David drifted to the surface of sleep, lingering at the border. The steady thrum sounded just beyond, drawing him closer with its loudness but nudging him back with its rhythm. He stayed in that limbo for what felt like a year.
At last, the shrill vibrato of an alarm clock shook him awake, and David reached behind him to grab at it. He had stopped reaching instinctively to his side long ago, but this new motion still felt strange.
He fumbled with the clock as he did every morning, finally getting it to turn off and dropping his arm back to his side. He didn’t make a movement to get up — couldn’t. The restraints binding his head and chest and legs to the bed frame did their job well.
He didn’t know how long it was that he lay there, unmoving, staring up at his desk on the ceiling. He hadn’t pushed the chair in all the way, and it was at a slight angle to the table. It annoyed him like a burned tongue, but there was nothing he could do from where he was.
David sighed and pressed three buttons on the side of his bed, undoing each restraint in turn. He stood, stretching, in what little room was left in the narrow aisle. They were already small enough without the bed, like a train compartment.
At the slightest thought, a train compartment exploded into his mind, vivid and textured and alive. The seats were worn, their leather cracked and soft, and the noise was as deafening as it was rich with the clacking of wheels and the whistle’s call. And gradually, tentatively, it became rich with voices, too. People going about their business with purpose. Places to go. Family to visit, or friends to meet.
David let the vision melt slowly, savoring the warmth as it slipped away from him. When he was finally back by his bed, he sighed and took the first step away from it. The rest weren’t so bad.
He walked along the curving floor easily, as if it were a hamster wheel. By the time he reached the tiny bathroom area, his bed was on the wall behind him, vertical. He splashed some water on his face and glanced at himself in the mirror. Same chocolate skin, same short hair and beard.
But first impressions were lies as often as not. David leaned closer, looking for any sign of new wrinkles. He didn’t find any, but he did notice that his beard hair was beginning to curl — time to trim it.
He fixed the desk chair when he was finished, then returned to his bed, making it carefully. Disorder would do him no favors. Finally, his routine complete, he stepped through the door in the wall that wasn't a massive window, emerging into an identical copy of his own room and heading straight through. One more copy — this one was the same except for the desk. One of the legs was broken off and lying on the floor, splinters everywhere. David didn’ so much as glance at it, walking straight into the last room. This one was very much not a copy — it was packed with machinery. Chrome pipes and valves and handles blanketed the walls, all of them accessible from some part of the floor. David approached a small rectangle that shone blue light like a challenge and averted his eyes, waiting long enough that he lost track of time. At length, he took a deep breath and flipped three of the six switches. Static blared from the device, and he inclined his head, listening intensely.
For half an hour he waited there, hunched over in the chair with his eyes shut. From time to time he would open them and glance at a small green light flickering on the side of the machine, keeping his eyes off the center display. The little light was slowly becoming yellow.
Twenty-five minutes in, he heard something. David leaned closer still, brow furrowed, and tried to make out a sound. There was talking through the static, he was sure of it. Talking, if no words. Maybe even a little laughter. Maybe just his imagination.
The sound faded back into the noise, and that just made David strain harder to hear. Just a word. Just one. Or one of their voices, at least. Anything.
The static blared at him, and the light, now red, mocked his grimace. David looked from light to speaker and back again, until suddenly he slammed his fist down on the table, shutting off the comms but not the display, and stood up so fast the chair toppled over behind him.
It felt so good to lose his cool. It was a rare occasion, a drop of anger in the usual sea of tranquility. He was always careful not to break anything or make any choices he couldn’t take back, but restrained anger was still anger, just like restrained madness was still madness.
David stormed back to his room and grabbed a peg jutting out of the tinted glass that made up one of the massive circular walls. Lifting himself off the floor was an easy task, and climbing to the next peg was easier still. By the time he reached the center of the wall, he was floating motionless, suspended above the artificial gravity of the spinning floor.
