They say that hell is other people, but that isn’t true. Hell is no one. It is being completely, totally, and utterly alone. Anyone who has been to space knows this. And few people know what it means to be alone in space the way that I do.
They also say that war is hell, and that is very true – I know this from experience. If you are familiar with the history of Gliese Prime, that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. I’m from Zarmina, the smaller of the two inhabited planets in the system. Librus is the other, a cold, forbidding water world, covered almost entirely by oceans, glaciers, and giant floes of ice. Perhaps that’s why they tried to invade us before I was born. I grew up on Zarmina’s dayside, where the sun hangs about a hand’s breadth above the horizon. I never saw natural darkness until I left for military training deep on the nightside. Perhaps more than anything else, that prepared me for what was to come.
I didn’t choose to join the military. After the failed invasion attempt by the Librans some four hundred Zarminan years ago, the planetary government instituted mandatory military service before college. So many of our people had died in the war that this was the only way to make sure we were ready for the next one. Not that I ever expected to see combat. The uneasy peace between our two worlds had lasted almost three hundred and eighty years by the time my service period came up. Oh, there was plenty of saber rattling, as well as the occasional diplomatic incident or territorial dispute, but no one seriously expected us to go back to war.
That’s not to say that we didn’t have plenty of guns pointed at each other. We had soldiers with their fingers at the trigger in just about every disputed territory in the star system. It wasn’t long before I became one of them.
Between the orbits of Zarmina and Librus lies a tiny, sun-blasted planetoid called Petra. The name means ‘rock,’ and that’s just what it is – a worthless chunk of space rock. It has no atmosphere, no resources, and too little gravity to sustain a long-term population. About the only thing it’s good for is a gravity assist for travel to the outer planets. But because it lies midway between our two worlds, laying claim to it has been something of a dick-measuring contest between our governments.
In order to claim the longest continuous occupation of the planetoid, each side maintains one space station in orbit, large enough for a crew of only one. Each station is equipped with a projectile cannon for firing on the enemy station. It can only fire once – any more and it would throw the poor sucker who fired it out of orbit. By treaty, resupply ships from both sides arrive at exactly the same time, since any other schedule would radically distort the balance of power.
The whole thing is a farce, of course, but like most things in the military it’s a farce that you learn not to question. Still, it’s a post that no one wants, so when I was assigned there straight out of training, I half believed that someone in the command chain hated me. The truth was probably more mundane: after failing almost all my tests and training exercises, sending me out to a godforsaken space rock was the best way to get rid of me.
At least things were going to be peaceful out there, I tried to console myself. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
“Petra station, this is Petra-2,” Cassandra’s voice came over the transceiver. “Hi, Jake. How are you?”
“Fine, Cass,” I said. “A little bored, but doing fine. How are you?”
It took ten seconds for my transmission to reach her, and another ten for her to reply. In that time, I drifted up to the porthole above the tiny cabin and glanced out at the gray-black surface of Petra. We had several minutes until the station orbited behind the planetoid, cutting our conversation short. That was good – it had been too long since I’d heard another human voice.
As the clock in the lower right corner of the main computer screen ticked down the seconds, I counted until her reply. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty–
“Bored out of my skull. I don’t know how you keep your sanity out here.”
“Eh, it’s not that bad, once you get used to it.”
Cassandra was my girlfriend back home. We’d both started our military service at roughly the same time. When I’d been assigned to Petra, she requested to be the one to relieve me. That must have raised some eyebrows in the main office, but they still approved it. As long as they had a steady supply of warm bodies to fill the post, they really didn’t care who went out there – or what we did together.
… eighteen, nineteen, twenty–
“You should count yourself lucky. They’ve been ramping things up in the last year. Nothing but drills, drills, drills.”
“At least your term is up once you leave Petra. I still have a whole twelve years to look forward to.”
… eighteen, nineteen, twenty–
She laughed. “Yeah. Sucks to be you.”
