Personal Space 1.2
“We use lids on this ship,” I told the Professor a little too sharply, who apparently had the tea maker figured out. It was unlikely to happen on a space station but if the artificial gravity should die, I didn’t want badly contained tea shorting out my circuits. Client or not, the lid rule was strictly enforced.
I came to lean over Lisa’s shoulder. “How are we looking?” She pointed at the holographic screens.
“We’ve got power. Lots of it, too. This thing uses up more than our boat when she’s idling.”
Nodding, I leafed through the data. “My ship is a ‘he’, thankyou,” I mumbled. Lisa looked unimpressed.
Thomas came to join us, lid and all. He too saw that everything seemed to be in order, except that we couldn’t test the array inside the hangar because of its strongly magnetic effect. Most things here were made from polymers but the area of effect was large enough to potentially disrupt electric currents nearby.
It only occurred to me now that once I had activated the sensor, radio contact would be out of the question. With the interference from both the entity and this new artificial satellite, the only contact we would have was visual.
“Oh,” went the Professor when he saw me write the issue down for next meeting. “Is that going to be a problem?”
“We’ve had worse,” I told him smugly. “Most cargo isn’t made to do the haulers a favor. If it were an easy job, we would quickly be out of work. Speaking of which, we’re ready to test this thing now. That was due tomorrow, right?”
He gave a nod and sipped his tea. “Indeed.”
I pointed at the kitchen. “So if a fire starts right there, it would basically cut the station in half and if the fuel storage goes, that will send it into a spin, making it impossible to perform emergency docking.” I popped out my knife and began cutting a jackfruit into my meal. Whatever they tried with the proteins to make them more appetizing, nothing beat actual food to break the cardboard flavor.
Lisa looked in the direction of my gestures, but otherwise seemed quite disinterested. That was alright, I was about to explain why this was important. “You see…”
I was cut off by someone joining the table sans invitation. A young looking fellow, with generous blonde locks and piercing blue eyes. “Please excuse me. Captain Lisa? I hope I’m not interrupting?”
I blinked and looked across the table at Lisa, but she didn’t miss a beat. “Not at all. This is James, my public relations manager. You just missed Raph the demolitions expert.” I wiped my hand on my shirt and held it out to him.
He shook it hesitatingly. “…Adam. Pleasure to meet you. I was contacted by the crew aboard the station, telling me about a job on your ship? From what I hear, a few others are being considered, but I thought I’d come and talk to you personally. You see, I would really like to help.”
-”Really, Adam? Why is that?” Lisa did the talking while turned to my food.
-”Actually, I’m just really excited to do a real spacewalk. I’ve done plenty of simulations and I’ve become very good at it, my captain says. But I’ve never done it for real, so I was hoping to join your crew for this mission. It’s supposed to be a pretty routine job, right?” The kid stared wide-eyed and hopeful at both of us. The poor bastard was all kinds of misinformed.
-”Sure, why not.” Lisa kicked me under the table when I interrupted. “What? Don’t you remember your first walk, Lisa? We all had to learn sometime, right? Now’s a good a time as any for young Adam here.” I added, “Captain.”
I was in charge, so ultimately it was my decision and Lisa knew that all too well so she didn’t protest further.
In truth, I had picked up on the kid’s Martian accent he was trying to hide, and figured he had it hard enough already. I got lucky and got to accumulate experience early on, but it wasn’t so easy for him, coming from a planet where the political system, in essence a twisted sociological experiment, had failed. He could use the boost.
-”Tomorrow twenty-one hundred is when our side of the station turns towards the sun so that’s when we’ll be in the hangar bay. And Adam?”
I could tell he could hardly contain his excitement, but managed to stay calm. A good sign. “…Yes?”
-”If you’re on time, you’re late.”
-”O- of course.”
He left us to our breakfast, and an animated discussion about allowing newbies into our crew.
There are many ways to pilot a spaceship. Several of them efficient, most of them suicidal, and they weren’t mutually exclusive. Every job asks for a different approach, sometimes using maneuvering thrusters to position yourself into place, sometimes to angle your main engines toward the danger and full throttle out of there.
