“Christ, One! What the hell were you thinking?” the voice came through the hud slightly distorted. Nothing had been right on the Doppel Station for days, maybe weeks. It was difficult to keep track of time in this lifestyle. There were no nights, no days, and essentially no schedule. Work needed done when it needed done and it didn’t matter if the men were tired or hungry or whatever other excuse they might concoct. One tried to focus his mind enough to remember when the issues had arisen. He knew it was during Twenty-Seven. Measuring events in that way made him feel lugubrious, but it had been his best method to date. These minor external repairs were not typically so frequent, and he grew concerned that it meant the end of the station was coming soon. Perhaps it had drifted from its axis, or some distant celestial body had shifted and was influencing it in some way. They were still waiting to hear back from the Union regarding their query.
“One! Yo, you listening, man?” the voice crackled through again. One rolled his eyes and sighed, knowing the heavy exhale would be detected by the suit. He liked the idea of his disdainful sigh echoing through the main deck for his crewmate to hear.
“God One, you don’t have to be so pissy. Just fix that panel and get the hell back inside. I’m sick of monitoring your vitals,” came the response.
After finishing his work, One leaned back against the hull of the station and watched the swirling of the reality around him. The Dorra galaxy was on the small side for those that had been explored, and to One, it felt quaint -- cozy even. It was like living in the smallest nearby town and still being able to see the nightlights of the closest big city.
At least, that is how One thought of it, from his studies of old human culture. He, himself, had never lived on the planet known as Earth. Born and bred on this ship, he spent much of his free time daydreaming; imagining what life must have been like for his ancestors. Walking in something called grass -- typically green with threadlike fingers of roots extending down into the soil for nutrients, hydrogen dioxide, and security. He wondered what that might feel like, having roots and security. Breathing unfiltered air, filled with the pollution and aromas of the natural world. One’s entire life had been inside this shell, floating endlessly in an even more endless vacuum of nothingness. Even the gravity he experienced wasn’t what he considered natural.
“Bro -- Wake up and get your ass inside,” the voice broke his melancholy revelry and One felt more angry than he had in weeks. It wasn’t often that he sat out against the hull and let himself take in the view, but it was without fail that whenever he did, he was called back inside with the same crass phrasing that effectively wrecked whatever peace he had found in his meditation.
As One closed the airlock behind himself and secured it, he could feel the needy eyes on him through the door. He slowly and meticulously removed his gear, inspecting each piece before placing it carefully in his cubby. Mainly, he took such care in this process because he found it an effective method to avoid returning into the main hull of the station, and thereby further prolonging his peace and isolation.
Technically, they were always supposed to take this level of care in their return inspections, but it was well known that few of the ‘nauts ever did, especially this far from the Hub. Stations like the Doppel rarely, if ever, received elite visitors, and never had surprise inspections from the higher-ups. In fact, the Doppel was much more of a small outpost than a proper station. The Doppel was a small superfluous station responsible for monitoring the oxygen levels and watching for signs of life on tiny dead rock on the outskirts of the galaxy. ‘Nauts stationed here were meant to exist, write reports for the Union, and maintain that there were always two living there. Nothing else.
A pounding echoed around One as he painstakingly inspected his last valve and he turned to the door to see an angry face peering through the glass at him.
“Come on, man, get in here!!!”
“I’m doing my inspections,” One replied.
“You’re wasting time and you know it!”
“ME? Never. Why on Doppel would I ever do something like that?” he asked, faking an aghast expression.
He ignored the plea.
He continued fiddling with his equipment, turning away from the door to hide a smile.
One started laughing.
“Alright, I’m coming, Twenty-Seven. Calm down,” he said, crossing through the door at last.
Twenty-Seven tackled him.
“Dude, it is so freakin’ lonely in this tin can, man. I don’t know what to do with myself,” he said, latching on to One’s back.
“Maybe you should try studying or reading or something,” One replied, pulling away from the younger man, “you haven’t been alive long enough to be this bored.”
“I’m plenty old enough to be bored, bro,” came the indignant reply.
“Dude, you’ve been alive 46 days. I activated the Womb for you less than 3 months ago. You have no right to be this bored.”
“Yeah, and you’ve only been alive, what, 180 days?” the young man asked sarcastically, though he knew the actual count was much longer.
“I’ve been here forever.” A cold and measured response.
The younger man scoffed before jumping on One’s back again.
One pulled away once more and went to the bunk room. Twenty-Seven followed him closely, something clearly on his mind. One turned to him.
“What’s up, man?” he asked tiredly.
“It’s just -- Man, uh -- What happened to Twenty-Six?”
“I’ve told you what happened to Twenty-Six.”
“No, you just said you needed a replacement.”
