“—And when they came to find him the next morning, the only thing left was his head. Oooooooh!”
“Having fun in there, Pete?” Carol asked.
“Yes, I am making the best fun with myself!” Pete’s voice came through the transceiver in her spacesuit with a thick Russian accent. Carol rolled her eyes. He was laying on the accent for comedic effect—Pyotr Ivanovitch Kuznetsov could speak nearly perfect English when he felt like it, and six more languages besides, including Mandarin. He was the only person on the space station fully proficient in everyone’s native language, which was a blessing on the one hand because having him there made communication that much easier, but on the other hand he also never shut up and none of the crew-mates could escape his chatter.
For her part, Carol had decided that she liked him, right at the beginning. And when Carol Seppanen decided things, she decided things. After all, she was obligated to spend six months of her life in close quarters with him, and as her grandmother used to say, you had better learn to enjoy the unavoidable. This attitude had carried her far—from visits to the orthodontist, to the rigors of grad school and basic training, all the way up through the stratosphere, where few men (and even fewer women) had gone before.
Carol moved slowly and deliberately, carefully manipulating her instruments to replace and adjust the sensors in the panel in front of her. Pete continued to make ghost noises and moved on to singing a creepy children’s song that Carol supposed was the Russian equivalent of “Have you Seen the Ghost of John?” But she ignored it. While she was out on a spacewalk working on equipment the only thing that existed was whatever she was working on. She had to shut the rest of it out—she couldn’t work and watch the earth rolling 240 miles beneath her as the space station hurtled around it at 4.76 miles per second without getting vertigo. So, when she was working on the panel, that panel was her whole world.
But when she was done, she always took a moment to turn around, and take a good long look at the actual whole world—everyone’s whole world. This time was no different. After she had closed the panel, she waved to the camera she had just repaired, and turned around to get a good look at the tiny blue dot. Although from her perspective it was still a very, very big blue dot, but she could see around it, to all the space beyond that wasn’t it. And she thought, for all our errors and imperfections, it was incredible to see how far humans had come and imagine how much further they might go.
It was almost like being God, seeing the earth below her like that. She thought how it really wasn’t that long ago that people would point to the sky and speak of heaven, up there somewhere. How they seemed to think that when people died, their souls went up and up. And now here she was, floating in the heavens–an angel with a jetpack for wings, a saint canonized by rocket-fuel.
“Hey—Seppanen! How is it going?” Pete’s voice coming over the Comm interrupted Carol’s daydream.
“I’m finished, just taking in the view a little before I come in.”
“Ok but hurry up! If you take too long the space ghosts will eat me. I will just be floating head when you get back.”
“Oh, don’t worry. The ghosts can’t get you. It’s too cold out here. Don’t you know they freeze solid in the cold?”
“…” There was a crackling pause over the radio.
“What? Ghosts freeze? Is this some American thing?”
Carol laughed. It was something her father used to say. When she was small, they had a cabin in Northern Minnesota they would visit during vacations. One summer, when she was about five her sister had told her a story around the campfire at the cabin about a young woman who had drowned herself in the lake, and whose ghost now lingered in the water, waiting to drag anyone who got too close down to the bottom never to be seen again. The winter that followed was the first time her father took her out with him to go ice fishing. And when he began twisting the auger into the ice she had started to cry, because she was afraid the ghost would pop out of the hole and drag him down it.
But her father had just winked at her, and said, “Don’t you know, ghosts freeze in the cold? She can’t come out, she’s frozen solid at the bottom.”
Carol took one last look at the Earth, looking for the outline of the Great Lakes and Minnesota beside them. But it was on the other side of the world, and all she could make out was the Sinai Peninsula and the glittering lights of the cities built all the way down the length of the Nile. And as she turned to make her way towards the airlock, she thought about frozen ghosts, and souls flying to heaven, and floating in above the Earth. She wondered, when souls die, do they fly into the cold darkness of space, and frozen solid hurl themselves into a bleak oblivion for all eternity? What a way to go.
But of course, she was mixing science with superstition, and these were not serious conjectures. But still, the thoughts lingered in her brain. Distracted, she pushed too hard and lost her grip on the next handle, catapulting up and away from the station. She gasped in sudden terror, and her heart caught in her throat, but only for a moment. She was safely hitched and her free-flying was cut short with a hard tug when the tether reached its limit.
“Hey! You ok?” Pete’s voice dropped in on the transceiver.
“Yeah, sorry. I’m fine. Just slipped. Pulling myself in now.”
But she drifted, for a moment, weightless, floating like a ghost in the void, and she watched as the white light of the sun began to creep over the edge of the earth. And she wondered if the souls of the dead really do soar into the sky, tear through the atmosphere, and not into the dark and the cold, but into the light. And she thought, maybe souls catapult into the sun, sublimate into plasma–and burn like stars.