He held onto the center peg, which spun quickly in his grip, until it eventually slowed its turning and the room began its. In the end, David hovered stationary in the middle while the ship spun lazily around him. He had been instructed to never leave the artificial gravity unless strictly necessary, but this was necessary enough. Besides, there was no one left to hold him accountable. He floated above his problems in the very middle of them, letting the anger leech away nice and slow.
One month felt like years. His mind still couldn’t accept that it hadn’t been. The spinning of the room was like the hands of a clock — or, no, like the quartz crystal inside, but slowed to a crawl through slime, the time adding up so slowly it would take lifetimes to ever be a meaningful amount.
David wondered if everyone knew yet. If they’d turned on him, glad he was never coming back.
It was a ridiculous thought, and he knew it, but that didn’t stop the idea from cutting as deep as it ever had — because he would never know for sure. David took a deep breath and returned to one of the same two thoughts he’d used for the past month to comfort himself: it didn’t matter what anyone thought of him anymore, just like it didn’t matter what he thought himself, or about himself. He was going to die, soon, alone, and there was nothing he could do.
That didn’t do much, so he looked to the other comfort: his friends were going to be okay.
They had been out for nearly two years. Long enough to grow sick of each other. Long enough to stop referring to one another as crewmates. Long enough to be convinced that anything that could have gone wrong already would have.
The scientists had figured out all the small details — artificial gravity, radiation shielding, even synthesizing food and water and air through arcane-seeming methods. All the small details figured out, and all the big ones, too. Except for one.
It happened suddenly, like all catastrophes, but like all catastrophes, it had built for ages beforehand with no one noticing. On their 427th orbit of the sun, every thruster shut off quietly and permanently. There was no explosion, no collision, no short circuit. But the rockets they were supposed to use to break out of orbit a few months down the road were useless. Worse, they had already been in use every hour to make slight adjustments to the ship’s course and keep its orbit stable. Without them, David and the rest of the crew had begun to drift closer to the sun’s surface.
The five of them had a few ideas. The five hundred people back on Earth that had gotten them there had a few more, but only one lasted more than ten minutes: fire the landing thrusters. The calculations were made, and if they fired the rockets in a little over an hour, they could break free from orbit and reach Earth — in five hundred years.
Plans were discussed. A rocket that could pick them up, maybe, or one that could fix their thrusters. Everything was too slow, or too expensive, or most of all, too risky. It was hard to sell a plan that cost billions and had an ten percent chance of success.
But everyone agreed on one point — something had to happen, and fast.
And it had.
David retreated to his room after fifty minutes of talking with the rest of the crew and mission control. He was an astronomer, not an engineer, and he had quickly realized he had next to nothing to contribute. Instead he made his way through the ship to one of its ends, where he lay down on his bed, covering his face with his hands and trying to drown out reality.
He had known they were doomed as soon as the scientists on Earth started proposing solutions. If there were a way out, the ship’s computer would have already told them about it. Would have already executed it. It was a clever little artificial intelligence that David couldn’t hope to comprehend, and while it stayed quiet most of the time, controlling nothing more than the thrusters to keep the orbit stable, it would chime in occasionally to tell them it had steered around an asteroid, or modified their course to take them closer to a solar flare, the kind of thing they were there to study in the first place. It never asked for permission, just told them what it had done after the fact in the form of a simple log on its monitor. One time, as he was staring out his window, the ship had lurched and shaken, and a moment later, he saw a blaze of blue streak by, filling the entire window. The computer logs said it had overloaded a thruster with fuel, making it explode, in order to move the ship out of the way of a comet. Just firing the rocket wouldn’t have been fast enough.
That had been a year ago, and David had never looked at the computer as a computer again.
So he lay on his bed, wondering what he would say to his family, as the deadline for engaging the landing thrusters approached.
At a faint sound, he frowned and sat up. Five compartments down, the door to the next chamber closed and sealed itself with the hiss of pneumatics, and what he would later realize was the unlocking of valves sounded, jarring. David got up quickly and ran through circular rooms to reach a door that would not open. He could see nothing beyond the steel wall. Starting to taste panic, he ran to the short-range radio in the room and flipped on the switch for each of the other compartments. This wasn’t the main communications they used, the one back to Earth — that was in the other end of the ship, one of the two compartments sealed off to him, where the rest of the crew was — but with this, he could talk to them, if not mission control.
