Vital: A Love Story

Ally Malinenko

If there is no reference point it’s nearly impossible to tell how fast you’re traveling. That’s one of the first things you notice about deep space. The second is that when galaxies or, in this case, anything else arrives, they arrive quickly.

“Commander?”

“Yes MAC?” I ask, still standing on the platform in front of all that black. It seems to go on forever, and according to our research it does. The universe is expanding faster than we can track it. One day though, it will stop. And then it will contract, fold in on itself, warping time and space, pulling itself back together, undoing the Big Bang with the Big Crunch. And then it will all be over.

“A reading of your vitals says you didn’t take your pill this morning?”

“I have it here,” I say, staring down at the little orange pill in my palm. Longevity pills.

“L pills need to be taken within a four-hour timeframe.”

“I know that MAC.” I know it’s not possible, but his voice sounds concerned. As if he was capable of emotion, of empathy. As if “he” were an actual he. I toss the pill in my mouth and swallow. “See?” I say. “All gone.”

I know he can track the pill though my system without even touching me. Everything about this ship is state of the art. It’s an honor to be selected. I knew that. And it still is, even now, even so far from home, so far from my own galaxy. I still believe in the mission. What little boy didn’t dream of going to space? To be picked for a Longevity Mission was the highest possible honor. I still wake each morning with the same delicious feeling that today could be the day that I find what I was sent out here to find. Except that hasn’t been the case. Not for one hundred years.

“Commander?”

“Yes, MAC?”

“Are you exercising or would you like nutrition?”

“Exercising.”

MAC says “nutrition” instead of “food” because we don’t have food. But we do have nutrition. Prior to my mission, I hadn’t eaten meat in ten years. And yet, out here, all I want is a hamburger. Nutrition, like longevity, comes in pill form. So do mood stabilizers, but I stopped taking those a long time ago. The stabilizers made it easier not to miss things, like food (and conversation with actual people), but I found that wanting things like that reminded me that I was here, alive, in this moment. Being alone for so long, you can forget those things.

“Commander?”

“Yes, MAC?” I ask, hopping onto the treadmill, pulling off my shirt and applying the sensors across my chest. MAC will do a full body analysis, make sure everything is functioning as it should be.

“There is something coming in over the satellite com.”

“It’s probably gravity static from an asteroid.”

“I don’t believe it is, Commander.”

“Turn it up,” I say, picking up the speed on the treadmill. MAC dials up the volume and it takes a second before it fills my ship. It’s music. Classical music.

“This is what you’re picking up?” I ask.

“Yes.”

We’d sent out tons of eggs over the years — capsules full of information for any possible life form. They were filled with a history of our way of life, our planet. Messages in bottles tossed into the deepest reaches of space. We had never retrieved one — never had a response from them. That’s why the manned missions were started. That’s why I was here.

“It’s probably just an egg,” I say.

“Negative, Commander. Listen.” MAC turns down the reverb on the violins. “Behind the music is this.”

I stop jogging. Strain my ears but I don’t hear anything. “MAC you have to dial it up. What are you reading?”

“The sinusoidal wave is at 180 hertz.”

“That’s impossible.” I pull the sensors off me, and put my shirt back on.

“I’m afraid you are incorrect, Commander. The fundamental frequency is in fact 180 hertz.”

“Music doesn’t play at 180 hertz.”

“Correct.”

“Dial it all the way up, MAC.” I wonder if I’ll even be able to hear it with my heart beating in my chest the way it is. But there it is. Soft at first, then louder. It’s the sound of a woman humming along to the piece that was playing.

“Are you getting a reading?” I ask.

“Indeed, sir.”

“Show me.”

When the image flashes up on the screen my breath catches. It’s a Z-82 Airbird. The exact same model as my ship. It was another Longevity Commander. I can’t help but run the numbers in my head, the likelihood, or more so the sheer impossibility that I would run into another Longevity Commander out in all this space.

“This isn’t possible,” I say.

“Negative, Commander. The likelihood of finding another Z-82 is one in — ”

“A trillion,” I answer.

“Correct, Commander.”

How many times had I sent out that call? In the beginning I would sit in the chair and randomly press that button, the one that sends out a beacon searching for another Commander.

It never found anything. And now, I’ve just run right into another AirBird.

