BEYOND THE CONSTELLATED WILDERNESS
by Jennifer Rachel Baumer
Nothing’s ever quite the way you think it is.
This morning she had breakfast with a convicted child murderer and a convicted rapist. The rapist, at least, was framed. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time in too many instances (or the right place at the right time, from the real perpetrator’s point of view). Technology set him up (his personal communications systems led the rapist to him every time he didn’t have an alibi) and technology didn’t save him (nowhere did the real rapist show up on tape, digital images, voice prints, fingerprints, DNA, aural scans, aura scans, retinal scans.)
The killer was a grandmotherly little old lady Phaesis couldn’t resist.
They ate in the arboretum, looking out through the blackness at earth far below. The orbit was decaying faster now and sometimes they’d spin so fast nobody could keep anything down and sometimes they’d spin so slow everyone would have to grab their food before it floated away, but most of the time everything seemed pretty much the way it always did here–
“We’ll be a fireball,” said Lily. She sounded wistful and she squinted toward Earth so far below them, as if she was willing to fall flaming if it proved the only way to return.
“We’ll be fine,” Phaesis said. Her biscotti tried to float past her and she grabbed at it.
“That’s fine for you. Owen’s working day and night to get you out of here,” Phil said. “Lily’s all alone and my wife left me over this.” He didn’t look at her. He never looked at anyone. He kept his head down far as he could to avoid the condemning glares from residents who believed him guilty.
Phaesis put one hand over both of his where they white-knuckled on the table. “You can’t give up hope. Your lawyer is working for you.” Day and night, at ridiculous prices, while the orbit decayed and Elysium swayed ever closer to Earth’s atmosphere.
“Because I pay her.”
“Good enough reason,” Phaesis said. “She’ll work twice as hard trying to prove you didn’t do it if she doubts anyone will believe it. If she knew it was true, she’d waste time trying to be believed.”
Phil stared at her. “How do you do that?”
He faces north, power and strength, the force of the Earth that spins beneath his feet. He’s spent the night putting together an uplink that will give her the courage to go on. Owen has stored some of their special memories, digital clips, audio wires of times they’ve spent together. It was harder than he thought. He spent too much time away from her, working. But he’s got their wedding, their vacations, and a lot of clips of Phaesis’ work, her writings that weren’t political, weren’t the cause of her being sent to Elysium.
He faces north, because that’s where systems tell him Elysium orbits now. He looks up as if he can see through the skylights into the summer skies and pinpoint the spinning, chaotic spacestation.
“I miss you, love,” he says and pushes Send but he’s cued the wrong datapacket and he sends her depositions of a banker and the banker’s attorney. When Phaesis receives the splotchy handheld cam-jiggling ’packet of tapes that night she’s not even surprised. She laughs and watches the entire thing because after all, it’s still Owen, Owen working, Owen deposing, Owen in his element, unaware and unselfconscious, confident in himself because he’s not thinking of himself. She wonders what he meant to send (technology left Owen behind sometime before he was born and he’s never caught up) but she thinks maybe she likes the ’packet more than she’d have liked whatever he meant to send.
And because she’s not a journalist anymore, she is almost free of wishing she could break the banker’s story.
Owen voicelinked with her that evening. Hideously expensive but she could never pass up the opportunity to hear his voice. In the background his Ava Maria played. One of her favorite pieces, redemption and rebirth, Owen’s voice at its best. He could make angels cry.
He’d made the recording for friends and relatives. Nothing anyone said could ever convince him to do anything else with it. He was an attorney. Sure, he sang, and he did it well. But law was what he did.
Now he did it for her.
“I can’t stand that you’re there,” he said. His eyes were owlish on the monitor; he always sat too close and she never told him. It distorted his eyes but it meant his face filled the screen and made her feel like he was really there with her. “They say the orbit is decaying faster. Congress is meeting but the decision has been that once sentenced–”
“Owen, I know. Tell me what you’ve found out.” She folded her hands together and kept them tightly clasped in her lap, out of sight of the monitor so he wouldn’t see them. Owen moved away from the monitor and stood at the edge of the living room, facing west. Endings. Autumn. Defeat. She wanted him to turn around and look at her. “Owen.”
His smile was solely for her. “We’re working on the appeal. I’ve asked Marjorie and Bob to work on it with me.”
“For God’s sake, why?” His partners were nowhere near as good as he was. Law was what he did and now that he did it for her, even in his own arena he didn’t think he was enough. Now that her life was at stake he didn’t even trust himself in his own element. “Owen, you don’t need them and it’s just going to slow you down. The orbit–”
He paled and Phaesis wished she could take it back. Her own fear was bad enough. This was Owen. He’d get her out of here. “It’s all right. I’m sorry.”
