Main This Long Vigil: A Science Fiction Short Story
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THIS LONG VIGIL Rhett C Bruno THIS LONG VIGIL TEXT © 2015 RHETT BRUNO Cover art © 2015 Anna Khlystova All Rights Reserved “INHABITANT 1724 IS UNDERGOING the recycling process. The birthing of replacement Inhabitant 3287 will initiate immediately afterwards,” Dan announced. He was the ship-wide artificial intelligence in command of the Interstellar Ark, Hermes. I groaned, got up out of my bed and rubbed my eyes. “Understood, I’ll head there now,” I responded, though performing my usual duties was the last thing on my mind. As the human Monitor of the Interstellar Ark Hermes—the sixth to be chosen for that designation since the ship departed Earth—it was my job to be awake and attentive so that I could help with the few tasks which Dan couldn’t handle alone. Typically that consisted of presiding over birthings, or fixing pieces of malfunctioning equipment, but it was always under his careful guidance. I was the pair of mobile hands able to reach the few areas of the Hermes he wasn’t able to. Most days, however, I just spent my time waiting for my next task and talking to Dan. He had no problem carrying out his many responsibilities while simultaneously keeping me entertained. Everything I knew I had learned from him: how to speak, how to think, what Earth was like—everything. Even my name, Orion, was just the designation of a constellation of stars I’d taken a liking to in my early days as I stared out of the tiny viewport in my room. I never had human parents to give me one like I’ve heard is the customary practice back on Earth, so that was what I chose. Though I suppose you could say Dan was like my father. I stepped out of my quarters and into the long, cambered hall of the Hermes’ Living Ring. It was a looping passage wrapping entirely around the ship’s central Conservatory and it rotated continuously in order to produce a sense of serviceable pseudo-gravity. “What is always coming but never arrives?” Dan asked as I began my trek. I smirked. Dan had a soft spot for riddles. Whether or ; not he told them to distract me or himself—if that was even possible—I’m not sure, but often times I spent days trying to come up with an answer. I got a few right from time to time, but they were always challenging. “This is a simple one,” I replied. “You have the answer already?” If he could sound surprised I imagined he would’ve. I never figured them out that quickly. “Not yet, but you won’t stump me this time.” I repeated the riddle over and over in my head as I made my way down the Living Ring. It was nice to get to think about something else besides the people floating in the glassy tubes running down both sides of the passage. They were Hermes’ Life-Chambers, holding the exactly nine hundred and ninety-nine inhabitants hibernating on the Hermes. All of them slept quietly in their artificial wombs, showing no more motion than the occasional twitch of an eyelid due to an unpleasant dream. There were never any more in stasis and never any less. According to Dan, the ship’s makers had calculated for its Conservatory to be capable of producing only the precise amount of nutrients necessary to support that population. Only one chamber remained empty—the one I’d emerged from—and it would remain so until I turned fifty-years-old and had to return to the long sleep so that a new Monitor could take over and a new chamber would be vacated. Presently, I was forty-nine, and my birthday wasn’t far away. My time walking the halls of the ship was swiftly coming to an end, and seeing the docile faces of the inhabitants only served to remind me of that fact each and every day. “Every day,” I said out loud. “Is the answer, tomorrow?” “Very good, Orion,” Dan responded almost instantly. “That was your fastest time yet. Only four hundred ninety-seven seconds.” “I must be getting smarter in my old age,” I chuckled. Without even realizing, it’d taken me almost the entire walk to come up with the solution. I stopped and looked left at Inhabitant 1724. My smile vanished in an instant when I recognized who it was. An old man floated upright in the liquid-filled Life-Chamber. A dozen different tubes and needles were affixed to his sagging flesh, each of them performing some crucial task in order to sustain his life. His time had run out. “I thought I recognized the number,” I said. “Poor Fish finally ending his sleep, huh?” “Fish?” Dan questioned. “Yeah, I ...” I considering explaining, but decided against it. Dan called him by his numerical distinction. I knew him as Fish. It was a name I’d given him because his wrinkled face looked remarkably similar to a certain type of fish from Earth which Dan had once shown me. “Nevermind,” I said. I didn’t want Dan to think I was being foolish. He didn’t inquire further. “Are you sure his time is up?” “Yes. He is seventy Earth-years old as of 1404 UTC today.” I sighed. “Go ahead and initiate then.” The point where Fish’s chamber met the ceiling fanned open, and the greenish liquid inside began to drain