“Can you patch into its com?” I ask MAC. It’s a stupid question. Of course he can.

“We’re in,” MAC says. There is a feedback-like squeal that fills the ship.

“Connect with the operating system and send a link request.”

“Link confirmed and approved.”

I lean over the microphone and say, “This is Commander Shield. Do you copy?”

There is another high squeal of feedback before I hear a voice. A woman’s voice. “Evening, Commander. This is Commander Evans.”

My heart is racing in my ears. There are so many things I want to ask her I’m not even sure where to start.

“I can only see you on the satellite,” she says. “How long you expect until we have visual confirmation?”

“Send MAC your coordinates.”

They flash on the screen, mapping out her path. Evans just left the galactic center of Abell 4415. Based on her current course in two months we’ll pass each other.

“So it looks like we’re destined to meet after all?” Evans says. Her laugh bounces off the walls of my ship and suddenly I feel faint. I run the numbers again. I try not to think about how long it’s been since I’ve heard another human voice.

We talk. We trade stories about life back home. That fills the first week. I stand up on the platform edge waiting to see her ship appear in the darkness. But for now it’s just dotted with the stars of the galaxies before me.

We talk. Constantly. All day and well into the night. Or what we call night which is really just logged rest hours. In the second week, after we’ve already said goodbye, her voice comes back on.

“Commander? Are you sleeping?”

I open my eyes, lift my head towards the platform. Still just blackness. “No, what is it? Are you alright?”

“Have you ever thought about why you did this?”

“The mission?”

“Yes.”

“It’s an honor,” I say.

“Company line. Tell me the truth.”

I sigh and get out of my pod. As soon as I move, MAC fires up.

“You are awake, Commander.”

“It’s fine MAC.” I tell him. “I’m just talking.”

He runs a diagnosis of my vitals, an image of my body appears on the screen.

“Commander Shield?” Evans asks again.

“I’m here.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I did it because it’s the chance of a lifetime. I did it because I’ll see things that no one else will ever see. I’ve been traveling the universe for over a hundred years now. It’s an honor.”

“Alone.”

“Excuse me?”

“You’ve been traveling the universe alone.”

Not any more, I almost say but don’t.

“The chance of our paths crossing is incredible, you know?” Her voice is soft.

“I know,” I say, but so quietly I doubt her com even picked it up.

“It’s just incredible, you showing up now.”

“Why’s that?” I ask, still gazing out in the dark.

“I almost . . . I’ve been thinking about . . . you know, not.”

“Not.” I repeat. I close my eyes. Hadn’t I also been thinking about not?

“Yeah,” she says.

“How long have you been out here, if I can ask.”

“350 years.”

“My god, that’s . . . .that’s . . . .incredible.”

Evans laughs and the sound of it makes my stomach flutter.

I think about the longevity pills. It’s always been our choice. We take them. Or we don’t. The mission lasts as long as we want it to. When we’re done, when we’re ready to not, we just stop taking them. It doesn’t take long and it’s utterly painless. Our ships return to port on their own. They will be empty by then. Our bodies will be disposed of before docking.

“I’m glad you didn’t,” I say. Evans doesn’t answer and I fumble. “I mean, for all that you’ve seen and sent back to home. The distance you’ve mapped. It’s . . . ” I struggle for a word. “Vital.”

“Vital. Yes.”

I think of those men, millennia ago, who set sail and mapped our home world. We are cut from the same stone. There is something that keeps driving us forward, constantly. We leave our own lives behind just to know what’s out there.

“Commander?” she says.

“Yes.”

“I apologize for waking you. I’m going to get some rest now.”

“Okay.”

“We’ll talk tomorrow.”

“Of course.”

We talk every day. She sends me data from her journeys to galaxies I haven’t seen yet. I send her mine. Neither of us has ever found any sign of an alien life. Never a blip on the screen, never another ship. Nothing but space.

We make jokes.

She makes me laugh.

Each day I watch the blackness for signs of her ship. When we map our paths again, we see that we are seventy-two hours from passing.

“How close will we be?” I ask but what I want to ask is Will I be able to see you?

“MAC calculates that we’ll pass within fifteen feet of each other. Will you be on the platform, Commander?”

“Enough with the Commander. Please call me — ”

“No.” Evans yells. “Don’t tell me your name. I don’t want to know until I see you.”

