512 years in the future.
A Thursday morning.
Meanwhile, inside Dr Zivai’s spacesuit…
Dr Zivai knew that these SLS (Sovereign Life Support) spacesuits were equipped with ten hours of oxygen. That’s including the emergency backup tank. Ten hours. 600 minutes. Maybe a few more, if she regulated her breathing. If she managed not to panic.
Dr Zivai knew, too, exactly what would happen to her when that ten hours was up; when the oxygen did run out. She’d start to feel breathless, she might get a headache, experience some nausea or some dizziness – there could even be a little bit of euphoria, if she was lucky. She’d struggle for air, but only for thirty or forty seconds, before she lost consciousness. A bit like falling asleep, really. Falling asleep and never waking up. After that, she’d be dead within the next few minutes.
Although she wasn’t seeing it like this right now, in the scheme of things, it wasn’t such a bad way to go. Her last moments wouldn’t be overly uncomfortable, stressed, panicked or painful. The end of her life would certainly be a lot more merciful than the ends she’d inflicted upon her various victims. There was the issue of the interim, though – the time that stretched before her right now. The time between this moment… and her final moment. Dr Tara Zivai estimated that there were now only 9 hours and 58 minutes until she died.
What was she going to do in that time?
As Dr Zivai drifted out in front of the Symphony, and further away from the immense space liner, her path brought her in view of the Cheeky Albert’s pinnace. She saw that the pirates’ smaller auxiliary ship had been moving away from the Symphony very slowly, as it gingerly picked its way through the hundreds of floating gold bricks scattered nearby. She could just make out one member of their crew floating along behind the vessel, tethered to it by a long cord. He seemed to be methodically collecting the gold bricks, and storing them in a crate he was carrying.
A bolt of Hope hit Dr Zivai, with all the force of an electric shock. If she could just somehow maneuver herself over to these pirates, or at least make them see her…
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Skarsgard closed the lid of the crate on yet another gold brick. Dangling out here in space, attached to the pinnace, he’d now collected twenty three of them since he, Evans and Fullbrook had struck out on their own in pursuit of the booty, forty minutes ago. As he scanned the area for the next nearest glint of gold, something white caught his eye. Far away, but moving closer.
Yes – there were two arms and two legs, and they were moving. This was a person! A person in a spacesuit… freely drifting – alive! A person completely disconnected from any equipment, vehicle or vessel. A person clearly in distress.
“Evans!” he said urgently calling the pinnace’s pilot. “Evans! Do you see this? There’s someone out here! Look!”
“Where?” the pilot’s voice crackled through his helmet’s receiver.
Skarsgard pointed ahead. “Right there! Maybe a hundred metres away from me – moving closer! Do you see?”
There was a pause.
“Oh, yeah…” Inside the ship, Evans manipulated its exterior cameras to get a closer look. “It’s a woman, I think.”
“Well, we have to rescue her, don’t we?” replied Skarsgard. “Take me closer! If you hurry, I might be able to reach her – we can save her. Come on!”
In the cockpit, Evans made no reply. She was thinking. The third mutineer, Fullbrook, entered and joined her at the controls, as they both squinted at the screen showing the ill-fated figure. Skarsgard’s voice filled the cockpit again.
“We’re not moving, Evans – why are we not moving? Come on – I’m sure we can intercept her.”
Evans and Fullbrook looked at each other.
“Mm, I don’t think we should,” said Fullbrook at last. “It’s nothing to do with us. And she’s probably out there for a reason.”
“What? Fullbrook, her umbilicom cord’s been cut – she’s just drifting!” Skarsgard protested. “Who knows where she’ll end up? If we don’t intervene, she’s going to die.”
“Mate, she’s one of them…” Evans intoned darkly. “…The Enemy. This could be a trap – she could be bait. Did you think about that?”
“No, come on, time’s wasting – let’s move!”
But Evans did not move. Fullbrook did not move either.
“We have to save her! We’re going to miss our chance,” Skarsgard implored.
But his two crew mates in the cockpit remained silent and unmoved.
“Well, can we at least put it to a vote?” Skarsgard growled in frustration. “I vote we save her.”
“I vote we don’t,” said Fullbrook. “this is not our problem.”
“I’m with Fullbrook,” added the pilot. “I don’t like the look of this -”
“You don’t like the look of this,” Skarsgard interrupted, “because she’s drifting helplessly. She’s in desperate need – she’s been deliberately CUT OFF from her ship! Come on, have a heart.”
“Gotta say, Skarsgard,” said Fullbrook mockingly. “you’re sounding awfully sentimental today.”
“Come on! Evans, please – she’s nearly here. We can save her, but I need you to use those brilliant skills of yours to get me closer to her.”
