portion of the artwork for Salvatore Pane's fiction

Man of Ego, Man of Hubris, Save Us from the Sun
Salvatore Pane

Reezy East had never seen Captain Richard Nixon cough like this before. They were walking along the sterile hallways of the ship, glasses of bourbon and tonic water bobbing in their hands. Reezy sipped nervously as the Captain bent over, grabbed his knees and hacked. It didn’t suit him, not in his Brooks Brothers jacket and leather shoes. Reezy would have never admitted it, but what he admired most about Nixon was his phoenix-like stature, the way he’d fallen from the presidency only to climb the ranks of NASA, how perfectly his meteoric rise reflected the American wonderland of second chances. What Nixon didn’t deserve was this: a slow death aboard Ursa Major 6F49, four years into their journey and two years off course, struggling to find a route back to Earth.

Nixon wiped his mouth with his handkerchief and folded it carefully into his breast pocket. He yanked on the hem of his jacket and smiled. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.” Reezy started walking again, letting the disgraced president know they didn’t have to broach the subject at hand: that Nixon was dying, that only three adults remained onboard including Reezy, that somebody had to steer the two dozen children entrusted to their care back home. “When I was coming up in Chicago, playing the smaller clubs,” Reezy said, “I never could have imagined this. Being up here with you of all people. I never thought I’d be friends with a president.”

“Former president.” Nixon slung his arm around Reezy’s shoulders. “And I never thought I’d be friends with a rapper. But there’s slim pickings for companionship up here in Outer Space, am I right, big fellah? Am I right or what?”

They crawled into the escape pod, their usual destination for Saturday night boozing. The Ursa Major 6F49 was shaped like a grizzly bear, the escape pod built to resemble its genitals: two orbs for human seating divided by a phallic rocket. Reezy and Nixon settled into orbs just barely big enough for bucket seats, a small opening between them to see and converse. The pod had long been useless, the autopilot software and oxygen tank compromised during a dicey maneuver through an asteroid belt. But it was still the best place on Ursa Major 6F49 to drink or smoke up and watch the velvety curtain of stars unfurl before your eyes.

Nixon slugged back his whiskey. He loosened his tie. “There’s something I have to tell you, Reezy.”

Reezy reached through the tiny slot between them—it always reminded him of the Catholic confessionals of his youth—and waved his hand no. “Don’t say it. It’s obvious just from looking at you, Cap.”

Nixon shook his head. “That’s not it.” He stared out his window. “We’ve been off course ever since the navigators all committed suicide. But what I haven’t told you, or anyone for that matter, is how we’ve gotten ourselves sucked into the gravitational pull of an alien sun.” He hacked into his fists and took three long breaths. “I’m dying here, Reezy. And by my account, the little I can make of the navigational math, we only have four days left till we tumble into the sun.”

Space Bourbon never tasted as good as Earth bourbon. It burned in a different way, was too thick, the texture of pump gasoline or even certain brands of maple syrup. Reezy finished his drink and focused on the stars, all so visible, all so clear. Humans were never meant to be this far away from Earth. He studied those stars and paid special attention to the closest one burning orange and red and white and somehow even black. It was close now. Too close. Reezy blinked at the sun and wondered what it would feel like to get sucked into unimaginable fire, to suffocate hours before impact, to know your corpse would burn up with the dying ship, a pyre of technology and impotent hope. What it would feel like to die a bad person.

Day Two

The next morning, Reezy visited the kids. He always had to remind himself that they weren’t children anymore but preteens, how they had seemingly grown overnight from the innocent eight-year-olds he’d met at Cape Canaveral to the veteran grizzly bear trainers he now knew. Some were even teenagers! With hair in places there was no hair before! Reezy watched them from outside the Zero G Unit, a hundred-yard dome erected in Ursa Major 6F49’s buttocks. He wiped his brow and wondered if anyone else noticed the subtle increase in temperature, that oxygen was just a tiny bit harder to come by as they drifted closer to the sun.

Reezy touched his hands to the glass dome and watched the six grizzly bears inside leap through a simulated playground, over jungle gyms and down sliding boards, across monkey bars and under swings, the children shouting encouragement, teaching them parkour. But there was very little left for the grizzlies to learn, and it was clear to everyone that the children had long ago accomplished their mission: to achieve NASA’s dream of discovering whether or not grizzly bears could be trained by children to do parkour in zero gravity.

One of the girls—Chloe; lanky, blonde pony tail, seashell complexion—noticed Reezy and swam on over. “Reezy. We missed you,” she said as she entered his side of the dome. “The other kids missed you. The grizzlies missed you. I missed you.”

