“Oxygen levels, seven percent,” said the tinny emotionless voice.
Two days since the accident. Two days, since the death of the crew. Sometimes I can almost see a face, soft and warm with red lips, like roses, and the greenest eyes of spring lawn. A man could lie in them for hours and forget the world. A man could almost feel the grass blades between bare toes, and the cool nighttime breeze across goose-pimpled skin, like when I was a kid, left to lay for hours gazing at the stars.
The stars, I could never get enough of them, sitting outside till I was dragged to bed. The irony has not escaped even my oxygen starved brain. I suppose the universe does have a sense of humor. Those stars will be the last thing I ever see. Still, they are beautiful.
The sky outside rotates slowly, an endless cycle of glittering diamonds. The explosion that kicked me clear must have sent me into a spin, slow enough to not be dizzying, but fast enough that I can trace the movements of constellations across my viewplate. I have become a world unto myself, small and alone, floating through the void and surrounded by billions of tiny reminders of light and possibility. Some are known to me and others still deeply unfamiliar. If only I had an eternity to unlock their secrets, but I am down to mere hours.
Hair as soft as silk and as dark as the endless void, it smelled of lunch meat, but that was only in the morning. The kids used to laugh as we played rocketship, while she made their lunch. I can almost see her face. James, I love you, come home to me. It floats before me, obscured and distorted, like a figure trapped under the ice, kicking and screaming for air, but it’s gone. Now, I am alone.
The only thing real is the groan of my stomach, louder than before. The only image I can hold is the tube of paste I ate for breakfast so many days ago. I think it was banana. It tasted like metal. They always tasted like metal. I’m thirsty, but not “I just ran five-miles thirsty,” just “I could use a drink” thirsty. A beer would be nice. The saline indicator on my helmet is below zero. The emergency supply ran out hours ago, or days ago. There is no difference anymore.
Saturn rises across my field of vision. Its rings are back-lit by the sun and the powdery blue dust that surrounds the god-planet’s rings are shining like a thin wire of razor, beautiful and bright. It gives the whole planet the illusion of a motion faster than any purported by science. The great orb is like a spinning top on a whirling axis. It was my obsession, my only religion for so many years. All I wanted to do was see it with my own eyes, and now my eyes turn beyond it. In the distance, sits a bright blue dot.
Home is not a place, it’s a feeling, it’s family. Whenever you think of us, you’ll be home. The words come distant and half-remembered. My father spoke them on the day I left for college or was it the academy. He is dead now, and when I think of his face I see nothing. I feel only the cold in my fingertips. I never made it home for the funeral, a six month mission made it an impossibility. Everyone said they understood, of course they did. Maybe I never could.
“I’m sorry, Dad.”
Never say you’re sorry for that which is beyond your control. I am proud of you, son. Was it in my head? Was it my imagination? Did the suit’s communication system just come to life? It’s not possible. There is no one within a billion kilometers. I am the only human, the only thing alive out here. I am truly alone, and I am delusional.
“Oxygen levels, five percent.”
The flames, the rush of air, the silence. I come awake with a start from the half remembered dream, or was it a half-dreamt memory. Saturn is in full view. Even at this distance it dwarfs everything. Distantly, I hope I get to see it one more time, before I finally let go.
Hold on, son. Hold on to life. As long as you draw breath there is hope. I remember when he first said that me. His voice echoed from below, through the winter trees. We were camping and I had slipped from a tree limb. I had climbed too high. The limbs were too weak to support me. I have been trying to reach something, but the goal itself is beyond memory. Only the climb remains.
Hope is everything. Never lose it. This time the comm indicator sprang to life. The words weren’t imagined. They were real, spoken over the short distance channel.
“Dad?” my voice is raw and cracked. It hurts to speak, but it is maddening to stay silent. “Dad, is that you? Where are you?”
The only reply is my own breathing. I am beginning to slip. The isolation has taken its toll. Hypothermia is beginning to set in. The suit’s internal life support is slowly shutting down, like a deer succumbing to snow and frost, stumbling ignorantly towards its cold lonely end.
“Oxygen level, three percent.”
I wake. “Dad.” I don’t know if I screamed it. It’s hard to gauge how loud something is inside a helmet of plastic and metal. I struggle to get control of my flailing limbs. They no longer feel like part of my body. They no longer feel like flesh, just wood, nothing more than useless branches attached to a dying and forgotten tree.
