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This story is reminiscent of a tale by one of my very good friends. Edgar Allan Poe's story was about two friends sharing a glass of sherry in the basement. A little libation to cement their relationship...
WAY OUT HERE
When I woke up, my head was pounding and my eyes wouldn’t quite focus. I was in a white room in a white padded chair, and I was buckled in tight. I knew I was on a space ship because the floor beneath me curved a bit from one end to the other, meaning it was spinning for artificial gravity.
I unstrapped myself, stood, and woke up on the floor a few minutes later. I squeezed my eyes, took a deep breath, and stood slowly this time. The throbbing in my head began to fade as I staggered to the door, opened it.
A long, curving hallway greeted me like I was standing at the bottom of a big white tire.
“Hello?” I rasped. I cleared my throat and called again. “Hello?” The echoes died and there was no answer.
I stepped down the hallway, glancing in through the doors as I passed, using the walls for support. There were storage rooms, a kitchen maybe, a bathroom...
As I walked, memory tickled me. Last night I’d been drinking with Jeff and then... How’d I get here? This was a bit much for one of his practical jokes. Then again, he’d probably think something like this was funny as hell.
I had to get back to work. I knew I was already late, and flights from even the lowest Earth orbits took hours. Ellen and Ryan would probably be worried too; I hadn’t come home when she was making my favorite beef stew and I hadn’t been there to chat with him before school...
Soon I came to what looked like a control room, so I stepped inside and saw a couple of rolling chairs and a panel with some screens. A red light was blinking, and below it were the words, “Incoming Transmission.”
“Hello!” I called again.
Still no answer. I pressed the button.
One of the screens flickered to life but nothing appeared except that dull nearly-black glow that meant it was on but otherwise dead.
I waited. Nothing happened.
Just before I got too impatient, the screen suddenly flickered to bright life and there was Jeff’s face filling the screen.
“OK, Jeff,” I said. “Somehow you got me on a spaceship orbiting the Earth. Now get me off this thing before I break my perfect record at work.”
I saw a smile quirking at the edge of his lips.
“You’re not orbiting the Earth, Alex,” he said. There was something in his voice...triumph? “Have you noticed the delay yet? There’s already a few seconds between when we talk and when it reaches the other guy.”
“What?” A few seconds’ delay would put me past the moon already. “What the hell, Jeff? This isn’t funny!”
“Do you know how fast you’re–” but that’s when what I said must have reached him; he started, blinked, grinned. “Here, let me open the windows so you can get a last look at the Earth.” He disappeared.
The whole wall in front of me turned out to be a window. The white metal slid upward to reveal crystal stars shining against the black wall of space. I pressed my face against the window and stared at the blue and white ball of the Earth.
I said, “Jeff, I don’t know what the hell you think you’re doing, but you’d better turn me around right now!”
“Alex, Alex, Alex.” He shook his head like he was chiding a toddler. “Haven’t you realized by now that you’re not coming back?”
“My God, Jeff! Do you think this is funny? Turn me the fuck around before you ruin my life you son of a goddamn–“
His face contorted in rage. ”Ruin your life! You’ve already ruined mine!” His anger startled me. We’d been pals ever since college; me, him and Ellen were like best buddies. When did I ever screw him?
His face relaxed in grim triumph. “Look out your window, Alex. You see those stars? Get used to them.”
I waited, then realized it was my cue. “Why, Jeff?”
He smiled. “You’ve got enough food to last years. Decades, in fact. You’re heading out of the solar system at thirty-six miles per second, and you won’t be coming back.” He tossed his head toward the ceiling and laughed. “It was so easy to get everyone to look the other way. I told them I’d found the right guy, and they didn’t ask any questions. No one knows you’re out here but me.”
I stared, not comprehending. Here’s what I thought was about to happen next: I was going to wake up to my alarm clock and say, “Is it fucking morning already?” and then Ellen would get up and make me breakfast while I showered, then I’d talk to Ryan a bit before heading off to work on that new engine that me and my team were developing. And so close to completing...
But then I saw it in his eyes; this was no joke. “Why the hell would you do that to me?”
