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This weeks Sunday Showcase is a sci-if inspired prose piece by Roi Kadosh. You’ll get lost in space with this existential drama! Head over to our website to read the full version!
– Roi Kadosh
The stillness of it all.
Undoubtedly, it was the stillness of it all that unnerved him most. It had been a week since the final crewmember – or the one before last, to be completely accurate – had left the station and returned to Earth. The Astronaut knew it had been a week because all of his gauges divulged as much. As for the man himself, his perception of time had become somewhat… elastic. It was hard to keep track of time in the conventional way when one bears witness to 16 sunrises every day, after all.
Of course, in the course of the past week he found himself observing them less and less.
The stillness was all that remained. There were six of them to start with, all bearing their own colors, but one by one they were called back. “Budget cuts,” the Voice said. “When it rains, everybody gets wet – even in space.” So on they went. A week ago, the final cosmonaut left. And now only he, the Astronaut, remained.
The stillness is not actually all that quiet. The soft, animalistic hums of the instruments around him surrounded him at all times; the engines, compressors, computers, and other assorted equipment. Gears and axels, processors and fans. A sort of ill-defined crescendo of mechanical whirs and electronic beeps that had long since become akin to white noise for him. Three hundred and sixty-one days aboard the station. Nearly a year. And now it was just him and the station. The ghost in the machine.
He ambled across its different pods. Oh, he had tasks, quite a lot of tasks, truthfully, but he found it increasingly difficult to carry them out. A short time prior he received a call from Houston Mission Control. He was informed that he was being called back as well. The station was to be abandoned, like cosmic jetsam. “The project had become prohibitively expensive,” the Voice said. “Costs that might well be better directed to other avenues.” A geopolitical and economic dance; politicians and pencil pushers doing a fandango.
The Astronaut stood in the Cupola, the station’s observation module. It had the largest windows anywhere, and he found it pleasing to plant himself in it and simply… gaze. The station usually encircled the planet in low orbit, so the view could always be counted upon to be spectacular. He felt as if he could almost reach out and touch Earth – maybe even the very place from which he came, which now seemed so small and insignificant from so high up.
“God does not play dice,” Einstein once remarked. From where he was standing, it seemed like He might have, only the game was marbles. From the Cupola, Earth seemed like a bluish-white marble, all glittery and new. It was hard to put exactly into words what taking in an external view of the planet he came from stirred in him. Something inside had cracked, though he would be the last to admit it.
He had worked so hard, after all. Year in and year out of thankless repetition. The zero G training had actually proven to be the least challenging bit. No, it was the endless instruction, the navigation of agency politics like a ship gingerly crossing the icy depths of the Bering Strait.
And now it was all to be taken away from him. The sacrifices he made – the sacrifices he had to make. It was unbearable. The Astronaut now found it nearly impossible to stick to the station crew’s routines and SOPs. He had given up shaving, and his oversight over the station’s machinery had shrunken down to a necessary minimum. One day, he found himself staring at a metallic surface that reflected his face back to him. He stared for minutes on end before realizing he was doing it. Long stubble, sunken eyes affixed to a long, gaunt face and an impenetrable gaze. It was almost like he was looking through a window at somebody else. And maybe he was.
The Astronaut went out for a spacewalk. The pretext he had given Mission Control was that a cooling pump had malfunctioned. Maybe one of them really did. It was a common enough occurrence. Nevertheless, he stepped outside, into the inky blackness, where the only thing ringing in his ears was his own breath. Breath that now seemed to rumble like thunder rolling through a canyon.
He floated outside, in zero gravity, for minutes on end, the rhythmic inhaling and exhaling his only companions. He contemplated the message he received earlier. The transmission came from the general vicinity of Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons. It was uninhabited, of course. There was no life at all outside Earth, of course.
And still, when he was roused from a dreamless slumber he could not recall entering in the first place, there it was. “Come,” its only portent. Triangulating the transmission showed its origin was indeed Titan. Every instrument said so. He looked at all of them for a long while. Looked at them until he went out for a spacewalk.
Outside the station, he fiddled with the aforementioned cooling hose without really minding what he was doing. He could not explain who the intended audience for this little performance was – it was not as if someone was watching him out there. Still, he felt like someone had “stepped on his grave,” as his grandmother used to say, ever since he read that transmission.