I remember his eyes. They were bluer than the sky, bluer than the icicles that used to form on our garage.
I’m here, son. The LED indicators on my helmet are dead. There is no way of verifying the transmission source, but I am certain it is a transmission all the same. Saturn is gone now, replaced again with the endless ocean of stars.
“How is this possible?”
Moments fade, even memories die away, but love remains. Suddenly, there is light and color and I can see his face. It is a distant memory. I must have been very young. He still had his hair and that stupid mustache, but it was the same toothy grin.
“You’re not here. You’re dead. Gone.” I close my eyes and the light fades. Only the stars remain, eternal and fixed.
Everything must end. Even the stars are not forever. Their light is older than we can imagine. Most are dead even as they shine down on us. He is older now. His face shaded beneath the nighttime sky, only half facing me. His eyes sit transfixed on something above us.
“Dead.” I let the word hang there. Maybe for the first time I truly begin to question its meaning. Death, the concept seems almost beyond the scope of imagining, if not understanding. How can one word hold so much meaning and so much abstraction?
“Oxygen level, two percent,” says the computer as if in rebuttal to my musings, but even its voice of certainty is beginning to grow slow with the frost. I never considered what might happen to that voice. It will die with me, without ever having been alive. For some reason the thought saddens me. Man and machine will meet their end together.
But just because something ends, doesn’t mean it goes away. Look at the stars. Even after they have disappeared from the universe their light continues to shine. They continue to inspire and drive us. They are still beautiful. So why does death need to be any different? I could almost feel his hand on my shoulder as we stood before the casket of my mother. His face is blurry, but only because I watch him through tears.
“You’re not here. There is no life after death. No heaven or hell.” Such fantasies were sweet lies told to children to give comfort in times of grief. I know that. I’m a scientist and I know what happens to a person after death. Neural pathways shut down, the body stops pumping blood, cells starve for oxygen. They die, nothing less and nothing more. There is no light. Their isn’t even a tunnel.
My son, the scientist. You know so much. What do you know? Nothing. Quantum mechanics, string theory, dark energy? His face is angry, distorted somewhere between rage and pity. Fancy words to mean that for as much as you think you know, you still know nothing. Maybe God isn’t in the sky. Maybe he’s in us, tangled in the places between quarks, or unseen in the fifth, or sixth, or even thirteenth dimension? What if he is speaking to us now through the vibrations of a quantum string or calling to us through cosmic radiation?
“There is no God. We live. We die.” My mouth moves mechanically, rehashing the old argument, but the words just feel cold in my mouth, as if they too have been frozen by the void around me.
What good is your science if it only dashes hope? Hope is everything.
“We’re dead particles, brought to life for a brief second through a freak accident of nature. Dust to dust and ash to ash.”
Stardust and cosmic ash, perhaps. Those particles were forged in stars, created at the beginning of time itself. We are the universe made manifest, trying to figure itself out. There is a spark of the cosmos in us and that is no accident. We are part of something greater. How can that mean nothing?
“I miss you, Dad.”
“Oxygen level, one percent.” The hum of the air filters quiets. I had grown so accustomed to them I didn’t even realize they were still on. Now there is no sound. All the suit’s systems are dead. I am not far behind. My eyes feel heavy. I close them to rest, if only for a moment
Death is nothing to fear. Take it from a dead man.
“I want to believe you. I wish you were here.”
I am always with you. If space and time are one, then do any of us truly ever exist, ever truly stop existing? Maybe we never really go away. Maybe we are always here, like faint echoes bouncing around the great vastness.
“Even after you’re dead you’re still lecturing me.” I try to put the joke to my voice, but it comes out flat especially in the lonely dome of my helmet.
Only trying to show you the way. Like a light from a long-gone star.
Could the voice be right? Time is an illusion tethered by gravity, and if there is one thing I am lacking, it’s gravity. Then why am I so short on time? I open my eyes. Saturn has returned and I can almost feel it smiling down on me, like an eternal deity. In that moment, I remember my mythology. My father would have laughed. Saturn is the god of time.
I wait, but the voice says no more. Real or imagined, it’s gone. The only sound is my shallow breathing. I know am breathing in my own CO2. Each slow gasp seems more unsatisfactory than the last, but those are distant sensations. My body seems suddenly unimportant, because my eyes are growing heavy and before they close the last thing I see is my god.