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Apollo 13

Apollo 13

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R. G. Currell


1998, R. G. Currell, Science Fiction Theater

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3,500 Words


     For a long time now, I've been trying to find a way of telling Tommy's Story. But the longer I looked the more unsatisfying the options were.

     One tact I was advised to take was, "Just start at the beginning; keep to the point; move quickly to the end; and leave out all the adjectives." Now, I could never follow such directions precisely, but more or less accordingly: his mother, my Aunt Ida, was a Pentecostal preacher against whom he rebelled at an early age. Then he joined the Space Service, to fight in the Moon Conflicts a decade or so ago. He was badly wounded in his first battle and was sent back to Earth's Orbital Base to become an angry, bitter young man of eighteen. But that kind of telling is so skeletal.

     A second way proposed to me was the technique that said, "begin at the end; recount all of the events that had led up to it; use strong verbs; and use all kinds of other emotion-evoking words." Complying with this, sort of: Tommy lay paralyzed -- from his neck on down to his toes -- in his perpetual and bedridden one act play of silence. No, an E. Stanley Jones he was not. He wasn't interested in the betterment of all who would follow. He was interested only in the damnation of all who had gone before him. And in this process of blaming others, he had absolved himself. Yes, they had pulled him out of the Space-drifting wreckage of his fighter and had saved his life. They had sent him out in the midst of the hottest battle, to begin with. His mother had driven him into Space in the first place. She had never treated him as a son to be loved, but always as just another soul to be saved. Tommy had thus absolved himself of all personal responsibility through condemning others. But this kind of plump telling reminds me of round and gray-headed people.

     But Tommy's Story really begins with what he had said. When I talked with him in the Infirmary at First World Space Dock soon after it happened, and while he was still receiving visitors, he kept going back to the fight itself. He had said that he relived it every day. Then, his brown hair was short-cropped in military fashion and his face was cleanly shaven and carved by that superiority of a military youth who half disdains those civilians we're sworn to protect. He was a portrait of contrast to the last time I saw him before he went away. Before his conformity phase.

     He had been trapped in a pit that was slowly filling with water. Then I found him. Then I pulled him out. He had the look of fear about him, all right. That had seemed like just a yesterday. He had been playing football in a muddy field with other ragged boys. He was taller than most of them and filling out better. His muscles rippled under his chalk-white skin and his hair was blonde with bleach. It was hastily combed back into the matted knot of a ponytail and his cheeks were badly shaven with stubble. His upper lip supported the sieve of a mustache, one he had never bothered to trim. It covered most of his mouth, so when he ate, it trapped little crumbs of food that just clung there. His shirt, where it could be seen through finger-painted mud, was bright with a patterned-plaid color -- red and black and green -- and was tucked hurriedly into his worn and patched blue jeans. Unexpectedly, his mother had tolerated this, so he left school to join the Space Marine Academy, to go off to Space, and to stop all the killing in the Moon Conflicts. That was an ideal beyond his power.

     Tommy had cried during all my visits, as he told me about the skyless field of stars, where fighters play their deadly games of three-dimensional chess. Where losses are for real. Where losses are forever.

     "Flight simulators and computer-generated tactical displays can't prepare a man for the battle -- Real battles," he told me, as he turned his tearful eyes away. His face was that of a man who had been out of the sun too long. He was a warrior now in name only, white-sheeted and pillow-fitted into a clean bed, where a smell clawed at him like disinfecting fingers.

     "So what happened?" I asked him, though I'd asked him before and though he'd answered. At the time, I thought the telling would be therapeutic for him.

     Tommy turned back and looked at me for a long moment. His sad eyes said nothing. But I could tell his mind was active. Debating whether or not to confide in me, perhaps. When he did speak, it was in the low tones of a crackling voice. The military lines of his face crinkled from the words. "When the alarm sounded, we all ran to the scaffolds on the hanger deck and boarded the fighters. You know what that's like, Colonel."

     How formal, I thought. I knew. There were five levels of fighters suspended on departure rails on all Mother Ships. Three across. Rapid Response Configuration. A Mother Ship could launch a wing of three fighters every thirty seconds. Computer controlled ignition. Very speedy. Very practical. Very safe. Very efficient. I'd lead over a hundred twenty sorties like that, myself. "I know," I said with what I hoped was reassurance and a nod.