Their voices came in immediately, confused and concerned, and bit by bit, he began to understand. It was a painful understanding.
The ship was built like a stack of pancakes, seven spinning discs on top of one another. Five were cabins for the crew, and the other two held instruments for studying the sun and communal areas. David’s compartment was on one end, or it had been. Now it was floating in orbit with four other pancakes while the other two blasted away with their landing rockets, breaking free from the sun and returning to Earth. It would take them a little over ten years.
The ship was built symmetrically. Nearly every machine had a duplicate on the opposite end of the ship in case one was destroyed. There were the devices that created food and water, and on the end, the oxygen producers. The only machines without a double were the center of the ship’s computer, on David’s end, and the massive radio transmitter for talking to Earth, on the end of the ship that was already hundreds of miles away.
And so David found himself adrift, and yet cared for in every way. He could live forever on the supplies from the food machine, and if the oxygen generator didn’t break, he wouldn’t suffocate, either.
His spinning hadn’t slowed a significant amount, so the gravity was still the same. His muscles wouldn’t atrophy and his bones would keep their density. He wasn’t going to die quickly.
He thought about none of these things until hours later. Those first few were still hazy, even now, but he remembered the important points. He had sent his family a message, relayed it through the main ship’s crew. By the time he’d heard the reply, the connection was staticky at best.
But he had heard from his loved ones. Something deep within him had released its grip when the letter came through. He had written it down carefully, word for word, and he still read it twice a day.
The connection to the rest of the ship, tenuous after two hours, had broken up completely after a day, but that didn’t stop him from trying to reach them now, after more than a month. Because there were still things that kept him up at night, as much as it could be night when the sun was always up. Two things.
He didn’t know why the computer had left him in the compartment. It hadn’t been the extra mass — they could have sawed off one of the telescopes had they needed to. And in the month David had floated in orbit, he hadn’t thought of a single thing he could do from the capsule that could help the rest of the crew. The computer’s instructions were to maximize human life, and it had decided that dooming him was the best way to do that.
After hundreds of hours with nothing to do but think, he’d decided it was a fluke. A glitch in the program. The computer was never supposed to be able to do anything beyond control the flow of fuel to the thrusters, and that it had gained control of the valves locking the ship together was already unintended behavior.
But underneath that decision lurked something deeper, something he couldn’t ignore even after so long. Something that had finally reached a boiling point.
He grabbed at the pegs and climbed slowly back out to the floor, the feeling of gravity returning slowly as he began to spin with the room. When at last his feet were back on solid ground, David walked back through the compartments with cold determination. He picked up the broken desk leg and walked into the next room and up to that cold blue screen. He didn’t look away.
David knew. He knew that that computer knew exactly what it was doing, that it had seen some horrifying sequence of events that would unfold if it let him on the ship with the others. And he knew that he wouldn’t sleep properly until he did what he had to.
As the screen flickered from the impact and glass shards flew past his face, David smiled.
Later, when he was back floating in the middle of his room, he opened his eyes and looked past the hollow feeling in his stomach and came back to his old haunt, what was worse than anything about the computer — the few hours he’d had with the other crew members. Their voices had been tight as they’d told him how much he meant to them, how loved he was, how brave he had been. How brave, they said, to sacrifice himself for their futures.
And he hadn’t said a word against it.
A queasiness settled in the hollow part of his stomach as a new possibility hit him. Maybe they all had already known by the time they talked to him. Maybe they were just trying to make him feel better, and he had just gone along with their act.
David opened his eyes, looking out at the sun. It filled the entire window, closer by a hair than it had been a month ago. It stayed still, even as the room spun around him. His friends had ten years to go, but it would be much longer before this sun set.
He wondered if he would ever regret the computer’s decision to split in the first place. If he would go insane from the textureless food. If anyone would come for him.
But there was no need to worry about that now. He had years to contemplate what was left for him. No need to worry about that now.
After all, the future was bright.