“That’s what happened to Twenty-Six. He needed replaced.”
“Dude, you know what I mean.”
“Well doy. How?”
“We’re in space. Even if we weren’t, death is a certainty.”
“Dude, One, you are the worst at answering questions, like, ever.”
“Yeah, but I’m still the best teacher you’ve ever known.” he chuckled.
“You’re also the worst everything I’ve ever known,” Twenty-Seven quipped.
The men stood in silence briefly. One lowered himself onto his bunk. Twenty-Seven watched him, an increasingly tragic expression spreading across his face. One leaned back and closed his eyes tightly, intentionally refusing to see the younger man’s pitiful appearance. He was tired of answering these questions with each new iteration. At this point, it seemed an exercise in futility.
Each story ended the same, each life coming to the same closing line; never anything special. It had become easier with each passing individual. Two had been a real struggle. One had been uncertain that he would ever recover from losing his first second hand man. He had tried to make himself disconnect since then. He spent more time outside the station when he could. Tried to be independent from them. But Twenty-Seven -- Twenty-Seven reminded him too much of himself in the very beginning, beyond the obvious fact that they had the exact same face, the same DNA. Each of the men had the same face and DNA; that wasn’t special. Somehow though, Twenty-Seven was special. Excitable and eager to know whatever he could. Stifled by life inside the Doppel. It took great effort to remain aloof with this one. One reflected on the lives of the others, how shockingly dissimilar they had all been, all facts considered, and yet they all ended the same. Such is life, he thought to himself.
One woke up naturally for the first time in what felt like ages. No klaxon blaring, no clingy crewmate awaiting his eyes to flutter open. “Good,” he thought. Perhaps at last Twenty-Seven had gotten the hint to stop asking so many questions. He rose slowly, stretching his aching body. The human body was not designed to spend its entire life in space. Even One, essentially created for that purpose, still struggled with the effects.
One found Twenty-Seven sitting quietly near the com panel and staring through the view screen at the celestial bodies of Dorra that blinked and flickered around them.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he whispered, placing his hand on Twenty-Seven’s shoulder.
“Yeah, yeah,” Twenty-Seven responded, being jarred from whatever distant reality his mind had ventured off to.
“So like me,” One thought with a gentle smile, before saying “Get some sleep, man.”
Twenty-Seven rose mindlessly and followed the instruction. “How long has he been awake?” One wondered, before taking Twenty-Seven’s place at the com. Still no message from the Union. One felt a familiar twinge of concern, before shaking it off. What did it matter, really, he asked himself. He went about his routine, checking the equipment, checking readings, looking for anything that might have gone awry during his rest. He was relieved to find there had been nothing out of the ordinary, and returned to his studies.
“Tell me what happened to Twenty-Six,” a groggy voice croaked from behind One. He had been reading for hours, and the sudden reminder that he was not alone startled him.
“Christ, man!” he yelled.
“Tell me,” Twenty-Seven said again, “I need to know.”
“You already know.”
“I know he’s dead. I don’t know how he got there.”
“Does it even matter?” One shot back, “Dead is dead. Who cares how anyone arrived at dead. All that matters is that they are dead.”
“What happened to you, man,” Twenty-Seven asked quietly.
“What do you mean?”
“What happened to you? Seriously, how can it not matter how they got there? Dead is DEAD, man! Becoming dead is a big freakin’ deal.”
“Drop it,” One yelled. He felt his long stifled emotions bubbling up inside him.
Twenty-Seven was silent.
One was silent.
The silence became its own entity. A threesome to their short staffed company. It floated down on them and wrapped them up, holding them against one another. One stared at Twenty-Seven, staring at his own face. Younger, not so worn down by the nihilism, unscathed by the repeated witnessing of death after death. Hair still cut to regulation. Twenty-Seven stared back, tears prickling at his eyes and throat. He saw himself, and yet something completely different. Long, unkempt hair licking at that uncanny face, yet the skin pulled differently. Tighter, and yet wrinkling slightly around the eyes, across the forehead. That face no longer held its softness. Silence coiled tighter, beginning to hint at suffocation.
“Look, I can’t tell you what happened to them, man,” One whispered through the smog of silence that nestled around them, “I just can’t do it again.”
Twenty-Seven nodded slowly. Time drifted without meaning again, the way it had for so long, the way it always would, but in that moment, it was palpable.
An alarm blasted through the station, nearly shaking the men. Something was wrong. Severely wrong. The silence that had enveloped them was eradicated. They rushed to the com to see if they could see anything. The view screen was blank. The instruments were going berserk. Inconsistent and chaotic readings flashed over and over before the entire com powered down. The lights dimmed inside the vessel, and a warning message began repeating itself. One looked to Twenty-Seven. The young man’s face was contorted into fear and frown. One patted him on the shoulder. “I’m going outside,” he shouted over the various sirens and messages the station’s computer blasted through the hull. Twenty-Seven grabbed his hand. “I’ll go,” he yelled, but One slipped away and ran for the airlock.
