Second Chance

“Goin’ up to the spirit in the skyyy,” Kip sang, rocking his shoulders, “… where ahhm gonna go when I diiie.” He never liked the recording until his son sent it to celebrate his second chance—Kip’s sentence being commuted from twenty-five years in prison to five years collecting trash in space.

“When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best.” He sang, scratched two fingers on the four-day stubble under his chin, and gazed at the wraparound display. Stars stood bright and unblinking in the black. A sliver of moon glowed like a white magnolia petal floating on a midnight pond. He called up the vector lines for incoming space debris. Nothing close to his position was larger than a pinky nail clipping.

Hearing his echo in the hollow operations chamber, Kip laughed then shouted, “… gonna go to the place that’s the best … well that sure as hell ain’t here.” He’d learned his lesson. That’s what he told his son. Next time he’d do different.

He’d volunteered for this, been tested, and done well. Smart was never his problem—least not technical smart. He’d done well in the training, too, not like he was competing against real astronauts. Only convicts got these jobs.

But technically, Kip was an astronaut. He hoped his new skills might translate to something better when he got out. Four more years, he winced. The moniker they gave him, ‘space junkie’, described how he felt—not much improvement over his juvenile sentence ten years ago, six-months collecting bottles, cans, and diapers tossed out on route 41 heading north out of Chicago.

It was all politics. He was getting rehab and a second chance. News feeds never mentioned the state getting money for sending him up, or the fact that no insurance for convicts meant he was cheaper than a machine or a real astronaut.

But running a space station was big responsibility, even if it was a glorified trash compactor. His orbit was the highest of any space junkie, three thousand miles above geosynchronous—which meant out of the money. Pulling in a dead geosynchronous satellite could net him a cool hundred grand plus an insurance bonus. Ease his return to civilian life. All he’d collected out here was busted parts and pieces: access panels, nozzles, machine screws, paint chips, maybe a sheet of silicon off a solar panel. Last year’s big find.

3033a

A quick review of the monitors showed everything in order. His three electro-magnetically formed, nano-fiber trawling nets bellied out like sails on a square-rigged ship. The nitinol talon he’d use if the nets ever snagged anything bigger than a baseball was charged and tucked in its pod.

“Oh, Commander,” the ever-sweet auto-service used the address he’d programmed, “one of your favorite fans wants to contact you.” It was probably Jolene. Kip expected her call. He thought he’d never want to hear from the bitch again, but the chirpy auto-service voice was wearing on him. He paused the music.

“Hey there, baby,” he said. Jolene’s face popped up: blue eye shadow over squinty eyes, ruby-painted lips, and chipped, tobacco-stained teeth. The new crop of lines on her face told him she’d jacked her drug dose.

“Hello yourself, Kipper,” she said, smiling mischief. Kip knew what was coming. “Did you like those sweet goodies I sent in your last supply run?”

“Wasn’t sure how sweet they was. Those Eroti-pop groans yours?”

“Every lick’s a reminder of what you’re missin’ back home.”

“So who’d you fuck makin’ the Eroti-pop recordings?”

“So many I forgot. Once you cleared out, they was linin’ up.” She scowled then flipped her hand and smiled. “Nah, jus’ kiddin’, nobody special. Dickey Ray, he come round last week and brung my regular stuff. Then he stuck round for his usual payment.”

Kip slow tapped the console dash with his fist but kept a tight smile over his clenched teeth. It was Dickey Ray got him here in the first place—him sniffin’ round Jolene and gettin’ into her panties.

Most men knew to keep away from Kip and what was his. He walked around with a hunched swagger and a hard look, a tight-wound spring, set to strike whatever touched him: a hand, a word, any slighting glance or gesture. But Dickey Ray wanted a slice. Kip remembered the morning he got home early from work. Dickey Ray’s service van was parked out front. Sneaking in quiet-like, he heard Jolene in the back, groaning to the steady squeak of bedsprings. That sent him for the ball bat.

