Just One Day
The words were barely audible, little more than a sigh through blue tinged lips. It was all he had ever wanted, and he was too weak to even reach for her.
There was nothing he could do.
The moment of almost silence was like Heaven, with the buzz of the air-conditioning as the only interloper, creeping into his senses and dragging him awake. It was just one day, one more, then it would be over. How many times had he said that? As many days as the universe had stars, except his number rose incrementally as the universe's fell away. He was sickened by the familiarity of the thought and yet he could not stop it, scratching at an itch long ago turned to infection.
The air conditioning lowered in its tone and finally shut off to envelop him in silence interspersed with distant screams. It was his alarm clock, familiar and hated. He untangled himself from the sheets and swung his feet onto the floor, before reaching down and pulling up his one piece engineering suit, carefully checking that all of the zips were done up so that there was no way a hand could get a hold and haul it open. He'd made that mistake before. One time was enough.
A slow knocking on the door made him turn his head to look, but he wasn't ready, not yet. He'd give himself a few minutes first.
He wandered over to the bathroom cubicle across the brushed metal floor, taking the time to flip the holograph of his holiday with his brother down onto the side table next to his bed, shutting off its perpetually rotating 3D image. It was only a few weeks ago yet it seemed like an age. It was an age. Or it wasn't.
The cold water on his face didn't serve to wake him up. The heavy inevitability of his future outweighed any boost it had once had. He still went through with it though, trying to laugh back at the cosmos that was laughing at him, trying to show his resilience when all he really wanted to do was... no, there was no point going down this route again, that way led to madness. He knew that from experience. He looked into the bathroom mirror at the hangdog expression that was etched into his craggy features. Low brow, uneven eyes, steam burned skin that twisted in a web over his cheek and mouth. A face not even a mother could love. He threw a towel over his head and rubbed rigorously, fantasizing once again that he could re-arrange his features if he was aggressive enough.
When he was dry he headed into his small kitchen area and grabbed his kitbag off a chair before opening the cupboards and scooping all of the ready eats into its recesses. Couldn't miss the last supper, it was the highlight of the day.
Next he headed over to his toolbox by the door. He opened it reverentially, even rubbing the side of the battered metal container as if it were a pet, before selecting the tools he would need: his two torches, the spot welder, the signature override, the precision multi-tool, the mobile system maintenance controller, and finally his heaviest wrench, an ugly paint-stained implement that was only used on the outer bulk heads before he had given it a new calling, and a new name... 'The Viking'. Well, that was last time anyway. Today... today it would be 'The Claymore'. He put all of the items except the wrench (he would always need it to hand) into his kitbag before closing it and swinging it up and onto his back, slipping both straps over his shoulders so it wouldn't get in the way.
Finally he stood up, hearing the thunderous knocking reverberating around his head as much as the room as he readied the wrench in his right hand. He checked his feet, making sure he was in the right position on the floor panels adjacent to the door, before raising his right arm, wrench held high. He turned his head away, not wanting to see the first horrific event again, not with all that were to come. Instead he focussed on the wall and the small patch of condensation that was surrounding the faulty coolant pipe that ran along the ceiling. He remembered the day that he had fixed that. It hadn't changed anything.
His left arm moved up, gently depressing the door release.
The door slid back quickly and he heard the usual howl of hunger, roaring through gnashing teeth, cold bloody lips, feeling the reverberation in the floor as the corpse stumbled towards him. He swung hard, fast, at exactly the right angle to cave in the thing's temple, seeing in his mind's eye the look on its face as its head flew sharply to the right as it crumpled against the door frame. He closed his eyes and stepped out into the corridor, still not willing to give any more attention to the dead body that he needed to. He preferred to remember him as he had once been, Supervisor Gael Alvarez, a man who had once declared his love for vintage noire films, his favourite being Double Indemnity. His favourite food had been steak, rare but not bloody. His wife was named Cecilia. He had been scared of heights.
All of these facts were lost, except in the engineer's memory. He turned and went down the corridor to the right, leaving the corpse, still cold - as cold as he had been for the last few hours since he had died from the vicious bite of another of the undead - but now, mercifully, at rest.
The habitation ring was alive with screams, smeared blood stains and shadows staggering through the flickering lights. The greed of the first few who had panicked had doomed the others, as escape pods designed for up to ten had left with only one or two on board. If the engineer had cared to look out of one of the portholes into the dark recesses of deep space he may have been able to spot a few of them, their course revealed by slowly winking lights in the gloom. He had looked for them, once, his heart in his mouth as panic had gripped his soul. That was no longer an issue. His calm demeanour was the resignation of the damned.
He checked his wristwatch and walked a little faster to make sure he was on time, turning into a buckled residence doorway just as a corpse staggered towards an overweight, sweating man whose bald head shone in the halogen lighting. He was screaming in panic, his suit drenched in the piss of primordial terror as he backed away from the undead invasion. Liam O'Shaugnessey, thirty nine years of age, accounts. Favourite food, Carbonara. Favourite band, the Rolling Stones. Favourite sexual position, doggy style. It had not been a particularly enjoyable day when he had found that fact out. Liam's scream, that bloody scream that always made his ears twinge with pain when he heard it echoed out into the hallway. An annoying, misogynistic prick. He always headed for him first though, every time.
Liam started babbling inanely when he saw the engineer, his hands held up in prayer. The engineer stepped forward purposefully, circling the corpse quickly and interposing himself between the dead and the man, pushing the attacker away forcefully with a heavy boot to the chest. The corpse had been a woman in life, small of frame and now screeching at him with a tone of voice that reminded him of a sickly child. She was not a child though, she was old, so stale... they all were.
One swift swing of the wrench as the corpse started to lunge again was all that was needed and the small body collapsed to the ground, a spray of blood showering the lavishly carpeted floor. It was not standard decoration, as carpet was exceedingly expensive, especially this far out of the system. Apparently Liam had bought it as a way of trying to entice women back to his bachelor pad. It hadn't worked.
“Christ, if you... if you hadn't been here,” said Liam, his voice high and tremulous as he sucked in deep breaths to calm his nerves.
“But I was,” said the engineer, wiping the wrench on the carpet.
“Hey, that's...” started Liam in annoyance, his finger pointing towards the new stain on the floor as if it were too high a price to pay for his life.
“At least it wasn't your suit this time,” said the engineer, striding back towards the corridor, checking his watch as he went. The rest of the décor was just as extravagant as the carpet, with vaguely shaped modern art sculptures dotted around on pedestals and landscapes adorning the walls, and the engineer knew without having to look that Liam would be looking around at all his things, the accrued wealth of years, wondering how he could protect them all if he left. The engineer waited for the words.
