly as it possibly can.
“It’s monkey-work,” Pan explains. “They need us up there in case anything goes wrong. But nothing ever goes wrong.” He says this with a shrug, hanging thirty kilometers up in a broken elevator. He continues, oblivious. “They tried sending real researchers up to go do their own shitty experiments, but they only ever went up once. Three months in a tin can the size of a Bronx apartment is more than enough for most people.”
“So if they aren’t sending the same people twice, anyway . . . ”
“Why not send any old doctor off the street?”
“You don’t seem to think the companies put much value on their workers.” In journalism this is called the “declarative interrogative” and it’s used by hacks, and by people who are slowly beginning to realize that they need to start getting some quotes, and how.
Pan does not disappoint. “Us? We’re just fuel. Only difference is they bring our ashes back at the end.” Oh brother. I record this quote with gusto, but at the same time gripe internally; I’d love to be making seventy grand on this trip.
It’s been half an hour since the stall, and the experts are retiring to their respective sleeping tubes. The implication is that I should do the same. We still haven’t heard a peep from command, and have I mentioned that we are thirty kilometers above ground? Pan slips into his tube and, I swear to God, claims he’s going to get some sleep. I grunt an assent, because we’re both real men and I feel exactly the same way he does. When he’s gone, and I’m alone in the common area, I slide down the wall to sit, feeling all the empty space just a few feet below me.
My own question echoes back at me, then: Why are you here?
It’s been almost two hours since our ascent came to its awkward, stuttering stop, and I can no longer contain the expansive pressure of the situation. It’s just myself and Anna Petrovic in the common room, and the words escape me like steam from a kettle (with all the manly timbre that implies). “Why aren’t you all more worried?” Their calm has been rubbing off on me so far, but even a passing how-screwed-are-we analysis returns some truly distressing integers. Petrovic looks at me oddly.
“Didn’t you go through basic?”
I did do the station’s basic training regime, though little had stuck. It had become apparent early in the first day that, being a writer, very little was expected of me (good call). From that point on I slacked shamelessly. It’s a rather annoying recapitulation of the pattern that brought me here in the first place. “Care to fill me in?” is all I say to her.
“They’ll establish contact within three hours, or as soon as they have something to report.”
“They won’t just call to check up on us?”
She looks at me, incredulous. “Check up on what? If something was happening, what could they possibly do to help?”
I’m really not sure what to say to that.
“The lifts behind us will catch up eventually. If that doesn’t help, then we’ll have to jump.”
I stare for a second, and before I can scream that last word back at her, Dennett approaches. “I still say it’s war,” he says handsomely. It’s meant to be playful, but it shakes me. How have I failed to consider the possibility that our journey has halted because of a war down below? It wouldn’t take much to disrupt the fine movements of the sea platform that anchors the graphene ribbon on which we hang.
“The Chinese have little kamikaze satellites built to take out the counterweight,” Dennett claims.
This sounds absurd to me, but Petrovic nods. “That’s true,” she says, approaching, “but this isn’t war. If it was, we’d be seeing mushroom clouds on the surface.” She glances, blasé, out the window that is the pod’s single nod to the humanity of its cargo. Petrovic tells me that if one jumps up on a bulkhead and uses the pod’s diminished gravity to hand-plant on a lighting strut, that it is possible to look with a steep enough angle to glimpse where the ribbon disappears into clear, blue ocean. If true, this proves the absence of a storm at sea.
I decide that this needs first-hand verification (“For the Readers!”) but in trying to emulate her style of European body-knotting I succeed only in bruising my shin in an embarrassing ricochet off the ceiling. My resignation to the sexual indifference of Anna Petrovic comes even easier than my resignation to take her meteorological report on faith.
I’m rubbing my shin rather like a clumsy child. “It could still be war, though . . . ”
“I wouldn’t worry too much,” Dennett says, sympathetic to my civvie panic response. “It’s probably just a mechanical failure.” Just a mechanical . . . I stare at him for a moment, then nod and return to my sleeping tube, my slab.
Command is supposed to check in within three hours of any mechanical failure. After twenty, we come to an agreement: either the comm is broken, or they just don’t care enough to bring us into the loop. Anna (two days in a crate have forced a first-name relationship) says that her gymnastic maneuvers let her see the next climber approaching behind us, inching its way up the line. “So it’s just our car, not the whole line. This one won’t have help, though,” she says. “It was already climbing when we broke down.”
“The one after that?” I ask.
The thinking is now that the company will send a mechanic up on the next available lifter, a specialist in a space suit who will make the rather heart-stopping climb from lifter to lifter.
“They could still fill us in,” I say, sulky.
