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The Last Laugh

Dmitry Leonovich Tiomkin had known fear before but this was different. The unspoken terror that had never been allowed to figure in the contingency plans was now all too real. He switched off the last taped transmission from Star City and gazed out of the observation port of Soyuz ‘Mir’; the swirling smoke and drifting ash were confirmation enough. After three weeks the continual build-up of radiation had reached all corners of the globe, crops dying from the stripped-away ozone layer, tidal waves erasing coastal populations.

Moscow had been the first city razed in the madness that heralded the break-up of the new – much vaunted – Commonwealth of Independent States. The Black Sea fleet had been the trigger, resisting Putin’s attempts to mend what was at best a torn and rotten facade. He could only guess at what had been the cause of the ‘domino effect’ that then swept the world. Azerbaijan and Armenia again? Multi-warheads straying onto Chinese soil? Ayatollahs seizing their chance for a crack at Israel, with the United States wielding their usual big stick?

He rubbed his face wearily, wiping away the tears. Somehow the grief for his own Tatiana and little Mischa in the burnt-out shell of Kiev seemed an indulgence now. Countless millions were perishing in conditions much worse than Chernobyl. He prayed his family’s end had been swift, his own demise less so but with a certainty his on-board computer could calculate to the hour. The marvels of science! Tears began again as his imagination tried to push the realities aside.

Sure, he could live up here for another eight months, if he didn’t become too active and the air scrubbers kept functioning and he didn’t throw up every time he sucked on the same-taste pap that passed for a meal.

He turned away in despair. How long before he began to smell himself and started talking? Then the self-analysis and the smashing-things-up bit. How long, Dmitry, before you just open the hatch and see what happens?

He rose and went to the observation port. Soon be moving into temporary night again, and then the scene so far below would change dramatically – the smoking cinder glowing across most of its land masses a frightening testimony if needed that Man’s unique talent for self-destruction had finally achieved its destiny – Armageddon.

He looked at the last dying embers of what had been a thriving, fertile planet and thought of the sheer futility of his own existence; everything – education, career, marriage, this mission even – had been planned by somebody else. And now, as ever, another’s decision had left him abandonded here in sterile space. Why did it have to be an orbital mission instead of a landing? This unremitting reminder of his lost world, day and night, was a horror he knew he could no longer endure. They said they would get him down somehow, knowing it was impossible on his own. Fine in theory but even a prisoner in the deepest dungeon could expect a visit from the jailer once in awhile, the drip of water, the scurry of a rat. Those little random movements that said he was not entirely, irrevocably, alone. But the sheer predictability of this,the canned music he knew by heart, the micro-filmed favourite books that were now less than favoured. Was this it…till…till?…

His head came up slowly and his eyes lost some of their defeat. “No!” he said aloud. “Not this time. For once I will decide my destiny, if it’s the last thing I do.” He levered himself up and went to the drugs cabinet. Inside were all the pharmaceutical aids known to space medicine – crisis control, concentration uppers, sleep. He selected a small phial of green capsules bearing the legend : MORPHINE. ONLY WHEN PAIN THRESHOLD IS PASSED. NEVER MORE THAN TWO AT ANY GIVEN TIME.

He smiled grimly at the last two words. What an epitaph! He spilled them all onto his palm and swallowed them before settling back in his seat. At first nothing, and then his surroundings began to blur; he felt a great heaviness in his limbs and waves of deep, deep darkness started to wash over him. As the stunning effect of the drug took hold he closed his eyes gratefully. Tatiana…Mischa…not long now, I’m coming. He felt himself slipping away.

A thudding inside his head. He moaned and tried to shake it off but it only grew louder and louder.  Reluctantly he opened his eyes and tried to focus on something, take his mind off the noise, before his brain shut down completely.

There was a face at the port – a face inside a helmet but unmistakably a woman’s. She was hammering on the glass and pointing to the docking hatch. On her helmet the stars and stripes.

He started to laugh…

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