A Sacrifice

July 1, 2008
He saw the man who was to be his partner for the first time on the day of the launch. The guards clad in black had led him from his cell adjacent to the space center and had put him in a van. One guard drove, the other sat across from him, his gun held at the ready. He was casual, though—the prisoner hadn’t given them any trouble. Being snatched from the jaws of death had made him meek, he supposed.
The van rolled to a stop. The drive wasn’t long—it was more practical that way, as he’d been coming to the space center for training every day for almost a year and a half. He had gained an education space cadets in their orange coveralls strove for, though he doubted if many would sign up for the mission he was about to undertake. He imagined many of their mothers had pulled them out of training after the Viva’s flaming swan song was strewn across the media and as the astronaut’s families buried their burned bodies. Much better this way: the new men had no families, and being suspended animation was equivalent, if not preferable, to prison, even if it was an experiment using human guinea pigs.
The Viva II stood before him as the guards escorted him from the van to central command. It shone in the light of dawn. Tubes spurted from its sides and workmen crawled over it like ants, preparing it for it’s maiden voyage. The Viva II was nothing like the large, whale-like craft the space agency had been launching just fifteen years before. It resembled a shiny swallow, graceful and dainty. It longed to jump into the sky, to space. He was sure the hovering scientist was watching the preparation of his brainchild and experimentation environment from the watchtower.
He went through the movements he had rehearsed so many times to prepare himself for the launch. He was already wearing his teal cotton jumpsuit. He clipped on an assortment of plastic bracelets; they would broadcast signals back to the space station, giving them his body temperature, heart rate, and myriad other readings. He had a space suit on the Viva II, white and shiny and bulky, but it was only for use in emergencies and repairs—he was not going to set foot on any planet.
Half an hour later, and he was entering the craft itself. The guards were still behind him. A portable metal staircase not unlike those used to board airplanes stood beside the Viva II. The handrail was cold and the cement he glimpsed through the grillework was pink with dawn. This was the last sunrise he was to see for a long while. Perhaps the last, he mused. It felt strange not to care much if you lived or died. No, it was strange. He felt nothing. He had been so close to death, that day after the jury convicted him of the murder of the man with the green eyes. When he got a chance at life, he hardly remembered how to live. He’d been prepared for death, halfway there already.
Now he was in his seat. It was solid and firm, and made him think of a mother—or rather, half a mother, someone who could not comfort, only protect, and was not a someone at all. Next to him was an identical seat, which stood empty. The interior of the Viva II was white. Perhaps they thought he’d get tired of the black of space. The wide clear space in front of him through which he could now see the man-made jungle that was the space station would be filled for the next fourteen years with darkness.
Finally, his partner. He had his own pair of guards, one before, one behind. The first guard moved cautiously aside until he and his colleague flanked the prisoner. Neither of the guards noticed how still the man already seated became when he saw their charge. He was thinking how glad he was that his emotions were out of practice.
The guards were gone, the countdown was beginning, and he could hardly hear it for the crazy ringing in his ears. His heart was beating fast and he was afraid his breathing patterns would start to show it: he was hysterical, frightened, happy, vengeful, all at once…it was him.
“Holden,” he breathed.
His companion did not reply. Holden stared straight ahead.
What else could he say? This name embodied most of the suffering he had experienced. The word for him was the dirtiest, most hurtful thing he could think of, more than a word, more like a feeling, a wave of hatred. And Holden didn’t seem to sense it.
“Acton—terminate the mission. They’ll…find someone else.” Ah, perhaps he did have an inkling of what was going on in his companion’s head.
The Viva II shuddered to life. The remote operator in the watchtower several hundred feet away made the craft hum as he switched on the front, side, and bottom engines. Acton stared at the man next to him. “No. I’m going to kill you.”

