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Excerpt for Return of the Astronaut by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Return of the Astronaut

By S.P. Austen



Dedication: In Memory of David Bowie, the original Star Man



Strange News



The newsflash interrupted every program, both nationally and internationally. The reporter stood with his microphone in hand, and it was dark behind him. In the distance the shape of a rocket could be seen in the dim light, softly illuminated by floodlights braced against the rocket scaffolding.


"...here at Cape Canaveral" the reporter was saying, "you can see the latest NASA project just behind me. But all that may now change, with the astonishing news that missing Apollo astronaut Major Nolan Brodie has...returned home."


The reporter looked ashen with disbelief, and half laughed. "Yes, that's right folks. Hard to believe as it is, Major Nolan Brodie, missing, er, lost in space, for almost forty years has returned to Earth..."


He listened to his ear piece, holding it with one hand.


"OK...OK. Yes. OK."


Looking at the camera once more, he said, stumbling over the words, "Er, I am not able to give you more on this astonishing event, at this point; sorry. As information comes in, we will keep you updated on events."

"As we can currently confirm, though, astronaut Nolan Brodie, missing in a space disaster" (he glanced at his iPad) almost forty years ago, in er, 1978, has in fact returned to Earth. Unconfirmed reports have it that he is in fact now here at the NASA base in Cape Canaveral."


He looked as if he was being hurried on by unseen people behind the camera. Quickly, the reporter added, "More on this incredible story later, on CABA News."


There was a visual cut, with some unintelligible dialogue between the reporter and unseen voices on a blank screen. Then all sound was lost and the newswoman in the studio was seen looking bemused at the monitor screen to her left, her mouth slightly opened.

She now turned to look at the camera. "We're sorry...we appear to have lost that transmission ~ we will try and return to Cape Canaveral ~ live, as soon as possible."

She paused for a moment and then spoke again. "As the whole world now seems to know, astronaut Nolan Brodie, who disappeared on the far side of the moon in May 1978, has returned to Earth."

A large official 1978 NASA head and shoulders photograph of the said astronaut appeared behind the newsreader, smiling in close-up, wearing his spacesuit.


"As the following astonishing footage shows" she continued, "the moment of his return was captured on film by Mexican fishermen, just off the Florida coast. The fishermen then uploaded their film to the Internet causing widespread Internet crashes due to the overload of views worldwide."


The screen changed to a split screen of the newscaster on one side with the photo of the astronaut and the video footage of a conical space capsule coming down out of a deep blue sky with three parachutes open. The capsule splashes down, and the next scene shows wobbly filming of the capsule bobbing up and down on the blue ocean. It is clearly being filmed from a sea vessel of some sort, with the waves moving the camera up and down.

The next video cut shows two Mexicans opening the hatch from a small dingy and then the lost astronaut emerging, with one hand holding the hatch door open. The camera has zoomed in on his face. His blue eyes glint in the bright sunlight and his blond hair and astronaut's suit are clear hallmarks of Major Nolan Brodie. The camera lingers there on him for some time with excited voices speaking in Spanish.

The large photo of the astronaut still posted behind the newscaster and the movie footage are clearly of one and the same individual.


Dark Side of the Moon


May 2nd 1978. The orbiting spacecraft floated slowly around the moon. The main thruster engines which had propelled the spacecraft into Outer Space had been jettisoned. Now it was just the cylindrical service module left in orbit, with the conical command module attached at the end. Only the command module would return to Earth on the homeward journey, eventually to parachute into the sea.

The spacecraft looked like a silver bullet, sitting on a black funnel attached at the end of the service module. The funnel was the exhaust for the onboard propellant tanks that would keep the craft on track around the moon, pushing the conical command module forwards on its mission.

Inside the command module, or capsule, a lone astronaut in a white spacesuit was looking out of the rendezvous window. It was a small square port hole to the outside. He had set the automatic cameras to click away at the surface of the moon ~ the so-called 'dark' side, that side which always faces away from the Earth. The side that no one ever sees.

The gentle whirring of the cameras was the only sound audible in the tiny craft. But there was a music deck available in the interior wall panel, and the astronaut slipped in a tape. Soon, the gentle strings of a guitar filled the capsule, accompanied by the voice of David Bowie singing Space Oddity.

The astronaut smiled as he sang along with the lyrics. He felt emotional, hearing the soulful words, and choked a little, gazing through the viewer at the barren and cold surface of the moon beneath him. Space Oddity continued in the background, with the singer running through the countdown numbers.


It got him every time he heard it. It was his wife's song for him, and had become his theme tune. They'd even played it at the NASA station before he took off on this mission.