The feeling was unshakeable, no matter how hard he tried. He had to leave the station. Its walls now closed in on him and suddenly felt oppressive.
After a while, he turned back and returned to the station. Its orbit would bring him to face Saturn soon enough.
The time that elapsed between that moment and the moment of orbiting the ringed planet was spent carrying out different scientific experiments, to the satisfaction of Mission Control, which had begun asking questions about them having been neglected. Then, he turned to tidying up uniforms scattered all over the station’s pods. Putting away utensils and plates full of half-eaten food. Putting his house in order.
Finally, Saturn had revealed itself to him. It had a sickly yellow pallor, the result of ammonia crystals in its atmosphere. Its rings pulsated with a soft glow. Standing in the Copula, the Astronaut gazed at Titan, which had a more orange hue. It was as if he was demanding the moon to spill its secrets, but it did not prove forthcoming. The stillness – the Astronaut’s only feedback – was deafening; inconceivable. He had waited so long, awaiting the opportunity to make true the destiny he knew he was worthy of, even if he could not quite put it into words himself.
He had decided to act.
The Astronaut left the station for another spacewalk, this time without notifying Mission Control. It was against every single protocol and bit of training he had received, but he was beyond such paltry things now. Before disembarking, he grabbed a knife from the station’s galley. All too familiar, almost like an old friend. He stuck it in one of the pockets of his spacesuit.
For a moment, he allowed himself to drift aimlessly and freely, enjoying the feeling of weightlessness. The station’s simulated gravity had already begun to weigh him down, like an albatross around his neck. He longed for the freedom space afforded. To be suspended in mid-air, like a baby in his mother’s womb.
At some point, he pulled out the knife from its compartment and grabbed the thick cable mooring him to the station. He began bisecting it, feeling like a surgeon undoing the umbilical cord of a newborn just drawing its first breaths outside its mother’s body. The mission was an arduous one; the cable was thick and the plain knife unsuited for such things. His main asset in this undertaking was persistence. He was never this singularly focused on anything in his life.
Not just the world, but the entire universe reduced itself to the size of that cable and that knife. Nothing else existed. He worked tirelessly, nearly robotically. Finally, he succeeded. He could not say how much time had passed, but he succeeded. The cable had been cut. He floated away, no longer tethered to anything at all. He floated into the yawning abyss.
The abyss seemed to relish swallowing him up. It engulfed him like a blanket, like a bird shielding its young with its wings, like a mother jubilant at a prodigal son’s return. He floated in stillness; the stillness of time immemorial. The stillness that predates the world; that predates everything.
The stillness was broken. A Voice cut through it like the knife he had used to unmoor himself. He heard the Voice, but not in his ears. He heard it inside his head, in a place he previously did not know existed, and yet was deeper and more ancient than any other part of his consciousness.
The Voice told him what he needed to hear; the thing he longed to hear above all else. “I am here.”
The Astronaut floated toward Titan. Certainty covered him, led him away. A tendril of light left the frozen moon, reaching out to him and signaled a welcome. He reached out to the plume of light, but it disappeared. Merely a mirage. An interstellar will-o’-the-wisp. Another cruel joke. He was incensed. Why was he being tormented so? He had come all this way. He had given so much, more than any man should. It was unbearable. To come all this way for swamp lights?
And then it struck him. Like a door that hitherto stood shuttered and locked, and whose existence he was not aware of until he found the key to undo its bindings. They were always there. The lights, the Voice. They stepped where he stepped from the outset. They were always a part of him. And now they beckoned to him to come, to come back home.
He had to travel all this way, traverse all that distance, to understand that now, at long last, finally, he was nearly home.
The light had suddenly become visible again. Thin beams, the breadth of needles, were extended to him, covered him. They penetrated his spacesuit, pierced his skin, and filled him to the brim. When they dissipated, so did he. He was no longer. Only the stillness remained.
Mission Control was always a hustling, bustling hub of activity, a din of people getting on with the business of getting on. The radio technician received a ping from the station. He opened a comm channel.
“I am here,” the Astronaut’s Voice crackled through, “and I am coming home.”