The shuttle’s airlock frames the orbiting station Gaia, bright against blackness, the cable between it and the shuttle stretching like a tightrope, maybe fifty meters. It looks long as eternity.
I open my palm to release my signature artwork, an origami dove, one of those that always open my installations. I turn both viewports of my helmet toward the dove, hovering in silhouette against the airless void. Got to be sure both the forward and dorsal cameras pick it up. Then I clutch the cable in both hands. Thank god the camera’s electrodes are synaptically controlled. I think about taking my hands off the cable’s synthetic umbilical cord even for an instant. A sudden burst of sweat drenches me under my spacesuit. With a low hum of vibration, the humidity controls whisk me dry.
“Is it still falling when it’s this far up?”
“Don’t worry, sir.” The shuttle crew member waiting beside me clips a link from my suit to the cable. How many space tourists has she conducted along this same adventure? “You can’t fall. Your auto safe will bring you in.”
Reel me in like a fish? I step off the shuttle’s bay, into the void.
“Captain Nguyen of Gaia here, Mr. Villafranca.” A Texas drawl crackles in my headset. “You’re doing fine, sir. Just don’t look down.”
“Thanks, captain.” I open my eyes. When had I closed them? Had the captain been able to see that through my faceplate? “I can’t even tell which way down is.”
“An astute observation. At this altitude, planetary gravity is too slight to register on our proprioceptors. But do me the favor of taking a deep breath. Your blood O2 level’s kind of low.”
“Nothing like a good whiff of canned air to put things in perspective.” I look back toward the shuttle. Already I’m several meters away. Another surge of panic. But the origami dove I set free floats beside me. How can that happen when we’re traveling god knows how fast? There. It’s caught in the shoulder joint of my suit. I take one hand off the cable, flick the dove loose. It vanishes from sight.
“Four hundred kilometers,” I whisper.
“Sir?” Nguyen again.
“Trying to remembering how far I am from Earth, captain.”
“Actually, Mr. Villafranca, you’re just over four hundred and seventeen klicks out. Gaia’s slightly below you.”
“So I’m up? And you’re down?” I stare along the cable toward Gaia. Then, beyond her eclipse, I see my home planet in its blue veil of sky.
“Breathe, Mr. Villafranca, breathe.”
I wave to Gaia, to Nguyen, invisibly watching me.
I take my other hand off the cable. I knew I wouldn’t fall, but knowing is one thing, reality is another. There’s no rush of wind to give me the feel of motion. My pressurized suit keeps the emptiness of space at bay. I’m free, free as a bird. I laugh.
“Mr. Villafranca, you all right?” the voice in my headset asks.
I take hold of the anchoring cable again and swung back and forth to give the camera implanted in the back of my head a three-sixty view through the helmet’s dorsal viewport. I’d rehearsed a shooting schedule before leaving the shuttle. Now, on the inspiration of the moment, I twirl, my movements at once constrained by the bulky spacesuit and wonderfully freed from the limitation of gravity.
I kick. Against what? I spin hand over hand, the cable a pole I can vault over.
Now I’m dizzy, a purely emotional reaction. My orientation shouldn’t matter to the flow of blood within my body, should it? I’m cradled by my suit like a child in the womb.
“Mr. Villafranca, you must come aboard.” The voice in the headset. Then softer, like the captain damped the volume without realizing it’s still on, “Jesus, we’ve got ourselves a head case out there.”
“Sorry, captain. It’s just so wonderful. I couldn’t imagine.”
The headset cuts out completely, probably letting Gaia’s captain express himself in ways he doesn’t want transmitted to mission control.
“Yes, Mr. Villafranca, it’s wonderful.” Nguyen’s lost his drawl completely. “But we’ve got two vehicles trying to stay synched at twenty-seven hundred kph, and we don’t want to leave anybody behind. So we’d all appreciate you coming aboard. Pronto.”
“Captain Nguyen, I presume?”
I’m bobbing gently in the microgravity of the Gaia’s closed airlock, helmet unclipped. I reach for the captain’s hand, miss, start to upend. “Sorry. Haven’t got my space legs yet.”
The captain steadies me. “Welcome aboard, Mr. Villafranca.”
“Call me Max. Hope I’m not the worst passenger you’ve had.”
“No, sir, not at all. At least you got your own ass−excuse the language, purely a technical phrase—got across the cable on your own power. There’s been some we had to sedate and haul in.”
“It probably is a nuisance, me dropping in like a tourist.”
“Not a tourist, Mr. Villafranca, that is, Max. A partner. Although you’re the first artist we’ve had on board Gaia. And I’ve got to say, that’s quite a tattoo you’ve got there.”
“Want a closer look? Designed it myself. They had to shave my head for the camera implant so I thought, hey, why not tattoo another face around the camera port?”
I turn. “Smile, captain.” I imagine a click of the tiny shutter, the look on Nguyen’s face as the camera lens nestled within the Cyclops design on the back of my skull winks a picture.
