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The man opened his eyes and saw nothing.
They blinked, trying a second time to see the cramped, white cabin that he had woken up in for the last thirty years of his life. This time, he saw the same nothing, but with spots of white shining through as if somebody had stabbed a velvet curtain and held it to a light. He realized that something must have blinded him during his sleep but what? Could it have been a leak somewhere, in either the engine shielding or he shuddered the hull itself, that had spewed radiation? What else could it have been? But if there was a radiation leak was he dead?
Then, white eclipsed the left side of his vision. The man rolled to his side to escape the burning, blinding light, and saw the horizon. Where green life should have been, there was brown and black rock: a hideous mockery of beauty and verdant. He thought it impossible that the land had always been this way. He refused to believe that what he looked on had not been beautiful at some point, that once there had been order in the cracked and jagged plains. The land was now a confusing, jumbled mass the straight sanctity of what could have been fields disturbed by serrated maws: pits of darkness that seemed, despite their distance, to be swallowing him. He realized that the landscape enveloped him. The pits could swallow him. He felt somehow that without the illumination of the white, that he would never have seen it; that in the absence of light this place seemed as verdant as any other field.
The light hurt his eyes. He raised his left hand to shade his face. He felt oddly detached; he could not feel anything: not the ground beneath his right ear, not his hand pressed against the side of his head, not the thin dura-glass that protected his face from the vacuum
And suddenly the man was on his feet and he was running at the source of the hellish white as wildly as a cockroach running towards safe, obscuring darkness. A crater grabbed his ankle and pulled him down, but he fought back to his feet. What seemed to be trees rose out of the ground, like fingers pointing at him, trying to grab him, to kill him. But these were not trees, they were a joke on trees. Instead of strong pillars of solitude, complacence and reason growing from a nourishing foundation, these were spires hellish spires, rising from a defiled plain. These grew twisted where trees grow straight, a dark extension of the chaos they sprouted from. As he sprinted, comically awkward in the low gravity, they twisted further; rising and raking towards the sky, desiring to rip open the belly of the stars and destroy their omniscient gaze. Their thrusts and crossing formed a cage that barred him from his ship. He could see the elegant, swanlike curve of the bridge arching away from the ship…s abdomen. He could see the massive fusion engines burning like white suns, propelling the ship towards the stars. It was already and irrevocably out of reach as he watched. It taunted him with its slow ease and grace, as if it were some powerful eagle, flying above the world and looking back on it with scorn. It lifted off the blasted, jagged Hell, and he could not fly away with it.
The man collapsed and did not rise.
The Captain was at a party. He had not been to one in years. He knew that there was no real reason for him to be there, and had not really wanted to go, but did it as a favor for his friend. It was his friend…s twenty-seventh birthday, and he had wanted the Captain at his party. Music played loudly enough to obnoxiously limit conversations, but not loud enough to dance to or complain about. A press of people pushed up against him; they talked excitedly, pausing only to laugh. He did not feel out of place or awkward, however. He almost never felt awkward, as he knew that he did not change as his surroundings did.
He was in a room as large as about twenty of the cabins where he slept. Everything about the house reeked of luxury: the lavish blend of traditional style (such as the darkly varnished solid oak chairs and antique art.) and modern convenience (the robotic vacuums that cleaned even as the party dirtied. They were nimble and unnoticed even as they whirled around underfoot.).
Whenever the Captain was on Earth, he made a point to stop by his friend…s house, even if for just an afternoon, to keep their friendship going. This time, he had an excuse and was glad of it. Despite the joy he had found aboard his ship, he was still tied to the past. It wasn…t a bad thing, he reflected. It was always nice to catch up with what had been happening in the world while he had been away from it, although he could never wait to return to his ship.
It seemed to the Captain that more people than he had met in his entire life were at the party; the number of people that he had known beforehand formed about a sixteenth of the entire population.
The Captain was in a circle of about seven people when the topic of space-travel came up.
“You know,” he said, “I actually captain my own ship.”
“Really?” interjected a man across the group from him. “What do you do with it?” he said, attempting humor.
“Government work. Well, what I really do is go out and fly a patrol around the system. It…s normally a five-month patrol, all the way out to the Oort cloud and back.” he said.