He put his hand on her shoulder. Of all the child trainers, he was fondest of Chloe. She carried herself tall and erect and seemed most comfortable around adults, would sometimes eat with them in the mess hall and ask serious questions about the state of the ship and the state of Earth. And it wasn’t hard for Reezy to imagine a bright future awaiting her back home. At least, it hadn’t been until he heard about that sun.

“I’ve been busy. I’ve been spending more time with Cap,” he said.

“What’s his deal anyway? I’m not stupid. He stopped by last week and all he did was cough. And it’s getting pretty hot in here. What’s the deal with that, Reezy? The AC on the fritz again?”

Reezy made his best attempt at a comforting grin. He hated giving Chloe disappointing news because she so much reminded him of Michelle Lively, the pop singer genesis behind his self-imposed Outer Space exile. Reezy had only met Michelle once, at one of those music award shows he frequented during his former life as a superstar rapper. He’d sat in the crowd taking long pulls from a golden bottle of Hennessey, his bikini-clad Dubai model girlfriend purring seductively at his side. His latest record My Shit’s Too Hot (Fuck You, Peasants, Fuck You; I’m a Great Big Bastard) had been nominated for album of the year against Lively, a tender tween sensation built like a wheat stalk. Against all odds and industry predictions, I Wish You Would Like Me Back and Invite Me to Prom was chosen by the MTV audience over Reezy. So he stood up and hurled his whiskey at Lively, then drunkenly rushed the stage to announce to that she was a hack, a moron, a fucking lame-o, and that all the fans who voted for her were fucking lame-o’s as well.

That should have been the end of things. Reezy felt a pang of guilt with his hangover the next morning, but nothing earth shattering, nothing that would require him to leave the planet in atonement for what he had done. He had always been a man of profound ego, profound hubris, had always held other people at a distance, took his own comfort over the comfort of others. But the morning after the awards show, he turned on the news and discovered that little Michelle Lively had hung herself, her swaying body discovered in her mother’s garage above a burning compost heap of her records. Scrawled on the walls in red paint was the phrase “I’m talentless” repeated dozens of times.

And so, when a week later NASA announced that Captain Richard Nixon was leading a team of two dozen children into space on a twenty-four-month mission to teach grizzly bears parkour and that he was looking for a “popular youth singer” to keep the kids entertained, what choice did Reezy have? How else could he have made up for the death of a girl now posthumously elevated to the status of America’s sweetheart? He would venture into Outer Space with these children and transform himself into a less selfish human being, a more understanding person, a better man. He would come back good.

Now, Reezy tousled Chloe’s hair. At twelve, she was Lively’s spitting image, a clone, a ghost girl returned to the land of the living to either torment Reezy or offer him one final chance at redemption, he couldn’t be sure.

“Cap is absolutely fine.” He looked her straight in the eyes. “Everything is going to be fine, Chloe. We’re all going to go back to Earth and then we’ll all be better and more fulfilled people.”

As he finished, an adult ran down the hallway barreling straight at them. It was Lt. Bonk, an ice cream scoop of a man who had been lobotomized after a nasty sexual encounter with one of the grizzlies. A long jagged scar ran up the back of his head where hair would no longer grow. He smelled eternally of wet bread. Aside from Reezy and Cap, he was the only member of the adult crew who hadn’t committed suicide.

“Nixon is dead!” He held fast to his buckling knees. “The Captain has expired and his life is no more!”

Reezy covered Chloe’s ears. “Fuck, Bonk! The kids. The kids.”

Lt. Bonk nodded at the now crying Chloe. “You’re right.” He stuck his head inside the dome. “Nixon’s dead!” he screamed at the other children and grizzlies. “We’re totally fucked here, kids. Totally fucking fucked!”

Day Three

They assembled in Ursa Major 6F49’s skull for the Captain’s funeral. The children bowed their heads in a semi-circle around Nixon, his body concealed in a glass coffin resting gingerly on Ursa Major’s tongue in a pressurized, yet see-through, containment unit. Behind the kids stood the parkour grizzlies, confused and unknowing, pawing themselves, and occasionally one of them would give into impulse and do a back flip off the wall and the kids would all have to work together to contain him. Reezy East and Lt. Bonk stood at the control panel closest to the coffin. They’d been standing there for close to ten minutes and still no one had spoken. The floor had become slippery with their collective Space Sweat.

“You are the one who must say something profound and generous,” Bonk whispered in Reezy’s ear.