Pushing larger objects is an especially difficult endeavor: The trick is to find its center of mass; If you miss it, you might push the load into a spin, making it impossible to approach the object without denting it, yourself, or both. Latching onto things that are spinning is every pilot’s last thing to learn.
It was often said that the cosmos’ new currency was speed, but who ever came up with that, was no pilot. The real hero was acceleration. Any leaf blower could reach the speed of light given enough time, say, a million years; but only a decent Hauling class like mine could make it economically acceptable. Especially with a full cargo bay, inertia was your biggest enemy.
Most colleagues like to fly with full dampening, so that they don’t get jostled around in their seats when maneuvering tight corners. I on the other hand, prefer to use all my senses, including balance so that I can feel the slightest acceleration and the hum of the engines under my ass. It did tend to make passengers motion sick, though.
I had my hands on the stick when I heard the hatch open and recognized Lisa long before she made it to the Bridge. She paused a moment when she saw me in my seat with the ship fully powered down. “Mental preparation?” I nodded.
“I spoke to the board,” she said as she installed herself on my lap without needing an invitation. “I’ll be in radio contact with you when you fly out. And there will be a shuttle on stand-by in case I need to come get you myself.”
It was a comforting thought to have my guardian angel nearby on this mission, without having to worry about her own safety while tinkering with a universe-wise anomaly. In a sense, it was like someone speaking for you at the gates of heaven, especially since good intentions don’t always bring good results.
I hugged her close, I couldn’t find any other way to tell her all this. And that’s when Adam came in. I heard him climb into the ship, but didn’t care much.
“Oh,” he stammered. “I’m sorry Captain, I didn’t know you were…”
-”Don’t worry about it,” Lisa said, and stood. “Get suited up, we’re taking off.”
Simulations or no, I could tell he wasn’t used to space suits. He kept trying to turn his head, which wasn’t possible with this model, so every time he bumped his face into the glass comically. “Turn your head shoulders and all,” I reminded him, but he would forget instantly.
These suits were the most expensive thing on the ship, but no model is much more than a glorified one-man spaceship. They are clunky and can feel like you’re wrapped up in a mattress. “If you feel claustrophobic, make a fist and punch something.” He didn’t believe it until he tried it.
-”We’re approaching mission point,” Lisa confirmed the screens.
-”Ready for decompression and zero-g when you are.”
A light came on and we heard the outside noises dull until only each other’s voices on the intercom remained. I bumped Adam. “Hey. Kid.”
He turned towards me, in slow motion as if he was supposed to do that. I nearly laughed.
“In this crew, we look out for each other, understand?”
-”This is not a relay we’re about to install. We’re taking a sensor array out for a test spin, before taking it to scan that anomaly out there. The scientists didn’t feel like you needed to know that, but I do. You alright with that?”
He nodded awkwardly inside his helmet. “I figured as much.”
-”Bright kid. Well then, if you’re ready, I’m killing gravity.”
We latched our safety lines and a flick of a switch later, we were floating freely. In absolute quiet, the door began to open.
If you are afraid of heights you might be familiar with the feeling of being drawn towards a depth, as if part of you wants to fall in. It’s actually a panic reaction, your mind playing tricks on you, so you would back off to a safe distance. Evolution at work.
Now imagine that depth all around you, open and gaping, with your own brain feeding you the illusion that you are being sucked in.
The net result is usually a rollercoaster ride between blind panic and extreme euphoria. It takes practice to even that out, but agoraphobia is always there, creeping up on you as soon as you let the void draw your attention. Dreamers, like me, are usually the first to feel the effects.
Adam was a first-timer and it showed. He was holding up, but he had that technique of latching on with one hook, advancing over the side of the ship, latching on with the second, and then going back to retrieve the first. Experienced space walkers have one hook in each hand, clawing their way over the surface.
“Take your time,” I told him, waiting for both my new crew mate and the cargo lift to eject the device. Lisa informed us that she was suited up and on her way. She actually made it simultaneously with Adam.
“We’ve been through this,” I told them both before commencing. “Let’s write the book.”