In the monitor image Jolene jutted and pooched her lips like she was blowing a trumpet. “Oooo, baby. What’d you expect I’d be crossin’ my legs and keep on missin’ you? I got my needs. Dickey Ray got his. He givin’ me discounts on all my stuff.”

“Thanks for the Eroti-pops.” Kip punched disconnect. His tattoo caught his attention, a blue and red cobra sliding down his arm to a fanged face on his hand. Jolene said it looked like a sock puppet.

“FUCK.” Kip hammered the console. “FUCK, FUCK, FUCK. How’d I ever let that nasty bitch get to me?” He shook his head like a shiver.

“Oh, Commander,” the auto-service crooned, “something in our net requires your attention … No, it’s gone now. Sorry to disturb you.”

Happy for the distraction, Kip opened the stats window. One of the trawl net tethers reported uneven stress, but the problem had apparently self-corrected. He magnified that area of the net and rechecked the tethers.

The sensors registered no discrepancies and nothing in the net, but there was a meter-wide hole in its center, clean and round as if cut by a laser. What could have made such a hole, and why wasn’t it registering? Kip slacked the tethers on the left side of the net, and the hole slid left. It hadn’t grown or stretched, and the previously holed area appeared healed.

If nothing was in the net, it was a substantial nothing. What … an alien spacecraft? … more likely a secret defense satellite. What had he screwed up now … or found that he shouldn’t? He rechecked the vector scans and history logs. Nothing. Maybe it was a lost satellite. Maybe he’d get a bounty for finding it.

That did it. He couldn’t let it slip away. He considered using the talon gripper, but it was too clumsy, so he collapsed the trawl net and recalled it to the trash-sorting bay.

When Kip entered the bay, he did a double take. The hole appeared to extend through the net and out into space, right through the pressure hull. In the opening he saw a field of stars, yet pressure and atmosphere in the bay remained normal.

On examining the hole from many angles, it appeared to be a sphere. Wherever Kip stood, the opening behind it looked directly into space, and previous holes in the net and hull vanished.

Perhaps it was a window? Kip leaned to peer through it, and it grabbed him.

 

The bay and space station disappeared along with the field of stars and all light. Floating in black with no sensation, Kip touched himself to make sure he still existed. His body parts remained in the right places, but he wasn’t breathing and had no pulse. If there was any air, it was not moving and had no discernible temperature.

“Hey,” he shouted, but couldn’t be sure he’d made any sound.

Hair stood on his neck, back, and arms, and the sensation rolled across him like an electro-static wind. Violet appeared, shifted down the spectrum to red, then back half way until it blended to normal visible light. The background remained black. A floor formed under his feet.

“You are a human.” The low monotone voice came from a three-stilted bell jar. Kip wasn’t sure if it was a statement or a question.

A second bell jar stilt-walked to join the first and said, “It is a human.”

“I’ve never seen one,” said the first. “What’s it doing on my watch?”

“Must have stumbled into a bubble.” A glow in the bell jar shifted to Kip. “Did you find a bubble?”

“What sort of bubble?” Kip asked.

“Left over from the great blending—a bubble that never became time-space,” said the second bell jar, obviously senior. “Some still float in the human universe. You are from Earth, right?”

“Yes,” Kip said. “I guess your bubble thing got caught in my net.”

The bell jars consulted then transformed in an eye-blink to tall, beautiful humans with flowing hair and complexions of glowing gold.

Wide-eyed, Kip whispered, “You’re angels. I reckon I must be dead.”

“We have been called angels.” The senior’s voice was now melodic and warm. “But you are neither dead nor alive. The great blending of time and space that allowed you and your universe to exist never happened here. This place, our forms and yours are temporary concepts to enable this communication.”

As Kip struggled for words, the first angel answered his unasked question. “Of course, you must return to time and space. Order must be restored.”

Kip felt relief but also saw his dreams of big money vanish. “Kin I keep that bubble? I got salvage rights.”

“It was an anomaly that has been corrected, said the senior angel. “Restoring it to you may cause another disturbance. We’ll send you back to exactly when and where you were before you found the bubble.”