James (Dennett) nods vigorously. Nobody defends the logic behind the company’s policies any longer, I’ve noted. James, in particular, has developed a tic in which he will examine the comm several times per hour. He walks to it and pokes a few buttons with his left middle finger, which produces a series of incomprehensible beeps and boops that can’t possibly be telling him anything helpful. His report is the same every time. “It works,” he claims to know. “They’re just not talking.”
Kingsley (“call me King”) Pan has been growing steadily quieter since the three-hour deadline passed without incident. He stirs now and speaks for the first time in an hour. “We’ll know for sure if there’s no mechanic on the next lift.”
That possibility settles in to the atmosphere, gets recycled through the air scrubbers and spit back out to be inhaled all over again. Every conversation is now defined by what it is not about. Our talks are not about the man who may or may not be coming up to help us. They’re not about the possibility that we might be forced to jump nearly from orbit. I discuss literature with Anna (she likes depressing old Soviets), and James tells me about his childhood (chess club and track team). Kingsley increasingly keeps to his tube, even taking his dinner privately.
I sleep for a few hours, and when I emerge it’s just James in the common area. He looks solitary and pensive, but I’ve been hoping for some time alone with him so I approach immediately. “Thinking about the lift?”
“I’m thinking about jumping.”
“Imagining it? Or considering?”
He doesn’t answer right away. “I bought a house, two years ago. A house. I never thought I’d achieve all my goals before thirty, and still end up considering bankruptcy.” He looks at me. With just a day’s neglect, his big jaw has grown an impressively scratchy-looking coat of stubble, making him look wilder and less put-together than usual. “I can’t jump. And if I do, I’ll just have to sign right back up.”
“Why don’t you jump? There’s money in it for you?”
“A good story. So, money down the line.”
James snorts at this. “You came here to get a lesson, then. We’re here because we already learned it.”
“There’s never any money down the line.” He gets to his feet and walks away, so I take it that we’re done.
Kingsley jumps first. I’m awakened by a commotion outside my sleeping tube, now three days in the pod. The rescue lifter is supposed to arrive in a few hours. In the common area, Anna and James are speaking animatedly to Kingsley, who is decked head to toe in what looks like a dark red wet-suit stretched over a small internal metal frame. He’s securing a final glove, using a ratcheting system I have on my ski boots. He seems almost catatonic, eyes cast downward, totally unresponsive. He just ratchets on the glove.
“You’re leaving, King?” I say as I approach, using his preferred moniker (to my knowledge the first time anybody has). He looks up.
“We’ve been here for multiple days. They still haven’t contacted us. Even if there is a guy on the lift, who cares?”
“He’ll fix us and we can move on,” Anna says.
“So? You’ll still be going up for a company that didn’t contact you for two days while you hung in a broken pillbox a hundred miles up!” thirty kilometers, I silently correct him. “What do you think will happen if something happens up there? It’s an old station—maybe they’ll decide it’s cheaper just to call the whole thing off, leave you up there forever.”
“Oh, come on,” Anna says.
Kingsley stands up. “This is the best thing that could have happened.” Stooping, he picks up the helmet and lowers it over his head, locks it in place with a firm sideways jerk that makes it look like he’s breaking his own neck (anatomically and professionally). Without a word of goodbye to any of us, he pulls up a marked floor panel and twists open the submarine hatch below, climbing down into a small pressure chamber. It takes a bit of squeezing to get down with the enormous bulge on his back, parachutes big enough to be useful in ultra-thin atmosphere. We all watch silently as he closes the lid behind him, no hint of hesitation. His slow confidence is unnerving to those staying behind. There’s a squeak of heavy metal as Pan locks the door behind him, then the faint whoosh of air as the chamber depressurizes, then the thud of the outer door opening fully.
“Wait three seconds, pull upper chute,” Anna says quietly. “Fall three minutes, detach and pull lower chute.”
“That’s what they said in training?” I ask.
She nods. “From anywhere in the stratosphere. The first chute, the big one, keeps you from breaking the sound barrier as you fall through the thin part.”
“Well, that’s good.”
James walks to the circular table at the center of the room and picks up his reader.
“What are you doing?” Anna asks him.
“Seeing if they have the specs on our parachutes.” His mouth twists up bitterly. “I’m checking their math.”
“I thought you weren’t going to jump,” I say.
He says nothing, keeps his head down.
Alone in the common room, I read up on the station. I’ve been planning to discover as I go, to transcribe for my dear readers the truest emotional account of the perils and indignities of honest-to-God space. Now, I simply want to understand what I’m in for. Suction toilets, I’d known about those. Daily exorcize to avoid muscular atrophy? Jeeze. A chance of heart failure upon return? I should have read this contract more carefully. The sleeping tubes on the station are no larger than those in the pod. The common room is smaller, by the looks of it. Food is made by the same company that makes military rations. Water is recycled from the air and sewage. If we were to divide the station up into private quadrants, we’d each get roughly eighty square feet. My three companions are desperate indeed.