It took a good half hour to prep the array, most of it just to unbolt it from the ship and ready the thrusters meant to push everything into place. Lisa climbed into the lift and brought up the data screen, monitoring everything closely while I secured myself onto the array and steered it, ever so slowly, away from the Theseus. He did look magnificent out here in space.
The intercom clicked. “I’m having trouble triangulating your position, James. The tracking system can’t see through the magnetic interference.”
-“Patch me through?” My HUD flicked on. The graph was chaotic, telling me that the system saw the sensor array as a constantly changing shape, screaming its presence to everything around it. It made me wonder how welcoming the entity would be to it.
I minimized the window with a twitch of my finger. “Have the computer calculate an average over time and work with that, Lisa. We’ll tune the algorithm later aboard the station.”
-“You’re sure you want to work with that margin of error?”
-“Now is a good time to find out.”
-“Understood. You’re nearing target location.”
Pretending that our ship was the entity, we put the device in a circular orbit. I was halfway through the activation procedure, when the radio clicked on, and off again. The only speech that came through was a stammer. It was then that I realized that we hadn’t heard from Adam in a while.
I scolded myself for not paying more attention to him. Time by yourself to think is exactly what you want to avoid, perhaps we should have given him something to do.
“So Adam. Which ship did you say you flew in on?”
Silence. Another click, then silence again. I pulled my line taut with my hand so I could stand up straight and look up at my ship hovering at a distance overhead. I spotted him, clinging to the hull. I couldn’t tell but I knew he was shaking.
“Hey Adam. Are you hearing me buddy? If you are, I really need you to tell me something. …Lisa?”
-“On my way.” I saw her tiny form make her way over, and cover his body with her own. I turned back to the job at hand while hearing her talk to him.
“Adam. Hi there. It’s me, Lisa. I’m here with you, Adam, but I really need you to turn your radio on, and leave it on, okay? So we can chat.”
I couldn’t tell how he was responding to it, but I certainly felt put at ease, with her voice in my ear. Even while focusing on the wiring of the sensor’s battery, I could have sworn she was right next to me, protecting me from any danger out here in the emptiness.
When she asked him to tell her his name, he finally responded.
“Glad to have you with us, Adam,” I said.
-“You and me, we’re going to move to the cargo lift, okay? How’s that?”
-“I c-… I can’t,” the boy said desperately.
-“Yes you can Adam, you got here from the airlock, you can make it to the lift. I’ll come with you, and we’ll go together. And we’ll look out for each other so that we get back inside safely, alright?”
He stopped responding again. I cursed in my helmet. I was ready to start up the array, but the magnetic interference would surely affect my intercom. I didn’t really have time for this. A different approach, then.
“Hey Adam,” I interrupted impudently. “Lisa is not really a captain, you know.”
-“Sh- She’s not?”
I grinned. “Nah. I am. This ship you’re hugging so tightly? It’s mine. Lisa is my co-pilot. I hired her. Hey Adam. Ask me why I hired her.”
-“Why did you… hire her?”
-“Cause she’s the best in the field, Adam. The best in the universe and I should know, I’ve seen most of it. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for her and if you still want to be here in, say…” I checked my battery. “Two hours, I suggest you trust her like I do.”
Lisa took it from there, and luckily he was a bit more responsive this time. He was probably clever enough to call my ‘most of the universe’ bluff but at least I managed to distract him. Now, it was time to concentrate on the job, lest I would end up like him.
I didn’t slam the door, but I felt like it. I had tried to be calm, explaining why I didn’t regret taking the boy along, even though I knew he could be a liability. But Lisa wasn’t buying it, and pointed out to me that I wasn’t the one who cleaned out his space suit afterward.
The human factor in a job is one that I often forget. I feel like the job comes first, and a crew should function around it. That includes training newcomers, or having doubts about the captain’s decisions. Perhaps I should have given it a few seconds of thought before telling Lisa to keep her comments to herself, though. I knew that would come around and bite me in the ass.
With no other place to run to, I made my way towards my ship. I knew it was typical behavior, but I couldn’t help but think about how the Theseus never questioned orders, just carried them out to the best of its capabilities. Perhaps I should just marry my ship and take off on a honeymoon. Steel and polymers were so much easier to handle than humans and their emotions.