“I’m no good at these things. Didn’t you see the video awards?”

“Who else could possibly do it? I must work this mystical, mechanical switch of ours, homie.” Bonk gently massaged the switch’s shaft. “Tut, tut, hombre.”

The crew mortician had long ago ejected himself into the cold death of Outer Space, so Nixon didn’t look quite as bodacious as the other corpses Reezy East had seen. He remembered Michelle Lively, or at least what he’d seen of her body from the televised funeral. She looked so bright, like she was burning up inside, going supernova. Nixon, on the other hand, already looked decayed. His face grim and rigid, the meat of him thickened into a stiff crust. He wore a Brooks Brothers suit of which Reezy approved and a crimson velvet sash proclaiming him Disgraced President Richard Nixon, Captain of the Ursa Major 6F49.

“Well.” Reezy turned to the children, many of whom had begun to cry, their tears mingling with sweat and giving their faces an eerie glow. “This is a rough day for everyone.” He searched out Chloe and saw her up on the shoulders of a grizzly, hiding her eyes from the other kids. He took no pleasure in the suffering of children, but he particularly hated to see Chloe sad. He locked eyes with her from across the room and more than anything wanted to project strength, confidence, to somehow signal to Chloe that things were going to shake out all right. She looked up from her grizzly and smiled bravely. “Over the years,” Reezy continued, “the Captain has guided us valiantly on our journey that has almost come to an end.”

Their sobs filled the titanium spaceship bear head. Reezy looked to Bonk for support, but the pudgy derelict just shrugged and returned to his panel of blinking lights and futuristic levers. “When are we going to go home?” one of the children shouted between sobs. “When are we going to go home?”

Reezy nodded. “Great question, great question. Before Cap died, he told me the coordinates back to Earth. We’re already on our way home, kids.”

A few of the children stopped sniffling at this last-minute revelation, and this pleased Reezy although he couldn’t be sure just why he had lied. Reezy stood there, so close to the dead body of his dearest friend, and knew he only wanted to be redeemed, that more than anyone in the room, he wanted to believe his own words: that he could lead them all to salvation.

Lt. Bonk produced a flute from his breast pocket and played a few notes just barely out of key. Reezy hummed, then sang a few bars. “Oh Lord/Lordy, Lordy, Lord/Take our friend/Richard Nixon/into your almighty bosom!” Bonk nodded and pulled a lever through his own shuddering sobs. Ursa Major’s giant mechanical mouth opened, and just like that he was gone, the coffin sucked out of the containment unit by the invisible tentacles of Outer Space. And for a moment, albeit it a very brief one, the mourners were treated to a vision of the universe beyond, the twinkling stars, that infinite black ocean. Nixon’s glass coffin flying, flying, flying, a dot growing smaller each moment until it was pulled into the orange doom landscape of the alien sun.

* * *

Reezy East returned to his quarters after the funeral, back to the modest dome just smaller than a basketball court he called home. How comforting his room and possessions appeared to him now—his oval bed, his mahogany desk, his television and DVD collection, his TR-808 drum machine standing sentry in the center of the Peruvian carpeting. He sat at his desk and opened up his ledger. It took a long time to catch his breath, was becoming more and more difficult to breathe by the moment. He shook out his quill and recorded the 38,000th tweet of his Outer Space sojourn:

sad day on ursa major today. major props to my boy r-nix. be seeing you on the other side. #TRUTH
3 seconds ago from the web

He’d recorded his tweets via ledger ever since they’d left Earth four years earlier. The Ursa Major 6F49 was not equipped with Internet access, but Reezy planned on updating his fans about his time abroad the moment he returned to Earth. If he returned to Earth, he now corrected himself.

He was about to write down something his mother had told him about death when suddenly there came a knock on his door. It was Lt. Bonk, struggling under a wooden crate, his lobotomy scar just barely visible. “Reezy,” he said, “Cap told me to deliver this treasure to you after his death.”

Reezy pointed to the corner. “Set it over there, Bonk. Then leave.”

Reezy sat behind his desk for a long time just staring at the crate, no bigger than a Versace hassock, wondering what Cap could have left for him, what Cap thought was so important that not even death could halt its delivery. Reezy stood, went over to his locker, and fetched out his final bottle of Space Bourbon. He poured himself a monster drink and mixed in Space Water and Space Ice Cubes. It took him a long time to finish, but when he was done, he pried off the top of the box and peered inside.

