3 - Bitter Tang

When the phone call came, the staff at the Orange Blossom Palliative Facility tried not to get excited. The hospice had been home to several notable figures in their final days, but none of them had warranted a phone call from the White House. As much as the staff wanted to be around to eavesdrop, they recognised that this was a moment they could not intrude on and left the patient to have his conversation with the president in private.

This was the fourth US President that Captain Steve Powell had spoken to in his lifetime. The first had been on his return to earth, when Powell had been proclaimed a national hero simply for not dying. The second had been during a child literacy program in the 1980s, the third during a Celebrity Golf tournament and now this guy, whose name Steve couldn’t even recall. Luckily, protocol dictated that he didn’t require this particular piece of information.

“Mr President,” he croaked, “thank you for calling.”

“It’s my honor, Captain Powell. I’m just sorry that it has to be under these circumstances.”

“Well, there’s nothing either of us can do about that, sir.”

“No, I suppose not,” the President said. “Are they taking good care of you down there?”

“Yes sir. They’re taking real good care of me.” It was a bland thing to say, but Powell had little choice. He had acute pancreatic cancer and the only thing the staff could do was manage his pain with blessed morphine. 

“I’m glad to hear it,” the President said, before switching gears to the official business of the day. “I wanted to take this opportunity to thank you for your service to NASA, the United States of America and the entire planet. Your courage was and will continue to be an inspiration to all and a lesson that one should never give up hope.”

“Thank you sir, that’s very kind of you.”

“I was in college when the mission took place and I can tell you that everyone, no matter what their beliefs or politics, was shocked and saddened by the loss of Lt. Jameson and were praying for the rest of you to come home safely.”

Steve closed his eyes and tried not to groan. Even on his deathbed, there was no getting away from the spectre of Jim Jameson, the first American to die in space. Steve had lived in the shadow of his passing ever since the mission.

“I can’t imagine how scary that must have been for you all,” the President continued, “to lose a crew member like that.”

Steve felt his heart pounding and tried to calm himself with a deep breath. A doctor - presumably monitoring his pulse on the EKG - looked in through the window, but Steve waved him away. 

“Such a tragedy,” the President mused, “but the way you rallied the crew and returned to earth, well, it was one of the formative moments in American history. Through your actions, you inspired many acts of courage and you showed a generation that no matter how bad an accident may-“

“It wasn’t an accident,” Powell said.

The President, usually so sure of himself, was momentarily flummoxed. 

“Excuse me? I don’t think I heard you correctly.”

“Mr President, I punctured Jim’s suit so he’d lose air pressure on the space-walk. It wasn’t a mistake. I did it on purpose and I had a dozen chances to stop him before he walked through that airlock.”

“Captain Powell, are you telling me that you deliberately sabotaged Lt Jameson’s equipment? That you were responsible for his death?”

“Yes sir. I murdered him, just as sure as if I’d shot him in the head.”

It felt good to say it out loud. Steve had often wondered what it might be like to tell someone about what he had done, but never thought he would get the opportunity. It always seemed like too big a secret, with consequences that would reverberate through history. Now that Steve was on his deathbed and staring into the abyss, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. 

“I suppose I’m telling you because I thought someone should know and I don’t have anyone else to tell. None of my wives speak to me any more and my kids know what a rotten father I was, so… well, you’re it.”

“Is this a joke?” the President asked. “Because if it is, I think it’s in very poor taste and I fail to see the humor in it.”

“No sir, it’s the god’s honest truth,” Steve said. “I wish I could tell you I had a good reason, but the truth is that Jim was a prick and I thought the world would be a better place without him.”

It was a long time until the President spoke again.

“Well… obviously, I’m shocked,” he said. “Shocked and appalled. Not just morally, but on an operational level as well. I was under the impression they gave you guys rigorous psychological testing and whatnot.”

“They do, sir. They did. But I guess they didn’t ask the right questions, because nobody ever suspected a thing.”

The President cleared his throat.

“And… uh… what exactly do you expect me to do with this information, Captain Powell?”

“Frankly, Mr President, I don’t give a damn,” Steve said, before letting out a sharp bark of laughter and hanging up the phone.

The President hadn’t heard a dial tone in quite some time. He put the phone down and sat at his desk, pondering what to do next. After a minute of contemplation, he decided that it must have been a prank, a piece of delusional hijinks from a man who had seen the stars up close and perhaps become a little dazzled by them. The President took an executive decision to pretend the conversation hadn’t happened. 

Meanwhile, in an air-conditioned room in Florida, an EKG reached the end of its countdown. Not for the first time, but certainly for the last, Steve Powell took his leave of planet earth.