“That sounds interesting,” said the same girl, a smile parting her full, pearlish lips. “I…ve always wanted to fly out and see the system. What do you patrol for?” The Captain began to notice the girl. She was about four inches shorter than he was, which left them both comfortably average. Her hair was long and dark, yet despite the ornate bun she had tied it into, he could see that it was wispy. Her eyes were deep and grey and gave the impression that she did not seek out objects; objects were drawn into her eyes.
He replied, “Well, it…s pretty boring, actually. We…re supposed to be on patrol, looking out for pirates or rebels or something of that sort.” she nodded assent, waiting for him to elaborate she assumed that he had much more to say to her. She was right. While pausing, the Captain tried to get a better impression of her. It was imperative to him that he make a good impression on her. He found himself wondering how he could make what he had to say pleasing to her.
It was a casual party, and she was dressed to fit the occasion. She wore a dark green shirt, the color of jungle leaves or ivy. It was long-sleeved, with a slit in the middle where one could lace it up. It was unlaced. He noticed that the shirt hung down over her jeans, which fit tightly on her, but only enough to portray the impression of being tight without actually revealing anything or diminishing the comfort of the pants. The jeans gave the impression that she had no legs, that only the pants themselves supported her. Completing her sang-froid were her sandals. They were brown and austere; they complimented the simplicity of her outfit but contrasted the elegance and poise that it innocently portrayed. She wore them as if no other footwear would ever look right on her feet.
“What do you do instead of patrol? I mean, if you make a point of saying that you…re supposed to patrol, it seems as if you…re doing something else entirely.” Her question cut through his words like a flame through a spider-web. He found this intelligence enthralling.
He said, “We do patrol, contrary to what I apparently said a minute ago.” This earned a laugh. “But there…s really not that much to patrol for. We protect the shipments of minerals mined from the outer planets, but there…s not much to protect them from. Seeing a pirate or a rebel is a once in a lifetime experience. Nobody lives anywhere but Earth, so most pirates don…t get out to the belt.” He paused for breath, then said, “But I get to fly my own ship, and well, it…s great out there. It…s like my whole job is a vacation even the stressful times, like take-off or landing or if there…s a problem in the crew, it…s not stressful. It…s like there…s nothing out there but me, and I…ve got no problem with myself.” He meant, “Come with me.”
She replied, “That sounds amazing. Maybe if I lose my job I…ll go out and fly around the solar system. Sounds like you got a lot of security out there it…s hard to …get out… in space, right?” Her comment brought a roar of laughter from the circle, including herself and the Captain. The topic of conversation changed to the latest movies, but her smile, and the Captain…s, remained.
When the party was over, he looked for her, intending to talk more with her. For some reason, he felt drawn to her. He wanted her on his ship she had such vibrancy, such life when he thought of her, he felt a feeling reminiscent of longing for something lost. He forgot what her face looked like, but the impression she gave remained. For months afterwards, every time she crossed his mind, he felt the barb that she had stuck into him and he loved the feeling. She has injected part of her personality into his body.
The man had fifteen days worth of air left. He had a vitamin drip in his suit that would keep him nourished for longer than his air would last. He knew his crew was trying to be considerate giving him so much survival time. He also knew that they were not he was completely, totally alone, and his mind would not last as long as his oxygen. He hoped the oversight was not malevolent. He had not done anything to them; it made no sense that they would be so malicious. It must have been just that, an oversight. Everybody liked him. They all thought he was a good Captain.
He was on an asteroid, he had figured out that much. Where exactly it was, he was not yet sure he figured probably on the outer limits of the belt. It was ferrous, probably iron itself. He had figured this out by turning off the magnetic grips in the soles of his boots and seeing if he would float. He did. This also meant that the asteroid was not comparatively large, as it did not have a gravitational pull strong enough to anchor him to its surface.
Once he was back on the ground, he debated turning off his boots again and jumping, just floating until some piece of debris cut off his air and ended it quickly. He put that idea to rest almost immediately. If he wanted to die, which he knew he did not, he could always simply open his suit. Jumping would only make a bad situation worse; while he was on the ground, he still had a chance of being rescued.
