“So Zeus had Prometheus chained naked to a rock in the Caucasian mountains, where a greedy vulture tore at his liver all day, and there was no end to the pain, because every night his liver grew whole again.”
-Robert Graves, Greek Myths
I drift uncomfortably in and out of consciousness. There is a vague notion that something is wrong, but a hazy glance through half-closed eyelids reassures me I am still secure in my sleep cylinder. The steady hum of the station is audible through the glass encasing me. I roll to one side, and soon drift off again—my dreams taking me back to earth, to memories of happier days…
“Daddy, I have a joke to tell you.” Christopher squirms restlessly in my lap, trying anything his five-year-old mind can think of to avoid his bedtime. “Can I please, please tell it to you, Daddy?”
“Just one joke?” I try to sound stern. “And then you’ll go to bed?” The little boy nods solemnly, so I say, “Okay. Tell me your joke.”
“Pete and Repeat were brothers. One day they went fishing on the lake, and Pete fell in the water. Who was left?”
“Repeat.” I realize what I’ve gotten myself into, but it’s too late now.
“Okay,” says Christopher. “Pete and Repeat were brothers. One day they went fishing on the lake, and Pete fell in the water. Who was left?”
Clever boy. He’s picked the one joke that could last for all eternity and successfully keep him out of bed. “Ummm…Repeat?” I ask, pretending not to get the joke just yet.
Christopher giggles with glee, and begins again. “Pete and Repeat were brothers…”
As I tuck him into bed later that night, the little blue eyes drift open again. “Daddy?” A worried look crosses the small face. “When do you have to go back to space again?”
“I don’t know, son. Someday soon.” I brush the little eyes closed, and see my own features mirrored there. “I’d rather stay here with you, though.”
“It’s okay, Daddy. I know they need you up there.”
“Yes, they do. But I’ll be here tomorrow, when you wake up.”
“I promise.” I rise to go, and feel a gentle pain from somewhere deep inside, as I turn off the lights.
I wake to the sound of flashing lights. No, wait. That can’t be right. The sound is the harsh blast of the station’s system alarm. On. Off. On. Off. A flashing red light accompanies the sound, and even though I can’t see it, I know it will be there when I open my eyes. Power failure.
As I climb wearily down into the control chamber to reset the power supply, my sleep-frosted eyes are drawn to the time display on the main console. It flashes 1:24 repeatedly. The power must have gone out almost an hour and a half ago, though I’m not sure what could have caused an outage in this desolate corner of the universe. I say “outage,” but this isn’t entirely accurate. All Remote Space Outposts—RSO’s—are equipped with emergency power supplies to sustain life support in case something like this should happen. I still don’t know what “this” is.
I do know how to fix it, though. One advantage to living by yourself for three years on an RSO is you become a pretty good handyman. And cook, and maid, and doctor, and psychologist… A few touches to the console, and power surges back through the system, lights flooding the control chamber. I’m still tired, but relieved. No sense in going back to bed, though.
I scroll through pages of standard operating procedure, searching all entries on power failures. I’m hoping to avoid an unpleasant experience, and my least favorite RSO duty. Searching…searching…sear—Damn. There it is, and there’s no way to avoid it.
RSO Standard Operating Procedure 2.24.f—Memory Backup. In order to maintain an accurate record of all events onboard the RSO, a standard MRI backup should be performed at regular intervals. In addition, a backup must be performed immediately after any non-routine, level two occurrences including, but not limited to, the following: hull breaches, bio-spills, unauthorized communication, medical emergencies, power failures, mechanical failures, computer viruses, personnel changes, and/or system alerts.
With an exasperated sigh, I switch off the main projection screen in the control chamber, and climb back up the hatchway to the other three chambers on this cramped chunk of malfunctioning metal and godforsaken rock.
In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, most aircraft and all spacecraft were equipped with a device known as the “black box.” It must have been thought up by engineers, who, in my experience at least, always seem more interested in things after they fall apart. The problem with the black box, however, was that it only recorded instrument readings and audio/video footage of what the pilot did wrong. Meanwhile, the pilot who could have explained why he did it was usually fried to a crisp, or traumatized beyond ability to communicate.
