A Short Story by Ryan Morris
Lieutenant Thomas Night woke with a nasty flop sweat, cold and wet on his couch. The air conditioning had been blasting all day. His son, Matthew, had recently learned how to work the thermostat. Matthew was overweight for his age and found himself in a constant state of uncomfortable warmth. Tom had scolded Matthew for this daily, concerned not only with the energy bill but the edgy state it put him in.
The cold had been affecting Tom’s dreams. He used to have normal dreams. Lurid sexual fantasies of teachers long forgotten. Misplaced and muddled glimpses at his past where his mom was his sister and father, his friend Jeff. Idealized visions of his future with grandchildren and a Hearst-like fortune. But recently they had been of snow. Snow and freezing things. Wilderness and air so cold it froze the wolves. Solid ice and constant wind. An everlasting winter that blanketed the earth and all of humanity, smothering it into a quiet death.
Matthew was in his room, reading a Ray Bradbury book. It was a part of a collection Tom bought for his son’s birthday. He’d tried to stir in him the same kind of wonder he remembered from a childhood reading science fiction. Visions of Wellsian invasions and Heinlein’s cosmological explorers. Space. That’s why Tom joined the Air Force. He’d intended to go to space. As a young man he saw Buzz and Neil and the boys on their trips to the moon, watched them make history. Dreamed by daylight of long hours in a capsule, floating with a freedom known only to the brave and foolhardy.
Tom leaned forward and grabbed the backs of his ankles while sitting on the couch, stretching his hamstrings. He’d be spending the next twelve hours sitting. The government issued computer chairs had wrought hell on his body over the years. Every inch of his legs ached on a daily basis and he was developing a disc-bursting hunchback.
The sun had gone down as it was October and the days had gotten much shorter and much colder. Tom preferred the summer, when he’d get to spend at least a couple of hours enjoying real sunlight. To feel the warmth and lightness of solar radiation instead of artificial heat and glowing fluorescents. The flicker of the bulbs and tightness of his back muscles had led to nightly migraines that he had to ease in hour-long hot showers. The steam from that night’s shower filled his tiny bathroom and opened his pores. It was warm and good.
Tom was just waking as millions of Americans gathered for their family dinners or game nights. His wife, Janice, had cooked something a little after six. He’d smelled it while he was stirring awake. Janice and Matthew ate weeknight meals without him. Tom would grab something from the Seven-Eleven on the way into work. Stopping for a nightly coffee, especially as the evenings grew frigid, was a necessity rather than a luxury. A bag of cashews or when he was feeling especially naughty, a hot dog, often marked the first meal of the day.
Tom left the bathroom after his shower, skipping a shave. He was late and things had gotten a little, well, tense at work. He’d splashed on some after shave though, hoping the strong smell would wake him and sharpen his senses for the night to come.
Janice was standing catatonic in the kitchen. Over the dishes that soaked in a steaming bath of sudsy water, she paid no attention to the crusty plates and instead watched the small TV that sat on the kitchen island. Tom didn’t like the idea of having the squawking box in the kitchen, a communal space with an already established purpose. He asked her not to do it, but Janice insisted she needed some kind of entertainment for the nights he wasn’t around.
“Matthew is eating his dinner in his room almost every other night now”, she’d told him, “and I can’t just stare at the walls”
Tom walked through the door and Janice turned, not hearing him, but sensing the warmth he brought with him from the bathroom.
“Did you see this?” she asked, pointing at the television.
Tom watched a news anchor, whose name he’d consciously forgotten for lack of excess brain space, preparing to read a press release issued by the White House. He spoke in a hurried yet forcibly calmed timbre characteristic of practiced newsmen.
Tom didn’t bother hanging on every word, as his wife did. He’d gotten the gist of the message, recognizing a couple of key phrases that that inhabited the majority of the Presidential press releases that week. ‘Imminent danger’, ‘ready alert’, ‘civil-defense’.
Tom saw that Janice had set out a mug of Taster’s Choice for him. There wasn’t any cream in the fridge. He’d have to remember to grab some in the morning when he got off duty, but for now he’d wait for the Seven-Eleven run to get his fix. Never could drink the stuff black. Just too bitter.
The phone rang as Tom wrapped his arms around his wife’s belly. He smelled her hair and ran his lips against the back of her neck. She giggled and he couldn’t bring himself to disengage from her even as the phone was on its last rings. If it were an emergency, they’d call back. Tom grabbed the remote and turned off the TV as he spun his wife towards him, kissing her first on the nose as a joke and then on the lips, for real. He breathed her in and did everything he could to remember the warmth of her body against his.
The phone rang again.
“Hello” he answered.
Janice watched as her husband’s stubble covered face navigated a mysterious battery of emotions. She walked to him and put a hand on his arm which he subconsciously shook off.
“Yes sir” he said, multiple times.