I waited a couple of seconds just to make sure she had anything more to say. When I was met with only silence, my heart fell. I’d been at this post for five Zarminan years – almost six standard Earth months. In all that time, this was the closest thing I’d had to a real-time conversation with another human being. Even with the tedious time delay, I wanted to draw it out as long as I could.
“What else is going on back home? Any news on your application to the academy?”
… eighteen, nineteen, twenty–
“Oh yeah – I got accepted. Looks like we’ll start our freshman term together.”
I smiled to myself. “Well, that’s something to look forward to.” Not that there had ever been any doubt. Still, when you’re alone in space, you learn to hold onto the smallest shreds of anticipation as if they are lifelines.
… eighteen, nineteen, twenty–
“Yeah, well here’s something else to look forward to.”
The screen flashed, and a pink pixelated image began to resolve. It didn’t take long for me to see that it was a picture of Cass in the nude. She must have taken it on her ship – her red-orange hair was splayed out in all directions, and her breasts were perkier than I’d ever seen them. In spite of the microgravity, I went hard almost immediately.
“Holy shit, Cass. Did you just send this on a military channel? What if one of the commanders sees this?”
… eighteen, nineteen, twenty–
“Relax, you prude. Zarmina’s on the other side of the sun, and we’re in direct line-of-sight so the relays won’t pick us up. It’s just you and me, baby – and there’s more where that came from.”
“Damn. Now I can hardly wait until we dock.”
… eighteen, nineteen, twenty–
She giggled. “Oh yeah, I’m looking forward to that docking action. We’ll dock all up and down that station once I get there.”
We bantered back and forth like horny sesquicentenarians until I orbited behind Petra. I spent a long time looking at that naked picture of her, but I spent even longer replaying her transmissions and listening to her voice. The hunger for human companionship was even stronger than my sex drive, though I doubted mine was as strong as hers.
After two or three orbits, the main screen blinked to indicate an incoming transmission. I frowned and drifted over just as it came online.
“You last very long without making contact,” an old man’s voice said over the station’s tinny speakers. “Longer than all others. I am impressed.”
I froze in midair. The voice was unfamiliar to me, its hoarse raspiness and deep timbre sending chills across my skin. For so long, I’d considered myself alone that the unexpected contact left me thoroughly disoriented.
“Uh, who is this?”
A deep, throaty chuckle met my question almost the moment it escaped my lips. “One who has big gun pointed at you.”
My stomach dropped without having anywhere to fall to. I swallowed and checked the computer – it showed the transmission originating from a point just above my own.
The Libran station.
“You–what? Big gun?” I scrambled to bring up the projectile cannon’s subroutine, which targeted the Libran station at all times. “Identify yourself immediately, or, uh…”
The voice clucked at me. “Slow on upkeep, with bad reflexes. Not as impressive.”
My cheeks reddened. “Hey, what’s that supposed to mean? Who are you anyway?”
“I could ask same thing of you. All these many orbits we have lived at each other’s doorstep, and yet all this time we have been strangers.”
What game is he trying to play? I wondered. Is this some sort of distraction? I checked the scanners, but they showed no unusual activity. The Libran resupply ship was still about as far away as the Petra-2– too far to launch an attack. Perhaps he was trying to manipulate me psychologically, then? My hands went clammy.
“Identify yourself,” I repeated.
“Of course, of course. I am Sergeant Victor Haiduscek of Libran Space Fleet. Like you, I am stationed at Liberty Rock for preventing unlawful claim by opposing forces and preserving defense of motherworld.” He chuckled again. “Of course, my presence is only reason why opposing force would claim this place, and so my presence justifies itself. Is it not same with you?”
By now, my head was spinning. I took a deep breath.
“What do you want with me?”
“I simply wish that we be good neighbors. After all, we are only ones together here. You and I are closer than all our comrades.”
“There are still the resupply ships,” I pointed out.
“Ah, but they are still very far – too far for normal conversation. Long time delay makes talk tedious, no?”
