512 years in the future.
A Thursday afternoon.
The hapless space-suited figure continued hurtling through the cold, limitless depths of space. It was completely disconnected from anything or anyone, its deliberately severed umbilicom cord trailing behind it, like a long, thin tail. It was utterly isolated. Utterly, utterly alone.
After drifting at exactly the same velocity – 30 kilometres per hour – for 7 hours and 10 minutes, Dr Zivai had now travelled 215 kilometres away from the Symphony of the Stars.
Further in fact, since the Symphony’s continuing course was taking it ever further away from the point of her disembarkation (and subsequent abandonment).
There was still 170 minutes’ worth of oxygen in her suit’s tanks.
She’d given up making any physical exertions. Any movement of her arms and legs – no matter how fast or frantic – did nothing to alter or slow her path in this totally frictionless vacuum. It was just a waste of energy. So she stayed still now, arms and legs splayed like an adult-sized gingerbread man floating forever forward, in a perfectly straight line, at a perfectly stable velocity.
She floated through star fields speckled with white smudges, smears and streaks, as though someone had wiped the velvety black backdrop with a sponge soaked in pure light, and left billions of droplets behind.
She sped past dazzling intricate, frosted coronas of purple, green, blue and white, that stretched millions of light years from north to south.
For want of a better term – for who was to say where North was, all the way out here? Or South? Or up, down, front or back, for that matter. It was all… one.
Bizarre and magnificent nebulae ranged into her field of vision; a horsehead nebula, a crab nebula, a pineapple shaped nebula.
A nebula that was shaped like a horse’s head with a crab sitting on top of it, eating a pineapple.
Which then had another crab sitting on top of that.
‘There are more things in heaven, Tara,’ thought Dr Zivai, paraphrasing the other bard, ‘than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’
Inside Dr Zivai’s helmet: her breathing rate was elevated – 20 breaths per minute. Her body temperature was stable at 38.9 degrees Celsius and she was lightly perspiring. Her pupils were dilated, as here eyes drank in the endless magnificence of the spacescape all around her.
But inside Dr Zivai’s head:
‘I’m hungry. When did I last eat? That’s right, it was last night. Dinner. No wonder I’m starving; I haven’t had any breakfast, any lunch… so… I guess I haven’t eaten for 20 hours. And now that I’m thinking about this, my stomach hurts. That’s because it’s empty. Damn! Why don’t they equip these suits with emergency rations?
You know why, Tara – because these suits are set aside for passengers taking amusing, indulgent little walks tethered to the ship, that last no longer than 20 minutes – not for being cast adrift and LEFT TO DIE IN THE INFINITE COLD REACHES OF SPACE!
Oh, but last night’s dinner was good; that pasta… don’t think about it! And the wine. Don’t think about that either! Oh, now I’m thirsty, too. Great – why did I have to think about that? Now I’m hungry and thirsty.
And I’m also lost, I’m completely isolated, alone and helpless, with two and three quarter hours until I die of asphyxiation.
I hate Captain Singh for doing this to me; she’s taken everything from me. EVERYTHING; my home, my career, my friends, my freedom… MY LIFE! I don’t think I’ve never hated anyone this much before.
Even when I was killing.
I mean, sure, I hated all the passengers on that ship.
And I hated the job.
But this – this is like a whole new level. This hatred is so powerful, so desperate, so – I dunno – elemental.’
She felt the anger bubbling through her and she wanted to scream. She clenched her fists, instinctively. She wanted to kick something, to hit something, to break something, to kill someone all over again. She thrashed and flailed her arms and legs furiously; an action that had no effect whatsoever, apart from making her feel breathless and tired. If you’d been observing Dr Zivai from outside the ship from a nearby fixed point in space, she’d have presented as a tiny, crazily jerking figure, impotently wriggling as she continued to speed, weightlessly, along her predestined path. Again, Dr Zivai stopped all her exertions.
‘Ah, what’s the point of wearing myself out? But on the other hand, what’s the point of saving my energy? What am I saving it for? For this rich, full sumptuous existence that’s all mine for the next… two hours and forty minutes?’
And then she saw something.
