They told me to let it go.
Following me as I made my way to the ventilation shaft, they—crew and colleagues alike—pointed out things that I already knew. Too dangerous, they said. Too risky, they complained. Think of the complications if you don’t make it back, they begged. It’s not worth it, they argued.
And that’s where they were wrong.
I kept silent as I methodically put on my suit, checking for leaks with each secured piece. It wasn’t until I was fully protected, helmet in hand, that I made my way through the ventilation shaft and across the hallway to stand above the ladder that, once descended, led into the closed off airlock. The button that would release me into open space was only feet below me. Around me, the voices had stopped. All but one.
“If you don’t reach it before the rotation—”
“Debris could just as likely…hell, more than likely—”
I moved to put on my helmet. As expected, a hand landed on my arm, stalling me. I finally allowed myself to meet his eyes, the gaze that I had purposefully avoided ever since I announced that I was going on a solo dive to retrieve the last capsule. I didn’t want to see Dmitri’s heartbreak, for he knew, as only a lover could, how stubborn my made-up mind was. He also knew why, when the others argued for the pointlessness of retrieving the rogue capsule, how wrong that was.
27 souls, myself included, had been awake and aboard the Final Rays Hope for almost seven years. Before regaining consciousness, we had been cyropreserved for over 100 years, sent into space as humanity’s last hope, to be preserved—literally—as a species. Back on Earth, before our launch, we’d been scrapping and clawing in the aftermath of a nuclear war wiping out our population slowly by the continent. Those who had survived the war were being killed off by radiation, cancer and yet more irrational violence.
Our team of volunteers had been a drastic risk and last hope that we hadn’t destroyed ourselves to extinction, barely escaping off the planet after we decided to do so. Upon awaking a century later, we followed our instructions, tracing probes attached to satellites where launched capsules had landed; capsules that had been sent periodically every five years during our unnatural slumber, updating us on the status of Earth, alerting us to whether it was safe to return home or if we were forced to start anew on another planet.
The first five years since we were programmed to awake, we’d spent tracing, gathering and absorbing the capsules. In the time that we slept, Earth’s population had fallen to less than 3%. Radiation and nuclear waste had destroyed over 80% of the land, making them uninhabitable. A single colony had been set up for the survivors, whose location was to be revealed in the next capsule; the capsule that would disclose whether our mission was over and we could return home.
Over two years had passed since a probe’s signal had been picked up.
We’d traced the signal with renewed fervor, only to be heartbroken last night. The capsule, wherever it had been programmed to land, had obviously missed its mark. It attached itself in the middle of a collapsed debris field, on one of the smaller broken pieces of a imploded asteroid. It was hardly safe to fly through the field, let alone try and land a rover on the rock in attempt to recover the capsule. Especially once we actually saw the rock in question. It was too small to attempt a landing.
Of a rover, anyway.
“Please,” Dmitri whispered.
I swallowed, statistics going through my head like I was trained; trained to calculate risks and gains. Once I left the airlock and entered the debris field, there was a 97% chance that I would be knocked off course before I reached the capsule. 83% chance that something would ricochet off of me and nick my suit, causing a number of ways for my body to fail after being exposed in open space: hypoxia, hypocapnia, ebullism, decompression sickness; all of which varied between taking 14 to 30 seconds to kill me. If, somehow, I managed to reach the capsule unscathed, I would have to extract it and return to the ship before we rotated completely and entered into the direct path of the sun. My suit would protect me, but the chances that the traveling debris would nick it during my return would never decrease. The sun’s direct rays would only increase the ways I could be killed. Every calculation I completed pointed to the same conclusion, echoing my fellow astronauts concerns.
But none of it mattered.
“I have to know.”
He pulled his hand away from my arm, only to punch the wall. I actually smirked. I never thought I’d fall in love with someone who had such anger issues. I’d always labeled it as just another opposite that attracted us; his instinct to react with anger—or any emotion, truly—juxtaposed with my reserved stoicism.
Calmly, I continued, “Even without that need, this is our purpose. This is why were sent up here. If they are calling us home, we cannot miss it.”
“Simply a word used to describe when you are exposed to danger,” I interrupted, irritating him with my dictionary definition. Stepping closer, I turned him back to face me, my hand barely cupping his cheek. “And the risks are always worth preserving hope and a future.”
The downward tug of his lips made clear his disagreement.
The locking of my helmet made clear how I didn’t—couldn’t—care.
When the airlock sealed behind me, the first thing I did was turn off the radio. Everyone in the cabin probably screamed in frustration, but if they didn’t want me to be able to silence them, they shouldn’t have given me the option. Unbeknownst to them, I’d turn communication back on once I reached the capsule. But in order to reach the capsule, I couldn’t have them yelling in my ear. I was the most adept Floater amongst us. I volunteered because no one else had. If the discussion had went a different way and this plan had been agreed upon by all instead of proposed and enacted by one, I would have been volunteered because of my experience. Didn’t matter which route we took to get here, the reality remained that I was the only person that could handle this. Me. Alone.
So the least I could ask for was some silence so I could focus.
The cable I gripped in my left hand trailed behind me. I’d gotten a good jump and was already halfway towards the capsule. I could see it, sitting crooked on the rock, surrounded by darkness. I used to dream about the children that Dmitri and I would have back on Earth, telling them about the adventures we had in space and what our time was like here; how we fought for their literal existence. Yet the only stories I could think to tell were about the darkness. Not just the eternal stretch that space provided, but the reflection of Earth. Once, the scattered night lights showed the most populated cities and glowed, even up from space.
