Aphelion Issue 220, Volume 21
August 2017
 
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Listening to the Words

By Joseph Jordan

Part Two of Two


I found out something about David during our trip to the Edwards Spaceport: when the kid gets excited about something, he won’t shut up.

On the supersonic transport from Baltimore to Los Angeles, he insisted on telling me everything about the airplane.

“It’s not an airplane, Tony.” He rolled his eyes to let me know I was an idiot for thinking so. “Do you realize it takes longer for the transport to reach cruising altitude and to descend than it does to cross the country?”

The only thing I did know was that I wished they still served alcoholic beverages on airlines.

Once at Los Angeles, we grabbed one of those new trains, the kind that hover over the tracks with super-cooled magnets.

“These trains can do almost a thousand kilometers per hour since there’s no air resistance in the underground tunnels,” David explained as we buckled up in our seats –- sitting backwards, no less.

I couldn’t understand the preoccupation with speed. I mean, Edwards would still be there if we traveled at a more reasonable pace.

The Edwards Spaceport passenger terminal turned out to be the old Dryden Flight Research Center –- or so David claimed. We waited about an hour before a uniformed attendant gathered up David, me, and the other six passengers for preflight instructions. They took a half hour telling us all the things we should and should not do during the flight. The most important thing I got out of the presentation was to follow the space-flight attendant’s lead.

Afterwards, they herded us into a van that lumbered away from the terminal. Looking out from the spaceport, we seemed to be in the middle of nowhere: blue sky above, beige-colored dirt all around, and nothing else in between but a single concrete road that stretched out across the desert like a white ribbon.

“That’s not a road, dummy,” David informed me. “That’s Runway 22 where NASA used to land the old space shuttles.”

Eventually, the AeroSpacePlane itself came into view.

“That’s it!” David shouted as he pointed out the van window. “That’s the LM-ASP-1! That’s my model!”

The thing was indeed a larger version of David’s model, although not nearly as big as I’d expected.

David kept talking as we poured out of the van. “There it is, Tony. The first aerodynamic vehicle designed entirely by artificial intelligence.”

“Is that important?” I should have known that was a stupid question.

“Tony! The thing’s got three different types of engines. There are two hybrid turbo/ramjet engines on the wings that will get us off the ground and up to about Mach three. Underneath is a really cool-looking scramjet engine that will take us up to the edge of the atmosphere at almost Mach fifteen. And finally, there are three rocket engines in the back that will boost us up into orbit. Could you imagine a regular human trying to figure out how to build an airframe that supports all three engine types?”

I had to admit that I couldn’t.

As we plodded closer to the vessel, Tony pointed. “The hull’s made from a special alloy that was molecularly assembled to be stronger than titanium yet lighter than aluminum. It’s rumored that, if you remove all the fuel and strip out the electronics, two people can actually lift the nose up into the air by the front landing gear.

“Some of the engine parts are made out of a special alloy that can withstand the incredible stress and heat of hypersonic flight. Those parts had to be fabricated in microgravity. ”

David sounded like he was the engineer who’d built the damn thing, for cryin’ out loud. About all I could do was admire the pretty midnight-blue color.

So much for becoming a rocket scientist.

As we walked up the gangway to the AeroSpacePlane’s entrance, David continued his lecture. “Most of the internal space is taken up with hydrogen fuel.”

Which explained why there wasn’t much room for passengers. The interior looked a lot like a regular airliner except that everything was so goddamn small. Only nine of us had boarded, but we kept bumping into each other and stepping on the toes of the space-flight attendant who tried to get us seated.

David kept babbling about the fuel. “The liquid hydrogen and oxygen are stored in super-thin polymer bags that contract as the fuel is consumed, so there’s no sloshing and no leakage as the airframe expands and contracts from changes in temperature.”

The seats were heavily padded, but there was hardly any legroom. The attendant wrapped me up with so many restraining straps that I knew what a bug feels like being caught in a spider’s web.

After a long wait, the astropilot captain announced over the intercom that we were ready to depart. I couldn’t hear any engine noise, so I was surprised when the AeroSpacePlane started moving. I didn’t even know we had lifted off until the captain told us so.

David, who was sitting beside me, mentioned that we probably needed the entire fifteen thousand foot runway just to get airborne. After that, he shut up. Too excited, I guessed.

With no sensation of movement, and no windows to look out, I quickly became bored. I remembered one of the astropilots announcing that we would soon transition from the ramjet engines to the scramjet engine, but I slept through most of the climb.

“Tony, wake up!” David reached through the web of restraining belts to shake my arm. “The rockets are about to fire.”

I blinked, still groggy. I didn’t understand the significance of David’s announcement. “So. . .”

That was all I could say before something slammed against my entire body.

“Yoo hoo!” David cried out. “Two gees!”

I felt like a very fat person had just sat down on me. The only intelligible sound I could make was a grunt. The invisible fat person stayed on top of me for about two minutes. Afterwards, I felt –- I don’t know: really weird.

“Wow!” David exclaimed as he struggled against the restraining straps. “We’re in freefall! Isn’t this great? Tony?”

“Uh -– uh -– I think I’m gonna throw up.”

#

It took another five hours for the AeroSpacePlane to catch up and rendezvous with the Hope Space Station. I never did throw up, but I felt queasy for the longest time, even after we climbed through the docking hatch between the plane and the station.

The first thing I noticed about the Hope Space Station was the bright light bouncing off the white walls. Then I noticed how crowded the place was. Too many people floated from one place to another, as though they couldn’t decide where they wanted to be. The final thing I noticed was the lack of well-defined floors, ceilings, or walls.

“You don’t call these things walls: they’re bulkheads.” David scolded me as though everybody knew that.

“Are you David Johnson and Antonio D’Andrea?”

The voice startled me. I turned around and saw a young woman hanging upside down. I tried to tilt my head so she’d be right side up, but my stomach started complaining. “Yes?”