“Where are you going?” asked Liam. As the engineer turned back he saw the accountant doing a strange dance, the survivalist part of his mind trying to force his legs into movement whilst the capitalist was pushing him to stay, to safeguard the wealth.
“I'm heading through the medical wing to the other pods.”
Liam's mouth worked as he continued to struggle with his next few words, trying to work out which direction would lead to the most desirable outcome. The engineer would not help him, he would simply state the options and leave the man to control his own future, or at least steer the illusion of control. Fate was a harsh taskmaster.
“You can come with me, if you want,” he stated flatly. Liam's eyebrows twitched.
“Will I be safe?”
The engineer didn't answer, simply turning and walking back out into the carnage filled corridors. After a few moments, he heard Liam's footsteps behind him as he moved onwards.
“Pull, just... please!” screamed Imogen as the engineer's arms strained, hauling her husband Johan through the buckled steel doors of the lift shaft and into the corridor. He had used his precision multi-tool to unlock the ceiling panel of the magnetic lift just before its power had failed, managing to haul both of its occupants out as Liam had watched, his face a confused mixture of awe and fear.
Imogen's black ringlets fell about her face as she bent down over Johan, kissing the man so furiously that it seemed to be mirroring the vicious bloody bites of the undead that were swarming throughout the station. Johan's returned kisses were less intense as he was simultaneously trying to get to his feet and watch the corridor for any movement. Perhaps he could hear the same scraping sound that the engineer could hear, although the engineer had the advantage of knowing exactly what the sound was, and was standing exactly at the right point - just behind the right angle of the branching corridor – to deliver the fatal blow to the corpse that staggered around the corner dragging a surgical drip stand behind it, the tubing still attached to its arm and black with clotted blood.
The body of the old man – his torso a mass of torn flesh barely held together by bones – collapsed heavily, dragging the drip on top of it to create a heap of metal and gore. Liam backed away from the scene, barely containing his retching as he leaned against the wall, before finally succumbing and vomiting the remains of his breakfast ciabatta onto the brushed metal floor.
“How did you know we were in there?” asked Imogen (thirty two, extreme sports enthusiast and workaholic), pushing her hair out of her eyes as she and Johan stood up, both staring wide eyed at the engineer, who still held the wrench at his side as if it were the most powerful weapon that had ever existed. In some ways, he supposed, it was.
“He must have heard us through the doors," said Johan (twenty nine, enjoys running, currently undergoing treatment for depression, a fact which he is hiding from Imogen).
"I didn't hear you," said Liam quietly, pulling himself as straight as his heavy physique would allow.
"Does it really matter?" said the engineer bitterly, checking his watch again. Another half an hour, half an hour without her and with Liam whittering in his ears. A necessary evil, he supposed. He counted under his breath... three... two... he reached and pressed his hand hard over Liam's mouth... one.
The lights suddenly went out, filling the corridors with a darkness as impenetrable as the depths of an ocean. Liam's scream was sufficiently muffled by the engineer's heavy calloused hand to dissolve into a feeble moan that drifted away to mix with the sounds of the dead that reverberated around the metal maze that made up the recreation wing. Somewhere deep below he knew that Brian Carter (sixty seven, botanist, father of three, grandfather of two) would die in roughly thirty seconds, but he had never found a way to save these three as well as the old man, and in trying to do so he always lost them all. There were too many of the dead below, stumbling down stairs and lift shafts, falling to the bottom of the complex like the steel balls in a Pachinko machine. He could hear Johan and Imogen breathing hard, panicking but managing to stay quiet. He liked them, relished their fiery relationship and how it was being rekindled during this shared torment. He envied them more than anything, feeling an intimacy he had only read about. Many times as he had settled down to sleep throughout his life the engineer had tried to imagine as vividly as he could such a strong relationship in the hopes of drawing a pleasant dream from his subconscious, although when he did he usually created such a realistic facsimile of his normal life that his own shortcomings derailed any romance with... her.
He released Liam after a couple of seconds, as slowly the red emergency lighting started to flare into life along the corridor. Liam pushed the engineer away with shock etched onto his features, about to yell out a protest before the engineer pushed a finger onto the fat man's lips.
“Not a word, not for two minutes,” whispered the engineer, tapping a door release on the side of the corridor and quickly ushering the other three inside. The red lights revealed a storage unit, cramped and cluttered with various maintenance materials. Liam squeezed himself awkwardly between a jet washer and some shelves while Johan and Imogen crouched in terror next to a stack of paint cylinders, unwilling to let each other go with their arms intertwined. The engineer tried not to look at them, rubbing a calloused hand over his tired eyes.
The sound of the footsteps outside made the other three all suck their breath in sharply as panic ran through them but the engineer still breathed low and calm, preserving oxygen out of habit. The low groans that ran through the corridor gave away the number of corpses... twenty, thirty... a shambling, rotting parade of flesh. They came from both directions, too many to fight, though he had tried... three times? No, four. The last time he'd managed to get his hands on a flame spitting paint stripper (by leaving Liam to be ingested by the pitifully small corpse) but it had only delayed the inevitable. Wait it out, it was all he could do if he wanted to save Imogen and Johan, which he always did.
Seventeen minutes later, two minutes after silence had returned (a necessary wait as there were still one or two at either end of the corridor that would call more), he opened the door and stepped back out.
The blood that stained the corridor meant that the going was slow to avoid slipping injuries. It ran in wide red-black streaks as the dead that had lost their lower halves (a high amount due to the grasping of legs, the way that many had met their end) had dragged their torsos around the station, ragged wounds wiping on the floor as they crawled.
“Which way?” hissed Liam. Johan and Imogen shot him an angry glance at breaking the silence but the engineer hadn't tried to stop him because he knew it was safe by now. Safe... the word had lost all meaning. Safer, that was a better way to describe it.
The engineer led the way, hugging the wall to avoid the corpse juice as he moved swiftly and purposefully. A clock moved onwards in his mind, driving his feet like pistons. One minute thirty, one twenty, one ten. He hadn't reached the junction yet, they were ten seconds behind. How had it happened? Had he spent too long staring down at the gore? Had he lost himself in his own thoughts again, a luxury he was never allowed without the guilt of the dead welling up to drown him...
He moved into a jog, hearing the anxious breathing of the others behind him and hoping that none of them would slip. This was new, something new... he had missed the moment before by a long way, or reached it easily, it had never been close. New was good, new gave him the merest sliver of hope.
Thirty seconds, twenty, ten... he rounded the corner at pace and waved frantically at the shadow ahead, hoping he was visible in the revolving red lights that span above him. He saw the arm raised, reaching for the door release... before stopping. The shadow turned towards him and as the engineer moved closer the face of Kulvinder Singh (head of Security in the upper rings, amateur music video director in his rare spare time, recently lost his father to the dead) emerged from the darkness. There was blood still dripping from a wound on the man's head (that the engineer knew looked worse than it actually was) and as he raised the bolt gun in his right hand the engineer raised his own hands in surrender.
