Inspired by (but not as inspiring as) this.
I am writing blindly.
I know that sounds melodramatic. Old habits die hard.
But don’t worry, my love–not yet. My eyes are fine, my vision, perfection. It’s the darkness that’s the problem. I’m straining to find light, any light at all: a glimmer, a spark, a particle, a wave.
I had a professor who used to say that light is a particle on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and a wave on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. On Sundays we just think about it.
That’s a physics joke. A physics dad joke. I’ve succumbed to dad jokes, the kindest, gentlest, dumbest form of gallows humor.
I’m as appalled as you are. Let me pull myself together.
* * * * *
Mildly better now. I’ll start over.
It’s a shock, suddenly being unable to see, going blind in the blink of an eye. (That’s not a joke, much less a dad joke, just a cliche sideswiped by poor phrasing.) It reminds me of being a kid, when my friends and I played hide-and-seek at sleepovers. I’d curl up in the darkest corner of the pitch-blackest closet of a house that wasn’t mine, certain that I’d claimed the perfect spot.
But after five minutes of giggling nervously to myself and not being discovered, the strange scents, the unfamiliar silhouettes of boxes and clothes, began to seem ominous. I knew they were just a bunch of sweaters, but they were scary sweaters.
Then as now, my eyes opened and shut, opened and shut, trying to clear away the darkness like it were a speck of dust. Now as then, my mouth opens as wide as my eyes. If I could see myself, I’d look like a fish out of water, gasping and awestruck.
Can a fish be awestruck?
Sorry, I’m avoiding the unavoidable. Give me a minute. I’ll try again.
* * * * *
That took longer than a minute. I did some deep breathing–not a great idea, given the circumstances–then made another attempt at finding a way out. For a moment, I thought I’d located a hatch beneath the conference table, but no such luck. (I think I just wrote “suck luck”. That could be because I’m writing in utter darkness, or maybe it’s a Freudian slip, inspired by thoughts of you. Your choice.)
I’m in Anthony’s office. I came to say my goodbyes. It sounds poetic, saying goodbyes, but speaking to a corpse is like speaking to a rock: cathartic, perhaps, but it makes you feel like an idiot. I stopped halfway through, kissed him on the forehead, and left him with a token of my affection: that tiny set of matryoshka dolls you bought me on our first vacation together. They’ve been my constant companions on these long trips, my muses, my five fair maidens all in a row. (Fun fact: I’ve been known to use the smallest one as a shotglass. I call her Anna Karenina Stolichnaya. She’s kind of a lush.) They’re not much use now, though. They’ve served their purpose, and I’ve served mine.
I’d just tucked the dolls into the crook of Anthony’s elbow when the grid finally collapsed. Lights, air, gravity all went at once. Backup systems, too. I was expecting it, but like winning the lottery or losing your virginity, it’s the kind of thing you can never fully prepare for.
In old movies about space, ships always had big windows offering expansive views of the universe. In reality, ship windows have rarely been that grand. Windows and doors mean seals, and seals mean opportunities for things to go wrong. Even portholes are tricky. We switched to pseudowindows long ago because exterior cameras and interior screens have less of an impact on structural integrity.
On the downside, they don’t do anything at all when a ship’s power goes down for the count.
In sum, we eliminated windows to create smarter windows, meaning that now I have no windows–smart or dumb–and no light–particles or waves.
And I could strangle the people who designed these doors without manual overrides. Oh, well. Maybe they’ll get what’s coming to them. Stay tuned!
* * * * *
You know what’s funny? I’ve been trapped here for at least 30 minutes–probably closer to an hour–but I feel fine. The outlines of the room don’t unnerve me like the ones that lurked in the closets of my childhood. In fact, I find it peaceful here. For the first ten minutes or so, I let myself bounce against the walls, ceiling, floor, furniture. “The Blue Danube” played in my head. I thought, “Oh, this is nice.”
Eventually, I tumbled into Anthony’s desk and grabbed it. The ship’s log is useless now, but I found a notebook in the top drawer with a pen attached. A paper notebook. Like my matryoshkas, it’s an extravagance, so he must have had a special reason for bringing it aboard–maybe to jot down notes? Notes that he didn’t want to share? Notes about me? Well, he can’t really object to me using it now. I just hope that he hadn’t written anything important. This will be hard enough to decipher without you having to read Anthony’s scribbles side-by-side. Then again, it might be fun to compare and contrast our points of view. An extra-credit exercise, if you have time.
(Heads-up: you may have very little time. Or far too much of it.)
It’s been years since I felt paper. I’d forgotten how comforting the texture can be, like skin, like the vellum medieval scribes used to tell the stories of people and animals who were usually fortunate enough not to have become vellum themselves.
At the moment, the paper is my friend. I have a pen, too, but it is clearly not my friend. It won’t behave in my hand, won’t make the words flow. It is slow and treacherous, moving in fits and starts, stuttering worse than I do. To be fair to the pen, however, I haven’t used one of these things in a long, long time.
Also in defense of the pen, the temperature is plummeting, and I sit here in nothing but my base layer, shivering. There’s nothing to cover me.
Well, there’s Anthony’s death shroud, I suppose. And if things get desperate enough, his corpse. But I’m not ready for either of those. And if I’m not ready now, I never will be.
I feel him bump against me now and then. It’s oddly comforting, like the paper. Any port in a storm, any friend at the end. If I run out of paper, maybe I’ll write on his skin. Lazy man’s vellum.
I can see the shock on your face from millions of kilometers away. But trust me, I’ve done worse. Stay tuned, I said.
* * * * *
I doubt that you’ll ever read this. It’s likely no one will. But if it’s found–if it survives vacuum, debris, distances that make the mind reel, and a thousand other problems–if it survives all that and is found, you’ll probably be just as much as memory as I am. Maybe your children will read it. (I hope you have children.) Or their children. (I hope they have children.) Or their children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children.