“Sorry about that.” With one swift motion the woman grabbed a handhold on the bulkhead and flipped herself around to face me.

“Wow! Did you see that?” David grabbed a handhold and tried the same maneuver. He banged his head on the bulkhead. “Ouch!”

“No, don’t do that.” The woman swept David up with one arm while holding onto the bulkhead with her other hand. “You’ll get used to moving around up here, but take it easy at first.”

Two men pushed their way past us. One of them bumped against me, knocking me into the bulkhead. He turned and said something that sounded apologetic, but I didn’t understand the language.

“You’ll get used to that, too.” The young woman laughed. She had a cute laugh, the kind that made you think she had something to hide. She wasn’t the prettiest girl I ever saw. Her nose was too large for her face, and she had an awful lot of freckles. The ugly, single-piece jumpsuit she wore and the way she had her hair tied up in a bun didn’t help much. But I really liked her laugh.

“Welcome to La Station Spatiale Espoir,” she said. “My name is Wanda. I’ll be your guide while you’re up here, and I’ll be assisting Dr. Nakayama with the medical procedures.

“So, how was your trip?”

David answered before I could say anything. “It was the most fantastic thing you could ever imagine!”

“I’m glad someone had a good time.” Wanda looked at me and winked. “How about you, Antonio? You look nauseous.”

I was surprised she noticed. “Yeah, but I haven’t needed to -– uh -– you know.”

“Yes, the medicine prevents you from vomiting even if you feel like you should.”

“They didn’t give us any medicine.”

Wanda unzipped one of the many pockets surrounding her jumpsuit. “It’s mixed with the air on the AeroSpacePlane. But it doesn’t last forever.” She pulled a packet of pills from the pocket. “Take two of these if you feel ill. Vomiting is highly discouraged up here.”

So much for lunch.

#

Wanda was a medical technician. Seemed like a fancy way of saying nurse, but I figured if you could get a job on a space station, you deserved to be called whatever you wanted.

I asked her to call me Tony, but she objected. “Antonio D’Andrea is such a pretty Italian name.”

I tried telling her my family hadn’t had much to do with the Italian culture for quite a few generations, but she didn’t care. Besides, I kind of liked the way she said Antonio. The word rolled off her tongue with the authentic Anton-yo pronunciation, instead of the ridiculous Anto-nee-o sound that all other Americans made.

“I have an hour before going on duty,” she explained. “So I can show you around a little.”

Wanda crawled down a long tube leading from one compartment to another. David and I followed behind the best we could.

“Some things you need to know,” Wanda said as we traveled. “Courtesy is rule number one. Always offer the other person the right of way. It’s easier to avoid head-on collisions.” Wanda stopped long enough to glance at me, as though she expected trouble. Or maybe she just liked looking at me. “Emergency crews wear red, and they always have the right of way. They blow whistles when rushing to an emergency.”

We continued our journey through the station. I kept thinking the next compartment would be a little larger than a bathroom, but I was always disappointed.

David got the hang of moving around before I did. He started doing crazy things like spinning around and crawling backwards while staring me straight in the face.

“Show off.” I lost my concentration and slammed my knuckles on the next handhold. “Ouch!”

So much for grace.

We finally made it to a compartment that didn’t disappoint me. The room was a bit larger than the others, but the thing that really caught my attention was the large dome-shaped structure that covered the far bulkhead. The dome consisted of multiple windows that made the entire structure resemble a honeycomb.

Through the windows I could see Earth.

I felt dizzy at first. I hadn’t really thought about where we were. Crawling around narrow corridors and cramped compartments had not prepared me for the full impact. We were in space. We were four hundred kilometers away from the Earth. Four hundred kilometers above the ground. Four hundred goddamn kilometers from where we should have been!

“I need to sit down,” I said.

“Wow!” David propelled himself inside the dome. He rotated his head to take in all the windows. “The Cupola Grande Observatory! Do you realize how much this thing cost? The windows are made of borosilicate glass, with gold particles mixed in to block radiation. The Observatory costs more than an entire compartment.”

Wanda and I drifted up to David inside the dome. She ran a hand through David’s hair and gave me another one of her winks. “Your friend knows more about this space station than I do.”

I stared out one of the rhombus-shaped windows. I could see other sections of the station off to the side. Undoubtedly the sections were huge, but against the blue and white background of Earth they looked like puny pieces of plastic.

“You know what?” David suddenly asked. I could tell by the tone in his voice that he was about to enlighten us with another bit of his knowledge. “The Cupola Grande is a super-sized version of the Cupola Observation Modules used on the old International Space Station. They were built by your countrymen back in Italy, Anton-yo,” he added mockingly.

I threatened to slap the kid all the way back to Earth, but he just giggled.

Wanda laughed along with David. “Boy, I can see spending a few weeks with you guys is going to be a blast. But I must go to work soon, so let me show you to your living quarters. I get a break in four hours. I’ll take you to the cafeteria then. I think you’ll find eating up here interesting.”

#

Interesting wasn’t the word for it.

The food came in plastic pouches and tubes, with a taste that matched its appearance. The table we ate at was coated with some kind of adhesive that held the plastic containers in place. The coating wasn’t supposed to stick to anything else, but the skin on my hands felts strange whenever I touched the tabletop.

“No, like this, David.” Wanda took the tube of food from David’s hand and squeezed from the bottom. David’s eyes widened as he got a mouth full of the food.

So much for fine cuisine.

Wanda grabbed the napkin that was clipped to her wrist and wiped her mouth. “Are you two related in any way?”

“No, not related,” I said. “Just friends.”

“You must be a good friend to come all the way up here just to be with David during his treatment.”

“I -– uh -– do volunteer work at the foster group home where David lives.”

Wanda clapped her hands together. “I am impressed. Most guys your age couldn’t care less about helping others.”

I patted David on the head. “Yeah, I just like kids a lot.”

David giggled, but he didn’t give away my secret.

“What do you do for a living, Antonio?”