through it. All of the tubes and needles in his loose skin popped out. Then he was then sucked up through a dark hole and into the innards of Hermes. “Evacuation complete,” Dan announced. The glass face of the vacant chamber peeled open so that I could do the routine checkup following an evacuation. I stepped in and began analyzing all of the circuits and other apparatus within. Everything looked to be in fine order, even after having remained relatively untouched for the seventy years since Fish’s birth. I opened my mouth to let Dan know it was clear, but all that came out was air. Even after helping with more than one hundred of them, the recycling of an Inhabitant always got to me. I swallowed the lump in my dry throat and forced the words out. “All looks good.” “Thank you, Orion. Please proceed to Inhabitant 2678’s chamber. She has been prepped for birthing.” I stepped out of Fish’s chamber and when it resealed behind me I released a mouthful of air. “Bye, Fish,” I whispered. <><><> It was a short stroll around the Living Ring in order to reach the Life-Chamber of Inhabitant 2678. This time I couldn’t help but stare at the bodies of various ages and sizes floating beside me along the route. Every one of them was unique, down to the tiniest strands of hair on their bodies. It was important to Hermes’ builders to make sure that the ages of those on board remained staggered. Apparently, variety was going to be crucial for the development of a new society at Hermes’ destination. That was why the builders didn’t just send frozen embryos. When I reached the pregnant inhabitant, I turned my back to her chamber. It never seemed right to me to watch them give birth. The tubes attached to her would lift her legs and spread them so that a spindly apparatus descending from the ceiling could draw out her offspring. When I finally turned around, that metallic arm was lifting a bloody infant up through the opened ceiling. I made sure her readings were satisfactory while I waited for it to disappear. Everything went perfectly, as usual. The red-stained fluid in the chamber was flushed and replaced straightaway, clean as ever. “A male,” Dan announced. I nodded before traveling back to Fish’s vacated tube. By the time I got there it was refilled and the unclothed newborn had already been lowered in. The infant’s tiny arms flailed and the face on his oversized head was scrunched as if he was in pain. He cried silently behind a mask of bubbles until a respirator tube entered his mouth. Then he quickly fell into an unconscious state, allowing the chamber’s many needles and tubes to painlessly fasten themselves to his flesh. I checked the chambers readings twice to be sure. Again, everything was fine. “Inhabitant 3287 has successfully been planted. Thank you, Orion,” Dan said. “You’re quite welcome, Dan. Always happy to help,” I replied. With my task completed I began to make my way back to my quarters. After a few steps I noticed out of the corner of my eye that I was standing beside the only empty Life-Chamber on the Hermes. My eyes froze on it. My heart sank. I decided to go the other way. “I notice that your pulse is quickening. Are you alright?” Dan asked. “Fine,” I lied. “Just been thinking a lot.” “Still considering which inhabitant will be your successor again?” he asked. “Not exactly,” I grumbled. “In twenty-three hours you will be fifty-years-old. As you know, I was programmed by my maker to ensure that there is always an able-bodied human on watch—” “I know that!” I snapped, somewhat unintentionally. Last time he told me it was thirty-seven hours. There was less than one day until my eyes would never open again. It was going by too fast. “Sorry. I just ... I don’t want to mess this up,” I said. “You can’t. There are two hundred and eleven members of this crew who are of the required age and size to be awakened.” “Yet only one to choose. I wish it was easier.” As soon as I said that I found myself staring at the Life-Chamber positioned directly adjacent to my quarters. The woman inside was around the same age I was when the previous Monitor chose to wake me; however, there was something different about her. Something which drew me that I didn’t really understand and that Dan could never manage to explain. “Perhaps Inhabitant 2781 is the one?” Dan said suddenly, startling me. “You’ve spent approximately fifteen hours of the last week studying her Life-Chamber.” “Maybe,” I said softly. I knew he was right. I’d decided on her almost a year prior. As much as I may have wanted to let Dan know, however, I couldn’t tell him the reason why I was taking so long; that I wanted to be there when she took her first wobbly steps even though I knew I couldn’t. I wanted to grasp her smooth hands and welcome her to the realm of the living; to feel the pulse of her veins beneath her skin—real human contact. Sometimes I’d watch as her chest gently heaved from the air she unconsciously breathed in through her respirator, and that was often enough to get my heart racing. All my wakened life I enjoyed taking the time to name inhabitants like