Sailors And Cavemen
A silver flask sits at the edge of a nightstand in a stylish, high-end hotel near the east side of Orlando. Gideon Nebuls slumps in a brown chair on his balcony. Lean arms drape over the leather armrests. His room is on the 4th floor. It’s late afternoon, and the sun has just begun its nighttime routine while the rain continues to fall from the mottled sky. Gideon listens to droplets beat away at the balcony overhang as he watches the people below move about like ants in a farm.
He tries to relax.
The phone rings from across the room. Gideon, legs full of anxiety, forces himself out of his chair to answer it. It rings two more times before he finally picks up the receiver.
“Good evening, Mr. Nebuls,” says the concierge at the 1st floor front-desk, his tone placid. “I hope you are enjoying your stay.”
“I am, yes. Thank you,” Gideon replies. His voice is low and coarse.
“Very good, sir. I just wanted to check in. There is a Mr. Conners on the line. Shall I put him through?”
Gideon thinks for a moment. Mr. Conners? He can’t recall the name. He’s never been one to take the call of someone whose name or number he doesn’t recognize and, yet, at the same time he always hates when people leave voice messages. But what does it matter? It is, after all, his last night on Earth.
“Go ahead. Put him through,” he tells the concierge.
“Very good, sir. Have a good night.” There is a brief pause while the lines switch between the front desk and Mr. Conners. Gideon loosens his vocal chords with a melodious series of grunts and coughs. Mr. Conners? He tries one last time to place the name in his memory before speaking into the receiver.
The back yard of the Nebuls residence was busy with celebration. Picnic tables were set up in rows toward the far end of the yard. There was a barbeque, coolers full of beer, and a table with an assortment of chips and dips near the patio. Sunlight blanketed the guests as they talked and drank and took turns congratulating the new Commander of the space shuttle Discovery.
“Gideon, come here a moment. I want you to meet someone.”
Gideon sprang up from his seat at the far end of the picnic table and made his way to his father’s side at the opposite end of the bench. His father was sitting with a man roughly the same build as him, strong and sturdy and sharp in the face. Together, they were like a superhero and his sidekick.
“Hey, champ. I want you to meet John Douglas,” Walter began, “John is going to be going up in the shuttle with me.”
Gideon sat down across from the man. His eyes lit up underneath his charcoal hair. “Really?” he asked.
“Yep,” John started. “We’re going up to the space station to fix some panels. Ever seen the space station?”
“Yeah. Dad showed me some pictures from the last time he went up there.”
John swirled his drink in his hand, “Pretty neat, huh?”
“John has been a friend of your father’s since I started in the program,” Walter said. “We’re finally getting a mission in together.”
John laughed, “Yeah. After how long? Better late than never, huh?”
“That’s true,” Walter replied. His face was red in the sunlight. “Gideon,” he began, “Go get your pop another drink, will you?”
Gideon pulled his gaze away from the two men and rushed to get Walter another beer. He reached the cooler, sunk his hand into the icy waters, and pulled out a fresh brew. He moved through the little pockets of people talking and found his father sitting in the same spot as when he left.
“Thanks, champ,” Walter said, giving him a wink as he opened the beer.
Gideon stayed next to his father and listened to the two men talk about past missions. They went on about how fun it was going to be and how excited they were. Gideon’s eyes remained fixed on his father. He sat there and listened to every word until John got up and left.
“Pleasure to meet you, son,” he said. “And don’t worry, I’ll make sure your pop doesn’t screw anything up over there.” John pointed toward the sky and then left.
* * *
“Hello?” Gideon asks again.
“Mr. Nebuls?” says a man, his voice deep and quick.
“Who is this?” Gideon responds, tone shifting from tired to curious.
“Mr. Nebuls, this is Captain Gregory Connors. How are you doing this evening?”
Gideon is still caught off guard. “I’m well. Yourself?”
“I’m well, Mr. Nebuls. Thank you. I understand you will be apart of the Omega mission tomorrow morning?”
“Yes, sir. That’s correct.”
