A Short Story by Scot Lahaie
Caesar Winsome awoke. Through the shaded visor of his flight helmet he could see the Orion galaxy in all its grandeur. Brilliant points of light pulsated like beacons in a cloud of dust, calling out to him from the heavenly abode. Sensing the stiffness of sleep, he stretched his legs, one and then the other. He took care to rotate the ankles, first in a clockwise fashion, and then counter. The stiffness eased after the blood began to flow again. If I could just stand up or walk about, Caesar thought to himself. The narrow confines of the one-man spacecraft prevented any such movement. He had been in the pilot’s seat of his X-55 galaxy-class star cruiser for just shy of three months. And he knew there would be many more to endure on his lonely one-man journey through empty space.
He flipped a switch on the comm panel. It was time for his daily mission log. He was too far from home to speak with command, and the ship he abandoned was no longer answering his calls. He assumed the worst.
“This is Captain Caesar Winsome of the starship Copernicus. It is earth day ninety of my journey out of the Una System. I have nothing of significance to report. Radiation levels remain constant and present no danger to my person or the operation of this craft. Propulsion is functioning at maximum efficiency, and fuel rods are secure. Life support is steady. Food stores are sufficient, as is my supply of water. Regardless, I continue to ration my supplies, not knowing how long it’s gonna be before I find a way out of this—”
He hit the pause button, feeling the rising frustration of his isolation. Recording flight logs was an important discipline for any pilot in his situation. Caesar knew this, but it did not make his situation any easier. He had not heard the sound of another human voice since shortly after departing the damaged Copernicus, a trans-galaxy hibernation ship moving personnel between the two earth colonies in the Beta Quadrant. The Copernicus was now adrift in the Kalandra Sector with failing life support and limited supplies, and Caesar knew his crew’s chances of survival were slim. Their radio silence confirmed his fears—his departure to find help was in vain. There was no one out here to help him. And even if he should find someone, would there be anyone left on his ship to help? Feeling the despair of empty space, he slipped once more into a deep sleep, hoping to dream of hope, of home, of the woman he left behind.
* * *
Gloria Winsome sat alone in the cold hallway of City General. The vinyl cushions stole the warmth from her thighs. She pulled her sweater tighter to stave off the draft. Her ankles felt cold. She glanced out the window at the industrial complex that ravaged the city landscape of New Detroit. City General boasted the most advanced technology on the lower continent, but it lacked the basic amenities of the institutions back home, namely heat for the waiting rooms. She wondered how much longer it would be before something changed. Would she ever speak with her husband again? She needed to know that he was alright. She wanted to feel his warm embrace. She needed to know that he would come home again and share her bed. She longed to hear his voice. In the months following their wedding, they had shared so much about themselves—what made them smile, what they wanted to be when they grew old, what dreams bubbled inside their hearts and minds. She wanted a family with lots and lots of children. He wanted to become a pilot and travel the galaxy. They had such dreams—hopes, aspirations, and plans. Despite the cold and drafty hallway, she slipped into sleep. There she found a reprieve from her desperate circumstance.
* * *
Lunch time, thought Captain Winsome. He broke out the rations and set a small plastic plate on the console before him. Despite the choice to ration his food, he still made much of his small portion. His body didn’t need the calories. His lengthy confinement had caused his muscle tissue to atrophy. His body weight was now thirty-percent less than when he first left the Copernicus, now five months ago.
“Let’s see now. What do we have on the menu today?” he mused, knowing full well his choices were limited to three protein pastes.
He opened a silver tube and squeezed a six-inch portion of Bolean meat paste across his plate. Yummy, he thought, for the flavors were real, although the texture was lacking. And then he waited for the food paste to fully expand (space rations expand to quadruple their size when exposed to oxygen or water, although they are meant to be eaten quickly). Caesar watched the paste foam and bubble, pushing across the plastic plate like a slow-moving magma flow. He then feasted on the large expanse of food before him, stopping occasionally to play with his food, feeling a bit like a small child. In the vast expanse of space with so little hope and so much time and no one watching, it was a small pleasure that he gladly allowed himself.
* * *
Gloria returned to City General again the following day—the seventh trip in as many days. It was a Thursday. The green clouds of dust and smog, full of acid rain, continued to hang over the city. She rode the lift to the thirteenth floor, exiting again to the cold, draughty hallway she knew so well. And though she had been coming here every day for a week, it occurred to her just how much she hated hospitals. She registered at the nurses’ station, greeting the Nubian nurse that watched the morning shift. She then took her usual seat on the gold vinyl sofa at the end of the hallway where the ceiling-to-floor plate-glass windows revealed the harsh reality of the city below. Acid rain pelted the window as the clouds gave up their payload.
