Hollis reached out. It was best this way. He made the extra effort and touched the man. He grasped the man’s ankle and pulled himself up along the body until he reached the head. The man screamed and clawed frantically, like a drowning swimmer. The screaming filled the universe.
One way or the other, thought Hollis. The moon or Earth or meteors will kill him, so why not now?
He smashed the man’s glass mask with his iron fist. The screaming stopped. He pushed off from the body and let it spin away on its own course, falling.
Falling, falling down space Hollis and the rest of them went in the long, endless dropping and whirling of silence.
“Hollis, you still there?”
Hollis did not speak, but felt the rush of heat in his face.
“This is Applegate again.”
“All right, Applegate.”
“Let’s talk. We haven’t anything else to do.”
The captain cut in. “That’s enough of that. We’ve got to figure a way out of this.”
“Captain, why don’t you shut up?” said Applegate.
“You heard me, Captain. Don’t pull your rank on me, you’re ten thousand miles away by now, and let’s not kid ourselves. As Stimson puts it, it’s a long way down.”
“See here, Applegate!”
“Can it. This is a mutiny of one. I haven’t a damn thing to lose. Your ship was a bad ship and you were a bad captain and I hope you break when you hit the Moon.”
“I’m ordering you to stop!”
“Co on, order me again.” Applegate smiled across ten thousand miles. The captain was silent. Applegate continued, “Where were we, Hollis? Oh yes, I remember. I hate you too. But you know that. You’ve known it for a long time.”
Hollis clenched his lists, helplessly.
“I want to tell you something,” said Applegate. “Make you happy. I was the one who blackballed you with the Rocket Company five years ago.
A meteor flashed by. Hollis looked down and his left hand was gone. Blood spurted. Suddenly there was no air in his suit. He had enough air in his lungs to move his right hand over and twist a knob at his left elbow, tightening the joint and sealing the leak. It had happened so quickly that he was not surprised. Nothing surprised him any more. The air in the suit came back to normal in an instant now that the leak was sealed. And the blood that had flowed so swiftly was pressured as he fastened the knob yet tighter, until it made a tourniquet.
All of this took place in a terrible silence on his part. And the other men chatted. That one man, Lespere, went on and on with his talk about his wife on Mars, his wife on Venus, his wife on Jupiter, his money, his wondrous times, his drunkenness, his gambling, his happiness. On and on, while they all fell. Lespere reminisced on the past, happy, while he fell to his death.
It was so very odd. Space, thousands of miles of space, and these voices vibrating in the center of it. No one visible at all, and only the radio waves quivering and trying to quicken other men into emotion.
“Are you angry, Hollis?”
“No.” And he was not. The abstraction had returned and he was a thing of dull concrete, forever falling nowhere.
“You wanted to get to the top all your life, Hollis. You always wondered what happened. I put the black mark on you just before I was tossed out myself.”
“That isn’t important,” said Hollis. And it was not. It was gone. When life is over it is like a flicker of bright film, an instant on the screen, all of its prejudices and passions condensed and illumined for an instant on space, and before you could cry out, “There was a happy day, there a bad one, there an evil face, there a good one,” the film burned to a cinder, the screen went dark.
From this outer edge of his life, looking back, there was only one remorse, and that was only that he wished to go on living. Did all dying people feel this way, as if they had never lived? Did life seem that short, indeed, over and done before you took a breath? Did it seem this abrupt and impossible to everyone, or only to himself, here, now, with a few hours left to him for thought and deliberation?