By Demi LeJeune
GRAND PRIZE WINNER – Summer Writing Contest 2020
The flashlight slipped from his hand, spinning like a lighthouse as it floated up and out of reach. It settled bulb-first against the reactor room bulkhead 40 feet above, plunging Lee into darkness.
“Touché you bastard,” he yelled to the wayward light. “But I really don’t have time for this.”
Time, Lee mused while unhooking his tether, had apparently conspired with the fusion reactor and flashlight to kill him. Over the past hour, his life horizon shortened from what once seemed an eternity to perhaps no further than this moment.
Above, a sliver of illumination betrayed the location of the treacherous light. Lee pushed off the wall and soared through the vast, pitch black expanse of the space station’s power room.
He needed the reactor back online for many reasons: life support, gravity, answers. But right now, he only craved working lights. Floating blind through the station’s corridors—and perhaps more troubling, in utter silence—sparked bizarre flashes at the corners of his vision. And he couldn’t shake the skin crawl of imagining sharp-clawed childhood nightmares snatching at him from the dark.
Where were Kate and Jace and the other two crew members? He couldn’t remember their names. Then again, he’d never made an effort. But his co-workers’ quarters huddled closer to the reactor than his. Why hadn’t they reached it first?
Lee grabbed the flashlight as he smashed into the far wall. He bounced and careened sideways, but at least now he could see what he tumbled toward.
All hotel concierge staff trained for zero gravity, of course. Lee just never imagined he’d need it. At most, he expected to cater hand and foot on the two to three rich snobs a year who braved the edges of explored space for kicks. In the months between, he planned to avoid the thankfully small station crew.
The latter proved easy. Way Station 829J was an automated, pinwheel behemoth. And since a total of one rich snobs visited the remote outpost all last year, Lee felt his goals well met. Until today.
Back at the reactor hatch, wily flashlight secured to his vest, he checked the startup sequence a third time then pressed the reignite button. Nothing.
Lee growled in exasperation. “What am I missing?”
As he floated, his flashlight beam crossed the fuel chamber. “That’s not the problem,” he said, directing the statement to his traitorous light. “But I’ll check.”
He peered into the fusion pellet assembly. Empty. But how? An hour ago, the alarm sounded in his quarters followed immediately by the power outage. Yet one pellet should fuel the station for half a year.
A few zero g acrobatics later, Lee inserted a fresh fuel canister. He hit the reactor ignition and the room droned to life. He let out a whoop.
“Checkmate,” he gloated to the flashlight, turning it off. He set AI and life support to reboot, then got to re-spinning the station.
“This is Lee,” he said over a station-wide channel. “If you can hear me, please respond.” He tried again. And again. The growing weight in his chest felt too heavy for the still minimal station spin. If Kate and the other crew had abandoned him, the nearest settlements lay light years away. A prospect the Lee of one hour ago thought he’d relish. The same Lee who, after 300 years of family vacations and friendiversaries, decided he’d finally indulge his loner nature.
What the hell did past Lee know?
While waiting for the AI to reboot, he opened the emergency shutters shielding the viewport. Stars slid by in a circular path, the tiny points of light easing his claustrophobia. Then something impossible rotated into view.
A shriek, primal and urgent, escaped Lee’s throat. An inky black disk punctured the carousel of stars. The edges of the dark circle blurred, streaking starlight around in a freakish, hypnotic dance. As the station rotated, the massive void filled the viewport until the window seemed covered again by shutters.
Lee stumbled away, fearing the darkness might seep through the lead-lined pane and yank him out. A low growl erupted behind him. He jumped.
It came from the control panel. The low gurgle pitched up in tone until it resembled a voice. Slow and slurred at first, then making more sense.
“aaaAAI 1042, Robbie now online,” said the voice. Lee grumbled at his paranoia. He had just rebooted Robbie. Yet the AI spoke in monotone with none of its usual human-like inflection.
“Robbie,” Lee said, his voice shaky. “You don’t know how happy I am it’s not just me and the light.”
“The light sir?”
“Never mind. Do you see the black hole to Port?”
“Affirmative. Based on current trajectory and speed, it appears we recently emerged from the singularity.”
That didn’t make sense, but at least they weren’t headed into it. “Any log entries from the crew?”
“Confirmed. Though dates of entry are—uncertain.”
“Just play the last one.”
An image of Kate floated above the console, the orange strobe of an alarm flashing across her face. Her cheeks glistened with tears.
“We don’t have much time,” she said, her voice breaking. “Lee, we didn’t see it coming. All we know is it’s massive and spinning near the speed of light. No accretion disk, which is why we didn’t…”
She breathed deep. “Time dilation is already in effect. And of course,” she threw her hands in the air. “You’re on the other side of the damn station. As we spun down, your side tidally locked closest to the black hole. So time for you is slower than for us. Robbie estimates the station alarm, God… It’ll be about 6 months our time before you even hear it in your quarters.” She pressed her hands to her face. “We can’t get to you. It’d be a one-way trip for whoever tried.”
Kate wiped her eyes. “Robbie says you might not fall beyond the event horizon. The station’s velocity may allow you to orbit just above the… point of no return. Time will slow for you. Maybe we’ll develop tech to reach you in the meantime.”
Kate glanced over her shoulder at the sound of her name. “I have to go. I’m sorry. Good luck.”
The feed broke off.
Lee stood motionless. Kate’s message trickled into his brain, like cold molasses down a clogged drain.
“Robbie,” he said finally. “You said we came out of that thing. But if what Kate said is true, how did we break free?”
“Now that I’m aware of time dilation, I’ve made more sense of my fragmented memory core.” Robbie’s voice sounded more human now. “Based on observations of the singularity before and after shutdown, I show it almost doubled in mass.”
“It got bigger? How?”
“The most likely explanation is it merged with another singularity. That might explain how we find ourselves ejected from the event horizon. Gravitational waves from the collision may have pushed us out.”
“So you’re saying we, what? Surfed away from the black hole?”
“That’s one way to put it, yes.”
“That’s a hell of a lucky break. What are the chances of running into two merging black holes? And for that matter, surviving the collision.” A tightness eased between Lee’s shoulders. “Are Kate and crew still nearby? No offense Rob, but I could use a real human voice right now.”
“Lee you may want to… sit for this one,” Robbie said, the warmth in his voice clear now.
“O-kay.” Lee pressed a button and a chair rose from the deck.
“My records from before shut down show no evidence of a second singularity.”
“Meaning, the only way that black hole could have merged with another is on cosmological time scales.”
An involuntary, manic laugh bubbled from Lee’s chest. “Are you saying we skipped forward in time?”
His going away party flashed to mind. Family and friends crying, wishing him well. Had three centuries among them seemed too long? Suddenly, it felt far too brief. Might he still embrace them after, what? Years? Decades?
“Time dilation so close to the event horizon of such a massive object would be vast,” Robbie said. “Hours for you were, to the rest of the universe…”
“How much time?”
“Based on current positions of nearby stars, I calculate over 100 million years passed.”
Lee didn’t realize he stopped breathing. He leapt up gasping, pacing with palms to temples. Too big. Simply too large a distance of time to comprehend.
“Can you… Are there any signals? Any sign of communication out there?”
“Sorry Lee, nothing.”
One hundred million years?
Time enough for civilization to rise and fall a thousand times, for humanity to augment and merge and alter itself into complete otherness, or to fade entirely.
Lee fumbled for the light on his vest. He switched it on, shining it into his eyes. Spinning the beam down inside, searching, he supposed, for that past him who once craved solitude. Instead, he only found a guilty, mournful void.
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