“Oh, just odd jobs. Whatever I can get my hands on. Certainly nothing that would interest someone like you with a medical career on a space station.”

For a brief second I thought David would open his mouth and tattle on me, but he just kept giggling. I didn’t know why I was so conscious about my conviction and the truth about being sent to the station. Usually I didn’t give a damn what people thought about me. But I couldn’t bring myself to tell Wanda that I was criminal, that my only association with the group home was a court order.

David grabbed an empty food tube and spun it above the table. The container took off like a helicopter. I ducked as air from the vents pushed the propeller by my head.

“Way to go, kid,” I said.

Wanda understood David’s prank as a sign of boredom. She stuffed our food containers into a plastic bag and left David carry the bag to a disposal unit.

“You guys are probably exhausted. You should try to get some sleep.” She led us back to our quarters. “David has tests at the Microgravity Hospital at eight in the morning. Why don’t you come along, Antonio. I’ll take you both for a tour of the medical facilities.”

“Sure,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll get a better offer.”

#

Like everything else on the space station, sleeping was interesting.

David and I shared our own compartment, which had about as much room as a closet. The beds were nothing more than sacks strung up along the bulkhead to keep our bodies from floating all over the compartment.

“Tony, you awake?”

We’d just climbed into our sacks fifteen minutes ago and I was nowhere near sleeping.

“What’s on your mind, kid?”

“You know she likes you, Anton-yo.”

It felt strange to be in bed and unable to toss and turn. “What are you talking about?”

“Wanda. She likes you.”

The thought had crossed my mind. I couldn’t tell what kept me awake when I should be tired as hell. Was it the excitement of being at the space station? Was it the relief that David would soon get the treatment he needed?

Was it Wanda?

“Come on, David. Why in the world would she be interested in me? She’s a medical technician on a space station. I’m a convicted criminal.”

“You’re not a criminal, Tony. You just made a mistake, that’s all. You won’t do anything like that again, will you?”

I opened my mouth to respond, but stopped. It suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t know the answer to David’s question. All this time I’d assumed I would go right back into business selling bootleg media content. I mean, what else could I do?

But now I had responsibilities! I had to think of David. After everything I’d gone through to save his life, I couldn’t disappoint the kid by going back to a life of crime. David looked up to me.

So much for parental guidance.

At the same time, I couldn’t understand why I cared so much what Wanda thought of me. Maybe the fact I could start from scratch with her made her appealing. She didn’t know anything about me. To Wanda I was just some guy doing a good deed for a fifteen-year-old boy.

But what would a girl in her position do with a guy like me? There must have been dozens of men up on the Hope Space Station who were much better looking, much more intelligent, and much more competent than me.

“Man, she’s got no reason to like me,” I said.

“Tony, you know girls like guys for the dumbest reasons. They don’t care about what or who you are. They care about how you feel about them.”

I considered what David said, and it may have made sense. Wanda seemed anxious to see me tomorrow. No, something wasn’t right -– it just didn’t click. Besides, when did this kid become an expert on the opposite sex?

“Hey, David.”

“Yeah?”

“Go to sleep.”

#

The next morning Wanda took a sample of David’s blood –- one of many samples that David would be forced to give during his stay at the Hope Space Station. He seemed confused when Wanda handed him a funny looking container for a urine specimen. I burst out laughing as Wanda explained how to use the bottle.

The whole examination seemed normal till Wanda took a bone marrow sample. I almost freaked when I saw the needle she was gonna stick in David’s backside. David looked unhappy, but not surprised. He’d obviously been through these things before.

Wanda strapped him face down on the examination table. I tried joking with David when Wanda pulled down his shorts, exposing his butt, but he didn’t seem to appreciate my attempts at humor. He’d been given a local anesthesia, but he winced with every millimeter of the needle that slid into his body.

“Sorry about that, David.” Wanda pulled out what she needed and removed the needle. “You’ll have to give a few more of these samples before the actual marrow harvest begins. Dr. Nakayama needs to monitor the status of your leukemia before the treatment begins.”

“Hey, when do we meet this doctor?” I figured the guy was getting paid enough by Hope for the Children that he should be around while David was being examined.

“Dr. Nakayama is still on Earth. He lives in Tokyo.”

“Japan? What’s he doing there when he should be here with David?”

“Didn’t you know? The treatment won’t start for about a week. First, David’s body must adjust to weightlessness. All his bodily functions that normally support him against Earth’s gravity suddenly have nothing to do. The heart shrinks. The amount of blood decreases and moves to different parts of the body. . .”

“Hey!” David had a bored expression on his face as he rubbed his backside. He showed no interest in discussing his own condition. “I thought you were going give us a tour of the Microgravity Hospital.”

#

We saw mostly rooms where technicians and doctors performed research and studied biological cultures. We passed the infirmary but couldn’t enter. Wanda told us the place accommodated up to forty patients, and as usual it was full.

“Setting up a hospital had not been planned when La Station Spatiale Espoir was built,” Wanda explained as we pulled ourselves along a corridor. “Only medical research and pharmaceutical manufacturing was to be done here. But doctors discovered numerous treatments that could be performed only in microgravity, so they added more compartments and started accepting patients.”

Besides the infirmary and the examination room where David had been given his physical, the only other parts of the hospital used for treating patients were two operating rooms, a radiology laboratory, an oncology laboratory, an emergency station, and a monitoring room where nurses and computers kept an eye on the vitals of patients in the infirmary.

One room, the one Wanda called the biotechnology laboratory, contained so much electronic equipment that the place looked more like a music recording studio than a medical lab. Wanda pointed out things like nanofiber array systems, bioreactors, and high-resolution molecular scanners, but I didn’t know what the hell she was talking about.

“What’s that thing?” David pointed to a large stainless steel cylinder buried deep within a maze of wires and hoses. Two computers straddled the cylinder, each computer with its own large monitor attached to the bulkhead.