Holden lunged out of his seat—or rather, tried to. The double seat belt across his chest refused him. He strained towards the device that would open a communication wave between the ship and central command. It was tantalizingly out of reach. The will to live was obviously very strong in him. Acton sat, impassive, even amused. He did not feel much, but he felt very strongly that he must get revenge—and that to do so, Holden must not leave the Viva II alive.
* * *
He awoke, and knew not where he was. Was he in the grey apartment? Would he soon put on pants and a shirt and make his way alone to the empty kitchen? Would he see instead a dark wall? A broken mirror? Muslin curtains that stirred in the morning breeze? The bars of a cell? He struggled through darkness and mist. Slowly, he opened his eyes—or perhaps, regained his sight. He was unspeakably cold, and the clear pane in front him was just beginning to defrost. Behind it was a blacker darkness than he’d ever thought possible. Beautiful crystal fractals covered the edges. He was still in his seat—he’d been unprepared for the cockpit to transform into a freezing chamber, distracted by—he turned his head slowly, and his eyes fell upon the man next to him.
He smiled. Holden was still in the grasp of the freeze. His eyelashes sparkled with frost, the frozen moisture he’d breathed out during their dormant journey. Acton’s hand moved slowly towards the clip on his chest. With a click it released. Like snakes struck with fire the two straps receded into his chair. That click was the only sound that had disturbed the pristine, white silence of the interior of the Viva II for nearly seven years, he thought.
He got up, ghostlike, trying each muscle carefully before he used it. He kept himself braced with at least three limbs at all times. He did not want to faint suddenly and put himself at Holden’s mercy, as Holden was now at his.
He stood slowly. He kept his eyes always on Holden. It would be so easy to kill him now. So easy. All he would have to do would be to find something sharp, or hard, or perhaps something strong from the medic kit. But why now? He had plenty of time. He would make himself totally familiar with the craft. He’d scare Holden, scare him bad. He’d torment the man, the way her murder had tormented him. He had an image of himself crawling around in the ductwork, moving about the craft as if it was his home, his domain. Holden would be like an animal in captivity, with Acton on the other side of the glass, seeing, but unseen.
* * *
Holden came to suddenly. He snapped his head towards the seat Acton had been in. It was empty. His muscles were sluggish, but something about that bothered him—his trainers had described a different, tighter feeling which he was to experience after unfreezing. He felt a throbbing in his upper arm, and examining it, saw a tiny pink spot. He’d been given an injection. He wondered if the straps still confined him, and as he lurched to his feet, unrestrained, he gave a gasp of relief. His head reeled, he was lost for a moment, and then he felt the floor, cold, against his cheek. He got up carefully.
And before him, for the first time ever, he saw space. It made him reel—he felt as if his heart was moaning at the terrible empty beauty in front of him. It was black, perfectly black, with minute pinpricks of white. He couldn’t tell if the craft was moving: everything was so big, so far, he might travel fifty miles without the view in front of him changing. If he shouted, no one would hear, if he threw himself out of the craft, no one would find his body. He felt out of place—humans didn’t belong here. Everything was so fantastically huge and frigid. People couldn’t really know space, space as it really was couldn’t really exist in human consciousness—if it did, it would act as a black hole, hungry and malicious, and eat up all thought and feeling within the mind. Holden thought it was the most frightening thing he’d ever been confronted with, until he remembered the other man on the ship with him. There would be no escape—there was only the Viva II, and the cold of space.
* * *

Meanwhile, Acton was living his own nightmare. He was hearing voices. They seemed to echo down through the silvery ducts he moved about in. At first, he thought it was Holden, talking to himself—but he realized the voice was that of a woman. His wife? He couldn’t sleep—the voice sounded the same when he pressed the scratchy green space blankets to his ears. Instead he sat up, staring at the wall, red eyed. Soon he took to banging his head against it.
* * *
Holden sat in the galley, updating the log. It had been three days since he’d unfrozen, and Acton’s prolonged absence was beginning to make him very nervous. He wanted the man where he could see him. Meanwhile, the log. He always did what he was told—it disgusted him sometimes. Even—he stopped. He heard a noise different from the hum of the refrigeration unit and air conditioning system. Bump…. Bump…Bump… There it was, a tinny, distorted sound. He got up slowly, trying to locate it. He thought it was coming from the top of the wall, where it met the ceiling.
* * *
It was night, and Holden slept uneasily in his cabin. Acton lowered himself carefully out of the ceiling of the room adjacent to the airlock. In his hand was a cruel length of steel, a support he’d pulled from one of the ducts. Before him in the absolute darkness of the ship’s artificially created night stood two space suits, bulky men with shiny, hollow heads. The voice was a whisper now, as if it too feared discovery. It guided his hand.
* * *

Holden awoke with a jolt as the total darkness of night changed to the fluorescent glare of morning. He squinted, groping, and removed his covers. As he passed the small mirror on the wall, he glanced at it, out of habit. He was fully awake in an instant as he saw a flash of white movement flit across it. He whirled around, ready to face and attacker, and realized the mirror reflected the darkness and stars visible through the circular window on the opposite wall. His brain worked furiously—what could be on the outside of the ship? The answer came as a sound also reached him—a clink, clink, clink, which sounded to his ears like metal upon metal, and a dull, faraway hiss.

Holden’s heart raced; he felt as if he was in a dream, and some action was required; he had to hurry, but his feet and arms were stuck and his limbs moved through the air as if it were honey. The suit was stiff and slippery in his hands, and once on, made his movements slow and clumsy. He rushed into the airlock, and the door closed with finality behind him. He made sure he was tethered to the craft, imagining the sick feeling of falling away for eternity into space. The door in front of him opened, and the oxygen within the lock dissipated into the impossible void of space. Darkness lay before him.

