Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. And I can tell you they’re right. I don’t hear one decibel from Jenzy, not one sigh, after I puncture the left elbow of his space suit with a pencil-sized laser. He sways slowly left and right, and with his luminescent helmet, all tangled in cables, poor Jenzy looks like one of those long-horned summer stag beetles, struggling for footing when turned on their back. He stops trembling in a few seconds but I know he isn’t dead yet, he wouldn't be until all his body fluids boil and hiss their way out of ruptured tissues.
Not a fizzle was heard one week earlier, by me or by any of the ship's acoustic sensors, when I remotely depressurized Britta’s mini biolab in its close orbit around our monstrously ugly cruiser Hedone Jr. And zero particle vibrations traveled to my space suited ears from Dr. Tokoyama, two days before Britta's death. Dr. Tokoyama’s lungs, filled to the max with a last breath of air, vaporized at high pressure for minutes, in absolute quietude.
Let’s be honest, us astrophysicists and most members of the space workers’ syndicate know that you can’t hear noise in the vacuum. Who doesn’t curse their ass off with the radio muted when working outside, and the helmet working next to you can't hear a thing? They say you don’t hear screams but what they don’t say is that when the space vacuum gets you, you’ll struggle to die for three long minutes. Even more, depending on how much air you gulped for the last time. In vacuum, us living things are no more than floating pressure cookers. One little nick in the space suit and all the air siphons out, taking away life, starting with the body's heat.
That’s why on the autopsy racks, Jenzy, Britta and Dr. Tokoyama have frozen noses. Probably all their orifices are frozen, but I don’t ask out of respect for the dead. Burnt tongues, too. Saliva boils at very low temperatures in the absence of atmospheric pressure. The iced kiss, I call it. You might say that attributing erotic traits to the seemingly difficult-to- watch death by exposure to vacuum denotes certain deviant inclinations. I’d say that’s nothing compared to the fetishist demons that haunt Aksel, Hedone Jr.’s principal pilot. He’s the one who named our amorphous cluster of obese metal bulges and asymmetrical curves of a ship after Hedone, none other than the goddess of pleasure and self-delight.
He summons me in one of these metal bulges on Deck III, reserved for officers. Aksel has the common sense to live in headquarters sized the same as everyone else in the crew, ten by eight feet. Of course, as principal pilot he’s not sharing it with anyone, except for occasional nights, which I know are not many. Aksel is a perverse yet smart guy so while I take a seat, I don’t look at the wall behind him. There, in a concealed shaft, on religiously cleaned and polished mahogany shelves, sculpted in pale stone and smoothed out by thousands of years, lies Aksel’s secret collection of miniature fertility deities. Even in shards, each opulent goddess is worth millions on collectors’ black market. Hell, I’d get a fortune with just one of those hard wood shelves.
I’ve seen the shrine in his absence and I want to keep that experience to myself. So I look straight at Aksel. I examine the deep creases on his forehead. His thinning hair, negligently cut at shoulder level, oscillating with light between blond and washed-out chestnut. His slim, sinewy body. The gray eyes and wolverine jawline. The detached way he wears a stained, dark green muscle tank that says Volupté in cherry red cursive. He’s a sixty year old lewd mix of a high-tech navigator and a crooked art dealer. He doesn’t like me.
Aksel points at my ear-buds, which I always wear due to my condition. I take them off and wait for the blow.
“Do you know why I called you?”
The visuals hit me from the first word. His voice triggers behind my eyes the image of several concentric circles, in vibrant cornflower blue, that get larger and larger as he speaks, like ripples formed by a pebble tossed into a lake. I am already used to Aksel’s grave pitch. With him, as with very few others, I can control the visual stimuli. After a few subtle breath cycles in which I engage only the trachea and upper part of the lungs, I get a grip on the brain blood flow in the occipital. Cornflower blue pales, circles subside. My two sensory paths, visual and auditory, separate and diverge.
Do I know why he called me? Can’t possibly be the three dead crew members in less than two weeks.
“Dr Tokoyama is unfortunately not with us anymore”, Aksel continues with his baritonal voice, seasoned with a very slight tremor that adds weight to everything he says. “I am promoting you to Lead Scientist, Astrophysics Senior III. And with Jenzy gone, you’ll take over some of his flight assistant duties.” He doesn’t stop here. “How competent are you with xenobiology?”
“Thank you for your trust, sir. I’m afraid I can’t take over Britta’s lab work though,” I deflect. “I touch a plant, it dies.”
That piques his interest.
“Have you finished the reports?“ he asks.
“Almost,” I say. ”I just need to examine the fissures in Jenzy’s space suit and send out the findings to the Space Agency. They’ll decide if it was structural or external.”
