Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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The Will to Live

by Tomasz Jarząb




He woke up from a deep sleep at the sound of an alarm. He pressed his body against the cabin's wall where the automatic arms helped him to put on the space suit.

“Nil here! What the hell is going on!” he asked through the radio.

The speaker within the helmet answered with a muddle of human voices. Orders, commands, requests, and threats. Someone called everyone to the emergency pods, shouting out coordinates. Someone else loudly articulated an old prayer, and a different person, equally lost as Nil, screamed out one sentence with the speed of a machine gun: “That's impossible! That's impossible! That's impossible . . . !” Every person contributed to that racket, and at one moment everyone became silent. Only the captain's voice could be heard through the speaker.

“Get ready . . . eternity lies before us.”

An ice-cold chill came down Nil's back.

“Jesus Christ—” he managed to whisper, before a great turbulence threw him to the floor. He bounced limply from every surface inside the cabin until he lost his consciousness.


*****



He took a deep breath as if emerging from the depths of an ocean. He didn't hear, see, or feel a thing at first. But at one moment all his senses were back, and along with them came the pain of a bruised body. He was alive.

There was complete darkness, illuminated only by the lighting of his suit. His head was being torn by a scream. A horrific shriek, the source of which he was unable to locate.

Is it me who's screaming? No. It's coming from the radio. Who?

He recognized Asov, a young mechanic from level three.

“Can anybody hear me! Christ! I need help! My location: level three, module six - mesa. Code red….” The procedural language blended with the boy's fear.

Nil forced his numb lips to whisper a few words.

“Nil here . . . second pilot . . . ”

“Help! Jesus, help me! I'm . . . ”

Nil stopped. “Easy! Give me a moment . . . ”

“Help! The walls, the walls pinned me down. I can't move!”

“Calm down!” Nil shouted. “Easy. Tell me what happened.”

“It destroyed the mesa! The whole module got twisted like a piece of paper. I got pinned down to the door. Do you understand? I got pinned down to the door!”

“And the rest?”

“Only I have managed to get my suit on time. Don't let me die here! Please don't let me die here!”

Get ready . . . eternity lies before us.

Nil trembled. He was unable to get the captain's words out of his head. He began to broadcast to everyone, but apart from Asov's quiet voice, the radio was silent. Twenty crew members. No answer.

No! That's impossible. Nil illuminated the way to a computer with a flashlight integrated with the suit's glove.

“Nil, say something, please.”

He didn't answer. He was too busy striking the dead touch panel. He pressed the quick reset button. Nothing. The screen was as dead as before. The overload fuse must have worked.

“Nil, what's happening? Nil . . . ”

Nil tore off the polypropylene board unveiling the cabin's power switches. He was right that it was just a simple short circuit and all that had to be done was to restore the circuit. He almost told Asov that everything is all right when the words got stuck in his throat. The switch was in the right position. Which meant that this was no simple malfunction!

He automatically directed his sight to a board where his personal items were hanging, which included a photo of his family on vacation. A blue-eyed blond with a small child in her arms was smiling toward the camera. How much happiness was in their eyes, how much life.

Get ready . . . eternity lies before us.

“Eternity lies before us,” Nil involuntarily spoke through clenched teeth.

“Finally! Nil, repeat, I can barely hear you.”

“Nothing. Hold on. I'm coming for you.”


*****



No, no, no, no!

How could one lead to such a tragedy? He had left the first pilot, Grimm, at the helm. Nox, the mechanic, and commander Beryl were conducting a planned inspection of the reactors. The rest were either executing their duties or resting at their cabins.

What could have happened? The pilot's error? Good God!

Grimm was a thousand times better as a pilot than Nil. He had no idea of the situation. None of the five emergency systems were functioning, although each included its own power source. Each section had its own ionic generator which could take over for the main reactor, powering the remaining four. However, it was not the lack of electricity that was the worst thing. The worst thing was the complete silence.

Christ.

They were too far. A fucking light year away from home. At the far end of the Federation, without any routs, no opportunity for anyone to come across them.

Stop! You have a chance! You still have a chance! From his pocket Nil took out the crooked photo which had previously hung on his board. His daughter, Mel—she had her mother's eyes.

In a swinging motion he arduously opened the cabin's doors. The mesa was located three modules from his current location, so he had to go through only six bulkheads, which even with no electricity could be opened manually with the use of levers. It was his only chance. For both of them.

Asov rattled on. Nil was unable to assess how much time the boy still had. He asked him for his condition and precise location. From what Asov said the deformed walls jammed him between the modules with his back towards the passage. His arms and legs were immobilized. He felt a pressure stretching from his chest to the feet, but no pain. For now.

