A mug was the only thing left from my divorce and I knew why that bitter woman had let me take it. It was because she knew it reminded me of everything I had lost.
Super Hiro blazoned across the side of it was who I used to be. A play on words, but not because I was called Hiro, my name was actually Tom, but rather because my father was Japanese and my old work colleagues had thought it was funny. Racist tones aside, even I had found it amusing, perhaps more so because of how ridiculous the sentiment had been. All I had done to earn such praise was to do my job. I had saved two of my fellow astronauts from certain death. A tiny complication, an unexpected glitch on a space walk outside the International Space Station that no-one could have predicted, but also no-one had known how to fix in time, not even the clever sods at NASA. No, it was me who had come up with the life-saving initiative and all from behind a desk in a dingy office at the UK Space Agency in Swindon.
But that had been five years ago. Two years on from the mug giving ceremony everything had changed. One drunken fuelled argument with my ex wife and I had gone to my shift reeking of alcohol, except no-one had noticed.
‘Oh no, not Tom, he never drinks,’ they'd probably thought, but oh how wrong they were that night. Half a bottle of whiskey, five beers and a few shots of some weird tequila from Brazil and I still couldn’t drown out the constant abuse spewing from my wife’s mouth yet again that night. The hatred, the disgust, the endless disappointment that I hadn’t become an astronaut when I had so promised her I would be. She was embarrassed, humiliated even at not being able to boast about her husband's career.
‘A fucking geologist?’ she had screamed at me when I said I didn’t want to go into space and that I would much prefer to study space rocks and weather patterns on distant planets. ‘You seriously want to just study rain and shit?’
Even now, thinking about her made me want to throw the mug sat innocently in front of me across the bathroom. To smash it into the grimy basin of my flat’s toilet where it belonged, and for a moment I held it in my grip as if to do so, but I couldn’t do it. I knew deep down that it wouldn't erase that woman’s vitriolic from my memory and nothing could bring back the colleague I had inadvertently murdered that night by failing to warn her of space debris heading in her direction. A tiny mangled block of metallic junk, no bigger than 10 or 12 centimetres, had shot her right between the eyes, killing her instantly as she'd turned to look when I had finally passed on the risk object prediction flashing across my screen. The data had been passed on to me long before she had taken her space-walk, but I had failed to see it, instead I had fallen asleep at my desk after vomiting twice into the office’s waste paper basket.
‘Why hadn’t they informed someone else?’ I had asked myself repeatedly. ‘Why me?’ but I hated myself for even trying to blame someone else and I hated myself even more when my colleagues had announced it wasn’t my fault. That it must have been a technical glitch. That it was an accident and not to feel bad. ‘Feel bad?’ I was so disgusted with myself that I didn’t even defend my forced resignation a week later. ‘For the media,’ my boss had stated, ‘you know, to show we’ve done something.’
At least my name had been kept out of the papers, unlike the astronaut's husband who had printed a two-page eulogy in his wife’s honour, stating every aspect of her outstanding career in space and all that she had achieved. I wasn’t sure if I hated him more than I hated myself.
Placing the mug down carefully, I splashed my face with cold water and returned to my computer in the living room. It was late, but I couldn’t sleep. I had been following the trajectory of a nearby asteroid that was soon to pass by very close to Earth and I was excited. It had been a while since I had felt the exhilaration of learning something new and this asteroid was extraordinary, not only because of how close it was flying past Earth, just a few thousand miles past the moon, but it seemed to be pulsating, which suggested it was of an unusual shape. This did make it harder to determine its size, but I was convinced it was about the size of a football pitch, and the fact it was travelling incredibly slowly made this priority object a fantastic opportunity to observe and analyse its composition, although every time I remembered that fact my heart sank. It wasn’t going to be me working on this project no matter how much data I sent to the UKSA, but it didn’t stop me from hounding my father who was working on the project at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency in Tokyo as an astrophysicist. His team had already sent up a probe to not only collect data but also to try to land on it to take samples. This had never been achieved before, but this asteroid was travelling slow enough and close enough for it to be possible. It could mean ground breaking research into the origins of our solar system, maybe even how life began on Earth and we were only hours away from the probe landing. I was hanging on every email and every bit of information from fellow scientists in the field.
Speaking of which, I stabbed the TV remote on and flicked through to various news channels hoping for any updates, making sure to avoid the over dramatic end of the world scenarios. For some people, just past the moon was too close for comfort, but for me it was fascinating. I hadn’t felt this way in a long time.
“Damn it,” I whispered as the news continued to talk about some boring political situation at Number 10. “Why do they never show the science?” I asked myself in frustration, turning back to my computer and taking a sip from my stale can of flat Coke and wishing I hadn’t. Staring at the clock I tried to calculate the time in Japan. “Why hasn’t he called?” I wondered frustrated.
Punching in my father’s number I dialed his office.
“Err hi, is my father there? It’s Tom Takahashi,” I stuttered, realising how tired I was and forgetting to speak Japanese. I waited as whoever was on the other end passed over the phone to my father. “It’s me,” I mumbled as my father’s deep voice came on. “Any news?”
“It’s gone,” my father stated quickly.
“Gone?” I asked confused. “You mean the probe? But where?”
“We don’t know. We lost communication about an hour ago. We are trying to regain control now.”
“You're joking,” I replied. I was gutted. “Right at the last minute?”
“I know,” my father replied. I could hear how disappointed he was too, but I knew he was working hard to hide his feelings from his colleagues.
“That’s the strange thing. It could be a glitch, but it’s as if...” my father paused. “It’s as if it’s gone.”
“Yes, you said, the probe?”
“No, the asteroid.”
“What?” I exclaimed confused.
“It doesn’t make any sense," my father mumbled, more to himself than to me as if deep in thought.
“But... how can you lose an asteroid? It must be about the size of Wembley Arena!”
“Look I need to go son. I’ll call you later.”
“Yeah, sure,” I replied as my father hung up.
I slammed my fist into the desk and threw my phone across the keyboard. The feeling of frustration of not being involved was immense. I felt helpless, no matter how much sympathy my father gave me and how much he tried to include me in his projects, I just wasn’t there in the thick of it. Then something caught my attention on the TV.
“Reports are coming in that the asteroid Spetrinas 461 has unexpectedly vanished, with amateur astronomers suggesting that it could have veered off course, putting it on a collision path with Earth. If this is true, estimations of exactly where it will hit have yet to be determined. Scientists are at a loss as to the reasons...” the voice continued on, but I was already grappling for my phone again.
‘Didn’t take them long to predict a disaster,’ I thought annoyed, but I knew the news reader was right. If the asteroid had veered of course then it could hit us, 'but why? It doesn’t make any sense,' I thought.
I frantically dialed my father’s number for the fifth time this evening and muted the TV as the news reader began interviewing one of the amateur astronomers. This time though my father didn't answer.