Death of a Spaceman

by Walter M. Miller

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The manner in which a man has lived is often the key to the way he will die. Take old man Donegal, for example. Most of his adult life was spent in digging a hole through space to learn what was on the other side. Would he go out the same way?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Old Donegal was dying. They had all known it was coming, and they watched it come--his haggard wife, his daughter, and now his grandson, home on emergency leave from the pre-astronautics academy. Old Donegal knew it too, and had known it from the beginning, when he had begun to lose control of his legs and was forced to walk with a cane. But most of the time, he pretended to let them keep the secret they shared with the doctors--that the operations had all been failures, and that the cancer that fed at his spine would gnaw its way brainward until the paralysis engulfed vital organs, and then Old Donegal would cease to be. It would be cruel to let them know that he knew. Once, weeks ago, he had joked about the approaching shadows.

“Buy the plot back where people won’t walk over it, Martha,” he said.

“Get it way back under the cedars--next to the fence. There aren’t many graves back there yet. I want to be alone.”

“Don’t talk that way, Donny!” his wife had choked. “You’re not dying.”

His eyes twinkled maliciously. “Listen, Martha, I want to be buried face-down. I want to be buried with my back to space, understand? Don’t let them lay me out like a lily.”

“Donny, please!”

“They oughta face a man the way he’s headed,” Donegal grunted. “I been up--way up. Now I’m going straight down.”

Martha had fled from the room in tears. He had never done it again, except to the interns and nurses, who, while they insisted that he was going to get well, didn’t mind joking with him about it.

Martha can bear my death, he thought, can bear pre-knowledge of it. But she couldn’t bear thinking that he might take it calmly. If he accepted death gracefully, it would be like deliberately leaving her, and Old Donegal had decided to help her believe whatever would be comforting to her in such a troublesome moment.

“When’ll they let me out of this bed again?” he complained.

“Be patient, Donny,” she sighed. “It won’t be long. You’ll be up and around before you know it.”

“Back on the moon-run, maybe?” he offered. “Listen, Martha, I been planet-bound too long. I’m not too old for the moon-run, am I? Sixty-three’s not so old.”

That had been carrying things too far. She knew he was hoaxing, and dabbed at her eyes again. The dead must humor the mourners, he thought, and the sick must comfort the visitors. It was always so.

But it was harder, now that the end was near. His eyes were hazy, and his thoughts unclear. He could move his arms a little, clumsily, but feeling was gone from them. The rest of his body was lost to him. Sometimes he seemed to feel his stomach and his hips, but the sensation was mostly an illusion offered by higher nervous centers, like the

“ghost-arm” that an amputee continues to feel. The wires were down, and he was cut off from himself.

He lay wheezing on the hospital bed, in his own room, in his own rented flat. Gaunt and unshaven, gray as winter twilight, he lay staring at the white net curtains that billowed gently in the breeze from the open window. There was no sound in the room but the sound of breathing and the loud ticking of an alarm clock. Occasionally he heard a chair scraping on the stone terrace next door, and the low mutter of voices, sometimes laughter, as the servants of the Keith mansion arranged the terrace for late afternoon guests.

With considerable effort, he rolled his head toward Martha who sat beside the bed, pinch-faced and weary.

“You ought to get some sleep,” he said.

“I slept yesterday. Don’t talk, Donny. It tires you.”

“You ought to get more sleep. You never sleep enough. Are you afraid I’ll get up and run away if you go to sleep for a while?”

She managed a brittle smile. “There’ll be plenty of time for sleep when ... when you’re well again.” The brittle smile fled and she swallowed hard, like swallowing a fish-bone. He glanced down, and noticed that she was squeezing his hand spasmodically.

There wasn’t much left of the hand, he thought. Bones and ugly tight-stretched hide spotted with brown. Bulging knuckles with yellow cigaret stains. My hand. He tried to tighten it, tried to squeeze Martha’s thin one in return. He watched it open and contract a little, but it was like operating a remote-control mechanism. Goodbye, hand, you’re leaving me the way my legs did, he told it. I’ll see you again in hell. How hammy can you get, Old Donegal? You maudlin ass.