“And what are your thoughts?” he asks. And right then, when I think the human voice can’t phonate sounds of such frequency, his voice sinks even deeper. It is hard to explain that I see Aksel right there in front of me, compulsively tracing the smooth corners of his keyboard with long fingers, first the top corners, then the bottom ones. And at the same time, in a second, inner field of view, circles of dim, dark honey, smoldering light emerge, set in motion by the low timbre voice. This time they’re too intense to counteract with breathing techniques. I don’t want him or anyone else to figure me out. I launch a tirade:
“My thoughts, Sir, are leaning towards an unfortunate accident. Landing near Zethus crater is always a challenge due to Thebe’s continuous ionic dust ejection.”
“Yeah, Thebe is a bitch to land on. But I tame it every time,“ he grins.
“As you know, Sir, one of the long-range transmission antennae broke when we landed. A sharp fragment punctured Jenzy’s suit.”
“Could we have prevented it?” he asks.
“Maybe by not landing on porous shitty moons like Thebe, which breaks under our landing train every time, messes up all comms and creates complete chaos on all decks? We’re lucky we’re alive.”
“Come on, Astro III, we use tritium for fuel. Where does everyone in the Alliance throw their nuclear trash? Vacation satellites or porous shitty rocks? Listen, we couldn’t avoid this. I really liked Jenzy. He started his apprenticeship here on Hedone Jr. He was a damn good pilot.”
And a damn good lover. I can see Aksel’s voice and words. Can he hear my thoughts?
My visions tend to follow the same pattern for each voice signature. However, they are not unique. In mathematical terms, the ‘shape triggered by sound’ relationship is not an injective function. For instance, circles are always linked to the same people and some noises, like Aksel’s voice, a screwdriver falling on a plastered floor, or a plant stem breaking (yes, I can hear that). No sound so far has conjured non-geometrical visions. Even though the forest green fractals I experienced while making love with Jenzy were stunning, they’re still geometry. My visions’ lack of shape diversity is counterbalanced by the richness of colors. That’s the good part. The ugly part is they can knock me unconscious or even worse, some combinations of colors and shapes are pure trauma.
“Zorina, we're paired for a maintenance outing at sixteen hundred. Should I come?” winks at me Aksel.
So that’s what this is about, not at all forcing a promotion on me. The Principal has doubts. He played with me like toddlers play with baby lizards. Sever that tail with little hands. Wait a few minutes. Check if the tail grows back.
“Sir, with all due respect, that is inappropriate. If you doubt my integrity…”, I say.
“Dismissed, Astro III. See you at fifteen forty five on deck one.“
Pursuing my profession in space has obvious advantages for people with my condition. I just turn off comms when out, wear noise cancellation earbuds when in and that does it. Keeps my visual field uncluttered. No random noises to start color tornadoes when least expected.
One might think that my collaterals - victims sounds repugnant - are the scum of humanity. It would be comfortable for me to think that, but it’s not true. Take Dr. Tokoyama for instance. At Physics 101 we learned the Tokoyama theorem of quantum non abelian groupoids. All the physics we learned the next four years were basically a big corollary to that theorem. Haruto Tokoyama was a genius, one that history barely produces in our times, as if there’s a limited reservoir of visionary scientists and all were born before the twenty-second century. And his daughter, our Dr. Tokoyama, took after him. She ascended fast, just like her father, and nobody could accuse her of nepotism or taking advantage of her good looks. Truthfully, no one could fuck their way to the top in Quantum Physics, not even her. I was sad to let her go.
Then, fragile Britta, who dedicated her entire post-graduation short life to the void. She tinkered with and engineered plants in order to create palatable food for us spacers. And I can’t even talk about Jenzy yet, it hurts. He had a unique way of pronouncing my name, with an extra sibilant ‘z’, which automatically whipped up a storm of multicolored confetti behind my eyes. Even someone with highly questionable moral standards and low respect for human life would ask if there's any reason these good people deserve to die.
There are reasons. Reasons that I, a thirty-something astrophysicist, barely coping with visual synesthesia, unrequited love, and the loneliness of space exploration, know quite well.
About the Creator
Alina likes psychological thrillers that happen up there, on the orbit. She lives in South California, loves to read and prefers writing in third limited.
Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!
Compelling and original writing
Creative use of language & vocab
Original narrative & well developed characters
Expert insights and opinions
Arguments were carefully researched and presented
Niche topic & fresh perspectives
Heartfelt and relatable
The story invoked strong personal emotions
On-point and relevant
Writing reflected the title & theme
Ooh, I definitely want to learn more! I love the imagery you’ve used, Alina. Wonderful 💕🙂
Looking foreword to more! Loved the little touches of the figurines and the "flawed" protagonist. Subscribed!
Great first chapter! I loved the added visual stimuli that echos around the narrator in the vacuum of space. I'm looking forward to the next chapters!