Tom kissed his wife on the forehead, leaving the room in a heavy silence. As he walked down the long hallway to their two-car garage, he poked his head in his son’s room. Matthew was deep into a book and Tom hesitated before deciding not to break the boy’s concentration.
The Seven-Eleven had to be skipped tonight.
As Tom pulled onto base, he could feel a steeliness in the air. There were extra sentries at his point of entry, none of which he recognized.
“What’s going on boys?” Tom said to the two men who approached his car.
“Identification sir” One demanded.
He handed them his ID folder and watched as the man scrupulously examined every inch of it.
“Where’s Mike? Or Tony? They take the night off?” Tom asked.
The guard returned to Tom the black leather folder, “Don’t know ‘em sir. Please proceed through the gate Lieutenant.”
By the time he got to his duty station, Tom had passed six identification checkpoints. Five of which were new that night. The room buzzed with some unnamed energy. The server towers that lined the walls had to be super-cooled to account keep room overheating. The men all wore jackets at their consoles. Tom sat in the ten-year old chair that had destroyed his body in front of the ten-month old computer that was more quickly destroying his vision.
See, Tom’s sight had always been a problem. That’s why he’d become a missile silo operator instead of a pilot. Traded in exploration for destruction. Tom placed his launch key around his neck while firing up the monitor. A green prompt came up as he logged in, then a crude graphic interface displaying maps of various Soviet cities and military installations.
Tom peered over his monitor to see Col. McKitridge standing in front of the row of computers that lined the front wall of the room. The Colonel had once been a Flight Director at NASA, but was called back into service a few years after Apollo. He and Tom had talked for hours about the space program and the Colonel had even helped Tom with his applications. Tom had applied to nearly every non-astronaut vacancy announcement that NASA put out. Always denied transfer. The rejections all had the same line somewhere towards the bottom of the document: ‘Current position deemed too important for the mission of the U.S. Government’. What a crock of shit.
The Colonel repeated his call for quorum a few times before everyone shut up. Air Force Officers, like any members of fraternal organizations, are a chatty crew.
“I wish I had better news for all of you. I wish I could tell you that tonight would be an easy night. I’m afraid though, that it’s just not the case. And I couldn’t live with myself if I lied to you boys.”
The hush that had filled the room was now a vacuum. The air inhaled by each man trapped desperately in his lungs, every bit of oxygen fighting its way into his bloodstream. Fueling his brain as it went into overdrive. Racing through every possible contingency.
“We all have jobs to do. So I know I don’t have to ask you to be professional. Unfortunately, the phone lines have been restricted. I have no control over that, and I hope you all know that it’s not me that doesn’t trust you, but the United States Government”
An uncomfortably stern laughter spread through the room.
“Do what you were trained. Do it for your country’s sake. Do it for your family’s sake.”
Tom quickly locked his computer and tucked his key under his shirt. He made for the front duty desk where a Sergeant sat, controlling the front door.
“Petey” Tom said, “I gotta get to my car”
“Jesus Tom, you know I can’t do that”
Tom pulled back his shirt showing bare skin.
“I forgot my damn key. If I don’t get it, well-” He left the last words unspoken.
“Dammit” Sgt. Peter DuVall said, “Sign the bathroom log. Get your ass back here quick or it’s my ass”
“You’re a peach Petey” Tom said.
Tom made his way to the nearest telephone outside of the security lockdown. It was the enlisted men’s dressing quarters and as such, it was a pay-phone. Tom took his coffee change and shoved it in the machine. The line rang through and he slammed the receiver onto the hook, only to bring it back off and put in more money. This time Janice picked up.
“Baby” He said.
“Oh god” She whispered, “It’s happening isn’t it”
“Put Matthew on the phone” Tom said.
“Wake him up dear” He said.
Tom looked at himself in the mirror for a moment before realizing how empty the room was. The whole base was on lock-down.
“Hey buddy” Tom said.
“What’s going on?”
“Oh nothing. I just wanted to check in on you. You read anything interesting tonight?”
“Yeah, I found one of your books” The boy was groggily coming back to life.
“One of the Heinlein ones?”
“Uh-huh, it’s pretty cool. It’s all about a boy and his father who go to space together.
They go to start a new world on this moon”
“Ganymede” Tom said.
“You read it?” Matthew asked.
“Yeah I read it”
“Wouldn’t that be cool?” Matthew asked.
“To go to space” Matthew said, “I think I’d like to do that someday”
Tom steadied himself.
“Hey buddy, I love you, ok?”
“Ok” Matthew said.
“Let me talk to your mom now”
“Tom?” Janice said.
“I love you” Tom said.
“I love you more. I’ll see you in the morning, ok?” She asked.
“Ok” Tom said. He hung up without hesitation.
Tom sat on the bench that lay in between the locker. A constant flow of chilled air poured down from the vents above the lockers. Tom shivered and thought of space. How cold it must have been up there, how lonely and cold. At least there was the sunlight.