Was he eavesdropping on me and Cass? I wondered. If he was, he probably wanted to use that to throw me off. I decided to ignore it.
“You said I lasted longer than the others,” I said. “What did you mean by that?”
“Ah, he is coming to his senses,” the old man said. “Very good, very good. But first, may I have your name? I gave you mine – it is only fitting that I should have yours.”
I considered refusing him, but that would have cut our conversation short. Even though he was the enemy, the fact that he was someone to talk to made me reluctant to stop just yet. He was right about one thing – we were closer to each other than all of our comrades.
“My name is Jake,” I told him.
“Very good, Jake. Well met.”
“Now what is this about the others?”
He drew in a heavy breath. I pictured him as an old, white-haired man like my grandfather, slow but deliberate.
“They are your comrades who held your post, of course. Very interesting people, they were – and so young as well. It puzzles me why your commanders would send so many youth to such cold and distant place.”
“Wait, you’ve been stationed here long enough to know the people who came before me?” The posting at Petra lasted twelve Zarminan years, so for him to know even two or three of them, he must have been out here a remarkably long time.
“Of course. You are not first one I have spoken with. In fact, you are eleventh.”
My eyes widened, and I covered my mouth to suppress a gasp. One hundred and thirty years – for a young man like me, that was more than half of my life.
“I don’t remember reading any report about you. From what I’ve heard, there was no correspondence at all.”
“Of course, of course – we are strictly off-record in this place. Our comrades will only know what we tell them. It is one of many benefits of our isolation, no? As I think your girlfriend will much appreciate.”
So he had been eavesdropping, that was the proof. We’d encrypted our transmissions, but apparently the Librans had found some way to break it. Cass wasn’t going to be happy about this.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I lied.
He chuckled. “Ah, Jake. You are playing your country’s game like a good pawn. But pawns are for dying, and you are still very young. Must you and I play this game?”
I hesitated. “How can I know I can trust you?”
“You cannot, of course – and you should not. Friends trust, but neighbors are wary. At Petra, you cannot trust anyone, not even yourself.”
I would soon learn how true that really was.
I was right – Cass was pissed to find out that her transmission had been intercepted. Royally pissed.
What a perv!!!!! she transmitted, followed by a garbled, barely coherent rant laced with obscenities. It was clear she didn’t relish the thought of enemy intelligence getting their hands on naked pictures of her.
It’s okay, I tried to console her. I think he’ll keep it off the record. Besides, he seems harmless enough. You can’t really blame him.
While waiting for her return transmission, I checked my position relative to the other station. Victor’s orbit was slightly more elliptical than mine, so that at times I passed above him and at times he passed below me. He was almost at the periapsis of his orbit, so he was passing beneath me. In just an hour or so, it would be my turn to pass beneath him.
How can u say that, he’s not harmless he has a gun pointed at u he can kill u at any time, Cass replied. There was a lot more, too – she tended to get pretty long-winded whenever she was upset. I resisted the temptation to keep her riled up a little longer.
Eventually, I managed to calm her down. She went silent again – even limiting ourselves to text, the time delay was still an annoyance. But now, I knew I had someone else to talk to. It was amazing how much of a difference that made. Even if the other person was my enemy, just knowing that there was someone else out there changed everything.
At first, I resisted the urge to reach out to him. I lasted about three wakeshifts before I finally broke down and called. Our conversation was very terse – I don’t even remember what we talked about. But I do remember thinking about it almost as much as I did about Cass in the long spaces between transmissions.
All of this must sound pretty strange. If you’re like everyone else, I’m guessing you haven’t spent much time in isolation. Even if you have, you’ve probably at least had the option of breaking it. On the long solo space missions, though, all of that is different. Months pass between the opportunities for face-to-face human contact. You come to look forward to those moments the way a man dying of thirst dreams of a tall cold beverage, or the way a starving man dreams of a steak dinner. At the darkest moments of my solitude, I sometimes wondered if I was the only human being in existence and all of my memories were just fabrications of my mind. There was still the radio transmitter, of course, but no machine can facilitate authentic human companionship. At times, I wondered if the computer was just making up those people as a means of manipulating me. When you’re alone for long enough with nothing but your imagination for company, it’s easy for your thoughts to turn dark.
