From the editor:We love Edward Ashton’s stories for the way they use faraway settings to expose the nature of the humans in them, whether good, bad, or anything in between. Read “Tessa,” a tale of love, loss, and what-ifs in an untethered ship cartwheeling through space.
Tessa drifts across the cafeteria, caught mid-way between deck and ceiling. Her arms and legs flail around her, but her face is dead-calm.
“Allie?” she says. “I think the tether’s broken.”
I’m holding onto a table that’s bolted down to the deck, watching as my orange juice and glass drift up and away from one another. A lot of people are going to die in the next few hours. You expect something like this to be… I don’t know… louder? This just feels like letting go.
“Yeah,” I say. Tessa looks like she’s rotating slowly in mid-air, but my inner ear tells me it’s actually the rock that’s tumbling around her. “Need some help?”
She falls still, and her eyes sag closed.
“We’re done,” she says. “You know that, right?”
“Probably. Do you need some help?”
She stretches up, kicks her feet like a swimmer reaching for the surface. Her fingers touch the ceiling, and she nudges herself back down toward the deck.
“I think I’ve got it,” she says.
I look around the cafeteria. There’s a lot of stuff wafting through the air now, some of it heavy, and some of it sharp. This would be a dangerous place to be if gravity came back.
Of course, gravity is not coming back. We’re in an elevator at the top of infinity, and the cable has just been cut.
I follow Tessa to main control. From there we’ve got a much better idea of just how thoroughly we’re screwed. Tessa takes her place at the big board. I hang back, braced in the propped-open door. Her eyes are red-rimmed, her hair pulled back in a tight blonde braid. The muscles in her jaw bunch and relax as she works.
“Could be worse,” she says after a few minutes of tapping. “If it’d let go four hours later, we’d be falling into the sun.”
I rub my face with both hands, then reach back for the door frame as I start to drift.
“Okay,” I say. “That might be worse. So where are we headed?”
She gives the screen another tap. A holo of the inner system pops up in the middle of the room. A red arc runs from the top of the tether, one hundred and forty-four thousand kilometers above the Earth’s equator, in toward the sun to just outside the orbit of Venus, and then back out toward the asteroid belt. The line fades just as it begins to curl back in, a hair outside the orbit of Mars.
“Hey,” I say. “Could be a lot worse. I mean, that almost looks like a planned transfer orbit. Any chance we come close enough to someone for a rescue mission?”
“Maybe eventually. Hell, we’re basically an Earth-crossing asteroid now. We might plop into the Atlantic someday.” She shakes her head. “Not in our lifetimes, though. Earth just lost access to orbit, remember?”
“What about Mars?”
“Wrong side of the sun. Leave now, and the best-case trajectory from the top of the Mars tether gives us... eighteen months to intercept.”
“And we’ve got food and water for...”
She laughs again, but there’s no humor in it.
“Food’s not a problem. We’ve got enough in the stores to last just the two of us for a year or more. Water’s not quite as good, but as long as we can keep the cyclers running we’ll be fine there too.”
“That sounds great,” I say. “So why don’t you look happy?”
Her eyes narrow.
“You’re the engineer, Allie. You tell me.”
I look away. My adviser in grad school used to give me that same tone, and that same look, when he thought I was missing something obvious. I hated him for it.
I don’t hate Tessa for it.
“Attitude control,” I say finally. “We’re tumbling, and we’re not going to be able to stop it. We won’t be able to keep the solar panels facing the sun.”
“We bleed off power until something critical shuts down.”
“Very good,” Tessa says. “Now, the million dollar question: what goes first? What, exactly, is going to kill us?”
That’s actually an interesting question. If we were riding one of the tin cans we’re supposed to be launching, I’d say temperature control, but we’re not. We’re buried in a captured asteroid. This place has a lot of natural insulation. What does that leave?
“The CO2 scrubbers,” I say. “They draw a ton of juice. Even if we shut down everything that’s not completely essential, they’ll drain the batteries eventually.”
“Yeah,” Tessa says. “That’s where I wound up too. Looks like you and I will be spending the rest of our lives together.”
I look up, and my stomach gives a strange little flutter. She’s smiling, but I can see tears beading in her eyelashes.
“And how long is that, do you think?”
She shrugs, wipes at her eyes and looks away.
“Six weeks, maybe? Eight, if we’re careful.”
Eight weeks, alone with Tessa. It’s not nothing.
We try pinging Earth, of course, but they’re not too interested in helping. They just had a hundred and forty-four thousand kilometers of carbon nanotube fall on their heads, after all. The base station is gone, all hands lost. Three crawlers were on the tether when it went, one of them carrying a pod full of Mars-bound colonists. They’re all gone too. Tessa manages to get a couple of people on the horn eventually, but they don’t have a lot of grief to spare for the two of us.
Two days later. We’re back in the cafeteria, sharing a turkey sandwich, trying to avoid getting crumbs in the air, when Tessa first mentions leaving. No lead-in. She just looks up at me and says, “How do you want to do it?”
“Do what?” I ask, my heart pounding. Idiot. For a second, I actually think she means do it.