A flat mechanical circle. All black. He recognized it immediately, one of the hologram recorders, devices which allowed people to record three-dimensional images of themselves. Reezy had become quite accustomed to the device over the last four years, had witnessed firsthand the multiple suicide notes left behind by member after member of the dwindling crew. He bent down and flipped the power switch, causing a miniature Captain Nixon to appear, his body translucent blue and flickering. Reezy sat on the carpet and poured himself another Space Bourbon.

“Reezy East.” Nixon rubbed the underside of his chin and glared. “If you’re watching this, that means I’m dead and we don’t have a lot of time. The Ursa Major 6F49’s drifting into this mysterious sun. I’m sure you know this, that I broke down and told you. But what I want to tell you now,” he stopped here to take a long sip of Black Label, “is that you need to abandon ship. You alone. We’re the same, you and I. I wouldn’t have thought so before this little adventure, but it’s true. We don’t have any faith in humanity. We have faith in ourselves. We see ourselves as above other humans, as higher than them somehow, more important. I’ve always known in my bones that other people were stupid, Reezy East, and I know you feel the same way, that you were chosen for some greater destiny.” Another drink. “Truth is there is no greater destiny. Just this.” He gestured behind him. “The emptiness of Outer Space.”

Nixon sat with some difficulty. His eyes were the glazed pupils of a drunk. “Take the escape pod. I worked on it myself, rebuilt the autopilot software and didn’t tell anyone just in case I needed it. There’s only enough air left for one person. Take it, Reezy. It’s the only way back to Earth.”

Reezy stood. He downed his second drink in one long gulp. “What about the grizzlies? What about Bonk? What about the children? What about Chloe?”

Hologram Nixon shot him another glare. “I’m a hologram. I can’t respond to you, jackass. End of transmission!”

For a long while, Reezy East didn’t do anything. He didn’t think, didn’t move. He just stood. And once it became clear that he could not stop Ursa Major 6F49’s slow descent into the alien sun by sheer willpower alone, he approached the TR-808 drum machine and lay down a beat, hitting one plastic button after another. The melody was familiar to him, a hit from his former life, when he still lived on Earth, when he still believed himself capable of becoming a better person. His music grew louder and louder until it filled the Ursa Major 6F49 and rocked the grizzlies and Bonk and even the children to the type of prolonged sleep they hadn’t experienced in months. A resignation to catastrophe settled over them all.

Day Four

Reezy woke the next morning in a sweat, the threadbare covers of his bed clinging to his skin. He stood and inspected the glowing temperature gauge. Ninety-six degrees, the red mercury rising. He rubbed the sweat from his eyes and remembered Cap’s premonition, that they were only four days away from death, from suffocation before combustion. Reezy hugged his chest. “Today is the day you die,” he whispered. “Today is the day you die.”

He put on his finest white Gucci suit and went to the escape pod. He wasn’t going to use it—at least not before some serious consideration and soul searching—but wanted to keep himself hidden, needed to get away from the gasping grizzlies, the way Lt. Bonk kept staggering around asking if anybody knew what was wrong with the thermostat, how the parkour children kept stopping him in the halls and asking when they were going back to their families and why it was so fucking hard to breathe in this bear-shaped spaceship. Reezy settled into the escape pod and drank Space Bourbon straight from the bottle. And when he was done, when that level of intoxication didn’t do the trick, he produced the final joint he’d smuggled aboard four years ago and lit up. Sweat pooled in his armpits, between his thighs, above his eyebrows. Everywhere.

He smoked and smoked and avoided looking at the launch button under glass, the way it taunted him, pointy and red, like a glorious nipple. Instead, he looked out the window at Outer Space, only it wasn’t Outer Space anymore. It was red, orange, white, oscillating in waves. The sun. So close he couldn’t even imagine it. The motherfucking sun!

The hatch behind him opened. Reezy swatted the smoke away but knew it would do no good in that enclosed of an environment. Chloe squeezed in, took Cap’s old seat at Reezy’s side. She wouldn’t look him in the eyes.

“I know what that is, you know,” she said. “I recognize the smell.”

“No, you don’t, Chloe.”

“I do. My older sister used to smoke it back on Earth. She’s twenty.” Chloe paused. “Twenty years old.”

Reezy took a long puff, let it fill his lungs. “You want some?”

“I’m fourteen.”

“You want some?”


They sat there smoking, passing the joint back and forth, back and forth through the confessional-like opening, interrupted every few seconds by one of them wiping the sweat from their bodies, by one of them coughing, not because of the pot but because of the almost complete lack of oxygen.