I started finding excuses to call Victor. Over time, I learned a lot about him. He was childless and unmarried – never married, in fact. He was a career military officer who had seen some action in the war. Since he didn’t tell me much about that, I assumed his role hadn’t been very important. He didn’t strike me as a particularly dangerous or threatening person, though he always ended each transmission by reminding me that we both had guns pointed at each other. Over time, though, that became something of an inside joke – the kind that confirms that you’re close.
We never conversed visually; all of our conversations were strictly limited to audio. Even so, a picture of him gradually formed in my mind. I thought of him as an old, white-haired man, frail and lonely from the long years in space. The show of bravado that had become our in-joke was mostly a facade, maintained by momentum of habit more than anything else. The older and more lonely you get, the less your habits make sense. He seemed like the kind of person who would have escaped my notice back home, an old man who tended to keep to himself or people of his own generation. In all our time on Petra, the only communication that he initiated was the first one – the one that had started everything else.
If he hadn’t reached out to me, I doubt I would have ever reached out to him. I certainly wouldn’t have called on him when I needed his help, even though Cass was too far away to save me. In that way, I suppose I owe the man my life twice over.
More than anything else, that still haunts me.
The collision happened on my sleepshift. For some reason, the proximity alarms failed to go off, or at least they failed to wake me. It was hard to tell which was the case, because when I woke, every alarm seemed to be going off at once.
I pulled myself out of my sleeping bag only to be thrown against the wall to my right. That was bad – it meant that the station was spinning violently. Adrenaline surged through my veins, jolting me awake faster than any blend of coffee. With shaky hands, I climbed over to the main computer and checked the status.
DANGER! DANGER! flashed across the screen in bold red letters. I toggled the instrument panel and saw that almost every critical system was experiencing a catastrophic failure. The tanks were losing oxygen, the hull had lost integrity, the nav-systems showed a sharp drop in speed and altitude, and the directional jets were unable to compensate for the spin. What was worse, a loud hissing noise told me that the hull was breached and an explosive decompression could be imminent. At most, I had only moments to live.
Sweat clung to my jumpsuit as chills shot up and down my spine. In spite of all my training, I had no idea what to do. The station was going down, and all I could do was abandon it.
I activated the distress beacon, knowing that it wouldn’t do any good. Cass was still at least a full wakeshift away, and the escape pod didn’t have enough oxygen to last that long. Victor, on the other hand…
I frantically activated the radio transmitter. For a hair-raising second, it occurred to me that I hadn’t checked our orbital position relative to each other – it was possible that he was on the other side of the planet and unable to hear me. Fortunately, that was not the case.
“Good morning, Jake. I see you have activated distress beacon. Is something wrong?”
“Victor!” I practically screamed. “My station’s going down!”
“Is that so? How?”
“I don’t know – I must have hit a meteoroid or something. Hull’s breached, station’s spinning out of control, I’m losing altitude – I’ve got to get out of here!”
“I see,” he said slowly. “And what do you want from me?”
I paused, unsure what to do. In my training, my commanding officers had told me to avoid capture at all costs. But this was an emergency, and besides, Victor didn’t seem like the kind of person to carry out all his orders. I didn’t exactly trust him, but things were happening fast. If I could just get safely over to his station, I figured we could work something out over there.
“I’ve got to abandon the station,” I said. “But there should be enough Delta-V in my escape pod to get over to yours. Will you let me on board? If you don’t, I’m going to die!”
Another pause, this one much longer. The hissing became louder, and a new set of alarms went off indicating a sharp drop in cabin pressure. I had only seconds to abandon ship.