Entering the living chamber, I initiate the sequence for full MRI backup and climb back into my sleep cylinder. As the glass plate slides over me and locks, I feel a wave of nausea in anticipation of the invasive procedure. For just a moment, I contemplate aborting the backup, but it is too late. Once the cylinder is sealed the process is irreversible, and the cylinder—designed strong enough to protect its occupant and provide basic life support in the event of total hull failure—is inescapable.
I remind myself that this is a necessary evil. The MRI backup, now standard for most long-term deep space operations, is a descendant of the Magnetic Resonance Imagery brain scanners first used in the 1970s. In addition to recording readings of the RSO’s instruments, it records the complete neurological map of its human occupants: My thoughts, feelings, memories, not just of these past 36 months aboard the RSO—they haven’t learned to be that selective yet—but every thought I’ve ever had since birth. Every emotion I’ve ever had. Every word I’ve ever said. Every lie I’ve ever told. My true opinions of my superior officers…my deepest personal memories…intimate moments with my wife…
I’m drifting again, on a wave of nostalgia and memory, momentarily free from my glass prison, if only in sleep and dreams. A soft voice beckons to me, and fills me with the sensation of quiet, summer afternoon…
“Hmmmm?” I’m reading in the study. Rebecca wraps her arms around me, pulling the book from my hands and tossing it casually over the back of the sofa we now occupy.
“Christopher’s taking his nap,” she says, “and this could be our last chance before you have to go.” She holds my head in both hands and covers it with small, delicate kisses.
“I could leave every day, for this,” I say with a wry smile, thoroughly enjoying the moment. For my teasing I am rewarded with a playful bite on the ear, and an admonishing look.
“It’s supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, as I recall.” She pushes me gently down onto the sofa. “And once is already more than enough…”
An hour later Rebecca is lying awake in my arms. We are now beyond the help of words, but I offer some up to break the silence. “I think you’ll like the lunar colony. And your parents will spoil Christopher up there.”
She rolls onto her stomach, lovely face propped up by her slender arms. “I just wish there were more trees and fewer old people up there.” She is right; the moon has become somewhat of a haven for retirees.
“Remind me why I’m doing this again?” I ask, suddenly struck by a strong, overwhelming desire to stay.
“You mean other than to torture me?” She is only joking, but her words sting. I gently turn her face to mine, and hold her gaze with my own.
“I wouldn’t do this if there were any other choice. I love you.”
“I know.” She looks away in exasperation. “You’re doing this because millions of lives will be depending on you.” I start to speak, but she puts a hand to my lips and continues. “It’s okay. Go be their hero for today—you’ll always be mine tomorrow.”
I have overslept. MRI backup always wipes me out, but it has been almost two hours since I started the procedure. Somehow, I still feel exhausted. The sleep cylinder is unlocked, and I slide back the glass, sitting up. Another pang of nausea washes over me, and as always, I’m not sure whether it’s a physical effect of the backup, or purely psychological. I guess it really doesn’t matter.
Back in the control chamber, I perform routine maintenance for half an hour, puzzling over what might have caused the power failure. Nothing seems out of place; all station components are operating within their specified parameters. There is nothing creating any extra system strain. Still puzzling, I prepare for the transmission of the relay signal.
There are 144 Remote Space Outposts stretching out in a jagged line from the Earth’s solar system to Proxima Centauri. Some are free floating, some occupy rocky planets or moons, but most—like mine—are attached to semi-stationary asteroids. We are the only link between the two civilizations of humanity: Earth and her failed, slowly dying colony on Prometheus 5. It is a tenuous link, at best. Twice a day—every twelve earth-hours—Prometheus generates a signal. No information, no data-stream, just a barely discernable pulse of energy that says, “We’re still alive. Rescue us.” The signal is passed down the line of RSOs, requiring human verification at each point. It takes six months to reach Earth.
