You must know, first, that every moment is merely one of a constellation spread across the sky of my life. These moments, here with you, are the only ones that matter, the only ones I never want to leave.
That first moment: the broad windows of the Armstrong Center’s dining hall faced the jutting walls of Olympus Mons. The restless dust of a spring swirler left the Martian skyline as clouded as my mind. I had to select my mission, but I couldn’t settle on a path. I sat alone, lost in my churning thoughts. Alone, like most times. Truth be told I’d conditioned myself to accept solitude as my natural course. Then you set your tray across from mine.
That was the first moment of something that never ended and never will.
You must know, second, that they never meant to kill me. They never meant anything. Meaning—intention—isn’t the same once time unspools. Free will is an illusion in the face of fate. I know that now. Or, I’ve always known. I see it all at once.
But that’s not vital in this moment of all moments. What’s vital is you. And me. In that dining hall. You set your tray down across from me and before even acknowledging me you bowed your head—prayer perhaps—and then you looked straight at me with those bluest eyes. I can’t lie that I’d never seen you before. I had, always at a distance, and you registered, always. But with you across from me, finally, your eyes on mine, I felt like I was drowning, happily. You gave me your name: Darrell Flynn. You spoke it so assured, so full of confidence. Then you laughed at mine: Christopher Cortez. A man born to explore, you said. You tugged at your blond beard boy-like and gave me the first of a dozen lopsided grins.
Something got lost inside of me. Something else, I found.
It’s a jump for you, but I am here—then, now, always—on Belenus, this gas giant’s moon clustered in the goldilocks zone of Zeta Leonis. Thirty of us set up a base here. Me: the security chief. We were here to plant roots in the damp crust, to explore, catalog and plunder this slumbering world. Only we woke the sleepers.
They knew we would come.
You were so excited to be at the deep-space launch site, to travel out into the stars. Between bites of chicken casserole you told me of your research into counteracting zero-gravity bone loss. You spun words like you would weave bone cells. Your work seemed like an impossible thing, and while I barely followed your science, I lost myself in your passion. You asked me why I would hurl my body into the depths of the black universe. That looming choice, that unwoven fate, left me muted. For my father, I told you. For all my forefathers. Not that wondrous passion of yours but duty.
I’d never experience passion until those moments across from you, and it was indeed wondrous.
Belenus was wondrous in her own way. She was my possible thing, with her purple sunrises and rolling hills and mist-filled nights. All of our scans—all of them!—testified to just the simplest of organisms on her surface; primitive carbon complexes that wriggled on the frigid, irradiated crust.
Then we discovered the caverns. It would be wrong to call it the beginning of my end. It was neither beginning, middle, nor end. It just was. Just is. Like you. Still.
You spun me stories of your farewell party in Florida, a humid night of rum and cokes and skinny dipping in the Gulf. When you poked your fork into my beef stroganoff, I grabbed your wrist on reflex and felt dizzy from the heat of my skin on yours. You didn’t withdraw. Instead, you rested your free hand on mine until I released, and you smiled as you stole a bite. Then you laughed, I couldn’t help but laugh too. I called you the bone weaver and I caught a glint in your eye. What did that glint mean, exactly? I always wonder.
Some inner gear locked into position. I edged closer to a newly possible thing.
Belenus, with the monsters stashed inside her womb, was another thing entirely. Four of us had assembled for that morning foray, three scientists burdened with their gear, and me with my gun. The gun was a formality. I was their formality. That was my thing.
We walked a klick in our sealed suits to the entrance of the first cave, then we wended our way deeper into the cavern’s twisting arteries. The radiation dwindled. The air warmed and became safe. We de-helmeted and plodded toward the cavern where all fell away, where the arrow of my life disintegrated into a thousand moments.
How long did we spend at that table in the Armstrong Center? An hour? Or was it two? Timekeeping is a fiction. I know that now. Now is a useless marker as well. Those moments at that table, you and me, surrounded by all the others preparing to launch into the farthest reaches, those moments exist, still. They’re a chain of stars. These, with you, are the brightest.
I watched your hands—broad palms, tapering fingers—while you drank your coffee and talked of your old life in Jacksonville, your time split between studying, sea kayaking, yoga and guitar, those threads that wove the life of Darrell Flynn. I talked of something as well. Surely I must have. The boy I’d been, the man I’d become, the man I longed to be, though none of that seemed to matter anymore. With you I felt a newly possible thing, and it was all I cared about.
You told me your destination. It sounded like an invitation. My heart beat faster. It was one of the options on my list.
They waited for us deep in the caverns of Belenus. They always knew how it would end. Still, they waited. Still, they let it unfold. Not let it, exactly. It was the only possible thing. They understood that fact of the universe, just as I do now.
Inside the cavern was shadowed by stalactites and stalagmites. Two steps inside, something rammed my chest and flung me to the ground. My helmet cracked behind me. My gun slipped from my hand. Metallic dirt filled my mouth. Pain spasmed down my right shoulder. Then blackness devoured me.
I awoke bound against the wet wall. Five creatures hovered before us: greasy blobbed starfish things with limbs that would thrust and retract, with a ring of yellow eyes on their upper limb, eyes that stared and blinked. They were calm, too calm. Unnaturally calm. No aggression. No fear. Now I know why. Me? I was in battle mode but useless…hands restrained, gun just out of reach. Despair came over me.
