People in brightly colored jumpsuits bustled around us, loud voices echoing off the spaceport’s metal walls, as we stood in silence, foreheads pressed together. I held him as long as I could until the blaring voice announcing the last call for his flight tore us apart. His hand slid from mine as he reluctantly moved toward the gate, but he stopped halfway, turning back to me.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
Tears spilled down my cheeks. He stood with his bag over his shoulder, watching me until the attendant told him this was the last chance to board before the doors closed. I waved half-heartedly as he paused in the doorway, and he raised a hand in response before the metal throat swallowed him completely.
I walked to the window and watched his ship detach from the station, silent plumes of steam evaporating in the vacuum of space. My head sagged against the glass as I fought against my grief, but the garbled voice blared again, calling for me this time. I sprinted through the spaceport to the ship that would carry me a world away from him.
We had met at the base of the small metal craft that was to be our new home. His unruly hair and bright red jumpsuit matching mine marked him as a fellow researcher in the sea of buzz cuts and starched uniforms filling the docking bay. He had been sent from our sister station on the opposite side of the planet to be the other half of our two-person team.
“You must be my fellow sardine,” he laughed, extending a hand to me.
His easy manner was a welcome relief from the tension of what lay before us. I eagerly shook his hand, opening my mouth to respond, but a man with a clipboard and a permanently creased forehead interrupted us, greeting us each with a curt nod before launching into his lengthy briefing.
“Sir. Ma’am. You will be entering RA 2-15-2 and passing through an unknown energy field. Once inside the field, all electronics in the craft will malfunction and communications disappear due to the ele… electro…”
I exchanged a glanced with my shipmate as our lecturer stumbled over the technical jargon, holding back a smile as he dramatically rolled his eyes. We had dedicated our lives to researching space phenomenon and undoubtedly knew more about what lay before us than our dedicated informant, but we dutifully listened as he droned on.
“Our calculations place you emerging from the other side approximately three months after entry. Our ship will retrieve you and take you to the main Earth transportation hub where you will return to your respective research stations.”
We were handed emergency supplies, a thoughtful but useless gesture considering where we were headed, and told to strap in for departure. When he turned to climb the ladder up to the small door, I could see a fresh incision matching mine at the base of his skull. We entered our tiny craft to resounding applause and blaring klaxons as the hangar cleared for our launch. They sealed us in and threw us into the void.
I gripped the safety belt across my chest with white knuckles as our craft shuddered and jerked in the lingering gravity from our mother ship. He was muttering to himself, apparently unfazed, engrossed in the stack of papers in his hands.
“What are you doing?” I croaked, desperate for a distraction.
“Reading our new operations manual.” He tapped a finger on the incision on the back of his neck.
Only organic machines worked inside the field, the electricity in our bodies stubbornly continuing to flow when all other electronics shorted out. We had each been given a chip, wired into our brains, to record everything we experienced, turning us into living sensors. There was only one problem.
“Not that it matters since I won’t remember any of it,” he laughed.
Removing the chip erased our memories from the moment it had been activated. When they sawed my skull open to jam it in, I thought that was a mercy.
The cushion of space caught us, smoothing out our flight, and we tossed aside the safety belts. Stacks of papers clamped in clipboards lined the walls, and in the center of the ceiling, a large glass portal faced up into the blackness. There were two small rooms with beds and various exercise equipment, and that was it. It reminded me of the black and white pictures of antique submarines, small and suffocating, but it had to be. Our bodies were our heat source, the insulation of our tiny vessel keeping the cold out and our warmth in. Blankets and packs of hand warmers had been provided, but we were on our own except for the microscopic organisms in the walls, gulping down our carbon monoxide and excreting oxygen.
We drifted ahead, carried by our momentum, until the lights on the consoles blinked rapidly and died. The whir of machinery faded, leaving us in silent blackness.
“We’re here.” His voice floated through the darkness, filled with infectious excitement.
The ship gradually solidified around us again, stained pink in the faint light, and the field came into view through the glass portal, arcs of rosy energy lacing across the void. Our feet lifted off the metal grating, and the papers lining the walls swooped up into art deco motifs.
“Well, that’s interesting.”
I turned to see him floating upside down, grinning at me. Our first day in nothing, he made me laugh.