I sighed, painfully aware of the ridiculousness of the idea, and slumped down on the couch in the living area. It didn’t leave much room, but I had insisted on it being there. In fact, most of the interior of the ship were things I put there.
In a sense, it reflected who I was. I stared at the ceiling, wires running diagonally across it. I got the feeling that my ship breaking down slowly, was only part of a larger piece of me that was dying, leaving a lonely, bitter man behind.
But, like with me, Lisa’s presence was noticeable inside the ship. Her tea maker that took a while to get used to, and her part of the sleeping area, much cleaner and better organized than mine. I couldn’t help but wonder what she saw in me, the space trucker who insisted on a militaristic hierarchy, even in a relationship. Perhaps that last bit was the real mistake.
Letting her go seemed like the perfect solution, if I knew what I would do without her. What a joke. To even be considering this was a failure to see the humor in it. In just a few days I’d be on the front line of human evolution and here I was dreaming I could ever do it without her. Even now, I was a mess without her.
I knew what I had to do, then. It had been half an hour, perhaps she would have cooled down some too, though looking back, she wasn’t nearly as upset as I was to begin with.
I sighed deeply and dragged my heavy limbs off the couch. To come crawling back like this, it just wasn’t my style. I hadn’t exactly had much practice at it. I didn’t even do my usual power slide down the ladder, taking my sweet time.
“Hey there, Handsome.” As my foot touched the floor of the hangar bay, a voice spoke up very close to my ear. I jumped violently, banging my knee into the ladder sports. Lisa began laughing and didn’t stop, while I clawed at my heart and the nearest support.
I arched an eyebrow. Well.
If she was going to be complimenting me on my size, I guessed I could let her recover. I raised my head some and chuckled at how spent she looked. Her pretty wide eyes narrowed to a glare as she wiped the sweat from her brow. “It’s not funny.”
I grinned and shook my head. “Nope. Apologies, Captain Lisa.” She slapped me on the chest. I began moving my hips again. “Don’t start things you can’t finish,” I sang.
But she wasn’t in the mood for another go. Instead, she pulled me in and hugged me tighter than ever before, sighing as I held her close. We laid like this for the longest time. I felt a tear when I kissed her cheek, but I let it happen. Something told me she just needed this moment, so I continued planting kisses on her wet face. “It’s alright,” I whispered.
“Please come back to me after the mission,” I heard her say. I tried to look at her but she wouldn’t let me move. “Promise me. Please. Please come back.” Her shoulders jerked.
-“Hey hey…” I patted her awkwardly. “Of course I’ll come back. How could I not? No co-pilot has an ass like yours.” She laughed despite herself.
-“You’re a bastard,” she repeated, and I nodded.
-“I’m your bastard. And I adore you. And if there is any reason for me to come back after any mission, it’s you.” Her fingers stroked through my hair and she kissed my cheek in turn.
She sighed deeply, as if letting the emotions escape her. Another kiss. After a little while, she spoke. “Put me on top of you.”
I sat up and sat her on my lap, straddling me. She looked like a bit of a mess, as I wiped her face dry. She smiled and turned her face into my hand. Much better.
I couldn’t grasp how beautiful she looked, with her white skin, those strong shoulders, and the curve of her waist. Only now did I notice that she still had her heavy boots on. God damn.
Lisa tossed the paper ball back to me while a heavily augmented man explained the political implications of having a base so close to uncharted territory. The scientists seemed to find all this interesting, but I personally wished I was still in bed. I hid the crumpling of the next piece of paper under a cough.
The ensuing high-brow discussion last an hour easily, and I made sure Lisa wasn’t paying too much attention. But when the details of our mission came up, both of us were all ears.
The dozen scientists present had a lot of difficult questions for Adam, and it seemed that with every implied accusation, he looked a little smaller, just nodding as everyone in the room drew conclusions for him. I rapped my knuckles on the table then, and spoke up.
“Since not a single one of you ever did a spacewalk, let alone their first, let me explain that your virgin mission outside is something like playing Russian roulette.”
