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Drifting

 

Due to an unfortunate accident I’ve been drifting through space for hundreds of years. Space is an openness, an unknowable gap. In a moment, this all will end.

 

I was a young man, perhaps in my early thirties, when the company assigned me to a system of telescopes orbiting Earth called the ASTRO-2. It monitored classified information which was never revealed to me. Its observatory required mission and payload specialists to control operations. I was paired with astronaut Mark Pine to upgrade its Ultraviolet Imaging Telescope which gathered imagery in the spectral range 1200 to 3100 Å. This was my first assignment in space.

 

On March 2, 2195, I held my wife and hugged my parents for the last time. A crew composed of Mark, myself, and four others launched into space and remained in Earth’s orbit for eighteen days.

 

Due to the classified nature of our work, we faced an intense and continuous pressure to focus. Space greeted us with a welcoming embrace to reflect, but we had neither the time or the energy to do so. The six of us were kept in the confines of an observable pod that felt like a coffin. The claustrophobic conditions made me ill. Since escape was impossible, I often curled up in the corner of the pod like a child, desperately hiding from the environment around me. The program stressed the decapitation of emotional offspring. Focus was perfection, perfection was necessary for success, success was necessary for further funding, and further funding was necessary for the continuation of the space program. The space program needed to continue, and that’s that.  

 

We approached the ASTRO-2 on March 20th, 2195. The others began the secondary mission goal to observe unique and classified astronomical targets over the next 60 days. Mark and I set off to begin the upgrade work on a Spacelab pallet in the payload bay of the shuttle where the telescope was mounted.

 

As we walked along the catwalk toward the pallet, a massive object cannoned into our shuttle. Mark moved with impeccable speed and confidence to strap himself to a steel beam in the payload bay. I followed suit, connecting to the same piece of support. His focus in those critical seconds saved our lives. I braced myself on the platform and called into the deck to check on the rest of the crew. Before they could reply, another object collided with the opposite end of the shuttle, tearing the station in two. Our platform pirouetted, flipped, and ejected the two of us into space. The whole sequence blurred together in an unformed shape in my mind. I have a hard time remembering how any of it occurred, only that it did.

 

Mark and I gathered ourselves along the beam of the payload bay. We were isolated. I grabbed ahold of him, fortunate for his company. We surveyed the increasingly distant accident, searching for signs of the rest of the crew. They weren’t prepared for ejection and were unlikely to be wearing their suits. Our hope for finding them slowly dissolved into the disappearing debris of the wreckage.

 

Despite our isolation, the first few days were exhausting. We stayed sensitive for signs of rescue, taking turns keeping an attentive watch across our perimeter.

 

Our suits were built to protect us from the relentless chill, collecting micrometeorites and using temperature change to generate life-sustaining energy in perpetuity. The suits are similar to the life-cycle sustainment chambers on Earth that elderly people enter in the last days of their lives. They were tanks, armorized with radiation generated by subatomic particles. They were capable of keeping us alive for thousands of years.

 

The suits, however, did not protect me from the bare exposure of openness. Without boundaries, I quickly lost the tangible realities of my psychological universe. Shapes, colors, and movements were abstract and limitless in space. The cleanest definitions left were lines drawn by the blindingly sharp plastics, glass, and fabric of our suits. Mark proved to be the last stable platform under my crumbling consciousness.

 

Three months after the accident, we lost hope for rescue and disconnected ourselves from the broken portion of the shuttle we had attached to. We connected together and remained that way for two hundred and twenty-six solar years.

 

We used to wonder if anyone at home was working on retrieving us -- the two lost astronauts. Generations of people had came into and blinked back out of existence since the accident. Had we been written into the chronicles of history as lost heroes? Were we the subject of explorers not yet born when the accident had happened? Did anyone even notice?

 

I have long lost track of our approximate location, and Mark and I decided to disable the date and time from our systems HUDs. We stopped thinking about the baby explorers. We just drifted out there, silently encompassed in ethereal blackness. There was only us.

 

In the absence of the comms system hub of the shuttle, we were not able to talk to each other. Neither of us knew sign language, so over the course of a few decades, we developed our own methods of communication. We first read lips and created signs. Our fingers deliberately formed our emotions, sensations, and conscious thoughts. I’d watch my signs form in front of me while Mark did the same, conveying and processing simultaneously. Our brains slowed to adapt to this way of communicating, thinking and conveying in lock-step. The signs consolidated and dropped off over time. We eventually expressed ourselves through eye contact, unbounded by the constraints of physical movement. Our emotions were ephemeral and delicate, conveyed in their most elemental and honest form. I became intimate with what made him afraid, excited, interested, and depressed. We used what was left of our decayed physical energy to cling together. We understood one another deeper than two people could on Earth.

