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Science Fiction

   The wind battered frantically against the pod’s hull like a live thing trying to get in. Jacob couldn’t be sure it wasn’t. During the short periods when he was still awake, he sometimes heard faint rumblings and keenings outside that sounded distinctly biological— though it seemed insane to imagine that anything could live out there, in the perpetual violence of the alien storm. He’d kept the viewing ports closed, in any case.

   It wasn’t on now, but if he tapped the small screen in the pod’s control panel it would light up with a series of numbers: five years, three months and eighteen days since departure. Six days since the crash. Wherever they were, time didn’t seem to run the same course as it did on Earth. Sometimes an hour lasted a day. Sometimes a day lasted an hour. Sometimes he was asleep while waking; and sometimes he was awake while sleeping; and sometimes he thought he had awoken into another time and place altogether, though that might’ve just been his fever. But the counter on the nav screen kept ticking up and up toward infinity regardless.

   Jacob’s vision was suddenly eclipsed by the shadow of a human form. She leaned down towards him, offering something.

   He peeled his crusted lips apart and lifted his head. “Thank you, love,” he said. She smiled.

   “Sit up a little,” she said, “there you go. I made it just how you like.” She passed the steaming cup to his hand, then supported it as his fingers struggled to gain hold. Jacob closed his eyes and took a tentative sip.

   The lights went out. He swallowed, burning his tongue a little, and waited in the darkness. The pod shook slightly with the force of the storm.

   A few minutes later, a series of sharp electronic chirps sounded. The pod was illuminated once more, though the light was wavering and dim. Cecilia clambered up through the floor hatch and hoisted herself onto her feet with a faint clang.

   “I’ve rewired life support again,” she said. “We’re drawing power from the cryo-bed batteries now.”

   Jacob fell back limply into his pillow, the mug in his hands toppling to the floor. It shattered, sending hot tea and ceramic fragments skittering across the floor.

   “Oh— Jake—” Cecilia dropped to her knees and began collecting the detritus. When she stood, she saw that he was crying. “I’m sorry,” she said in a low voice. “I’m sorry. We still have a little while left.”

   Though tears streamed down his pallid face, he looked strangely meditative. Jacob’s eyes were closed restfully, and his expression was peaceful as if he didn’t have the strength still to furrow his brow. He shook his head.

   She placed her palm on his forehead. “What is it?”

   “Nothing,” he choked.

   She said nothing but tilted her head inquisitively. After a moment, he opened his eyes a little and looked up at her.

   “I don’t mean to be ungrateful, but— it was all wrong.”

   “I’m sorry,” she said again.

   “You can only synthesize so much, I guess. Without tea leaves.”

   “Yes.”

   “Without a soul.” He was quiet for a few moments and closed his eyes again. “Do you remember when we went to Paris and I got sick with the flu?”

   “Of course, dear,” she replied, though she didn’t have that memory.

   “It was that tour guide who gave it to me, I’m sure,” Jacob mused. “He sneezed right on the shoulder of my jacket and the next day I woke up with a pounding headache. You tried to make me drink some mineral water, but I just puked all over the bedspread.”

   Cecilia remained silent and stroked his hair. His eyes were glassy and far away.

   “Could you open the window?” he asked, almost childishly. There was a viewing port situated in the wall directly above his bunk. Cecilia reached up and pressed the button next to it and the polarized visor hummed open.

   A faint indigo light from the port outlined Jacob’s profile. Outside, almost nothing could be seen. The planet’s surface was only a vague black smear beneath a torrent of undulating smog.

   “How much longer?”

   “About thirty minutes, at the most.”

   “The air is so thin,” he said, his voice unusually high.

   Cecilia nodded. “Atmospheric oxygen is now under twenty-five percent. Life support is—”

   Jacob sat up so quickly that she stopped mid-sentence, then fell back onto his elbows with a wheeze. His breath rattled dryly in his chest.

   “Don’t get up, dear,” she pleaded. “You’ll only make it worse.”

   He hissed a curse out through his teeth and curled up under the thin company-issued blanket, turning away to face the pod’s wall. He panted angrily for a minute before he could gain control and slow down. There was a desperate feeling building in his chest, the primal panic of a rat in a trap.

   “Atmospheric oxygen is now under twenty-three percent,” Cecilia noted. Her tone was perfectly sterile.

   “Turn off the lights,” he replied.

   She blinked once, and the lights were off. Both of them stared through the viewing port into the turbulent void that was the sky. Jacob made a small noise.

   “What is it?” she asked.

   “I thought I saw something. A star.”

   Cecilia made no comment.

   “When we were in France,” he said, “I mean, when me and Cecilia went. The real Cecilia. You— she went out to get me some medicine ‘cause I was so sick I couldn’t move. Didn’t understand a word of French, but you were totally confident you’d figure it out anyways.” For a moment, Jacob’s voice was smiling. “You told me that you went into a pharmacy, but you couldn’t read any labels except for Earl Grey tea. So that’s all you got. And I was furious, but you made me a cup with the old electric kettle in the hotel room and I drank it. Then I threw it up again. But I did feel a little better, after I was done being angry.”

   “You shouldn’t talk so much,” she said.

   Jacob continued, oblivious. “That was our last summer together. We were driving back home from the airport a couple days later when I told her I’d been sleeping with Emily.” He swallowed. “I think that moment, just before she turned to look at me with that look in her eyes, was the last moment she ever loved me. And then I had to go, Cecilia, how could I live without that? I was going to send her some money from the colonies—“ and he began to sob.

   Cecilia patted his back consolingly. It was time, she thought. Oxygen levels were now just under nineteen percent, and he would likely fall unconscious within the next several minutes. These transport pods were not designed for extended habitation; she had followed emergency protocol to its practical limit. Silently, as Jacob wept, she ejected a thin plastic canister from a slot in her left forearm. Inside it was a hypodermic syringe containing fifteen grams of clear liquid.

   She looked up to find Jacob staring her in the face. Wordlessly, he extended an open palm. His tears were drying already. As she placed the needle into his hand, his fingers clutched at it with the smothered desperation of a diver reaching for the surface.

   “I’ll go and find you some medicine,” Cecilia said, standing. Jacob nodded, opened his mouth as if to say something, then closed it again.

   She turned to leave. “I’ll be back soon, dear.”

   He did not reply.

   “I love you,” Cecilia said, and she strode over to the airlock and opened its outer door, and passed into the endless howling embrace of the storm without ever looking back.

January 15, 2022 03:45

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