     "I was in the First Wing. The First!" He almost shouted it. And for a moment, I thought I saw him almost move. Almost try to move. "And it was my First sortie. I should have been at the rear." His eyes closed.

     I had told him before that we always put the First Sorties with the Wing Commander, to increase their odds of returning. I told him several times. But it didn't matter. He didn't hear. Maybe it was something he didn't want to hear. Perhaps he just didn't want to know that he had the advantage and still hadn't come back unscathed. "I know how you feel."

     "No you don't," he said, "You can't." And then he picked up retelling his story. "No sooner had I connected my environmental suit and had switched it off from the Fighter's Life-support system, than I was shot into Space. I wasn't ready. My fighter ignited all by itself and in ten seconds we were in the middle of the battle. It was like my mind was still back on the Mother Ship, but I was in the middle of a battle. It was black everywhere. Streaks of white light came from moving dots of enemy. Three and four rows of fighters were bearing down on us. The Wing Commander's ship was firing and I heard his voice on the speaker in my ear yelling at me, 'Tommy! Target and fire. Do it. Now!' And I targeted an in coming. The cross hairs on the screen were held in place by the computer and the firing stick was in my hand. The button was under my thumb. 'Now, Tommy!' I heard the Wing Commander yell again. I was closing in fast on my target. And I knew he was closing in on me. This was man-to-man combat. No matter what the technology. We may as well have been thrusting swords at one another's armor. Parrying blows. These fighters were our armor. I tried to squeeze it off. I really did. Try." He cried.

     I put my hand on his shoulder. "I know you tried." But I also know that trying is not enough. Surviving is in the doing. "What stopped you?" I had to ask. I always asked. But he never answered. "Why?"

     "Colonel Boneventure," I heard the nurse's voice from behind me. I never even gave her the courtesy of turning. This time. I was always interrupted at the critical point.

     "Tommy," I whispered in his turned-away ear. "Perhaps, if we knew why...."

     "Colonel Boneventure, you really have to be going now, Sir."

     "Damn it anyway." So, I stood and walked through the door with negative courtesy.


     One does not become a Colonel in the Special Forces Division of the Space Marines by just letting things take their own courses. One becomes a Colonel by taking command of situations and by getting things done. Neither does a Colonel sit around in the waiting rooms of junior Officers. I didn't. I just walked straight on through and let myself into Doctor Branagon's office. Without preamble, I said as I crossed the room to the chair at his desk, "It's so good of you to take the time out of your busy schedule on such short notice to see me, Doctor Branagon." Then I sat down opposite the Lieutenant. I studied him.

     At first, he looked confused. He stole a quick glance at his appointment book, then looked questioningly up. I noticed the wall behind him was covered by psychology texts and certificates. All new editions, which spoke of his recent schooling, as did the youth of his face. "What may I do for you, Colonel?"

     "You are Tommy Anderson's Doctor?"

     "His case is assigned to me. And you are?"

     "Hmm." I settled back and steepled the fingers of my hands. I didn't like the sound of that. Remote. Impersonal. "I am Colonel Boneventure, Doctor Branagon, Commander, Special Forces, Space Marines." Then, I tried to phrase my question carefully. "How is his case progressing?"

     "Just what is your interest in his case, Colonel?"

     "He is my cousin. And my friend, Lieutenant. And I feel a certain amount of responsibility toward him. Especially just now." I shifted to a more comfortable position.

     The young man studied me for a moment before responding. "I see." He seemed to lean a little conspiratorially toward me, then continued. "You understand that I can't discuss cases with just anybody who walks in off the street."

     "Of course."

     "Your cousin is definitely depressed and irrevocably incommunicable."

     "Irrevocably incommunicable?" I had never heard of anything of the sort - for being a diagnosis.

     "That is to say that Tommy is incommunicado with the rest of the world. And that he won't start communicating with the world until he confronts the disabilities within himself, Colonel. I hope I'm not getting too technical for you." The young fellow smiled through one of those professional sneers.

     Ignoring that, I stated the obvious. "But he does communicate with me, Doctor Branagon. How do you account for that?"

