The days were all starting to blend together. Raz was cleaning the air filters again, which was supposed to be a weekly task, but he’d swear it felt like he had just cleaned them the day before yesterday. The log said it’d been a week, though. He’d been changing filters, replacing seals, flushing coolant, and cleaning the crew spaces, alone, for a year. His code took over from the previous tenant on the logs for the past fifty entries. Raz closed the filter housing and shut the access panel. The click of the latch mechanism echoed down the corridor, seeming to run away from him, the rhythm of it almost sounding like laughter as it rounded the far corner and disappeared. He shook his head and pushed the black curls of hair back off his forehead.
There really wasn’t much point in talking when you’re the only person around. The training manuals recommended you try to avoid it, since it seemed to precipitate an increase in schizoid symptoms in long-haul employees. Raz did his best, but sometimes found himself just babbling, something to fill the silent void of the ship. He’d tried music and audiobooks and tuning into whatever broadcasts that made it this far out, but they just made him feel hollow. The silence was bad, but at least it was real, following him around, looking over his shoulder as he walked the empty corridors and rooms of the sleepership.
Raz walked into the small kitchen and grabbed a packet at random from the food cabinet. He’d long since stopped being able to distinguish the difference between the claimed flavors on the packets. Protein, vitamins, carbohydrates and a little sugar in a rainbow of flavors that all just wound up tasting like mush. He opened the self-heating seal on the bag and waited while the foil inflated and the stuff inside turned into something like food. The crew mess had a large screen on one wall that defaulted to one of the hull cameras facing forward. It was annotated by little symbols and numbers he’d forgotten the significance of. If it weren’t for the numbers occasionally changing, it might as well have been a static picture. Black, splattered with stars small and static enough that they might as well have been dust on the screen. He’d convinced himself of that one cycle and tried to scrub them off, only to wake up on the floor underneath it some hours later, his hands raw and pink from all the cleaners and solvents he’d used.
The only entertainment Raz found himself able to handle, the only thing that didn’t amplify his own solitude, was the library of books on the ship’s database. He’d found himself drawn to stories of the “Old West”, people striking out into a new land full of danger and unknowns. Maybe as far from his own experience as possible. The food packet announced its readiness by popping open along a seam at the top, revealing a segmented tray filled with variously colored mush. Raz navigated on his hand terminal to his current book and started reading as he spooned orange protein/carb mix (chicken tikka masala, according to the label) into his mouth.
His current read was about a fur trapper who found himself pursued into the mountains by natives and escaped, only to be trapped by a freak blizzard in an abandoned miner’s cabin. The ideas of trapping animals, mountains, and blizzards were purely theoretical for Raz, who’d never set foot on a planet and who’s only experience of gravity was the artificial spin of a habitat ring or the thrust of a ship under way. However, something about the radical difference of the world told in the book allowed him to escape from his own that much more easily. Raz felt a kinship with the character, across the years, across the millions of kilometers of black nothingness that separated them, trapped in a tiny cabin, unable to go outside because of the harshness of the world outside.
Engrossed in the book, Raz was surprised when he looked away and noticed the tray was empty, the remaining scraps long gone cold. He got up and tipped the tray into the disposal slot and grabbed a few aluminum cans of beer from the cooler. The company didn’t supply very good beer, but alcohol was alcohol and it beat trying to distill some kind of hell-brew out of the available supplies. He’d heard cautionary tales of other long-haulers who’d gone blind that way. He made his way to the crew quarters and threw the beers and his terminal on his bunk, taking one beer with him into the showers.