“Kulvi-... we're alive,” he said, trying to stop himself from saying the man's name. Kulvinder had never met him before in his life, as far as he knew. Kulvinder narrowed his eyes, dark pin points of barely contained anger. The engineer knew that he was still trying to come to terms with the situation whilst simultaneously searching for a way out. Kulvinder's father was still down there somewhere in the tunnels below, dragging his broken body on an endless undying loop. The man was on edge and the engineer always needed to tread carefully, moving back onto the track of the conversation that turns the situation around. He needed to recite it line by line. He had been thrown by the timing lapse and needed to regain his footing, find his place, the double edged sword of security and crushing inevitability.
“If you open that door then the fire beyond will kill you...” he said carefully. Kulvinder glanced at the door, as if the inscrutable dark metal could tell him what lay beyond.
“The safeguards wouldn't let it open if...”
“They're off. Everything's off,” said the engineer, cutting past further questions. “Feel the door with your hand if you don't believe me, but carefully...”
Kulvinder thought for a moment before moving to his right and reaching over the still raised gun with his left arm. He didn't even need to touch the door before he pulled his hand back, rubbing his fingers.
“Come with us,” said the engineer. He glanced at a corridor to the right which he knew would soon be alive with a small swarm of corpses, stumbling and falling over each other in the attempt to consume them.
Kulvinder shook his head, his eyes twitching. “It's quicker alone.”
The engineer knew Kulvinder's story well, having heard it many times.
His father had been tired, slow... there had been nothing Kulvinder could have done but the fact that he had been so impotent at the time of his father's death had shocked him to his core. This was a man who was used to being first in anything he had set his mind to, rising through the ranks at a breakneck speed. Despite his strength and physical prowess he was only twenty six and ill equipped to deal with tragedy, especially after his mother and sister had died in a containment leak just a year earlier. Shared grief had given father and son an even stronger bond, one that was severed just as the old man's arteries had been by the sharp fingernails of the rotting dead.
“They need you,” said the engineer, but he knew the truth. It was him who needed Kulvinder, for her... it was purely selfish, crafting the horror of the cosmos around himself, placing himself in the centre of a Hellish storm.
Kulvinder looked past the engineer to the others, his face impassive. The engineer didn't push him further, simply waiting, the inner metronome of dragging time pulling him onwards. All time was sacred but the wait was necessary.
“It's your job!” hissed Liam desperately. Johan grabbed the fat man gently by his shoulders and whispered for him to be quiet.
Kulvinder lowered the gun, slowly.
“We're heading for the medical wing. There will be pods there,” continued the engineer.
“Will there?” said Kulvinder, wiping a sheen of sweat from his forehead with his sleeve. He didn't sound convinced.
“Yes, it's the only place they will be.”
Kulvinder didn't move and the engineer launched into the necessary reasoning. Word after word came out, tried and tested. He barely had to think of them.
“The outbreak began there. The doctors were to the first to succumb. Mutation of virus, biological attack, whatever caused this doesn't matter, the fact remains that there is the centre of the dead. The dead don't escape. They spread out through the station, alarms were raised, escape pods used. No one went back in there.”
Kulvinder sighed but the engineer knew from the look on the man's face that he was on side.
“If you're wrong, I'm leaving you there,” said Kulvinder. The engineer didn't reply. He knew he was right, and he also knew there was no way that Kulvinder would get that far.
She pulled Kulvinder into an embrace, that was the part that hurt the most. The engineer had dragged the corpse away before it could sink its bloody teeth into her neck and yet it was Kulvinder who had received that small measure of human contact that he so craved. The engineer knew why, of course. Kulvinder was security, the focus of authority. Did the fact that his face didn't carry a lattice of raw pink scar tissue matter? Perhaps.
Cathy Morrison, comms officer second class. He wasn't sure if he knew everything about her by now but he must be close. Every time he asked different questions, every time a few more points of interest that he desperately tried to memorise. He tried to fool himself into thinking that if he could become her perfect man then perhaps he would have enough time... yet he had only made it through once, just once. There were too many in the ward...
Too soon, it was too soon to think of that. Johan was still here, whispering words that only Imogen could hear. Too soon to think of what must be. After all, it was the last supper in a few minutes. Don't ruin it.
Kulvinder waved his hand for the others to follow, naturally taking the lead. The engineer was happy for him to fall into that role it as it was the main reason for bringing him along, to take the strain, just for a little... and of course there was the yellow door.
Cathy had been holed up in her comms unit for hours – a cramped box filled with screens and dials - before finally giving up on getting a signal out and making a break for it, running into a group of three shambling corpses almost immediately. She was far from helpless and managed to lay two of them to rest with a fire extinguisher but the last one was always too much for her, which was where the engineer came in, making sure he was on time.
Their group was complete. Perhaps he could try to save more but if he was too late then all would be lost. Balance, that was the key. He had managed it once, he could do it again. How many times had he tried though, getting so far only to fall at the last hurdle?
They all made their way inside the large silver panelled magnetic lift before the engineer dragged the doors shut and quickly welded them in place with his spot welder, before discarding it on the floor. It wouldn't be needed from here on. Dead weight.
The lights flickered on and off overhead in a dizzying fashion and the engineer moved over the electric panel quickly, slipping it off and locating the loose wire instantly. An easy problem to fix but necessary, as Imogen's epilepsy would soon be triggered and he needed her upright.
Are they just meat to me? Fresh meat for the dead. They are the dead.
“Are you all right?”
The question was unexpected, new. Usually he would have spoken to them all by now, tried to calm their nerves, but he was still thrown by almost missing Kulvinder. Cathy's face bore concern and pity. He didn't want pity. He wanted lust, he wanted passion, he wanted her. The minor contact threw the engineer and his long forgotten stutter fluttered across his lips.
“Yes, f – f – fine.”
He pursed his lips and took a deep breath, pulling his arms out of the electric panel as the light flared into life.
“Is it safe in here? Won't we run out of air?” asked Liam.
“Yes, that's why I'm going to...” started the engineer, before reaching up and quickly unscrewing a ceiling panel's wing nuts and pulling it down, revealing the red tinged gloom of the lift shaft above, “make a hole.”
“Heading up?” asked Kulvinder, getting ready to jump for the hole.
“Not yet,” said the engineer, trying not to notice the way that Cathy was looking at Kulvinder as he flexed his shoulders, sweat running down his muscled arms and bare chest. Most of them had removed clothing as the station had heated up due to the colossal strain the engines were under, for reasons only the engineer knew. He hadn’t removed his own clothing though, as he was painfully aware of the ugliness of his overweight body. “There is a coolant leak on the medical floor. I need to clear it first or we won't make it.”