The man decided to spend as much time as he could getting to know his surroundings. It would help pass the time, and distract him from his fate. He began to walk around the asteroid aimlessly. To choose his direction, he closed his eyes and spun in a circle. He walked in the direction he ended up facing. As he walked, a fantasy found its way into his mind, and try as he might, he could not drive it away. He sang what few songs he knew the words to, tried to spell obscure words, remembered but then, he did not want that in his mind either.
In his vision (For the idea, for some reason, presented itself graphically, almost cartoonishly, in his mind) he saw himself walking along incautiously, his eyes taking in all that was around him. The man would stroll like this indefinitely, blindly, and then, at the edge of the picture, a chasm would appear. The man watching the scene could not see the bottom of it, or tell why it filled him with such dread, the terrible unknown of it permeating his every emotion with an inescapable sense of doom, like what he imagined a man below a guillotine would feel. He could only watch, in powerless horror, himself striding blindly towards the chasm. The man would walk slowly towards it, sometimes pausing, sometimes retracing his steps slightly, but never drawing any farther away from his inexorable end. His cartoon self never quite reached the end before the man could wrestle his mind away and onto something else. He even thought of her as an escape from the awful presentation of his own end, but even though the images subsided while he thought of her, the awful feeling remained. He could not fight it; he could not stop it. He had no idea what to do and the notion terrified him.
He was walking blindly, concentrating on forgetting the image in his head, when majesty itself appeared in front of him. He saw, over the horizon of the asteroid, the top quarter of a sphere that seemed on fire with dusky benevolence. He picked up his pace as he walked towards it; now, it was the only thing on his mind. As he walked around the rim of his cage, it became more and more visible.
He stopped when he saw the rings. They stretched out towards him, infinitely vast, possessing a sort of aged grandeur that he had never seen from the inside of his ship. He did not feel insignificant in their scope. Rather, he felt renewed, but in a capacity that he did not understand. The sensation was something like when one is struggling for a word that one knows and has lost in his mind. The word would be perfect, vital, would describe the situation where the word was needed to the situation…s quintessence. No other word could be used. The rings made him realize that he knew something, but he did not know what he knew. Although more frustrating than anything he had ever experienced before in his life, they also lent him a complacence. He had, for the time being, forgotten the precipice.
The Captain was waiting at the door to greet the new member of the crew, as was his custom. It was five months and one voyage after the party. He had forgotten the girl at the party in the thrill of his work. Every time he a new crewmember was assigned to his ship, he would always meet them personally. This occurrence was rare; there was an average of thirty crewmembers at all times. He was proud of his crew they made his ship fly, a feat that he could not accomplish by himself. Each one of them was on the ship for the same reason he was; he made sure of it.
Meeting them at the door was the first step. He would see them as they boarded the ship and could immediately tell whether they wanted to be there. The ones who did not were either brusque or reserved; these were better suited to Earth. This was not because the work was especially rigorous. The training required was easy to accomplish. Rather, the ones who did not want, more than anything, to fly aboard the ship and to be in space, sullied the ship in the Captain…s eyes. If the Captain did not immediately reject them, they did not return for a second voyage. His ship was a collection of souls whose service aboard his ship truly justified their existence. The Captain often felt that if they did not have the ship, they would simply cease to exist. With it, they needed nothing else. Their mission, their patrol and all their duties were secondary to being able to simply live and work in space, to dance amongst cosmic beauty and wake up every day with the knowledge that they were not on Earth. This emotion could not be faked and those that lacked it did not last long among the crew.
To his crew, the Captain was the embodiment of the energy that drove them to serve him. He epitomized his duties, seemingly electrically charged even in moments of leisure. The ship was his dream, his creation made real. As the crew seemed that they could not exist without the ship, the ship seemed as though it could not exist without him. Certainly, it would not inspire the same loyalty without its leader. The Captain wholly owned his ship. He was not an autocrat, however. He spent every waking moment with his crew, living and breathing the same dream they did. The only distinction he made was always eating his dinner in his cabin. It gave him space to reflect on just how good he had it. He would look at the framed picture of Saturn and his rings above the portal and remember how he had made this life. The dinner was a sanctified ritual he was afraid that if he broke his ritual and began to take what he had earned for granted, he would lose sight of how perfect it was.
