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Last Long Night

Two months after the last broken transmission from Earth, somewhere in the unexplored dark, we found a voice.

At first we thought it was a mass hallucination. We’d been alone in space too long. Back home, we’d be treated for space sickness and starlust, our brains scanned and studied for signs that our grey matter had deteriorated in the vacuum. We’d be swaddled in hospitals, kept barefoot and away from the night sky until we stopped dreaming of plumed nebulas and stopped thinking we could hear the music of the spheres in C minor.

But there was no more Earth, and we were lost, limping along to a semi-terraformed planet we were supposed to be studying and would now be colonizing. We’d taken to talking each other away from the airlock when the stars started looking like houses in the distance and confirming reality as a matter of course. We might all lose our minds, but probably not at the same time.

“Does this taste like banana?” Lucinda asked, chewing on a freeze-dried ration. And we’d all nod.

“I hear someone breathing out there,” Antin murmured, standing at one of the portholes. And we’d all say no, it’s only rock and plasma, come away from there, look at us instead.

So when Carl found the signal and the voice crackled through the speakers, he asked, “Do you hear a voice?”

“Yes,” said Jane, and Lucinda, and then one by one we all confirmed that we did hear a voice. Muttering, male, half-covered in static. We all bent close to the speakers.

The voice coughed, and paused, and Lucinda covered her mouth.

Breath rattled. More words.

“It’s Russian,” Antin whispered. None of the rest of us spoke it. Hardly anyone in the space programs did anymore. Russia died at the beginning of the slow end. He swayed in time with the enunciation. “He says he’s lost. Over and over. He’s lost.”

He grabbed the mic before the rest of us could stop him and broadcast out into the black. “Zdravstvujtye? Zdravstvujtye?

A pause. We held our breath, our hearts waiting for the next word to start beating again. It had been so long since we’d savored the sound of a stranger’s voice.

He began again. The same pattern.

“It’s a recording,” Carl said. He had tears in his eyes. One ended up in his mustache, a shimmer in the energy-efficient lighting.

We let the voice play all night, damn the fuel reserves, damn the razor-thin margins between death and life on a barely-habitable planet.

* * *

The next day, we found the ship. Late twentieth century as near as anyone could guess. Our scanners were calibrated for geological identifications only. We didn’t know what trick of folding space brought it here. The hull was pitted with burn marks and long scratches from debris. It was just big enough for one person who wasn’t claustrophobic.

Matt and Amal volunteered to go aboard. Amal was forty, probably too old to have children when we made landfall. Matt insisted. We could have debated the impact their possible deaths would have on our as-yet-hypothetical colony, but none of the rest of us wanted to stop them. We helped them put on the suits and tethers.

“It’s cold,” Amal said when she made it aboard. Her chattering teeth made the radio pop. “There he is. Look.”

They had a camera and we tumbled over each other in a mess of arms and legs and sweating palms to get close to the screen. Lucinda and Regan–who loved each other so secretly that even they didn’t know it yet–held onto each other’s forearms so tight that Lucinda had waning moon scars from Regan’s nails for the rest of her life. Antin’s mouth twitched, and we all knew he was aching for the cigarettes he’d given up to see the stars.

Amal held the camera up to where the cosmonaut’s eyes used to be. He’d been handsome. He had a vintage face out of the days of Hugo Boss and ships caught in the orbit of a single planet.

“Do you know who he is?” Carl asked.

Antin shook his head. His hands still didn’t know what to do. “There were so many lost in the early days. When my mother was a child, her class listened to the audio of Vladimir Komarov sobbing.”

Matt’s breath was the rush of the ocean half-remembered. In and out and in and out. “I don’t want to die up here like that.”

Amal touched the dead man’s cheek with one gloved finger. With all the air gone, he was a facsimile of human still, even after these hundreds of years. “Hush. We won’t die. Think of everything that aligned for you to be here, at the right moment and the right velocity, at the same time as he is. We are in the presence of a miracle. Of a universal astronomical improbability. No one is going to die.”

“I don’t believe in signs,” Lucinda said from the deck of our ship, with her arms still bleeding in Regan’s hands. She didn’t mean it.

Matt went to his knees. Amal smoothed her other hand over his helmet and it would have been comforting had they not been separated by six layers of Mylar and mysterious alloys. She kept her other hand on the cosmonaut, and for a moment the dead Earth and the new were separated by only a touch.

* * *

We stripped the old ship for precious metals and spare parts, liquefied the body for the carbon. Our fuel reserves rose above the margin of error. We collected the ice crystals from the interior and thrilled at the taste of unfiltered water. It tasted like dust and dirt and everything else we wouldn’t see again for months.

We kept the recording. Matt played it when we dimmed the lights for nighttime. A voice in the dark, the last stranger, who found us all this way from home.

© 2021

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