“Very well,” Victor said at length. “You may come. I will be waiting.”
Relief washed over me like a burst of fresh air. I didn’t have time to get into my EVA suit, but I did grab the waist pack containing some personal belongings, as well as a datapad and some other mission specific gear. Without looking back, I hurtled into the escape pod and pulled the hatch shut.
It took a few moments to plot a course for the Libran station. With the pod’s meager Delta-V, it would take several hours to bring myself into a position to dock. Once I’d set the destination, though, the nav-computer handled all of the complex calculations on its own.
It was only then that I had a chance to review the station log. As the engines began their long burn, lifting me back into a safer orbit, a received transmission caught my eye. It was from one of the relay sats along the main equilateral.
Attention Petra Station, the text of the transmission read. Hostilities have escalated and we are now at war. New objective: destroy all Libran spacecraft in local vicinity and kill or capture crew. Return on Petra-2 when complete.
Goosebumps spread across my arms. The unthinkable had happened – we were actually at war. On the other side of the sun, our two worlds were firing everything they had at each other. And over here, at this godforsaken space rock in the middle of nowhere, I was about to land on the doorstep of my enemy.
Had Victor fired on me? Was that why Petra Station had gone down? From the log, it wasn’t clear. The proximity alarms tasked with tracking his fire had failed to go off, but it was possible he had jammed them.
But if that was true, why had he agreed to let me come on board his station? Did he hope to capture me? That seemed unlikely, considering how he was an old man whose strength had no doubt atrophied. If Zarmina had launched a pre-emptive strike, there was a good chance they had sent me the kill order before Victor’s government would send him theirs. And since the fiasco with him eavesdropping on Cassandra’s transmissions, the home base had changed our encryption protocols to prevent any messages from being intercepted. Victor would see that I’d received a transmission from the equilateral relay, but he wouldn’t be able to decipher its content.
Even that, though, might be enough for him to guess its intended meaning. And unless the people back home took out the Libran relay in the next couple of hours, chances were good that he’d get a kill order on me before we docked.
As the escape pod finished its initial engine burn, I reached into the waist pack and pulled out a syringe. It was spring loaded with an auto injector and contained a chemical cocktail that would stop the heart within seconds of entering the bloodstream. In my training, they’d explained to me that I was to use it in case of capture. Now, though, it doubled as a weapon – one that I could use on Victor.
But how could I do that? I wasn’t a killer – I was just a young bicentenarian who hadn’t even started college yet and was so bad at playing army that he’d gotten the worst possible post. And the man I was supposed to kill was responsible for saving my life.
Pawns are for dying, Victor’s words came to me. Must you and I play this game? The more I thought about it, though the more it seemed I didn’t have a choice.
The docking gear connected with a muffled grinding noise. The hull of the escape pod was thin enough that I could actual feel it through the bulkheads. As the magnetic clamps attached themselves, securing the pod to the station, I moved to the airlock and held my breath. The syringe was tucked into my sleeve.
It took about a minute for Victor to open the hatch, but to me, that felt like an eternity. It occurred to me with each passing second that the next one could be my last. All he had to do was come through that airlock with a gun, or a knife, or a syringe like mine, and after a brief struggle it would all be over.
When the hatch opened, though, he didn’t attack me. He waited on the other side of the airlock, floating upside down with his legs tucked beneath him. When he saw me, he soon righted himself.
“Well hello, neighbor. Welcome to Liberty Rock Station.”
He wasn’t at all as I’d pictured him. His shoulders were broad, his arms surprisingly muscular, given the microgravity. Clearly, he spent almost all of his time exercising. His skin was old and rubbery, but I don’t think there was an ounce of extra fat on his body. Instead of white hair, his round head was bald, with salt and pepper stubble on his chin. His dark eyes were small and beady, set deep into his skull. Those eyes peered at me as if from a great distance, and though he smiled, it was a practiced smile, one that concealed more than it revealed.