     The young man smiled that I-know kind of smile. And I found it irritating.

     "Recognition," he said. "Connecting," he continued. "Evidently, you don't pose the same threat to Ensign Anderson that he perceives in the rest of the world. You see, Colonel, the world did something to him, whereas you did not. Now, we've been monitoring your conversations and certainly you've helped him to accept that. Now, he needs to come to grips with what it means to him so that he can accept it for the tragedy it is. Do you understand?"

     Well, I didn't like his condescending tone and I needed to do something. So, I stood and began to pace his small office with my hands in the small of my back. "I understand, Doctor," I told him. "But I must say I can't agree."

     "Oh?" These Professionals have a way of saying so much sarcasm in so few words.

     "I don't agree," I repeated, as I turned to face him. "Tommy understands very well what has happened to him and what it means to him. What he needs to know now is why it happened to him. He thinks the world was out to get him and then it got him. Paranoia? And he hates the world for it. But he had a choice, Doctor. What has happened to him is the consequence of that choice. That's the why he has to face. Only if he confronts it -- why he made his choice -- can he accept the consequences. Then he can heal." I looked at him hard. And for a moment, I thought I had won my case. But then his Professional opinion shook his head.

     The Doctor settled back into his chair and began to explain his side. "There was a time when we believed such things, Colonel. But this is the middle of the twenty-second century. We've learned a lot since we taught propaganda like that." Then, the young Lieutenant leaned forward in his chair and rested his elbows on his desk. He wrinkled up his face with concern. "I can't take an obsolete tact like that in good conscience, Colonel. You've done well with him. But you've taken him as far as an amateur can. You'll just have to leave the rest of his care in the hands of the Professionals. Those who know better, Sir."

     "But I could...."

     "I could never sanction it, Colonel."

     "He is my cousin, Lieutenant."

     "And he is my patient, Colonel. He is under my care. I'm going to have to have the General issue a Restraining Order to keep you away from him. Now, if there is nothing else, Colonel," he said as he stood and nodded toward the door.

     "Nothing else, Lieutenant," I answered. I strode out with negative courtesy.



     I walked up to the door and regarded it for a perturbed moment before I stepped into its sensor range. Then it swung open. The writing on the door had read, Admiral Konach, Commander, First World Space Dock. Donald's private secretary looked up from her computer screen.

     "Good afternoon, Colonel Crabtree." Her generous smile crinkled up her smooth complexion pleasantly. Her bright blue eyes complemented the tinge of gray in her hair, I thought.

     "Good afternoon, Commander Norris. Is the Base Commander in?"

     "Is he available? No. Will he see you? Yes. Wait one." She turned and activated the intercom. "Admiral Konach, Colonel Crabtree to see you, Sir."

     A pause. "Send him in, Bea."

     So, I went straight in. Donald's office was a large one, for being off world where space was ironically at a premium. A round table was to my immediate right as I entered. It was just large enough to accommodate six comfortably. An elliptical port of transparent steel was centered on the wall behind him that framed the top half of the Earth below. He was sitting at his desk and finally looked up. "Admiral Konach," I said in greeting.

     His smile folded in on itself as he asked, "So, what brings formality knocking at my door?"

     "A formality," I said, as I reached under my blue uniform jacket to retrieve the Restraining Order. I unfolded it and handed it over. "My cousin, Ensign Tommy Anderson, is in the Infirmary. Medical has issued a Restraining Order that prohibits me from seeing him."

     "A Restraining Order?" He took the stapled, folded and multi-paged document and leafed through it to the end. "Hmm. Signed by General Kimberly, Commander, Medical Services." Donald started back at the beginning and speed-read his way through it. When he looked up, he didn't look happy. I could see him rolling his tongue around in his mouth as though her were searching for words. "It's pretty straight-forward on the surface, Colonel."

     "On the surface?"

     Donald tossed the document on his desktop and leaned back in his chair. "On the surface, the Lieutenant says stay away and the General signed the order to give it his authority. But beneath all that is the fact that the Lieutenant is the General's son-in-law. Medical and Command are often in conflict. And the General is going to see to it that his son-in-law wins out over big, bad Command. There is no way I can refute the Order or influence the decision, Colonel."

