Jack hummed under his breath as he stared at the small monitor screen, waiting for his call to connect. The tune came to him but he couldn’t quite find the words… It stirred in his memory, not quite breaking the surface… A woman’s voice, guitars, a crowd cheering… But he couldn’t quite catch hold of it.
“What are you going to say to her?”
Carrie’s voice was quiet, gentle. She’d already made her call. He looked up at his co-pilot and grinned nervously.
“I… I don’t know. But I have to try and say something.”
Carrie nodded, and then the monitor beeped at him; connection was being established. Carrie put a hand on his shoulder, gave it a squeeze and then used the contact to push herself away. She drifted forward toward the flight controls, the green-blue curve of the Earth filling much of the windshield. Giving him some privacy.
He took a deep breath and looked to the monitor, waiting. After a moment the screen flash bright white, and then after a burst of snowstorm static a picture appeared. Around the edges of the picture he could make out the visitors lounge back at Houston, back on the world below. But filling the main part of the screen… Her face. Her face, the one that had been in his mind since their one clumsy, awkward date three months ago. There had been texts, emails, the occasional phone call, but then his work had taken him away. And now here she was, hundreds of miles away but right in front of him. He did his best to smile.
The woman on the screen looked worried, even confused for a moment, but then realisation took hold of her and a look of almost wonder spread across her face.
Despite himself he grinned. Hearing her voice, even across this distance, made his heart beat faster.
Her face broke into a smile then, and he relaxed a little; he could guess what she had been through in the last few hours.
“Well that certainly explains a lot,” Kate said. “I was collected last night and brought here, nobody would tell me anything… Even with everything else going on in the world, it’s not exactly what I’d expect to happen. They flew me out here, and I was the only one on the plane. Then they bundle me into this room and tell me to look at the screen and wait.”
“I was allowed to request who I wanted to speak to, and well…”
“I mean, I’m flattered, but it’s like something out of a spy film!”
She looked at him for a moment, considering.
“So when you said you worked for NASA, you weren’t just trying to impress me?”
“No. Well, maybe I hoped you’d be a little impressed, but it was actually the truth.”
“You said you’d be out of town for a few weeks.”
“In my defence, I am out of town…”
“Where are you?”
“Technically, in Houston. Well, five hundred kilometres above it, give or take.” She grinned, delight in her eyes, and turned her head to look up. Jack felt an ache in his heart.
“When do you get back?” she asked. When he didn’t reply she looked back at the screen, her eyes worried. “Jack?” He took a deep breath.
“Kate, I can’t talk for long. So, this may not seem like the best time, or the best way to do it, but… I wanted to tell you that I really like you. I know we’ve only really just started to get to know each other, and I was a clumsy idiot when we had dinner, but… I like you a lot. You make every part of me smile.”
“Jack, I don’t…”
“I just needed to tell you, okay?” He smiled at her, trying to be reassuring and conscious of the weight that had lifted from him now he’d said it, however awkwardly. After a moment of confusion, Kate smiled back. He spoke again. “You’re aware of what’s been happening in the news?”
“The comet, you mean? Of course, it’s all over the place; it’s heading this way, but will break up when it hits the atmosphere. Should make quite the light show, they said on the news, but it’s not the end of the world.” She paused and regarded him for a moment. “That’s right, isn’t it?”
“Mostly.” The worry came back into her eyes, and she frowned. He tried to smile again, but couldn’t tell if it had worked. “If it breaks up, it should burn up as the fragments enter the atmosphere. But I’m afraid, despite what people are being told, it’s not going to break up without some help.”
“What are they going to do?” Kate asked, but he could not bring himself to answer. He just looked at her face, framed in the tiny monitor before him. She looked searchingly at him, and as understanding dawned, she closed her eyes. Jack heard a quiet cough. He glanced at Carrie, whose eyes were full of sympathy and apology. He nodded at her, telling her he understood.
“I… I have to go.”
“Now? But that’s… You can’t, I mean, we haven’t…”
Jack felt the shudder about him as Carrie fired the manoeuvring thrusters, bringing them around. At the edge of his vision he automatically registered the earth drifting out of view, but his eyes were on Kate. He was trying to drink her in, memorise every detail of her.
She broke off, perhaps unsure what it was she wanted to say. Jack took another breath and spoke, his eyes on hers.
“Look… There’s a word I haven’t used, Kate. It’s one I’m not quite ready to use yet, but… But I think I would be able to use it very soon, if only I could see you again. Does that makes sense?”
Kate’s eyes glistened with tears as she stared back at him, and though her words were barely a whisper they drifted up to him, five hundred kilometres above.
“Yes, Jack. It makes sense. And I…” She didn’t finish; she did not need to.
“It’s been amazing,” he told her, “and far too brief.” She nodded, and he smiled. The last words he spoke to her were barely a whisper.
Then he brushed his thumb across the control and broke the connection.
He settled into the seat next to Carrie, feeling strangely calm.
“Okay?” she asked him, and he nodded. “You tell her?”
“Close enough,” he said, and Carrie punched him lightly on the shoulder.
“It’s a shame we aren’t going home,” he said.
“Ain’t that the truth.”
Jack slowly held a hand out, and Carrie took it, gripping it firmly.
“It’s been an honour,” he said, and his co-pilot nodded.
They sat in silence for a moment, looking out of the windshield as the great mass of the comet drifted into view. They worked quickly and efficiently, preparing themselves and their ship for one last run, one that would ensure life on the world below them would continue on as ever. Their communications with Houston were as concise and efficient as ever, and in a few moments they were ready to go. Throughout these last minutes, the song he had been humming before his call to Kate began to resurface. A woman’s voice, guitars, a crowd cheering… And then a line repeated again and again… Suddenly it was there, loud in his mind, and he sighed at the absurdity of it; of all the songs to come to mind now…
“I’m just a hunk, a hunk of burning love…” It was barely a murmur, but Carrie turned to him.
“Nothing, Carrie,” he said, and did his best to smile. “Are we ready?”
“As we’ll ever be.”
Jack thought of the girl five hundred kilometres below who had looked up, wishing to see him as he drifted through the stars. He sighed. It had been far too brief.
“Okay then. Fire main engines in three…”