I hesitated to enter. Would he strike me? Now was certainly his chance. When he reached out a hand, I almost didn’t take it. But when I saw that he was only offering his help, I let him pull me on board.
“Thanks,” I said, my voice barely more than a croak.
“It is no problem. You would do same for me, no?”
I honestly didn’t know the answer to that. When I said nothing, he chuckled.
“Had you gone down with your station, you would not be first to die here. If claim to this place were made by dead and not by living, there would be no dispute that this is Libran territory.”
“I guess. Pawns, right?”
Victor chuckled. “Yes indeed. Pawns, all of them.”
He turned his back to me as he climbed through the airlock to the cabin, and I realized that I had an opportunity to stick him. My heart froze, and the hair on the back of my neck pricked up, but by the time I brought myself to act, the opportunity had passed.
I don’t think I can do it, I realized. I don’t think I can kill him. A sinking feeling clenched my stomach, making me feel sick. I swallowed and followed him through.
“Are you hungry?” he asked. “Thirsty?”
“No, thanks,” I said feebly. The last thing I needed to deal with was the possibility of poison.
He shrugged. “Very well. But while you are here, you are my guest. On Librus, we are always hospitable to guests – it is code of honor.”
Was there really such a thing as honor in a place like Petra? Or was Victor just trying to get me to let my guard down? I smiled and nodded politely, all too aware of the syringe hidden in my sleeve. Had he received the kill order on me? It was hard to believe he hadn’t.
“The resupply ship should be here in just a wakeshift,” I mentioned. “I won’t be on your hands for long.”
“Of course, but until then, make yourself comfortable. It is not often that I have guest.”
What if he hadn’t received a kill order? What if he didn’t know that our two planets were at war? He’d just saved my life – it didn’t seem right to kill him after that. Besides, the war was so far away it was hard to believe it was real.
Once again, Victor turned his back to me. Once again, I had an opportunity to strike. I fingered the syringe, trying and failing to work up my nerve.
Victor sighed and turned to face me. He narrowed his eyes to wrinkled slits, the expression on his face suddenly serious.
“Have you ever killed a man?”
The question took me by surprise. It felt so surreal, for a second I wondered if I wasn’t dreaming.
“W-what do you mean?”
“You are soldier. Killing is soldier’s work – it is his duty. Have you ever killed a man?”
“No,” I admitted. The instant I said it, I felt as if I’d made a grave mistake.
Victor raised an eyebrow. “Never?”
“Well, not never, no,” I stuttered. “I mean, I’ve killed animals before. And in the simulators…”
“Man is not just animal. There is intelligence in his eyes. Awareness. Recognition of the finality of death. There is none of this in animals. Do you understand?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Do you? Because I do not think that you do.”
His gaze was fixated on me now, the way a cat might fixate on its prey. I gripped the nearest handhold with whitened knuckles.
“Have you killed a man?” I asked.
He drew in a long breath and nodded.
“Yes, I have. Men and women, children as young as you – some even younger. It is soldier’s work, and I am soldier.”
I laughed nervously. “Come on, really? Stop joking with me.”
“It is not joke. Do you know what I did in last war?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said, beginning to sweat. “From what you told me, I guess you were in the reserves or something.”
He smiled humorlessly. “In reserves? No, Jake, I was in Libran Special Forces. When my comrades and I invaded your world, I was first to make planetfall. They gave us highest value targets, with orders to keep presence secret at all costs. Any who saw us, we killed. We never took prisoners.”
A wave of nausea passed through me, making me want to throw up. My heart was pounding in my chest by now, so hard it seemed ready to break out. Was this man really such a killer? I looked into his eyes and realized that he wasn’t lying.
“How did you get off?” I heard myself ask. I felt almost as if I were a spectator in my own body, watching through eyes that were not my own.
“When our comrades retreated, we were cut off and left behind. We foraged for almost two of your years, killing any who found us. Eventually, we made contact with Libran spy who arranged for our passage home. We stowed away on cargo ferry to orbit, and from there to diplomatic vessel from home.”