A pause as my transmission reached him, then, “Why do you think, Alex? You can be honest; I know you know the answer.”
I bared my teeth. “Because you’re a goddamn jackass and I thought you were my friend but that turned out to be bullshit!”
When he got my message, his face twisted in contempt. “No, you fool. I’m doing this because of what you did to me and Ellen. You don’t love her, Alex, and you never have. But I did. So do you know what I’m doing? I’m fixing things, old friend, old buddy. Everyone you knew back on Earth is wondering where you are right now, but in a few weeks most of them won’t care.
“I’ll be the last human being you’ll ever talk to. Do you know why I never married? Because I was waiting for my chance to take Ellen back and give her the love she deserves. Your wife is going to become my wife, and your son is going to become my son, and your life is going to become a part of my life. And do you know what? There’s not a goddamn thing you can do but sit and watch it happen. Goodbye for now, buddy!”
The screen went blank.
I kept staring. Minutes passed, then I looked out the window. Earth was a blue ball streaked with brown and white and all around me everything else was endless black. Ahead of me there was nothing but the cold depths of space. Nothing else at all.
That’s when I lost it. I threw myself at the controls and shifted through the different systems, but one by one I found that they were all locked and remotely controlled from Earth. Could I send a transmission? Not unless I wanted to ask Jeff to deliver it for me; everything from my ship went directly to him and there was no changing that.
Had to turn myself around!
Then I saw my current fuel level–it was next to empty. The initial thrust must have used it all. There wouldn’t be enough left to turn me around even if I could break into the controls.
Alone in the cold blackness of space for the rest of my life!
I fled the control room looking for something, anything, but I ran around the ship three times before I realized I was going in circles. I threw open the doors to the supply rooms and found a rocket pack, and for a moment the silly thought entered my mind that it was my ticket to freedom. Then I realized that even if I could get out an airlock and blast away from the ship, I’d still be flying away from Earth at nearly thirty-six miles per second.
I ran to the other supply rooms and found food, equipment, and lots of nothing that would help me. I clutched my hair and ran back to the control room and tried to break the locks on the systems. I was an engineer! I could hack through this!
But I couldn’t. Everything I tried met with failure. I beat my hands against the control panel until they were bruised and swollen, then I leapt to my feet and kicked it as hard as I could, but my foot bounced off and I toppled backward.
I must have hit my head or something and passed out right there on the floor, because that was where I woke up ten hours later.
Needless to say, I felt like shit.
Back home, my morning routine usually went something like this: I’d hit the alarm and sleep another five minutes, then I’d hit it again, then I’d hit it a third time and get up, stretch, shower, dress, and head downstairs where Ellen would have breakfast ready. Ryan would be there eating his sugar puffs or cocoa bombs or whatever kids eat these days, and we’d chat a bit before I headed off to work.
This morning there was no Ellen to make me breakfast and no Ryan to talk to. Instead of my alarm clock waking me it was the cold pain throbbing in the back of my head.
I pushed myself to my feet and stared out the window at the tiny white-streaked ball of the Earth hanging against the stars in the blackness of space. I hit the call button and waited, and it was fifteen minutes or so before I realized that Jeff wasn’t going to pick up. I looked at my watch: it was two a.m.
My stomach growled. I told it to shut up. It kept whining. I went to look for something to eat.
I found a room that might have been a kitchen where there was this machine that I knew could make me food but I didn’t know how. I fiddled it until I managed to make a sweet powdery paste that tasted OK.
I went back to the control room and hit the call button, and it was another fifteen minutes before I realized that it was just past three, so I messed with the controls and managed to remind myself that they were all locked.
I killed time. I walked around the ship checking things out, and I pressed a button on the wall and everything went black, and a monotone female voice echoed above me, “Hall lights off.”
I pressed it again.
“Hall lights on.” Just amusing myself.
I found I could make the ship say all kinds of things by turning different things on and off, and it became a sort of game I played with my ship.
“Humidity set to forty-five percent.”
I smiled. Or was it more of a grimace?
“Humidity set to forty percent.”
I looked at my watch: it was five a.m.
I paced around the main hallway for awhile, then I found a window and watched the stars. I saw Orion’s Belt, and that little blob of light in the center star stood out plain as day. It was in the constellation...um...