“Requiescat,” he muttered over the hand, and let it lie in peace.

Perhaps she heard him. “Donny,” she whispered, leaning closer, “won’t you let me call the priest now? Please.”

He rattled a sigh and rolled his head toward the window again. “Are the Keiths having a party today?” he asked. “Sounds like they’re moving chairs out on the terrace.”

“Please, Donny, the priest?”

He let his head roll aside and closed his eyes, as if asleep. The bed shook slightly as she quickly caught at his wrist to feel for a pulse.

“If I’m not dying, I don’t need a priest,” he said sleepily.

“That’s not right,” she scolded softly. “You know that’s not right, Donny. You know better.”

Maybe I’m being too rough on her? he wondered. He hadn’t minded getting baptized her way, and married her way, and occasionally priest-handled the way she wanted him to when he was home from a space-run, but when it came to dying, Old Donegal wanted to do it his own way.

He opened his eyes at the sound of a bench being dragged across the stone terrace. “Martha, what kind of a party are the Keiths having today?”

“I wouldn’t know,” she said stiffly. “You’d think they’d have a little more respect. You’d think they’d put it off a few days.”


“Until you feel better.”

“I feel fine, Martha. I like parties. I’m glad they’re having one. Pour me a drink, will you? I can’t reach the bottle anymore.”

“It’s empty.”

“No, it isn’t, Martha, it’s still a quarter full. I know. I’ve been watching it.”

“You shouldn’t have it, Donny. Please don’t.”

“But this is a party, Martha. Besides, the doctor says I can have whatever I want. Whatever I want, you hear? That means I’m getting well, doesn’t it?”

“Sure, Donny, sure. Getting well.”

“The whiskey, Martha. Just a finger in a tumbler, no more. I want to feel like it’s a party.”

Her throat was rigid as she poured it. She helped him get the tumbler to his mouth. The liquor seared his throat, and he gagged a little as the fumes clogged his nose. Good whiskey, the best--but he couldn’t take it any more. He eyed the green stamp on the neck of the bottle on the bed-table and grinned. He hadn’t had whiskey like that since his space-days. Couldn’t afford it now, not on a blastman’s pension.

He remembered how he and Caid used to smuggle a couple of fifths aboard for the moon-run. If they caught you, it meant suspension, but there was no harm in it, not for the blastroom men who had nothing much to do from the time the ship acquired enough velocity for the long, long coaster ride until they started the rockets again for Lunar landing. You could drink a fifth, jettison the bottle through the trash lock, and sober up before you were needed again. It was the only way to pass the time in the cramped cubicle, unless you ruined your eyes trying to read by the glow-lamps. Old Donegal chuckled. If he and Caid had stayed on the run, Earth would have a ring by now, like Saturn--a ring of Old Granddad bottles.

“You said it, Donny-boy,” said the misty man by the billowing curtains.

“Who else knows the gegenschein is broken glass?”

Donegal laughed. Then he wondered what the man was doing there. The man was lounging against the window, and his unzipped space rig draped about him in an old familiar way. Loose plug-in connections and hose-ends dangled about his lean body. He was freckled and grinning.

“Caid,” Old Donegal breathed softly.

“What did you say, Donny?” Martha answered.

Old Donegal blinked hard and shook his head. Something let go with a soggy snap, and the misty man was gone. I’d better take it easy on the whiskey, he thought. You got to wait, Donegal, old lush, until Nora and Ken get here. You can’t get drunk until they’re gone, or you might get them mixed up with memories like Caid’s.

Car doors slammed in the street below. Martha glanced toward the window.

“Think it’s them? I wish they’d get here. I wish they’d hurry.”

Martha arose and tiptoed to the window. She peered down toward the sidewalk, put on a sharp frown. He heard a distant mutter of voices and occasional laughter, with group-footsteps milling about on the sidewalk. Martha murmured her disapproval and closed the window.

“Leave it open,” he said.

“But the Keiths’ guests are starting to come. There’ll be such a racket.” She looked at him hopefully, the way she did when she prompted his manners before company came.

Maybe it wasn’t decent to listen in on a party when you were dying, he thought. But that wasn’t the reason. Donegal, your chamber-pressure’s dropping off. Your brains are in your butt-end, where a spacer’s brains belong, but your butt-end died last month. She wants the window closed for her own sake, not yours.