I felt all eyes on me. I could tell my interruption was unwelcome, but I didn’t care.
“What was it, four percent?” Lisa nodded. “Four percent of the men and women out there suffer permanent psychological damage on their first spacewalk, and are from that point unfit to do work in space because of panic attacks, night terrors and such. As if that’s not enough to worry about, a percentage of those people end up dead. Some from accidents, most from suicide.”
“On Lisa’s first walk, she blacked out and had to be saved. Me, I never even made it out of the airlock. So if you’re going to be playing the blame game, blame the idiot who thought him right for the job, or blame me, who had the final decision.”
I was raising my voice and I knew it, but couldn’t bring myself to caring. “Adam carried out his work and this whole scene shows a lack of respect for the people working for you.”
I finally managed to shut myself up and sat back down, throwing back the glass of water they had provided so generously. I felt Lisa squeeze my hand, supporting me despite the drama I was making.
The board rounded off that point on the agenda quite abruptly, and showing far less arrogance than before. I felt strangely relieved, mostly because I managed to make them tone it down a notch, but also because I finally get something off my chest that had, apparently, been bothering me for much longer. Just because we made the job look easy, didn’t give them the right to pretend that it was.
The different issues of the test run were brought up and discussed one by one, and with my personal thoughts out of the way, I felt like I was able to explain, and be explained, much more calmly. The overall atmosphere had changed. Even Adam dared to pitch in a few times, and surprisingly, people listened. His insight surprised even me.
Then came the mission, due in 2 days. Because of the earlier explained political implications and the inherent danger of the mission, it was a one-man job, after which I would have to be quarantined. I wasn’t too worried about the psychological and physical tests beforehand, they wouldn’t be my first time. Not much to mind but the job itself then, good.
Because the particle didn’t seem affected by the gravity of nearby stars, the array would have to be installed in a very complicated orbit. But the scientists and computers did those calculations so again, I wouldn’t have to concern myself with it.
Next subject was my survival, something I was far more interested in.
I was relieved to find that they were not uneducated concerning mission priorities. Survival first, mission objectives second. I got permission to jettison the sensor in case of emergency if it meant the difference between life or death. Not that I needed permission for that- In a past life, I might have thought differently but these days, I considered the chance to live another job my main objective.
I had the advantage of being of utmost importance, which meant that I could make requests that would otherwise be out of the question. I managed to have Lisa on mission control, the voice to talk me through every step. The same job as always, basically, but with the screens forwarded to the control room on the station.
I was also promised a small crew to help unload the Theseus. I wanted him as light as possible to make maneuvering easier. It would also save fuel, which meant I would have to take less with me, again saving weight.
I just needed enough for an emergency getaway, a procedure where I continuously accelerated away until the halfway point, turned the ship around, and then decelerated using the main engines, hoping to stop dead right as I arrived. It was the fastest way of getting out, but the maneuver wasn’t called a suicide burn for nothing.
After installing the array, there was no safe way for me to return to my ship. I’d have to jump the gap. The Theseus was more than large enough to catch, but anyone who has ever taken a difficult step while risking a deep fall, might understand the implications of it.
If I should miss, it would depend on a rescue team to come get me in time. My suit would probably put me in a cryogenic sleep long before they’d arrive. Another gamble with my life that I would rather avoid.
And I sure as hell didn’t like the hesitant looks exchanged with that hot-shot political spokesperson at the mention of a rescue team.
I spent the next 2 days going between short boosts of confidence, and feeling dwarfed by the enormity of what I was dealing with. In both cases, Lisa was there with me, knowing when I needed to talk, and when I needed time by myself. As usual, focusing on the work at hand helped, as I delegated the guys ‘n gals emptying out the Theseus.
Lisa’s tea maker was last, and I had it installed in her quarters. It removed the last evidence of her on the ship, which was both a bother and a relief. If I was to pull this off, I’d have to be an astronaut and nothing else.
The empty ship reminded me of when I first got it, second-hand but in tip-top shape. The dealer had no idea he was getting robbed. The Theseus stayed with me through every red run, shooting me out of harm’s way every time. I had nothing else on my mind than bullshit my way through life, fuck and fire my co-pilots, and draw a pistol for all other situations.