Fish. I’d make up stories about what their ancestors might’ve been like or what they would’ve done if they’d never left Earth. I could never think of any tale fitting for her. I couldn’t even think of a worthy name. “Who am I to get to choose who wakes up and who doesn’t?” I asked. I placed my fingers against the glass. It was warm to the touch. “You are the sixth Monitor of the Interstellar Ark, Hermes. Constructed on Luna Station in 2334 C.E. by Pervenio Corporation.” “Imparted with the task of ensuring the completion of our exploratory journey,” I finished for him. I took a long stride back from the chamber and sighed. “Did the other Monitors take this long to decide?” I asked. “They were under the same restrictions that you are. Consequently, their decisions all arrived by the required time.” “Was it hard for them too then?” “I could sometimes detect elevated levels of anxiety in them as the date of their return to stasis drew closer, though I am sorry that I cannot be one hundred percent positive as to what the origin of that anxiety was in each particular case.” “You didn’t talk to them about it?” “We conversed about a great many subjects. However, they never shared their feelings on this topic with me as explicitly as you have. I found that all five of your predecessors remained very reclusive throughout the final year of their service.” “Were you like a father to them as well?” I questioned, a hint of jealousy creeping into my tone. “They never articulated it, so it is possible that they did not feel that way,” Dan admitted. “My maker left me with many recordings about your species’ history, but the data does not account for how each individual human develops unique, social tendencies. It has been remarkable to analyze firsthand.” I lowered my gaze from the woman and began shuffling away. “You’re all I have, Dan,” I replied solemnly. He didn’t respond right away, which usually meant that he noticed from my tone that I was dismayed. He could be peculiar that way. A few times when I was younger his logical responses only served to frustrate me more. It seemed he’d learned from those instances. While he was quiet I turned out of the Living Ring and into my private quarters. It was a small nook tucked onto the outside of the circular structure, where the Hermes’ pseudo-gravity was the strongest. In it there was little more than a bed and a closet filled with a dozen identical boiler suits, but it was the tiny viewport sunken into the far wall which always drew my interest. I sat on my bed stared through it. The glass was dense and tinted with shielding agents in order to protect me from radiation. It made the countless stars that shone through it appear like blurry, white specs, but it was the best view of the world beyond that the Hermes had to offer. I was grateful to its builders for at least providing me with something to show me that the interior of the ship wasn’t my entire universe, though I’d longed to step outside for my entire life. “It is around time for your feeding, Orion,” Dan said, finally. A circular seal in the counter adjacent to my bed peeled open to reveal a hollow tube. A bowl filled with lumpy, brown-colored soup rose through it, spoon already resting on the rim. The sight of it made me grimace. “I’m not hungry,” I replied. “I must insist that you do not refuse another meal. As the active Monitor, your continued health is imperative.” “Not for long,” I grumbled. I reached over, grabbed the bowl and twirled the spoon around in the goop. There wasn’t any name for it besides food, but it’s what I ate every single day. According to Dan it bore all of the nutrients necessary for keeping me healthy. I lifted a spoonful, but instead of bringing it to my mouth I tilted the spoon and allowed it to tumble over the edge. Dan said nothing. Finally, I decided I was hungry enough to end my meager boycott and have some. It tasted no different than water. “Forward and forward I go, never looking back,” Dan said as I swallowed. “My limit no one knows; more of me do they lack. Like a river I do flow and an eagle I fly, but am never gotten back. What am I, Orion?” Another riddle. He knew exactly how to keep my mind occupied when I needed it most. “What’s an eagle?” I asked with my mouth full from another scoop of my meal. “Sorry for my oversight. It is an avian species indigenous to Earth, belonging to the Accipitridae family.” “Dan ...” “It is a large species of bird,” Dan corrected. “Right. Bird. The animal with hollow bones and wings with feathers, correct?” “In simpler terms, yes. They can fly even where there is gravity. Let me show you.” A beam of illumination shot out from a lens embedded in my room’s far wall. The particles of light quickly formed into the three dimensional figure of what I assumed was an eagle. Its feathers fluttered as the projection soared through the imagined sky. Its outstretched wings were almost as tall as I was. “Beautiful,” I uttered. I placed down the bowl and reached out, my fingers slipping through the pixels of light. “Hollow bones you say?” “Yes.” “How strange,” I