But what about me? I’m the one who went to space without so much as memorizing the escape routines. I’ve undergone three months’ lead-up to liftoff, a week-long training course, and I haven’t so much as studied the station layout. How can I look down on the genii? They’re here for the money; I’m not even getting hazard pay.
The next several hours are solitary, everyone keeping to their tubes, but eventually we emerge. It’s furtive at first, just passing each other as we pull a snack from under the floorboards, or slip into the bathroom tube. I keep telling myself that it’s the not knowing that’s the hardest, that if they’d just tell us to wait or jump I’d be fine. The reality is, though, that an acidic burn is running through my gut, and it’s not because of not knowing. I am thirty kilometers above ground, and I don’t even know what I’m doing here. My mind keeps going in circles; the logical thing to do when you haven’t been able to pay the bills for three years is to switch careers—but to what?
“Right?” I ask James. I’ve been speaking aloud, and we’re eating together at the table. Bean curd in salt sauce.
“I know what you mean,” James says as he takes a bite, less fearful than the last, more fatalistic. A quick shudder passes through his body as he swallows, then he continues. “I always think about my high-school history books. They teach you about the British Empire, right, about the ups and downs of the colonies. And they’ll talk about these sweeping social changes like they’re nothing. A piece of technology puts an industry under, a war over shipping lanes closes a number of ports. What did the calligraphers do when the printing press came for them? They had plans, but history decided to make them economic casualties.”
I grunt understanding. “When do you think they knew?”
He laughs. “Past what point do you just have to admit that it’s over?”
“I guess it depends on how committed you are, and what other options you have.”
He looks at me. “Very, and none.” There’s a pause, and it’s not awkward, which is an improvement. Eventually he says, “So you think everyone has a point past which they have to turn away.”
“But again—turn away to what? What are you going to do, run a grocery store? Learn to cobble?”
He chuckles, but I can tell it gets to him a bit. A guy like Dennett, he could have been anything. He chose what seemed to be a safe bet, something he was good at, something he could be proud of. Now look at him.
We each take another bite of our curd.
It says something about every person, I think, the time of their choice to give up hope. Me, I do it in advance. Kingsley didn’t, but he cracked early. James oscillates between emotional states, alternately certain that the man is coming, and certain that we’ve been totally forgotten. Anna’s smooth, angular face is expressionless, but her fingers tapping nervously against her thigh keep me from resenting her. It’s an intricate pattern she’s beating out, and I try to follow it for a while, certain that she wouldn’t be tapping out a random sequence. We all get through these times as we can.
We’re sitting in the common room, nervously assembled following the soft impact that had announced the maybe-coming of our savior. Rather than sit in silence, we’ve started playing crib. We’re on our second game, now.
James does laps of the common room between hands, a whole fifteen steps. Usually I’d ask him to stop, but given the circumstances I decide we all need our outlets. Besides, I need all the time I can get to avoid annoying the science majors with my ten-second counting handicap. “Fifteen-two, fifteen-four, and . . . wait—”
“Oh, come on!” Anna snaps at me. We all get through these times as we can. Bitch.
It’s been two hours, and now there’s no denying it. Nobody is coming to save us.
“So, what the fuck?” I ask them.
That question rings through the pod more profoundly than the arrival of the last pallet. Looked at from above, James is pacing out a very slight inward spiral, a visual representation of his emotional state. Every lap brings him a bit closer to the center of the pod, and his body becomes more tense as it approaches, like his movements are turning a crank on his own muscles. The flesh under his jaw is tight, a constant tension in the throat. His mouth is moving to some silent internal conversation, which I imagine as a calculation on mortgage rates.
Anna is inscrutable, her emotional remove so much more profound than either of her male companions’. She’s very matter of fact: if we have to jump, we have to jump. In absence of evidence, there’s no point in speculating about the cause of our predicament. I had previously been in awe of this woman, monk-like in how she went about setting and achieving goals. That’s how it seems when she goes to the bathroom (‘Mission: Piss’ is a go, go, go!), let alone when she goes to space. Now this mindless adherence to the logical path feels a bit like an escape. She just sits there, content in executing the actions she’s computed to be best. Someone has to come unstick these cars eventually, she reasons, and the more people who jump, the more food for there is for me. These companies have been known to reward loyalty.
The way she watches James in his pacing makes me think of a naturalist watching an endangered leopard die of exposure.
King jumped, but James falls. The distinction is in the little things, the way he climbs down like he’s scrabbling for purchase, like he’s trying to claw his way back up and failing. It’s an entirely different sort of thing. When he’s gone, I think of him in the past tense. Kingsley I imagine down on the surface, amusing the crew of whatever ship was sent to scoop him out of the water, buoyant and useless in his space suit. He’s a real person, with a present and a future. James is just gone.