“But when we are within that range, our frequencies will overload. We won’t be able to talk. The coms will go static.”

“I know.”

We come up with a plan.

I can see her ship from the platform now. A silver orb wobbling in all that dark. I don’t feel like a Commander watching her ship get closer. I feel like a teenage boy, going on his first date.

MAC warns me that communication is going to cut off soon.

“Commander?” I say.

“Yes?”

“I guess this is goodbye for a while.”

She laughs. “Oddly enough it’s also hello.”

I smile. The static builds.

“I’ll see you soon,” she says.

“Yes.” There are so many things I want to tell her. I almost try but then the static screams through the ship and I tell MAC to dial it down for god’s sake. I can see the nose of her craft clearly now. Soon our platforms will face each other and then I will see her. I stand at the furthest end so that as we pass, I can walk the distance of the wide window. So that I can see her for as long as possible.

“Pull the panels back, MAC,” I say and he does. The solar panels that protect me contract and now the window doubles in size. The nose of her ship fills my view and I gasp at the sheer size of it.

Her platform window comes in to view and there she is. Dressed in the same Commander blues as me. Her hair is cut in a shoulder-length bob. She smiles at me. I laugh with the sheer joy of seeing her, alive, in front of me. She mouths the word “hi” and gives me a little wave. I do the same.

Ready? she mouths.

I nod.

We each hold up the signs we created.

On mine I’ve written Eirik.

On hers, Monica.

Hi Monica, I mouth.

She laughs, her head thrown back and my stomach summersaults. We have to start walking now as our ships pass. She presses her hand up against the glass of her platform window and I do the same. It feels, for a brief moment, like I’m actually touching her and the sensation makes me dizzy. I close my eyes for a second and then open them, terrified of missing something. I can feel myself shaking. She’s so beautiful and alive and right here. She must be thinking something similar because she wipes at a tear. Monica is younger than me. She must have made Commander early. So smart. So brave. Monica.

My Monica.

I suddenly love her so much. I remember everything we’ve talked about this last month. I remember why I did this to begin with. I think of all those people back home, and how they are sleepwalking through their life. How they don’t appreciate every single second they’re given. Every single beautiful person they are privileged to know. Monica reminds me of that just by being here, alive in all that stretching darkness. How lucky we are, just to even have this moment together.

I want to tell her all of this. But instead I tell her I love her.

Her smile widens. I love you, too, she mouths.

I’ve reached the end of my platform now. I press myself against the window wishing I could slow our ships down.

“Goodbye,” she mouths.

“Hello,” I say and then again, she laughs.

Her ship passes completely and darkness fills my window. I sit down and think about Monica. About how lucky I am. I feel dizzy with joy.

“Commander?”

“Yes, MAC?”

“Communication link has been restored.”

“Hi, Eirik.” Monica’s voice fills my cabin.

“Hi, Monica.”

“I think that might have been the best moment of my life.”

“Me too.”

What now? I wonder but don’t want to say. We’ll probably have another month or so before we’re too far apart and our link is broken. Instead I tell her a story about the letters that Captain James Cook used to drop into the sea as he sailed to the bottom of the world. He addressed each one to his wife, Elizabeth. After he died exploring the Hawaiian Islands, they say she waited out on the shores of England for the bottles to return to her.

“That’s a sad story,” Monica tells me and I can hear that it’s upset her.

“It would be,” I tell her, “if she never found the bottles.”

Monica laughs a bit, clears her throat. “Now you’re just making things up.”

“No, I tell her. It’s the truth. When Elizabeth died, amongst her possessions were three letters from Captain Cook. All dated while he was at sea. It’s been authenticated. Somehow he found a way to still talk to her. A way to love her. A way for them to still be connected even over all that distance.”

“I like that,” Monica says.

“Good. You keep taking those longevity pills, okay?”

“You too,” and then after a beat she says, “It’s a big galaxy though. I mean the chance of us seeing . . . ”

“Not that big. Not impossibly big. Not so big that two people won’t see each other again. No bigger than the ocean was for James and Elizabeth, right?”

ALLY MALINENKO writes poems and stories and occasionally gets them published. Her first novel for children, Lizzy Speare and the Cursed Tomb (Antenna Books), is available on Amazon.