snickered as I hopped onto my bed. “Have you arrived at an answer yet, or did I stump you again, Orion?” Dan asked after a few minutes passed in silence. Seeing the majestic eagle had almost caused me to forget the question. My limit no one knows; more of me do they lack. I reiterated a few times in my head until it started to ache. My mind was too cluttered to think clearly. “No, but I’m not giving up yet,” I answered. <><><> My attempt at taking a nap after eating mostly led to me spending a few hours staring at the bare ceiling. Heavy as my eyelids may’ve been, sleeping was the last thing I wanted to do. I knew I’d get plenty of rest soon enough. I sat up and began to rub them when suddenly an orange-hued light shined through the viewport. It was more brilliant than any light I’d ever seen before. “Dan, what is that?” I stammered, my face beginning to feel like it’d been placed in a warming oven. “Sorry, Orion. You will have to be more specific,” Dan replied instantly. “That orange light coming through my viewport!” “That is originating from Alpha Centauri B, one of the three companion stars in the system nearest to the Earth.” My brow furrowed. “A star?” I questioned. “Is it exploding? I’ve never seen one like that before.” “I assure you that you have seen many that are similar in composition. It appears large only because it is 98,420,000 miles away.” “Is that far?” “It is a similar distance as that which exists between Earth and its star, Sol.” “So ... it’s like the sun?” My eyes widened. I stared back toward the light until they went dry. “From the perspective of one of this system’s planets, yes. It could be considered a similar entity.” “I don’t understand. Did we make it?” “No. As I have informed you before, the programmed destination of this vessel is the star system, Tau Ceti. The planet Pervenio Corporation researchers have discovered orbiting that star has an eighty-three percent chance of being able to harbor human life. That is the highest probability of any celestial body within one thousand years of travel from Earth, considering modern technological abilities to traverse space at the time of the Hermes’ departure.” I frowned, but as I hung my head I pieced together something he’d said and sprung to my feet. “But you said there are planets here! What about them?” “The planet in this system with the highest probability of being habitable is nearby Luxar, with a seventy-four percent chance of being able to harbor human life.” I took a moment to do the math. I wasn’t anywhere near as quick at it as Dan was. “That’s only nine percent!” I proclaimed. “If we’re that close, why don’t we find out ourselves?” I could barely contain my excitement. My hands were almost trembling as they wrapped around the frame of the viewport. “I have been programmed never to slow the Hermes until reaching Tau Ceti. The loss of time due to deceleration would add a decade onto the voyage. By my estimation it would then take two hundred and eleven years to reach the system from this point.” “But ...” I stuttered before I was swiftly rendered silent by what I saw. I assume the Living Ring rotated too far and eclipsed the star because the light vanished as quickly as it had appeared. I leaned back, my jaw hanging open. For Dan maybe hundreds more years of travel might’ve seemed worth it over nine percent, but to me it felt like I’d just been punched in the gut. Never had I been so close to anything in the universe beyond the ship I knew. “Have you figured out the riddle yet, Orion?” Dan asked, attempting to distract me. His monotone voice didn’t change, but after nearly thirty years I could somehow always tell when he knew I was dismayed. “No,” I muttered. I continued to stare through the viewport, waiting anxiously for the sun to reappear. “You only have nineteen hours remaining—” “Stop!” I bellowed, so loud that if the Life-Chambers weren’t filled with liquid I might’ve woken half of the inhabitants outside my quarters. I leaned my head against the cold metal wall beneath the viewport and stopped myself right before my clenched fist slammed into it. “Just stop.” Dan went silent. I turned around and caught a glimpse of Inhabitant 2781’s Life-Chamber outside of my room. I decided that I needed to get as far away from the chambers as possible to clear my head. I hurried out of my room and around the Living Ring, staring at the floor so I could avoid seeing any of the inhabitants. I finally stopped in front of the ladder up to the cramped corridor which bridged to the Conservatory. Dan unsealed the entry for me without a word and I began to climb. Humid air greeted my nostrils, making it slightly more difficult to breathe than in the rest of the ship. As I reached the top of the ladder, zero-g gently lifted my body. I drifted into the space—a tremendous, hollow sphere around which the Living Ring rotated. Rows of plantings and heat lamps wrapped in 360 degree arcs as if I were in a sea of green. Dan’s many appendages tended to the crops, probably using Fish’s remains to fertilize them. “Would you like to tend a crop?” Dan asked