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Ray Bradbury and the Corporate Mission to Space

3 December 2011 7,820 views 4 Comments

by Frank Rodriguez
Illustration by Alberto Hernandez 

The four of us— I, Edward Carlson, Captain Jack, and Major McKenny—and some engineers boarded the small starship, the interior of which I hadn’t seen till then. The main cabin looked like something outside time, a shock of white all over and no sharp angles—the beds, the desk, the table were all continuous, it was hard to tell when one stopped and the next started. The air was dry and sterile; I felt the sweat on the small of my back and the miasma of Los Angeles smog I carried in with me infecting it.

Captain Jack and Major McKenny went giddily to the cockpit, leaving Edward Carlson and me alone with the engineers. There were two seats on either side of the cockpit entrance and the engineers waited for us to get in. “Get in there and they’ll strap you up, Ray,” Edward Carlson said, as if it were his idea. “I’ll just go check on the astronauts.” But when he turned towards the cockpit, it shut with an exclusive hiss of the airlock.

I surveyed the cabin. At the ends of the beds, knees drawn up, huddled humanoid robots. “What are those, Carlson?”

“Those, Bradbury, are super audio-animatronic sexual girl dolls, courtesy of Texas Instruments.”

“I thought you guys were just saying that to promote the damn things, not that we were really having them up here in the shuttle.”

“We were very serious, Ray,” answered Edward Carlson. “I’m a serious businessman and this is serious business. This isn’t a military mission; we can have some luxuries. However… we won’t have one for you. Weight requirements, you see.” He gestured toward the space in front of the fourth bunk, which was filled with stacks of blank paper wrapped in clear plastic, thousands of sheets. “And with the typewriter… we just couldn’t have all that stuff for one man. Energy, you know; efficiency.”

The engineers put on our fishbowls and inside those we heard Captain Jack’s voice. “Launching: T minus two minutes, you pussies.”

*

Soon, we left orbit and were cruising toward the infinite, everything gone according to plan and the mission underway. One last time we looked out the ports at an Earth left behind and then we settled into what would become our routines: Captain Jack and Major McKenny played gin and Edward Carlson read a book, the cover of which he’d painted black.

I asked him what he was reading.

“It’s Clerical Errors: Their Cost and Cure by William Exton. An excellent book. I usually mar the covers of the books I read so people don’t know what I’m reading. But on this trip who would care?”

“Have you got anything else?” I hadn’t been allowed any books. I couldn’t even bring a volume of Shakespeare.

He pulled another marred book from a cabinet. Motivational Leverage: A New Approach to Managing People, by the same author. I refused it and lay down.

Something slapped my shoulder. It was Edward Carlson’s book. He stood over my bed with a soft grin. “No time to get mopey, sport. I chose to bring you on this mission because you’re such a good writer. Write your own goddamned book!”

*

I fed a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter. In space paper seemed whiter and blanker. To warm up and assuage my nerves by filling the page, I typed some Shakespeare, a speech from King Lear. If I were bored enough I could end up with my own custom volumes of Shakespeare.

As for my own writings, I began by describing the interior of the starship. Everything was white, so the description should, I decided, parse the white into more concrete objects. I began with the people. Captain Jack was easy because of his orange-colored, weathered skin. Major McKenny’s corn-bred cheeks were swathed with a permanent rouge.

The pages piled up beside me. I wrote slowly but steadily, deliberately. I was delineating the darkness that lay partly hidden in a crack between the doors of a cabinet when my ink ribbon ran out. There were forty pages beside me on the bed.

I asked Captain Jack for the time.

He said, “Listen to your body, that’s all that matters in space,” and continued to play gin.

I tried to sleep. I lay in the bed and closed my eyes, but sleep would not come. I paced about the quarters and then sat at the bed again and I knew I had slept. Nothing looked different and I could not observe any passage of time but I remembered a dream: I was in the vacuum of space trying to read the forty pages I wrote but it was too dark to read. If I went toward the sun my momentum might force me into it and I would be incinerated but otherwise I’d be stuck floating alone in space with no light to read by.

*

One day Captain Jack was fed up with gin. “Fuck it,” he said, and his friend Major McKenny, without so much as a look up, set up a solitaire tableau.

“Hold on a minute, Captain,” said Edward Carlson. “Maybe we can get some sort of four-man card game going; of course you’re going to get frustrated playing with just one colleague this whole time…”

“Fuck it,” he said. “Fuck cards.” And to me, “Bradbury, you write any stories about us yet?” I hadn’t. “You ever write about astronauts?” I had. I told him about a couple of stories in my last collection, but failed to capture his imagination.