A half hour later I remembered: it was in the constellation Orion. Right.
At seven a.m. I went back to the control room and punched the call button, hoping Jeff might have come in for an early day at work.
This time I waited twenty minutes, but there was still no answer.
I made myself some more sweet paste, ate it as I paced around the ship. I watched the stars, I talked to the computer, and I called Jeff every hour.
By ten o’clock he still hadn’t responded, and it wasn’t like it was a weekend or anything. In fact it was Tuesday.
“God damn it, Jeff!” I said. “Pick up the damn receiver!”
By six that evening he still hadn’t picked up. Nothing the next evening, or the evening after that.
Then I realized he probably knew I was calling him. He was letting me stew.
I think I invented some new cuss words in the message I recorded and sent to him. By next evening he still hadn’t responded.
I sent him some more hate mail, this one riddled with threats. In the next evening’s message I said I was going to kill him myself. The one after that I said I was going to remove body parts one at a time, starting with the one that made him a man.
Then I realized I wasn’t in any position to make threats. So I apologized. I sent him transmissions begging him to turn me around, telling him his joke was hilarious and if he brought me back to Earth I wouldn’t do any of the things I said or even tell anybody. I promised him money, I promised him my house, I even promised to let him spend the night with my wife once a week. Then I remembered what he’d said about Ellen.
If I cursed him before, now I damned him to hell with every word that left my mouth. I yelled and I ranted and I screamed at him to turn me around, to just pick up the damn receiver and face me, but the days passed and became weeks, and still he didn’t respond.
What did I do between transmissions? Nothing. Nothing at all. Oh, I guess you could say I didn’t just lay around and breath and eat and shit all day; I paced around the ship and watched the stars, I talked to the computer and started talking to myself and we had some three-way conversations, I bashed my head against the control panel trying to break my way into Jeff’s damn system and turn myself around or send a transmission to someone else back on Earth. But I may was well have just lain around and breathed and eaten and shit all day, because nothing I did made any difference at all; I was still out here on this space ship watching my world float away from me into a pale blue dot, and I hadn’t made any progress at changing that.
A month passed. One morning I woke up to the red light flashing on the control panel. I punched the button and watched Jeff’s face fill the screen.
“Good morning, Alex!” he said cheerily. Too cheerily. “I can tell by all those nice messages you’ve been sending me that you’re beginning to understand what I can do to you, and what I will do to you. I haven’t even bothered to watch them, but I know what they mean: you’re breaking, Alex. You’re beginning to realize that this is for real, and there isn’t a thing you can do about it except sit on that ship and wonder what’s been going on in your life while you’ve been away. Just accept it; I’ve won and you can’t change that. Me and Ellen–well, I’ll let you wonder for now. After all, you’re not on that ship just for revenge, though I would have preferred it that way. No, you’re out there to work for me and my team, even though I’m the only one who knows who you are. Everyone else thinks you’re some hermit who wants to get away from people.
“We have work for you, Alex. If you do it for us, I’ll tell you what’s been going on here on Earth and I’ll send you pictures of your wife, your son, and your life. If you don’t do the work we have for you, I won’t tell you anything and you’ll float out of the solar system completely cut off from everything that you knew. Send me your answer, but before you make your decision, I’ll leave you with this: last night Ellen said I was the best friend she’d ever had, and she hugged me. Then I kissed her, and I could feel her body tense but I knew she wanted me. Then she kissed me back. By the time I get back to you, we’ll be sharing the same bed. Your bed, Alex. So long.”
The screen went blank.
I don’t remember much about that night, but my guess is I probably didn’t sleep at all.
Three months. I was floating in a space ship with everything I needed to survive, but that wasn’t what I needed at all. What could I do? I could pace around the ship, I could talk to myself and the computer and watch the stars, and I could lie in bed and wonder what was going on back home. Was Jeff telling the truth about him and Ellen? How could she be moving on so quickly? She had loved me! What about my son? What was he doing? What about my job? All I could do was sit and wonder and bash my head against the control panel trying to figure out a way to turn myself around that I knew didn’t exist.