 

I lost memory of others close to me at home. The faces of my wife, parents, and friends became distorted, suffocated by the vacuum of time and space.

 

Long exposure to isolation took my sense of self as well. I was a floating piece of consciousness. Mark was the last vital element, the only occupant that remained. He consumed each emotion, sensation, and thought that passed through me. His breath was my breath. Loss of the self gave birth to the boundless existence and potential of each other. There was no longer a prevailing frontier to separate us.

 

I surveyed every blemish on his skin. I anticipated each subtle movement he made before he made it. I knew the constellations of the hair follicles on his face. I memorized the patterns of his eyes underneath his eyelids as he slept. I watched them slow, waiting for the opening of his lashes so I could drift into the array of colors underneath. They were the galaxies surrounding me, each a black hole radiating a fiery orange, green, and yellow before drowning in a cold, dark blue. They were no longer pieces of Mark alone, they were pieces of me.

 

One moment, like countless others before it, I watched Mark wake from sleep. He stretched and yawned. We planned to pick up remembering illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Mark was signing fire when a small object flashed into view. I signaled for him to look, but we hadn’t developed a sign for “urgency.” Like a pickpocket in a train station, it brushed against his hip. His legs shot to the side, turning him perpendicular to myself. The counterforce between the collision and our clip disconnected our suits.

 

I found the boundaries of my body. Starting at my core, my tendons, muscles, bones, and skin came to life. Hard knots formed in my arms and legs. They burned my torpid muscles, branding me with their density and leaving me with the coordination of an infant.

 

I turned parallel with Mark and strained to grab ahold of him. My galaxy, consciousness, and humanity. Disconnected. He reached for me and I reached back. Our fingertips brushed.

 

The two of us began a slow, futile drift apart.

 

I couldn’t breathe.

 

As he drifted away I compartmentalized the elements of my world - his face, his skin, his eyes, their colors. I kept them assembled.

 

My determination to focus on him as he faded from view was all encompassing. I had to hold the observation. I would not miss a moment. I did what I could to distinguish his features and sign to him that everything would be alright. The pain of concentration branded my eyes. Nothing was more important than holding on. Every hour that passed killed another piece of him and another piece of me.

 

After a few days he was a tiny spec of matter against blackness. My breath slowed to not disrupt my concentration. I feared a lapse would cause him to disappear altogether, a lost child’s balloon touching the clouds. The burning duration of that time was poison.

 

I watched, and he was gone, and I was alone.

 

I searched the blackness, waiting for him to reappear. I searched for the object that collided with him, determined for retribution. I screamed in the closed-off shell of my helmet.

 

Someone had thrown me in a windowless cell and left me to die. For the first time in many lifetimes, I could sense myself as an individual again. All that remained was hollow pain, like a dry socket after a pulled tooth. My aching, decrepit muscles sagged off my bones like laundry on a clothesline. My vision softened, lining the hard blackness with velvet. My mouth was arid, dried of salivation. I was a crater, formed and abandoned.

 

The openness was agonizing, but I held out hope that with enough discipline and attention, a reflection of love could emerge. As I moved through space over the course of another lifetime, I searched for signs of life and love, for signs of Mark. I drifted through weather patterns on gas giants that pulsed to the same rhythm as his eyes while he slept. I passed through nebulas that matched the colors of those eyes, reaching out and touching the dazzling particles of orange, green, yellow, and blue that surrounded me. He was the omnipresent antimatter outside the scope of my comprehension.

 

A nova played out our separation from one another. He was a white dwarf, fading from view. I concentrated on him until every piece of light was suffocated by darkness.

 

I remained in that darkness for a long time.

 

At some point, everything subtly changed. A small warmth brushed against me. I regained awareness of the space beyond my suit, like a hallway light outside my bedroom door. I felt the tips of my fingers and toes. The soft cotton inside of the suit warmed my skin. I waved my arms and legs through the weightless vacuum of space. It disoriented me. I felt useless and feeble. I didn’t deserve to exist.

 

I examined the suit for the first time in hundreds of solar years. I studied the harsh definition of the fabric. It pierced through my senses. The tech attached to me was foreign, forged by a species I no longer recognized. The seams connecting the suit felt warn, strained from use beyond their intent. I noticed a tear along my left leg. It may have been there all along.