Gloria waited. The rain stopped. The lights flickered overhead. The crackle of the intercom broke the silence of her waiting.
“Mrs. Winsome to the nurses’ station, please. Mrs. Winsome,” spoke a thin voice through the speaker overhead.
She stood tall, pushing her long dark hair back behind her shoulders. She looked brave; she was not. She was greeted at the nurses’ station by Dr. Grossman, the attending physician for her husband in this facility.
“Good morning, Mrs. Winsome. So nice to see you. Are you ready for your visitation?”
“Yes, Doctor. Thank you. I came early hoping to—”
“Yes, of course. I am sorry about that. I was unaware you had arrived. We are busy, as you can imagine, and rules are rules.”
“I understand,” she replied.
“This way, please.”
The doctor scuttled down the hallway, his large frame rocking side to side. She followed along like a small dog on a leash, afraid to fall behind and lose sight of her guide. The doctor approached the observation room on the right, and then turned to speak.
“Here we are again. Take as much time as you want, but your visit should not exceed ninety minutes. I’ll send the nurse to you when it’s time.”
She nodded with appreciation, but found no words. She pushed through the doorway, closing the door softly behind her. The room was dimly lit. Against the wall to her left were two chairs and a tall stool; on the walls were paintings by local artists—pretty images of space travel and galaxies and nebulae. And in the middle of the room was a large sarcophagus-shaped container made of glass with wires and tubes running in and out, attached to bags and bottles and canisters and monitors. Inside lay her husband, Caesar.
* * *
Radiation levels had risen substantially over the last twenty-four hours. After six months continual operation, the fuel rods feeding the small impulse engine in Captain Winsome’s star cruiser were finally running low. The captain was now positioning his ship near the outer corona of a white dwarf star in hopes of regenerating his ship’s failing fuel rods. It was a delicate maneuver, difficult for even the most seasoned pilot. Too close or too long, the radiation could kill the pilot. Not close enough, not long enough, the refueling would fail. He fired his stabilizers on portside, and then on starboard. It was imperative to keep the sun behind him. If the ship turned suddenly to face the corona, he would be blinded in an instant and burned in a matter of moments. His ship was not designed to protect the pilot from solar radiation at close range. But Winsome knew the design of the engine compartment contained a radiation shield to protect the pilot from the radiation produced by the engine itself. Keeping the engine between him and the corona was his only hope of continuing his journey. The console alarm sounded. The refueling had begun. He touched Gloria’s photograph and thought of home. In less than ten hours Winsome’s ship would be fully fueled and he would be traveling once more at full speed across the great expanse. He smiled at the thought of home. There was hope.
* * *
Gloria sat on the stool next to Caesar in his life support tube, as she had every day since his accident, just fourteen days ago. Doctor Grossman hovered over a monitor in the corner, evaluating the peaks, valleys, and erratic squiggles that filled the endless tape gathering on the floor beneath a monitor. The doctor seemed pleased that Caesar’s vital signs were stable. He cautioned her against hope.
“These things take time,” he said, preoccupied with his reports. “It can take months or years. Some never recover. The brain is a tricky thing.”
“I know,” she replied.
“Alright, then. I’ll leave you two lovers alone,” he said as he scurried out the door.
She knew the doctor meant well. And she knew he was right, statistically speaking. But she wanted more than that. And she wanted it now. Closing her eyes and laying her cheek against the warm glass, she whispered a prayer—a call for help, for divine intervention, for a miracle.
* * *
“Food supplies are running low,” reported Caesar in his daily log. “I have cut my food rations to half. At my present rate of consumption, I expect my food supply to be gone within sixty days.”
It struck him odd at that particular moment that his six month supply of food and water had lasted more than eighteen months. How was that possible? Curiosity moved his mind to action. He reviewed his log entries, paying attention to the status reports concerning food supplies. He noticed nothing unusual, just a slow decline of supplies and the quick passage of time. Something didn’t sit right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. He had been out here for a very long time. Speeding through the void with no destination, no purpose, just forward. Always forward. The rescue mission had now become a mission of survival. His thoughts returned to his Gloria back home. He felt the sting of loneliness, and wondered why he had ever left her. He placed the palms of his hands on the glass of the cockpit surrounding him and whispered a prayer. He felt a connection to his beloved. Tears filled his eyes as his voice gave rise to his pain.