“If the dead are frozen...” started Johan.
“We won't make it,” said the engineer again, trying to keep the irritation from his voice. That was in some ways the hardest part of the whole sorry mess, the need for limitless patience, a parent among children who kept asking the same things over and over.
He pulled the mobile system maintenance controller out of the kitbag, a small touch screen with various connecting wires hanging from it, before selecting the connection he needed and clipping it into the open electric panel. When he had finally patched into the air-con, he diverted power from areas of the station that he knew were lost and shifted the resource to the medical bay. “Half an hour, that’s all we need. I’ve given extra juice to the scrubbers to get the level clear, then we can get up there.”
“Half an hour? What’ll we do in the meantime?” asked Kulvinder. He was anxious to get off the station, as they all were. The delay was necessary though, the only reprieve or safety they would encounter.
“We eat,” said the engineer, swinging his kitbag off his shoulders and opening it before handing out the ready eats. Johan and Imogen accepted the food in silence, while Liam carefully inspected the vacuum packed beef jerky he’d been given whilst craning his neck to see if there was anything better in the bag. Kulvinder simply stood with his arms crossed, unwilling to relax as always. The engineer knew what button to press though in order to get him to eat, as the last supper always went more smoothly when the security chief was a little less severe.
“You need to eat to keep your strength up. Who knows when you’ll get another chance?” said the engineer, whilst trying not to think about the answer to his superficially rhetorical question. I know. “You can’t keep going forever on an empty stomach.”
Kulvinder’s lip twitched but he finally sat down heavily against the wall of the lift and accepted a foil pouch of dried fruit with a nod.
The engineer didn’t interfere in the flow of the conversation but simply unpacked food and dispensed it, opening the largest packet to reveal a heavy soya bread loaf which he tore into chunks and passed around. Occasionally in the past he’d interjected and changed topics to see where it would lead but most of the time now he simply let it run, like the familiar soundtrack of a television program watched again and again, comforting background noise.
“What have you got there? Is that sweet?” asked Liam, scrutinising Johan’s food with a mouthful of beef.
“Not sweet in the least. Nice and savoury,” replied Johan, biting into the deep fried tofu. Liam scrunched up his nose and looked back down at his own food as he kept chewing, before eventually asking what the engineer knew was on everyone’s mind.
“Do you think we’re the only ones?”
“Only ones?” asked Imogen, taking a sip of juice.
“The only ones still alive,” said Liam. The engineer busied himself with looking through his bag but he knew the fat man’s eyes were on him.
“He’d know, I think,” said Johan a little too loudly to be considered a whisper, obviously wanting to draw the engineer into a conversation.
“I do know...” he found his lips saying, almost of their own accord. He stopped looking through the bag and stood up.
He had meant to ignore it, of course he had. After those first few times that he had explained the situation, hoping that it would make a difference, he had fully realised the strange juxtaposition of power and powerlessness that he possessed. He was a child playing in a bathtub, splashing and rippling waters that were forever contained. He had long ago given up on recounting what he knew about the prison they were all in. It only made it harder if they knew and it threw him under a spotlight that he wasn’t comfortable with. He longed for their lack of knowledge, their blissful ignorance, and he felt needlessly cruel when he saw the despair that ran through the group whenever he had started to explain. And yet for some reason, he was continuing to speak. Maybe he was becoming weaker in spirit, the bloody dark reality becoming more dreamlike with every rotation. He just wanted to talk...
“There’s Hugh Lawrence, currently trapped in the air vents between his apartment and the commercial district. He cut his thigh badly when part of the vent gave way, nicking an artery. He has no first aid training and doesn’t realise that he needs to tie off his leg. He’ll be dead from blood loss within... twenty two minutes. He lived alone but was fighting for the custody of his daughter as he believes her mother to be a drunk.”
The sound of distant alarms seemed quieter in the face of his knowledge of life and death. All eyes were on him, with the others wearing expressions ranging from awe to horror.
“Within four minutes Xenia Hoffman will be killed as she takes a wrong turn in smoke filled corridors. Her seventeenth birthday was going to be in two weeks. She recently started seeing an engineering student named Dmitri. I never asked his last name but I know he’s already dead...”
“Stop talking,” said Cathy, her mouth a thin pale line of disgust.
“... his arm was pulled from his shoulder by one of the dead, causing fatal blood loss.”
“Didn’t you hear her?” said Kulvinder, standing up and grabbing the engineer’s collar, wrenching his head around. The engineer couldn’t stop though, the lines between lives blurring and blending and bleeding out of his mind. He felt himself start to babble but he could see them all, every one, every different route he had taken before this one, the most familiar, the one with the most lives saved, at least until...
“Imane Hadji is seven years old, hiding in a closet. Her parents are dead and walking, circling their former home. She’ll try to run in the next thirteen minutes...”
The blow was hard, knocking the engineer’s skull back against the wall of the elevator and making his head spin. He could feel blood rushing to his now broken nose, relishing the pain and using it as an anchor to pull him into the world. He smiled through bloody teeth as Kulvinder held his fist back, bristling with anger as he flexed his fingers, ready for another strike.
“Why are you making up these stories?” asked Imogen from her position huddled against the lift wall, her eyes red with emotion. The lights flickered above again as a distant explosion rocked the station, making the room vibrate.
“True, all true,” said the engineer as a bout of dizziness started to wash over him. He let his head drop, watching in curious fascination as the blood that dripped from his nose fell and gradually crept into the lines in the vinyl tiled flooring. It was finding its route, as they all were.
“He's tapped,” hissed Liam, obviously trying to be secretive but for some reason assuming all except the engineer could hear him. The engineer looked up and smiled at the fat man, not aggressively or threateningly but with genuine warmth.
“I'm sorry, I'm so sorry... I've ruined this one. I don't know why. I promise, I swear, the next one will be better,” he said quietly. He looked at all of them in turn and shook his head. “I wasted this one.”
Johan stood up before walking carefully over the still shifting floor, which rocked and swayed with each distant sound.
“Give me the details,” he said carefully, guiding Kulvinder’s hand away from the engineer’s collar and allowing him to slump against the lift wall. The engineer shook his head.
“You always want to know,” he said, wiping his sleeve across his face to clear some of the blood.
“Then tell me,” said Johan. “I promise I won’t ask next time...”
The engineer looked at Johan’s face, taking in the wide eyes and pale skin. He’s terrified, terrified because part of him already believes me. He’s playing along with what I’m saying so he can get to the truth. Am I really going to let it all out?