“Check out,” she says. “We could pop the main lock. Decompression is quick. Or we could crack a scalpel off the autodoc, maybe open up an artery. I could do you, you could do me. Or there’s pills. I don’t know if we’ve got anything fatal, but we can check.”
I stare at her. She’s different in zero gee, her face rounder and softer. Her braid drifts up behind her, writhing like a snake as she shakes her head.
“What?” she asks. “Have you got a better idea?”
And here’s what I want to say: Yes, I have a better idea. How about we just... stay?
Eight weeks isn’t nothing.
Eight weeks could be a lifetime.
But I don’t say that. I don’t say anything at all.
“Right,” she says, takes a bite of the sandwich and passes it to me. As I take it from her, our fingers almost touch.
We get a ping from the Mars topside crew. There’s a transport outbound. They have just enough delta-v available for an intercept. They can meet us just before aphelion, six months from now.
Tessa tells them thanks, but no thanks.
That night, Tessa brings her sleeping net into my cabin. She rigs it on the opposite side of the room from mine, but still. I can’t be happy, right?
I can’t be, but I am.
“Socrates,” Tessa says.
My eyes snap open in the coal-black dark.
“Socrates,” she says. “Ancient Greek philosopher, right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know who Socrates is.”
“Ever read the Phaedo?”
“No,” I say. “I’ve never read anything by Socrates. I’m an engineer, remember?”
She laughs. Tessa double-majored in Economics and Literature. She likes to remind me sometimes that I’m basically an up-jumped plumber.
“Socrates never wrote anything, Allie. Plato wrote the Phaedo. It’s about Socrates.”
I close my eyes again, then open them. It doesn’t make any difference.
“Okay,” I say. “So?”
“So,” she says, “the Phaedo is about Socrates’ execution. He’s been ordered to drink hemlock by sundown for corrupting the youth of Athens, right?. His friends all want him to wait until the last possible minute to do it, but he doesn’t. He drinks it straight away.”
I shake my head, though I know she can’t see me. I really don’t like where this conversation is going, but I don’t know how to turn it.
“There’s no point in waiting,” she says. “You see? He just wants to get on with it.”
Later, I’ll realize that this was my last chance. She’s talking to herself, not me--but I could break into the conversation, could push it another way. I don’t, though. I just hang there, staring at the insides of my eyelids and wishing.
“Anyway,” she says, “we should take a survey of the pharmacy tomorrow. We need to know what our options are.”
I turn in my net, and pretend to sleep.
I dream that night that she comes to me, that she crawls into my net, wraps herself around me, buries her face in my neck and breathes in deep. Her hair brushes my cheek, and a warm, delicious shiver runs from the base of my spine to the back of my neck. When I reach for her, though, I’m alone, blind in the darkness, awakened by the sound of a single muffled sob.
“Barbiturates, anti-emetics, and booze. I think that’s the way to go.”
Tessa dumps two bottles of pills into the air. She herds them into a blob, then separates it into two unequal parts.
“Here,” she says, and pushes the larger one toward me. “You’re bigger than I am. You’ll probably need more.”
I gather the pills into two cupped hands. Tessa leaves her pile floating as she unscrews the cap on a bottle of vodka. I’ve spent the last half-hour trying to come up with a way to ask her not to do this, but I can’t think past please, and the words won’t come. Tessa takes a long pull at the vodka, doubles over coughing, and hands me the bottle. Liquor drifts out into the air between us, mixing slowly with Tessa’s pills.
“Drink,” she says when she can breathe again. “We’ve got a lot of pills to get down.”
“Tessa,” I begin, but she shakes her head.
“No, Allie. There’s no happy ending here.”
I could stop her now. The pills are just floating there, slowly dispersing. I could scatter them all over the pharmacy with a wave of my hand, but I don’t. Instead, I watch as she takes back the vodka, shovels a handful of pills into her mouth, and washes them down.
Tessa’s brave. She’s not afraid until the very end, until her eyelids are fluttering and her breathing turns ragged. She takes my hand then, the first time we’ve touched in the three months I’ve known her. I pull her close, press my cheek against hers as her body trembles, and squeeze my eyes shut. A shiver runs down my back and I realize that this—this is what I dreamed. Tessa’s trying to say something, her mouth moving against my ear, but all that comes out is a soft, sad sigh.
I hold her until she’s gone, and for a long time after. It’s not nothing.
Three months later. I’m dozing in main control when the call comes in. It’s a freighter on the Mars-Earth circuit, come all this way to find me. The comm light flashes, and my future expands from a week or two more to infinity. And I’m grateful, honest to God, I am... but after we establish that yes, I’m still alive, and yes, I’m in need of aid, and they tell me to hang in there for a few more days and the call cuts off, I’m not thinking about my future, not thinking about going home. I’m thinking about that night in my cabin, and how I hung there listening as Tessa talked herself into what happened in the pharmacy. I’m thinking about how if I’d found the right words, done the right thing, everything could have been different.
For one, the two of us together would have burned through the rest of our breathable air weeks ago, and I’d be dead now.
For a while, though... for a while, I might have been alive.
This story originally appeared in The Future Fire.