The Second Disease

(This story was first published by Theme of Absence, and is here reprinted in full. None of the text may be copied or reproduced without written permission by the author.)

There is a chair and it is mine. I fill it while monitoring the sensors and scanners on this spinning station. I fill it because they are dead.

Twelve years out here on the edge of things, alone, listening. Listening for life beyond the known. Twelve years and nothing but silence.

That’s not strictly true. They speak to me still, those who risked everything, signed their names to contracts, and ventured out with me. Those who I zipped into polythene bags and ejected into the long dark beyond the last sun.

The station lies too far out to resupply or fill with replacements. We knew that when we signed on. Each death was reported. Each met with silence. Does the Corporation still remember our little project? Does the Corporation still exist at all? When I turn out the lights in my cubicle, dictating the advent of night, when I sleep in that flawless darkness, fear tingles the boundaries of dreams, and I dream I’m the last. It’s true, war might’ve broken out in the thousands of Terran years since we launched. Humanity might’ve done itself in, a blinding explosion, a rampant biohazard, an unmitigated expansion to the edge of the universe, dispersing humanity until it no longer resembles itself. Who knows?

No one bothers reporting to me, that’s for sure.

An accident took my Jacob. A leak in a suit that let out oxygen and let in the cold. Listlessness leached the life from our Maddie.

When the Petri dish overturned in the science bay, our daughter no longer cared to fight for her own sweet life. Plague without a name spread through the station. Then despair. One or the other claimed the rest of the crew and their families. All but one.

My face still bears the scars of boils, but who needs a mirror out here?

For a year or so, another shared survival with me. A biologist who knew ways to fight plague but not despair. At first, we clung to each other for company, desperate to combat loneliness as if it were a second disease. Then we shunned one another, unable to bear the burden of watching the other grow old performing useless work and eventually die in the cold anonymity out beyond the last sun.

I lost sight of my companion for several cycles before it occurred to me to look for him. I found him in his cubicle with a red canyon blasted through his skull, and a note: “I’m sorry. I don’t have the courage to be the last.”

So I maintain the station alone. My needs are few. Power and resources are easy to ration. “Days” pass when I do not rise from my sleeping pod. When I drift, catatonic in the void inside myself. Then there are days of frenzied work. Any task suffices when the goal is to ward off the fever of ‘alone’ boiling in my veins. I fertilize the phytoforms, dehydrate the next year’s worth of nourishment, and collect the recycled water. How many times have I drunk my own piss? I even remember to take my daily ration of capsules, the necessary vits that low gravity depletes. Is it the same stubbornness that Jacob used to complain about that keeps me swallowing the little pills? A need for routine? Or some vague, nameless hope?

The neglected screens and sensors flare to life, grateful for my touch. The vinyl chair I fill is cracked with use. I listen for whispers of sentience, but every cycle the readings are the same, and the same expresses eternal emptiness…


…a change in pattern, a break in the static. I press headphones against my ears, swipe screens and turn dials, seeking a frequency. The readings of the quadrant show only blackness. Nothing pings back. And yet something is incoming.

Inside the static, broken like a cough, a voice. “Mommy? Mommy, can you find me?”

* * *

We used to play a game, Maddie and me. Endless boredom drove her to the nearest intercom, and her exuberant little voice would crackle through the mind-numbing haze of some seemingly vital task. “Mommy, can you find me?” It didn’t take me long to learn her favorite hiding places.

I look there now, search them all. Invent a few new ones, turn the station inside out. Even though I know: the communication came from outside the station.

I harbor a terror. When I zipped her into the polythene bag, had she still been alive? But that was more than a decade ago. No food, no oxygen had made the journey into eternal night with her. That she still lived was impossible.

Yet the void had given her back to me.

Or am I insane? Twelve years since I have heard any voice but my own. Long ago I stopped talking to myself. Has my need for company conjured her voice out of star dust?

I return to the monitors, plug into the headset. There is nothing, the hiss of static, a crushing loneliness that I know, this time, will kill me.

And then…

“…can she find us?”

“I don’t know. Maybe.”

Two voices! The sensors tick with excitement. In awe I watch the readings spill across the screen. Tears splash the keys between my fingers.

“Sweetheart, you there? … you might as well …”

I might as well what? Give up? Use the biologist’s pistol on myself? Take a triple dose of tranquilizer? No, I haven’t squeezed twelve years of life out of this silence to stop now. Might as well keep going.

The sensors point, indicating a broad wedge of the void. They are in agreement. The frequency is coming from somewhere out beyond the last sun. Only the radar is confused, showing nothing.

How far out? Do Jacob and Maddie reach me from a place that can be found?

I pack the long-range recon ship. I take my time. The ship has never been used. I check its diagnostics, then check them again. There is no rush. Over the course of two weeks while I prepare, I listen to the incoming communications, broadcast them throughout the station. The voices do not cease.

Perhaps they are a siren call, luring me out from my safe harbor, out into the endless storm of darkness and silence and cold. Perhaps it is a fruitless hope, but it is a hope worth chasing.

I abandon my cracked vinyl chair. There is only a moment of fear that comes with breaking loose. Then I buckle myself into the seat of the recon ship and initiate the launch sequence.