Leaning against the wall of his preferred stall, he let the hot mist from the sprayer heads bead up on him, forming a physical counterpoint to the cold beer slipping down his throat. He could feel the weight of all the other times he’d stood exactly here, doing exactly this, pressing down on him, like he was making his own personal gravity well. It began to feel crowded in the shower and his mind felt brittle, his perception thinning. Like he was seeing hundreds of overlays of the same image. Like he might pull back the curtain and step out as any one of the other incarnations of himself currently sharing the stall. Trying to ground himself, he finished the warming beer and threw the can out of the stall toward the bathroom door. He soaped himself, aware as always of the order he did this in – left arm, armpit, across the chest, the belly, the right arm, right armpit, shoulders, down to the legs, back up to the groin and ass, rinse. He could feel his own ghostly hands moving across himself, his own hands moving over the body of his past and future selves. He shuddered, the heat of the water doing nothing to ease the chill he felt inside.
After drying himself off, he settled into his bunk, opened the second beer, and began reading again. The trapper, now himself trapped by the raging blizzard outside was trying desperately to manage the dwindling supply of firewood the previous owner had stocked. The storm, continuing unabated for days, had drifted snow up over the sides of the cabin and the trapper was unable to open the doors or even tell whether it was day or night. His only measure of time was the slow depletion of his firewood. Raz fell asleep dreaming of snow he’d never seen.
Raz was cleaning the air filter again. It couldn’t have been a week already, could it? He tapped the screen inset in the filter system and clicked through to the log. Sure enough, seven cycles had passed since he was in here last. He put it down and watched himself, as if from a distance, go through the process of opening the filter housing, removing the filtration media, scrubbing the accumulated grime (his own, he knew, being the only breathing thing in the ship) from the frame, inserting a clean filter, closing the housing, updating the log, and closing the access panel. Fifty-one iterations of the same process. Fifty-one echoes of the closing latch chased each other away from him in both directions down the corridor and vanished around corners. Today could have been the first day he changed the filters. The only thing marking time was the log. Raz let his body walk itself to the mess again, open a meal pouch again, sit at the same table again. As he settled into the seat, something on the wall screen caught his eye. It was snowing.
Snow blew hard against the external eye of the ship, beginning to mound up in the corners. A white halo formed as it blew in directly toward the camera. Raz shot up, dinner forgotten, and ran to stand in front of the screen. Voice cracking as he used it for the first time in months, he rasped at the ship’s computer to change view to the aft camera. Normal blackness returned to the screen, unmarred by swirling white. He returned the view to the front again, and the snow was gone. No halo of rushing snowflakes, no corner buildup. He used the screen to check diagnostics for the ship, but there was nothing but hard vacuum and the occasional stray proton for a full light-minute in his volume of space. He ran one of the ship’s drones out to the camera emplacement and examined it minutely for snow stuck in the corners. No anomalies on the video feed, no bursts of radiation to interfere with the computers, no explanation for what he’d seen.
Raz sat at the table’s fixed bench, hunched over with his head in his hands. His dinner cold on the table behind him and empty beer cans scattered around the floor by his feet. Rocking slightly, he was murmuring to himself. “Holy shit, holy shit, I’m losing it. There’s no way that was real. No way it was –“ he couldn’t bring himself to say the word, fearing saying it would make it more real. He opened another beer and got up, scattering the cans on the ground with his feet, leaving the mess for one of his future iterations to clean up. He could almost see himself, stooping to pick the cans up, face chagrined with embarrassment. He wasn’t that version of himself right now though, he was the one freaking the fuck out, alone, in a little aluminum bubble hurtling through the void.