They were cursing his luck, he thought. After all, it's not a happy outcome for Bowie's Major Tom. Everyone seemed to ignore the lyrics near the end about the dead circuit.

The craft drifted slowly, like a small silvery-white blip over the surface of the moon. He felt minuscule inside the command module, like a pea crammed into a pod. The cameras were taking reams of film, scanning the areas that had not yet been photographed.

He checked the coordinates on the instrument panel before him. He was passing over the designated area right now. The craft went in closer.

No one had gone over the moon's surface this close before or to the specific locations that he had been assigned to record. Was it the song, or was he actually getting scared now?

He pulled his mind back to the task. Just let the programmed ship do its job, he thought. It'll be all right. The guys back home know what they're doing. Yeah, but they also know why we hadn't been back to this space rock since 1972. Six years on, and he finds himself here, on another Apollo mission after all the warnings not to go. That was the scary part. But this was just a single man Surveyor Mission; object being to record photographically and map out the designated moon terrain. He wasn't going to actually land on the moon's surface.


His blue eyes were piercing in the reflection of his face in the rendezvous window. He saw himself there, looking out, a lone human being far outside of the Earth, above the moon. It was as if he was outside of the craft, looking in. Alone.

He saw Elaine his wife, clearly in his own mind. Thick dark hair like Jackie Onassis and a smile as wide as Marie Osmond's. She was 25 to his 35. No kids yet, newly married. The All-American couple. Time magazine had loved them. The cover had jubilantly said, "Major Brodie goes into Orbit!" He suddenly missed her with a palpable pain in his heart.

The musical strains of Space Oddity ended poignantly and he stopped the tape with a click of a button.


"Well, old tin can" he said, tapping the inside roof of the capsule with one hand, "don't let me down."


The Astronaut's Wife


Elaine Hayes, (once Brodie) a woman now in her early sixties, was being hurried along by NASA security guards whilst cameras flashed in her face and heavy men pushed reporters out of the way.

They led Mrs. Hayes out of her house and onto the sunny streets of California to a waiting blacked-out limousine.


Photographers and reporters shrieked after her, cameras and iPhones taking pictures.


"What does it feel like to have your first husband back after all these years?" One insensitive reporter asked, shoving a microphone at her.


"I don't know" she scowled, upset and frightened, "I haven't even seen him yet!"


"But didn't you speak with him on the phone?" One of them queried.


The security men and policemen bundled her into the vehicle, with questions thrown at the glossy black bodywork of the car.


"Has Major Brodie gotten older?"

"Did he seem different?"


"What was he like?"


The car pulled away with the wheels squealing, leaving frustrated press people to smoulder on the sidewalk and in the road.

Soon, Elaine Hayes would be on a private jet heading for Cape Canaveral.


* * *


Elaine sat in the small jet and went through the whole of the scenario in her mind when NASA had phoned her at home. How did they even have her number? And after all these years? Did they just keep tabs on astronauts ex-wives, even though they had since moved home and remarried twice more? She shook her head and sipped the complimentary white wine provided.


Nolan had spoken to her on the phone too. It felt so surreal. His voice was just the same, after all these long years. She could barely take it all in. It was brief, simple, strangely uncomplicated; how are you, are you well? All that sort of everyday thing. She barely remembered what he had said, or what she had said. It was like being in a strange dream, a haze of words, with the underlying reality that he was back from the dead. He asked her to come and see him.


She kept revisiting the moment when she had told her husband, Eric. He had hit the roof. Ever since they had seen Nolan Brodie on the news looking out of the capsule hatch, handsome and unchanged, he had dreaded this moment. Eric was in his early seventies, balding and a little overweight and less than Nolan's six feet and broad shoulders.


"He wants to see me, Eric" Elaine had said to her husband after putting the phone down.


Eric had guessed as much, as he'd been standing nearby pretending not to listen in on the conversation, wiping a dishcloth over and over the same old coffee mug.


"Oh, he does, does he?" Eric said, not disguising his annoyance. Why couldn't that guy just have stayed on the damn moon? He thought.


Elaine looked sorrowful, shocked and excited, all at once. It was all so hard to take in. She stuttered over her words; "Well...I...I can't really say no. I mean, you know" she was wringing her hands and her heart was beating fast. "I can't, can I? He was once my husband."


Eric put the mug down on the kitchen table, threw the dishcloth over one shoulder and stood with his arms folded defensively. "Oh no?" He said, irritated. "I'm your husband, at least for the last twenty-five years! Remember?"


Elaine said nothing, and dropped her eyes to the floor.