“You won’t remember next time, none of you will. You’ll be just as scared, just as alone, just as in the dark.”
The man was persistent, digging like a hound for something foetid and dark, buried deep.
“We’re drifting into a black hole.”
“Rubbish, that’s rubbish,” said Cathy, bristling with anger. “Who told you that?”
The engineer looked at Cathy with eyes grateful for anything from her, any contact, even her rage.
The nav panel of the escape pod was a maelstrom of coloured lights, with the screens displaying fast moving information that was indecipherable to the engineer. Cathy however was sliding her fingers across the touch screens at speed, her mouth moving as she tried to take it all in.
“A black hole, around a thousand kilometres away... we’ve managed a slingshot orbit, which hopefully will keep us safe until help arrives. A rescue is on the way.”
“A black hole? How is that possible?” asked the engineer, sitting as still as possible to preserve the oxygen. The atmospheric scrubbers were working overtime but had been damaged in that last blast. The only escape pod left and it was crippled. “The station wasn't subject to any gravity except the central core. It’s been at the same point in space for years...”
“I don’t have all the answers,” said Cathy irritably. “I can only tell you what I’m seeing now... which is...”
Her hand paused and she started to swear under her breath furiously, her face twisting with frustration.
“They did it on purpose, they fired the nuclear engines and were driving us towards it. We only just got away in time. The corresponding propulsion of the station gave us enough inertia to get a stable orbit...”
The engineer didn’t reply, but he didn’t need to. Cathy knew exactly what he was thinking.
“The station passed the event horizon a couple of minutes after we left. They’re all gone.”
“Why would they do it on purpose?!” said Liam, squealing like a pig.
The engineer looked at him incredulously. “Are you an idiot? Look around yourself!” he shouted, the annoying nature of Liam overcoming his patience once again. The fat man quailed under the verbal assault, shuffling his feet on the floor to push himself back into the corner. The engineer felt remorse for attacking such a vulnerable target but his emotions were running so high that he couldn't stop himself. “If this infection was released onto another station, or worse started to spread planet-side, can you imagine the death toll?”
“If any of this bullshit is true then why are you trying to get us to the escape pods? Is there any point? You can bet the station told the lifeboats why it was taking such drastic measures... no one will be there to pick us up,” said Kulvinder, his arms crossed across his chest once again.
“The lifeboats have a profile of the virus and have instigated a twenty four hour quarantine. If we show no symptoms by then, they’ll take us in,” replied the engineer, adjusting his collar as he tried to calm himself down. What's wrong with me? Why this time? It's all fallen apart.
“Have you been in contact with them?” asked Cathy, scrutinising his face. He could only imagine what he looked like – scarred, bruised and bleeding. A beast.
“Just once... a long time ago, for me.”
Their faces were blank and he knew that he needed to tell them more.
“All of this has happened before, hundreds... thousands of times. I stopped counting after a year. Three hundred and sixty five days. It seemed like an end, dropping off the edge of a cliff. I placed a value on it. It's the same value that all people place on the calendar, a made up set of rules imposed on an uncaring universe. All of this, space... planets... asteroids... dust... it doesn’t give two shits whether you think it’s January the first or May the third or September the seventeenth.”
Still blank, still unable to understand. He couldn’t blame them. How many days had it taken for him to finally come to some sort of understanding and finally end his cycle of alternating highs and lows, revelling in the freedom of a reckless day without true consequences and on the flip side losing all power to influence his future, or even have a future.
“This station can’t escape the black hole, light can’t escape the black hole, and time can’t escape the black hole. I have no idea if it’s the angle of our diminishing orbit or the speed at which we’re heading for the centre but time is twisting. We’re arriving before we started. We’re duplicating endlessly, and I’m the only one who has any memory of it.”
“Why you?” asked Johan. The others were silent, either through disbelief or not wanting to believe.
“I have no idea,” said the engineer, closing his eyes. “Blessed or cursed, take your pick.”
Silence started to fill the elevator, though the distant boom of explosions and the razor’s edge trill of screams ran as a sickening undercurrent.
“Do we all make it?” asked Imogen. She was holding Johan by the shoulders so tightly that her knuckles were going white. She believes me.
“You’ll all live,” he said to them, putting as much emphasis on the words as he could to drive them home, only saying the final word of the sentence in his own head. Again.
“Just six... hours... left...” said the engineer, speaking as softly as he could. The air was so thin now that moving was barely an option and drinking and eating an impossible luxury.
“Perhaps... if I try... and fix the filters...” said Cathy, craning her neck towards the panel as she panted breathlessly.
“Do you know how?” asked the engineer, his eyes filling with tears at seeing her so helpless.
“No... but I don’t know how to... die either. I know which... I’d rather learn... first,” she replied, almost managing a smile. The engineer reached for her hand. It was so cold.
“The coolant should be clear by now,” said the engineer, breaking the silence like a hammer blow. The clock was back on, movement was possible. He just had to make sure they got moving. He looked to Kulvinder. “Come on, give me a leg up.”
“We can't take the elevator?” asked Liam, his voice still low and soft, the enormity of the situation starting to crush him.
“The inner doors are welded to the outer ones,” whispered Johan, his eyes locked on the engineer. They were all watching him, eyes wide. He could only imagine the questions running through their heads. No time for answers.
He looked again at Kulvinder. The guard didn’t move, so the engineer made it clear in his expression that they needed to hurry. Eventually Kulvinder sighed, and grudgingly crouched with his fingers intertwined, ready to give him support. The engineer used the boost to jump up through the hole and grab onto a part of the metal roofing, somehow pulling himself the rest of the way using arms that felt so tired he didn’t know if he’d even be able to lift his wrench during the endgame.
He reached back and helped the others through, pulling each in turn, dragging them towards their future. They were all coming with him, still with him, even after he had told them everything... not everything.
When they were all out and gathered on the roof of the elevator he led the way and started to head slowly up the ladder at the side of the shaft. They moved one by one, in line and formation, like ants up a tree trunk. The heat was becoming unbearable – as it always did at this time – and sweat ran down the engineer's face and stung his eyes. His nose continued to drip slowly clotting blood, thick and dark as it dropped past his lips. He wiped it again with his sleeve to try and stop the blood falling on those following him and almost laughed at the pointlessness of such an action. Blood. There will be more than enough...
When he reached the top of the ladder he pushed himself up until he was sitting on a small ledge flush to the medical bay elevator doors. He looked down below at the small white square of light that shone out of the roof of the lift and for a moment became lost in the two or three times that he had stared at the same sight and chosen to simply jump rather than face the test to come.
He caught sight of Cathy, just behind Kulvinder and climbing steadily up towards him, He took a deep breath. Another try, one more.