Chloe inhaled like a champ. “I know you think we’re all stupid, but I’m not. I’m smarter than Bonk.” She spoke breathlessly, the words spilling out like they might never stop. “You think I don’t know we’re going to die? I know it, all right. And I’m OK with that. I made my peace with it and everything a year ago, even more so when Cap died. But you know what bothers me, Reezy East, you know what keeps me up at night, sweating and gasping till morning?”

He couldn’t answer. He sat there conserving every precious ounce of oxygen.

“What bothers me,” she said, “is that no one is even going to know I existed. All they’ll talk about is you. You know that, right? They’ll print your obituary on page one. The rest of us? We won’t even make the paper.”

She looked at him then, the first time since entering the escape pod, and Reezy saw that her eyes were pleading, bloodshot, that she just seemed so terribly frightened. Her matted bangs stuck to her forehead, so Reezy reached over and brushed them out of her face. It finally became clear to him what he would do, the reason he’d come on this Outer Space voyage, the only way he could ever redeem himself. He opened the hatch behind him. He lifted the glass box that covered the launch button.

“You press that,” he said. “You hear me? The second I leave. You hit that the second I leave, goddammit.”

“What about you?” She was almost crying now. “What about the grizzlies? And Lt. Bonk? All my friends?”

He stepped through the hatch, then reached back in and squeezed her arm. “I’ll protect them,” Reezy told her. “I promise.”

And then, before she could voice another word of protest, Reezy removed himself from the hatch and sealed it. He watched the escape pod from a nearby porthole, studied the titanium contours of Ursa Major 6F49’s genitals, those massive mounds, that powerful shaft, and gasped in awe when it finally launched, when the escape pod blasted off for Earth with Chloe inside, the miniature ship trailed by a river of crimson. He watched it fly away from him, away from the alien sun, and knew that he had reached the end of his journey.

He sunk to the floor and unbuttoned his suit. Lt. Bonk walked by in a hurry, stopping when he noticed Reezy. The remaining children followed. Then the grizzlies. They all knelt around Reezy East.

“Reezy.” Bonk flattened the creases in Reezy’s coat sleeves. “We’ve been looking all over this confounded ship for you. Something’s gotta be done about this heat, my boy. I can barely breathe. I think we may die.”

“Sit, Bonk, sit. All of you.” It was harder to talk now. “It’s over. We’re saved.”

They joined him on the floor. They all got comfortable. Reezy and Bonk and the kids and the grizzlies. They lay down. Closed their eyes. Stopped talking. Took their final breaths. They all saw something different, all had unique final thoughts, but what Reezy imagined was this: He imagined powder-blue Earth, imagined Ursa Major 6F49’s escape pod genitals streaking across the night sky and landing in the ocean. He imagined the dispatched rescue teams. He imagined them prying at the hatch door, yanking it open, how the young and beautiful Chloe would emerge in the moonlight trembling and dripping with sweat. He imagined Chloe explaining that she was part of the crew of Ursa Major 6F49 and how the rescue team would tell her no, that was impossible, that they’d lost transmission with Captain Nixon two years earlier, how NASA and the population at large all assumed they were dead. He imagined that Chloe would set them straight in the bobbing ocean waters, how she’d explain that she’d been saved by the rapper Reezy East, that Reezy East had finally done the honorable thing. He imagined his name on their tongues, not just Chloe, not just the rescuers, but everyone, every last human on Earth. Reezy East. Reezy East. Reezy East!

The genesis for “Man of Ego, Man of Hubris, Save Us From the Sun” came while I was watching episodes of Battlestar Galactica at a marathon clip. The show is straight genre, but it’s not campy. It takes a really serious look at space travel and technology and what have you, and the whole time while watching it I just kept thinking, “Man, I wish there was more literary fiction with spaceships.” Because it’s something you don’t see too often, right? You can come across a stellar domestic drama just about every day of your life if you really try, but I’m just not aware of some hidden wealth of literary fiction that really seriously tackles ghosts or alternative histories or outer space. And that may be my own weakness as a reader, but I think we’d all agree that literary fiction with genre elements is not the norm. So that’s how this story started. As a challenge to see if I could write something of serious intent that not only used space ships but public figures like Nixon and the obvious Kanye West analogue. Could I take all those bizarre elements and still make the reader become as emotionally invested as they would in a more traditional, realist story? I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I think the key to even trying is the fact that Reezy East’s struggles are (I hope) relatable and very much of our world. Who can’t relate to wanting to be remade into a better person?

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 31 | Winter 2011