The whisper of my breath filled my helmet. Its odor mixed with the smell of my sweat and complete exhaustion. The faint fog of it clung to the inside of the face shield, dimming my view, though not so much that I could pretend that the scorched control panel in front of me would ever function again. I stared at it anyway and delayed making the comm back to the ship. Maybe if I didn’t say anything it would stop being true.
My comm chirped in my ear anyway, and I sighed. So much for that idea. “Go ahead,” I answered.
My husband’s voice came crackling over the connection. “What’s the bad news, Alice?”
“The gate’s shot,” I said. “Doesn’t look like we’re making it home for dinner.”
Or ever. But we both knew that.
“Copy,” he said, and then went quiet.
And we mourned.
We’d known it would happen, that it was the only likely outcome. We’d run the scenarios. We’d looked at every other possibility when the wormhole opened, anything that could save our galaxy without stranding us in this one. We’d tried a dozen different things, only to have them fail one way or another— because the theory wasn’t sound, because the tech just couldn’t handle it, because time ran out. The fact that the radiation from the other side was harmless until it reacted with the radiation from our own galaxy didn’t mean a thing. It was a quirk of nature, but deadly all the same. And in the end, this was our only option: fly through ourselves and set things right.
Close the gate. Save the galaxy.
Get back through if you can. But that’s not the primary objective.
I closed my eyes and let myself hang there, floating in the vacuum at the end of my tether while the greater part of myself insisted that there must be a way out, if only we kept on looking. It offered up all the cliches: we’d come so far, we’d done so much, it couldn’t end this way.
But that’s only true in a certain kind of story.
My comm chirped again, and I opened my eyes. The control panel was still there, still destroyed. The gate pylon was still inert, still damaged far beyond our means to repair. The expanse of a foreign galaxy still stretched out infinitely in every direction, and I couldn’t bring myself to look at it.
I shook my head, as if that was enough to clear it. It worked well enough. “I’m here.”
“I’m ready to bring you back inside. Whenever you’re ready.”
“Copy that. I’m ready now.” A pause, and then I added my quiet thanks.
It didn’t take long to haul me in at the end of the tether. The fastenings on the belt of my suit pulled taut and the pylon sank away and out of reach. I watched it and only it until my feet touched down on the airlock floor; the strange stars would cause me too much pain.
Gray, my husband, pulled open the door and met me as soon as the airlock finished cycling. I leaned into his chest, let his arms wrap around me, let him hold me. I breathed in his scent, the last remnants of his deodorant and his sweat and the unique smell that only belonged to him.
“I don’t want to be stuck here,” I whispered, though the words hardly made it past the knot that had grown in my throat. “I don’t want this to be the end.”
“It’s not,” he murmured, his lips pressed against my hair. “It’s not.”
It was a platitude. An empty, hopeless platitude. A flash of rage passed through my brain, all violence and panic and gut-deep wrath. I stiffened, chewing on the words of a dozen different diatribes that rose up from my chest. Only the simplest came out.
“It is. It is.” I pushed away. “The pylon’s dead. The control is dead. Our galaxy is ten million light years away, and even if our ship could cross that distance, we’d be eons dead before it brought us home. And so would everyone we’ve ever loved. We knew it when we volunteered. We knew it and we came anyway.”
“So we find another way,” said Gray.
“There is no other way!” I choked out the words and hissed them past my teeth. “That’s why we said goodbye.”
We both retreated to our own ends of our little ship, our fifty yard prison, me to the engine room, him to the bridge. I drowned myself in a dozen mindless repairs, all the little things that wear apart with everyday use, all the things our mission had stressed to a breaking point. The work was simple, and my hands knew their tasks. Each problem was the sort of thing I’d solved a thousand times before. Each thing fixed was a salve to my thrashing mind, though only when I kept my fears at bay. I didn’t worry how Gray spent his hours.
A day passed. Another followed. We came together at meals— sometimes— but didn’t speak. We slept in the same room, but not with each other. He wanted us to talk, but I had no words to say anything that mattered.
We stayed at the pylon longer than we needed to, until I’d fixed everything on the ship that I could possibly fix and a few more things besides. We might have never moved, but while the ship’s stores were well-stocked, they would not last forever. Better we move on now, while the choice was ours to make and not desperation’s.
Find a planet. Refill our stocks of food and water and medicine and fuel, whatever we could find. Keep floating on.
I saved the location of the pylon into the computer before we left. I wasn’t sure why. The thing hadn’t shown any indication that it would or could return to life. But it seemed the thing to do.
Or maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to let it slip away forever.
In a week, the worst of my grief dulled to a different, deeper sort of pain. A resignation. Or a sort of healing, if a twisted, tender scar is healing. But I began to speak again, and chose to forgive or forget my husband’s well-meant hope and optimism. It hardly seemed important now, as the pylon fell farther and farther behind, and our daily life revolved more and more around survival and less and less around thoughts of getting home.
We found planets and moons and asteroids that held what we needed. Sometimes it was just scraps, the barest bits to keep us going. Sometimes it was more, or almost everything. Sometimes when we sat together on the bridge and the scan came back with its promises of life and riches we would exchange a look.
“We could stay,” I might say. “Scuttle the ship, make a home.”
And Gray might think, might ponder, might muse. “Maybe the next planet. The sunlight here is wrong.”
And so we wouldn’t. We would land and fill our stores, and then we’d leave and fly back to the endless stars. And we’d whispers to each other that we still might find some way back to our other home, safe in the knowledge that it could never happen.
Until it did, on a rocky moon that should have only offered us a little fuel, but showed us an ancient, alien colony instead. A colony like the one we’d found in our first galaxy. A colony that held the tech that we’d been studying when the wormhole opened and the whole of creation began to crumble.
We stared down at it through the viewport, as if our naked eyes could see the empty buildings. Three years had passed. A thousand days. Grief and terror had faded and given way to mere exhaustion and routine. And then somewhere, somehow, exhaustion had yielded to curiosity and the giddiness that came with the knowledge that an entire galaxy was at our fingertips, all full of things no one had ever seen. And there was nothing at all to stand between us and a million new discoveries but our own decisions.
“You were right,” I said. “There is a way.”
Gray remained quiet for a long, long while. “I guess there is,” he said. “But we said goodbye.”
And so we left the ruins to themselves, staying only long enough to refill our stores of fuel and choose our next coordinates. By habit, I almost saved the location of the tiny moon to the computer before we left, but a thought stopped my hand. Gray saw me and shook his head, and I let the void swallow the coordinates instead. The galaxy was bigger without them.
Originally published as part of the 2020 Fall Writing Contest on shortfictionbreak.com.