On schedule, at precisely 4:48, the relay signal arrives from my neighboring RSO. The screen in front of me lights up, and I begin to follow the confirmation procedure. By 4:49, I have passed it on. As long as Earth continues to receive a signal, they will assume there is still life at the other end. If Prometheus fails to signal—or worse, if I fail to pass it on—construction of the lifeboat will be halted, and all rescue efforts will cease.
From space, I like to imagine my little home-away-from-earth as a metallic bug clinging desperately to the bottom of a spinning rock. The control chamber forms a round, saucer-like body, while six shafts extend out and downward, gripping the rock, burying themselves within. Each shaft ends in a small, cave-like chamber, excavated beneath the surface of the rock. The RSO’s engines and life support systems occupy half of these while I bide my time among the remaining three.
After another futile attempt to discover the cause of the power failure, I decide to leave the control chamber, climbing up the hatchway to the exercise chamber. I say up, because the centrifugal force of the spinning asteroid creates at least a modicum of artificial gravity. Which makes exercise interesting.
I strap myself onto the treadmill, so my steps won’t send me careening into the far wall or the ceiling, and begin my workout. My muscles ache, and my body feels more fatigued than usual, so I decide to take a lighter pace today. The slow, steady beat of my feet on the treadmill meshes rhythmically with the rise and fall of my labored breathing, as I stare blankly at the rocky wall in front of me. My thoughts drift back to the first time I entered this room. I wasn’t alone, then…
“I think this’ll do just fine for you, Lieutenant.” My commanding officer is not a small man, and his sturdy presence fills the small room. “Not exactly a gym, but it’ll keep you in shape.”
“I’m sure it will, sir. Will you be staying for lunch?” I try not to let my voice betray my anxiety. I’m in no hurry to be left alone. “The kitchen seemed pretty well stocked.”
His booming laughter fills the small room still further. “For a five year tour, I sure hope it is! No, son, I’m afraid I’ve got to get back to the carrier. Besides,” he looks meaningfully at me, “you’ve got plenty of paperwork to finish before your launch time.”
Later, down in the control chamber, we prepare to say our final goodbye. My commanding officer has, in many ways, been a father figure to me and to my wife over the past decade. He is also the last person I will see before my departure.
Turning to face me, he says, “I want you to know how much I admire you for taking this post.”
“It’s an honor, sir.”
“Yes, it is. But I can’t think of anyone more qualified to do it.” He claps a burly hand on my shoulder. “Paula and I will be thinking of you often. We’re both going to miss Rebecca and that little boy of yours.”
“He’ll be almost ten by the time I get back.”
“Now, don’t go beating yourself up like that.” He gestures toward the star field monitor. “Just keep reminding yourself that there are hundreds of little boys like him on Prometheus 5 that get a chance at tomorrow because of you. ”
“He’ll be proud of you someday, like I’m proud of you now.” He pulls me toward him in a bearish embrace, then drawing himself up, salutes before turning to leave.
The kitchen chamber is the only room on the RSO with anything resembling plumbing, so it is here that I come for a shower after my workout. My second least favorite duty on the RSO is entering and exiting the kitchen chamber…
RSO Standard Operating Procedure 4.48.L—Kitchen Conveyance. To avoid the spread of chemical and biological contaminants on board the RSO, use of all such agents shall be confined to the Kitchen Chamber. Upon entrance and exit of the chamber, RSO occupants shall perform a thorough decontaminization using both mechanical and radiation filters.
Mechanical. That’s basically a high-powered body vacuum. I hastily run the vacuum tube through my hair and down the length of my body, then smack the door panel to begin the radiation scan. As my body is radiated at a low, supposedly harmless level, I contemplate once again the redundancy of the shower I’m about to take when I’m already “clean” by RSO standards. Stupid habit, I guess.
The radiation is complete, and the door to the kitchen chamber opens. Two minutes later, I’m enjoying a warm, albeit unnecessary shower. I use the time to ponder the power failure once more. Could there have been an external drain on the power system? Did we pass through a magnetic field of some sort? I dismiss the idea as irrational. The station instruments would have registered any changes in the external environment, for one thing.
