Countdown

“Five minutes and counting.”

Time is interminable. It stretches, yawning, threatening to overtake him with its dark menace.

How does he sit through these protracted seconds launch after launch?

The chair is creaking with the weight of his despondency. Twenty-seven donuts contributed their piece as well, but every time he swears off bringing them he turns around and buys them anyway. He is a coward, taking cover in sweet treats to stave off disappointed faces.

Tonight is the twenty-eighth. The glazed dough round sits guilelessly before him. He’ll eat it in victory only. I promise, he tells himself.

A promise he always breaks.

“Four minutes and counting.”

The new intern, smiling face unmarred by multiple failures, yet to learn what this job really means, steps towards him.

“Coffee, sir?”

He shrugs. Coffee is neither here nor there. Black sludge, thin cream, the way it’s always been. Sustaining, possibly. Essential? The jury’s out.

The intern takes the shrug for yes. He’ll learn soon enough that shrugs are common currency round here.

What is he waiting for? Oh, yes.

“Thanks.”

“Three minutes and counting.”

Maybe this launch will be better. Twenty-eight seems like a lucky number. Of course three and thirteen had seemed unlucky. And yet no launches spread around them seemed to know that, failing just as often and as easily. Twenty-eight. It could be lucky.

“Final checks.”

He’d waited for the call. The one that said, your time is up. The one that let him go, that finally let him rest.

It was inhuman to continue for so long.

And yet they did.

“Two minutes and counting.”

He knows why, of course. The sole reason for their existence is not, as advertised, to launch successfully, to go where no rocket has gone before. Oh no, their purpose is much more mundane.

The program is a lifeline for the People. For the town, the municipality, the county. For the hundreds, nay thousands, of jobs produced by and reliant on their little business. The business of extraterrestrial travel. The business of human advancement, technological progress, educational drive. They are a symbol.

A failing symbol.

But no. That attitude is Not Permitted.

The only attitude they are allowed is Persistence. Innovation. Confidence.

Hope.

“Sixty seconds to launch.”

Does he dare to hope?

“Thirty seconds.”

Will this donut be the one for victory?

“Twenty seconds.”

His chair creaks. He shifts forward. He can’t help it.

“Ten.”

Final, final checks. All looks good.

“Five.”

The intern reappears. Is this his first launch? Awe and wonder on his face. Must be.

“Four.”

Did Robinson replace that thing he said he’d do? Did I check it like I said I would?

“Three.”

Come on. Come on. Please.

“Two.”

Holding breath. Mustn’t hold my breath.

“One.”

Holding.

“Zero.”

And..

“We have liftoff.”

“Director?”

He slumps. His face is grey.

“Think of it this way, Director. Smith just perfected his drive shaft redesign. We can use that next time. A silver lining. Yeah?”

The donut beckons.

Space shuttle taking off with lightning and cloud reflections over the bay
Image by 272447 from Pixabay

This short story was written in response to May’s Furious Fiction competition from the Australian Writer’s Centre.


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