With a rasp the doors lost their tightness, and a great force threw Nil towards the crack, wanting to take him to the other side. He used his hands to struggle in this one-sided battle. Fortunately, the decompression lasted only a second. The odds were on his side.

Get ready . . . eternity lies before us.

He flinched. One thing at a time.

He opened the cabin's sliding door completely and moved to the hallway, directing himself towards the shortest way to Asov. The beam of light coming from his flashlight illuminated the hallway across which the rooms of the residential area were located. He moved as fast as he could, helping himself by holding the handrail.

Nil didn't notice the blast hole at first. It suddenly appeared by the palm of his hand, devouring the end of the rail. Then he found another one, and a few meters further, a few more. The further he got, the more holes there were. The tunnel looked as if God himself arranged a shooting range there and their ship was an empty beer can.

They had flown into a meteor shower. It was bad.

He looked at the walls, evaluating the damages, and came across the open cabin number four. Jenkins lived in number four. Ending his shift, Nil had met Jenkins at level five, where Jenkins was servicing a technical android. He told him that he is going to finish in a moment and then get some rest because he was already completely exhausted.

Nil jumped in.

Jenkins was floating motionless in his suit. He had managed to open the door before a piece of space matter tore a twelve-inch-wide hole in his chest.


*****



Nil stood before a two-meter-high extension of the first bulkhead.

“Asov, can you hear me?”

“Yes,” the boy moaned.

“I'm close now, do you hear? Just one more moment.”

“Yes.”

The answers were too short, desultory.

“Hello! Just don't fall asleep!”

“I'm feeling kind of weird, something . . . ” Nil heard a sound like running water.

“Asov, tell me what's happening? Answer me!”

“Blood. Blood everywhere.”

Christ! Asov was in worse condition than Nil initially thought. Internal injuries.

“Hold on!”

Nil took a deep breath. Three modules in front of him until he would reach the passage, and only after the fourth bulkhead Asov was waiting for him, bleeding out.

“Don't you dare fall asleep, do you understand? Just a moment and I'll put you into the recombinator. You'll be as good as new.”

Recombinator…he had no idea why he said that. Perhaps he needed that lie more than Asov? No recombinator could help without power.

Nil pressed his entire body against the bulkhead trying to maintain his position. He grabbed the lever with both hands and clumsily tried to move it. He repeated to himself that he must remain calm, and simply open the damn bulkheads just like he did during every training session. Lever back, lever forwards. Regularly, steadily. Tenaciously.

Asov was reaching an end. He had little time left. Nil was only thinking about his daughter now. Patience love, soon daddy will hold you up. We'll take mommy and go for ice cream, I promise.

Lever back, lever forwards. He worked like an archaic steam powered machine, like a piston of a steam locomotive.

Just a few more moves and he will be closer to being rescued. His strength left him but he did not stop working. They are waiting for him; he cannot let them down. Now he must think about himself.

The bulkhead's door began to delicately come out of the locks until they finally fell and the springs in the hinges took care of the rest for him. The passage was open.

Nil saw something he was not expecting. The hallway following the frame ended in a chaos of jagged and riddled metal sheets, thermal insulation, and frayed power and cooling lines. However, the worst thing came after that. Like an entrance to a different dimension entwined by a frame made from the scraps of this reality, a different here and now glanced at him from the other side of the opening. That is because in the depth of this well he saw a space ship; a long-distance unit. His own ship! The unit he was currently located on. Or more precisely, its riddled corpse with geysers of frozen gases gushing from its side. He saw the smashed bow.

Directing his vision towards the stern, Nil saw fragments of the hull's cover gathered into loose or more uniform groups scattered all the way towards the ring. The part including the reactors and drive completely ceased to exist. Flashes of glowing fuel rods illuminated the vacuum. The ring itself, attached with one undamaged connector to the ship's central module, looked like a rim shot with buckshot, one from which some cosmic force had torn out a few sections, making it resemble a crescent.

He could hear the flow of his blood and Asov's voice begging him to hurry. But he could not move. He was unable to do a thing for himself or the poor kid.

He floated on a torn-off fragment of the ring towards the void of space. Slowly. Inexorably. Further from Asov, and even further from being rescued. Equally dead as Jenkins.

Get ready…eternity lies before us.


*****



At the rush of panic Nil wanted to rip off pieces of the cover with his own hands. To bash it with his fists. He was ready to make any sacrifice. He would give his soul to the devil himself to survive. If only he could.

The life pods were out of his reach. He had no gas engines and jumping was out of the question. He might as well jump towards Earth.

Asov's nerve endings began to wake up from the numbness resulting from shock. The boy's quiet moans turned into a groan, filling Nil's helmet with a turgid wave of pain.