Everyone’s read a book or seen a movie about a castaway stranded on a deserted island back when there were still deserted islands. I’d never been stranded on one myself but I’d be willing to bet my ass that what was happening to me was ten times worse. I didn’t have to forage for food because the food machine made whatever I could come up with; I didn’t have to build a shelter to protect myself from tropical storms, because inside the ship there wasn’t any weather; I didn’t have to fight for my life against man-eating tigers or cannibalistic natives, because there was nothing alive on the ship but me; I didn’t have to do anything to survive, because the ship kept me alive. And that’s what was hardest for me; all I did was exist. Even Jeff refused to talk to me though I sent him transmission after transmission.
The three months crawled along. I sped by the orbit of Mars and moved through the asteroid belt where little points of light drifted slowly by in the far, far distance. I paced around the ship, I clutched my hair and shook my head from side to side, I squeezed my eyes and kicked the walls, I ran laps and shouted along the corridors, and when I’d wake up in my bed every morning I’d wish I hadn’t.
When the three months passed, Jeff sent me another transmission.
“Are you beginning to understand now, Alex? Do you see what’s in store for you? If you’re ready to start working for us, then send me your reply. If not...well, how long do you think I’ll give you this time?”
The screen went blank.
I can’t tell you how it felt to finally hear another human voice speaking directly to me, but that voice was Jeff’s and he had done this to me and when I saw him my hatred flared again hotter than ever.
But I waited half a day for it to cool down, because I had already made my decision over the long months of my imprisonment. Then I sent my message.
His reply: “So you’ll ‘play along,’” he laughed. “Well all right then. Call it what you will. The first thing we have for you is to run some checks on the ship’s equipment. Here are your instructions.”
When I got them, I read them, stared at them, read them again, again. If I did them, it would be doing what Jeff wanted.
I did them, reaffirming to myself that I would play along for now. I sent the results to Jeff, and in a few hours I got his reply.
“Well, you fulfilled your end of the bargain, and now I’ll fulfill mine by sending you the pictures I promised. The first one’s your team at work with your finished engine. S & T magazine did a run on it a few weeks ago. Supposed to revolutionize atmospheric travel or something. Ah, but what am I telling you for? Anyway, the guy on the far left is the one who took your place. His name’s Jim. Great guy.
“The second one’s your son Ryan, heading out the door for his first day in the second grade. Nice little kid, but I hear the older boys push him around and he just takes it. I think he misses you. It’s too bad.
“The third one’s me and Ellen at the beach before we headed back to my place for the night. She’s quite a woman, isn’t she? Even after all those years with you she’s never lost her moves between the sheets.
“Well, that’s about everything. I’ll see you again when we need some more work done. We’ve set you up for a flyby of Saturn, when you’ll be taking some images and readings. Until then, so long.”
That night, the next day, and the day after, I did something I hadn’t done in years: I cried.
But when I’d finished crying and started to actually think about what Jeff had said, I realized something: Saturn. It was my ticket to freedom.
Over the course of the next month, I had something to work for; if I could pull it off then I’d be going home. I worked out my trajectory and found that I’d be passing within fifty million miles of Saturn, and if I could somehow get Jeff to turn off a few necessary systems I could put myself into orbit. There were robotic ships out there all the time orbiting the moon Titan and preparing the new research lab; given enough time I knew I could get one of them to notice me.
It was painful work, doing my calculations–I was an engineer, not an astrophysicist. But I worked almost around the clock and it felt good–so good to be doing something! And as I worked I ignored the piece of my mind that told me I’d never be able to pull this off, until at last I’d finished my calculations. Now all I had to do was wait for Jeff to contact me. And I waited, and I waited.
Another month passed. The asteroids were gone and the inner planets were growing fainter–even the Earth. I checked and double-checked my calculations knowing they were perfect, I talked to myself and I talked to the computer asking what we thought about the idea.
My irrational side said, “This’ll work, no question.” We shared a grin.
The computer said, “Bedroom lights on.” I took that as a yes.
My rational side said, “There’s no way in hell this is going to work.” I told him to fuck off.
