She had made it through the first seven months with her sanity intact. Jake was showing signs of space fatigue, but they had each other. A month ago, he confessed that he probably could not have survived it alone. He would have tried, he assured her. Before applying to the program, he’d promised to come back to her in one piece. But the enormity of space and time had to be tasted, first-hand, to be understood, and Jake was not as prepared as he’d thought he was. Eliana nodded. Twenty years – as long as she had Jake – was doable. That’s what Eliana told herself each morning, and each night as she crawled into the cocoon, reciting the Periodic Table while waiting for the Lethinol to kick in. In any case, there was no lighted sign marked “Exit.”
Eliana unzipped the cocoon slowly, with practiced and disciplined fingers – fighting the urge to rip it with teeth and nails. She did her breathing exercises as she moved the double-walled zipper with controlled precision, and emerged from the thing with a smile. She stretched. Freedom in a cell that measured 4’x7′.
Something wasn’t right.
Eliana couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but she sensed it at the first touch of cool air as her feet hit the floor. It was the stillness. The silence. She’d grown accustomed to the faint vibration of the Argos, the constant thrum of the engines and the ecosystem – so acclimated to the ship that she didn’t notice it at all until it wasn’t there. Adrenaline was still fighting the whiff of Lethinol she’d taken at bedtime – two whiffs, easily explained as necessary to regulate her sleep cycles, excited as she was about her first trip into space. No one need know that she had to drug herself, nightly, just to get to sleep in that thing. So the Argos was sleeping, too, perhaps. Eliana pulled the shade on the portal of her personal pod – a section of the ship not much larger than the lavatory on an old earth cruise liner – that served as her private “apartment” aboard the Argos (and discouraged crew from spending too much time in self-imposed solitary on slow days). She liked to look out on the sun’s light; it reminded her that she was still within the bounds of a familiar solar system, and not merely adrift in the black void of a cosmic sea.
Breath control failed her. Panic swept in like a raging typhoon. Sunlight glinting off metal blinded her, momentarily. Eliana’s brain tried to backpedal in denial as it processed the data: She was adrift in a sea of ragged bits of a spaceship formerly known as the Argos. Her hands on either side of the portal were all that kept her knees from buckling beneath her as she watched Jake’s pod drift slowly by. Numbers became meaningless. Oxygen, water… “You could, theoretically, survive for up to a week in the self-contained sleep quarters. But once you’ve passed the three-week mark–”
“There’s really no point. The rescue vessels would be out of reach.”
“So what would one – theoretically – do during that week?”
The commander had simply stared back at her while both of them pondered that unhappy thought. Insanity, the Last Frontier.
Twenty years had seemed an eternity, once upon a time. Suddenly, a single week seemed infinitely longer.
Eliana strained for one last glimpse, but Jake’s portal remained dark as it floated slowly out of sight.
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