“I recognized your name in the papers. The first manned mission to Mars. That’s no easy feat, son. Quite the challenge.”
Gideon tenses upon hearing this. It is no easy feat. The mission will take years. He knows that. They all do. But how can he pass up this opportunity. How can anyone? Beads of sweat begin forming on Gideon’s brow.
“Gideon, are you there, son?”
Gideon speaks. “Yes, sir. Sorry, I was a million miles away.”
“Don’t worry,” Mr. Connors begins, “You’ll get there soon enough. I’m calling because I worked for NASA some years ago. I knew your father.”
“You did, sir?” Gideon’s voice grows curious.
“I did. Fine man, he was. We went on a few missions together, into orbit, fixing or installing satellites. We never made it to the moon. Buzz and Neil, they beat us to the punch. Your father and me would have gotten there but well, you know. Things happen.” There is a brief pause. “Top class astronaut. One of a kind.”
“Thank you, sir,” Gideon says, trying to relax. The splattering of rain fills a brief pause across the line.
“Was there something I could help you with, sir?” Gideon says.
“No, no. Nothing too pressing. I understand you must be under a significant amount of stress. This is your first flight, is it not?”
“It is, sir.”
“I suppose I just wanted to tell you ‘Good Luck’. Like I said, your father was a class act. I knew him well and it’s good to know his son is following in his footsteps.”
“Well thank you, sir.” Gideon breathes deeply. “If you don’t mind, sir, I do have a big day tomorrow and I think it’s best I get some rest now.”
“Yes, of course. Thank you for taking my call, son. Good luck tomorrow. I’m sure you’ll make your father proud.”
Gideon hesitates. “Thank you, sir. Good night.”
He hangs up the phone. The words of the Captain echo in his head. He feels tired and weak and upset all at the same time. Gideon walks over to the nightstand and picks up the silver flask. He shakes it once or twice. Walking towards the balcony, he twists the cap off the flask and takes a quick drink. His body warms as he pours himself into the chair beneath the balcony cover. Rain splashes at his feet as cars pass in dimming light below.
He tries to relax.
“Gideon. Gideon. Wake up. You’re going to be late for school.”
Gideon sat up straight in his bed on the morning after his father’s party. Sunlight had seeped in through the window on the opposite side of his room, cascading onto the posters and bookshelves that lined the walls. Gideon pushed his hair from away from his forehead, rubbing the last remnants of sleep from his eyes. He stretched, reaching for the stars.
“Hey, champ. Time to get up. Big day, huh?” His father stood at the foot of his bed. “So, do I wear my uniform or not?”
Gideon tried not to let his yawn interfere with his answer. “Yeah. Wear it,” he responded. Sunlight had finally reached his eyes.
“Alright. Well, get up then. Big day.”
Gideon smiled as his father left the bedroom, a scent of last night’s festivities following close behind. He kicked the covers to the edge of the bed and swung his feet around to rest on the floor. “Big day,” he said.
“Okay, class,” Ms. Pumphrey said to her 2nd grade class, erasing the chalkboard. “Up next we’ve got Gideon Nebuls.” She looked towards the back of the room. Gideon was already getting out of his desk. “All right, well I guess you’re ready,” she said. Ms. Pumphrey moved to her desk at the side of the classroom and sat down. “The floor is yours, Gideon.”
Gideon made his way to the front of the class. “Hi, everyone,” he began. “Today I brought my dad to class.” He pointed to the back of the classroom where his father stood. The man smiled and waived to the students.
“Dad, come up here,” Gideon instructed.
His father carefully navigated the rows of desks – using several for support at some moments – and met his son at the front of the class.
“My dad is an astronaut. He flies the space shuttles you see on TV up into space, and works on the space station and does experiments and stuff.” Gideon took a moment to compose himself. “He gets to go into space and fix things and he even gets to float out in space. Right, Dad?”
His father chuckled. “That’s right, Gideon.”
The students were in awe.
