Countdown to Eternity

by Barry Hale

Read more about the author HERE.

In his last weeks on Earth, Ballard felt compelled to return to the abandoned space centre in downtown Caracas. In the daylight hours he would walk the silent concourses. He would haunt the empty offices and occupy the chairs of various middle-ranking officials, security staff and engineers. The tumbled towers of papers, reports, schedules and flow charts on the cheap Formica-topped desks remained untouched. Ballard observed with detachment that all had now gathered their first thin stratum of dust.

Before Chávez, in the years when oil prices were high and Venezuela seemed rich beyond measure, this complex had been at the heart of Venezuelan ambition, announcing to the world the country’s shift from third to first world status. It was President Pérez’s personal dream to place the Venezuelan flag on the moon. For Chávez, the Space Centre became a symbol of corruption and the abandonment of the people by the ruling classes. When he came to power it was immediately closed; a Brutalist mausoleum to the Dictator’s personal delusion. 

Occasionally, Ballard would climb the service gantries or venture down to the lower floors and access the operational rooms. He would salvage remnants of clothing from the lockers and dress in them: janitor’s overalls, an engineer’s boots with the laces missing, an insignia-laden security guard’s camisa, an astronaut’s chest-mounted camera assembly, sans camera, a pilot’s skull cap threaded with sensors and a heavy coupling ring about his neck, a redundant weight without the missing helmet it was designed to secure.

On this occasion, he discovered and donned one single astronaut’s glove; the weight of the metal coupling-ring at its wrist restricting the normal movement of his hand. Ballard sat in the remnants of a pilot’s ejector seat, staring skyward and practicing the new physical vocabularies of gesture dictated to his hand by the heavy glove’s impediments. He had dragged the chair some days before to the centre of the thick concrete flame trench of a launch pad, never once scorched by a rocket’s flare. The concrete apron had accumulated a fine carpet of windblown sand, thick enough for his footprints to leave their mark in a pale imitation of those Armstrong & Aldrin left on the moon. 

In his last hours, Ballard occupied the chair on the launch apron, waiting for the end. About him lay all the atrophied fantasies of a failed nation state, slowly fossilising under the endlessly-settling dusts of Spacetime. Here in this abandoned temple to improbable dreams, he’d discovered a metaphor for his own curtailed ambitions: the stories he would never write, the ideas that would never find fulfilment in their expression of the printed word.  

The equatorial sun fell rapidly over the angular concrete architecture and Ballard sensed that his death was drawing near.  Without conscious thought or planning, acting on the silent command of some deep cultural instinct, he had chosen this brutalist mausoleum to be the site of his 21st Century sky-burial: his own concrete temple to the stars.  

He raised a hand to salute all those who had gone before him – the Shamanic Skywalkers, the Cosmonauts, Astronauts, Tychonauts and Cerebronauts who had chemically dreamed their way to other skies.  He wondered briefly at those who might follow.

Night sealed its canopy over him and the stars burned with their brightest beckoning. Ballard did not at first recognise his own voice in the weak, trembling whisper that began the countdown.  

In the tenth second to Eternity, he remembered the moon and Aldrin’s grey footprint.

In the ninth second to Eternity, he thought of Grissom, White, Chaffee, drowning in flame.

In the eighth second to Eternity,  he saw Tereshkova, her body compressed by 3Gs of force beneath the launch harness.

In the seventh second to Eternity, he recalled the last radio transmissions of lost cosmonauts.

In the sixth second to Eternity, he thought of his children.

In the fifth second to Eternity, the full moon glowed with the face of Gagarin.

In the fourth second to Eternity, Gagarin’s face became that of a dead child, lying in the gutter in a Shanghai street.

In the third second to Eternity, he recalled the smell of the leather interior of his parents’ American car. 

In the second second to Eternity, he thought of Claire Churchill, Claire Churchill, Claire Churchill…

In the first and final second to Eternity, Ballard heard his own voice whisper ‘Mary’, as the Alicante sun grew brighter, brighter, blinding his eyes with the purest of light…