That's The Game
Faded is the signal of home
Nobody can hear a scream in the vacuum of space, or so they say. Turns out, most every sound is whisked away by the gaping expanse of the cosmos— horror, yes, but elation, and surprise, and melancholy, and blithe, too. And the whir of engine on top of it all, smothered or beckoned away—a matter of perspective, really—by the stars, turning this untread celestial terrain oddly peaceful. Suspending this barren ship against its starry neighbors, nigh indistinguishable to their gentle presence—or it would be, if those stupid burning pinprick explosions would stop being so loud.
She’s not sure what she expected, this far out. Earth is so distant in the ship’s wake it doesn’t even register on their peripheral maps, anymore; the Sun does, just barely, one blinking dot of many. It, too, should be indistinguishable, would be dismissable if it did not signal “home.”
“Good evening, Commander Samson,” comes that familiar voice behind her. She doesn’t expect the sound, despite the apparent neverending of their routine; it jars her out of the musings of her casual stargazing. The formality of the greeting is enough to get her to turn away from the doubly-reinforced starship window.
“Commander Kashif,” she nods, clasping her hands behind her back. “I see your rotation-mandated rest period was successful.”
“Ouch.” Kashif winces, putting on a show of offense. “Did I really look that bad, habibi?”
Samson drops the official tone in favor of a grin. “I could see the black holes in your eyes, Rory. You needed a nap.”
“Alright, okay, I can take that.” Rory—Commander Kashif, to the sponsors back at home base who’d waved them off with wads of cash and faint well-wishes—glances out the window and stills, drawn in to the whorls of the galaxies drifting by. Each one pulses, a doppler effect of motion as their ship hurtles by at impossible speeds. It’s a miracle their insulation has held out as well as it has, over this distance. Compared to the overwhelming possibility, inevitable eventuality, the roaring is dull.
It’s Rory’s turn to shake herself of the cosmos’s grip. “How much time do we have, Andy?”
“Before the system demands I turn in for my rest period?” An unspoken "or" chases Andy Samson's reply. She, chosen co-Commander of the exploration beside Kashif, flicks a mini-pad on her wrist. A projected clock hovers where her fingers had only moments before. “Fifty-seven minutes and nine— eight— seven— six seconds.” She closes her eyes. Inhales. Locks eyes with Rory. “What shall we do with it?”
With fifty-one minutes and a couple dozen seconds left on the system clock, Andy and Rory settle into a well-worn loveseat they dismantled together, ignoring the protests of the system, early into this trip. They’d reassembled it facing one of the biggest windows accessible to them on the living-quarters floors; it became the spot they’d flee to when the gravity of the stars became suffocating. Three divots are softened into the seat: one on either side, the left for Rory and the right for Andy, and one in the middle, less permanent than the others. That one they both use, when the other is asleep, and their system tasks are complete. The stars are always heavier, then.
“Which conversation shall we have this time?” Andy whispers. She’s hidden the ticking clock, but it may as well be a physical weight dragging her hands down. Every second throbs in the cavities of her chest.
“I like the one about the things we miss,” Rory says, absentmindedly tracing circles on the veined canvas of Andy’s wrists. “You first or me?”
“You first.” Andy nods, like she’s making the most important declaration in the universe.
“Okay.” Rory takes a deep breath. They stopped worrying about conserving oxygen aeons ago—the system hasn’t crapped out yet, and besides. It’s not like they’re just going to barrel on forever. “I thought of a new one. Fresh sprouts on sandwiches.”
Andy laughs, and some thought about bottling the sound dances through Rory’s head. “That’s a good one, yeah. I thought of a new one, too.” She watches the path of Rory’s fingers on the thin layers of her skin; up, out, around, and back again. Over and over and over. After all this time, the light touch still tickles. “I’ll give you three guesses.”
“Mm, okay.” Rory gives it a moment of thought. “Ladybugs.”
“No!” Andy laughs again, but it dies quickly in her throat. They’re passing a red-toned galaxy right now. It could be a ladybug, if she tilts her head. Her voice is softer as she adds, “I think that was one of the first ones we came up with. That and bumblebees.”
“Ah, al’ama. You’re right. Okay, guess two. Uhh… oh! Boots.”
“Close! But no.” The galaxy has taken over the window. The closest star—some derivation of M8—is getting louder. Vibrations, so low they’d be impossible to notice to an untrained traveler, have begun traipsing in earnest across the floor. Andy blinks. “It is an accessory, though. Clothing-esque.”
Rory considers this. She’s on her last guess. It is essential she get it right—essential only to her, perhaps, but essential nonetheless. “Alright, give me a hint. You’ve never liked hats, and we do have socks. Is it… it’s got to be jewelry, right?”
“Okay, alright… hm… mujawharat… lays qubea… oh, habibi.” Rory inhales. Holds her breath for the span of a heartbeat. Her exhale cuts the still air. Leaves a wound.
“You haven’t guessed yet,” Andy says quietly as the moments pass. They are running out of time. The hidden clock anchoring her wrist will not let her forget.
Rory smiles. Rueful. Mirthless. “Do I have to?”
“That’s the game,” Andy says, and it lingers. That’s the game.
And so eventually Rory catches her breath long enough to whisper, “Wedding rings,” and that is that. All Andy has to do is nod.
Seconds keep ticking. For every ten minutes the clock beeps once, whether or not Andy pulls it up to display; when the clock has beeped four times, Rory abruptly pushes to her feet. The action is harder. Andy watches the muscles of her forearms strain.
“Commander Kashif requesting action,” she says, directing her voice to a sleek perforation in the ceiling above. A piercing blue light ignites. “Play dancing tunes.” She affects a silly lilt to her voice entirely for the benefit of her seated swing partner; the system speaker doesn’t seem to catch it.
“Queueing ‘classic dancing compilation’,” chirps a robotic voice. Notes swell off the walls.
Rory extends a hand. Andy has already stood.
The pounding galaxy lurking outside their window watches with disinterest as they waltz. It’s as if, with each whirl, their bubble of space rends, ripping tears into the fabric of the humanity they’ve managed to trail after themselves as they forged their path through the stars. Step two three and here is the life they could have had and “Love,” Andy is whispering, “love, isn’t it beautiful?” and Rory is humming, and it’s some old song the system doesn’t know and it’s like their flesh has been remade in the image of the cosmos they have come to expect to flood their living room.
Again the watch beeps and it would almost be funny if Andy wasn’t trembling and Rory’s voice wasn’t going dry. The system’s speaker cuts out, overlaid with cosmic radiative static. The sound of the stars seeping through the layers of the ship. Peeling them away.
Here is the thing about shooting for the stars: it is easier than you think to get too close.
The star gets louder and louder and louder and then that is the only sound to be heard. Rory’s lips are moving and yeah, her song is still escaping but it does not last long. Andy cannot hear her own breath against Rory’s cheek. It is all they can do to hold on to each other.
It is then the watch decides the rotation mandate has been ignored for long enough. It beeps like it will never make sound again, rapid and urgent and afraid. Andy cannot even feel it vibrating her wrist. Finally it gives up on manual recognition and displays, one last shot in the dark, a projected message in bright red:
ATTENTION. MANDATED SLEEP PERIOD ACTIVE NOW. RETURN TO QUARTERS IMMEDIATELY.
It doesn’t register that it’s no longer connected to anyone’s body.
About the author
(they/them) enjoys exploring various themes surrounding identity and escapism in their work. They've been featured by blueprint magazine and their local public library system, and were awarded “Poet of the Year” by NEHS in 2022.