“No.” He held one hand up, facing the monitor again. “The orbit is decaying. It’s worse every day. There’s talk of–”
There’s talk of destroying the spacestation. That’s what he wouldn’t say. Talk of shooting Elysium from the stars before it could fall to Earth where innocent people might be hurt. Those people confined to Elysium would not be missed. It was maximum security. It was point of no return. Everyone knew that.
Everyone but Phaesis.
We’ll be all right.
She went walking with Lily in the afternoon. Lily always looked to her to be the type of woman who should bake gingerbread and keep cats. She looked like someone little children should run to for safety or just for treats. Lily wore little hats with flowers on them and always had a crushed tissue in the sleeve of her shapeless dress.
“I wish they had a separate facility for them,” Lily said bitterly as they passed a knot of children. Feral things, all teeth and grubby nails. Station security tried but max kids had a tendency to run wild.
It didn’t matter. Even the well kept children, the little ones with their parents, the ones whose families had relocated to the station together rather than face separation forever, even those clean bright children earned Lily’s wrath. Appearances weren’t always reality.
“There’s slippage,” Phil said when they met up with him in the park. Overhead lighting simulated sunlight through foliage. Phaesis could never understand why the park was maintained. When the spacestation was meant for exploration the park was meant to simulate Earth for the families manning the station. Ever since the Ring Program had failed and mankind had dropped back down from overcrowded space cities to overcrowded Earth cities, the parks were pretty little extras the max population unexpectedly received.
“How much?” Lily asked. Her expression was inward. She carefully watched her sturdy brown shoes as she walked.
Phil shrugged, head down. Only Phaesis looked ahead. “However they measure these things. I just know we’re closer to atmosphere. Or whatever it is we’re not supposed to be closer to.”
Phaesis took a deep breath. It was her imagination it was hotter lately, that the station was heating up. More likely the staff (uncaring remnants of Earth’s prison system who had nothing worth staying on Earth for but who still took out on the station population their dislike of being confined in spacemax with them) had diverted power for their own comfort and were letting the rest of the station overheat.
“The appeal is finished,” Owen said. He had turned the monitor and Phaesis could see the living room behind him and the entrance to the dining room and kitchen. So he faced south, bright and happy and halfway through the process, strong and burning with belief. “I sent you a copy. You should have it already. Have you seen it?”
The datapacket downloaded just before Owen voicelinked to her. She hadn’t opened it yet, hadn’t yet been able to unclasp her hands where her fingers tangled together tightly. Until she viewed the ’packet she could hope. The entire day she’d been slightly nauseated. The artificial gravity on the station was failing. She now floated a little with every step, swayed when she wanted to be still and kept herself still only by holding on to something and even then the station swayed around her.
“It’s here. It came in just before you ’linked. I wanted to talk to you.” True enough. And she was afraid. So hopeful it hurt. Because the station was failing. Even now staff was making plans. Soon max would be on its own. Then it was only a matter of time before everything broke down altogether .
“I’ll ’link back. Go watch it.” He moved to disconnect. The longing in his eyes was so strong Phaesis didn’t stop him.
“How long is it?”
“Three hours. I’ll re-link in three hours and one minute.” He winked, and he was gone.
She faces the monitor but she cannot tell which way she faces. She is in space. Every which way is all directions and none. She must find her courage and convictions inside, not from the cardinal points. She is no part of Earth here.
Three times her fingers hover over the controls. The datapacket is cued. Her fingers are slick with sweat. It is hotter on the spacestation; she can no longer tell herself it is just her imagination. But it’s not just the heat. If only he’s believed enough this time. That’s all it will take. For Owen to have imbued his trust and belief in her with faith in his own abilities. No one will be able to resist him then. And once on Earth she can work to get the others back. Once on Earth and once she’s had time to be in Owen’s arms. She aches, imagining how Owen’s arms always felt around her, how safe she felt when he held her. As if he could always keep her safe.
Her finger is slick when she presses Play.
“Case No. 26-1081, People vs. Phaesis E’dice. Appeal.”
She holds her breath. The legal lead in fades and then it begins.
Sweet strains of strings and orchestra leave her breathless. The music slowly swells and Owen’s voice joins in, so unimaginably sweet she instantly has tears in her eyes. Hearing it second hand, backup music when they ’linked, wasn’t the same. But it’s here, now, and she closes her eyes, seeing the images of Owen anyway, the way he stood with his own eyes closed, head canted to the side, body fierce and straining outward with the release of the music.