"I'll tell you what!" Snapped Eric, waving a hand. "A guy doesn't just disappear into Outer Goddam Space and not come back for 37 years and say 'Hi honey, I'm home!' "


If it were not so unbelievably bizarre and painful Elaine might have raised a chuckle. Eric usually had a dry sense of humour, but now he wasn't joking.

Sitting on the plane, Elaine smiled a little at Eric's angry quip. But it still felt so bizarre that this was even happening.

She had eventually managed to persuade Eric to let her go. Basically, he followed her around the house shouting and protesting whilst she calmly packed a bag. Her actions were really more powerful than anything she could have said to him. Eric was normally fairly good natured and reasonable. He wouldn't stop her even if he didn't like it.

Finally, she was standing in the hall, holding her bag, looking at Eric. The press were outside, gathered like vultures and determined to interview Nolan Brodie's seemingly 'widowed' wife from 1978.


"Well, I suppose you're going then" Eric finally said, in a voice of resignation.


"Uh, huh" Elaine said, nodding.


Eric's eyes diverted to the press and photographers gathering outside on the porch. He could see them lurking on the other side of the frosted glass windows either side of the front door.

"Watch those damn vultures" he said, nodding towards the doorway. "They tried to mess you up before."


She knew what he meant. Eric was only trying to protect her, in his own inept way. Getting angry was his way of showing that he cared. She turned to see them clamouring and making a noise outside the door. Yes, they had hounded her for her story almost as soon as Nolan had disappeared on the far side of the moon. Now they were pouncing again.


Only when the NASA officials arrived to collect her did the press dissolve away. Eric certainly wasn't going to waste time talking to the likes of them.


Now, she was on the flight that would take her to the lost love of her life. A thrill rode inside her. She felt guilty for Eric's sake, but she couldn't help herself. She found that she was still where she was when Nolan had left her life seemingly forever.



Anomalies


The capsule glided almost silently over the surface of the moon, looming beneath Nolan's feet. He became very conscious of the thin metal skin of the craft that separated him from instant death and the outside. Without the little space ship and his space suit he would have all the air sucked out of his body and perish in a moment of instant freezing.

He dismissed the awful thought of space death from his mind with a slight shake of his head. Yet his eyes glanced at his helmet hanging from the interior wall. With helmet on and oxygen circulating throughout his suit he would always feel secure.

He focussed on the distant Earth instead. It appeared marble-like behind the moon's rugged, pock-marked surface. It was so distant and so blue, with vast streaks of white clouds embracing it. He could see clearly the outline of Africa. It was almost impossible to imagine all the life that was actively going on down there on Earth as none of it could be detected from out in space. The barren moon in the foreground, contrasted as so hard and grey and brutal. This far side of the moon was nothing but endless craters, massive some of them, from constant exposure to meteorites.

He knew the science behind it all of course. All astronauts have to be scientists. He knew that the Earth's tidal forces held the moon in a strong gravitational pull that refused to let the moon rotate. The moon could orbit round the Earth as a satellite as it had done for countless millions of years, but it could never turn. It would never revolve, like a true planet. Therefore, the far side had no protection at all from incoming space debris ~ rocks, meteorites, that would crash into the moon's cold, ugly, dusty surface. On Earth, any such incoming rock would usually burn up in the Earth's protective atmosphere, unless it was very massive and then some of it might get through as once happened in Siberia in 1908, devastating large tracts of forest.


Nolan pondered these things as his ship passed over the impact craters of hundreds and hundreds of such strikes. If anything had ever been here, any kind of life, it could never have survived.

The cameras continued to whir and click. Back on Earth, the NASA team would piece all those myriad pictures together and create a photo montage, a composite, of the moon's surface from the mysterious far side of the moon.


It was a strange thing to become bored when in such an extraordinary situation. Few people on Earth had ever done this. Out of all those billions of humans, he found himself here, alone in space floating over the moon. It was an exceptional experience, a privilege extended to only a select few.

The module drifted along routinely, as if it was simply a road-sweeping truck cleaning the kerbside of dust and debris. Nolan yawned. The ship was programmed to keep on running. All he had to do at the moment was monitor the instrument panel and stare out the rendezvous window at the beautiful, beautiful Earth.

His mind drifted again. Elaine was in his thoughts. She was down there on Earth somewhere. It seemed hard to believe. She was smiling at him over breakfast with a large mug of coffee in her hand. Now he was making love to her in bed. He tried not to become aroused...he had to concentrate on the mission.


He wanted the radio to crackle with voices from Mission Control, but he knew that there was no possible radio contact on this side of the moon. The signal just couldn't pass around the moon's surface. Perhaps one day the technology for that would exist, he thought. He would not hear another human voice or make contact with the inhabitants of Earth for another few days. He was absolutely cut off.


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