“Lyubov and Andrei had both assured me the capsule would be safe. The glass had been polarized to filter out the sun’s rays, and the only part of my body that was exposed was my face inside the helmet. I think they tried, but the sun is a tenacious foe, and has ways of burning us that science has not been able to identify. It’s not the ultraviolet radiation, vampires don’t die from getting a tan, and it’s not the light itself. It’s something at the heart of the sun that tries to snuff out any darkness that if finds.”
“The sun looks much bigger on the ground than it does in space, not the orb itself, but the effect it has on the sky. On Earth it’s like whole hemisphere is out to get you. We are fooled by what we see when we look at the stars into thinking that space is dark, that the vast nothing between the dots in the sky will protect us.”
“It does not.”
“Your first Apollo astronauts died in a fire in their capsule, having never even left the ground. As my face began to singe and boil I had some idea of what it must have felt like for them. Instinctively I took off my helmet, which only exposed more of my flesh. My hair, skin, my eyes were a blaze.”
“I pitched forward in a futile attempt to dive beneath the controls. Somewhere along the way down I fired the boosters knocking the capsule down out of its orbit and plummeting back toward the planet. Staring down at Earth I was temporarily released from the burning glare of the sun, but my approach was too steep, and the heat shield was on the other side of the capsule. Vampires have been known to survive falls from great heights, but I doubt any could survive the fires of reentry with no protection.”
“I grabbed one of the emergency fire blankets from the compartment above me and covered my face with it, while at the same time firing the boosters to try to flip myself back around. I was literally falling blind, but I didn’t dare move the blanket. My face was in agony, and my vision was beginning to cloud with blood. The capsule was screaming all around me, but all I could hear was a faint rushing in my ears.”
“What happened?” I said, leaning forward.
The man shrugged, “I blacked out. The capsule landed somewhere in Cambodia. I didn’t even make one complete orbit,” he smiled wryly. “When I came to it was blessedly dark, and I was able to find a cave nearby where I could heal. The radio, the transponder, everything was smashed. If I’d been a human I would have been smashed too. I don’t know if they ever found that capsule, but I do know they thought I was dead. Not that I wasn’t dead before.” At this the man laughed and leaned back more comfortably.
“I survived on goat’s blood and a lot of rest, all the while trying to make it back to my home. I had nothing, so I was forced to walk most of the way. Occasionally I would ride the goats before I ate them. Eight months later I arrived here, and have lived in this town ever since.”
“Why didn’t you go back?” I asked.
“There was nothing to go back to, at least that’s how I felt at the time. The stars had made it plain that I was not welcome among them. I’d spent my whole life wanting something I could not have, with my anemic body, or with my dead body. It’s a cruel joke that God has been playing on me, or so I thought anyway.”
“I’m very sorry,” I said. There was little else to say. “Why did you tell me this story?”
The man suddenly stuck his hand into an inner coat pocket and pulled out a white and silver piece of paper, “Somebody needed to know.”
The paper was a ticket for my spaceflight the next day.
“But … you’ll die.”
“Yes I will, but it’ll be among the stars…”