I knew I had been pushing my luck long before I met Lisa, but it wasn’t until that grotesque tea machine was installed, that things actually began changing. At the time, I didn’t know why, but fact remained that if they hadn’t, she wouldn’t be with me today and we certainly wouldn’t have found ourselves in this situation. I didn’t care much for fate, but some days, I had to wonder.
When the day came, I felt ready.
“Calibrate clock frequency in slave mode, begin mission timer at… Fifteen hundred forty-six. You are cleared for departure, James.”
I did as ordered, and then swept the screen away. I knew Lisa would receive it, and stack it with the others. “Alright. This book ain’t going to write itself.”
-“Mission control wishes you the best of luck, Captain.”
It seemed so inadequate, so futile.
With a custom gesture, I cleared the cockpit of screens and exited the hangar manually. I’m sure they noticed the deviation in course but didn’t mention it. Otto took over after that, setting me on a course towards the anomaly with a computer’s precision, minimizing fuel consumption. Nice and slow, this trip would take several hours.
I switched on the most aggressive music I could find, and pushed the volume to the maximum, which still wasn’t much without my old-school speaker system aboard. Whenever I bothered to reply to some message from mission control, I knew they would hear the chords in the background. I didn’t care.
I saw the anomaly dead in front of me. It got brighter as I approached, but otherwise didn’t change shape at all. It stayed just as big, and when I felt the Theseus change to the proximity vector, I got the impression it was actually still quite small.
The scanner screen told me I was about 100 meters away from the barely visible even horizon. The array was to be installed at a 20 meter altitude from the surface, leaving an 80 meter gap for me to jump. I knew that and I knew I could do it, but the distance had never seemed so enormous before.
Once I got confirmation that my orbit was stable, I punched the clock and got up to start the next phase, the part where I would wrestle into my space suit without help. I could hear Lisa’s smile as I cursed for half an hour solid.
She controlled my exit from the space station. I checked my life lines for the fourth time as the door opened and I exited the safety of my ship. “Make sure Otto and Theseus play nice?”
As the entity came into view, I became aware of a static buzz on the intercom, quite unlike any interference I had heard before. Diag showed nothing out of the ordinary with our system, just a few weird readings from “an external source”. It was erratic, like a voice distorted until only a crackle remained. Mission control heard it, too.
The underside of the Theseus was covered in a tight web of carbon cables, ready to catch me on my jump back from the array. It made movement very easy, and I considered having it installed permanently. Not that it mattered, I figured, with my ship ready for the scrapyard.
I clawed my way to the hangar bay and on Lisa’s command, the latches opened and the lift came sliding out, carrying the familiar cube of priceless sensors. I remembered how Lisa had thrown her multitool at it, and how the arc of it changed until it clung onto the front protrusion of the device. It seemed quite funny, back then. Still did.
“James, we are reading a gravitational disturbance here. Could be a comet nearby. We are going to shift the ship a few degrees to compensate for the chaos effect, is that alright with you?”
I grabbed on tight to the external handles, and responded. “Copy. Ship changing position. Ready when you are.”
I stared into the yellow glow of the particle as I felt the ship accelerate, flown remotely by Lisa.
The cloud around it seemed to form tendrils, randomly and of varying size, but never bigger than the ball-shaped event horizon. Mists of unfathomable amounts of particles that supposedly didn’t even exist, rewriting information on a fundamental level through supersymmetry.
It dawned on me that it surely knew of my presence here, if it had any sort of intelligence to begin with. Would it lash out when I approached? Would it welcome us? Once we had the ability to listen, would it speak to us?
Another small jerk told me the Theseus had come to a stop, but it wasn’t until Lisa’s redundant message came through, that I resumed preparing the device. I had practiced doing this by myself so I made good progress.
With settings as they were, I had 4 hours of battery life on my suit. That should be about double what I needed if things went smoothly. At the moment, I was ahead of schedule.
The array was now fully detached from its dampeners, held in place with one last automatic bracket. I crawled to my spot, preparing to fire up the thrusters and float this thing into position. I could see the entity from where I was sitting, still clearly hearing the snarling distortion in my radio.