He slid over to the doll, stroked her hair. “Horse hair.” The skin was realistic enough, but had a rubbery finish. The face had no expression generally. Only the mouth slightly ajar gave it a look of mild surprise. Its eyes were filled by black marbles, so that they seemed to contain the dark universe between the stars.

As Captain Jack stroked her hair the robot stood quite awkwardly and placed a rubbery hand on his chest. A staticky moaning sound came out of the thing, and Captain Jack led it to the cockpit. He closed and locked the door behind him.

A moment later days had elapsed, with no sign of Captain Jack. Major McKenny still played Solitaire but Edward Carlson sulked more and more.

“He’s been in the goddamned cockpit with that thing for days now! This is not how a team operates. Who decided we would use those… things? The boss of the whole enterprise? No! Not me—not me! Not the man paying your salaries!”

Major McKenny spoke up. “This is Captain Jack’s ship, sir.”

“Oh, great.” He continued to pound on the door of the cockpit.

*

Major McKenny conceded the cockpit to Captain Jack but did use his robot girl whenever he wanted right at his bunk. He always took his red spacesuit off very slowly, giving me and Edward Carlson ample warning. He was animalistic in bed: purring to indicate pleasure and barking out his orders to the robot in terse whispers. At these times, Edward Carlson would tell me to write something; inevitably I couldn’t think of anything and typed more of King Lear. “I can keep honest counsel, ride, run, mar a curious tale in telling it, and deliver a plain message bluntly.” Tip-tap-tap the typewriter went, and the sounds died on the walls.

Eventually Carlson got Captain Jack to come out of the cockpit, saying it was bad for one of ‘the team’ to be isolated from the lot of us. They negotiated a schedule for personal use of the cockpit: Edward Carlson on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Captain Jack on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays; three hours at a time. I didn’t even know what Wednesdays were—Thursdays!? The negotiations seemed silly to me. I couldn’t detect any pattern in the hours. Captain Jack would go in for five minutes and Edward Carlson would disappear for days at a time, if you could call them days.

*

The next thing I knew, Captain Jack was telling me about his doll. “It’s broken, Ray. It’s gotta be a gear inside, near the hips. There’s no animation in the middle.”

“Hey, shut it,” I said. “I’m not here as a mechanic. I don’t need to hear about this.”

“Listen, I’m no John Holmes like Major McKenny out here, performing and whatnot, so you don’t know my style. But I need to fix this thing, I need the hips in this thing working.” He handed me some keys. “Go to that hatch in the back, climb down and bring up the black toolbox.”

The hatch split open with a hiss. I descended down a ladder I judged to be about 10 feet long into the viscera of the ship. I walked in a dark corridor until, leaning against the wall like a broken fixture, I saw the robot of an old man.

I spoke to him: “Mr. Shaw. George Bernard Shaw.”

He sat upright, and he blinked and answered me: “By God, sir, I do accept it!”

“What?”

“The universe: it thinks, therefore I am!”

Now I took a seat, leaning against the long wall at a right angle to the robot Shaw. A faint red light blinked somewhere in his white hair, which, along with his beard and the whites of his eyes, were dyed green in the light.

“Mr. Shaw,” I said, “I hate it here and I want to go home. This is—this is a science-fiction nightmare. I’m here with the worst of humanity. How am I supposed to write if I’m here with perverts and some deranged CEO who only wants me to glorify his space mission to find a better form of goddamned dishwashing soap.”

“Nightmares are the stuff of your own stories.”

“Yes, Mr. Shaw, but being in the middle of it doesn’t help. For example, I never learned to drive because that’s a nightmare. Automobiles kill and maim one hundred thousand people a year and any society in which natural man, the pedestrian, becomes the intruder and unnatural man, encased in a mechanical shell, becomes his molester is a science-fiction nightmare. But I didn’t go around in cabs writing my stories, I just stayed in my room and made up my own nightmares. I just want to be alone.”

“Alone and yet not alone.”

“Yes, that’s how I feel now with you, Mr. Shaw, alone and yet not alone.”

I felt, by the end of the night, a fantastic love for this man, my good friend, from many years back—and, by God, the night. As we finished talking, I felt the night descend upon me and I felt that I had to go to bed.

“Good night, Mr. Shaw.”

I found Captain Jack’s toolbox in a nook and returned above deck.

*

Every night I snuck down to talk to Mr. Shaw. We talked about women, how I missed Marguerite. “The women I met in America,” he said, “always seemed small potatoes to me.”

One day I asked him if he had ever read any science fiction. “Ah, yes, yes,” he said. “It was very entertaining folly. H.G. Welles and such. Welles came to his senses later in his career when he wrote some more realistic fiction. The man who writes about himself and his own time,” he said, “is the only man who writes about all people and all time.”

