Chapter 1, Part 1 can be found here.
Chapter 1, Part 2 can be found here.
Still, though, there were those rare occasions when his routine was disturbed. Usually this was a result of technological problems; whenever he found even the slightest fault in the operation of the space station, he would put off everything else until the problem was resolved; survival was the only true necessity in this place—perhaps it had always been the only true necessity.
He discovered such a malfunction on the six thousand, two hundred and eighty-first day of his exile: one of his twelve fusion microreactors was only performing at 80% of its optimum value. This seemed like a minor detail, but Plasburg knew that there were no minor details; if entropy was allowed the tiniest toehold in this citadel, then before he knew it, he would be mummified by the vacuum of space and this station would be his tomb.
The repair required two extra-vehicular excursions and took the better part of the day; it was six o’clock by the time Plasburg finished, hungry and exhausted. He barged into the galley and promptly wolfed-down an inordinately large supper (to the extent that it was possible to ‘wolf down’ vegetables and protein pills). Noting the time, he proceeded to the library, hoping to salvage as much of his daily routine was possible.
It was, of course, a bit of a misnomer to describe the place as being a ‘library’ (just as it was a misnomer to describe the place where Plasburg exercised as being a ‘gym’); it was more accurate to say that this was the room where he did his reading. The books (which numbered, literally, into the tens of millions) were all on file on his personal reader, which was presently resting upon the easy chair in the corner.
The book was one of those trashy Da Vinci Code-ripoffs which had come-out around 2004, full of improbable conspiracies and sinister assassins. After wasting several minutes reading the same handful of sentences over and over again without absorbing any of them, Plasburg was forced to admit that he wasn’t really in the mood; the disturbance, as sometimes happened, had thrown his entire routine out of whack. Plasburg knew from experience that if he went to sleep at the usual time he would be able to recover his groove tomorrow, but that still left the problem of what to do during the few intervening hours before bed. Exercising or doing riddles at this time of day would just seem weird, and if he went to bed early, he would throw-off his entire sleep cycle.
He decided to pass the time by wandering about the space station aimlessly; something he had not done in as long as he could remember.
Walking aimlessly was a strange experience for him; he had become so used to walking about with a specific purpose in mind that, although this place had been his home, citadel and prison for almost two decades, he now felt almost as if he were seeing them for the first time.
After a while, he came to the command deck. This was where he began his rounds each day, but apart from that regular, formal interaction, he had scarcely been up there in years. He watched the inky black abyss of space through the window, and with some small ceremony, lowered himself down into the chair opposite it. He honestly couldn’t remember the last time he had sat in this particular chair; if the space station had actually still been in operation, this command deck would be full of technicians and specialists at all hours of the day; but with only the basic functions (which could be completely automated) running, it was essentially superfluous.
When one limits oneself to a very small range of activities, it is very easy to lose oneself. By deviating from his routine, even by such a minute degree, Plasburg presently became completely self-aware. For the first time in years, he took note of the omnipresent music he had left playing in the background, the computer gradually cycling through the entire repertoire of Human composition. He had put it on a few weeks after his exile began, a psychological necessity. Plasburg had feared the silence; he’d needed to hear the sound of Human voices. And so he’d left it on constantly; even when he performed extra-vehicular excursions, he kept it playing in his helmet over the radio. It had become part of him; he’d long paid it no conscious attention.
Now, he allowed himself to actually listen to it; right now, the computer was playing some cloying Portuguese-language pop-song from the 1970s. It didn’t matter; it was beautiful. He leaned back and closed his eyes, feeling tears slide down his face. Next up was a love-song in Arabic, then a traditional Chinese composition. The voices of the dead Earth reached-out to him from beyond the grave, though he didn’t understand any of them. Finally, the computer started playing a song in English, a song that he actually recognized: ‘Pinball Wizard,’ by The Who, and before Plasburg knew what he was doing, he was singing along: “He stands like a statue/ Becomes part of the machine/ Feeling all the bumpers/ Always playing clean./ He plays by intuition,/ The digit counters fall./ That deaf dumb and blind kid/ Sure plays a mean pin ball!” The song eventually wrapped-up, but he still felt like singing, so he launched himself out of his chair and made for the nearest computer terminal. It took him several minutes as he had nearly forgotten how to do so, but he eventually managed to set the computer so that it would only play popular English language music that had been written within the last hundred years or so; songs whose lyrics still rattled around the black recesses of his memory. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana; “In the Year 2525” by Zager and Evans; “(There’ll Be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover” by Vera Lynn; “The Seven Ways of Ecstasy” by the Congregation of the Damned.
He listened for hours, leaving the command deck only twice—the first time to relieve himself, the second time to synthesize martinis out of organic molecules. It was a bad martini, but Plasburg wouldn’t have been able to tell one way or another, having gone so long without drinking liquor. So long as it was alcoholic, but not so alcoholic that he would go blind, it was good enough for him.
Finally, hours later with shirt unbuttoned and three martinis down the hole, Plasburg had built-up the courage to try an experiment. He took one last sip of his drink, stumbled over to the computer console and switched off the music completely.
“The day the music died.” Plasburg muttered. He’d just spoken out loud. “I’ve been speaking all of my thoughts out loud for years!” he suddenly realized. He’d just never noticed before right then.
“Well, enough of that.” Through concentrated force of will, he shut his mouth and pursed his lips. The only sound that he could now hear was his own breathing, so he stopped doing even that.
Silence reigned. Only the faint, erratic thrum of the station’s machinery could be heard now, and even it was but a ripple on the ocean. There was nothing, he realized, nothing but a crazy old man in a tin can high above the ruins of the world. He forced himself to breathe.
“All alone,” he murmured, gazing out into space. “All alone forever.” The idea no longer seemed an heroic or enobling concept. If he was a Human, didn’t he belong down there with them? What price his stubbornness? All of this work, day in, day out, staying alive as an objective of itself, but sooner or later he would die all the same, and his vacuum-dessicated corpse would tumble end-over-end in an unmarked grave for all eternity, with no one even to find him. Ever.
“All alone…” he muttered again. Drunkenly, he stabbed his finger out against the console, needing to hear someone’s voice, anyone’s…but it was the wrong key, or the wrong screen, or the wrong console altogether; somehow, all Plasburg succeeded in doing was replacing the silence with an audible hiss, filtering-in over the ship’s sound system.
“What…” Then he understood. “Static. This is static. Radio static.”
He slumped back into his chair, and closed his eyes, drinking in the hiss. It was beautiful if only for its novelty.
All of a sudden, it was broken by a sound truly unexpected.
Plasburg bolted upright, his eyes shooting open. The voice, it took him a few seconds to realize, was that of a woman, sounding very far away.
“Hello! Is someone there?”
“Who is this?” Plasburg exclaimed. “Hello! Can you hear me?”
“Hello!” He repeated. “Who’s there? Where are you? Can you hear me?”
There came no reply. The voice—if voice there had been—made no reply.