“Ah, you have an eye for things that are important.” Wanda pushed herself towards the cylinder. “That’s the protein synthesizer. It’s the heart of our cellular engineering capability. Your treatment would not be possible without this device.”

She waved her hand around the compartment.

“You know, David, some of the medicine you received on Earth came from this laboratory. We manufacture anti-idiotypic antibodies that are purified using electophoresis techniques that can’t be duplicated in gravity.”

“Are those the same drugs that couldn’t cure David?” The bitter words escaped my mouth before I could stop them. It was unfair to ask Wanda such a stupid question -– especially since I wanted her to like me.

To her credit, Wanda didn’t get upset. “Antonio, the chemotherapy and immunotherapy treatments David received on Earth prevented metastasis -– that’s when cancer cells spread to other parts of the body. If leukemia reaches the liver or central nervous system, the patient dies.” She looked me straight in the eyes. “According to David’s medical records, he would’ve died last year without those treatments.”

“Sorry.” I turned away. “It’s just hard to watch someone you care for suffer so much.”

Wanda placed her hand on my arm. The feel of her skin surprised and pleased me.

“I know how you feel,” she said. And I truly believe she did.

#

Although there wasn’t much to do on the space station, the week didn’t drag by. David and I hovered in the Cupola Grande Observatory for hours at a time, each for our own reason. I went to watch the Earth rotate below, so beautiful it almost hypnotized me. From up here the world looked peaceful, like a giant beach ball. David, on the other hand, didn’t find the Earth so captivating. He spent the time watching technicians working outside in their bulky extra-terrestrial -– I think that’s what he called them -– suits.

“See those black panels extending from the station over on the right, behind the engineering section?” David pointed impatiently, not believing that I couldn’t see the things right away.

“All right, all right. Now I see them.”

“Those are photovoltaic arrays, for collecting sunlight to make electricity. When the Hope Space Station was first built, those solar arrays were the only source of power. Then nuclear fusion came along. They’ve got a fusion power plant on the other side of the station.” David smiled with that stupid you-heard-it-here first expression.

“Good thing fusion came along, too,” he added. “If what Wanda said about the Microgravity Hospital is true, this station is a lot bigger and heavier than originally designed. Without fusion power, they wouldn’t be able to produce the propulsion needed to keep this place in such a low orbit. We’d all fall into the atmosphere and burn up like toothpicks in a raging fire.”

So much for feeling safe and secure.

Eventually I bored him. I listened to everything David said, and I even understood some of it, but I couldn’t add anything to the discussions. After a few days, David found a couple of engineers -– a wife and husband team from South Africa -– who were impressed with David’s knowledge and eager to teach him more about the space station.

I should’ve felt glad for David -– hell, I did feel glad. But at the same time I also felt -– I don’t know: jealous?

Wanda got her time with David, too. For at least one hour every morning she kept him in the examination room. She pumped him full of calcium and phosphorous supplements. She stimulated his bones with what she called “low-magnitude, high frequency vibrations.” She made both of us exercise on a treadmill.

She did the same damn tests every damn day, pulling so much blood out of David that I feared I’d be able to see through him before long.

“Now I know what a porcupine feels like,” he complained one morning while rubbing his arm.

“You’ll soon be well, though,” I said.

He shrugged. “I guess so.”

#

Wanda and I spent many meal times in the cafeteria together, alone -– one of the benefits of David having found new friends. One day at lunch, a tall, blond-haired man floated up to our table.

Bonjour, comment allezvous?” he said to Wanda.

The muscles in my stomach tightened.

Tre’s bien. Et vous, Roine?” she responded.

I suddenly lost my appetite. While Wanda and the other guy talked, my stomach bounced around like it had a mind of its own. I didn’t feel better until the guy wandered off.

“That’s not your boyfriend, is it?” I tried unsuccessfully to keep the bitterness out of my voice.

“Funny. He asked the same thing about you.”

“The Frenchman asked if I was your boyfriend?”

Wanda laughed. “Yes. But he’s Swedish, not French. And no, he’s not my boyfriend. He works in the hospital and had a question about some equipment in the biotechnology lab.”

“Oh.” My face felt hot. Was I blushing? Man, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been embarrassed. “Wait a minute. You two were speaking French, weren’t you?”

“Yes. I don’t speak Swedish, and he doesn’t speak English. To be assigned at La Station Spatiale Espoir, you must speak either French or Russian. English is becoming more popular as more Americans and other Europeans come up here, but originally neither NASA nor the European Space Agency wanted anything to do with this space station. Espoir started out as a joint venture between the Centre National D'Etudes Spatiales -– that’s France’s space agency -– and the Russian Space Agency.

“I didn’t want to learn Russian.”

“You mean you learned French just to come up here?”

Which I thought was a big deal, but Wanda looked embarrassed, almost ashamed. “I wanted to do something worthwhile. I really wanted to be a doctor. My mother died of cancer when she was thirty-eight years old. She could’ve been saved, but her doctor was an incompetent bastard. I swore I would make up for that horrible mistake by becoming a doctor. A good doctor. The best.”

She lowered her eyes so I couldn’t look into them. “My intentions were greater than my abilities. I couldn’t handle the course work. I dropped out of medical school. Instead, I went for a biotechnology degree.

“But biotechnologists are a dime a dozen these days. They get sucked up by pharmaceutical companies and wind up creating drugs that have the greatest profit-earning potential. I wanted to do something more meaningful. I learned about the Microgravity Hospital three years ago, during one of Dr. Nakayama’s lectures in Los Angeles. After the lecture, I went up and asked him if he needed any staff members at La Station Spatiale Espoir. His English interpreter told me that Dr. Nakayama always needed personnel -– people who spoke French. So, I went back to school for two years and learned French. True to his word, Dr. Nakayama hired me. Now I spend six months out of every year up here.”

“I don’t understand why you sound so disappointed by what you’ve done. I think it’s amazing. You should be proud.”

But Wanda shrugged and still wouldn’t look at me. “I should’ve been a doctor.”