Yet we never saw Earth like that.
Extending my right hand ahead of me, I pushed away smaller pieces of rock as I continued to float. Closer. My heart hammered. I waited for the cable to snap behind me, snagged or cut against passing debris. I waited to collide with a piece too big for me to brush aside, the fabric of my suit ripping away as quickly as hope did on Earth with every new major city totaled by yesterday’s bomb. I waited for the collapsing of my lungs, the instinct to draw in one final breath (wrong choice, in this instance) that would result in decompression and passing out into the darkness that haunted my dreams; the darkness seen on Earth, not the darkness of space. The second was freeing. The first was a reminder of failure. I waited for my body to balloon, to bloat. I waited to freeze solid from the lack of humidity. I waited for every death that I was programmed to expect before I reached the capsule.
Yet none of them happened.
Instead, I hit the rock with a harder landing than I expected. Upon impact, my right hand immediately reached out and grabbed onto the capsule’s handle, wrapping a tight fist, while during the same impact, my left hand extended to cradle against it. It didn’t matter how many years I trained. It didn’t matter how many warnings I had received. It didn’t matter what inevitabilities I had calculated and then somehow avoided.
It was instinct that failed me.
It was instinct that caused my left hand to flatten into a palm instead of a fist when I landed. Instinct that resulted in the cable—my lifeline back to the ship—slipping out of my hold and floating away from me.
I noticed immediately, my head jerking to stare at my only hope returning to the ship slipping away from me. If I reached out for it and resecured that link, I knew the earful I would receive from my team. How I shouldn’t have been so stupid to let go of the only thing attaching me to the ship. How I should have wrapped the cable around my body instead of just holding onto it—and how they wouldn’t listen to my arguments that I needed to be able to detach at a moment’s notice, if the cable got snagged and took me with it. But I also knew why I was out there in the first place, what really mattered. I couldn’t reach the cable without lunging for it. Once I did, I would be pulled back in. Dmitri would ensure that. The capsule was still secured into the rock, much more firmly than I had surmised. I couldn’t have both.
Instinct caused me to lose the cable.
Choice made me let it go.
I turned away, switching my radio back on. The first thing I heard was crazed screaming, faintly in the background. Dmitri. Then, once the operator realized I had reestablished the link, a closer voice shouted over him. “Dani! Dani, what the fuck are you doing?”
Wrapping both hands around the handle of the capsule, I began to pull. “I have to get the capsule out.”
“Dani, without the cable—”
“I’m not coming back!” I pulled again. “Be ready to transcribe the message. I’m going to gather it from here.”
Even answered by silence from the operator, I could no longer hear my lover’s shouts. They had restrained him or knocked him out. I hoped for the latter. Continuing to try and pull the capsule free—I had to twist it around to insert the code to release the contents—I asked, quietly, “How long?”
Clarification on what I meant wasn’t necessary. “Not even two minutes.”
I swallowed any curse I could have uttered. I was not failing after getting this close. I was not.
When the capsule wouldn’t budge, I pushed myself down beneath it, switching my handholds from the top to the bottom. Shoving my right hand between the rock and the capsule, I felt for the release pad just on the other side, pointedly ignoring the building pressure the rock created against the fabric covering my arm.
“Dani, if you release the pressure from the capsule, the contents are going to be sucked away,” the operator reminded me unhelpfully. “There’s no way you’ll be able to secure them—”
“Dammit, just be prepared to transcribe the message!” I screamed. For the first time in my life. That loss of control almost scared me more than my imminent demise.
“Dammit,” I choked.
My fingers brushed against the pad. Even through the spacesuit, I could feel the sudden difference between the smoothness of the capsule and the raised pad. I slipped one finger against the edge until I found the bottom. The number sequence flashed inside my mind. Reaching still further, my grip on the capsule’s handle straining, I pressed the first number, hoping the capsule wasn’t upside down. But without being able to see the pad, I couldn’t know for certain.
Everything suddenly grew brighter and I knew we had spun into the sun’s rays. I didn’t turn around, thankful for my suit. Burning to death was not my top choice, considering my options. I pressed the second number and then reached to brush against the third in the top right corner, a “three.”
The rock punctured my arm, releasing air.
30 seconds, at most, before your lungs decompress, your inner-liquids turn to vapor and your expose skin burns, my mind immediately calculated.
I lasted 14 seconds.
Twisting my body to block my exposed arm from the sun, I pressed the last two numbers rapidly. As soon as the capsule clicked, I launched myself up, pushing off the rock and capsule both.
Suddenly, I was free floating.
The lid of the capsule snapped open, the contents shooting out around me. Though I would never realize this, in a different situation, it was obvious that the contents were letters. Hundreds of handwritten letters. Twisting, I tried to grab onto one, desperate to know what they said. Did I command my team to go back home or did I tell them to colonize a different planet? I had to know. Could we return home? Come we go home?
My fingers brushed against an envelope’s edge, before that last letter, like all the rest, disintegrated. My body spun around with the effort to reach just that much higher. My arm, the sliver that was directly exposed, blackened immediately, flakes of burnt skins peeling off. I don’t know how, but I’m certain I went blind before hypoxia caused me to black out. I guess it doesn’t really matter. Either way, I succumbed to the darkness that had surrounded me for so many years, ignorant of how many days Dmitri would go without sleep after regaining conscious from his KO punch; ignorant of how many hours he would scream at the crew during their next debrief.
Ignorant of how he would convince them to try again.