Clarity in Darkness
by Lambert Muir
Meteors hit the International Space station just before the crew of the Starlin shuttle could pull out of the way. The earthbound rocks slammed into the station first. The station’s own weight had done the rest; one half was caught in the tide of the meteor shower and was falling to Earth while the other slammed into the Starlin. The shuttle was sliced by the station’s solar arrays and the impact threw it off course. Oxygen flew out of the shuttle’s hull lacerations, sending it whirling like a bottle rocket. The crew, forced down in their seats by the mad thrust, struggled to maintain control of the Starlin. Captain Saliz was able to stop the shuttle from spinning, but the oxygen leak still took it off course; the Starlin continued its way away from Earth, the gap between the two spacial objects widening further with every ounce of leaking oxygen. Saliz ordered Second Officer Carmichael to redirect the air supply manually. Her words were sharp, her order concise, betraying a growing feeling of helplessness and surrender.
Carmichael unbuckled his restraints and began to rise out of his seat. He was reminded of swimming in the ocean: peaceful despite knowledge of the merciless force that kept him afloat. He swam to the cockpit door and waited for it to be opened by Saliz’s order, bracing himself. The force of the vacuum of space was greater than Carmichael could anticipate and he was pulled out of the cockpit, banging on walls and instruments as he fell horizontally towards the rear of the shuttle. The manual controls were beyond the damaged parts of the Starlin. To go through these parts, Carmichael held on to anything he could reach, often feeling his feet raising above his head. Sometimes he would turn his head and see the laceration from the corner of his eyes. They were like great black claw marks from which light could neither escape nor enter: A perfect darkness.
When he finally reached the manual controls of the shuttle, Carmichael found the air supply manual controls damaged beyond repair. Redirecting the remaining oxygen created a spark inside the control that ignited the oxygen and blew another hole in the hull. The hole started expanding and ripping out the manual control consoles. Carmichael barely had time to hold on to the escape pod hatch before his feet fell from under him and were pulled into space. Captain Saliz’s voice came into his helmet and was lost to the trancelike state Carmichael fell into as he saw the hull breach widening, the darkness growing. Saliz’s repeated summons snapped him out of it, but was drowned by Carmichael’s grunts of pain. Being pulled into the vacuum, feeling his arms straining, his fingers lose their hold on the escape pod’s hatch, every muscle, every bone, in his upper body screaming for release. The starless darkness grew more welcoming with every gritting of teeth, beckoning to him to let go. With a last effort, Carmichael made his way into the escape pod and closed the hatch. Upon the automatic locking of its door, the pod launched itself on a course to Earth.
Only after removing his helmet did Carmichael realize Captain Saliz was still trying to communicate with him. Her voice registered as nothing more than gibberish to him for a time, the world around hadn’t caught up with him quite yet. Slowly re-emerging from his momentary shock, he took off his helmet and took stock of his situation: Carmichael was in one of the Starlin’s escape pods, with thirty-six hours of air, thrusters that would get him as close to Earth as they could and a radio broadcasting a continuous S.O.S. signal. Carmichael rotated the chair toward the only window in the pod as he sat down. He could see Earth in the distance, but knew it would get closer as the pod made its way towards it. The Captain’s voice coming from his helmet was like a distant whisper gathering static as his exhausted body dragged him to sleep.
Carmichael awoke, the light of the sun hitting his face as it hit the eastern hemisphere. He had slept sixteen hours and was halfway between Earth and the Moon. The low rumbling of the thrusters had gone silent, the pod was moving forward on momentum alone. The smell of sweat rushed to Carmichael’s nose as he removed the upper part of his spacesuit. The radio was still broadcasting its S.O.S., there was nothing else to do but wait.
Ten hours passed and Carmichael started to panic; he felt his heart beat faster and faster, heard his arteries pop like fireworks and closed his eyes, awaiting death. When death didn’t come, he calmed himself down by concentrating on his breathing. Still, Carmichael could see Earth drifting further away and then rush towards him. Moving to the left, moving to the right, rotating forward and backward, shuffling up and down on its axis.
‘‘Eric,’’ his mother called to him from his discarded helmet.
‘‘Eric, are you there?’’
Carmichael turned the chair and picked up the helmet. He saw his mother’s face in its visor.
‘‘Eric,’’ his mother called again, unable to hide her discomfort.