He reached up to the manual release at the side and carefully slid it down, trying to make as little noise as possible so as not to alert more of the dead than necessary. It never worked but he still did it every time, just the same. An old, pointless routine.
The door slid open, revealing a scene of carnage. Blood, bones and gristle lay strewn across the reception area beyond. Broken glass and twisted metal were all that remained of the doors leading off from the large area, which was bathed in the same red emergency lights as the rest of the station, punctuated by the white flash of fizzing computer screens and smashed medical androids. Corpses were everywhere.
Seven or eight of the dead rose to their feet, alerted by the scrape of the doors as they slid back. The engineer quickly hauled himself upright, dropped the kitbag on the floor and pulled out the heavy wrench. As the corpses moved towards him – their legs trudging through the fleshy remains, dark bloody mouths agape like children reaching for food – he tried to remember what he had named his weapon in this particular rotation. It didn’t really matter, did it. A name was nothing, just a label the same as any other. The weapon still did the same job, it was still reliable and crushed the forehead and nose of the nearest corpse, sending it down to the floor in a heap.
He swung at another, caving in the side of its head as he waited for backup, the most reliable that he had found in all the familiar days. Kulvinder rolled over the lip of the doorway and pulled himself to his feet, unstrapping the nail gun from his belt and aiming it at a two more of the dead. They had been doctors from the looks of it, as they were wearing surgical gowns and were staggering in tandem towards them, masks still covering their features under milky white eyes. They dropped to the floor as he fired two careful and precise shots, his face an impassive mask.
Four more were left, lumbering with increasing speed as hunger drove them onwards. The engineer moved a little to make sure that Kulvinder had a clear shot and kicked hard at the ragged leg of the nearest corpse, making its knee buckle before he slammed the wrench into the back of its head. He always felt so guilty in the medical ward, as there was not enough time on any of the runs to look further into identities. He had no idea who any of these undead creatures had been. All that was left of their identities was lost, they were simply monstrosities to be dispatched now.
Kulvinder fired a little wide on one corpse, nicking its shoulder. He waited a few seconds, adjusted, then made no mistake as the nail slammed into its forehead. It had been a child in life, but was now nothing more than moving meat.
There were only two left, which the engineer left to Kulvinder as he started to haul the others up and into the reception. They all looked shaken, every one of them as he dragged them into that bloody area. The sound of a broken automatic door slamming awkwardly against its housing as it tried to close again and again sounded as if it were a heartbeat, the heart of a creature whose bloodstream they were wading through.
“Is that it? Is it clear?” asked Liam, his face so pale that it was a wonder that he was standing. Sweat stood out on his brow, beading and dripping down his features. A strange face for a hero.
“Not even close, I’m afraid,” said the engineer. “We need to head through the main wards to get to the escape pods.”
“I can imagine there were a lot of people in the wards who weren’t in any state to escape,” said Kulvinder, grinding his teeth. The engineer didn’t reply, instead heading carefully across the blood slicked floor towards where he knew he would find two surgical drip stands, folded under the fallen body of a nurse. He grimaced as he moved the body aside and revealed the metal poles with their four short legs, twisted and buckled. They were a little unwieldy and flimsy but they would do as weapons for Johan and Imogen. The blood pooled around his boots, a sea of tiny iron carrying vessels, source of life and signifier of death when spilled. He wondered how many gallons were now scattered across every surface of the station...
As he grabbed the makeshift weapons he noticed something that for some reason he hadn’t seen before. Maybe he had been too focussed on driving forwards in the past and his mental exhaustion and wandering thoughts had finally given him a chance to glimpse the dull brown stock of the shockgun, hidden under a chair near the dead hand of a headless guard that still seemed to be reaching for it, rigor mortis twisting the fingers into a spidery tangle.
He leaned down and pulled it out, before lifting it up and inspecting it in the dim red light. It was lightweight and sleek and the engineer knew it carried a non-lethal but still very potent punch, recalling how protesters had reacted when struck by the gun’s shot.
“Hey, give that here,” said Kulvinder, walking forward and pulling it from the engineer’s tired, unresisting hands. The guard checked the power source, pumped the stock a few times to loosen it up from the bits of flesh that had become lodged in it, before checking along the sight.
“This should help us, as long as the dead still rely on their nervous systems to move,” he said, nodding to himself a little in satisfaction. He passed the nail gun to the engineer, who took it and slung it by its strap to his belt. Another new situation, two in one run... nerves started to jangle but he tried to control himself as he passed the metal stands to Johan and Imogen. He needed confidence, otherwise he knew it would all fall apart.
“What about me? Where’s my weapon?” said Liam, wringing his hands together and trying not to look down at the carnage surrounding him.
“Better for you to just run,” said the engineer. “If you try and fight you’ll stop, and if you stop...”
“All right...” said Liam, swallowing hard. “I'll run.”
“Good man,” said the engineer. He reached forward and placed a hand on Liam’s shoulder, looking into the man’s small eyes, brimful of fear and desperation. “Good luck Liam, and thank you.”
Liam looked confused but simply nodded, his breathing fast and shallow.
The engineer turned to Johan and Imogen and gave them each a nod. Every time, just a nod, which they returned. Every time. He had tried to warn them of the dangers inside in the past, give them a description of the safest route, but it had never worked. There were too many variables, too many bodies twisting and writhing. Most of all he couldn’t say what he wanted to say, about how much he admired their love, their bond, and how sorry he was that they would...
“...here we are, my weapon of choice,” said Cathy, picking a fire extinguisher off the wall. The engineer thought about handing her the newly acquired nail gun but he knew that she could use the fire extinguisher well. He needed her to survive. Cathy looked at him, a strange and unfamiliar look in her eye, a mixture of fear and wonder. New, again, this was new.
“I shouldn’t have said anything...” he said quietly, more to himself than anyone else, but Cathy moved in close and spoke to him softly and quickly, her breath warm on his face, words washing across his scars.
“If you’ve lied to us, played with the emotions of people who are already shit scared for their lives, then you’re right. If what you’ve told us is the truth, then you have nothing to be sorry for. If it’s all happening again and again then you’re as much a victim in this as us, if not more so. Yet you keep trying to fix it. How many times has it been?”
The engineer could say nothing in reply. He looked into her eyes, trying to ignore the scent of burnt flesh, the sound of distant screams that could still be heard at intervals and the pain of his own body.
“You’re old, aren’t you. I don’t know if I believe in souls but if they exist, then yours is ancient,” she said finally.
“Well then... let’s try and make this the last time.”
The thought of an end of it all was bliss, a dream come true. A dream of oblivion.