I didn’t know how to console a woman who had done so much with her life –- especially when I’d done absolutely nothing with mine –- but Wanda certainly needed my help now. I put my hand on hers and forced her to look at me.

“Believe me, I know about not living up to expectations. And you have done a hell a lot better than most of us.”

I guess she believed me, because she held my hand and smiled. “It’s nice to know someone thinks so.”

#

Then came the day I’d been waiting for.

Wanda snuck up on me at the Observatory and poked me in the ribs. “David’s body has stabilized.” Her voice sounded excited. “I’ve contacted Dr. Nakayama. He’ll be up here tomorrow.”

“That’s great! When does the treatment begin?”

“The next day.”

We were finally there, so much time and so much pain later. Then I remembered some of the things I’d heard about this procedure. “Uh, Wanda, what’s it going to be like for David?”

Her face turned serious. “Antonio, you must understand that a bone marrow transplant is tough. David is going to feel very bad for the first few weeks, before the transplant takes hold. He’s going to need you more then ever.” She glided up to me and put her hands on my shoulders. “Are you up to it?”

I tried to make my voice sound firm. “I’ve been with him this long.”

“Good.” She turned to go. “I must get back to work.”

Before Wanda could spin around, I reached out and grabbed her. I pulled her close for a kiss. I’d meant it to be just a small kiss, but we lingered together for quite a while, much to the surprise of another person who’d been hanging out in the Observatory.

When she did pull away, Wanda stared at me. I thought she wanted to say something, but she caressed my cheek instead. Then she slid to the hatchway, glancing back one more time before disappearing into the next compartment.

#

Dr. Nakayama was a short fellow, about fifty years old, with only a few strands of hair on his greasy head. He disliked me right away.

“He says he’s pleased to meet you,” Wanda translated while introducing us. The scowl on his face told me otherwise. He offered me a small hand that I shook gently. I was glad he didn’t bow, because I wasn’t sure how I would have reciprocated in freefall.

Dr. Nakayama forgot about me after that. He turned to Wanda and began barking orders in French. Wanda looked unhappy as the list of instructions became longer and longer. During the whole conversation she said only one word.

Oui.”

Afterwards, the doctor retrieved his duffel bag. Without so much as a goodbye, he twisted his body around and pushed himself out of the compartment.

At first I thought the guy was just cranky after his long flight from Tokyo, but Wanda said I shouldn’t worry about it.

“He’s like that with everybody all the time.”

“Nice guy!”

“Well, he’s one of only twenty doctors in the whole world qualified to perform surgery at La Station Spatiale Espoir. I guess he feels he deserves more respect and credit for his accomplishments.”

“Just so he does all right by David.”

#

The next day they performed the bone marrow harvest on David. Wanda barred me from the operating room. She said if I’d been upset by the small samples David had given during the past week, today’s operation would terrify me. It would take almost an hour and several punctures to pull enough marrow out of David for the upcoming transplant. Besides, he would be under general anesthesia the whole time.

A couple of days later, the so-called “preparative regimen” began. I was encouraged to stick around with David during these procedures. I finally saw what the hole in David’s chest was for. Instead of sticking an intravenous needle into David’s arm, Wanda used David’s permanent catheter to administer the chemotherapy drugs. She had to use a pump, of course, since there was no gravity to do the work. I tried reading the list of drugs being given to David, but I couldn’t pronounce a single one of them.

Later, Wanda strapped David onto an examination table in the radiology laboratory and zapped him with radiation.

“David’s bone marrow doesn’t work properly because of the cancer,” Wanda explained to me while preparing David for irradiation. “Bone marrow is important because that’s where the blood cells are made.”

David took a deep breath and kept still when Wanda threw the switch.

“The chemotherapy and radiation treatments will kill the remaining cancerous cells in David’s body.” Wanda glanced at my trembling hands. “Dr. Nakayama will genetically alter the cancerous bone marrow cells we harvested from David the other day. In about a week we’ll transplant those cancer-free cells back into David.”

I noticed that Wanda did all the work. Dr. Nakayama just stood against the bulkhead, watching the whole procedure and frowning. When the treatment was over, David and I left the Microgravity Hospital.

“How do you feel?” I couldn’t imagine how you would feel after receiving enough drugs and radiation to destroy a whole part of your body.

“Fine,” he said. “Just a little tired.”

The next two days were the same. Each day David felt a little more tired. He spent more time sleeping in his sack.

On the fourth day David became ill, vomiting all over the laboratory. I helped Wanda scoop up the gook with a plastic bag while Dr. Nakayama yelled at her.

“I should have had the Prochlorperazine injection ready,” Wanda said as she chased down David’s mess.

“Yeah? Well I don’t see ol’ doc doing an awful lot.” A lump of vomit hit me in the face.

Dr. Nakayama forbade me from attending David’s treatments after that.

So much for becoming a nurse.

The next day David had to wear a respirator over his mouth and nose, to keep germs from entering his body. Wanda smeared some kind of grease all over his skin. “To keep him from absorbing infections through the epidermis,” she explained.

David took everything in stride. He pretended to be Darth Vader, a villain from some old science fiction movie. Geez, I couldn’t believe the kid. There he was, so vulnerable the common cold could kill him, and all he wanted to do was run around breathing heavy into his respirator and threatening to destroy the planet below.

By the end of the week, David lost most of his humor and the rest of his hair. It was like a kick in the groin watching the kid become weaker and more depressed each day. He cried when his throat became so swollen he couldn’t even swallow.

After that, Dr. Nakayama would not let David return to his living quarters.

“He’s become absolutely neutropenic.” Wanda’s voice was steady as she explained David’s condition to me. “That means his white blood cells have died off and the bone marrow is too damaged to reproduce new ones. This is normal. It’s what we’ve been working towards. In a couple of days he’ll be ready for the transplant.”

I guess she had to stay cool, had to detach herself from David. But how could you talk so calmly about torturing a fifteen-year-old boy?