His mother coughed. ‘‘Oh, Eric, is everything all right?’’
‘‘Yeah, everything’s good. I… I might meet up with some friends later.’’
‘‘Are you done with your homework already?’’
Eric thought about the unfinished math homework sitting on the desk in his bedroom. Nothing he couldn’t get done before class started tomorrow. Math was never a problem for him. ‘‘Sure, Ma, they’re done.’’
‘‘Such a brilliant boy, my son.’’ His mother’s reflection in his helmet’s visor smiled meekly. She coughed and coughed again.
‘‘Is… is everything alright, Ma? You don’t want me to stay? I could cancel with the gang, you know.’’
‘‘Cah-mawn, sonny boy, do I look helpless?’’
Eric tried to match the smile on his mother’s face.
‘‘Oh, Eric, I’m fine, really, you go on. I’ll just stay in bed a little while longer, just a bit. I’m good, really.’’ Her last coughs disappeared in the static of the helmet’s communication device.
‘‘No, Ma, I’ll... I’ll stay. I’ll stay and I’ll order pizza and we’ll watch some stupid movie together.’’
Eric’s reflection in the helmet visor stayed silent.
Carmichael let the helmet drop to the floor and turned back to the window, staring out at a now still Earth, waiting.
Carmichael waited as the minutes of his last hour of air trickled away. Sitting still, not wanting to stew in his own wastes. The smell hung around him, but he had nothing to vomit. He was waiting to die. He had thought he wanted to die in space, but he knew now he wanted to choose where he’d die. Like his mother had. She died where she chose to die. He was going to die in an escape pod, with his reflection staring back at him. And beyond his reflection, Earth hung in front of him, peacefully floating at the mercy of the universe he saw beyond it. And of the universe, all he saw was its all-encompassing darkness pierced by the dim light of far away and possibly long dead stars. And the stars too are at the mercy of the universe, momentary flashes of light in an ocean of darkness, the same darkness that sought to welcome him when he clung to the escape pod’s hatch on the Starlin. His air supply ran out.
Eric Carmichael lets go.
He lets go and he sees the meteor shower hit the space station like rain hitting the pavement. Earth rotates madly, revealing a young man spending sleepless nights studying. The young man is Eric, Carmichael knows. That young man is now younger still, walking under a cloudless spring sky. Arriving at home, Eric does not find his mother in her room. Searching for her, he finds her body laying in the garden, a look of serenity her face. Despite Carmichael’s presence, young Eric feels so alone. Earlier, Carmichael is with his mother who rises from bed and goes to the garden. He wants to help and knows he cannot, seeing the cancerous cells that have spread like vines throughout her body. Carmichael does not wonder why his mother never told him. He sees her now smiling at a six years old Eric during their vacation to the ocean. Eric experiences swimming in the ocean for the first time: floating in an endless force of nature, swimming toward fleeting shimmers of refracted sunlight. It is not unlike what Carmichael feels now.
Eric Carmichael looks beyond his skin and sees his own cells, focusing on the atoms that compose them. The thought of similar atoms being shared by all human beings passes through his mind and Carmichael sees each and every one of them, all seven billion people on Earth, connected to him and each other on the atomic level.
Camilla Esperanza kicking a football on the improvised playing field of a Brazilian favela.
Zabor Otanga picking up a fare in his New York City cab.
Mika Ystyn picking a fight in a bar in Oslo.
Sara Swiecke playing a tune on her guitar in Jerusalem.
He sees them all.
Turning his gaze to the cosmos, Eric Carmichael witnesses every star growing and collapsing, every galaxy beyond the Milky Way, until the ever-expanding limit of the universe burns out the lifelessness before it with nuclear birth. The universe is a changing tapestry of life and death that Carmichael observes in awe. He sees Great Emperor Klyrr die sword in hand during his last crusade against the Kingdom of B’yxd, the future messiah of Laor draw his first breath, the wandering palace of ancient beings who have witnessed the creation and extinction of countless worlds, the last male on Zaru put his companion into the ground, and the first of the sentient beings of P’ler gazing into the starry night sky.
Eric Carmichael returns to his mother as she sits down in the garden on a cloudless spring day. He smiles and waves goodbye to his mother and six years old Eric as they leave the rented beach house by the sea. He sits down on the sand, takes in the ocean air, and dies.