For Barry N. Malzberg
“Listen,” I say into the microphone, “Jack, listen to me,” and I lower my voice, “Jack, I know you’re listening to me up there, I know this is piping into the cockpit or whatever you call it on the shuttle. They tell me you have not cut off communication; they tell me you’re listening but you’re not responding. This madness has to stop, Jack. This is all just crazy, you know? You have to know this. You can’t just blackmail the government into stopping a war. Listen, Jack, do this for me: just respond. You owe me, for what they’ve put me through. They came in the middle of the night, these men in black suits and sunglasses—what a cliché—these men in black in black government sedans came by at three in the morning and they didn’t even knock, they didn’t ring the bell, they just busted into my home, waking the kids up, scaring Janice—my second wife Janice, I know you only met her twice—scaring her, and the kids, scaring us all. To hell with rights and the Constitution and Amendment and courtesy, they just broke in and woke me up and said: ‘You have to talk to your brother; he’s gone off the ranch.’ ‘National Security,’ they said. ‘A matter of global crises,’ they said. They wouldn’t tell me what exactly you did until I got here at this government installation, this place underground somewhere. And here I am, in this room, this little room, and I know they are listening, I know the mirror is two-way and they are watching me. I think they think I may have been in on it with you, that I knew what you had planned, because we are brothers. To that I say: ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ I mean, we have barely spoken the past year, ever since you joined the space program, ever since you trained for this mission, whatever it is, like it was a big secret. ‘National security.’ I know nothing, nothing other than what they have told me and what they have told me doesn’t sound good, Jack. Listen: this madness has to stop.”
“Gentleman: I have done all that I can,” I say. “I don’t know what else to do. Tell me and I will try. I’ll do what my country asks. I don’t know my brother as well as you think.”
“I don’t know my brother as well as you think,” I say to the government psychologist.
We sit at a metal table, facing each other. The room is cold and empty except for the table and chairs. He wears a grey suit and blue tie. He may not be a psychologist. He says he is. I have no other choice but to believe what they tell me.
The psychologist asks: “When he was a child, when you two were growing up, was Colonel Kornbluth violent?”
“I’m not sure what you mean. What does that mean, exactly?”
“Did he torture insects, animals? Did he beat other kids up for fun? Did he beat you up?”
“He was a gentle kid, as far as I’m concerned,” I say. “He believed in fairness, in justice. One time a bully two years older than me picked on me, that’s the one who beat me up, this bully gave me a black eye. Jack went after the bully. Jack held the bully down and told me to punch him in the eye. ‘A black eye for a black eye,’ he said. I hit the bully. It made me feel good. The bully cried, he begged for mercy, begged forgiveness. I felt good. I learned a lesson, I think, about bullies: that they’re all cowards really.”
“Have there been any issues with his wife,” asks the psychologist, “Gretchen Kornbluth?”
I don’t answer right away. What should I say? Saying little as possible is often best. I say, “None that I know of.”
The psychologist clears his throat. “Didn’t you have an affair with her? Your sister-in-law? Your own brother’s wife?”
Matter-of-fact: “The affair.” In fact.
“Affair,” I say.
“Don’t deny it.”
I can’t. Goddamn it: “How do you know these things?”
“What did Mrs. Kornbluth say about her husband?” he asks. “When you were with her, before or after you committed the act…”
“Call it what wish to call.”
“I need to get out of here,” I tell him, “I need some air, some sunlight. This madness has to stop. Let me out of here.”
I stand. He reaches and touches my arm. I sit down.
He says, “In due time.”
“What do you want to know?”
“What did Mrs. Kornbluth confide to you, about her husband?”
I tell him: “The affair was short, a mistake, it didn’t last long, and it was two years ago.”
“What did you two discuss?”
“We didn’t talk much.”
“That’s hard to believe.”
“I’m telling the truth. We fucked. We didn’t talk.” I say.
“How do you think we learned of the affair?” the psychologist asks.
“Colonel Kornbluth told us, in the psych evaluation before he was picked for the mission. He knew, sir. Your brother knows what you did with his wife.”
They replay the video transmission Jack sent twenty-four hours ago: he looks so calm and serene as he says, “Listen. This message is to go straight to the President of the United States. I have murdered my crewmates. This is correct, gentlemen: I killed the pilot and the man who was to press the button. I’m on the button now. This mission is an error—this impending war is foolish and I will stop it. The missile with the warheads that was targeted at the enemy’s capitol is now targeted at Washington, D.C. If the President does not recall the Navy and sign the proposed peace treaty within seventy-two hours, I will press the button and the government will see what it is like to nuke a city over petty differences. You will see what it is like to slaughter innocent civilians. Children, women, the homeless, people who have nothing to do with politics. The clock is ticking, gentlemen.”
“Jack, listen, this madness has to stop.”