Jupiter’s orbit came and went and the third and fourth months passed, and I did what I did best on that ship; I waited.
When at last Jeff contacted me, I could see Saturn’s ringed disk resolving before me from the dot it had been for the past eight months.
“Well, Alex,” he said. “I hate to bother you because I’m sure you’ve been enjoying yourself, but we’ve got more work for you. Here are my instructions.”
More diagnostic checks, some imaging, readings, calculations. It was my opportunity. I waited a day to give him the impression that I was trying to do what he asked, then I sent him a message naming the systems I wanted to have turned off.
His reply: “Very well, I don’t see how you can do any harm. But as soon as you’re done, they’re going right back on.”
My hope went from a smoldering ember to a red-hot knife in my chest. Make no mistake: it actually hurt. I worked for two days straight, then I realized I hadn’t slept, but I didn’t care. I got the food machine to make me a couple more gallons of coffee and kept working.
“I’ll be home soon, Ellen,” I said out loud. Again and again. “Ryan, Ellen, I’ll see you soon.”
Fatigue wore away at me but I couldn’t stop; I had to finish before Jeff got suspicious. So I kept working, and I got closer and closer and–
I hit a brick wall. A system was locked that had been turned off. Then I began shifting through the other systems and realized they were all locked.
The red light on the control panel was flashing. I stared for a moment, then with a quivering hand I pressed the button and watched Jeff’s transmission:
“Things seem a bit to easy out there, Alex? I had to find out if you were really cooperating, and now I know. Do you know what I’m going to do now? I’m not going to contact you for a full year. I’m sending you all the work I want done between then and now, and if you want me to send you anything when that year’s gone, you’d better have it done. Goodbye for a long, long time, Alex.”
I don’t know how long I sat staring at the screen; it could have been ten minutes or it could have been ten hours. But I think it took me at least a full day to realize what a fool I’d been to let myself hope.
I traced my trajectory for another chance at something, anything, but all that was ahead of me was a whole lot of nothing. Besides, Jeff would never trust me again.
I watched the stars, those crystal points of light against infinite blackness as I floated in nothing, and I did the work Jeff had sent me. I talked to the computer, I talked to myself, I talked to the pictures of my wife and son and I cursed the pictures of Jeff. All the while I told myself I’d find a way to get back there and kill him or something better, and I racked my brain and beat my head against the control panel day after day. Sometimes literally. But I wouldn’t let my hope die, even though it was killing me.
Another month passed, and another, and another, and that was my one year anniversary. I didn’t celebrate.
What I did was run laps, watch the stars, talk to myself and the computer as the months continued to roll by.
“You guys think we’ll ever get out of this?”
Mr. Irrational: “Of course, man.”
Mr. Rational: “No way in hell.”
May (that was what I’d named the computer): “Oxygen replicators operating at seventeen percent.” You know, she had a very sexy voice. And I’d always liked her; she was always so calm, so cool.
Damn, I needed a woman.
A man? Better not even touch that one.
When I reached the orbit of Uranus I had begun cutting myself with kitchen knives. The pain was a rush I couldn’t get enough of, and the blood looked so fascinating, flowing out of me like a river of life. Once I bled so much I passed out and had to spend a week in bed, but once I could walk I did it again.
I passed the orbit of Uranus and sped on, but it didn’t feel like I was speeding on; there wasn’t anything drifting past me to mark my passage, because everything was so damn far away. I couldn’t see any of the inner planets anymore, and the sun was a tiny blazing light behind me that still dazzled my eyes, but was waning... I’d gone nearly two billion miles but those stars out my windows didn’t move at all. Back on Earth they changed with the seasons; on a space ship shooting straight as an arrow, they don’t move at all.
When Jeff’s transmission finally came I couldn’t believe it; after a year without him I was convinced it would never come at all.
“Wow, Alex,” was the first thing he said. “Do you realize it’s been a year? Man, how the time flies!” I couldn’t have disagreed more. “Well, I see you’ve done everything I asked. Good work. You fulfilled your end of the bargain, and now I’ll fulfill mine.
“The first picture is Ellen holding our new son. Isn’t he cute? He’ll be a great man one day, no doubt about it. The second picture is your son Ryan’s first day of the third grade. Still not very social, but he’s a good worker.