“Gloria!” he cried out. “Oh, my Gloria! I am sorry… I want to come home… I just don’t know the way!”
His voice faltered, and he surrendered in tears to the warden of despair that ruled his captivity. And in that moment Caesar felt his heart pounding in his chest. And though he had never noticed it before, the distinct rhythm of his own heartbeat seemed to grow louder; it seemed to emanate from a place outside his own body. Could his lengthy isolation and physical decline be playing tricks on his mind? He had heard stories of pilots suffering from space dementia. He shook it off.
* * *
“Listen with your heart, my dearest,” Gloria whispered, “and you will find your guide. I believe in you.”
It was now week three since Caesar’s accident in flight training school. Gloria sat again on her stool at Caesar’s side. She sang in soft tones, her cheek still touching the glass.
“Come back to me, dearest one. Come back to me,” she sang. “Love is calling you home, my dear. My love is calling you home.”
The hum of the medical technology accompanied her sweet voice, a symphony of sounds unlike any in the universe. She stroked the glass of Caesar’s small prison. The words she sang were new, born of love and grief and pain—and above all else, hope.
“No greater thing can I offer you now, dear friend, no greater virtue could I possibly extend,” she sang. “Come home… come home…”
The words to her song gave way to beautiful tones—a wordless siren calling into the void. Rising and falling, her beautiful voice filled the room and wafted through the hallways, enchanting all that heard it. The nurses heard her song and stopped their chatter. Visitors and patients fell into a silent trance as they witnessed the undulation of Gloria’s melody and shared in the deep and undying love of her song. Tears filled their eyes, and they wept.
* * *
Captain Winsome feared many things on his long journey. Engine failure, radiation poisoning, meteor showers, hostile alien encounters, and any number of sicknesses related to space travel. But he feared nothing more than the loss of his sanity. His three-year journey across the expanse was now taking its toll upon his mental capacities. He was hearing things that he could not explain. And he was afraid.
He had questioned much of what he had been experiencing during the last several weeks. It began with the odd sound of a heartbeat, as if it were outside the ship, pounding in perfect rhythm with the sound of his own heart. And then he heard mechanical sounds that did not belong to the operation of his own spacecraft—beeps and bleeps and whirs and strange noises that didn’t belong, noises that emanated from a source outside the ship.
Today the noises were eclipsed by the sound of music—beautiful sounds, like the voices of angels standing in the presence of an all mighty God, voices clothed in majesty and glory. He was entranced. Caesar listened. He found comfort in the rise and fall of the melodious tones. He listened more intently. The music wove itself into his soul as it grew louder. He suddenly knew he was loved. He gave himself over to the ebb and flow of the musical current, closing his eyes and imagining the great love that pulsated at the very heart of the universe. He knew his journey was over. And though he grieved at the thought of never making it home to see his beloved Gloria, he knew that he could no longer continue this fruitless journey of mere survival. He lived, but he was not alive. He hummed along with the song the universe sang to him. He closed his eyes and a smile relaxed his tense expression. An unspeakable peace suddenly grasped his heart, and he knew it was time. He was loved, and it was enough.
As Captain Winsome gave into the eternal song of the universe, driven by love and captured by peace, the X-55 star cruiser that had been his constant companion for more than three years began to dissolve into soft pieces of fluid stardust. His body floated silently through the open space of the void. His ship dissipated into nothingness—the stuff of dreams—and was no more. Winsome’s body rose toward the bright light at the center of the galaxy, moving slowly at first and then speeding ever faster. His body was lost as his soul reached light speed and became one with the most elemental of energy—light itself. He was poised to discover the power of love at the very heart of the universe itself. He was complete.
* * *
Gloria’s hope sprang eternal. She finished her song and found rest for her troubled soul. Deep inside, she somehow knew that she had reached her husband, through some primal drumbeat, through some bond of the soul known only to a lover and his beloved. She had called to him, and he had answered. Not with words or thoughts, but with a power of trust and faith and hope and love. They had touched, and it was enough.
It was with a new peace that Gloria now gazed through the glass of her husband’s confinement. She saw a smile touch his face. He is at peace, she thought to herself, and was thankful. He had learned to let go. And now she would have to learn to do the same. It was then that his eyes began to move underneath his eyelids. Low alarms sounded as the monitors across the room began to register higher levels of brain activity. A thought of hope reached out and snatched Gloria’s breath away. Doctors and nurses flooded the room, attending to their machines. Gloria’s heartbeat quickened as she leaned in to see his face. And then it happened, there in that room, far away from the perils of empty space. Caesar Winsome awoke.