‘Is that a ship? It’s white, it’s rectangular – it’s moving against the background… Oh, please let it be a ship! PleasePleasePleasePleasePlease! Let it be a ship. If it is a ship, and if I can get them to rescue me, I’ll never kill anyone ever again. Ever. No, even more than that; I’ll never do anything bad – anything at all – ever again. Ever! I swear! I promise. Wait, who am I swearing to? I don’t believe in any god, in anything supernatural… so who am I asking? Who am I promising? Me, I guess; I’m promising me. Oh alright then, that’ll do. If this is a ship, I promise to me that I’ll never ever, ever do anything bad again. Ever! I’ll lead a life of kindness and decency, and doing unto others, and –
It’s coming closer. Over here, over here, over here!’
She began to wave her arms and legs again.
‘If I’m moving around, they’re more likely to spot me – more likely to see that I’m alive. I’m not just detritus – I’m a PERSON! A LIVING PERSON! I’m alive! I’m stranded! I NEED RESCUING!!! Over here! Can you see me? Here – I’m right here! Oh please see me, please see me, I’ll never do anything bad ever again, I promise, I promise..
Over here… Over…
It moved close enough for her to see it clearly now. It was small – not much larger than her.
And it was not a ship.
It was a flat metal panel. It was just debris; a piece of worthless space junk.
Dr Zivai’s mood instantly plunged from ecstatically, frantically hopeful to utterly bereft and desolate.
‘Of course it’s not a ship. Why would it be a ship? What are the odds out here? How ridiculously unlikely and improbable would it be… how small would the chance be…
Stupid, Tara – stupid. Why’d you let yourself get your hopes up like that?
There isn’t any hope. There never was. The minute the captain cut me loose, the one and only chance I had was those pirates collecting the gold. If they’d taken pity on me, then maybe…
Alright, that’s it. I’m done. I’m ready to die now. Chronometer, what can you tell me? Oh. No such luck.
Another 150 minutes of oxygen – another 150 minutes of life – left.
How can I speed things up? Can I tear the suit? That’d do the trick – any suit breach would kill me instantly.’
Dr Zivai tried hard to tear a hole in the suit’s legs, then its arms… but the suit was too sturdy, and her gloves too stiff and clumsy to do any damage at all.
‘What about the umbilicom cord? Maybe its severed end will have sharp wires or bits of metal sticking out of it – I could use that to rupture the suit! Come on, come on…’
She pulled the free floating cord in toward her, reeling it in, hand over hand, for its full length of 60 metres. Finally, she greedily grabbed the cord’s sliced end and held it in her left hand, where she could see it closely.
‘Damn. It’s a clean cut – surgical, almost. And it’s also been sealed with some kind of rubbery plastic. Damn maitbots! Why’d they have to be so efficient, why’d they have to make everything so safe? Because, Tara, we don’t want people accidentally cutting themselves when we condemn them to a slow, agonizing death in the desolation of deep space.’
She continued to glide on and on…
There was only the sound of her breathing.
‘Out here, I’m tiny. I’m minuscule, insignificant. What does being 167 cm tall mean out here? Look at that over there – what is that, a planet? And its moon… and the stars; they never end. They never end. They just never end.
I might as well be an atom. And not just in terms of space, but time as well…
I’ve only been alive for 43 years. How old’s the universe? 14 billion years? Was that what they taught us in school?
Might as well be an atom, there, too. 43 years behind me. Nothing. And what about the time ahead of me? Two and a half hours. Ha! Less than nothing. Less than an atom. Time. Ha.’
She drifted on.
‘And then there’s the time I took from my victims – all those years they would have had, if I hadn’t cut their lives prematurely short. But did I get to keep all those years that I stole?
No Tara, you did not.
No Tara, I did not.
In fact, robbing them of the rest-of-their-lives also robbed you of yours. Thanks to Captain Singh’s sentence.
Yep, turns out it’s not exactly a zero sum game, time theft.
Quite the opposite, in fact; if I hadn’t killed them, she wouldn’t have killed me. I’d still be alive, I’d still be back there on the Symphony…
probably having something to eat. Damn, I’m hungry. If I were there now, I’d order up some thick cut white buttered toast with, fried eggs, pork sausages and rashers and rashers of crispy bacon.
Strange to think that they actually used to kill animals in order to get meat. What would it be like to kill a pig? Guess I came pretty close when I killed Devlin J Tucker the third… No, no – that’s not fair.
She drifted on.
‘Out here, I’m nothing. Physically, temporally, morally… I’m nothing. The universe doesn’t care about me. And why should it? People don;t care about me either. No one is coming for me. And I;m not going to just happen across a miraculous rescue.
Chronometer? Hmm… 145 minutes left.
Two hours and twenty five minutes.
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.
Text copyright (c) 2020 Stephen Hall
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