“We should go,” he said suddenly, pulling away from her. He looked over to Kulvinder, who was pulling a flak jacket off the corpse of the guard and pulling it over his shoulders, the dead man’s blood mixing with the sweat on his skin. Kulvinder readied the shockgun and the engineer moved forwards to the automatic door that was still slamming pathetically against the frame again and again. He grabbed a nearby chair and waited for the door to open before jamming it into the gap near to the top, creating an entrance underneath. He ushered the others through, though he didn’t hurry them. Reticence was understandable and natural.
They moved down the corridor beyond, the lights of which had gone out to leave a receding darkness. As the thin light that was bleeding through from behind them started to fade, the engineer reached into his bag and pulled out his two torches, passing one to Liam and holding the other in his left hand, with his wrench held in the whitening knuckles of his right. As the gloom pressed in on them it made the corridor even more claustrophobic as it turned left and right. They passed smaller wards as they moved onwards, the doors of which were closed but were alive with sounds of scraping and moaning, filled with the dead. One or two corpses littered the floor, rising as they came near before falling under the impact of the engineer’s wrench or spasming and collapsing under the blast of Kulvinder’s shockgun. It was a temporary measure as the electrified bodies soon began to stir again, but by that time they had passed by safely.
Soon the engineer’s torch picked out the yellow paint that marked the main ward, the huge hall of beds and capsules that marked the last obstacle on the way to the escape pods. Kulvinder placed his hand near to the door controls and the engineer put his hand up in warning.
“They’re right behind the door.”
Kulvinder frowned but didn’t question it.
“It’s the only way, isn’t it,” he replied.
“Yes,” said the engineer. Kulvinder sighed, before hitting his forehead against the door three times, obviously trying to psyche himself up. The sound caused a roar of groaning from behind the doorway, piling the dead even higher. The engineer closed his eyes, cursing himself. The warning had probably made it even harder. He had never done it before, why now? Why was it all changing?
“You don't have to go first,” said the engineer suddenly. Though Kulvinder had gone first so many times before, the subtle differences in the strange repetitive narrative of his life in this run had thrown the engineer. The reality was stark, the smells acidic and cutting through him, and the pain – both physical and emotional – was starting to become almost unbearable.
“Yes, I do,” said Kulvinder, a strange look crossing his eyes. “It's my job. It's my role.”
Before the engineer could say anything else, Kulvinder pressed the release.
There was light beyond, and flesh, pounds and pounds of rotting flesh and bone. The mass of bodies that spewed out of the entrance threw Kulvinder back as he fired wildly, sending corpse after corpse wriggling to the ground even as others flung their glistening bloody fingers around his body, their teeth biting deep.
The way behind was opened for the moment so the engineer hauled the others through the doorway, not willing to let Kulvinder's sacrifice be in vain. As the bodies fell about him, the security guard still stood, firing round after round as his wounds increased. Fingernails dug into the man's flesh and even though the engineer didn't look back he knew that the man's right eye would be a mass of fibre and fluid, his left leg would be buckling as a corpse tore into his muscles with its teeth, but he would still be standing.
The way was not entirely clear and as the engineer kicked out at a large bloated corpse that was grasping for their ankles, another straggler reached out from behind a bloody curtain for Imogen's hair. The fingers flinched before they reached her as a bolt of electricity slammed into its body and threw it over a metal bed frame. It was Kulvinder's last act of protectiveness before he was finally dragged under the heap of bodies, screaming obscenities.
The engineer pushed Liam forwards as they picked their way through the huge hallway, a vision of hell alive with bodies rising from every corner. Nurses, doctors, patients, cleaners, visitors... all had succumbed in the first stages of the outbreak and were reaching for them, trying to draw them into the same everlasting hunger.
He swung his wrench with a fevered desperation, leading from the front and trying to anticipate the best course, weaving as he struck out at three, seven, ten, fifteen of the dead, skulls cracking and spilling their contents as he drove his group onwards.
Imogen and Johan moved along the left of the group, hitting out wildly but effectively until a corpse reached out from under a low lying bed and tripped Johan, sending him flying to the ground, slamming his head on a desk as he fell. The engineer turned, hoping to be able to save the man just this once, but there were already six... eight dead between him and the couple. Imogen screamed incoherently as she stood over her lover, swinging the pole at the increasing number of festering dead, quickly being surrounded and swallowed under the blackening bodies. Cathy gasped but the engineer gripped her arm tightly and forced her onwards as Liam followed, dodging by the reaching hands of an elderly corpse whose left leg was little more than bones and cartilage, swinging uselessly beneath its torso as it dragged itself along a reception desk in feeble pursuit.
The doorway beyond stood open, with the blinking blue emergency lights of the escape pods taunting them from beyond the sea of decay. The way ahead was blocked with six rotting, reaching bodies. The lights above flickered as Cathy swung the extinguisher, striking two of the dead across the face on the same arc. At the same time the engineer threw his wrench at another, obliterating the thing's skull in a shower of viscous yellow fluid. Three more...
He pulled the nail gun, a newly acquired tool that he didn't usually have a chance to rely on and took out two of them with a rain of wild shots. The final corpse threw its arms around Cathy before the engineer could react, but Liam was there, dragging the body off her back and to the floor, even as it turned and bit hungrily into his face, tearing the skin from the fat man's screaming lips. Two more tumbled over a bed towards him, falling upon Liam and pulling at his dying body.
The engineer dragged Cathy onwards as she reached behind her head in a daze, feeling her neck and finding the skin unbroken. The engineer pushed her almost violently towards the blue lights... and as he turned his head... he saw that the way was clear.
There were usually three or four of the dead remaining at least. He had lost count of the times he had fallen at the last hurdle, trying desperately to protect Cathy whilst falling under those snapping jaws... but he had done it again. After all those times, after the ache of constant failure and the dull edge of trying to apply a formula to a chaotic, contained universe, he had finally found another way through.
They slipped into the small antechamber that marked the entrance to the escape pod corridor. It was mercifully empty except for one lone corpse, half eaten and reaching, small and pathetic on the floor under a control panel. The engineer ignored it and turned to the door behind them, closing it as quickly as the motors could work before throwing his bag to the ground and hauling out his signature override, running the small cylindrical magnetic tool across the square of black glass that covered the electronics of the door release and sealing it.
When he turned back he saw that Cathy had already dealt with the corpse and was still slamming the fire extinguisher down onto the mess that used to be the dead man's cranium, pulping the flesh and bone as tears ran down the grime on her cheeks.
As she raised the gore streaked extinguisher one more time he quickly but firmly took it from her hands, leaving her arms to fall by her side as sobs continued to wrack her body.
“Almost there, almost,” he said to her, glancing out of a bulkhead window nearby. They were finally on the outer shell of the station, a feat he had only managed once. Through the window the pinpoints of stars gleamed with a cold light, though the view was dominated by a swathe of nothingness that was drawing them ever further in. Time was short.