The beer was empty by the time he got to the showers. He’d avoided looking at any of the wall-mounted terminals or screens on the way there, keeping his eyes on the floor in front of him. The routine of stripping and starting the shower, maybe tedious and fractious to his mind state before, now offered comfort in the warmth and enclosure, the lack of access to the outside world. Closing his eyes in front of the stall, he took a deep breath of hot, humid air. The beer’s buzz and the heat were relaxing him, slowing his heart rate. He slid the curtain open and stepped in. The heavy mist inside was warm, and he opened his eyes to a shifting white miasma. As soon as he registered the whiteness, it became freezing cold. With a scream, he lunged out of the shower, taking the curtain with him. Snow billowed out of the stall and began to accumulate in the corners as he scrambled backwards, naked, tangled in the plastic curtain. His scream continued to echo through the bathroom and his ragged breathing seemed to fill the room and come back at him, all the breaths he had ever taken in this room amplified and flung back at him, at the nexus of this moment, a cacophony of terror. He found his footing, teeth chattering with the cold waves radiating out of the stall. Snow was pouring in at an incredible rate, drifting up in the corners of the room, He ran, naked, out of the room, shedding the curtain and slamming through the bathroom door, out into the crew quarters. The screens there all showed the same thing – a blizzard raging against the other side of their glass, frost creeping in from the edges. His disused voice sounded inhuman in his own ears, rusty and out of shape, grunts and gasps filling the hard-walled room with echoes. Snow blew out from the still-open bathroom door.
Still wet from the shower, Raz ran dripping down the ship’s main corridor to the room at the end he rarely visited, the ship’s main control center. He looked over his shoulder as he slapped the access panel by the door and saw the blizzard continue to blow out of the crew quarters. He groaned and slipped through the door before it was fully open. The screen and control panels came to life as he entered the room, and he slapped at the screen of the nearest console to bring it online. “R-run diagnostics on all crew compartments for climate anomalies”, he yelled at the ship. “Is it really fucking snowing in there?” The console screen cascaded a multi-colored report across the screen, but Raz’ face was frozen in horror. Frost had begun to form in the corners, and white dots began to blow in from the blackness beyond the screen. He screamed and ran out of the room into a howling icy gale blowing from the crew quarters. All the screens on the walls showed the same: hard snow and frost. “It can’t be, it can’t fucking BE!” he screamed as he ran, holding himself against the cold, to the one physical window on the ship. The crew airlock. It had a 10 square centimeter pane of artificial diamond as a failsafe for docking procedures. He had to see, with his own eyes, if it was snowing. Could he even trust his eyes?
He got to the lock and slapped the panel, willing it to open faster as he felt the fingers of icy cold creeping through the corridor behind him, twining around his bare ankles. The heavy door opened ponderously, sliding into recesses in the floor and ceiling. Stepping over the threshold, he took the four slow paces to the door, not willing to look at the window and confirm until the last second. He stood in front of the little porthole and rested his forehead on the cold metal above it, raggedly breathing. He stepped back and opened his eyes, but his breath had fogged the diamond. He hastily wiped it with his fingers and peered out into the emptiness beyond, squinting. Nothing. There was nothing but blackness out there. How was it snowing in here? His teeth began to knock against each other more violently now as the cold seeped into his wet, naked body. He reached over to the internal panel and shut the inner doors, sealing away the blizzard that had begun to drift up in the corners of the lock. As the gap narrowed, the wind picked up to a higher and higher pitch, becoming a screaming whistle until it was suddenly pinched off by the airtight doors. Raz slid down against the wall, head between his knees, and sobbed, his tears cooling as they ran down his face. After a minute, he got back up and looked through the window of the internal door to the ship’s corridor. Snow had piled up a meter deep in the corridor and was hammering the window he was looking through. He could watch snow accumulate in a drift against the door, rising inexorably to cover the window. Soon it was just white ice, fogging with his breath. His breathing was panicked, ragged now. He went back to the external window and still, featureless black velvet set with diamonds looked back at him. No snow. He turned back around to see, horrifyingly, impossibly, snow beginning to blow through the airtight seal of the airlock door.
Panic gripped him, lit a cold fire at the base of his spine. On pure lizardbrain instinct he did the only thing he could to keep running from the snow – he punched the emergency cycle button on the airlock. The doors snapped open and he blew out into space. His last breaths were laughs – it wasn’t snowing out here, he was safe. As his body cooled and rotated, a drop of water from his hair caught the light of the ships engine, now tens of kilometers away. The last thing he saw before he died was the drop of water freezing, into a single snowflake.