“Even with all the antibiotics we’re pumping into his body, David can’t be left out in public areas. He’ll remain in quarantine until after the marrow transplant.”

Wanda showed me where David was staying. They’d set up a box made of transparent plastic inside the infirmary. They had put David inside the box, tethering his body so it wouldn’t wander away from the tubes sticking into his catheter.

At first I thought he was sleeping, but David opened his eyes. When he saw me he smiled.

“Hi, Tony.”

“Hi, kid.” I cleared my throat. “How ya doin’?”

David looked like he wanted to laugh at me, but it obviously hurt too much to do so. “Ah, Tony, I feel like shit.”

It was the first time I’d ever heard David swear.

“Hey, Christopher and Anna, those South African friends of yours? They said they’d stop by later.”

“Oh. Tony, I don’t feel up to visitors. I just want to sleep.”

“Okay. I understand.” I turned to go.

“No! I didn’t mean you. I need you to stay.”

So I stayed with David. Neither of us said anything. I just held his hand through the goddamn plastic till he fell asleep. I tried to remember David as he’d been the first day I met him, smiling and joking, proudly displaying his model rockets and spaceships. I was glad Ms. Harding couldn’t see him like this. David would be a totally fit, mischievous teenager by the time she saw him.

Wander came into the compartment and floated up to me. “Antonio.” She started to say something, but paused. She seemed nervous, the way she’d been the first time I kissed her. “I would like to sleep with you tonight. Not to make love.” She caressed my cheek. “I just don’t think you should be alone. I’ll hold you in my arms. If you want, you can cry on my shoulder.”

I did just that. I bawled like a baby all night long, while Wanda held me.

#

“Where are my socks, for cryin’ out loud?” I twirled my body around, trying to retrieve the clothes I’d let float around Wanda’s compartment.

Wanda was still tied up in her sleep sack, rubbing her eyes. “Calm down, will you.”

“You know something?” I’d just found one sock and was about to give up on the other when I saw it hugging an air intake vent. “You’re the only one doing anything for David. I never see that Jap doctor doing anything. Why the hell is he up here?”

Wanda pulled herself out of the sack. I hadn’t known her legs were so long and slender: they’d always been covered up by that awful jumpsuit. “Dr. Nakayama is doing the important work. All I’ve done is get David ready to receive the bone marrow. Dr. Nakayama has been preparing the bone marrow cells for the transplant.”

“Why didn’t you tell me he was all ready working on that?”

“Because the procedure is new. It’s tricky. It doesn’t always work.”

I stopped the search for my clothes. “Damn, Wanda. I thought this treatment was a sure thing.”

“I know you did.” She reached up to the air vent and grabbed my sock. “I didn’t want to scare you. But nothing in medicine is a sure thing, especially in cellular engineering. The only reason I’m telling you now is because Dr. Nakayama has almost finished.”

I exhaled. “Thanks for not scaring me.”

Wanda threw the sock at me. “Get dressed and I’ll show you what the ‘Jap doc’ has been up to.”

#

As usual, Dr. Nakayama was glad to see me. I could tell by the way he glared at me when I followed Wanda into the biotechnology laboratory.

I floated behind the doctor, far enough back so he wouldn’t think I was peaking over his shoulder. He was anchored in front of a computer monitor full of impressive looking graphs and histograms.

“What’s he doing?” I whispered to Wanda.

“He’s purging David’s bone marrow. The final step. Monoclonal antibodies are being used to track down and destroy any remaining cancer cells. Since we’ve now cleaned out all signs of leukemia inside David’s body, it wouldn’t do to reintroduce the disease when we transplant the bone marrow.”

I shuddered at the mere suggestion.

“But you did say that all the leukemia is out of David’s body.” I smiled hopefully. “So basically he’s all ready cured.”

Wanda bit her lower lip before continuing. “Antonio, it’s not that simple. Look, David’s leukemia was nothing more than a regular bone marrow cell that somehow got damaged. This damaged cell -– called a lymphoblast –- reproduced rapidly and grew out of control. The lymphoblasts prevented the normal bone marrow cells -– called hematopoietic stem cells -– from doing their job, which is to create blood cells.

“Because the drug regimens given to David over the past three years failed to put his leukemia into full remission, we had to totally destroy it with the hard chemotherapy and radiation treatment that we gave him this week. We got rid of the lymphoblasts all right, but we also wiped out pretty much all of the good stem cells as well, which means David’s body cannot produce new blood. He is not yet cured.

“Are you following me so far?”

I nodded feebly.

“Now, some good news. Even though there has never been a suitable donor to provide David with good bone marrow, Dr. Nakayama has developed a way to repair lymphoblasts -– as well as other types of cancer cells -– through DNA reconstruction and recombination.”

“DNA what and what?”

“Remember the protein synthesizer David noticed the first day you two were in here?” She pointed to the stainless steel cylinder. “Dr. Nakayama uses that device to create special enzymes that, with the help of nanocrystals and nanofiber arrays, can actually reconstruct the damaged DNA of a cancer cell.”

Wanda recognized the blank look on my face. She waved her hand though the air as though erasing notes from a blackboard. “Look, cancer treatments have traditionally focused on killing the cancerous cells so that the normal cells can survive and do their job. But in David’s case, there weren’t enough good bone marrow cells to work with. So, Dr. Nakayama took the leukemia cells that we harvested from David’s bone marrow last week and genetically altered them, turning them into healthy, blood-producing hematopoietic stem cells. Tomorrow we’ll pump the repaired stem cells back into David’s body.”

She finally gave an explanation even I could understand. “Wow! That’s fantastic.”

Dr. Nakayama turned and looked at me. At first I thought he was angry because I had raised my voice, but much to my surprise he said, “Yes, is fantastic. But can only do in microgravity.”

Wanda stared at the doctor with her mouth hanging open.

He turned to her and, for the first time that I had ever seen, he smiled. “Yes. I learning the English. Too many Americans up here now, and you Americans speak terrible French.”