Do you know what I thought of in that moment?
I thought of you.
There was no more dessert for us to eat. The cherry pie was gone. The apple crumble conquered. Yet we remained. Outside the Martian winds pummeled the towering verticals of Olympus Mons with restless dust. Inside the clinks of the lunch shift died away. You told me your childhood dreams of sailing out into the universe. The Bone Weaver. The Star Dreamer. I wanted more of you. Herculis was where your passion would take you, to one of that star system’s rocky planets. That was your future.
Maybe it could be mine, too.
The scans of Belenus were a horrible lie. She did in fact shelter sentient life. Intelligent life. Life with a purpose that clashed with ours. I forced myself to remain calm and focused. That was my duty. First, they chose Mortensen. They thrust a filament inside her ear. She screamed until her eyes widened in terror and then her screams withered into whimpers. She bucked as they impaled her body onto one of the stalagmites. The crunch of her splintering bone rang in my ears. It does, still.
I eyed my gun, just out of reach. I strained to loosen my bonds as they repeated the ritual on DelAssandro. Looser, then they murdered Jackson. I thought of my duty as they crowded before me, the last survivor. They stood still as if in prayer until one creature stepped forward and hovered its filament probe just outside my ear. In that moment I thought of you, my hand bound to your wrist, and yours gently laid on top of mine.
I was sure all trace of me would end right there in that cavern. I wondered if I’d left a trace of myself with you.
That fiction called time escaped us in that dining hall. You had a training module to prepare for. In those drifting moments I asked you more about your mission to Herculis. You spun your dreams before me. I wanted to be a part of those dreams. I wanted it more than I’d ever wanted anything in the whole of my passionless, dutiful life.
Sitting across from you I felt myself hurtling toward something unexpectedly possible thing.
Bound in that cavern, thinking of you, I saw my possibilities dying before me. The creature inserted the filament deep inside my ear. I bucked. I fought. I fought to live, to leave Belenus and make that impossible journey to Herculis and find you again. Pain burst like a knife slash. I howled. The filament withdrew. The creatures hovered before me. My vision blurred. Noise sharpened. I fought and fought. Then a scrambling happened. All my life, every moment, came to me. Every childhood experience, even those forgotten, every adolescent failure, every adult triumph, all there, all at once. That probe changed my brain. The arrow of time broke apart and each moment settled onto an expansive plain. Past, present, and future, all existing together at once, all for me to inhabit at will. Was it madness that caused Mortensen and DelAssandro and Jackson to shriek and wail? Or was it the knowledge of the fate that awaited them?
My fate was…is…different than theirs. I stopped fighting as my duty became clear. I see it as clear as I still see you.
We create so few moments together. We stand as one and deposit our trays. I shake your hand and lock onto the bottomless blue of your eyes. The warmth of your skin sends a tremble to my chest. I give you my number. Yes, we really must have dinner, talk more. And drinks. Yes, of course. I don’t tell you then, but I will join the Herculis mission. We will be there together. We will work together. We will forge a life together: the Bone Weaver and the Universe Explorer. My life of duty surrenders to the possibility of passion.
Then you turn on your comm to take my number and my dreams turn to clay.
Passion was never mine to have. The unspooling of time shows me the string of my fate. The creatures know I will slip my bonds. They know I will retrieve my gun. They know I will fire shattering pulses into their flesh. And I, too, know what will come next. I will grab my shattered helmet and race out onto the cold irradiated plains of Belenus to warn the others we are not alone. I am a man of duty. This is my duty.
When your comm flashes to life I see that image of you I’d already etched inside myself: lopsided grin, arched nose, blond beard. But there’s someone else in that image alongside you. Your arms are draped around the neck of a brown-haired woman. I stare at her. Too long. My heart cracks. Surely you hear it. Surely you sense it. I can tell you do by that shadow that falls across your face.
Five of those creatures killed. Three of my people slaughtered. Another two dozen to warn. And one kilometer to cross. No functioning helmet. My suit is compromised. The cold is in my bones. Icicles dart up my veins. Muscles turn brittle. Every three steps I inhale, taking in just enough poisoned air to keep moving. Every three steps I exhale. The gray metal of the complex is there, always there, just as you are still there with me in that dining hall as my heart falls apart.
We stand one foot from each other. I smell the fading coffee on your breath. You tell me your fiancée’s name. She’s on your mission, as well. With you, to the end. I smile and nod and mumble something about how beautiful she is but all I see is you hurtling away from me, forever. I pout and fume and I choose the farthest star system from where your passion summons you.
I choose Zeta Leonis and the moon called Belenus.
I am everywhere. I am with you in that dining hall, the two of us alone, together. I am bound in that cave. I am trudging across this deadly plain. I am in the shelter of the Belenus compound. With my final breath I warn my compatriots. I save them. And I die. It is my only possible thing.
I know this: fate is one straight line, the only one I can walk. But fate is not cruel. It is the face of God. It blesses us with eternal moments that burn like stars. You, Darrell Flynn, may be my impossible fate, but of all the moments I can inhabit, I choose those wondrous few I created with you.