“Leave it closed,” he grunted. “But open it again before the moon-run blasts off. I want to listen.”

She smiled and nodded, glancing at the clock. “It’ll be an hour and a half yet. I’ll watch the time.”

“I hate that clock. I wish you’d throw it out. It’s loud.”

“It’s your medicine-clock, Donny.” She came back to sit down at his bedside again. She sat in silence. The clock filled the room with its clicking pulse.

“What time are they coming?” he asked.

“Nora and Ken? They’ll be here soon. Don’t fret.”

“Why should I fret?” He chuckled. “That boy--he’ll be a good spacer, won’t he, Martha?”

Martha said nothing, fanned at a fly that crawled across his pillow. The fly buzzed up in an angry spiral and alighted on the ceiling. Donegal watched it for a time. The fly had natural-born space-legs. I know your tricks, he told it with a smile, and I learned to walk on the bottomside of things before you were a maggot. You stand there with your magnasoles hanging to the hull, and the rest of you’s in free fall. You jerk a sole loose, and your knee flies up to your belly, and reaction spins you half-around and near throws your other hip out of joint if you don’t jam the foot down fast and jerk up the other. It’s worse’n trying to run through knee-deep mud with snow-shoes, and a man’ll go nuts trying to keep his arms and legs from taking off in odd directions. I know your tricks, fly. But the fly was born with his magnasoles, and he trotted across the ceiling like Donegal never could.

“That boy Ken--he ought to make a damn good space-engineer,” wheezed the old man.

Her silence was long, and he rolled his head toward her again. Her lips tight, she stared down at the palm of his hand, unfolded his bony fingers, felt the cracked calluses that still welted the shrunken skin, calluses worn there by the linings of space gauntlets and the handles of fuel valves, and the rungs of get-about ladders during free fall.

“I don’t know if I should tell you,” she said.

“Tell me what, Martha?”

She looked up slowly, scrutinizing his face. “Ken’s changed his mind, Nora says. Ken doesn’t like the academy. She says he wants to go to medical school.”

Old Donegal thought it over, nodded absently. “That’s fine. Space-medics get good pay.” He watched her carefully.

She lowered her eyes, rubbed at his calluses again. She shook her head slowly. “He doesn’t want to go to space.”

The clock clicked loudly in the closed room.

“I thought I ought to tell you, so you won’t say anything to him about it,” she added.

Old Donegal looked grayer than before. After a long silence, he rolled his head away and looked toward the limp curtains.

“Open the window, Martha,” he said.

Her tongue clucked faintly as she started to protest, but she said nothing. After frozen seconds, she sighed and went to open it. The curtains billowed, and a babble of conversation blew in from the terrace of the Keith mansion. With the sound came the occasional brassy discord of a musician tuning his instrument. She clutched the window-sash as if she wished to slam it closed again.

“Well! Music!” grunted Old Donegal. “That’s good. This is some shebang. Good whiskey and good music and you.” He chuckled, but it choked off into a fit of coughing.

“Donny, about Ken--”

“No matter, Martha,” he said hastily. “Space-medic’s pay is good.”

“But, Donny--” She turned from the window, stared at him briefly, then said, “Sure, Donny, sure,” and came back to sit down by his bed.

He smiled at her affectionately. She was a man’s woman, was Martha--always had been, still was. He had married her the year he had gone to space--a lissome, wistful, old-fashioned lass, with big violet eyes and gentle hands and gentle thoughts--and she had never complained about the long and lonely weeks between blast-off and glide-down, when most spacers’ wives listened to the psychiatrists and soap-operas and soon developed the symptoms that were expected of them, either because the symptoms were chic, or because they felt they should do something to earn the pity that was extended to them. “It’s not so bad,” Martha had assured him. “The house keeps me busy till Nora’s home from school, and then there’s a flock of kids around till dinner. Nights are a little empty, but if there’s a moon, I can always go out on the porch and look at it and know where you are. And Nora gets out the telescope you built her, and we make a game of it. ‘Seeing if Daddy’s still at the office,’ she calls it.”