me. “I can deactivate a single one of my arms to be replaced by you for the time being.” I thought about it for a moment. It was nice that Dan trusted me with something so crucial. It took him many years before he was willing to let me help with the crops for the first time. I found it to be a calming exercise even though I knew he didn’t actually need any assistance. His plants never struggled. Their leaves never even wilted. “Thanks, Dan, but it’s alright,” I responded as I pushed off of the rounded wall and floated toward the center of the sphere. I wasn’t in the mood to perform another menial task. From time to time I didn’t mind just letting the universe cradle me. “Are you positive?” “Positive. I just want to float here.” I closed my eyes, laid back and pretended that for the first time I was in space. The darkness of my eyelids made it easy to picture as I hovered weightlessly. I imagined stars glimmering all around me, constructing a universe of infinite possibilities. I imagined what the planet Luxar was like. If it had cloudy skies like the Earth Dan had taught me about, or green grass... “Time,” I whispered suddenly. “Sorry, Orion, I could not hear what you said,” Dan replied. I cleared my throat. “Time,” I repeated. “More of me they do lack. That’s the answer to your riddle, isn’t it?” “Yes,” Dan replied. To me he sounded like he was almost proud. “I thought I was going to stump you.” “Not this time.” I opened my eyes and smiled. Then I pushed off a nearby crop and let the momentum carry me back to the bridge leading out of the Conservatory. As I caught onto the wall and gazed upon the crops, the truth behind the riddle hit me. “Dan,” I began. “I know it’s wrong of me, but ... I’m not ready to die.” I had never said it out loud. As I finally did, it was hard to keep my lips from trembling. A tear lifted off of my cheek and floated away. There was a short pause. Then Dan said: “You are not going to be recycled for many years, Orion. You are just going to be placed in a hibernate status like the other inhabitants.” “Don’t you see? It’s all the same. I know I’m supposed to, but I don’t feel old. I want to visit the stars outside of these walls. I want to be there when this ship’s mission is complete.” “I do not wish to unsettle you further, but you know that neither of those desires are possible.” I wiped my cheeks. “I know, and I know that you can’t understand what I’m feeling,” I said. “I barely do myself and I learned everything I know from you. But I’m begging you, let me see the stars one time without shielded glass in my way. Let me gaze upon Alpha Centauri at least, with my own two eyes.” “I am sorry, Orion. I have been programmed not to permit the release of any of this vessel’s airlocks unless it is absolutely necessary.” I chortled under my breath. I wasn’t sure what else I expected to hear. Regardless of whether or not his riddles were his own conception, Dan was never one to defy his maker. Neither had I been, for I was a product of Dan as much as he was of his programming. “I am reading an elevated heart rate again,” Dan said. He was right. I was as anxious as I was thrilled. For the first time in my life I knew exactly what I wanted. I didn’t want to waste my final hours distracting myself with a few more menial tasks. First I’d have to make my selection, and then I was going to see the stars for real. No matter what. “Dan,” I said. “I think I’ve finally chosen my replacement.” <><><> I quickly traversed the Living Ring. When I reached Inhabitant 2781, I stopped and got as close to the glass enclosure of her Life-Chamber as I could. “You’ll have to find a name as well,” I whispered to her. “I don’t think I’ll be here, but be kind to Dan. He tries his best.” I placed my hand against the tube. My fingers curled as if they were threading through hers. It wouldn’t be fair of me to wake her against regulations just so that I could hold her hand. She’d have to find her own destiny as the Hermes’ Monitor, as I did. “Dan, you were right,” I said. I gazed down the hall at the Life-Chambers vanishing around the bend. For whatever reason I knew that all of them would be safe in her hands. “She should be the next Monitor.” “You have made your selection?” Dan asked. “For you, yes. Inhabitant 2781 is to be the seventh Monitor of the Interstellar Ark, Hermes.” “She is a suitable choice. There are eighteen hours until your shift will come to an end and she will be awakened. Is there anything you would like to do before you must return to your Life-Chamber, Orion? I can generate another riddle.” Without answering, I rounded the Living Ring and climbed into the long cylindrical passageway which branched off toward the engine room. In that corridor, which like the Conservatory lacked any sensation of pseudo-gravity, was the ship’s central airlock exiting into space. I’d performed minor repairs there before, but only then did I see it as anything more than another hallway. Spacesuits hung along the walls across from it, exactly a thousand of them. They were all empty and faceless, as if filled by ghosts. I