The Spinning Wheel - Part Three
It was three days to Earth when Martin came looking for me. He found me in my room totally spaced out on vodka, valium and assorted, oblivious to reality of any sort. He stayed until I came down.
"I should have had your stomach pumped," he said, as I began to talk coherently for the first time.
"Might have been a good idea," I said. "Feel better then." I took a sip of the coffee he offered me, trying to moisten my mouth.
"You know the Commander relies on you," he said. "So you'd better tell me now whether you are going to be able to handle things with yourself, let alone other people."
"I've come to terms with the fact that there's nothing I can do about it," I said. "It doesn't make me happy, but I'll be fine."
"I didn't know toy felt for people recently," he said, surprised.
"I feel for the animals that are locked up. They have no idea of what's going on and they're starving to death. They haven't done anything to deserve this, unlike people."
"Typical," he smiled.
"But there's nothing I can do. Hopefully more than a few will escape. Hopefully we might save some when we get there ... Is there a plan for shutting down the reactors?" It was with difficulty that I called myself back to the critical concerns.
"The Russian cosmonauts have got back down to the surface and are in the process of closing the Russian ones. They say they've released over a hundred pet animals while they've been about it. I asked for you."
"Martin, you know me better than I do."
"I've known you since we were children. I'd say I have good reason for knowing you'd worry about the animals."
I smiled, perhaps a little warily.
"Pull yourself together," said Martin. "Come and have a look at Earth. We're only two days away now. The day after tomorrow and we'll be back."
"Two days?" I asked in surprise. "I've been out that long? Jesus."
"We've got to decide where we'll set up, as well, you know, Kit," he said softly. "And join up with the cosmonauts, if they haven't broken. There are fifty people in Psychiatric at the moment."
"How many will recover completely?" I asked, suddenly concerned. I'd always forget the mental frailties of people, even though I'd just displayed them to perfection myself. That was only natural, being human, though some people have doubted that. But my mind was my own again now. I could think clearly once more. I could be relied on for decisions. I was myself.
"All but two."
It was time that I discovered what had happened during my mental absence. It was time that important decisions were made. Calculations to put the ship into orbit around the Earth would have to be verified, and I was needed for this.
We left my room and walked towards the bridge past people deep in grief. I watched the mental anguish reflected in Martin's face and admired him for it. Empathy has never been one of my strong points, I am not completely certain what it is. I looked at everyone with an analytical eye, studying their different reactions, correlating those with their character type, appraising their efficacy for the work ahead.
There were groups of people sitting together, saying nothing, just taking comfort from each other's presence. They must have already cried themselves out. Then we came upon a young girl, of perhaps twelve years of age, who was sobbing quietly to herself. She had smuggled herself aboard Pioneer, a stowaway, and had unknowingly saved her life in doing so. I heard her murmuring for her mother, though she had effectively lost her mother and family even if the holocaust had not happened. Originally, we had not planned a return trip for the Pioneer; all tickets were one-way only. When the girl had been found, I had surprised the Commander by advising that there should be no punishment for her. I think he guessed that I would have tried the same in her place, although, at twelve, I had already lost my family, and my choice would not have been a dilemma or involved sacrifice.
We entered the bridge and saw Earth on the screen. I was surprised to be struck with a string and powerful emotion. It was homesickness, I realised, as if what was on the screen was no longer home. It had changed. There were no people any more, and somehow that made a difference. However much I hated Mankind for what he had done, I could not live without people. I was so used to them, the stupid and the ignorant, the intelligent and the brilliant. It was now that it struck me that all the good people were gone from the world as well as the evil. It was a harrowing thought, all the creators had vanished, all the special people in the world who made life better for others with their actions or even just their love. The only consolation was that all the evil had vanished as well. The slate had truly been wiped clean.
As we stood staring at the screen thinking our private thoughts, that no doubt were similar, we started talking about the future. It was not far into the future, that could wait, just the immediate future, two days hence. We had to make plans for our landing on Earth, and then how we should proceed, once we were there. It was decided to start with America as the cosmonauts were admirably advanced in shutting down Europe's nuclear reactors. We were in constant communication with them now, and it was fortunate that they spoke good English, as there were few people aboard ship who could speak Russian. As the hours ticked by, we began the delicate adjustments needed in the ship's attitude, in preparation for the final manoeuvre into geostationary orbit.
It was an involved and difficult task, settling the ship into orbit, where it now became a spacestation. At one point it seemed that we would not have enough fuel to stabilise the orbit, and we would go crashing into the planet's surface. The moment passed and when the ship was stable I joined the first shuttle to leave Pioneer and land on the ground. As we headed towards the surface we craned our necks to look through the windows. Subconsciously, and maybe consciously, we were trying to see evidence of the holocaust. We flew over the sapphire blue oceans and the emerald green land, the planet sparkled and glittered like a polished jewel, and we could see no devastation. It was as though there had been no holocaust. As though beneath us the populace still rushed about, living their lives. We landed in Washington.
The first thing we noticed as we left the shuttle was the quiet. We heard only the sounds of birds, and dogs barking, no traffic or people. The silence was eerie, almost deafening. I left the party, and started to walk towards a building. Then I noticed the smell. I had not thought about nit, and I should have. Every human may have died, but their bodies were still there, decaying.
"Why don't we leave all the populated areas until everything's decayed away, and there's no risk of disease?" I shouted to the others.
"We've got to bury them," someone shouted back.
"Do you realise how many people lived just here, let alone the world? We can't possibly bury them all. It'd take centuries," I replied, infuriated with the gross lack of common sense.
"We'll clear what we need to," said the Commander, hastily suggesting a compromise before a fight broke out. "We can send in teams, pile the bodies in pyres and burn them, that's the only way."
And so the decision was made. We cleared only where we needed to, and the buildings were searched, and sometimes looted. While this was going on, we quickly shut down the nuclear reactors. We also discovered, to our astonishment, a few survivors of the virus. These were people who had had no contact with the air during the twenty-four hours the virus had lived. People like deep sea divers, who had been locked in decompression tanks and helpless. They could only watch while their colleagues had died outside.
Meanwhile, home was Pioneer. It would be nearly a year before we would start resettling the planet's surface. Our planned voyage would have taken fifteen years; we had plenty of food.