“No. Sorry Skarsgard, you’ve been outvoted. Two to one.”
“Let her be,” agreed Fullbrook. “She’s not our problem.”
Skarsgard gazed forlornly at the hapless figure, as she continued to glide toward him. She was flailing her arms and legs, as though she was desperately trying to gain control of her trajectory – as though she was trying to “swim” through space. The futility of this instinctive effort made her tiny, fragile form appear even more pathetic. As she sailed closer and closer to Skarsgard, he reached out an arm to her. She reached out to him too, but her path didn’t bring her close enough for them to connect. It did being her close enough, though, that Skarsgard saw her face inside the helmet. She was indeed a woman – a woman in her forties. He saw her mouth moving – was she calling out to him? He couldn’t make out the words; he could only read her eyes. Those eyes – eyes brimming with disbelief, confusion and fear.
Skarsgard knew those eyes would haunt him from this day forward.
He looked away from her.
“This is wrong,” he whispered. “This is wrong, and you both know it.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Dr Zivai sailed on. She stopped moving her arms and legs; she’d realised that was a waste of energy. She held her body still now, as it sped effortlessly, silently away from the ship, away from civilisation, away from all human contact… and ever further into the blank vacuum of space.
‘Did they see me?’ she wondered. ‘They must have seen me. How could they not have seen me? I was waving my arms, my legs… he looked at me. The one on the end of the cord. He looked up from what he was doing and looked right at me; HE SAW MY FACE. Why didn’t they help me? How could they just… just… do nothing?’
She couldn’t see the pinnace or the pirate attached to it any more; she had passed by them, and they were behind her now. Then a welcome thought suddenly struck her.
‘Of course! They need to reel him in, to get him safely on board before they come and rescue me. That’s it! That makes perfect sense. It’ll take a minute or two… they’ll reel him back in, get him safely inside the ship, and THEN they’ll come and get me.’
Dr Zivai breathed a sigh of relief. She was going to be alright, after all. She blessed her good luck, and silently thanked these three pirates for deserting their crew to chase after that scattered treasure. ‘Their gold rush is my silver lining!’ she thought.
She was wrong.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
“I saw her face,” Skarsgard told his crew mates. “We could have saved her.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t,” the pilot responded. “And that’s that. She’s gone now.”
“Evans is right, mate,” added Fullbrook. “Let it go. You need to focus on the task at hand – there’s still so much more gold for us to get!”
Deep down, Evans and Fullbrook knew that their refusal to save that hapless woman had condemned her to death. What they didn’t know was that ‘that hapless woman’ had very recently murdered five innocent people, purely for her own aberrant enjoyment. Did her mortal sin of killing five innocent people overshadow their ethical breach of looking the other way? On the face of it, the pirates had failed to do what was morally right. But if they had saved Dr Zivai, they wouldn’t be rescuing an innocent victim; they’d be nullifying the death sentence that Captain Singh had meted out to a serial killer, as punishment for her heinous crimes. They’d be pardoning a mass murderer… perhaps even rewarding her. Evans and Fullbrook were blissfully unaware of all this, of course. They hadn’t given this ethical dilemma much thought to begin with, and they weren’t about to spend any time reflecting on it now, either. Fullbrook, in particular, had always subscribed to the Bard’s view on this subject;
“If you do the Right Thing when no one’s watching, that means you’ve got Integrity.
If you do the wrong thing when no one’s watching, that means you’ve got away with it.”
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Inside Dr Zivai’s spacesuit, time ticked on.
She counted 60 seconds. Then, another 60 seconds. And another.
After six minutes of drifting at her constant, uninterrupted velocity (roughly 30 kilometres per hour), Dr Zivai was already three kilometres away from the Symphony of the Stars. The pinnace was still somewhere behind her, but she couldn’t quite twist herself around sufficiently to bring it into her field of vision.
After 10 minutes and 48 seconds (according to the spacesuit’s chronometer), any hope Dr Zivai harboured was all but extinguished.
‘They’ve had plenty of time to retrieve their crew mate, and then to come and get me…’ she thought.
‘But they haven’t.’
Just as surely and steadily as she was being dragged away from the ship, Dr Zivai was also being dragged towards the awful, inevitable conclusion…
‘They’re not coming for me. No one’s coming for me.’
There was a moment while that thought settled.
Then… she knew she shouldn’t, but Dr Zivai could not stop herself from screaming. Just one word, over and over again, as she sped further and further away from all light, further and further away from all life.
“No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!”
Author’s note: I’ve recorded a short video diary entry about the writing of this chapter, and if you’re interested, you can watch it right here.