He was shocked when she stepped aboard, in the same uniform he wore, though with lesser insignia: the uniform of the World Space Service. When she boarded the ship, he stood silent for a moment on the other side of the airlock…s antechamber. It was a small, white room: bare and utilitarian. Its only ornamentation was a row of three steel chairs bolted to the floor on the left side of the room facing the airlock. There was no noise in the air; the airlock had ceased pumping and silence spread slowly through the room. She stood straight-backed, at rigid attention on the other side of the room, as silent as the atmosphere. He thought she was an eternal statue, as powerful and unrelenting as grey granite. But not as cold, he thought. She seems so warm, so full of life. He knew then that he would never be able to escape her, just as he had known five months before at his friend…s party. She seemed to have latched onto his dream of happiness. He knew that she would fit in with his crew and his vision no! She was his vision! She presented herself as everything he had ever wanted. He wanted to give everything he had to her.
He remembered that he was there to greet her officially, and adjusted his mind accordingly. He straightened and said, “At ease, miss. Welcome aboard the Gnat.” The ship was named Verdance.
“Thank you Captain.” she said. “Interesting name. What happens when a spider comes along?” She laughed and he thought that Aphrodite must laugh like she did.
“Then we…re screwed.” he replied, and began to laugh with her, drawing closer to her.
The man was working. He was programming his suit to blare an SOS message on all frequencies, with as much power as it could spare. A radioactive material with a half-life much longer than his fifteen-day life span powered the suit. The image of rescuers finding a skeleton in his spacesuit resting at the base of a cliff danced through his head. He hated it.
He hated it because he was convinced, had convinced himself, that rescuers would come within the fifteen days, if not from his own ship, then from other ship. They would come and he would get a second chance, a second ship, and this time, he promised himself, he would not be ensnared as he was the last time. Everything would just go back to the was it was before he would not think of her. He had promised himself not to. She only brought pain. It was all her fault that he was on the rock. She had caught him, she had poisoned him, she had sucked out his very soul, and now he was here, with nothing left.
He knew that he would get a second chance. Somebody would come. Nobody was ever truly alone.
There was almost no privacy aboard the ship. Before, the Captain had not minded. In fact, he had enjoyed it. Now, he hated it. He was never alone, he could never speak to the girl. There was always somebody there in the mess deck, on the bridge, everywhere. Twice he had gotten out of his bed in the middle of the night to visit her when they could be alone. He had gone back to bed both times. He could tell that she wanted to be with him as badly as he wanted her. He read it in every look she gave him, in the tonality of every word she spoke to him. She was not the only woman on board, and so he knew his affections for her were not simply because space had starved him of feminine contact.
The ship was too small to have a park, there was no observation deck, there was nowhere he could go with her. The only times during the ship…s day that he was truly alone were when he was sleeping, and when he was eating dinner. So he brought her to him.
He did it subtly, first inviting his first mate to dine with him. He did not like his first mate; the man bored him. The man was dry and not well liked by the crew if he were not in a position of power, nobody would ever have respected him. As it was, they still did not give that courtesy. He had their loyalty, not their respect, and that loyalty derived from their loyalty to their Captain. He was blissfully unaware, however; and had he known, he would not have done anything about it but deny, or possibly talk louder and more arrogantly. If he liked himself, as his logic went and as he forced himself to, everybody else must like him. He was not and had never been a confrontational man. Whenever a problem arose, whether it was mechanical or social, he simply fled to the Captain to resolve it, preferring not to have to face anything by himself. He was a coward enraptured by his own mediocrity.
The Captain put up with him for a dinner, then publicly invited the newest member of the crew to join him and perhaps glean a better understanding of the ship. The meeting, as he presented it, was a way to help the newcomer fit in. She did not need the help she had already enraptured the entire ship. She seemed to trail gossamer webs as she moved about, and catch the entire crew and the ship itself in them.
She came two nights after the first mate did, and they talked long after the excuse of dinner had faded away and their plates were left barren and forgotten on the table.
They talked as if they had known each other forever. She brought an air of easy familiarity with her to the table, augmenting the Captain…s own social skills. There was no awkwardness between them, only candor and warmth. They talked of the ship, of her duties and of what she thought of them. She loved the ship and wondered why she hadn…t joined the WSS before. They talked of why she had joined; she had lost her job a month after the party and had remembered the fervor and love that the captain spoke of the ship with. She had gone to the recruiting office the next day, and requested his ship specifically. He laughed and told her that he was glad she was fitting in magnificently. They talked of favorite movies, of philosophy, first vehicles. They talked for three hours without covering the same ground twice.