We threw ourselves into our work, taking measurements, shoving liquids and instruments through the tiny airlock into the unknown, checking and re-checking oxygen levels and air quality, and monitoring our internal systems as closely as we did the ship’s. Temperature, pulse, blood pressure, muscle mass, hydrations levels, all recorded in pencil on rudimentary charts. He sang while we worked, and if he wasn’t singing, he was turning slow somersaults in the air and pelting me with questions about myself, my life, my research. I had volunteered because I had no family, no attachments, no one to grieve if this ship became my crypt. He had too.
At first, the days passed easily. But days became weeks, and the sensation that my feet were where my head should be, and my head was where my feet should be, that everything was inside out and upside down, grew until I locked myself in my room where he couldn’t see to throw up into vacuum-sealed sanitary bags. I tried to focus, to pour myself into the work, to distract myself from the immensity of the darkness closing in on me, but there was no time here, just an eternal pink light, unchanging. The X’s we drew through the days on our paper calendar meant nothing.
Every eight hours, we tried to sleep, shutting our doors against the pink light. The bed had straps to hold me in, but I couldn’t sleep tied down. I hovered over it instead, wrapping blankets around myself like some miserable nebula. His singing had stopped for the night, and silence closed in around me until I could hear the blood rushing in my ears. I couldn’t touch anything. There was nothing. No sensation, nothing to cradle my body, no gravity to press me to the earth. I didn’t exist. I was a lost consciousness, disembodied, floating on a sea of blackness, and it took him shaking me for me to realize I was screaming.
“I can’t,” I sobbed, panic blotting out everything. “I can’t do this.”
I gasped at the cruel air that refused to let me land. I needed touch, the security of gravity, the sensation of my body, and I thrashed against the merciless nothing. His arm closed around me, pinning my arms to my sides and anchoring my back to his chest.
“Look.” He shoved his wrist in my face, showing me his watch dimly illuminated by the pink light filtering through the door. “It’s practically an antique, but it’s the only thing that works out here.”
I stared at the tiny glass face as the second hand marched in deliberate circles, its quiet tick deafening in the silence. My breathing gradually slowed to match it, and his grip loosened as I regained my senses.
“How are you so calm?” My tears floated through the air around us, tiny diamonds shimmering in the faint light, and he caught one on his fingertip.
“I’m not calm. I sing because it’s too damn quiet. I ask you questions because I desperately need anything to distract myself. I’m terrified. When you started screaming, I thought it was me.”
He smiled weakly at me, but his was face drawn and haggard. I wrapped my arms around his neck, needing anything to hold on to.
“This is the warmest I’ve been in weeks,” he laughed shakily, embracing me back.
Any lingering unfamiliarity between us vanished, and we clung to each other, the only specks of life in a vacuum. After that night, we slept holding each other. It was the only way to combat the excruciating nothingness. I fell asleep to his breathing and the tick of his watch and woke to his soft singing and a protein bar hovering over my head.
We fell into a dance, a rhythm, orbiting through the ship from waking, working, exercising so our bodies didn’t waste away, back to sleep, over and over, always together, always talking. He became my gravity, and as the weeks passed, so did my fear. I left behind the jumpsuit, the fabric becoming suffocating against my skin, and stopped ferociously pinning my hair to my head. I would hover under the arcs of pink light, eyes closed, strands of hair lightly brushing my face. I was free. I didn’t need to know I was anything; I was nothing. I was everything. When I closed my eyes, I became the universe, limitless and unending. And when he touched me, it was not my body I felt but the heat of his skin, the pulse of life he carried within him echoing in my ears and beneath my fingertips. While all was still and silent, he moved freely. He spoke. He laughed. There was a universe of existence within him, and he fascinated me. I was happiest when he smoothed my hair away from my face and smiled at me.
We continued our work only because that was our routine, but the numbers stopped meaning anything. I couldn’t remember why this mattered, and I hastily scribbled data into white boxes, rushing to when we could hover together on our backs, gazing up at the pink arcs of energy.
“I think I’m in love with you,” I said, staring up at the expanse.
On Earth, I would never have been so bold, but I was free of that weight, looking into the mouth of eternity with the only other being in existence at my side. He was warmth in a sea of coldness, the only light in a void of darkness, my gravity, holding me together, and we were eternal. His fingers twined with mine, and the pink light splashed across his face as he pulled my forehead to his. When he kissed me, I wondered if I had ever known what sensation felt like.