Dr. Nakayama looked at me again. “With nanotechnology and protein synthesizing I cure many blood cancers. Is -– is -– uh, comment dis ‘puissant’ en anglais?” He kept staring at me but pointed to Wanda for a translation.

Puissant? Oh, powerful.”

“Ah, oui, is powerful technique. But stem cell DNA is so delicate. Can only manipulate where there is no gravity. I must do here.” He waved his hands at the surrounding equipment. “Great tragedy of Microgravity Hospital. We can cure many people who suffer very badly, but they must come here!” He glanced around the compartment to indicate how small the place was. “Your friend very lucky to be here.”

I wanted to tell the doctor that luck had nothing to do with it, that David had people who cared about him. But when I looked Nakayama in the eyes, I stopped. I saw something there I hadn’t expected to see. I saw pain.

Then I understood. Sure, the doctor was a bitter man, but not because he’d done great things and wasn’t getting the credit he deserved. Dr. Nakayama was bitter because he’d done great things and couldn’t share them with the people who needed them most.

“Yes, David’s very lucky.” But by the time I said the words, Dr. Nakayama had returned his attention to the computer monitor, the familiar scowl back on his face.

#

“Are you sure you want to be there?”

“Geez, Wanda.” I couldn’t believe the girl would ask such a question. “I’ve been with him the whole time you radiated and drugged him half to death. I wanna be there when you save his life.”

“It’s not like that.” Wanda glanced at me then looked away. She kept staring at some imaginary spot far behind me. “Today we transplant the marrow, but nothing will happen. It takes at least two weeks for the cells to start working. He’s not going to jump up and ask to go out and play. He’ll still need blood transfusions. He’ll still have to stay in quarantine. He’ll still feel like hell.”

Her words were harsh, but Wanda’s eyes told the real story. She was scared. Not for David –- for me.

“Please, Wanda, I need to be there.”

She saw there was no changing my mind.

#

Wanda and Dr. Nakayama were all ready there when I wandered into the infirmary. David was asleep in his plastic box. As quiet as I could, I crawled along the bulkhead until I reached Wanda. In her gloved hand she held a bag filled with a red liquid.

“Is that the stuff?” I whispered.

“Yes, the stem cells.” She clipped the bag to a pole extending from the bulkhead. One tube led from the bag to a pump, an egg-shaped device about the size of a kitchen blender. Another tube led from the pump to David’s catheter. Wanda then fiddled with a second bag that also fed into the pump. I asked Wanda what was in that bag.

“A synthesized immunosuppressive drug to prevent graft-versus-host reaction.”

“A what versus what?”

She reached for the computer-tablet floating in front of her and began entering data. For a moment I thought she forgot my question. But then she said, “You ever hear about heart or liver transplant operations that fail because the recipient’s immune system rejects the foreign organ?”

“Huh? Oh, yeah.” Somewhere during my life I’d heard about such things.

“Here we have the opposite problem. Our greatest fear is that the bone marrow will reject the host body, because the bone marrow cells are the ones that mature into the white blood cells of the immune system. Normally, we wouldn’t worry about graft-versus-host reaction because this is an autologous transplant. I mean. . .” She sighed, realizing she’d just used a term I wouldn’t understand. “I mean, because we’re putting David’s own bone marrow cells back into him. But the cells have been genetically altered, so they may not recognize the antigens of their original body.”

I didn’t know what the hell an antigen was, but the whole graft-versus-host thing sounded awful. “I guess it’s bad if that happens.”

“David’s new immune system would think that every other cell around it is a foreign intruder to be attacked and repelled.” She turned to me, no humor in her face. “That would be really bad.”

“Geez, Wanda! I thought once the cancer cells had been turned into good cells, David was safe.”

“It’ll be a long time before this ordeal is over.”

I kept quiet after that. The more questions I asked, the more bad answers I got.

We hovered there for about an hour as the pump gurgled and the red liquid inched its way through the tubes. David woke up several times, but I don’t know if he even realized we were there. His breathing was irregular, his nose stuffed up from some virus that had managed to fight its way through the many layers of protection.

When the bag of stem cells was completely empty, Wanda removed the tube from David’s catheter.

Dr. Nakayama said, to no one in particular, “Now, we wait.”

#

And we waited.

Over the next two weeks, David grew bored in his plastic box. He became irritable. He lost his patience. But he didn’t get better.

Finally I could take no more. I scurried through the Microgravity Hospital, whipping myself through the hatchways in search of Wanda.

Even she had become irritable lately. She’d refused most of my invitations to dinner and hadn’t stopped by my compartment since David’s transplant. The few times I went to her place, she didn’t seem pleased to see me.

When I finally found her, working in one of the labs, she still wasn’t happy to see me.

“Antonio, please, I’m on duty.” She returned her attention to a microscope-looking contraption.

“I want to talk to you.” I hovered just inside the hatchway. I’d never been in this compartment before. Along two of the bulkheads were racks filled with rows of tiny medicine bottles.

Wanda glanced away from the microscope. “What, you want to go to dinner? Fine, we’ll have a romantic time at the cafeteria this evening. But now I’m busy.”

“I pushed myself closer to Wanda. “I don’t want dinner, I want some answers.”

She unstrapped herself from the table where she’d been working.

“Fine, Antonio. What answers do you want?”

I didn’t like the expression on her face. I couldn’t tell if she was ready to scream at me or break down crying.

“Why isn’t David getting better?”

She said nothing for a long time, thinking over her words.

“Don’t think!” I yelled. “Just tell me.”

“It’s not that simple. . .”

“Don’t give me any medical mumbo jumbo. Just tell me why David isn’t getting any better!”

“Because his blood counts aren’t increasing!” She began crying.

“What does that mean?”

Tears didn’t fall down your face in freefall -– they just pooled in your eyes. Wanda brushed her eyes to clear away the moisture.