You should kill him, I told myself. He’s a cold-blooded killer – he told you so himself. He deserves to die for what he’s done.
He turned to face the window, and I fingered the syringe in my jumpsuit sleeve. We were just out of arm’s reach, so that I’d have to push off from the wall to strike him. My chances didn’t seem good, and I inwardly kicked myself for not taking advantage of the opportunity earlier.
Even so, I was far from ready to kill him. The sweat behind my neck had run cold, and a buzzing sensation had arisen behind my ears. My arms felt so weak, I had to clench my fists just to keep sensation in them. In microgravity, blood doesn’t drain from your face easily, but it had long since drained from mine. My breath came in short, erratic bursts, and with each one I felt as if I lost a little more control.
“You are so young,” Victor was saying. “It is shame that they should send such young man out to do soldier’s work.”
By now, it was clear to me that only one of us would leave the station alive. It was him or me – and still, I couldn’t work up the nerve.
“Is it…is it easy to kill?” I asked. My throat was so dry and scratchy, it felt as if it were full of cotton.
Victor nodded. “After first time, yes. It is far too easy.”
Kill him, dammit! Just kill him!
“Was it hard your first time, then?”
“I cannot remember.”
“Are you…are you going to kill me?”
My heart leaped into my throat, and muscles tensed with fear and anticipation. He said nothing, and I took that as my answer.
Before I could hesitate any longer, I pulled out the syringe and lunged. Even then, I’ll never know if I could have done it. He caught me easily and covered my mouth and nose with a rag. The sickly sweet smell of chloroform hit me like a hammer as we collided with the wall.
“Lacking in resolve,” I heard Victor say as if from a great distance. “I am not impressed.”
My arms and legs turned to water, and my head began to spin. He kept the rag pressed tight against my face, so that I could barely breathe. I let go of the syringe and tried to wrestle him off, but by then it was too late. The last thing I saw before I passed out were his cold, beady eyes, staring at me with utter dispassion.
When I woke, I found my hands and legs tied behind me. I drifted through the air until my shoulder hit a bulkhead, then slowly drifted back. Judging from how bruised and sore my body was, I’d been that way for some time.
“Ah, you are awake,” said Victor. He turned from his computer terminal to face me. “It appears that now I must call on you for help.”
“Wha-what happened?” I asked. My vision was blurry, and my head ached something awful.
“Never mind that. Your girlfriend will arrive in orbit in just few hours. She has shot down my comrades and is now preparing to attack this station. No doubt she thinks you are dead.”
My heart leaped. ‘Atta girl, Cass! I thought silently. If she was still out there, perhaps there was a chance that things would work out after all.
“What do you want me to do ?”
“It is simple: convince her to stop.”
I looked him in the eye. “Do you surrender?”
He took a deep breath. “I suppose I do not have choice. Without supply ship, I cannot survive.”
“Looks like the balance of power has shifted.”
I glanced at the computer terminal. “How far away is she?”
“Not far – perhaps less than hour from orbit. But if she wishes to kill us, she will fire very soon.”
“Have you tried to contact her already?”
He nodded. I looked for fear in his eyes, but found none – only resignation.
“Yes, but she will not respond. I think she will respond only to you.”
“Right. Put on a channel.”
He turned to the terminal and hit a few keys. The screen flashed, and a burst of static sounded over the cabin’s loudspeakers. Victor nodded.
“Cass?” I said. “Cass, can you hear me? This is Jake – I’m on the Libran Station. I’m alive.”
The static returned. Five nerve-wracking seconds passed before the screen registered a connection, but when it did, I couldn’t help but smile.
“Jake? Jake, is that you?”
“It’s me, Cass. I’m here.”
“You’re alive!” she cried. “Oh thank God, you’re alive!
I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything sweeter than her laughter. It was as if I could practically see the tears streaming down her face.