“As far as your own work is concerned, I’ve sent you more instructions. Do them and I’ll get back to you in a few months.”
Yes, the baby had Jeff’s nose and ears. And yes, he certainly had Ellen’s eyes and cheekbones.
That was when I realized that there were two kinds of pain. The first I experienced when I cut myself so I could feel something; the second was what I’d been experiencing ever since I woke up that first morning on this damn ship, and it never–ever–felt good.
So I did what I was asked, and I did a whole lot of nothing else. Then one day I realized I’d been out here two whole years, then two years and a month, two years and two months, so on and so forth.
At the two-and-a-half-year mark I’d reached about the orbit of Neptune, give or take, then at the three-year mark I was out beyond Pluto and that was it for the solar system as I knew it. There were some deep space Kuiper Belt objects somewhere out there, but our cozy little nine planets were all I had known. Jeff contacted me every four months or so with new instructions and news.
But there wasn’t much to tell: they were just moving on with life. Ellen was about to have their second kid, and they were moving into a bigger house. And they were still alive. Was I?
I ran laps around the ship, I worked out as best I could, I fiddled with the equipment, I talked and talked, falling over laughing with me, myself, and the computer at nothing at all as I worked on plans for turning the ship around that I knew would never happen. After all, I had been an engineer once, a long time ago. The thought kept me going. Or was it slowly killing me?
Four years, five years, six years. What were they to me? Nothing happened but Jeff’s transmissions anyway. He and Ellen had three kids plus Ryan, and they all lived in a beautiful home. And Ellen looked happy. So much happier than I had seen her in years. It drove my hatred for Jeff, but as the years passed I started to see that what fueled my hate the most was looking at Ellen’s face and beginning to understand why he had done this to me.
If Jeff had just stopped contacting me, it would have hurt more at first but then the pain would have slowly died away along with all my other feelings but hunger and thirst and the urge to have a bowel movement. I’d read before–back on Earth–about how prisoners locked away in dungeons for years with no human contact eventually learned to exist from day to day without doing anything–just eating and shitting and breathing, forgetting that anything but food and shit and air existed. But as long as Jeff kept telling me about what had been my life, I couldn’t forget.
Seven years, eight years, nine years...ten years? Yes, I had been on this tiny ship hurtling into nothing for ten long years and eleven billion endless miles.
I finally managed to figure out a way to hack into the ship’s controls and alter my course, but by now there was no point; all around me there was nothing but the darkness and the stars.
The sun? No, the sun didn't really shine way out here. Back when I left Earth I couldn't look anywhere near it without dazzling my eyes. Out past the asteroid belt it was like a dime held at arm’s length, blazing and burning a hole right through my eyeballs. Past Saturn: still more than a point, but only just. Neptune? A point I could stare at for almost half a minute without having to look away. Way out here, though, almost four times the orbit of Neptune? Reminded me of Venus on a nice, cold, New York summer evening. A long time ago, in another life, another world, another universe.
And I couldn't see the planets anymore. Not even Jupiter. Just the sun, and nothing else for eleven billion miles. Up? Nothing. Down? Nothing. Left, right, back, forward? Nothing but endless, endless, nothing.
Imagine you’re looking at a field of stars taken by a super high-powered telescope, and this field takes up as much sky as the head of a pin held at arm’s length. Now imagine the tiniest, dimmest point of light in this picture is an object a thousand miles across, shining a hundred thousand times dimmer than the naked eye can see. How far away is this object? Billions of miles closer than I was.
Now get this: as far as that was, I had about sixteen thousand times farther to go before I was as far away as the nearest star to the sun. In this universe there's so much nothing between anything!
And all the while as I hurtled into the dead, chilling depths of the void, the thought smoldered in my mind that I would somehow get back to my old life. It was burning me away, but the longer I was out here the less I cared whether I lived at all.
It was almost eleven years now–twelve billion miles of nothing–when Jeff sent me another transmission.
“Alex, it’s time. You’re three months from your destination, and I need you to do some preliminary survey work. Here are your instructions.”