Kip tried another approach. “I’m a might put out by this whole sich’ation. I figger it’s you two what done it, so it’s you two what needs to do some fixin’.”

The two angels looked at one another confused. “What would you require to bring you peace?” asked the senior angel.

“Would it perturb your great cosmic order if I was to go back to some other previous time…say back on Earth a couple years earlier?” Kip said. “There’s somethin’ I need to set right.”

“Free will is built into the human universe,” the senior angel said. “What you do or undo will alter your future, but it will not disturb the greater order.” Kip nodded and indicated the exact place and time he wanted to return.

 

Dickey Ray’s service van was parked out front. Kip walked in quiet like before. The sound of bedsprings and Jolene moaning got his anger up. He remembered her taunting and clenched his fists. Like he told his boy, he’d learned his lesson. This was his second chance and he wasn’t going to screw it up. He slid the ball bat from the corner. This time he’d put his back into it.

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My Visit with Kuday Kolun

All the cross training I’d done at Jacqueline’s Gym in uptown Manhattan hadn’t prepared me to climb fourteen thousand feet into the Tian Shan mountains. Every frost-billowing breath sucked heat from my body and drained energy from my limbs. I concentrated on hand and footholds. Cold stone and my heartbeat pressing into my throat numbed me to whatever wonder I might have felt seeing the bright yellow sun, crystal blue sky, and snow-capped peaks.

tianshan-mountains

I topped the latest precipice and, seeing no sign of Kuday Kolun or his temple, decided to rest. I wedged my quivering buttocks into a crevice out of the wind, pulled the flaps down on my argali-skin cap, and dug into my satchel for a boorsok fried pastry I’d saved from breakfast. I took a bite and sipped mare’s milk from the sheepskin flask I’d tucked inside my tunic to keep it from freezing. My entire body relaxed, wanting sleep, but a passing vision of being found frozen the next day kept me awake.

It struck me as funny that I’d been here before. Not the Tian Shan mountains but the point of no return, where going on seemed easier than turning back. That was funny, too, because I had no idea why I’d come, which pretty much summed up all my life decisions.

When friends asked why I’d dropped out of school, offhandedly I’d said, “I must seek the mountain of wisdom, fountain of truth.” It sounded good and went over well. Truth was I was bored with school, getting drunk, and the girls who hung with our crowd. I also wanted to avoid anything like actual work.

My beer-sodden brilliance told me that wherever the mountain of wisdom was, if it even existed, it most likely would be found among other mountains. And since Eastern wisdom always fascinated me, I headed eastward and upward. Several zigzag hops on various odd aircraft later, I found myself in Nookat, Kyrgyzstan.

The pilot from Osh-Avia airlines didn’t bat an eye. “Ah, mountain of wisdom, Kuday Kolun. I know way. Take you for small fee. Nephew Temir be your guide.” Osh-Avia had one plane, a tri-motor biplane.

Being a New Yorker, I suspected a hustle, but everyone assured me that the mountain of wisdom’s fountain of truth could be found in the great Tian Shan mountains. His name was Kuday Kolun, Kyrgyz for “Touched by God.”

After one night in a Nookat hotel room that could have passed for a prison cell, the pilot flew me to Shankol and introduced me to Temir. Mercifully noncommittal about my unpreparedness, Temir provided a sheep’s leather tunic, pants and boots, a fur-lined parka, gloves, and a head-wrapping cap. He carried our knapsacks, bedrolls, and sheepskin flasks.

We reached Sary-gol late the second evening and bedded down in a small brown woman’s family yurt. The village comprised seven conical-roofed yurts made of skins and felt, a run-down, brick-walled building, and a corral with three shaggy horses whose smells, along with smoke from the cooking fires, permeated the crisp air. Temir told me the brick building had been a rest station for Genghis Khan’s pony express. Sary-gol had once been on a major trade route.

Next morning our hostess greeted us in a red and gold flowered dress. When I mentioned my quest, her eyes lit up. “Oh, yes, Kuday Kolun,” she said and pointed up a very steep ridge.