Climbing out of the shower, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. For a second, I am astonished to see the lines of age reflected on my face. There is gray in my hair, and there are bags under my eyes. I’ve heard it said that loneliness can age a man prematurely, but it is still hard to believe. I shrug it off, and chock it up to exhaustion. I just need to get more rest. As I turn away, my glance is arrested momentarily by the polished metallic surface of the shower door. Still ajar, it is angled directly across from the mirror, creating a long tunnel of reflections that stretches endlessly in both directions, carrying my fading image as far as I am able to see...
Since I’m in the kitchen chamber, I fix myself a meal. Is it breakfast? Lunch? Dinner? I have long since forgotten or bothered to care. To avoid being “decontaminated,” I actually try to limit myself to one meal per day, two at most. And I use all the available facilities while I’m here, which is why I’ll stay several minutes after eating. The food and I share a commonality: What enters must eventually exit—an unpleasant experience for us both.
Back in the living chamber, I set myself about the task of self-diversion. Some days I read, and some days I write; often I play mindless games. I haven’t decided which to do today. A click on the wall console, and my personal desktop network is projected into the air in front of me. I begin to manipulate a few of the files, when something blinking catches my attention at the bottom left corner. I zoom in. It’s a newsfile.
This is odd. I only receive newsfiles if another ship passes within range, which is extremely rare, not to mention a big event for me. To my knowledge, no ship has passed in range for the past year and a half. But still, there is a newsfile on my desktop. Could a ship have passed barely within range while I was sleeping? Surely the station sensors would have alerted me. And why would they have sent a newsfile without a request for one? Wait…could this have something to do with the power failure? I still don’t see how, but curiosity is getting the better of me.
I manipulate the file to the front, hastily executing it without a scan. It is Earth-Standard, and the date reveals it to be only a few months old. There is nothing unusual about the stream of headlines and advertisements that now spin around the chamber, vying for my attention, and nothing that would seem to address its mysterious arrival. There is no source code, but that is not uncommon.
Again, doubt yields to curiosity. I stop wondering, and begin to immerse myself in the news. First, a keyword search for “Prometheus 5.” Headlines:
- Prometheus5 Commission Report Put on Back Burner
- Prometheus5 Commission Released in XTL Format
- Prometheus5 Rescue Efforts Diverted to Lunar Colony
- LifeboatConstruction Delayed
- ScientistsDebate Expediency of New Signal Technology
The list continues endlessly, but one headline catches my attention. I snatch the first five files, pushing them to the side for later. Keyword search for “Lunar Colony.” Headlines:
- LunarTragedy Unites Earth in Mourning
- MemorialTribute For Lunar Colony Scheduled Next Month
- LunarColony Disaster Could Spell End For Space Habitation
- Familyand Relatives of Lunar Colonists Speak Out
As the list continues, I feel the blood draining from my face. A surreal chill pervades the air, and I become frantic. I’m expanding headlines in reverse chronological order, filling the room with floating, ghostlike print, until:
“Tragedy struck at the highest reaches today, as reports continue to file in on what appears to be the complete destruction of the Lunar Colony. Rescue efforts have been underway for the past twelve hours, though no survivors have been identified yet. Many officials are openly expressing doubt that any could have survived the massive explosions on the moon’s surface that were seen by three separate continents last night. It is unclear at this time whether the explosions were the result of technological failure, human accident, or terrorism. What is clear is this: It is a sad day for the moon and her residents, as well as for their families and friends here on earth. May God be with us all.”
A knot twists itself deep within my stomach. It can’t be true. They must have escaped. Or they weren’t there at all when it happened. I’m moving forward again through articles and dates, desperately searching for something to cling to. Suddenly, I freeze, and one title stands leering at me, taunting me. In Memoriam: Confirmed Lunar Colony Dead.
There are thousands of names, countless names, but only two that matter to me. I search, needing to find, but hoping not to. I search, and every unfamiliar name is both hope and agonizing suspense. Abruptly, my search comes to an end. Rebecca, 35. Christopher, 8.
Tears that have been held back come bursting forth, as my fingers reach out to touch the precious, ghostlike names floating in front of me. But my fingers, like the broken soul within me, touch only emptiness.