“It means the transplant didn’t work. The modified stem cells aren’t maturing into red or white blood cells.” She covered her face with her hands. “It happens sometimes, especially in microgravity where blood production is stunted. Dr. Nakayama says we should wait longer. He hasn’t given up hope.”

I could tell by Wanda’s voice that she had given up. I suddenly became conscious of being in freefall. I couldn’t stomp my feet, couldn’t pace back and forth. I just hovered there, wringing my hands together like dishtowels. “All right, so that didn’t work. What happens next?”

Wanda sniffled, almost choking. “Don’t you understand? There is nothing more to do. David has no immune system. Soon we’ll have no more blood to transfuse into him. It’s just a matter of time.”

“So you’re gonna let him die? Just like that? You can’t! You promised him!”

I flipped a foot around and kicked the racks of medicine. Tiny bottles zinged around the compartment like ricocheting bullets. Wanda screamed.

The kick pushed me back against the table where Wanda had been working. “All these wonderful medical gadgets.” I slammed a fist into the microscope, snapping off a piece from the device. “And what the hell good are they?

“Dammit, Wanda, you promised David.”

I pushed away from the microscope and crashed into the other rack of medicine bottles. Wanda pulled her knees up to her face, trying to hide.

“You promised him.” I grabbed a handhold and punched the medicine rack. “You promised him.” Another smack. “You promised. . .” I stopped hitting the rack when I realized what I’d been meaning to say all along.

“Oh, God, I promised him!”

I propelled myself out of the lab. I bumped into a dozen people as I rushed through the station, but I didn’t care. I didn’t know where I was going, but I didn’t care about that either. I just kept hurling myself from compartment to compartment.

#

Actually, I knew exactly where I was going. I went to the only place on the Hope Space Station where I could find peace: the Observatory. For the longest time I hovered inside the dome, watching the Earth and all its puffy white clouds.

The next thing I knew, David was beside me.

“David, what are you doing here?”

He was still dressed in the white pajamas he’d been wearing inside the plastic box. His eyes were puffed up, his skin pale. He sniffled several times.

“Wanda said you needed me,” he said through his swollen throat. The irony of his remark slapped me across the face. I almost started crying again.

“David, the transplant didn’t work.”

David wrapped his arms around my shoulders from behind, resting his bald head against mine.

“I know. We’re being sent back to Earth tomorrow. Dr. Nakayama wants to see if gravity will cause my blood counts to rise. But he doesn’t sound too confident.”

I sighed, holding my face in my hands. “I can’t believe this. After everything we went through to get you here. After all you’ve been put through. The whole trip was for nothing.”

“No, no, Tony, not for nothing. I still can’t believe I’m really in space, on a real live space station. I’d always wanted to see the AeroSpacePlane, and I actually got to fly in one. And it’s all thanks to you.”

I grabbed the boy and pulled him in front of me. His face held a sympathetic expression. The kid felt sorry for me, for cryin’ out loud.

“You’re such a brave fellow.” I clamped my teeth together. “I wish -– God, I wish I could help you. I wish I could reach down inside you and pull out that filthy disease, and -– and stick it in me. If the damn thing has to kill someone, why not me?”

David almost laughed. “Tony, why would you do that?”

“Because -– because you’re a good kid. You’re smart, and kind. You’d make a fine adult. But now you won’t get the chance.

“As for me. . .” I snickered and shook my head. “Look at me. I’m a criminal and a junkie. I’m an all around rotten guy, and I’ll probably live to be a hundred goddamn years old!”

David stared at me for a while, thinking over what I’d just said. Afterwards, he replied, “I don’t know, Tony. You just said you would give your life to save mine. That doesn’t sound like something a rotten guy would do.”

I wrapped my arms around David and pulled him close. We stayed like that for a long time.

So much for life.


EPILOGUE

David passed away two days after we returned to Earth. He died as quietly as he had lived -– not from the cancer or anything quite so dramatic -– but from a stupid infection his Earth-side doctor called viral pneumonia.

At least Ms. Harding got a chance to say goodbye to David. The loss devastated her, of course, but with so many responsibilities at the group home and nineteen other boys to look after, she doesn’t have time to dwell on it.

The other boys miss David something awful, although they never tire of hearing stories from the last weeks of his life. I never tire of telling those stories.

I know that David made a profound impact on Dr. Nakayama as well. Wanda e-mailed me an Internet link to an article he wrote called “Patient Care in the New Age”. It’s easy to see where he got the inspiration to write that piece.

As for me. . .

Well, did you ever have a song that you liked a lot when you were younger? You’re not sure why –- maybe it has a catchy rhythm, or a beat that just won’t quit -– but for some reason, this tune always catches your ear. For years and years you hear the song. Then, one day, you actually take the time to sit down and listen to the words.

And –- and it’s like you’re hearing that song for the very first time!

That’s how David affected my life.

I stayed at the South Baltimore Foster Group Home for Boys long after my probation ended. Ms. Harding says she’d like to hire me full time, but she just doesn’t have the funding. That’s okay, though. I spend a few hours there every week, helping her with the older boys and running errands. In the mean time, I got a job working at a restaurant. It isn’t much, but it’s a start.

The only person I’m not sure about is Wanda. We never saw each other after my breakdown in the Microgravity Hospital, although we keep in touch electronically. She stayed an extra tour at the Hope Space Station, but she’ll be returning to Earth soon. I invited her to come visit me in Baltimore. She said she’d think about it.

If she does make it here, then I’ll have to come clean and show her what I’m all about. Maybe she’ll be so disgusted by my past that she’ll never want to see me again.

Or, who knows: maybe she’ll be impressed by how much David has changed me.

THE END


© 2007 Joseph Jordan

Joseph Jordan is a 47 year old defense contractor who has served in such places as Germany, Bosnia, and Afghanistan. When not wondering around these exotic locations, he tries to keep up with his wife, his daughter 24, and his son 21, who live in Naples, Italy. His novelette, At the Gate of God, won third place in the Writers of the Future contest for the third quarter of 2005.

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