A Space Oddity

“Alright, drill’s in place and ready to go,” Hernandez affirmed as he re-checked the last of the bolts he’d fitted only minutes before. “I’m going to fire her up in a few seconds.”

“Roger that,” came Miller’s voice over the radio. “Make sure those bolts are extra tight. Remember what happened in training? We don’t want any surprises.”

“Ugh, no thank you,” he groaned in response, “I hate surprises.”

He felt a bead of sweat forming on his brow from lugging these hefty pieces of machinery across the barren wasteland, despite the below freezing temperatures of the atmosphere beyond his suit. He took a moment to adjust his internal cooling system by several degrees, tapping buttons on his chest in a fashion that suggested years of practice.

“Ready?” he asked, turning his head instinctively (though unnecessarily) toward the glowing ship in the distance that housed his partner.

“Everything looks good from here, Chief,” came Miller’s response. Hernandez felt a small smile creep across his face. The two had reached an informality that comes with only years of familiarity.

Hernandez punched one final command sequence into the panel and the drill sprang to life, its 3-inch wide bit spinning enthusiastically.

“Alright, here we go.” He pulled a lever and watched as the drill sank into the hard rock beneath his feet, making what he could only assume would have been a horrible grinding noise. All he felt though was a slight vibration through his boots. He breathed a little sigh of relief, but was careful not to be loud enough so as to be heard on the radio. “I think we’re clear. It should all be automatic from here.”

“Good work, Tony.”

Hernandez stepped back from his station for a moment and gazed heavenward. There stood the Earth, no bigger than a golf ball from his perspective. “You know, I never get used to that.”

“Used to what?”

“Seeing our home from the outside. It always gives me an uncomfortable feeling. Like I’m…” he trailed off.

“Like you’re?”

“I don’t know. Insignificant?”

Miller chuckled. “You’re not having an existential crisis on me already, are you Tony? We still have work to do. I don’t want to be stuck on this shitty space rock with some raving madman.”

He laughed too. “Not just yet.”, he responded, before they both fell silent for a moment.

Huh? Yeah, over there.” Miller spoke in a barely audible whisper.

“What?” Hernandez asked. Who was he speaking to?

“Say, what’s the thing you miss most from home?”, asked Miller, suddenly loud and clear once more.

“Oh, that’s easy. Sushi.” responded Miller, after a brief pause.

“Sushi?! Gross.”

“What, you don’t like sushi? Who doesn’t like sushi?”

“This guy.”

“How have we been working together for 7 years and I’m only finding this out now? What other dirty secrets have you been keeping from me?”

“Ha! wouldn’t you like to know?” Just then there came a loud crash over the radio. “Shit.”

“What was that?” Hernandez asked, concerned. “What happened?”

He was met with only radio silence. He turned on the spot as quickly as his cumbersome suit would grant to face the ship, which now stood in absolute darkness. His heart rate rose steadily. Something was wrong, he could feel it.

“Bob, are you there?”

No response. The silence would have been deafening if it weren’t for the radio static that invaded his increasingly panicked thoughts. Seconds passed.

“Ground control to Major Tom?”

Still nothing. Unusual. That one usually got him.

“Robert, do you read me?”, he tried again after more time had passed. He could hear the worry in his voice now. He reassured himself of Miller’s capabilities. He’d received the same training he had; he was more than capable of handling any difficult situation. Still, the thought of piloting the craft back alone, accompanied only by the corpse of his friend, terrified him to his core.

He turned to the drill which was still chugging along happily beside him. He lifted the lever, the bit reversed direction and began to recede out of its freshly created burrow. Red warning lights flashed angrily in his face.

OPERATION INCOMPLETE.

“Yes, yes, I know,” he grumbled.

The bit rose slowly. Too slowly. “Oh, come on!” he groaned, the potential severity of the situation having dissolved the last of his waning patience. The drill finally slowed, returning to its dormant state and Hernandez awkwardly turned on his heels toward the ship. Inwardly, he hurtled with the velocity of an Olympic sprinter, but outwardly, he hopped comically from foot to foot as one does in environments of lower gravity.

After what seemed to him an age, he reached the metal rungs of the ladder he had descended earlier and climbed hastily into the ship’s airlock. As it filled with breathable air, he sidled up clumsily to the small window in the door and peered through. All was dark in the control room, save for a few flashing buttons. What the hell was going on? Where was Miller? He had too many questions.

The door he was leaning on slid open suddenly, and he pulled back in surprise. After removing his helmet, he stumbled through into the darkness, still heavily encumbered by his padded suit. He fumbled for the flashlight that was sewn into his shoulder and a thin beam of light lit up the ground in front of him. He scanned the room quickly, but it appeared devoid of life. Suddenly, he caught of glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye. Behind one of the control panels hid a hunched figure.

“Robert? What are you doing man?”

Then he noticed another. And another. He panicked, his fear culminating in short gasps of breath. He crossed the room to a panel on the wall that had been flashing rhythmically since his entrance. He pressed some buttons and light suddenly flooded the room.

“SURPRISE!”

Nearly a dozen figures burst into the sight, startling Hernandez, whose eyes had only just adjusted to the light and he had to catch himself on a nearby cabinet. He stared around in astonishment at the smiling faces that surrounded him, still breathing rapidly. He recognised these faces; they belonged to the people with whom he’d spent the last few years working. John from Control was here, so was Susan from Accounting and even Kevin from IT, with whom he’d barely exchanged a word. They stood around a table furnished with an attractive cake and many glasses. Behind them a banner was strung from corner to corner. “Happy 40th Antonio!” he read silently as his heart rate began to return to normal. A broom sat next in the corner next to a neat pile of swept up champagne bottle shards. He turned to face the approaching figure on his left.

“Did you think I’d forget your birthday?” said Miller, a cheeky grin plastered across his face.

Hernandez suddenly realised that his mouth hung open, and he quickly closed it.

“You… H- How…?” he stammered, confused.

Miller laughed over the sound of a popping cork. “We’ve only been working together for 7 years, man! Here, have some cake…” he said with a smile, pressing a plate into his partner’s hands.

Hernandez exchanged pleasantries with his various present colleagues in a bit of a daze, then sat himself in the corner, fork in hand, grumpily stabbing his generous slice of blueberry cheesecake. He hated surprises.