     I sat up straight. "Is that it?" Donald had been my last hope. My only hope, really. "Then is there anything I can do?"

     "Sure," he said without a moment's hesitation. "You can stay away. Or you can be Court Marshaled. Those are your only options. As your friend. If you disobey these Orders you will be Court Marshaled. And if they Court Marshall you, they can make things so miserable for you that being the skipper of a Space Ferry would look good."

     "And that's it."

     "That's it."


     Sometime during that sleepless night, my decision was made and it was hard to sleep after that, knowing I would be doing it. Restraining Order or not, I was going in. First thing. First thing on the first day after. When they would least expect me to come.

     The hallway was deserted, as I wound my way to his room. And for a while, I thought I'd get in undetected. But just as the door parted and opened, I heard a nurse's voice behind me.

     "Colonel Boneventure. I'm sorry, but you're not allowed to go in there." Her heels were clattering after me like horse's hooves.

     I turned and asked one rhetorical question, then went in. "And just who's going to stop me?" I locked the door behind myself.

     Once inside, I stole my way over to his bedside. "Tommy," I said. His eyes were already on me. Questions.

     "They said you couldn't come anymore."

     "Never mind that. Listen. We haven't much time." I sat down and leaned over as close as I could. "You have to tell me the rest of the story, Tommy. You were closing in on an in coming. Remember? Your thumb was on the firing button. You tried to fire. Remember? Why didn't you? There had to be a reason." His pasty face reddened, as I asked these questions. Then it drained its color like a glass tipped over. And then, I heard knocks on the door behind me. I wanted to hurry him. But I knew better.

     After a few moments, Tommy turned back to me. He cleared his throat and tried to clear his eyes. "I was in the First Wing. The Wing Commander was just ahead and firing. He was yelling in my ear. 'Tommy! Target and fire. Do it. Now!' And I targeted an in coming, just as the Wing Commander veered off for another target. I had just watched how easily he'd killed the first."

     Behind me, the knocking grew louder and I knew more than one was trying to get in. I knew it wouldn't be long. "So, what happened then, Tommy?" I wiped his forehead with a small towel that had been on the nightstand.

     Tommy licked his parched lips and continued. "Then I turned back to the in-coming and set the cross hairs. He fired and missed. So, I ordered the computer to take over and put me in a corkscrew pattern. And I twisted in. The firing stick was in my hand and its button was under my thumb. I heard the Wing Commander tell me to fire and I tried. But I couldn't. I tried to squeeze it off. The enemy fired again and missed. But I still couldn't squeeze it off."

     Behind me, the pounding on the door increased. "Come on out of there, Colonel," somebody from the other side of the door yelled. "If you come out now, there'll be no charges. You can just walk away. Answer me, Colonel!"

     "Go on, Tommy," I said. "Why not? Why couldn't you fire, Tommy?" As I studied his face, I could see a tear forming there like a puddle in a hole.

     "I'd gone out there to stop all the killing, Colonel. And I was out there, all right. Pointing a gun at someone I didn't want killed." He blinked the tears from his eyes. "I lifted my thumb from the firing stick. I started to veer of. Then everything came apart around me. There was a terrible impact. An ear-splitting noise. Unbelievable heat. Then black space all around me. Then nothing. That was the last I remember. I was a coward, Colonel."

     So, that was it. I thought of myself when I was an Ensign his age. Wanting to save the world. Wanting to save life. But I pointed a gun and killed. I had lost my innocence that day. And then I heard the door open behind me and all the voices were louder. I squeezed Tommy's shoulder and whispered, "No man who gives himself up for his convictions is a coward, Tommy."

     "Get away from him, Colonel Boneventure." I recognized that voice as being the Doctor's.

     "Do you understand, Tommy?" I asked. I could have sworn I saw him nod.

     "A husky voice addressed me from the rear. "Colonel Boneventure, you are relieved of Duty. You are under House Arrest. You will confine yourself to your quarters until a General Court Marshall can be convened."

     "Tommy?" I asked. I stole my last look over to him, as a strong hand took me by the arm.

     "This way, Colonel Boneventure." I was being pulled away now. Away from Tommy.


     "I'll be all right now. Thanks, Victor," he said. And for the first time, I saw him smile.