“What time is it?” she wondered, “I think it…s past my bed-time.” They both laughed. The Captain looked at his watch and said, “It is. You had better go you…ve got dawn shift tomorrow.” The term “dawn shift” was a running joke among the spacers; there was no dawn in space. Somehow, even though she had only been on the ship for a few days, telling her the joke was no different from telling the joke to one of his officers who had been with him for years. He knew that he loved her.
She got up to leave, and as she did, the Captain stood and gathered up the plates.
“Gotta keep neat,” he said. She smiled, then leaned forward and kissed him full on the lips. He dropped the plates and held her close. She hugged back, and to the Captain, they seemed like they were the same person. He had been completely sucked into her.
Within the next few weeks, their relationship progressed from being secret to widespread knowledge. It was impossible to keep something confidential on a ship as small as the Verdance. Besides, the Captain really had no reason to hide anything. For the first time that he could remember, he felt complete. He was utterly ensnared by the girl…s every move, and made it no secret. He still kept to his duties, but began to resent them because he could not spend as much time with the girl as he wanted. He loved her more than anything he had ever loved before in his life.
“They…ll come back,” he found himself muttering, more and more frequently. “They…ll come back.” He was talking to himself more and more often because words were more concrete than thoughts. It became his mantra. It was the phrase that kept him going through the stagnant wash of time that was had become his life. His existence epitomized monotony. He wandered aimlessly across the asteroid, moving to keep his mind working. He slept as sleep took him. The first two times he had tried to fall asleep, he was unable to. He simply lay on the ground, painfully thinking. His thoughts hurt the most as he lay there. After these first two attempts, he took a new course of action: wandering until sleep took him where he stood. He tried to neither sleep nor stay awake. The only thing he tried to do was forget what had happened to him: what she had done to him, the terrible crime perpetrated against him. The harder he tried, the more she came into his head.
Hadn…t he been happy once? he wondered. He knew that he had been, at one point in his life. He knew that every day, he would wake up, and hear the noises of his ship he remembered it as a living thing, with a mind and pulse of its own, the crew pumping through it like red blood through arteries. He had loved that ship, the Verdance, because it was his. Because he owned it and every living thing on it; it was the pinnacle of his life, the representation of everything he had ever wanted. Not just that, however; he loved the ship because because on the ship he had never needed anything or anyone.
Throughout his entire life, he had been independent. This trait led him to join the WSS in the first place. He had not been able to bear a life doing whatever others told him to do. All he needed in life to be happy had been the freedom to be himself. He had been happy once. Before her. Before she stole into his life and sucked out everything he had been. She made him give up everything that was inside of him. But, God Damn it, he loved her!
The ship was at the furthest reach of its languorous journey. It had been two and one-half months since the ship lifted off Earth. The Captain felt as though he had never been happier in his entire life. He had been pondering his present happiness recently. Obviously, it sprang from his new relationship. To him, it seemed as if every new day brought something new and wonderful and completed his life even more. He had begun to realize that no matter where he was and what he was doing, as long as he had her, he would be happy. And that…s all that is important in life, he reflected often, to be happy. Everything else is nothing.
He thought that if he had to work every day for the rest of his life at some boring, rank-and-file desk job in some airless Hell back on the ground, it would be worth it if he could come home to her after every day. He would bear any cross for her. He loved her. Facing the storm of all the emotions that flew through his head towards her, he was as helpless as a fly caught in a web. Every move she made, every remark that fell from her cherubic lips, seemed to bury him deeper and deeper, and every minute that he spent within her net was the best minute of his life.
Right now though, he was slightly vexed. She was late for dinner, and he had been waiting patiently for her for about fifteen minutes. Then again, she probably had something that she needed to take care of; she would not want to hurt him in any way and he knew that. She was probably at the door as he thought these thoughts.
He waited another five minutes, then started to wonder where she was. He was becoming more and more vexed, and started to wonder if she could be with somebody else. Could it be the navigation officer, one of the engine techs he shuddered the first mate? Then he realized that he was paranoid. They loved each other and had told each other so. There was no need to worry about anything.