Anna and I listen to the airlock cycle, alone now in the stratosphere, and she murmurs her little sacrament. “Wait three seconds . . . ” she says, but the rest she mumbles to herself, too low for me to hear.
“Why do you do that?”
She glances at me, then away. “Just a little supersti-superstition,” she says, stammering almost like a hiccup. Then she turns away and pulls her long skinny arms into her chest, and I can see that they’re trembling. She walks to the other side of the room, faces the wall, but she doesn’t make for her own tube. After an appropriate amount of time, I walk over to her.
“Why haven’t you left?” she asks without turning. “There’s no reason for you to stay after all this.”
“Actually, there was no reason for me to stay before all this. But this is a story.”
She turns to me, tears in her eyes. “So, you have your story. Go, now.”
“I have the beginning of the story. It’s not over until I see how all three of you end up.”
Her face screws up. “I stay up here, and they come get me. That’s what happens. Imagine it, and, just . . . go!”
I stare at her. “Why are you so willing to stay up here?” Keeping her eyes cast down, Anna Petrovic shuffles away from me like a little girl who has fully internalized her scolding. “Why do you say that when people jump?” She just shakes her head.
“Just go,” she says in a tiny voice. Then, “I’ll come right after you.” That’s when I get it.
“You’re afraid.” She just stares at me, so I prod her. “That’s it, right?”
After a moment, she says, “Heights. I don’t . . . ” then swallows, “I don’t want anyone around to see me get in that hatch. I especially don’t want you to see me like that.”
Ouch. You don’t call me Paparazzi. That’s our word.
“Well, too bad,” I tell her. “This is the end, and at least one of the four of us is getting what we came for. I need my ending.” The despair in her eyes is almost enough to sway me. “Besides,” I say, “I thought you were going to stay and wait for them to—”
“Fuck them,” she says, and retreats to her tube.
I briefly consider jumping first out of gentlemanly courtesy, but then I come to my senses. No self-respecting self-hating journalist could pass up the opportunity to describe the end of her story here. There was something about the irrationality of the fear, a product of exemplary simian frontal lobes wrapped around a treacherous reptilian center. I wouldn’t enjoy watching her scrabble around trying to force herself to jump from near orbit, but I’d do it. I’d do it for . . . a credit? A dramatic ending easily twisted to support whatever laughable through-line I’m able to sponge out this amorphous soup of anecdotal evidence?
She robs me of that ending, however, mooting the shit out of my ethical dilemma. It takes her about an hour in her tube to work up the courage, but when she does there’s just no stopping her. Fear becomes an action item, and she buries it with characteristic efficiency. Anna says goodbye with a bit of real warmth, which is nice, then she snaps the helmet on, and down she goes. The hatch cycles. She never even flinched.
A few hours in my sleeping tube don’t seem out of order, so I get them. Somehow, seeing Anna’s bravery has calmed my nerves a bit. I’m scared to jump, but not terrified. I sleep well for three hours, and then a gong wakes me gently.
It’s the impact of another pallet arriving, though not nearly enough time has passed for it to be the next regular shipment. It has to be help.
This is perfect. The three of them jump, and just hours later help arrives. This is good. The mechanic will probably be some Union type, have a mustache and weathered skin, the sad, knowing face of a man with more than two daughters. He’ll make the perfect ending, a generational antonym to provide some context and imply that I’ve communicated something profound through juxtaposition alone.
It makes me sick. I think about the way King jumped, and James, and Anna. Each of them, braver than me. In the end, they broke down, knowingly made a career misstep that proved they had a soul. Now I sit and wait for my quote, please sir, won’t you tell me what you think of today’s struggling young professionals? It’s what I should do, but the scientists should have stayed in the pod. Could I have respected any of them if they had?
The space suit fits like a space suit, leaves my shoulders untouched while chafing all the hair off of my armpits. When I lock the helmet, I realize my breath stinks. Vaguely, I’m happy there’s nobody around to see me jump, or to know that I could have stayed, but didn’t. It feels cleaner with only myself as witness.
I squeeze down the ladder, close the hatch behind me, and say Anna’s little prayer. Then I push the button, and the floor begins to slide away beneath my feet. I’m still on the ladder, though; I don’t want this to be passive. Air sucks past me for an astonishingly short amount of time and then I’m basically in a vacuum, atmosphere so thin it might as well not be there. It’s just me and the ladder, now, and the Earth fills the hatch entirely, a bright white circle like if you had to climb down into heaven.
Looking and seeing nothing below, and really feeling all the distance there, I get suddenly very calm. Somehow I know that the jump will be fine and that I’ll be fine too. I’ve needed some time to think, for a while now.
By the time I touch down I’ll have my ending figured out.