Ms. Pumphrey added from her desk, “Gideon, maybe you could have your father talk to the class about being an astronaut.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said. Gideon looked up at his dad, giving him the floor.
“Alright, well. Hello, class. My name is Walter Nebuls. I’m the Commander of the space shuttle Discovery. I’ve been an astronaut for about 15 years. I love doing what I do and, actually, I’ll be going up into space in a couple of weeks here.” Walter paused. The students sat quietly, hanging on every word. “Does anyone have any questions?”
Gideon looked at his friends, then back to his father. His big smile caught the eye of his father, who reached out and tousled the boys’ hair. The class was silent for a moment more. One boy finally raised his hand.
“Yes,” Walter said, pointing to the child. “What can I answer for you?”
A stout, round boy lowered his arm to his desk. His face was small and his head was too tiny for his body. “Why did you become an astronaut?” he asked.
“Well,” Walter started, “since I was your age it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do. I dreamed about going into space, seeing other planets and stars, floating in space. I thought, ‘What a cool job to have’. I never found anything I wanted to do more.”
Ms. Pumphrey stood up in her place. “Very good, Charlie. Gideon, is there anything you want to add before we say goodbye to Mr. Nebuls?”
He looked up at his father. “Just that my dad has the best job in the world and someday I want to be just like him.” Walter smiled. He gave Gideon a subtle wink.
“Very good. Okay, class, say goodbye to Mr. Nebuls.” The students said goodbye to Walter in unison. He waved to the class and said goodbye as he walked to the door with Gideon.
“Thanks, Dad,” Gideon said.
“No problem, champ,” he responded. “Have a good rest of the day. I’ll see you at home.” Walter waved goodbye and turned to leave the room.
“Love you, dad.”
There is no rain. There is no sound. There is no light and for a brief moment Gideon loses himself in the surrealism of it all. He lies on the bed facing the ceiling in the high-end hotel and thinks about tomorrow, sliver flask at his right side. Is this the way to spend your last night, he wonders. The red planet waits for his answer.
On a clear day in Florida Gideon drives with the top down. The southern wind rips through his jet-black hair as he speeds down the 405 towards the space center. The sun shines bright and greets awakening wildlife. Banana Creek glistens as it catches rays. Gideon thinks to himself as he races towards the space center, this is the day. This is the big day.
* * *
“So, are you pretty excited?” asked Officer Hillman, looking onto the shuttle.
“Yeah,” Gideon responded, eyes fixed on the massive rocket boosters.
Mission control was making final preparations for the launch of space shuttle Discovery. Walter had arranged for Gideon to watch the launch from inside, under the supervision of Officer Hillman. He had never gotten to see one of his father’s launches. He had been too young before, but this time Gideon couldn’t stop talking about it so Walter surprised him with a spot inside mission control.
“Now, don’t get in the way,” he had said. “Okay? And make sure you listen to Officer Hillman. Otherwise I’m going to shoot you into space myself. Without the suit!” He grabbed Gideon under his arm and messed his hair. Gideon gave him a big hug.
“Love you, Dad.”
“Love you, too. I’ll see you soon.”
Walter was now on the space shuttle. Men buzzed about, flipping switches, talking into headsets to unknown people in unknown places. Gideon gazed over the giant electronic screen that served as an all-seeing eye for the control crew. Everything from shuttle status to up-to-the minute weather reports was displayed on the big screen. Gideon was amazed.
“Gideon,” Officer Hillman said, “Stand here. We don’t want anyone tripping over you.” He moved the both of them against the back wall. Gideon made himself flat. “I think they’re about to begin the countdown.”
A man’s voice came across the intercom in mission control. “Alright we are clear for ‘go’ by weather, booster, eagle. ACO, GCO, and station flight tells me we are still at a ‘go,’ so that puts us in a good config. Let’s roll then with auto sequence start.”
Lights flash on the big screen. Gideon watched at the countdown begins.
“25,” said the man at the desk.
“Pretty exciting, huh?” said Officer Hillman.
“Yeah,” Gideon exclaimed.