He tried the door to the pod corridor but it wouldn't budge – the same as the last time he had got this far – due to a loss of atmosphere in the corridor beyond. He wondered what had initiated the explosion that had caused the breach as well as damaging most of the escape pods, and whether he'd ever know.
“Hurry, please God hurry!” said Cathy, her whole body shaking as if she were allergic to the rotten stink of the dead station.
“Six minutes, I think. I just have to seal a few bulkheads and re-route the atmosphere,” said the engineer, pulling out the mobile system maintenance controller and connecting it up again. Cathy almost laughed when she saw it, the only other thing that he had left in his bag.
“You knew exactly what you would need, didn't you...” she said.
“Of course. I told you...”
“Yes, you told us. It's not as simple as that though, is it? There must be more, after the amount of time you've spent doing this again and again... what haven't you told me?”
The engineer closed his eyes, hearing the electronic chirps of the device as it went about its business.
“You knew they'd die, didn't you.” It was a statement, not an accusation.
“Yes,” he stated coldly, before adding, “they always do. I haven't found a way to stop it. There are so many of them in there, and I've only made it through once before myself. I can still feel the teeth. I've died...”
He felt himself choking with emotion so he set his jaw and looked down at the floor.
“I've died as many times as everyone else.”
Cathy looked back at the corpse, surrounded by the halo of sludgy, creeping black blood.
“Except you remember it.”
No answer. The machinery whirred.
“You said I told you about the black hole but I only know now because you told me... how am I supposed to find out?”
“Not yet, you don't know yet... I mean, you know, but you shouldn't,” said the engineer, feeling annoyance rapidly turning to anger. He didn't want to think, he just wanted out. He wanted it to be like the last time, when he had known nothing and had got through by sheer luck. Such a day...
“When?” she asked, her eyes narrow.
“On the pod, when we escape.”
Cathy thought for a few moments. The engineer busied himself by checking the readout. Three minutes. Shut up, just shut up and let us leave in silence, then you can talk all you want.
“If we escape... are we out there somewhere? Are there infinite copies? How many...”
“Just once, one time only.”
No answer, though he knew they could hear. He gasped for air, feeling his fingers tighten as his blood struggled to spread what little oxygen he had. He had never felt so powerless.
A hundred on board the lifeboat. He would have killed them all himself just to save her. Such a thought was damning, and he was damned.
“Do you really want to know why I keep doing this shit over and over?” he almost screamed as he turned towards her, feeling fire in his belly, angry at her, angry at the station, angry at everything and everyone. She opened her mouth but he gave her no chance to answer.
“I love you. I'm fucking selfish, and I love you. You've known me for a few hours but I've seen you every day for over forty four years.”
Her eyes were wide.
“Forty four years,” he said, wiping tears from his burns, salt from the skin. “Forty four years, eight months, twelve days. Of course I kept counting, of course. Every day. What else did I have to do? I can't save you! We got off here once around thirty eight years ago, and it was still for nothing. I only keep going to see you. It's all just a way of spending time with you. This is my walk in the park, my first kiss, my romance. Blood and guts, death and dying, rot and stench and you and me... I love you.”
The look on her face was the mirror that he needed, the mirror that showed much more than the simple picture of his features that he saw every morning of the same day. It showed his true, unflinching insanity.
A switch flicked in his mind at the same time as the airlock slid open, revealing the entrance to the ring of escape pods that curled around for hundreds of metres. All the lights were red... except for one. One working escape pod, the same as last time. One green light in the red sea.
He grabbed her arm in a vice like grip, biting his own lip so hard that he drew blood. The taste of iron filled his mouth as he dragged her into the corridor and threw her into the pod, before climbing in after her.
“What are you going to do?” she asked, not fearfully but in the same way that an opponent would look for a weakness. The only other time he had got this far had been so different. He'd been a hero. What am I now? He had shown his deepest scars and repelled her, his only reason for living.
“We're going to have eighteen hours together, eighteen hours, and then it'll all start again,” he said coldly, standing over her as blood dripped from his mouth. “Again. Again. Again. Again.”
“We can't escape...” she said, her voice hollow.
He wasn't what mattered to her. He never would be. There was only one thing she wanted, the thing he had given up on years ago.
He looked at his watch. A few moments.
“You don't know me, but I know you,” he said, breathing deeply. He wiped the blood from his lip. “A different set of questions every day, every time we ate the last supper. Your sister's name is Jeannie. You prefer reading fiction to watching the news. You broke your ankle at the age of fourteen which stopped your involvement in athletics that year, so you stayed in bed reading science journals and dreaming of one day making a bold discovery. Above all you want simplicity in your life.”
Nothing, she still said nothing.
“This is it, the most time we've had together in a day for years. It was what I have been driving for, what I sacrificed all those poor souls for. Don't you have anything to say?” he asked, feeling his eyes close. What a waste... tomorrow... maybe tomorrow...
“I'm sorry,” she said simply.
One last breath, a last moment.
Different. This time had been so different.
What could he say?
A day like any other, changed to a day like only one other, changed to...
“A unique day. Is it really so simple?” he said to himself, looking down at the woman that he loved.
He quickly stepped out of the pod and pressed the door override. The metal slid into place as a hiss of air signalled the break of pressure on the other side. The small window showed Cathy's frantic blows on the glass, her mouth working silently behind the soundproofing.
As the pod fired itself away into the darkness he finally allowed himself, after forty four years, to cry.
The moment of almost silence was like Heaven, with the buzz of the air-conditioning as the only interloper, creeping into his senses and dragging him awake. It was just one day, one more... but it would never be the same as yesterday.
“You don't know how lucky you are,” said the old man, his face a mass of wrinkles as he concentrated on swabbing the blood from the grazes on Cathy's arms. She didn't reply, staring ahead at the window that looked out onto the stars. From here, it seemed as if nothing had changed... yet everything was capable of change, all it took was time.
“Any family?” he asked. The sting of antiseptic was a welcome distraction from her thoughts.
“A sister, Jeannie. She's on Earth.”
“Oh... well that's good,” said the doctor. He carefully dressed the wounds before inquiring further. “No family on the station?”
“No,” she said, closing her eyes, fatigue washing over her. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, I probably shouldn't say, but after the initial escapees there were only two others that made it out of there before the station was lost... not enough air for two though, and we couldn't bring the pod on board to repair the filtration system without risk of infection. Poor couple died in each other's arms a couple of hours before the quarantine was up.”
She looked at the old man, her eyes searching his features for something... something she found in the curl of his mouth, the quick glance of his eyes. She willed him not to speak, to tell her something else, anything else... but the words came, each one a hammer blow.
“The resemblance is uncanny...”