So why was he thinking like this? he wondered. Why was he getting vexed with her? It must be his fault. She was blameless; she had done nothing wrong. He felt awful and knew that it was because he was being paranoid. Nothing was wrong, so why was he making a huge deal out of nothing? He knew that was destructive, that he was better than that so why was he doing it?
He looked at the hologram of Saturn and his rings suspended above the portal to his room. He would always look at it for solace; his ambition had always been to see the rings. Now, he had seen them. They represented how he had attained all the goals of his life.
He bitterly tore his gaze away Saturn would not make her arrive any sooner. It would not make her happy, and that was all he cared about.
She entered the room nervously three minutes later. Something was wrong. The Captain could see it in her bearing, in the tension apparent in the room. An awkward air in the room choked him. Everything he thought of to do or say seemed as if it no longer applied.
He tried to ignore the air, saying “Hey, honey. Why are you so late?” As the words came out of his mouth, he knew that things were not the same. He wanted to hit something, but he could not figure out why.
“We need to talk .” she said. The words stabbed into him. He knew what they meant. He refused to accept them. He would fight those words. He would never give up. These thoughts came to him immediately as an automatic denial.
They talked. Quietly, rationally and finally, they broke up. The Captain felt oddly detached as it happened. It seemed not quite real. But then, a serrated maw of darkness seemed to have replaced his insides and it hurt. It hurt worse than anything had ever hurt him before.
She left him the spider, done with her prey, leaving the hollowed carcass to rot in the web. He sat in his room and started to think. He did not cry immediately, but he felt the possibility of tears and forced them out of his eyes. It made him feel even worse. He wanted her back. He loved her.
The man was sitting when it happened. He was looking at Saturn, thinking of the first day that he lifted off in his ship. It had been raining, with grey water falling in a misty drizzle that soaked everything but never revealed a droplet. The general atmosphere of the world was dolorous and morose, but the gloom of the weather had never touched him.
Had he been nervous? He tried to remember it seemed so long ago that it had never actually happened. As he woke up that morning, as he washed his face, as he picked at his breakfast, he had felt impatient. He had jittered across the hotel room where he was staying throughout his daily routine, performing each activity with the precise exertions necessary for it. His mind had harnessed his being that morning. He knew consciously that he was ready. In his mind, he was already on the ship. He was already taking off; he had already been flying the patrol for his entire life. But his body was not yet there and he was impatient. He was consciously impatient because he was already past what was happening around him physically. From this arose his nervousness he was nervous because in his gut he knew that he was not yet there. His stomach told him that he was still in the present and that the future was still nebulous, defying the certainties of his brain. His nervousness and his impatience were almost the same. Both arose from the conflict between his stomach and his mind, between the present and the future. His stomach, his gut, his instinct, could not see enough ahead to be sure. They were tied to the physical, the real, the present. His brain could see. It was sure.
At that point in his life, the Captain had known that he was going to see Saturn. The rain and haze seemed fitting; they obscured the Earth. He found himself not thinking about the world. As he walked to his ship the drizzle, that grey bleary nothing, obscured the world robbing it of all definition, blending everything into the same bland nothing. This nothing had no hold on him; it did not exist to him. His mind was so focused on Verdance that he burned through the gossamer reality around him, the strands of the world that had constrained him until that point withering away as he passed through them.
As he blasted off, he had been happier than he had ever felt in his life. In all his training runs, in all the ships he had ever flown in preparation for this one flight, he had felt elated; he had felt freedom as never before. Now, in his present, flying his ship above the haze and seeing the sun shine ocher on the tops of the rain clouds he had just been under, he knew what freedom was. He was realizing his life. He executed every maneuver perfectly he could do no less. When he flew his ship for the first time, and every time after that, he had been happy. He realized that every time he had been drawn into the bottomless grey pits where her eyes should have been, he had forgotten completely about his Verdance, Saturn, and the feeling that he got every time he flew his ship. When he was with her, he was back in the bland drizzle, but his mind was not rushing to the ship. He had not cut swathes through her webs; her webs had caught him.
That was why she had left him, he realized. She had followed him when he talked of his ship to her. She had tried to give up the nothing of the world. But he had tried to please her, and in doing so, he had given up his ship. He had tried to give her his freedom and his reason to live, but they were commodities that he could never transfer.
