THE DEAD ASTRONAUT
By J. G. BALLARD
CAPE KENNEDY has gone now, its gantries rising from the deserted dunes. Sand has come in across the Banana River, filling the creeks and turning the old space complex into a wilderness of swamps and broken concrete. In the summer, hunters build their blinds in the wrecked staff cars; but by early November, when Judith and I arrived, the entire area was abandoned. Beyond Cocoa Beach, where I stopped the car, the ruined motels were half hidden in the saw grass. The launching towers rose into the evening air like the rusting ciphers of some forgotten algebra of the sky.
"The perimeter fence is half a mile ahead," I said. "We'll wait here until it's dark. Do you feel better now?"
Judith was staring at an immense funnel of cerise cloud that seemed to draw the day with it below the horizon, taking the light from her faded blonde hair. The previous afternoon, in the hotel in Tampa, she had fallen ill briefly with some unspecified complaint.
"What about the money?" she asked. "They may want more, now that we're here."
"Five thousand dollars? Ample, Judith. These relic hunters are a dying breed – few people are interested in Cape Kennedy any longer. What's the matter?"
Her thin fingers were fretting at the collar of her suede jacket. "I… it's just that perhaps I should have worn black."
"Why? Judith, this isn't a funeral. For heaven's sake, Robert died twenty years ago. I know all he meant to us, but…"
Judith was staring at the debris of tires and abandoned cars, her pale eyes becalmed in her drawn face. "Philip, don't you understand, he's coming back now. Someone's got to be here. The memorial service over the radio was a horrible travesty – my God, that priest would have had a shock if Robert had talked back to him. There ought to be a full?scale committee, not just you and I and these empty night clubs."
In a firmer voice, I said: "Judith, there would be a committee – if we told the NASA Foundation what we know. The remains would be interred in the NASA vault at Arlington, there'd be a band – even the President might be there. There's still time."
I waited for her to reply, but she was watching the gantries fade into the night sky. Fifteen years ago, when the dead astronaut orbiting the earth in his burned?out capsule had been forgotten, Judith had constituted herself a memorial committee of one. Perhaps, in a few days, when she finally held the last relics of Robert Hamilton's body in her own hands, she would come to terms with her obsession.
"Philip, over there! Is that –"
High in the western sky, between the constellations Cepheus arid Cassiopeia, a point of white light moved toward us, like a lost star searching for its zodiac. Within a few minutes, it passed overhead, its faint beacon setting behind the cirrus over the sea.
"It's all right, Judith." I showed her the trajectory timetables penciled into my diary. "The relic hunters read these orbits off the sky better than any computer. They must have been watching the pathways for years."
"Who was it?"
"A Russian woman pilot – Valentina Prokrovna. She was sent up from a site near the Urals twenty?five years ago to work on a television relay system."
"Television? I hope they enjoyed the program."
This callous remark, uttered by Judith as she stepped from the car, made me realize once again her special motives for coming to Cape Kennedy. I watched the capsule of the dead woman disappear over the dark Atlantic stream, as always moved by the tragic but serene spectacle of one of these ghostly voyagers coming back after so many years from the tideways of space. All I knew of this dead Russian was her code name: Seagull. Yet, for some reason, I was glad to be there as she came down. Judith, on the other hand, felt nothing of this. During all the years she had sat in the garden in the cold evenings, too tired to bring herself to bed, she had been sustained by her concern for one only of the 12 dead astronauts orbiting the night sky.
As she waited, her back to the sea, I drove the car into the garage of an abandoned night club 50 yards from the road. From the trunk I took out two suitcases. One, a light travel case, contained clothes for Judith and myself. The other, fitted with a foil inlay, reinforcing straps and a second handle, was empty.
We set off north toward the perimeter fence, like two late visitors arriving at a resort abandoned years earlier.
It was 20 years now since the last rockets had left their launching platforms at Cape Kennedy. At the time, NASA had already moved Judith and me – I was a senior flight programmer – to the great new Planetary Space Complex in New Mexico. Shortly after our arrival, we had met one of the trainee astronauts, Robert Hamilton. After two decades, all I could remember of this overpolite but sharp?eyed young man was his albino skin, so like Judith's pale eyes and opal hair, the same cold gene that crossed them both with its arctic pallor. We had been close friends for barely six weeks. Judith's infa