One grabbed his gear and slipped it on far more quickly than he ever had. This was not how these situations were typically handled. The man with seniority was not the one who was supposed to go out during the outages, but he didn’t care. Regulations be damned. He wasn’t going to watch it happen again. Twenty-Seven stood at the doorway, watching One as he dressed, screaming something unheard through the chaos that shattered everything he had ever known. One heard as Twenty-Seven began trying to open the door into the airlock and before the younger man could progress, he opened the outer door, effectively locking the rest of the station down until proper procedures allowed things to open again.
One ventured out onto the shell of the station where he had spent his life. He immediately saw where the vessel had been struck by some manner of space debris. Two of the twelve power cells placed around the outside of the ship had been knocked loose, likely causing a short in the circuit and causing the power levels to fluctuate inside. He set to repairing the damaged pieces, and looked up to see still more hurtling towards the Doppel. He worked as quickly as he could, but it was not fast enough. He had only been able to repair one of the cells before the next impact. A small piece of rock struck him at such velocity it tore through the arm of his suit. Safety procedures activated. The arm was severed off and sealed instantaneously. The temperature rose rapidly on the blade inside the sleeve, cauterizing the amputation. One screamed in pain, though from everything he had read, this was nothing compared to what would have happened without the guillotine effect of his suit. He had poured over the manuals that warned of what could happen in these circumstances. How the water in human skin would vaporise in the absence of atmospheric pressure; moisture on the tongue would boil. All of that, of course, only mattered if the rest of you somehow had oxygen and protection from the vacuum of space. The hud began a countdown, indicating how long he had left without receiving proper medical attention. These suits, while advanced technology, could simply not stave off human death without other measures being taken to recover.
One’s mind flashed back, again and again, to each of the different men he had lost during his time on the station. Had this been what they had felt? This fear? This -- well, this relief? What sort of emotional cocktail did they each experience? Were they -- Was he -- glad? He felt himself floating away from the hull of the station. The impact must have been enough to separate his magnetic boots from the titanium. It was a weak bond anyway. It only made sense that it would have. As he rotated away from the only home he had ever known, the only home he could ever have known, he tried not to imagine the face of his protege. He tried not to see that same face, over and over again in his mind. The fear. God, the fear. Two’s final scream flashed through his mind. Eleven. Nineteen. Each face, the same, and yet so different in that final moment. Each death had been different, but was that even possible? Each had taken place in the same location -- this godforsaken station in this corner of this godforsaken galaxy. Each death of the same person, genetically. How could it have been so different each time? The urgency of the message in his hud increased, counting away One’s final seconds, and he felt a feeling of anticipation. Of impending freedom?
The Womb hummed in the background as Twenty-Seven sat at the com, studying up on life in the olden days, back on Earth. He absent-mindedly worked his finger through the scars on his face. The scars he had put there with a broken piece of the ship gathered during a repair mission. They were designs he had created after discovering the concept of “tattoos” during one of his deep dives into old human culture. It was his only way of feeling different. When at last the Womb unlocked, he felt a very slight tickle of excitement. What it would be to not be alone again, even for a little while. He tried to stifle the feeling. He knew how this always ended.
“Welcome to the Doppel,” the computer voice chirped pleasantly.
Twenty-Seven stepped into the room to watch the new arrival recover from the incubation process. It sat up slowly, rising out of the pink amniotic fluid that each of the men was born from, stretching its back and arms. It looked around. Focusing on his face. It blinked several times, and he waited patiently for the eyes to focus. It took some time, this orientation to the world of the living. Fortunately, each of the clones was born with the ability to understand language and to speak it; once they figured out how to make their vocal cords work, anyway. The amnion drained from the incubation pod and the hatch opened, allowing the newest arrival to the station to step out into its new home.
Twenty-Seven leaned against the wall. His hair was long, tumbling down his shoulders. His hand stroked his beard out of habit.
“Get some clothes on and find me for orientation when you’re ready,” he said coldly before walking out of the Womb. Something made him hesitate for a moment, and he turned back to his newest crewmate. Maybe this time it would be different. He cleared his throat.
“And, uh, welcome to the Doppel, Forty-Nine. I think you’re gonna like it here.”
“Wait. Sorry, I just wondered. How long have you been here?” the new man smiled awkwardly before asking, as his eyes slowly took in the haggard face of his superior.
Twenty-Seven shook his head and chuckled.
“About half of forever, man.”