drew my weightless body in front of one and stared at it. “Orion, what are you doing?” Dan asked calmly. “Dan,” I said. “Yes?” “I’ve always wondered. Did any of the other Monitors ever get to go outside these walls?” “The opportunity never presented itself. A Monitor would only need to perform reparations from space if the ship’s radiation plating were damaged.” “Did they ever ask to go?” “There were certainly periods of curiosity, but, like you, they were content to remain within the safety of this vessel. A vacuum is no place for organic beings.” I removed the suit from the wall and noticed that my fingers were quaking with excitement as I did. I pulled it open and began to slip into the bulky outfit, carefully checking all of the seals as I did so. It wasn’t difficult to figure out. I grabbed the bulbous helmet off of a shelf and held it up. I could see my face in the reflection of the visor. My eyebrows were graying and my flesh was soft and pale, with a patch of shallow wrinkles forming beneath my hazel eyes. “Dan, open the central airlock,” I requested. “I would like to survey the integrity of the hull before I pass along my duties to Inhabitant 2781.” “Request denied. I assure you that the Hermes’ exterior remains in optimal condition.” I knew that. Dan had unbelievably perceptive sensors all throughout the Hermes. If he could tell when my pulse was raised, of course he would’ve informed me if there was anything wrong with the radiation plating. I sighed. There was no use trying to trick him. “Dan, please. I only want to see.” “As I have already explained, I cannot permit you to exit at this time. Is there anything else you would like to do?” Convincing Dan may have been out of the question, but I remembered that I’d opened up more panels on the Hermes for maintenance than I cared to count. Even though manual overrides were forbidden, I was intent on seeing space before the long sleep took me. It pained me to know that doing so would go against Dan’s wishes, but he didn’t understand. He couldn’t. He may have raised me, but something inside of me was different. I gritted my teeth and fought my reservations as I pulled myself toward the hatch. Once there, I used the tools contained in a pouch connected to the suit to remove the cover of the keypad. I began fiddling with the wires inside until the inner airlock hatch popped open with a snap-hiss. Red lights started to flash and an emergency alarm wailed. “Please restore operation of the central airlock,” Dan said, politely as ever. “Manual override is not authorized.” I didn’t respond. Instead, I lifted the helmet over my head and stepped forward into the cramped airlock. “Orion, you are not acting rationally,” Dan continued. “I would advise you return to your quarters and try to rest. Perhaps you are in need of feeding?” As the helmet sealed there was a whistle, and then silence. “Forgive me, Dan,” I mouthed. I patted the smooth surface of the ship’s metal interior as if it were his body. “But I’ve made my selection. My vigil is over. Now it’s time for me to live.” Before he could answer I switched off the helmet’s built-in radio. I clipped the ship’s tether to the belt of my suit. Then I sliced through more controls, signaling the confined space to depressurize. Once the process was completed the inner seal slammed shut and the outer seal popped open. I drew myself slowly into the opening. Stars shone by the thousands in front of me, filling the entirety of my visor as they were mirrored twice over by the glass. For the first time in years I couldn’t perceive the continuous hum of the Hermes’ many systems. The only thing I could hear was my own hastened breathing. I exhaled slowly and sidled out until I could grab onto the hull of the ship. “Here we go,” I said to myself. I climbed along the bridge connecting to the engine until I found a familiar nook between it and the Living Ring. The tiny viewport there had a view of my bed. I positioned myself as comfortably as I could get before gazing out over Hermes. The sight was enough to make me smile. The vastness of the cosmos may have been a hard reminder of how much there was which I would never see, but it was as striking in its enormity as I’d expected—an endless sea of blackness teaming with life I had no doubt was there. Suddenly, a blinding sliver of orange-hued light reflected off of the Conservatory’s exterior, causing me to fall to the side and accidentally allow some of my suit’s tools to come loose. They began to drift away, and I frantically stretched out my arm to grab them. As I did the ever-rotating Living Ring exposed me to the source of the light. It was the star, Alpha Centauri B. Without the viewport in its way it was even grander and brighter. The Living Ring continued to rotate toward the light, heating up my body even through the suit. The tools were floated beyond the reach of my tether, like shards of diamonds bathing in the alien brightness. I stared until I had to blink away the stinging sensation in my eyes. “Orion. Orion, can you hear me?” For a second I looked around, alarmed, before