What if they don’t speak English anymore? What if by then our language is as dead as we are?
Someone will figure it out, I suppose. Or more likely, they’ll die trying.
* * * * *
I’m struggling to breathe now. I have maybe half an hour left. I should really get to the point.
I love a deathbed confession, don’t you?
Everything was fine until 12 hours ago. Then, it became your standard space nightmare: specimens jumbled, ventilation systems compromised, crew members exposed. Death came quickly to everyone but me. Yes, there is a treatment, and yes, I took it. But no one else did, because I only brought enough for one.
I’ve never been much of a sharer.
That’s probably why I enjoy keeping secrets. Even now, I hesitate to reveal too much. You know what? Let’s not call this a confession after all–let’s call it a teaser. An amuse-bouche. They say a sin disappears when it’s confessed, and I want to hold on to this one for a while. I deserve that much. Perhaps worse.
Strike that. Substitute “certainly worse”.
So, let the tease begin.
Hygiea is more than just a large chunk of rock in the asteroid belt. Even you, my kind and gentle love, know that everything out here has a military or industrial purpose. Hygiea has both.
Is that enough to give you a hint? Probably not.
What the hell, I’ll say a little more. Two words, to be precise: biological agent. That’s two words too many, but what are they gonna do, kill me? Pity I’ll beat them to the punch. I would’ve liked to see the look on their faces when they realized what I’d done.
I’m sorry, I know you’re confused. I’m trying to be oblique to spare you the pain, anguish, and a possible prison sentence. I’ll be more direct: those meetings I used to have on Wednesday nights? Surely you knew that I wasn’t really going to a book club. In all our years together, when have you ever seen me read for fun?
What you probably didn’t piece together, though, is that my so-called book club friends were a bunch of zealots ready for a fresh start. And, in true zealot fashion, we wanted to force that fresh start on everyone else.
That’s not exactly what my employers had in mind. Yes, they wanted a fresh start too, but only for certain people. “The best people,” I’m sure they’d say. They wanted me to engineer something that could be targeted, contained, and hidden after the fact. But what I created is neither discrete nor discreet. It is a slaughter in spotlight, and it observes no boundaries–at least not on a nitrogen-rich planet like our barely habitable blue speck.
You would’ve been the start of it all, my love, my perfect patient zero. So fitting. Our embrace at port would’ve been the kiss that launched a billion funerals–thirteen billion, give or take. I’m not sure if the media would’ve figured out what was happening in time to talk about it, but if they had–oh, if they had, the stories would’ve been spectacular. You think I’m melodramatic? Just imagine.
Alas, things never go as planned. I’d always wanted to leave a good corpse and a great headline. Now, I’ll get neither, unless I can find a mirror some starlight in this very expensive corporate coffin. (As for the headlines, if there are headlines, please ensure they’re fabulous.)
* * * * *
That’s the end of my story, or as much as I’m willing to tell. I can’t say what will happen to you, but even in this impenetrable darkness, I see three possibilities:
1. Work will continue at Hygiea. The right people (i.e. the wrong people, in my book) will discover what I was up to and shutter the program immediately, in which case, you and everyone we know will be left to suffer a long, agonizing death on a failing Earth. Sorry, I did my best.
2. Work will continue at Hygiea. Thanks to ignorance or a coverup coordinated by my colleagues, no one will question our disappearance, no one will discover what’s been created, the hundreds of malevolent, microscopic Trojan horses we’ve built and cleverly nested. (Do you remember that time we were eating Cantonese takeout at the dinner table and I started gasping and you thought I was choking? I wasn’t. The sight of the matryoshkas on the bookshelf had simply inspired an epiphany. I knew immediately how it had to be constructed. A vision of world destruction, all thanks to you. So, thank you.) The biological agent will be brought back to Earth, where it will be deployed by an angelic chorus of military drones and run amok with jaw-dropping speed. Humanity snuffed out in less than a week, mission accomplished, back to the Garden, you’re welcome.
3. Work will continue at Hygiea. No one will discover what’s been created, but before they can transfer anything back to Earth, they’ll find us, find this ship, find Anthony’s lost warning, find traces of my work to block the transmission and disable the SOS beacon. Bots will piece together what happened, how it happened, how Anthony’s mind worked too quickly after the initial exposures, made too many educated guesses and killed us all to save the human race. (He was a drama queen through and through. Takes one to know one.) And then they’ll come for you. They’ll show you these pages I’ve written, assume you had something to do with it, that you knew all along, even though I’m screaming to anyone who can hear that you are fully innocent. Unfortunately, I’m screaming in space, and you know what they say. I hope they treat you fairly.
* * * * *
The nice thing about traveling between planets, moons, asteroids, and comets is that you have a lot of time to yourself. (Not me, not now, but I did.) Some people would find the isolation terrifying, but I like myself. In fact, I love myself. Quite literally. During a typical 24-hour cycle, I masturbate every three hours. At least.
I’m sure that doesn’t surprise you.
But you know what might? I imagined dying like this a thousand times. Well, not a thousand times. And not exactly like this. But a few, and almost.
Statistically speaking, I was far more likely to die of some terminal illness than here in the vast blackness. But you never think of yourself getting old and you never think of yourself getting sick. Both come as a shock. You wake up, and there it is. Like, “Holy shit, how did this happen?” And so, I thought of other ends. Like this. Variations on this.
On the upside, I’ve beaten the odds. Yay for me. Fuck cancer, et cetera.
On the downside, well, it’s all downside from here.
I’m surrounded by stars but unable to see, my love. Much less see my love.
Irony and double-entendres get me down.