“Nil, it burns. It burns me from the inside. Do something! Christ, do something!”

He wanted to say something, but was unable to do so. The sounds coming from the intercom cut through him like knives. He was helpless. He was unable to give Asov even a glimpse of hope. He could not give Asov something he himself no longer had.

“I can't . . . I no longer can . . . do something!”

He didn't say a word. Not even a word. In time, the begging stopped and only the shallow breathing indicated that Asov was still alive. Finally even that stopped.

In a state of delirium, Nil saw the face of his daughter. The nose she wrinkled in such a cute manner when she got angry each time he didn't have the time to play space cowboys with her. Daddy play with me. Daddy . . . he lost consciousness.

“Pip, pip, pip!”

Nil woke up. He had no idea how much time had passed. The computer informed him about a critical carbon dioxide saturation. He was running out of air and his life depended on the carbon dioxide filter—a small cylindrical absorber. How much time do I have? Ten minutes? Fifteen? He didn't even look at the display. Didn't matter. He gave up a long time ago. He felt an irresistible urge to end this absurdness. He thought that all it would take is to remove the helmet and—

something grabbed his leg! He thought that it must be the dead Jenkins who came for his soul, to drag him down to hell. He turned to face the threat, and for the first and last time in his life, he felt hot tears filling his eyes. Hope filled his heart.


*****



“That's how you met the android. Do you have any idea how it got there?” The great investigator Haler stopped and waited for an answer.

Nil looked dully at the man's bald head, taken out of his rhythm. Not even a day had passed since they'd found him and he was already being interrogated about what happened at the Vortex.

They were sitting in a spacious interrogation room. The enormous walls were covered in even, frosted glass and protruded from the floor like icebergs. It was all so sterile, so disturbing in its strangeness. Nil felt uneasy, but that was not the most important thing now. He made it! He had no intention of prolonging this. He obediently answered all the questions. He did not lie. He explained extensively, although he was burning with impatience on the inside. He wanted to see his family—

“Please answer the question, Mister Nil.” Haler's cold look pierced through him.

“Yes. The android came to me from the neighboring module, from the opposite direction which I took to help Asov.

His interlocutor diligently noted something on his panel while the inspector's coworker, Jantar, constantly looked at a point behind Nil's back.

“At the moment of collision the android got activated in the emergency mode. In accordance with the procedure, it initiated searches for any survivors and so it came across me. It must have been Jenkins. Jenkins must have brought him back to his docking station when he was ending his shift.”

Haler stopped taking notes.

Nil felt unease. He felt that he could not stop, that he must keep talking.

“Model 22. We've called it phantom or can. It was perfect for conducting works everywhere where human life was at too much risk. All it took was to make a connection with the use of a microwave transmitter and carry out the most difficult works in the body of the android, leaving one's real body behind at a safe location. One hundred and fifty terabytes of positronic memory. Enough to hold the human mind, to—” His voice broke with emotions.

My precious…. He wanted to see them. Just once. One last time. He wanted them to know what they meant to him. Now. Now! When he still could talk.

“You've commanded the android to copy the neutron network of your brain when you connected with it through the microwave port?”

“Yes. Then I watched as my body . . . as I died.”

He felt guilty although he didn't know why. After all, he had no choice. There was no other option. Can anyone else say what's it like to experience his own death? And he remembered every moment of it. The carbon dioxide saturation reaching a critical level. The suit's systems desperately trying to find a way to generate at least one more unit of air to extend his life for just one second. The suit beginning to fit his body more tightly, wanting to push just a bit more air towards the helmet. The absorber increasing the amount of allowed air, as if forcing itself to perform more effort. Every element of the system wanting Nil to live. In vain.

His new synthetic body, anchored to the hallway's safety rail with a manipulator, held him in its arms. A day or two, a week, perhaps a month passed before he went into hibernation. He stayed like that and laughed. He giggled like a child.

“Sweetheart! Eternity is not for me right now . . . hahaha . . . not for me, not for me . . . not . . . haha . . . not for me not for me not for me not for me . . . ”

“Please understand!” Nil stood up suddenly, accompanied by the sound of his mechanical spider-like joints. It was his chance. The Congress had to understand! “I miss my family so much. It was my only chance. Do you understand? I did it all for my family. For my wife and child! I just want to say goodbye to them and tell them that they are what's most important to me,” the voice generator rattled. “Will I be able to see my daughter? I know that it will be a shock for them, but I need just a few fucking moments. Can you do that for me? Can you grant me that favor!”

His voice echoed across the room.