I must make that climb alone, Temir had said, and I needed to bring an offering. Kuday Kolun met only with solitary visitors and survived on the benevolence of wisdom seekers. In recent years, those had grown few.

The few now included me, sitting in a butt-cold crevice. Another thought of freezing to death, more inviting this time, brought me to my feet. I looked down and back. Ahead still seemed best, so I hoisted my satchel strap and stepped up the slope.

Twenty minutes later, I saw a stone plateau not a hundred meters up. I quickened my pace. The plateau extended from the mountain face and a sculpted gate façade that framed a green-painted wooden door. Before the doorway, a wizened old gentleman sat in the lotus position. He had a flowing white mustache and long white hair that began well up on his forehead and joined his mustache to cover his shoulders.

The man neither spoke nor moved. His loose white robe, open at the throat, seemed ill fit for the cold and frosty wind. I struggled to cross my legs and sit on the frigid stone slightly below Kuday Kolun. Ten cold minutes passed.

“From where have you come, my son?” the man said in heavily accented English.

“I live in New York City, but originally I’m from Detroit.”

“Ah. How did the Tigers do this year?”

“The Detroit Tigers, the baseball team?” I asked.

“Yes, I’ve been a Tigers fan ever since I spent a summer with my uncle outside Toledo. We listened to the games on the radio while we rebuilt his barn.”

“They didn’t make the playoffs this year. No pitching.”

“That was always their problem.”

“Here,” I said, “I brought you something. It isn’t much.” I pulled out the bag of leftover boorsoks and a sealed ceramic bowl of beshbarmak noodles. “My hostess warmed them. The bowl still has some heat.”

“That will be fine. Please join me.” The man produced two spoons from inside of his robe and a short knife to pry up the seal on the bowl. I slid closer. We took turns scooping noodles and chunks of turnip and mutton.

“You are young,” the old man said after slurping a long, dripping noodle. “Much life journey lies ahead of you. What brings you to Kuday Kolun?”

“I guess I need to know why.” The words stumbled out of my mouth. Like everything else, I hadn’t planned for the moment. “Why life? Why confusion? Why evil? The great why.”

“Simple questions become great only because we reject their simple answers. Life is to experience. It is a gift. Confusion and wrongdoing are what we do with life.”

“But what direction should my life take?”

“That is for you to decide.” The old man, his mustache in the broth, sucked in another spoonful of noodles then held up his spoon. “If all decisions were made for you, the gift of life would be very small indeed.”

Feeling the cold, I laced my fingers. “It’s just that most of what I see is misdirection, fingers pointing everywhere.”

“Every garden has snakes hocking wondrous fruits with false promises. There are two things that will help you find your way.” The old man tipped the bowl of beshbarmak and finding it empty set it down and continued.

“You are not God nor can you become God, not with special diets or exercises, not with magic mushrooms or leaves, not with gold, telescopes, or mathematical formulas. So you can relax. You are not in control and cannot be of anything beyond yourself. We get neither credit nor blame for the world’s happenings—only for ourselves and our choices.”

I opened the bag of boorsoks and Kuday Kolun took one.

“You mentioned two things,” I said. “What is the other?”

“We are all on the same journey, not separate,” he said over his pastry. “So we are together and must help our fellow travelers.”

“Where does the journey lead?” I asked.

He smiled and looked to the sun dropping in the West. “I must turn in, and you must find your way down while it is still light.”

I took the hint, thanked Kuday Kolun, and repacked my satchel for the downward climb.

I had just left the plateau when the old man called down after me. “Nicholas, next time you come to visit, could you bring me a Tiger’s ball cap?”

Keeping my eye on the downward step, I called back, “Certainly, and I’ll bring you a blazer, too. You could use one up here.”

“Thank you, and when you’re in range of a cell tower don’t forget to call your mother. She has worried ever since you left school.”

I was too busy concentrating on my footing to answer and didn’t think about it until I got back to Sary-gol, but I had never given the old man my name.