“I’m okay, Cass. I’m here at Liberty Rock Station with Victor. He’s taken me prisoner, but if you agree to spare us, he promises to surrender.”
“Oh yeah? How do I know I can trust that bastard?”
“Because he’ll die if he doesn’t. You shot down the Libran supply ship, right?”
“Yeah. What of it?”
She said it so casually, I could scarcely believe that she’d done it. Here I could barely work up the nerve to kill one man, while she thought nothing of shooting down a whole spaceship. Then again, that supply ship had been just a blip on her screen, while Victor was someone I’d come to know personally. Even if we were enemies, we were also neighbors, and at a place like Petra, that counted even more than friendship.
“Listen, Cass, Victor doesn’t have a choice. You’ve seen to that already. I don’t trust him, but I know how limited his options are. He’ll let me go.”
Cassandra hesitated before answering.
“All right, Jake, but if that sick bastard does anything to you, I’ll shoot him down so fast…”
Victor cut the transmission. “Thank you, Jake. You have done right thing.”
I eyed him cautiously. “Are you going to release me, then?”
“Release you? I am afraid not – I do not think I can trust you.”
I smirked. “Is this any way to treat a guest?”
That made him laugh. “Of course not. I must apologize. But as we are both pawns, it is unfortunate necessity.”
I frowned. “But pawns are for dying.”
“Indeed we are, Jake. Indeed we are.”
We said nothing for the next hour. My mind raced, wondering what would happen next. Would Victor try to hijack the Petra-2? Would he use me as a hostage to turn the balance of power around? Cass wouldn’t leave me if it came to that – at least, I didn’t think she would. But how well did I know her really? She’d waited so long to see me, maybe that had made her irrational. Maybe that was something that Victor hoped to exploit.
“Are you familiar with proverbs of Old Earth?” Victor asked just before Cass docked.
I jolted back to my senses. “What?”
“Old Earth, near ancient period. There was French saying: ‘L’enfer, c’est les autres’ – hell is other people. Have you heard it?”
I shook my head. Through the station bulkheads, I heard the docking gear of the Petra-2 grind into contact.
“It is false, this saying. Instead, it should be ‘L’enfer, c’est la solitude.’ Hell is being alone.”
He took out the syringe and held it in his hand. My eyes widened.
“Victor? Victor, what are you going to do?”
“Good luck, Jake. I hope you will never be alone.”
As the airlock hatch opened from the outside, he closed his eyes and jabbed the syringe into his leg. His body stiffened, then grew still, drifting slowly in midair.
“Jake!” Cass shouted as she came through. She regarded Victor’s body for a moment, then turned to me.
“Are you okay? What the hell is going on here?”
“I’m fine,” I told her. “Can you cut me free?”
She pulled herself over and withdrew a knife. It took a few moments, but she managed to cut my bonds without too much trouble.
“Who is that guy, Jake?”
“That’s Victor,” I said, still in shock. “He killed himself just as you got here.”
Hell is being alone, his words kept ringing in my ears. I thought about how he’d told me he’d been in the Libran Special Forces, how he’d killed so many innocent people. Was that why he’d requested this assignment? To consign himself to his own private hell? ‘L’enfer, c’est la solitude’ – if that was true, no one would know it better than him.
“Whatever,” Cass said. “Let’s blow this place out of the sky.”
“No,” I said softly. “I’ll program the station thrusters to drop it out of orbit after we undock.”
“Why bother? I’ve got plenty of ammo left.”
“I know, but Victor deserves better than that. He has some fallen comrades on the surface – he deserves to be with them.”
Cass looked at me as if I’d gone crazy, but she eventually sighed and gave in. “Fine. Just do it quickly. I want to get the hell out of here.”
“So do I,” I muttered, pulling myself over to the computer. Victor’s body drifted up, and I reached out a hand to stop him. His skin was still warm.
“Take care, my neighbor,” I said softly. “You won’t be alone for long.”
by Joseph Vasicek