Rage. At my helplessness, my inescapable distance. Rage. At my loss, at my indescribable pain. There aren’t enough things for me to throw, or crush, or destroy. Rage, followed by hollow despair. I am collapsed onto the floor of the living chamber, a heap of useless flesh. My legs, arms, muscles are limp, and each tortured breath is a burning fire, scorching my swollen lungs.
Images of Rebecca soothe and torment me at the same time. Some are real images I have projected to my desktop, but most are vivid memories dancing in the emptiness of my mind. I remember what it felt like to hold her, and tears flow again.
Christopher joins us in our macabre dance, and his laughter echoes in the chambers of my heart. He smiles, and his little face reflects some of me, some of Rebecca, but mostly himself—and a chain of endless future memories that will never be. I will never watch him grow…graduate…fall in love… hold a child in his arms as I held him.
All that I valued in this world has passed to another, and I have neither reason nor will to live. With this last thought, my head sinks to the ground, and a sea of darkness engulfs my mind.
I am surrounded by darkness, and voices call out to me. I recognize my own. “I’d rather stay here with you, Christopher.”
“It’s okay, Daddy. I know they need you up there.” I reach out, but the voice has already faded, and another takes its place.
“You’re doing this because millions of lives will be depending on you.” Her voice is soft, and reassuring. “Go be their hero for today—you’ll always be mine tomorrow…” Too soon, her voice fades as well, and mine resumes, followed by another.
“It’s an honor, sir.”
“Just keep reminding yourself that there are hundreds of little boys like him on Prometheus 5 that get a chance at tomorrow because of you. ”
“He’ll be proud of you someday, like I’m proud of you now.”
The darkness begins to fade, and the sterile rock of the living chamber clouds back into my vision. I force myself to sit upright, leaning against the wall for support.
Rage, followed by despair, followed by…nothing. Emptiness. I have lost them—but how many others would I put through the same loss if I abandoned my post, my life? I cannot. I must not. Still, I cannot function, day in and day out, carrying the burden of what was, and can no more be.
There is a small island of hope in my sea of despair. Not hope for happiness, or recovery of what I have lost, but for forgetfulness. Forgetfulness that will allow me to continue my mission in ignorance of my pain. It is, perhaps, the only way.
I remember a story, or briefing, or some fragment in the repository of my mind about the MRI backup—a rarely used “restore” feature designed for the possibility of pilots or passengers traumatized by disaster. The weak magnetic field used to create an image of the mind can be amplified, and used to manipulate basic neuron pathways. In essence, the mind can be restored to the point of its last backup, and never know the experiences that followed.
There is controversy surrounding this practice, I remember as well. Questions of ethics, health, and even science; older memories are more hard-wired into the brain and more difficult to manipulate. But it is not these memories I wish to be rid of—just the events of today, of my horrible discovery. It will not change events, nor bring my family back to me, but it will allow me to carry on. My day of suffering will come after I am no longer needed here. My decision has been made.
There are technical difficulties. In the control chamber, a thorough search of the station’s MRI backup system reveals the restore feature is present, but it has been disabled pending further research. This is an obstacle, but not insurmountable. While my knowledge of MRI technology is limited at best, my knowledge of the RSO and its system parameters will compensate. The last hurdle comes, rather, from my conscience: What I’m about to do is in direct violation of my standing orders.
RSO Standard Operating Procedure 8.96.X—System Alterations. The central computer of the RSO is a multi-cognitive, redundancy based system designed to protect its occupants at all costs. While repair and alterations to subroutines may be necessary from time to time, under no circumstances are any of the system’s basic functioning parameters to be altered or deleted. Failure to comply with this directive is indicative of flagrant disregard for the life of RSO occupants, and constitutes grounds for administrative review, including and up to possible court-martial.
It is ironic that for me to lose a part of my mind, the central system must lose a part of its own.