“I wish I could read you the science fiction of today, Mr. Shaw!” I said. “It’s the literature that holds all the modern anxiety of the future with the fervent ambition of the present. It’s history backwards if you do it right. A man is always writing about himself, no matter what he writes about.”

Then one night he said, “Show me the stars.” I helped him to his feet, hearing all the machinery grinding inside.

“Mr. Shaw, I don’t think you’re in shape to climb the ladder—to walk even!”

“It’s better to wear out than to rust.”

I dragged him to the ladder, and he gripped it weakly with his metal robot fingers. I held him like an injured man before one of the large windows into space and we looked at all the stars in the universe, out toward Andromeda and Alpha Centauri. After a moment I said, “Go on, say it.”

“Say what?”

“Go on, say it. You know what I want to hear.”

He seemed, in my arms to straighten up a bit. He said, “What is mankind in the universe? What is this mysterious thing that we are? This flesh and blood that dreams itself human? What are we? We are energy and matter transmuting itself into imagination and will, energy and matter changing itself over into imagination and will. We are the thing that knows itself in the universe; we waken in the universe; we examine ourselves; we are curious at the miracle; and this is what we are.”

I sat—Mr. Shaw could now stand on his own power, somehow—enchanted. I said, “Say it again.”

He repeated it and repeated it. The others ignored us.

*

The next night I couldn’t sleep. And there, in the bunk across from me, was Major McKenny’s sexual girl doll. I leaned forward out of my bunk and put my hand on the inside of her left knee. This is how it worked: you touched it and it started up, started to pay attention. Then, through the motion of your own body and gentle nudges, you coerced it into following you or doing whatever you wanted to do. But the doll was still and the room was silent.

“It’s not programmed to respond to you.” It was Major McKenny, who was up leaning on his elbow now. “Captain Jack tried to borrow mine to try a threesome kinda thing some time ago.”

“Alright,” I said, I was hot and I felt like my cheeks were lighting up the room. I wanted to get under the sheets. “Sorry about that, Major McKenny.”

“Listen…” Major McKenny sat up on the bed now and rubbed the far side of the robot’s neck, massaging it. When she responded, he gently pulled her head down into his chest. “Listen, you can have her. I’ll lead her to the cockpit, get her in position—any position you want—and you can have your way. I don’t mind at all as long as you clean up afterwards.”

“No….”

“What?”

“I said, No, Major McKenny. I’m not going to have my way with your robot.”

Edward Carlson sat up in his bed now. “Bradbury, I think you should take up Major McKenny’s offer. It’s no good when one of our team begins to feel frustration, which only leads to festering resentment.” He stood up now and came to my bed. “You know why I was angry that Captain Jack locked himself up in there that first time? It’s solipsism, sexual solipsism. I don’t like you spending all that time down there by yourself either. Partake in Major McKenny’s offer and I think we’ll be closer for sharing this.”

At the last bunk, Captain Jack was now standing, hands on his hips. “You’re not better than us, Bradbury, and you can’t ignore us ‘cause—” he spread his arms “—well, here we are. You need people, Bradbury.”

I darted toward the hatch but Captain Jack came up from behind and turned me around with his huge right hand as he passed me. He went into the hatch and I followed. Once we were in the dark space I wasn’t strong enough to get past him and he stalked deliberately towards the robot Shaw. “Is this what you’ve been messing with this whole time?” said Captain Jack. I caught a look at Shaw’s bright, green eyes just before Captain Jack kicked him in the neck. “Bradbury, you stupid bastard,” he said, stomping a mudhole in Mr. Shaw’s chest. “You stupid, stupid bastard.” I gathered the strength, all of my strength, to push past Captain Jack into the arms of the robot Shaw. His eyes were dull, he was silent, wires stuck out of his neck. He was dead. Attacked by sobs, I tried to push the wires back inside him, to fix him.

Just then all the lights on the ship began to blink red. Major McKenny’s voice came down to us from the hatch: “METEOR SHOWER ALL HANDS ON DECK!” Captain Jack gathered himself and dragged me toward the ladder, pushing me in front of him and forcing me up. On deck, Major McKenny hurried me into my space suit and handed me an oxygen and nutrition tank.

*

The ship breaks and it’s like I’m floating on my back and seeing everything fly away from me, all of the ship and all of the people. I’m falling down through space and I realize I only have 180 days to survive with my food and my oxygen, and I keep saying to myself: “Oh Mr. Shaw, Mr. Shaw, Mr. Shaw…”

And then like a gift from God this figure tumbles down from space and here comes the robot Shaw end over end, and he speaks to me as he arrives. “No sooner asked for than I am here.”

I say, “Mr. Shaw! You’re alive!”

He says, “Yes, the accident jiggled everything back together again.”

So I hold on to him and we fall down through space together, and I realize I have 180 days of life and he has 10,000 years but what a way to fall through the universe.

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