Holden knew only from lectures, not experience, that movement and force were entirely different things in space. No air would slow you down; no ground would break your fall. No one way was up: up didn’t exist in space. If you became disconnected from the ship, your impulse, “swimming”, would sink you deeper into trouble—the action of flailing your arms around would have the reaction of putting you farther away from the ship, not closer. Holden knew all these things, but applying them when your life was at risk and only plastic and cloth separated you from a black abyss was an entirely different matter.

The Viva II was moving, but without wind or a reference point, Holden couldn’t tell. He kicked off gingerly from the craft, floating slowly until he came to the end of his tether. When he reached its length, he felt a slight tug at his waist, and he gently began to move back in the direction of the ship. He put his arms out, and when he came to it, put his large gloved hand around a ladder built on to its side. He was somewhat glad of space, for unless Acton saw him or felt his vibration, he wouldn’t be discovered. However, it was maddening to move at a snail’s pace when his adrenaline was pumping and his hands trembled inside their protections.

Holden realized he should have had some sort of plan as he came out from underneath one of the Viva II’s “wings”. He saw Acton, a long piece of metal in his hands, hunched over a part of the spacecraft. Acton raised one arm slowly, holding on tightly to the ship with the other, and brought the rod down as hard as he could. His back was to Holden; he didn’t know he was there. Holden tried to match his mental map of the interior with where Acton was striking, and came up with the storage room. He wondered why he was striking there—every room had an automatic heat sensor that sealed off the room if it became too cold. But the hissing he had heard—like air out of a balloon…the oxygen tanks. Alarmed, he began to lurch towards Acton.

All was quiet, perfectly quiet, but for the hissing of the air escaping from the oxygen tanks. Holden again felt as if he was in a dream…he reached Acton, who turned…he was hardly a man, Holden couldn’t see his face, just darkness, shiny darkness. Acton rose, slowly, terribly, while Holden hooked his feet beneath the rung of a ladder. They fit snugly. His arms went out towards Acton, and it looked for all the world as if he was going to embrace his enemy. Instead he threw all his weight against the man. Acton flew out in a clumsy arc quite unlike Holden’s careful movement of before.
Holden watched, bracing himself, as Acton flew away from the spacecraft. His tether was much longer than Holden’s—about fifty feet. A possibly fatal length. He turned and turned, like a Christmas tree ornament at the end of a twisted string, his body stiff inside the suit. Holden watched with apprehension and dread as Acton finished his journey forward, and with a jolt at his middle, began to fly towards the ship. He was going to hit it very hard.
With a sickening crunch, Acton’s head hit the Viva II. Holden could see a dent in his helmet, but there was no puncture. The man was like a rag doll; he did not stir. He began floating away from the craft, his arms limp, falling around his body. Holden clumsily grabbed hold of his tether to reel him back in. He caught the man in his arms and dragged him from behind back to the air lock.
Inside the craft, Holden undressed Acton like a mother. His dark hair was made darker with blood, and his entire right temple was a red bruise. Holden put his hands in the man’s armpits and dragged him along the cold hallways to his cabin. There he lifted him on to the bed. Blood soon stained the pillowcase. Holden didn’t think about what Acton might do if he recovered, or if he should help the man, as he went to find the first aid kit.
Acton’s injuries were bad, very bad. He hadn’t once opened his eyes, and his scalp simply refused to stop bleeding. Holden had to sit with him constantly, applying pressure and changing bloodied bandages, which soon became bloody pillowcases as supplies ran low. His hands and face were startlingly white. Holden thought perhaps he was in a coma, but he couldn’t be sure. The date of re-entry into suspended animation was fast approaching…if only he could get Acton into stable condition, surely the freeze would keep him there…
Ten days later, and Holden had a choice to make. Acton still hovered between life and death. In a few minutes, the alarm would sound for the men to get into their seats. There was no boarding this train late: the initial temperature drop was extreme enough to shut down the body’s system and put a person, effectively, into hibernation, but afterwards, the temperature increased slightly. You’d die of hypothermia if you tried to freeze too late. Holden looked at his companion’s death mask of a face. He couldn’t murder again—look what he’d driven this man to, by killing.
* * *

He awoke, and knew not where he was. He seemed to remember only a sort of red dream, closing his eyes, darkness…he felt a seat behind him, underneath him. He was cold, and as he opened his eyes, realized they were caked shut with something dark and flaky. He raised his arm. It was slow to respond. It missed, landing gently on his shoulder instead of his face. He lifted it back, and as he put his hand to his cheek, felt a dull pain on the crown of his head.
His senses began to extend beyond himself as he sensed movement out of the corner of his eye. He didn’t want to move his head—the pain was beginning to increase. The shape obliged and came to stand before him. As if his eyes knew the man, they seemed to pop out of his head of their own accord. He was silent, and bloodied bandages in his hand. The blood was dark, perhaps old. He felt he used to know this man, before he changed, perhaps...who was he?
“ Holden?” he breathed.
Behind him was a concrete jungle at dawn. The two men held each other’s gaze as a pair of guards dressed in black entered to take Holden away.

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