In my eleven years of military service, I have never violated a single established policy or regulation, though sometimes I have only grudgingly obeyed. I take pride in my record—it is part of the reason I have been awarded this prestigious post. But this thought, once sweet, has now turned sour to me, as I remember what my presence here has cost me. My rage builds again, and I pour this energy into my work, adjusting here, wiping out cell banks there, until the central system has been weakened. It will no longer stand guard at the gateway of its “disabled” features.
The restore sequence is remarkably straightforward once enabled. Like the MRI backup, it will take place in my sleep cylinder, and once initiated is irreversible. I think of Rebecca, and Christopher, and I am resolute. My last backup was today at 3:00, so I set the restore point just a few hours before—12:00. If I program the sequence to start in an hour, the “real” time will intersect with my “perceived” time upon awakening. And perhaps provide some much-needed rest.
The sequence has begun, and I climb back up into the living chamber to get ready. I am calm—almost cheerful—in anticipation of the blissful ignorance that awaits me shortly. As I enter the living chamber, the names of the lunar colony dead still float listlessly in the air, and for a moment my grief returns.
I close the article, the headlines, and all other programs running on my desktop, until I am left staring at the unwelcome source of my despair—the newsfile, its origins still as mysterious to me as the power failure earlier today, but I am no longer interested in solving mysteries. I start to delete the file, but hesitate. It is, in a twisted sense, my last link to my wife and son. The last record of their existence. Though I am about to send a part of my own existence into oblivion, I am more hesitant to do so with theirs. Instead, I schedule the file to be deleted automatically at 11:59. We will make the trip to oblivion together, this little file and I.
A soft warning tone sounds, alerting me that the restore process is about to begin. I climb into the sleep cylinder, watching intently as the glass plate slides over me and locks into place. This time, instead of nausea, I feel only anxiety. The wait begins.
Through the glass, I can see most of the living chamber. A console on the far wall takes note of the increased electricity that I have manually diverted into the room, and sounds a warning. I am not alarmed. The extra voltage is necessary to power the increased magnetic field of the restore process.
The lights in the living chamber flicker for a moment, and a shadow of doubt creeps into my mind. I reassure myself with the thought that I have done this many times before—just in reverse. The lights flicker again, then begin to dim slowly, almost imperceptibly. It is possible that the MRI system is draining power from the station, which shouldn’t be a problem, unless… I try to force the thought from my mind, but a new, growing fear takes hold of me. As the lights in the room continue to dim, two words loom large in my consciousness: Power failure.
I struggle to break free from the sleep cylinder, knowing all the while that it is futile. There is still power left, but it is receding quickly, and I am beginning to panic. But why? If the station’s power is being diverted to the MRI system, the restore process will still work, even if the station suffers a power failure. A voice nags at me from somewhere within my mind. There’s something I should remember. The lights flicker, go out, and come back on. Has the power stabilized? For a moment, I am relieved. Then, the lights begin to dim again, slowly but unquestionably. And I remember the newsfile.
If the power goes out before 11:59, the scheduled delete won’t occur. The MRI restore will be successful, but I will discover the newsfile all over again. The voice still nags at me from deep within my mind. Something else. I beat my fists against the thick glass walls of the sleep cylinder, to no avail.
A warning light flashes on the wall console, and it projects the message “power failure imminent” across the room. For the second time today, I am infuriated by my helplessness. Tears of anger well up in my eyes, and I senselessly beat the glass once more at the seeming randomness of my misfortune. The voice from within nags at me, stronger, trying to escape, but I push it aside. What are the odds? Two power failures in one day. I’ve gone years without seeing even one and—wait. Two power failures? Oh no…no. No! Suddenly, I know what could have caused a power failure at twelve o’clock earlier today. A chill runs through my entire body, and a cruel, twisted series of events play out their course in my imagination, inevitable, repeating, and unending. The ghastly realization washes over me that I have been here before. The voice breaks free, and whispers its secret, merciless and eternal. Yes. But how many times?
I drift uncomfortably in and out of consciousness. There is a vague notion that something is wrong, but a hazy glance through half-closed eyelids reassures me I am still secure in my sleep cylinder. The steady hum of the station is audible through the glass encasing me. I roll to one side, and soon drift off again—my dreams taking me back to earth, to memories of happier days.