There was the world, big and grey and constraining. Few ever saw what the world was: these ones rebelled. Some fought violently; most fought silently. He was a quiet fighter. He found solace and freedom in his ship. It took him above the world. He did not try and abolish the world…s trap; he only tried to escape it.
She had never fought. She had never tried to escape; she gave in to the world from the start, donning the grey and making it her own. It consumed her completely. As she tried to immerse herself into the conformity, she began to spread it. She never pursued what she really wanted in her life, so she had instead pursued other people happiness and in gaining it, she destroyed it. She saw the Captain…s ship and understood how free and happy he was on it. Her veneer, the false facade of happiness she presented, had fooled him. She was the representation of everything in the world he had left behind, and when he tried to return to that world, when he tried to give up his ship and the freedom intrinsic to it, he destroyed himself.
It happened as he reached the triumphant conclusion to his thoughts. He felt it first as a deep vibration in the ground. As he looked up, he saw a painful white that seared his eyes. He could not force his eyes to look away; they defied him, staring at the light even as they blackened and withered. His ship was returning.
As he stared, rooted, he heard a voice cut into his suit…s radio.
“This is the ” he shut his radio off before he could hear her voice defile his ship…s name. Then, he shut off the transponder that allowed them to find him. His ship was not his ship anymore.
He tore his vision away from the engines, which had somehow turned black.
He ran, dodging around twisted hulks that became less and less distinct; though they were flooded with the ship…s light, they became darker and darker. The light had little effect on them anymore. Suddenly, the light no longer touched them. There was no light left, nothing at all left. He sat down.
She would never find him here; his crew, soiled by her, would never find him here. He was irrevocably beyond their reach.
The man was blind, but it did not matter; he had already seen everything he wanted to see. He laughed.
The Captain felt like he should be infuriated. He punched a wall in his cabin. It hurt so he punched it again. He felt as though he should be hurting himself. He went to punch a third time, but some instinct of self-preservation stopped his hand before it truly connected with the bulkhead.
The fourth time he punched, he consciously guided his hand all the way into the wall. The agony blossomed violently in his knuckles, a pain exponential compared to the first two strikes. He fell back into his bed, knocking over the remains of the dinner, his hand cradled close to his chest. He was sure that he had broken his knuckles; his fingers felt disconnected from his hand.
He wanted to yell, to scream, to vent his terrible frustrations against the walls of his ship, to expel the abominable pressures eating his organs, letting the hate and the anger flow out, reverberate, and die somehow in his ship, his sanctuary. But, as he sat with the remains of yesterday…s dinner strewn about his squalid hole, he could not scream he was a captain. He had shirked his duties for the last twenty-four hours, and he could almost feel the tension building in his ship. His hand burned with pain. He knew the First Mate had taken control over the ship; he knew that the crew followed him, believing that their captain would be returning.
As he thought this, the Captain knew that he would not be returning. He sat in what used to be his home and was now a torturous cage, the walls too tight and tainted with her presence. Her smooth skin covered the bulkheads, pores oozing her scent into what had been his sanctuary. He would return to Earth, to that gray oblivion he had thought he had escaped. He would earn a pension, live in a nice house by himself, and die slowly and impatiently. His every breath would be welcomed ambivalently; each intake bringing him closer to the death he craved but also farther from the life he had loved.
And he thought he had been free! He thought that he had lived, that he could break the iron shackles that bound his fate to that of everybody else…s. He had tried, and lived a lie. Granted, it was a happy lie, but a lie nonetheless. Now, after her, he saw the truth, saw the tether he thought broken had merely stretched and snapped back, catapulting him back to the blind, horrible web he had fought to free himself from.
He could not leave his cabin and go back to being the Captain. It was impossible. As her skin papered the cabin, the ship was her body. Every member of the crew was her eyes, glaring into him as he tried to ignore them, reminding him daily of how close he had been to her: watching coolly as he struggled to cut the gossamer strand that bound them in his mind. They would never forget they would never remind him purposefully, for they were not cruel, but they would never forget.
Her laughter had invaded every hall, so that any laugh aboard his ship aboard the ship would chime in his mind as originating from within her perfect mouth. Every time he gave a command, he would be talking to her but would have to pretend he was not. Her beautiful webs had tainted his paradise, and had robbed it of what made it a refuge.