Sharp static comes over the intercom. Gideon’s eyes flash about the big screen.
Gideon put his hands in his pockets to try and combat his growing restlessness.
“10. We are ‘go’ for main engine start.”
“This is it,” said Hillman.
Gideon remained fix on the big screen.
“5.” Men of various sizes and sweat marks glared at their respective screens.
“4.” Gideon’s hands picked at the lint in his jean pockets.
“3. 2. 1. We have liftoff,” the man on the intercom said. Light applauses followed the success. Gideon watched the screen as Discover shot into the azure; it’s thick, red tail scarring the sky.
“There it is, Gideon. What do you think?” asked Hillman.
“That was awesome. Can they hear my dad on their headsets?” he asked.
“Yeah. They’re connected the entire time the shuttle is in space.”
“Do you think they would let me say hi to him?”
“I don’t know. Maybe once he gets into space. I’m sure they would.”
Gideon beamed with excitement. “Cool.”
The shuttle rose higher and higher into the sky. He turned briefly to look for Officer Hillman. Then he heard someone say, “Dear God, no.”
Gideon spun back around and faced the big screen once more. His eyes grew big and began to glisten beneath a raining inferno. “Dad. Dad!” he cried. Gideon rushed toward the big screen. His legs were heavy and strained and his chest heaved as if someone just pulled him from the deep end of the swimming pool. Officer Hillman snatched the boy before he could make it to the front of the room. Gideon looked up through glossy eyes and watched as pieces of fuselage and paneling fell down to Earth. He heard people repeating the words ‘God’ and ‘no’ in various configurations, sprinkled occasionally with curse words. Part of the main rocket broke up under the pressure and split into smaller pieces that plummeted like meteors under the intense sun. Officer Hillman carried Gideon from the room. He wept and screamed while fire plunged to the ground.
“Gideon, this is it, brother,” says Jamison, and English man strapped into the seat next to Gideon. “Blast off. Up to the stars we go, aye mate?”
“Up to the stars we go,” Gideon says, vocal chords seizing under the nervousness.
“20.” The countdown clocks ticks downs to liftoff.
Gideon begins to sweat. “My father died on a spaceship, you know. Exploded in liftoff when I was seven,” Gideon says, working loose the sound from his throat.
“Dear God, brother. I’m sorry to hear that.”
“15.” The rocket engines roar to power.
Gideon adjusts the volume of his voice. “It’s okay,” he says. “I think it’s finally okay.”
“Oi,” the man begins, “You ever wondered if there’s life on Mars?”
“Only when I listen to Bowie,” Gideon shoots back.
The man snickers. “Aye, saw that one coming a mile away.”
Gideon thinks for a moment as the rockets roar to deafening volumes. The countdown clock ticks away.
“Here we go, brother,” the English man screams.
“Here we go.” The clock hits “1”. Gideon relaxes.
“Gideon, would you like to share what you wrote?” Mrs. Wilson asked.
“Okay,” Gideon said. He stood up at the board in his 4th grade class and began.
"I want to be an astronaut. I want to go into space for a year and live on the space station up there with the other astronauts. We would do experiments like seeing if fungus can grow in outer space or if plants could survive or things like that. I don't really know yet. I would sleep right side up in a beanbag like you see them do in the movies. And after a year was over, I would come back down to earth and tell all of my friends about what it was like living in outer space and they would all be amazed by it. And maybe after I got settled back in I could go and give speeches to school children about being an astronaut and how fun it is. Maybe I would marry an astronaut woman and maybe we could get married in space. But that would probably be impossible to get married in space. And then when I got even older I could go back into space one more time. Not for a year like before but maybe just to see the earth again from above. It could be like my, my swan something."
"You mean 'swan song'?" Ms. Wilson asked.
"Yeah. My swan song. That’s what it could be like," Gideon said.
"Where did you hear that?"
"I don't know. I think my dad said it once when I was younger. Back when he was still around. Does it make sense, the way I used it?"
"Yes,” Ms. Wilson sighed. “I suppose it does."