An hour after the 2330 start of the scheduled sleep period, I’m still awake in my sleeping booth. Between my body’s reluctance to adjust to the Coordinated Universal Time of the station and the thrill of being in space, I can’t close my eyes.
The private booths where crew members tether their sleeping bags have viewport coverings to simulate darkness for the sleep cycle’s duration. Nguyen and I had another clash over my window covering, but I’m determined not to black out my view of the planet, the almost hourly sunrise and sunsets. After all, I paid for this view. Now I lay here watching the changing sunlight from the planet’s surface reflect off the sheet of paper I’m folding.
“Head case still awake?” Nguyen’s voice outside my booth, pitched too low for the sleeping crew to hear but loud enough, I suspect deliberately, to carry to my ears.
“Not sure, sir.” The duty’s officer’s voice.
“If he stays awake for the duration he really will go crazy.”
I concentrate on the tiny paper sculpture forming under my fingers. After so many years, the sight of the first downward fold, the resulting triangle, is enough to induce a meditative state. Six more folds, two repeated. I open my fingers, set the bird free. It hovers in the viewport’s frame.
Outside my booth, I hear fragments of the conversation.
“Sir, he’s an artist,” the duty officer says, answering some question of the captain’s that I missed.
“Artist? Have you seen the holos of his so-called art? Dropping whatever those little paper things are—”
“You call it origami, I call it salami.”
“Dropping them into what? Volcanoes? Tsunamis? That one with the tornado gave me the creeps. If I was one of those little birds, I wouldn’t like it one bit.”
“It helps pay the bills, sir.”
“I tell you what, one of these days there’ll be an incident with these tourists we take on board to pay the bills.” Nguyen emphasizes the last words. “And then there’ll be hell to pay.”
Silence. I imagine Nguyen crawling into his own sleeping booth. Well, he only has to put up with me for two weeks. And my next installation will be incredible. Ideas flood my brain like the changing light from my planet-side viewport. I do need to rest, though. I fold another sheet of paper, loose a second dove. It sways in the air current from the HVAC system, hovering beside the first dove, their beaks touching as if they kiss.
In the stillness of the sleeping Gaia, I feel the minute vibrations of my dorsal camera clicking automatically, one a second, every second of the day and night, or what passes for day and night on a space station.
My eyelids are heavy now. “Goodnight, my darlings,” I whisper to the birds.
The next morning, rather the beginning of the next wake cycle, the floating doves greet me. Their paper wings shine in the light of sunrise, or is it sunset? A half dozen of them. Or seven or eight. I count them, then shake my head. Yesterday’s spacewalk must have taken more out of me than I’d realized. I don’t remember making so many.
“Probably folded you in my sleep,” I say to the doves. Why couldn’t I, after so many years of practice?
The puff of air from my breath sets the birds nodding in agreement.
I dress and slip out of the booth. The mild turbulence of my movement sends one of the doves fluttering out into Gaia’s common area.
“Is this yours, Mr. Villafranca?” Nguyen hovers in front of me, holding a paper bird pinched between thumb and forefinger.
He’s determined not to be on a first name basis with me.
I take the bird from the captain’s hand, toss it into my sleeping booth, and shut the door. “Thanks. It must have gotten loose when I opened the door just now.”
I turn back to face Nguyen. A swarm of origami doves surrounds him. He swats them like flies.
“So your crew does origami, too?” I pluck a dove from the captain’s shoulder. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this was one I folded. The exact paper I use.”
“Is this a joke?” Nguyen asks. “These things are all over the Gaia. Herrera found one in his toothpaste container. They’re so thick we can hardly get any work done.”
“Sir, captain, these aren’t mine. I admit, I folded a couple, well, maybe half a dozen or so, last night. That’s all.”
“Mr. Villafranca, you will clean these things out immediately. You are here as a guest, not a prankster. The Gaia has serious work to do.”
I pick another bird out of the air. “Captain, I did not turn all these birds loose. Obviously, someone from your crew got into my private quarters last night, took out a pack of my paper—”
Nguyen’s cold as space glare stops me.
I gather a dozen tiny paper birds in my arms and turn back to my booth to shove them inside.
“They’re garbage, Mr. Villafranca. Get a bag from the locker, gather all of these things, and put them in the airlock for disposal. That’s an order.”
The whole crew had to be in on the joke, I realize. They have to be, to have folded so many birds overnight. All except Nguyen, unless the captain is a better actor than he appears to be.
I spend most of the wake cycle capturing and bundling every bird, hundreds of them, into the Gaia’s closed airlock. But except for the loss of my stock of origami paper, I can almost forgive the crew for their prank. The pictures will be terrific. Especially those of Nguyen covered in fluttering paper birds. In fact, the captain’s annoyance is probably a good thing. It seems to make him forget about the camera implanted in the back of my skull. He’s acting a lot less restrained than when I first arrived.
