Zeroed Out by Stina Trollbäck

 Astronaut by Caitlin Russell ( http://caitlinrussellart.com/ )

Astronaut by Caitlin Russell (http://caitlinrussellart.com/)

Behind me was chaos. I knew people were fretting and spinning and shrieking, but I stayed with my forehead pressed against the ice-cold window of the space station. I forced myself to watch the eerie white expand over the earth, as if the swirls encircling the planet thought they could conceal the rest of the universe from the obliterated sadness that was now left. I had assumed if we broke out into a nuclear war it would be more climactic, not that the government would just mandate reruns of the 1951 “Duck and Cover” and turn Bert the Turtle into bumper stickers and collectible figurines. Even as an astronomer, part of me had always  expected comical red and orange flash explosions.

Caden slid next to me and pasted himself against the window as well. “People are zeroing out, Cressida.” He said it in his deep quiet rumble, voicing my name with constancy that made me tingle.

I knew what he meant. People couldn’t bear the thought of being the abandoned remains of our world - sipping coffee on a spacecraft for years with nowhere to return to. They would move towards the hatch doors without their suits and leave the station, not caring to find out how much longer they could keep going. We were supposed to be strong, and know that death was imminent but many couldn’t bear it when it was slow and foreseen. They had reached their lowest point.

“Who?”

Caden looked at me with soft, glimmering eyes that wanted to shield me from any pain. He tucked a honey strand of hair that had escaped my braid behind my ear, letting his freezing fingers linger a moment on the nape of my neck. I could tell he had been working outside the craft. His breath was tangy, his hair smelled bitterly of diesel and thawed metal.  His dark skin glistened with sweat - and his eyes were teary like mine.

“Most of Unit Nine,” he answered finally. He bit his lip as he did when he held his breath, and he turned his head left; scant hairs on top trailed a millisecond behind, standing straight, having been kissed by static electricity.

“What about Bec?”

“She’s fine.” He responded instantly, reflexively. Bec was my magnet - I couldn’t be without her. Him either.

I looked again at our miserable planet, and was roughly grateful that they had made no effort to prepare us. I regarded the churning ashes and comatose atmosphere. It seemed inadequately serene. I was waiting for Earth to begin quivering and combusting and chortling and unleashing itself in a gleeful rage of lava and Hell. I was half-heartedly expecting an unveiling of Satan. Something entirely irrational and absurd that would somehow make the collapse clear.

Caden stepped closer to me. “I know it won’t help to hear this right now but—”

“I need to go keep people calm and check the supplies. I know.”

“I was going to say I love you, Cressida, but that’s true as well,” Caden whispered.

“I love you, too,” I said, squeezing his wrist lightly, looking at him with warmth. I couldn’t bear to wonder what would become of us now. The little girl inside me had been expecting a picturesque wedding. A white one, maybe, with calla lilies and tulips and a triple-tier cake like they used to have hundreds of years ago. I looked down at my engagement ring - a laser-pointer ring used for giving presentations in the Space Lounge. Caden had proposed spontaneously. I knew he had surprised himself just as much as he had surprised me.

I swiveled around now, breathing in quickly, somehow feeling selfish as I did so, as if oxygen supply was not unbounded, as if breathing took longer than it should. I headed to the storage room, hoping Bec would have gone there as well.

I felt awkward, like I had heavy weights in my hands but there was no mass inside of me, no tasks of obligation remaining. Like I was Phillippe Petit, projected 718 years into the future, walking from one Twin Tower to the other, but realizing that the towers had crumbled below my feet as I walked. Nonetheless, I was still walking; walking across the sky with no tightrope. I felt guilty, as if I should have thrown myself into a gutter - but that didn’t make sense at all. My body shivered, almost as if every part of me had realized that I was still standing. I could blink. I could lick my lips. I could feel sweat between my toes.

I heard the cacophony of footsteps and clicking heels and the whir of machines and fans. I took a sharp left, walking down the alabaster hallway. Empty offices, doors strewn open, and piles of devices being organized by apparatuses that could understand no difference in situation. I kept my feet moving, faster and faster, realizing that my life had been spent doing things of little importance.

