It was never the vastness of space that terrified me. No, the horror comes in the indifference of the expanse at humanity’s success or failure, a cold, silent disinterest. An infinite loneliness. Mankind indulged in specious rhetoric, envisioning the universe beyond as a promise of salvation through trial and error; the earth our Eurystheus and gravity the last of our labors, a final step to join the gods. This, the hero’s journey of our species and I find no vigilant helper to take notice of my expiration.
From the security of an earthly bosom, I memorized the stars, constellations preserving heroes and legends, guiding and benevolent. In my mind, I claimed territory among them. Some future dreamer would gaze southeast above Aquarius, just past Grus and recall the tales of this inaugural deep space journey. But here, light-years from anything familiar, the celestial bodies present only aloofness, a disregard for any narrative. No recognizable outlines. No comfort to give.
It must have been early morning when the herald of our downfall appeared. My sleep patterns have suffered in the absence of solar guidance, dulling my senses. I was awake but not fully aware. I should have noted the addition of an intermittent whirring. The fan for the auxiliary oxygen tanks is right above my post in the air purification lab. It shouldn’t have been running. I should have known. It’s never windy on days like this. Warm days. The days stranded between April and May, unsure of spring’s retreat or summer’s marching orders. I covet the opportunity when this weather coincides with my leave time. My many trips to the shore and the lighthouse were a running joke among the crew. Thirty-four minutes from base to the island by car. A quarter mile walk from the parking lot through a grove of live oaks and fan-palms to the lighthouse, two hundred and nineteen steps to the top, unencumbered views of marshland, shoreline and the salt run. Watching afternoon storms roll across the ocean like gentle giants. Not even an ocean breeze can temper the warmth of a southern sun.
So why is it cold? And quiet. It’s too still. Just an hour ago there had been panicked voices bathed in static, orders over the intercom to retreat to the conn on the orbiter. Alarms blaring, screaming of malfunctions and system shutdowns. Somewhere in the bowels of the ship, a short circuit had occurred. An oversight? An accident? Did it matter any more?
One spark was enough. I can feel the heat now. Warm. Maybe too warm. And cool. It’s a weird sensation to walk beneath the intertwined live oak branches. For every step into the shade, there’s another to pass through spears of sunlight. Higher up in the dense foliage I hear cicadas screaming for companionship. Sirens pleading for action. The ship’s automatic emergency systems kicked in before I could move. Seconds after hearing the evacuation order, a triggered airlock sealed my fate followed moments later by an abrupt shock wave rippling violently through the lab. I remember seeing stars, real and induced, as my head slammed into the port window. My left arm fell numb and to my dismay, quivering orbs of red floated into my line of sight and then out into the lab, joining a congregation of glass shards, torn irrigation tubes, and displaced seedlings. My breathing was haphazard, filling my lungs sent sharp jabs down my right side. The initial jolt of pain calmed to a dull ache. But that’s my fault. I took the stairs too fast in ascending the lighthouse. It was a small cut and a minor bruise but nothing to dampen my excitement for the day. Emerging from the stairwell, I pause to feel the sun across my skin. It stings just slightly. I won’t need the hoodie in my rucksack. A few steps out and I can lean against the metal railing, a patchwork of weathered red paint and rust of an even deeper hue.
It’s a beautiful view, a wash of calm cerulean and aquamarine in the ocean, brooding gray and violet in the storm far offshore. My gaze lingers along the shoreline and the sandy beaches, starkly bright in the full sun. Normally, weather like this brought out sunbathers in droves. How odd to see the sand uninterrupted by colorful beach umbrellas and towels. Even now, I notice the absence of visitors in or around the lighthouse. Gone is the line to enter the museum or the tower itself. Why would so many choose to relinquish such a perfect day? I can’t be alone. There was a whole crew. A whole ship.
Everything is still now. And deafeningly quiet. The alarms ceased after the explosion. From what I can see, or can’t see, in the starboard window, the other capsules are gone. Maybe not destroyed, but they’re no longer connected to the lab. By the cruel grace of a successful airlock, I have air but there ends any hope of survival. I have no spacesuit, no power and malfunctioning temperature controls. One moment, I can feel the sunless cold of space seeping in … and the next there’s stifling warmth. Usually a cloud or two cuts the sun’s harsh rays but they’re as absent as the beach-goers. I manage my way over the dunes and to the long flat shore of low tide. My legs are already sore and I must have pulled something in my left shoulder when slinging the rucksack around.
Gazing across the empty sand, I lament not bringing a towel and instead spread my hoodie, making a place to sit. Feeling wetness on my temple, I wipe the sweat away. The sun has become reproachfully overbearing so I remove my shirt, hoping for even the slightest relief. The challenge of an empty beach inspires me. I attempt to slip off the rest of my garments, a difficult undertaking with a single functioning arm. Could I have pinched a nerve or something? But does it matter? With no one to bemoan my indecency, I start for the waves. What a pleasure to be alone.