realizing that the familiar voice was coming from inside of my helmet. Dan had overridden the radio controls and switched it back on. “Yes ... I can,” I said. “What are you—” “Dan, it’s incredible out here!” “You are in danger, Orion.” Dan took control and my tether began to reel me back in. It yanked me forcefully, causing my leg to smack against the ship’s metal surface. Somehow as I tumbled away I managed to grab onto the surface of the ship. I jammed the tether in between a pair of shielding plates and gathered my balance. “I’m not going back,” I decided. I angled my head so that I could study the reflection of Alpha Centauri B in my visor. The arms of its light reached out toward me as if to take me in their embrace. “That is not an option,” Dan replied. “In nine hundred seventy-two minutes I am required to see you back into Life-Chamber 1287.” “I know but I just ... I can't do it. I wish I could, for you, I really do, but I won’t die dreaming. After seeing all of this, how could I ever go back to sleep? “It is your directive.” “It was.” “There must always be one thousand inhabitants aboard the Hermes. Never more. Never less.” “And there will be again soon. You’ll make sure of that like you always do. I don’t know many things for sure, Dan, but I think that men are meant to be born in liquid, not die in it.” I glanced down, noticing that my tether was about to pull itself free. I rifled through what was left of the tools and found a cutting torch. With my arm outstretched I swung myself in a wide arc around the area where it was stuck so I could get a proper angle. “Orion, please allow me to help you return to the Hermes. As the active Monitor, your continued health is imperative.” I switched on the torch and started cutting through the tether. “You’ve helped me more than you know. I hope you’ll be equally as helpful to Inhabitant 2781. She’ll have plenty of questions.” “Orion, what are you doing. If you sever your connection you will expend your oxygen supply in approximately fifteen minutes.” “She’ll want to know what Earth was like.” The tether was inches away from snapping. I paused for a moment and stared down at it, verging on tears. “She’ll want to struggle with your riddles.” The tether snapped. The length of it was tugged back toward the open airlock and the recoil sent me hurtling through space in the opposite direction. “Orion, your connection has been lost,” Dan said. I didn’t panic. I was too busy smiling at the thought of hearing his puzzles. It didn’t take long for the Hermes to begin distancing itself from me. For once, I could see its entire outline; from the bulge of the Living Ring to the two aligned engines sticking out like an outstretched arm. “Goodbye, Dan. I’ll miss our talks,” I continued. “Orion ... you ... are ...” Dan’s voice spoke, but whatever he said next was muddled by static. I should’ve been more terrified then I was, drifting through the endless void all by myself. It was hard to be when the view was so incredible. It took some effort to turn my head as I spun head over foot, but once I did I saw Alpha Centauri B again, piercing the blackness. Passing across it was a small, brownish orb growing larger by the second. The first planet I ever saw with my eyes—Luxar. I was headed straight for it. “Do you think they’ll ever send anyone here?” I asked the silence, so used to always being answered right away. Dan said nothing. The Hermes was already out of sight and even if he wanted to he couldn’t have turned it around in time to save me. The oxygen meter in my helmet had already begun to beep that it was dangerously low. I tried to tune out the noise and focus on the advancing planet. It was ... magnificent. And as I stared I had no doubt that I was right where I belonged. After glimpsing the infinite universe which lay beyond the Hermes’ metal walls, I couldn’t end my life sealed in a chamber. My long sleep was approaching. The one I had chosen. I could hear Dan speaking in my head, reciting a riddle he’d told me a few years back that I was never able to solve. “What grows both longer and shorter with each passing minute,” he’d said. “The young take risks with it, and the old cherish it.” I didn’t get it at the time, but I finally understood. About the Author Rhett Bruno has been writing since before he can remember, scribbling down what he thought were epic stories when he was young to show to his friends and family. He currently works at an Architecture firm, but that hasn't stopped him from recording the tales bouncing around inside of his head. Rhett is the author of The Circuit Series and Titanborn. He's happy to hear from his fans and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Post Your Review Please take a brief moment to share what you thought. Your opinion matters to the author and helps other readers! http://www.amazon.com/This-Long-Vigil-Rhett-Bruno-ebook/dp/B019LZJ5H8/ Follow Keep up to date on the rest of Rhett’s work by following him on twitter and facebook: https://twitter.com/RCBruno44 https://www.facebook.com/AuthorRhettBruno/ Thanks for Reading!