We would hover over the blankets, weightless, only the insistence of our muscles holding us together, my hair floating around us, the heat of his breath in my mouth keeping me alive.
“I wonder how this will show up on the chip,” he laughed, and the coldness that washed over me at his words was more agonizing than the vacuum of space.
When our journey first began, dread overwhelmed me whenever I looked at the calendar and saw the sea of days remaining before our return. The same dread filled me now when I saw the days we had left growing fewer. We had survived, and now they would erase him. Us.
On our last night, I woke him with my crying. Work abandoned, charts blank and data unmeasured, we clung to each other until the pink light faded, and we were left in darkness. I hoped this was death, that we could spend eternity here in the black void, but the ship shuddered around us. Metal shrieked as the door was pried open, and gravity welded us to the bed. I tried to hold on to him, but a flood of medics and researchers tore him away. I was laid on a stretcher and adorned with sensors and needles and liquid running through tubes. I tried to see him through the crowd, to find any trace of him, but he had vanished. The lights, the colors, the noise, the grating touch against my skin was unbearable, and I ripped at the needles, deaf to my own shrieking, until someone emptied a syringe into my arm and merciful nothingness returned.
They put us in chambers with dimmed lights and soundproofed walls, not together but close, separated only by a plexiglass partition. We would sit as close as we could, our foreheads leaned together, palms pressed against our transparent prison. Our vitals were under constant observation, red alarms screaming if our heart rates wandered too far. Doctors poked and prodded, asking questions and gauging our reflexes. I couldn’t remember how to fake sanity, but time slowly secured my mind back in my body. I had lost myself in space, but I still loved him even though gravity had made him thin and tired. He spent most of his time writing furiously. When I knocked tentatively on the glass, he would turn to watch me for a moment before smiling and turning back to his writing, and I wondered if he had already forgotten.
By the time we reached the transportation hub, we were deemed fit to return to our work and released from our plexiglass prisons. The first thing he did was reach for my hand, and we walked together through the halls, out into the bewildering crowds, to his gate.
“I can’t. I can’t do this,” I sobbed.
He took my face in his hands.
“I will find you. I swear.”
“But you won’t remember.”
He yanked his notebook out of his bag and flipped to the middle, showing me his meticulous notes.
You met a woman on board. You don’t know it yet, but you’re in love with her. Find her.
The pages were filled with our journey, our time together, me.
“I wrote down everything,” he said. “I don’t have to remember. I’ll find you. We’ll make a new story.”
“What if we don’t? What if it isn’t enough?”
“Then…” He swallowed hard. “At least we won’t remember what we lost.”
The vacuum of space had fused us together, but now gravity was too heavy. It was ripping us apart, wrapping our skin around us again. Even if he found me, those moments, those beautiful moments when we were alone in the universe, would be gone. He unbuckled his watch, securing it around my wrist.
“I’m coming to get this back.”
I held him as long as I could, but now I was back where it had all begun, where they had put a chip in my brain and told me I would be advancing space research by a hundred years. I traced my fingers over the watch face. He hadn’t shown me how to wind it, and the hands were slowing. A nurse ushered me into a sterile white room, and I lay back on the chair as they shaved the base of my skull, wiping it with cold sterilizer. A needle pricked for the injection of the local anesthetic.
“The other researcher,” I said as I went numb. “Is he okay?”
“They removed his chip this morning. He’s fine.”
Hot tears blinded me. He had already forgotten, and no notes could bring me back. The doctor came in, snapping her gloves as she pulled them on.
“Like last time, we will keep you awake in case of complications.”
She disappeared behind me, and I felt a tug at the base of my skull, but no pain. I closed my eyes and let myself float back to those moments in his arms, weightless, fearless, when it was only him and–
I sighed, waiting for them to finish. I knew having this chip installed was necessary, but that didn’t mean I was enjoying it.
“Is it in yet?” I asked, twitching my feet nervously.
The doctor appeared at my side, a bloody chip clamped in a pair of forceps. I slowly realized I was on the other side of… I had no idea what. The clothing I thought I had put on just that morning was different, and my body was thinner. A hot tear trickled down my cheek, and I wiped a hand across my face, staring at the moisture on my fingers. An antique watch had appeared on my wrist, the second hand frozen in place. My heart ached, but try as I might, I couldn’t remember why.