Gretchen: oh, Gretchen, they have brought Gretchen in. Beautiful Gretchen: my brother’s trophy wife, a wife fitting for an astronaut: tall, blond, chiseled features, perfect teeth, perfect breasts, long legs. Smith College, former teenage beauty queen, law degree.
We are in the cold empty room together, sitting at the metal table. We’re alone but I know they are watching and listening.
“I tried to talk to him,” I say.
“…had us both trying to reach him,” she says, “and who knows who else.”
“What do you think?”
“Think?” she says. “What am I supposed to think? I don’t have any thoughts on this. I don’t have an opinion. I’m nobody, we both are, nobodies in this big game. Who are we? Nobodies.”
“They know,” I say.
“Of course,” Gretchen says.
“I told him.”
She says: “I had to come clean.”
She says: “Do you know what he said?”
She says: “‘I don’t care.’ That’s what he said. ‘At least you kept it in the family,’ he said.”
She asks: “You find that funny?”
“How else am I supposed to ‘find’ it?” I say. “How am I supposed to react to something like that?” I ask.
She laughs too. We both have a good laugh. We hope that those who are listening and watching also laugh.
The bed they provide is stiff and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I need sleep; I have been up nearly twenty hours. In have slept on harder surfaces in the past: the ground, the street.
The clock is ticking.
Every three hours my brother transmits a message: “Forty-two hours left.” “Thirty-nine hours left.” “Thirty-six.” “Thirty-three,” he says, “a pivotal year for any man, the most significant year of Jesus. “Thirty hours left,” etc.
Sleep and dream: sex with Gretchen and the sex is as good as I remember it was between us. Gretchen enjoys the rough treatment: slap across the face, biting the nipples, smack on the ass, leaving a handprint embedded into white creamy flesh. “Jack has always fucked like a pussy,” she says in the dream (like she said in real life), “but you fuck like a caveman and that’s what I like. Pull my hair, punch me, stick it in my ass…”
I wake up. I have a hard-on, what they call a “quality erection” for men my age who have problems with tumescence without pharmaceutical aid. A dark figure stands by my bed. It moves near me. It’s Jack. He holds his space helmet in his hand, but he’s naked. He gets into bed with me and grabs my cock and takes it in his mouth—
I wake up. A dream within a dream. I still have an erection. Why would I dream of such a thing about my brother? A dark figure stands by my bed. It moves near me. It’s Gretchen. She’s not naked. She wears the same clothes. She gets into bed with me but she does not grab my cock. She snuggles next to me.
“They let me in here,” she whispers; “they wanted me to come in here for some reason.”
“We’re all dreaming.”
“Don’t get philosophical on me, you bitch,” I say, “you goddamn bitch, this is my dream and you won’t talk shit to me.”
Shocked: “What did you say?”
“You’re half-asleep,” she says, “you don’t mean that.”
“I mean it, bitch,” I say, “you cheating bitch, sleeping with me all that time and then calling it off because you felt ‘guilty.’ Fuck your guilt.”
“Fuck it all,” she says, closing her eyes.
I get on top of her.
“Go ahead and slam me,” she says, “fuck it, go ahead, just fuck it.”
A dark figure stands by my bed, looking down at me. I expect it to be Gretchen. It is my wife, Janice, my second wife. “How could you,” she says, “how could you with your sister-in-law? Isn’t that incest?”
“Twelve hours left for your answer,” Colonel Jack Kornbluth announces.
“Fuck it,” Gretchen says, “just say fuck it at times like these. Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” I say.
I know I’m still dreaming. She gets up and goes into the bathroom. When she comes out, she has changed. She’s a man. At first I think it is my brother. This man is naked. He does not have a helmet. The naked man is me. I get into bed with myself. “Time to fuck,” he/I say(s). This is interesting, I think, as this doppelganger buggers me. What would Freud or Lacan make of such a dream?
“Listen, Jack,” I say into the microphone, “listen to me: this madness has to stop.”
He replies, finally: “I agree.”
“Fuck it,” I say.
“Okay,” he says. “Fuck me, why not.”
I reflect on the dream.
“That’s it,” I say, “that’s what it’s all about.”
“Do it,” I say.
Eleven hours later, he presses the button. “Fuck it,” he says, and that’s the last words the world hears from Colonel Jack Kornbluth.
Gretchen holds me close. I’m still inside her. “We did it,” she whispers into my ear, nibbling on the lobe; “we showed the bastards. We did it. Everything worked as planned…”
“You tricked us,” the psychologist says, coming into the room with several armed soldiers. One takes the microphone from me. “Goddamn you,” he says, “you tricked us.”
“Fuck me,” I say, before the world burns.
I remove the simulation goggles and sit up. From the look on the NASA psychologist’s face, I know I have flunked this portion of the test. Badly. I’ll never make it as an astronaut. “You tricked us,” the psychologist says, “and that will never work, not for this mission,” My wife, Gretchen, is going to be disappointed. So will my whole family, especially my younger brother, who has always looked up to me. I love my brother; I even forgive him for what he did.