“Ready for separation,” I said.
-“Copy, go ahead and separate. Uploading updated coordinates now, computer should take it from there. James, the interference might make communication difficult. You might have to continue autonomously.”
-“Very well. Engaging thrusters.”
I held on as the jets fired with short, angry bursts, propelling the array and myself towards the particle. I looked back at my ship slowly getting smaller, my only indication that I was moving. I had to trust the computer at this point, which was calculating the ideal location based on questionable information and whatever margins of error the scientists had deemed “acceptable”. This was going to go great.
Even the screen on the device was starting to show effects from the radiation. It seemed better when I forwarded the display to my in-helmet HUD, where I continued to monitor the progress.
I tried to look for the space station, but couldn’t find it. If it was visible at all, it would be indistinguishable from the stars around. In my mind, I could see Lisa’s wet face, and I those conflicting thoughts all came sneaking up on me. I let it happen, it kept my mind off the void.
Someone in the radio was trying to tell me something, but only a stutter came through. “I can’t read you through the interference,” I said, knowing it was futile.
-“There.” Thomas’ voice suddenly came through, bright and clear. “The time dilation from the particle was stretching his frequency. I compensated on our end, you can talk freely now.”
I had to admit, that was some creative thinking. The professor knew his stuff.
“Approaching target location. Braking sequence commencing, hang tight.”
I could see every calculation of the thrusters’ processor on my screen, every command scrolling by too fast to read. Kind of cool, actually. It’s not often you can look into a computer’s mind. And just like that, the scrolling stopped and a final message blinked near the end.
CARGO READY FOR ACTIVATION
I looked at the words for a few seconds, until Lisa repeated them in my ear. I nodded to myself. This was it, then.
I moved from my safe “riding” position to the screen. It was awkward using the buttons on the device with the screen’s image projected inside my helmet, but I managed.
“Activating sensor array. You guys ready?”
No answer came. Diag showed everything to be normal, but still no response, even after a third repeat.
I stared at my hand on the button, next to the screen freaking out in sync with the harsh distortions in my ears. That constant, chaotic, distorted screeching. If only I knew what it came from, what it meant.
Nothing changed for a full minute.
I pushed the button and instantly my radio cut out.
But I could have sworn, on my life, that something came through right at the last moment.
A voice. I couldn’t understand, but still knew what it was saying.
It was saying my name.
My hands clenched tightly around the bars of the array’s displacement harness, and I didn’t dare move. I just stared in front of me, my own vision in the dead screen. Any moment, I expected a violent reaction, something to blow me right out of my suit, or dissolve us into atoms.
But still, nothing happened. Not a sound but my heartbeat, nothing on the screen but the reflection of my wide eyes. It was indescribable how small I felt, how vulnerable. The array filled most of my vision but around it, were the stars, the emptiness, the hostile nothingness where I would disappear into insignificance if that heavy thumping in my chest should ever stop.
I turned my face against the glass of my helmet, looking at the entity. It did not look any different at all. No matter how long I looked, it just wouldn’t change.
I was hyperventilating, I slowly realized. Closing my eyes, I tried to think of the safety of my ship, parked down on Taiko 7. The desert. Lisa’s eyes and how similar they looked, I now realized, to the green stone found there. The sun on my skin. God, I missed the sun so much. Any sun.
Mentally, I grasped on to those thoughts. If I was to go back there with her, I had to start here and now. Breathe easy. Concentrate.
It worked, eventually. I ran diagnostics on everything I could think of, to reassure myself that things were in order and I could return to my ship. I still had that jump to make. I had to get out of here. Anywhere but here.
I decided to leave my safety line behind, lest it would hinder me while making the jump. The spider web on my ship’s belly would make it obsolete, anyway. I detached it from my suit and wrapped it into the handles of the frame. I swear I didn’t let go for longer than a split second.
I reached, but just like that, the handle was too far away. To my horror, I realized that the array was moving away from me.
No- no, I was the one moving. I was falling towards the entity. Impossible, but happening nonetheless.
I reached again.
I made swimming motions, knowing it wouldn’t work.