So there was a destination after all. I’d stopped believing it after about two years or so.
It took me a couple days to do what he asked, and I sent the data back to him. What was it now? A sixteen-hour delay? Jesus.
Two days later, I got his reply.
“Alex! I’m sending you new specifications. I need you to do this as quickly as possible and get back to me!”
Curiosity gnawing at me, I did what he asked.
Another two days later he sent me another transmission, giving me new specifications and sounding frantic. That’s when I decided I wanted to know just what in the hell was going on.
His response: “All right, Alex. I suppose you should know. We think it’s a black hole.
“Now don’t worry; it isn’t the swallow-the-known-universe type of black hole or even the suck-in-everything-around-you type. Black holes are usually created when massive stars burn all their fuel away and contract suddenly, or form at the center of galaxies. This black hole was probably formed during the creation of the universe; it’s called a primordial black hole. They’re relatively small–this one appears to have a mass about halfway between Saturn and Jupiter.”
He swallowed, looked away. “I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry; you won’t get near enough to be pulled in. It’ll probably just alter your course a little bit...” He swallowed again. “But please Alex, we need that data. I’ll send you anything I can.”
As serious as he sounded, it was hard to believe I was safe. Guess I didn’t really care, though. But I did what he asked. What did I ask for in return? Pictures of Ellen, Ryan, even Jeff and his kids. Pictures of places I’d known, videos of sporting events, world news, and information to go with it: newspapers, audio clips, etc. A few pictures of Ellen without any clothes on. Didn’t even make me blush to ask for them.
He replied, sending me everything. “Here you are, Alex.” None of the pictures of Ellen or Ryan had Jeff in them. I knew it was intentional; he had been in all the others. Damn it, he was making it harder for me to hate him!
He said, “We’ve found that the black hole orbits the sun about once every twenty thousand years. It has a very erratic orbit, coming as close as sixty AUs and as far away as six hundred, which probably means it was drifting around the galaxy before it got caught in the sun’s gravity and hauled in. This discovery’ll make us famous...” he trailed off, swallowed. He’d been doing a lot of that.
“Thanks, Alex,” he said. “You’ve been great out there.” He paused, looked at his feet, looked back at the camera. “Goodbye, Alex.” There was a finality in those words that chilled me, but I understood, and I had been expecting it for years now; he wanted to forget I was alive.
That was it; Earth was no more than a memory–no, it was a beautiful dream long gone. I was flying away from all that into cold, dark nothing, toward a black hole that would “alter my course.” Where would it sling me to? Nowhere, probably, just off into–
Or maybe to somewhere.
Hope sprung into my chest–God help me, painful hope!–and I rushed to the control panel and started making calculations. This was a better opportunity than Saturn had been–after all, I was heading almost straight toward the black hole and its gravity was stronger. In two days I’d worked out a rough estimate. I would have enough fuel, but only just. I might end up dead–but what did it matter now anyway? To everyone else, I was dead already.
I spent the next month calculating my trajectory exactly. When I was sure of my calculations, I executed–the ship’s thrusters fired and I swung hard to port on a ninety-second burn that used nearly all my remaining fuel, and then I was sailing almost straight toward the black hole.
For two months I fell toward it, and soon its gravity was at work on me; I was gaining speed. Forty miles per second one day; the next day: forty-five; the next day, fifty-one. That’s when I really started to get nervous. Seeing it all on paper was one thing; actually going through it was quite another, especially now that I had something to live for.
Only a few days away, I could actually see the black hole. What did it look like? In the movies they look like big, swirling whirlpools colored like the rainbow. That's not what this one looked like at all. This one was just a big ball of nothing. In fact, the only way I could tell it was there was the way the stars stretched into tiny lines, disappearing and reappearing as I moved past it. I'd heard that enough gravity does that–bends light. And believe me, it didn't make me feel very great. No joke: being that close to the most destructive force in the universe is scary as hell. Nuclear holocaust? Not interested. Apocalyptic meteor strike? Don't make me laugh. This was a freakin' black hole.
Only four days away, three, two, one. The ship said I was going over five hundred miles per second. If I’d hit a pebble, it would have torn the ship in half. Luckily, that far from the sun there aren’t very many pebbles floating around.