It isn’t until the next sleep cycle that I have time to check my pack of origami paper. It’s full except for the two sheets I remember using last night. Did the crew bring their own paper? But the birds I bagged were made out of the same brand of paper I use, the handmade paper specially stocked by my supplier. I’ll have to save those garbage bags of birds from being jettisoned, get them back planetside and check every one to figure out how they managed it.
I barricade the door of my sleeping booth. That should stop any more pranks. I pull a single sheet of paper from my stock and fold. Just one folded bird, to help me sleep.
I wake from a nightmare of being suffocated. Only it’s not a dream. I’m enveloped in a dense, crackling cloud. I spit out a wad of paper; brush more from my face, my eyes. I open my mouth to scream, to gasp for breath. A flood of wadded paper pours in. Not just wadded paper. My god, it’s paper birds, origami birds just like mine. They press against me, jabbing me with the sharp points of their beaks, their wings. They’re killing me. Why, why, what have I done?
I cup my hands over my face to keep them out of my nose and mouth. The mass of paper covering me fills every crevice in the sleeping booth. I kick. My feet strike the closed door. There’s an answering thud from outside.
“Villafranca, open up!”
The door bursts open.
They’ve drugged me. That’s the only explanation. They coaxed me on board to take my money. Now they’re tired of me, they want to get rid of me. How many other passengers have they done this to?
“Psychotic break, you think? Guy should never have been taken on board.” It’s Nguyen and the Gaia’s medic, talking softly, like they think I can’t hear them, can’t understand what they’re doing.
I try to move. Nothing.
“How long would you say it’s been since he slept?”
“Days, from the looks of him. Maybe even from before he got on the shuttle.”
But I did sleep. They can’t possibly think I sat up night after night folding birds. That’s crazy. I lie still. As long as I keep my eyes closed, they’ll think I’m unconscious. Let them. There’s nothing wrong with me. They can’t make me think I’m crazy. While they had me drugged, the birds told me what’s going on, what needs to be done. All I need to do now is find the proof and photograph it. The camera hidden inside my head will tell the story.
“Think we can keep him calm until the next shuttle rendezvous?” Nguyen asks. “How he managed to bring so much paper on board beats me. We don’t want to take a chance of him getting hold of it again. Might have killed himself.”
“By choking himself on paper? Seems a weird way to off yourself, if you ask me. Hold on, I think he’s coming to.”
I open my eyes, try to sit up. I scream, but only a whisper comes from between my lips. “I can’t move. Why can’t I move? Why can’t I move?”
“It’s okay, Mr. Villafranca.” The medic smiles his professional smile. “You had a shock. Takes a while for all systems to come back online.”
“I don’t have systems. I’m a person, a human being. You think because I’ve got a camera imbedded in my brain—”
I curl my fingers, uncurl them. “Yeah. That’s good. What did you do?”
“Nothing. You did it. Like I said, it just took some time.”
“So, I’m all right?”
“Try sitting up. Feel dizzy?”
“Micrograv does that sometimes. Take it easy for the rest of the day.” Medic and captain exchange glances.
“When’s the return shuttle due?” I ask. Clearly, I’m not safe around Nguyen. He’s had it in for me from the first.
“It’s Tuesday already?”
“Tomorrow’s Sunday, sir.”
“Sunday? Is that the regular shuttle? It can’t be. My god, how did that happen? You’ve had me unconscious for days?”
“You just lost track of time, sir. It’s easy to do up here.”
I close my eyes. So, I only have tonight to accomplish my task. The one the birds have set for me.
“Thanks, doc,” I say. “That’s reassuring. Real reassuring.”
What are they trying to hide? I have the proof of what they’ve done, have it in my camera’s memory. They’ve forgotten that. Or have they? Maybe they removed the memory chip while they had me sedated. It takes every bit of will power I have not to scream at the thought.
I have to examine those garbage bags in the airlock, the ones holding the origami; examine them before the Gaia jettisons the evidence. I’ll need to bring back samples to prove my claims.
When Gaia’s lights dim at last for the sleep cycle, I peek from my booth, its door now removed. The duty officer’s back is turned. I slip into the airlock. There are so many bags of garbage. There, there were the ones I want. I rip the bags open.
The birds burst free. I try to contain them, but they elude me. They fill the airlock, pressing against every surface. They must have been multiplying while they were in the bags, even while they seemed to wait patiently within the garbage hold. They want more room. That’s it. They were angry at me for confining them. They want to be free. I have to help them fly free.
I struggle against the relentless pressure of the birds, feel for the airlock’s controls, find them. The outer hatch of the airlock opens. The birds burst out, exploding into the vacuum.
Poised on the outer threshold of the airlock, I watch them leave the Gaia behind. They’re a glittering cloud hovering above the rotating planet. I turn, backward, forward, feel the camera’s vibration. Surely it’s working. I hope the memory chip will survive to witness this last flight of my little birds. They’re so beautiful. So very−