 

I fumbled at it with my restored coordination. The frayed strands of neoprene left on the broken seam held strong, dutifully performing their duties. I spent waking days applying pressure at each until they gave up -- popping, fraying, and floating in the vacuum like a sea anemone. One by one, I vanquished my resilient foes. As I got close to the bottom of the tear, my suit bombarded me with an explosion of alarms and orange lights. My senses overloaded. I clutched at the sides of my helmet, screaming in silence at humanity’s last attempt to contact me. I strained to tear at the last few seams, begging for the vacuum to flood in and pull the screeching cells of my body into space.

 

The alarms cut and the orange lights stopped flashing. The universe was still again. I quivered, unsure if I were dead, but my plaintive muscles responded -- it wasn’t over. My suit had repaired itself at the tear, clotting and scabbing its exterior with glycerol and rubber latex.

 

Defeat.

 

My body was a husk carrying an impossible death. I curled up like a child and fell asleep. Searching for hope in the stars was over. The only thing left was loss, growing inside me like a dark patch of mold on a soft lemon. Resigning myself to a deep sleep was the closest thing I was allowed to death. When my body attempted to creak into consciousness, I stubbornly willed it back away from the brink. My determination exhausted it and I slept for a long time.

 

Something again brushed me in a warm embrace, gently whispering of life. I stirred, half awake, half asleep, and for the first time, I dreamed.

 

I was wearing a sweater and blue jeans, lying in darkness. I reached around and felt a bottle. Wine? I grabbed a piece of something spongy and smelled it. Rich. I put it in my mouth. Cheese. I touched what I was laying on. Soft. I felt someone next to me. A picnic. They moved close, touched me, and the world exploded with light. Mark. He smiled. We were in the middle of a dark field. We laid on a black velvet blanket next to a basket and a spread of fruits, cheeses, crackers, and wine. The grass around us was made of thin strands of black licorice. Mark broke off a piece and ate it. I did as well. The sweetness filled my senses. I grabbed another. We nibbled on licorice for a few minutes until an alarm went off. Mark straightened up and put his finger to his mouth, urging me to stay silent. He was uncomfortable. I reached out to console him and he swatted my hand away. Something terrified him. His head violently cocked to the side. His mouth and eyes opened wide. He cast his attention toward the picnic basket on the corner of our blanket. He mouthed something awful. I couldn’t hear him. I rushed toward the basket but it snapped shut before I could look inside. I tried to open it, but it didn’t budge. I stood up and strained to pry it. It cracked like a sewer cap. I used the rest of my adrenaline to flip the lid open, tumbling to the ground as it gave way. I sat up and Mark ripped me back down to the blanket, hovering over the top of me. His gaping mouth and eyes filled with smoke. I pushed him aside, peered into the basket, and saw a small piece of space debris. The object that disconnected us. As soon as I realized what it was, it shot into the sky. Mark lost his grip on me and shot into space as well. I tried to watch him, but he was gone too quickly. The light around me extinguished.

 

I feel awake now, warmer than before. Something outside continues to wrap me in its embrace, pulling me toward it. I peel open my eyes and take in a blurry white light.

 

As I restore myself, my captor emerges and space feels alive. It is enormous and all encompassing. It is the brightest light I’ve ever seen, and my eyes are seared with its magnificence. It swirls and radiates, buzzing with life. A living, breathing star.

 

It’s him.

 

He warms my blood. His flares reach to me, and I reach back. We’re still far apart, but I can feel his pull as I accelerate toward him. I am warm.

 

I pass through a small asteroid belt, and space debris pelts my suit, tossing me around. Enormous asteroids observe as I flail through their front. I wave. Something hits the glass on my helmet and cracks its outer shell. I lose my bearings, but I’m not drifting anymore. I know the direction I’m headed.

 

I clear the belt and the star unthinkably doubles in size. The fractured glass on my helmet spreads its light like a chandelier.

 

The heat is agonizing. The latex repair on my left leg sizzles.

 

I move faster, and he begins to consume me. I’m no longer alone.

 

I close my eyes and learn prayer. Lift me from this place. Return me to where I have already visited. I open my eyes and ask the star for benediction.

 

His pull is uncontrollable and aggressive. As I hurdle toward him, distant stars blur and fade from my vision in a dizzying spiral. Faster. My vision fails. Faster. It’s so hot. Faster.

 

The moment passes.

 

Joe Glocke is a writer living in Seattle, WA with his fiancee, dog, and cat. He writes character-driven science fiction. By day, he works as a Program Manager at Microsoft.