The day dwindled away, and the nothingness of the black hole’s event horizon yawned before me like looking into the black pit of hell itself. The ship started to creak and rattle and my heart beat about eight hundred times a minute, trying to punch its way out of my chest. Why would the ship creak and rattle? Wasn’t I in free fall? When I figured out what was happening, I ran to my bedroom and hid under the covers; the parts of the ship that were closer to the black hole were accelerating considerably faster than the further parts, and the ship was being stretched!
Rattle, hum, rattle, creak, RATTLE!
Then in an instant, it stopped. I thought I was dead. Then I looked up and saw that the black hole was behind me, my speed was decreasing, and I was headed for home. I was headed for home! That night me and my nudy pictures of Ellen had a little celebration.
At the end of two months, the ship had leveled off at a cruising speed of ninety-seven miles per second. That meant I only had four years to go before I was back to Earth, assuming my calculations had been correct.
But I didn’t have any fuel left. That meant I was going to cruise in there at ninety-seven miles per second with nothing to slow me down–that was more than twice as fast as any ship I’d heard of before I left Earth. How the hell was I going to stop this damn thing!
Well, I had four years to figure something out. But what it was going to be, I had no idea.
Flying, falling, sailing, hurtling back toward a distant sun I racked my brain for an answer, but the only one I could come up with I didn’t like at all. I debated the issue with myself again and again, and my pessimistic rational side always seemed to come out on top:
“I don’t like it.” That was Mr. Irrational talking.
“You don’t have to like it.”
“God, you’re difficult sometimes.”
“I could say the same about you.”
Not gonna respond to that one.
“You know I’m right.” Rational.
“Yeah... But I don’t want to die. Not anymore, at least.”
“What else is there? What do you have if you don’t take that chance? A few months ago you might have welcomed death.”
Rational was right. It was my only chance. So I gave in and set to work with the rocket pack.
And I hurtled, and I fell, and I fell and I hurtled toward the sun as it grew steadily brighter and the years slowly passed. Four years coming back may seem like nothing compared to eleven going out, but it was still four damn years. And now I had something huge to look forward to, which of course made it longer.
I passed the time talking to myself and the computer and working with my rocket pack, but at last I couldn’t keep the thought out of my mind any longer: this wasn’t going to work and I would die without anyone knowing what I’d gone through.
But then it dawned on me: I could share my story.
I hacked around with the controls for months, and I found that I could alter the frequency of the transmissions and increase their power. I’d have to divert energy from life support, but when I finally transmitted, I wouldn’t need that anymore. The thought was reassuring; if I died–no, when I died–my story would live on.
Three years passed and then the planets’ orbits began to fly by: Pluto, Neptune, Uranus, Saturn, Jupiter. The sun blazed before me and the asteroids came and went, and then Mars hurtled by and the Earth was next.
And now as I write this, the blue dot of my home has grown into a tiny ball ahead of me and is rapidly growing larger. Ellen, Ryan, and Jeff are all there, along with everything else I’ve ever known. Maybe–just maybe–I’ll live through this and see them again. In two days I’ll send this manuscript to any receiver on Earth I can, using all the power this ship can give it. And maybe people will read it, too, and maybe Jeff will get at least as many years as I did. But the funny thing is, I don’t know if I want him to...
It’s been fifteen years now. When I left Earth I was thirty-two; now I’m forty-seven. I’ve stayed in shape as best I could, but it’s the way of nature that I’m a bit balder and fatter than I was when I set out, and after all I’ve gone through I probably look older than I really am.
Soon I’ll jump out into space with my rocket pack and custom-built decelerator with what’s left of my fuel and I’ll see if someone notices me before I slam into the Earth a day behind my ship. Maybe if I somehow survive I’ll write a book about it, and maybe it’ll be a bestseller and I’ll go on talk shows and get interviewed on big news networks and I won’t have to work again. I’ve seen enough of this empty universe to know that I don’t want to work anymore. If there aren’t people in it, it’ll always be empty no matter how much matter is filling it. Right now, I just want to find people to talk to and live with and love again. Or maybe for the first time.