Category C: Second Place (2021) Monash Short Story Writing Competition
Author: Alison Knight
Title: The cosmonaut's child
The headset crackles. ‘Alyosha, go outside.’
In a minute. I’ll go outside in a minute. I caress the fabric surface of the airlock, though I can’t feel anything through the padded gloves encasing my fingers. Nevertheless, I am compelled to touch it, as if it were a holy relic. I summon up the memory of its closely woven texture. It’s an extension of the metal womb that’s kept me safe from what lies beyond. A kind of farewell to this life I have known. Whatever happens next happens for the first time. To anyone. I will never be the same again.
Am I afraid? Yes. No. I must be dignified. The world is watching. But my wife waits at home. Staring at the telephone. Willing it not to ring. Because that would mean only one thing. I am not afraid for myself. I am afraid for my wife. I keep secrets from her. I could not tell her where I was going, what I was doing. But she guessed, as women do, that I was marked for this mission.
‘Take care, Alyosha,’ she said.
I stroked the mound of her belly. She clung to me a moment longer than is her custom, then pushed me away. Meaning please don’t die. But we cannot speak of it.
‘Take care, Dasha,’ I said. Meaning please don’t let this baby die. I cannot bear another loss.
The headset crackles. ‘Alyosha, the lock is air-tight. Open the hatch.’
I stare at the hatch. Grip the wheel. Turn it. I feel the lock give. It’s not too late. I could stop, reverse the wheel. Stay safe inside. But I won’t. I tug the wheel further to the left with my padded paws. The wheel turns. The hatch shakes and opens. I hold my breath. Surely the drum of my heartbeat can be heard on Earth.
I think of my wife. I think of my unborn child, cocooned in his mother’s womb. A son, I’m sure of it. Safe for now, he’s soon to embark on the perilous venture of birth. He knows his mother more intimately than I – he shares the steady rhythm of her heartbeat, the throb of blood coursing through her veins. He’s come so far. From a minute cell to a burgeoning miracle of tiny fingers and toes. What does he know, nestled there, of the world beyond? If I should die, what will he know of me? Will he remember that I patted him through his mother’s belly; how he kicked in response? Will he remember how I cautioned him from the outside world? Stay there, my baby; stay inside. It is not yet time.
‘Alyosha, go outside. Alyosha?’
It’s time. I take a deep breath, poke my head out of the capsule.
And behold the firmament. Above me, below me, around me, black sky, stretching to eternity, studded with billions of brilliant stars that dazzle as they never did on Earth. No one has ever seen this before. And all that separates me from the cosmos is the thin plate of my visor.
‘I’m here, Pavel.’
‘Alyosha, go outside.’
I push with both legs. And here I am, on the edge of the airlock, tethered to the craft just as my unborn child is tethered to his mother. I’m in open space. Two camera eyes follow me, remind me that people down on Earth are feasting on my every move. I should say something memorable to mark this moment. But words drift into nothingness, as pounding waves dissolve to foam on the sand. I feel, I see. I cannot speak. Beauty beyond articulation.
I cast myself into the void. I train my eyes on the hatch as it recedes. The cord holds firm, keeps me safe. Stars dance into ever-changing patterns above me. Below me, Mother Earth shines blue against the black sky, spinning like a majestic ball as it journeys round the sun. Majestic, but so fragile. For suddenly I comprehend that the atmosphere cradling our planet is tissue thin. And beyond that delicate skin there is no oxygen, no possibility of life.
My growing child, who swam and tumbled inside his mother, now feels the womb wall close around him. But I have cast off gravity, float weightless in the boundless void. The silence is absolute but for the hammer of my heartbeat, the whispering tide of my breath. There is no life here but me. In the face of the universe I am but a grain of sand, yet I hold eternity in my gaze.
A firm tug reminds me I am tethered. I have reached the limit of my exploration. Mantled in sunlight, my spacecraft glows resplendent. That tiny capsule, created by human ingenuity, has brought me into the cosmos and will return me home.
My headset crackles, splits the silence.
‘Alyosha, it will be dark in five minutes.’
As we orbit the Earth, night follows day follows night in rapid, disorienting succession. I know I must haul myself back to the spacecraft before I’m plunged into impenetrable night. But it’s the saddest moment of my life.
When I reach the airlock, I make a terrible discovery. I cannot find my hands or feet. In the vacuum of space, my suit has inflated, grown rigid. My fingers are adrift in my gloves; my feet have slipped out of their boots. I am supposed to enter the airlock feet first so I can close the hatch behind me but I cannot do that now. If I delay, I will jeopardise our return trajectory. I will run out of oxygen.
‘Alyosha, come in!’
There’s urgency in Pavel’s command. I take a deep breath to quell the rising panic.
There is a small problem, I tell Pavel. I can fix it.
I have no choice. I enter slowly, head first. I must reduce the pressure in my bloated spacesuit by releasing a valve. I must do it carefully or I will starve myself of oxygen. My fingers won’t cooperate. But I have to find the valve if I want to live. There is no other way.
The cylindrical wall of the airlock grips me tight, closes around me. I am unable to move. My mind flashes back to my dead daughter, trapped in breech position, the cord around her neck.
The blood pounds in my head. I’m so hot I fear I will pass out. There, there! I feel the hiss of air escaping from the valve. My suit begins to deflate. I can move a little. But the hatch is still open and I must close it. I don’t want to die. I want to see my son. I will see my son. If I can just turn round, I will see his face at the end of the tunnel urging me on. I draw my feet up to my chest. The oxygen tank grates against the airlock walls, reluctantly allows me to turn. My head boils in the bulky helmet. The visor’s curve distorts my vision. But somehow I claw my way around, reach for the hatch, pull it closed, turn the handle.
‘All is well, Pavel. I’m coming inside.’
I am a cosmonaut. I have sailed the ocean of the sky, bathed in wonders, reached out to infinity. But now it is time to set a course through the vastness of space to that tiny speck of blue I call home, to the wife and son who wait there for me.