The inspector's face showed no emotions, like a mask. He spoke only after hearing through his earpiece, the instructions coming from the Top which followed the interrogation from behind the frosted glass the entire time.

“Please calm down.” Haler began, emotionless. “As soon as the Congress presents its statement we will inform your wife about finding you. Although, your wife must be informed about the circumstances. But if she agrees, then we will arrange a meeting. Please be patient, you will surely see her. Now I will ask you a few questions. Please answer in accordance with what you know. Can we continue?”

“Of course.”

“Good. What can you tell me about the first pilot, Grimm?”

Nil felt relief. The tension left. Sweetheart, we will see each other soon!


*****



Haler was already tired by this show. The Top's methods seemed equally peculiar as they were unnecessary. What was the purpose? He asked himself. Reaching the truth? Learning the circumstances?

An hour after taking Nil out of the room, Haler was still sitting gloomily over the decision made by the Congress, which he knew before the interrogation even started. The judgment left no doubts. After all, he did not expect a different outcome. Nil will never see his family.

Through the browser the inspector opened archive materials which were collected in the course of searches. He selected photos of the Vortex ship crew which were taken for an article in a popular science-nature magazine just before the group set off for their final mission. He found a photo of Nil wearing sunglasses with an attack jet behind him.

Second pilot-navigator Gerald Rudolf Nil. His life motto: Will bends steel. That was the inscription underneath the photo.

Haler read the interview carried out by a press correspondent. In it, Nil explained why he had changed airplanes for space ships. The article presented a strong man, confident as to his beliefs. He talked about his family in short, but in a good way. One might get an impression that the case was different now, when he came back.

However, Haler held back from thinking about the clumsy machine made from carbon fiber, and aluminum as a human being. After all, was it not just a cold digital arrangement of a brain's neuron connections belonging to the man in the photo? A simple interactive recording of a person who no longer existed? Nothing more than that. An echo of real emotions and feelings, an illusion of real life.

Jantar entered the room holding two cups of hot coffee.

“Boy, you're quite concerned today, boss.” The junior inspector started in a silly manner, putting one of the cups down within Haler's reach. “I thought the case was easy.”

The inspector didn't even look at him. He switched to an information portal which reported about finding the remains of a long-distance unit named Vortex, which was lost twenty years ago. The mystery of the disappearance has been solved! Black boxes speak in the voices of the dead, the title stated.

They don't even know half of it.

“The boys at the bottom ask if you want to explain the situation to the can before we erase it.”

“No. It's unnecessary.”

Haler thought it over. Jantar is sure. The Congress and Top as well. They all are sure of it. Specialists have no doubts and will always claim that it is impossible for synthetic elements to earn the right to be called a living being. For them the sole memory, intelligence, and even appearances of self-awareness are not enough. Only when combined with organic elements, genetic information originating from a mother cell in a continuous manner since the dawn of the first organic structures until now, only then can we talk about life and about a human being. An inseparable bond between the spirit and the body is for them a paradigm they refuse to renounce. Nil had no right to exist in such a form.

But can they be wrong? Where does their certainty come from? Perhaps it is simply the fear of accepting the fact that we are only electric discharges and nothing more than that, which does not allow us to regard computers, machines with a potential not seen in nature, as equal to us because—

Stop! Haler rubbed his temples.

He had no time to think about it. Even if Nil gave the machine something more than a set of information about himself together with the copy of his brain, even if the transfer executed an unimaginable thing and made the electronic entanglement a host for a human being and, thus, a conscious man, one emotionally sensitive, it didn't matter. Even if Nil lived and was himself then, now he could rip a mechanic heart from his chest.

In the database, the inspector found a short note from his predecessor which concerned Nil's wife and daughter:

Wera Nil (34) and Melania Nil (4) have been found dead in their home located at Elm Street 13, on December 1, 2089, by the Civics Militia which was alarmed by their neighbors. Examining the bodies and a following autopsy allowed the determination that Wera Nil (mother) murdered her sleeping daughter and then committed suicide. In her final recording Wera Nil explained that the reason for her actions was the disappearance of her husband Gerald R. Nil (36), an intergalactic pilot from the Fenix Corporation, a year ago, officially presumed dead.

According to the inspectors, the woman was mentally ill.

Yes. Nil never came back. He died on that drifting piece of spaceship. That will be best for everyone.

Haler took a sip of his coffee. He made a decision: After returning home, he will hug his teenage son and tell him how much he loves him, even if the boy will think that his old man finally lost his mind.



THE END


2019 Tomasz Jarząb

Bio: Tomasz Jarząb was born in Katowice, Poland. His stories have appeared in various polish electronic publications. His favorite writers: S.Lem, W. Gibson, P.K. Dick and C. Palahniuk.

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