I’d been here less than a year and the view from the gigantic windows to my right had always stolen my attention. But this time as I walked alongside the incredible sized sheets of insulated glass, I forced myself to look away—to not be deluded by my fried home planet. Even so, I pictured my little brother and parents rupturing into trillions of particles, whirling across crooked countries and sloshing seas. Lifted by the same wind currents that carried my favorite ice cream store sign and the tree at the end of our block that I always hated as a child. It would almost be easier to picture 37 billion dead bodies than picture none at all and just dust.

I punched in the nine-digit code for the storage room and stepped through the doors, which slid open instantaneously - as if they recognized the desperation and scarcity of time. The room was three stories high with outlandish tile work and drawer complexes. The white was overpowering. Flickers of green materialized from perfect retina circles on the faces of each capsule that was fully stocked and red emanated from each that was running low.

“Cressida.” I knew the voice was Bec’s before I even saw her. Voice recognition was so weird.

We ran at each other, sailing into each other’s arms.

She was a war veteran and I was her family and it was like she had been gone for five years. And I needed her to feel like I can breathe again.

We spoke at the same time. “—Are you okay? —” “—Yes—” “—Wait—“ “—Not really—” And it wasn’t weird because that’s how we were.

She pulled me after her as she slid over to the main monitor in the center of the room. It stood six feet tall, three millimeters thin, virtually invisible when not turned on.

“Ready?” I asked, though the question was mainly posed towards myself.

Bec turned the monitor on slowly, hesitating as if she were a kid playing with a light switch, trying to balance it between on and off.

I winced.

The power went on in seconds, showing the standing status of food supply. Three dimensional graphs and models were projected within an instant. The two of us raked through information until we got to the heart.

“Seven years, six months, twenty-three days.” My voice surprised myself.

“Damn.”

“Yeah.”

Bec studied me. I saw her lip quiver as she attempted speech. “Cressida. You should go somewhere. Take them to Neptune. Do something that hasn’t been done. There won’t be anyone to remember it, but at least it’ll be the last thing you remember.” She took a step toward me. Her voice resonated in the room, delicate and exposed.

“Neptune would take under five years.” It was my favorite planet.

“Do it, Cress. You and Caden could easily convince the team.” Caden could do it, I knew. He had a way with words.

“What about you?” My words tumbled out of my mouth and she hugged me and it felt like we were at a funeral with crystallized tears in our eyes that wouldn’t run.

“I’m jumping.” Her words were muffled by my hair but they hit with full tilt anyway.

A second slithered by slowly like a slug creeping across asphalt. We stood in a silence that was uneasy and unfamiliar. I saw us rocking back and forth on blue hover seats twenty years ago with sparkling eyes, laughing with vanilla blossom smiles like we never wanted to die.

“You’ve decided?” It felt like a bruised answer, something incomplete and lacking affection.

“I have,” she said. “I have, and it’s not because I don’t love you and you’re not enough. But you have to let me, because I can’t sit here with twiddling thumbs and fake smiles for seven years. I have to pay tribute.”

“People have paid tribute, Rebecca. Several people from your unit have already,” I said, letting desperation peek through my words.

“They did it because they were incapable of living like this. Please understand, I’m not zeroing out. I’m not weak, but I’m not strong like you are. I can’t live a finite life built on whim. I’m doing it because I can’t be bound by an obligation that doesn’t exist anymore, and I need to show myself that I’m human and I sympathize and I feel their loss and that we all do and I just have to do it. I have to be with them. You can keep going. You have a way of thinking that has astounded me since we were children. Your life keeps plowing on and on and I need you to keep going and do what you’ve always wanted to do. Please understand.”

I did understand. Of course I did.

She took me, frozen, into her arms and told me she was leaving and that she loved me and told me to stay here, not to watch and not to say anything. She left me, arms pendent, facing the towering monitor in the center of the room, seeing the green and red flashes of the supply capsules in my peripheral.  I heard her heels clicking and the door hissing as it closed behind her. I felt time pulsing inside me and I didn’t know how long it was, but there was a ‘ting.’

I lifted my eyes to the monitor where the remaining time was displayed, wincing as I saw twenty-three days morph into forty-four. So that’s how much a life was worth. Twenty-one days.

I twisted down the alabaster hallways, passing the empty offices, stopping, this time, to look through the colossal glass windows into the black, watching the beauty of the trillions of dancing stars, somehow aching for the warmth of sunlight.