“Those were the days,” he muttered.

“What, Donny?”

“Do you remember that Steve Farran song?”

She paused, frowning thoughtfully. There were a lot of Steve Farran songs, but after a moment she picked the right one, and sang it softly...

“O moon whereo’er the clouds fly,

Beyond the willow tree,

There is a ramblin’ space guy

I wish you’d save for me.

Mare Tranquillitatis,

O dark and tranquil sea,

Until he drops from heaven,

Rest him there with thee...”

Her voice cracked, and she laughed. Old Donegal chuckled weakly.

“Fried mush,” he said. “That one made the cats wilt their ears and wail at the moon.

“I feel real crazy,” he added. “Hand me the king kong, fluff-muff.”

“Keep cool, Daddy-O, you’ve had enough.” Martha reddened and patted his arm, looking pleased. Neither of them had talked that way, even in the old days, but the out-dated slang brought back memories--school parties, dances at the Rocketport Club, the early years of the war when Donegal had jockeyed an R-43 fighter in the close-space assaults against the Soviet satellite project. The memories were good.

A brassy blare of modern “slide” arose suddenly from the Keith terrace as the small orchestra launched into its first number. Martha caught an angry breath and started toward the window.

“Leave it,” he said. “It’s a party. Whiskey, Martha. Please--just a small one.”

She gave him a hurtful glance.

“Whiskey. Then you can call the priest.”

“Donny, it’s not right. You know it’s not right--to bargain for such as that.”

“All right. Whiskey. Forget the priest.”

She poured it for him, and helped him get it down, and then went out to make the phone-call. Old Donegal lay shuddering over the whiskey taste and savoring the burn in his throat. Jesus, but it was good.

You old bastard, he thought, you got no right to enjoy life when nine-tenths of you is dead already, and the rest is foggy as a thermal dust-rise on the lunar maria at hell-dawn. But it wasn’t a bad way to die. It ate your consciousness away from the feet up; it gnawed away the Present, but it let you keep the Past, until everything faded and blended. Maybe that’s what Eternity was, he thought--one man’s subjective Past, all wrapped up and packaged for shipment, a single space-time entity, a one-man microcosm of memories, when nothing else remains.

“If I’ve got a soul, I made it myself,” he told the gray nun at the foot of his bed.

The nun held out a pie pan, rattled a few coins in it. “Contribute to the Radiation Victims’ Relief?” the nun purred softly.

“I know you,” he said. “You’re my conscience. You hang around the officers’ mess, and when we get back from a sortie, you make us pay for the damage we did. But that was forty years ago.”

The nun smiled, and her luminous eyes were on him softly. “Mother of God!” he breathed, and reached for the whiskey. His arm obeyed. The last drink had done him good. He had to watch his hand to see where it was going, and squeezed the neck until his fingers whitened so that he knew that he had it, but he got it off the table and onto his chest, and he got the cork out with his teeth. He had a long pull at the bottle, and it made his eyes water and his hands grow weak. But he got it back to the table without spilling a bit, and he was proud of himself.

The room was spinning like the cabin of a gyro-gravved ship. By the time he wrestled it to a standstill, the nun was gone. The blare of music from the Keith terrace was louder, and laughing voices blended with it. Chairs scraping and glasses rattling. A fine party, Keith, I’m glad you picked today. This shebang would be the younger Keith’s affair. Ronald Tonwyler Keith, III, scion of Orbital Engineering and Construction Company--builders of the moon-shuttle ships that made the run from the satellite station to Luna and back.

It’s good to have such important neighbors, he thought. He wished he had been able to meet them while he was still up and about. But the Keiths’ place was walled-in, and when a Keith came out, he charged out in a limousine with a chauffeur at the wheel, and the iron gate closed again. The Keiths built the wall when the surrounding neighborhood began to grow shabby with age. It had once been the best of neighborhoods, but that was before Old Donegal lived in it. Now it consisted of sooty old houses and rented flats, and the Keith place was really not a part of it anymore. Nevertheless, it was really something when a pensioned blastman could say, “I live out close to the Keiths--you know, the Ronald Keiths.” At least, that’s what Martha always told him.

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