I checked myself for a solution. My karabiner! I reached for my side, grabbing nothing but space suit. A feeling of doom crept over me. I was adrift, floating away from safety, into the unknown.
The only thing that kept me from screaming was the knowledge that I would die being compressed into the size of a single atom as I reached the center of the entity, and not after disappearing into darkness. Somewhere, there was a sense of relief, that I wouldn’t be falling victim to the hunger of the void.
Perhaps I too would be copied, embedded in our dimensional fabric?
Without gravity to pull my tears down, my eye sockets began to fill with them, clinging to my eyeballs. I had to shake my head briskly to retain any kind of blurred vision.
“Lisa,” I said, sending a radio signal into the immense noise emanating outward, like a whisper into a waterfall.
The battery on my suit finally died as I passed the event horizon and the screens went blank. Only emptiness remained, filled by my ship, myself, and an unknown anomaly I would soon collide with.
I slowly rotated toward the entity and it came into view. I was definitely going toward it, though I couldn’t tell the difference. From up close, it looked identical to any distance before. I could hear its buzz, its crackle all around me, and I felt spoken to. I was now submerged into its radiation, my vac suit the only barrier between me and its full effect.
I continued turning, and I saw my ship again, looking far away yet immense. I realized that the event horizon of the entity was acting like a lens, bending light and magnifying the Theseus to immense proportions.
Pitch black and tack sharp, there was a shadow on my ship… The shadow of a man.
A man in a space suit. As big as the ship itself, he seemed to float freely, projected onto an object of his own making.
As I twitched and the man mirrored my motion, I came to realize it was me, blocking the light coming from the entity behind me. I shook my head again as the vision blurred.
There it was again, the singular point. The buzz had become almost violent as I approached it, shaking me. Still, I didn’t know what it could mean, couldn’t understand what I was being told.
The glass in front of my face began showing hair fractures, from a stress that I was somehow unaware of.
Emotionlessly, I observed how they grew with short bursts, until suddenly, the pressure from my suit blew the shards outward. The air in my suit roared out past my face, sending my bandana flying.
I was exposed to the vacuum of space.
I had been trained for this, and my reaction was panicked but immediate. Opening my mouth, I let all air escape from my lungs with an endless sigh, lest it would tear me open.
I squeezed my eyes shut so that I wouldn’t lose them, and as I felt my veins swell, I tensed every muscle in my body to keep my blood inside me. Ultimately, it would only delay the inevitable. The last physical sensation I was aware of, was the water on my tongue beginning to boil.
And then I saw. With my eyes closed, I witnessed and understood everything. I understood where I was: This was the epicenter. Not physically, but originally: This was the big bang still happening, continuing the creation of the universe from its seed.
This point sewed space together and sent it every which way through quantum entanglement, negating entropy and repairing its aging process.
I could see what it was doing, creating stars, in turn creating planets. Ultimately, creating us, human life, to spread and multiply and eventually, infuse every corner of the universe with our presence.
And we would evolve to fire, like synapses and neurons, and become entwined as a brain-like structure, life as it was meant to exist. We would become one and transcend this reality, the cradle to us humans, the cells to form a cosmic child. We were the cosmos’ self-awareness.
It would happen. It was mathematically written inside our DNA, our need to explore and multiply making us what we are. It couldn’t not happen.
And I saw that I was part of it. How could that be, with my death seconds away? I could see Lisa, feel her presence. It aroused me to no end. What I wouldn’t give to embrace her again. What I wouldn’t do for more of the gift I was given. Every moment with her, a free moment to cherish.
There was no debt to pay. Our enjoyment of this process, our love, was a gift from this entity, meant to be experienced to the fullest. Somehow, we ungrateful many, were allowed to enjoy the completion of our collective task. Our lives, a clean slate for us to write. The universe in all its glory, ours to discover.
It was now behind me again, about to touch me as I died. And then it wasn’t.
It disappeared without so much as a sound, and hearing people’s frantic screams in the radio, I understood how time had dilated like the light, and although it had seemed an eternity, I had only been exposed for milliseconds. They had come for me.
“Lisa,” I said.
-“Yes,” she said.