A klaxon sounded outside of his cabin, a grating call to action. It remained the Captain…s job to answer its call and protect his ship. The man sat in his cabin and brooded.
“He…s a liability!” he found himself shouting. “The crew follows him! They won…t do anything without him! And he…s locked himself in his room!”
The first mate wiped sweat off his forehead. It didn…t do anything, his body replaced it as soon as he could remove it. His sweat soaked his uniform, the grey of the WSS tainted to blackness by the liquid that poured off his body. He had just undergone the largest crisis of his life. The ship had met a pirate.
In itself, this was not a large problem the ship was much more heavily armed than the pirate was. It had a thicker hull and a crew that knew how to fight with the utmost precision. The other ship had fled after ten minutes of battle, doing little or not damage to the Verdance. As it limped off, the first mate ordered a last salvo of rockets to destroy the ship. Reluctantly, the crew fired them and the pirate vanished from the ship…s screens.
The problem lay in that the first mate had to take charge himself. He was competent and knew it. He was well aware of how to run the ship he had been on it for five journeys. And after all, he had beaten the pirates with minimal damage, hadn…t he?
“So what should we do then? He…s the Captain!” said the girl. God, thought the first mate. She…s beautiful. He had never wanted anything more in his life. He had been with her for three days, and they had been the best days of his life.
The crisis lay not in that he did not want to take command, but that he did and was afraid. Yet somehow, with her presence pushing him forwards, he felt as though he could. If he could fight off that pirate, then he could run the ship. She had wrapped him in gossamer armor a kind of protection that was weightless, but still bound him and sealed him from the outside. He could no anything he wanted in the armor she would always be there for him.
He needed to be the Captain. The old Captain was outdated. He was a liability. He sat in his room when he should be commanding his ship. It was within the first mate…s legal rights to remove the Captain from power.
He turned and looked at the girl…s eyes, falling into their infinitely empty recesses. “We need to remove him,” he said.
It was what needed to be done. It was what he wanted. So why did the words sound so heavy? Why did they carry such a connotation of doom and finality?
He shook his head. He was just being weak. He needed to be strong he had a calling.
The girl nodded her head.
The man lay on his back with his eyes open, seeing everything. He could feel the rock underneath him. If he thought hard enough, he felt its rotation, its majestic motion through the emptiness around it. It spun slowly, ponderously, all alone in the abyss. It was its own entity, his asteroid, floating freely among all the others of its kind.
He thought it amazing that, despite all the gravitational forces tugging the asteroid in countless directions, it remained seemingly untouched: continuing its slow, steady, spin.
He thought it beautiful that, despite all the spires, the hellish cliffs and bladed plains, the forests of rock thorns, it remained as a whole on the inside, in its core, and on the outside, when people saw it from outside of its tiny sphere of gasses. Its deformities and terrors were only on the surface they did not exist at a distance, and they did not exist in the heart of the rock.
He thought it an honor to die on the rock.
He felt it fulfilled him; it was the natural end to his life…s journey. In the fifteen days it had been his cage and his home, he had not only regained a part of himself that he had lost, but also he had realized what it was in the first place.
When the air started to taste stale, he closed his eyes and went to sleep. He dreamed that he was walking towards a great chasm on the asteroid, but for some reason, he was not wearing a spacesuit. He was not wearing clothes, but he was not naked he just was. As he approached the chasm, dread did not enter his mind. Instead, elation encompassed him. He could not wait to leap over the chasm, to throw himself into the abyss beyond. He knew he would not fall, and there would be no pain. He did not know if there was another side, or if he would reach it if there were. It seemed like he would leap, and the action himself would be infinite and whole, needing nothing else. It would be the independence he had always sought, an action that fulfilled itself.
Any that may have been able to see the Captain die would not have been able to tell the exact moment of his passing; it seemed as if his life faded away. His death came the way a death should come: a completion of life, not as an end to it.
The asteroid spun its way leisurely through eternity, existing with other bodies, but not being affected by them, never succumbing to the pull of a stronger force. It performed pirouettes to music only it heard, to the timeless tune of existence.
Still as the rock he floated on, the Captain traveled with his asteroid as it danced slowly through existence.