She held her breath while Ava Maria ran through her. Her heart pounded and her fingers tingled she held her hands together so tightly. At last the music ran down and Owen dropped his head, exhausted and humbled and the images slid slowly darker until the screen went briefly blank and then where there should have been appeal there was only the flashes of indiscriminate color as the image-storing tech wound its way to the end of the datapacket.
The monitor was dark. Her cell was silent except for the hiss of life support systems, the sound of her own ragged breathing. The sound she made while crying.
The orbit decayed. Gravity was a thing of the past. The staff was arranging transport for themselves. If there was time, prisoners would be transported to another station. If there wasn’t, they’d be sentenced and sentence carried out at re-entry or when Earth felt it necessary to save themselves by blasting the falling station out of the sky.
She didn’t meet with the others any more. Lily had gone to ground, staying in her own room, spirit broken and fear so evident on her face there was no comforting her. Phil had gone into the deep recesses of the ship to work with the children there. Either he’d help them prepare for the unlikely rescue or they’d tear him apart. It seemed unlikely stopping him from going would have prolonged his life by many days.
Phaesis had been trying to establish a link with Owen. She had little doubt the appeal– such as it was– had succeeded. She couldn’t imagine even a court could withstand Owen’s Ava Maria. But the link stayed stubbornly down. The spacestation’s decay was effecting everything. She didn’t know if it was their proximity to Earth’s atmosphere or if other systems were failing, only that she could only link for seconds at a time and that each time she did, their home was empty.
He faces East. The station is before him. The shuttle behind him rocks under his feet. Even looking at the spacestation the decay is nauseating. The spin is disorienting. He faces East because it is the direction of beginnings and new projects, of spring and life and rebirth. He faces East and he moves into a second chance. They have sent him there alone in an unmanned ship with lifesupport enough to take only Phaesis. Her appeal has been granted. But time is running out.
Owen forces himself over the fear that threatens to keep him immobile. He makes the jump from shuttle to station and links himself to the hull. Systems override, the airlock opens its outer doors and he is inside, untheathers quickly, and the outer doors close. The system is sluggish, but depressurization happens, air equalizes, life support kicks in and the inner airlock doors open. He has minutes to find her. Not enough time to de-suit. Thirty minutes from the time he hits the station to the time he has to be on the shuttle, with Phaesis. Anything more constitutes a security risk. Earth isn’t ready to bring all the max offenders home. They’re still thinking of alternatives even as Elysium dies.
“Don’t look back,” they told him. “Go forward. Only. You haven’t got time for anything else.”
His pc system is tied into the ship now. It guides him, flickering and straining as the station fights to stay alive. Down several levels, through the so-called park with its eerie leaves and sunlight, into the living quarters (now cells, no matter what anyone else insists, these are still prison cells) all in silence. Her pc is deactivated. His is busy guiding him, and no one is sparing the extra energy for audio. The station doesn’t hiss around him. His boots make no sound on the metal floors. He hears his own breathing and little else. His heart pounds quick and hard and his suit threatens to fog the faceplate; he is sweating and afraid.
“I’m coming, love,” he says, “I’m here,” but his voice sounds hollow and talking takes energy and energy equates to time and he is quiet again, moving as fast as he can, letting the flickering pc guide him and around another corridor, the place is built like a nautilus shell it will take them forever to climb out of here and he resists the urge to check elapsed time, it’s nowhere near as long as it seems–
–and she is there. He’s found her room. Her cell. He’s found her. The door opens and her face changes from tight fear and anguish to an almost terrified disbelief, she doesn’t want him here, at least he was safe, but Owen here means rescue. Wanting him with her wars with wanting him safe.
Phaesis reaches out and touches his faceplate once, her eyes moving over his face. She looks like she expects to wake.
“You’re here.” He sees her lips move.
“We have to go. Now.” He hands her the suit and she doesn’t hesitate but begins dressing at once, still facing him so he can see her words.
“Do you have the other two?” Because he can’t expect her to leave Phil and Lily. “How many–”
Whatever she was going to ask, he cuts her short. Motions for her to look at him. Stops her only for an instant. He gestures at his wrist. There’s no time. He holds up one finger. I came only for you. He shakes his head. There’s no other way. And he nods when she says “We’ll come back for them.”
If possible. If it will make her move. If he can get her out of here. He’ll do anything if only he can take her from Elysium.
They wind up through the spiral layers. Every step is an effort now. The temperature is rising. She’s so hot inside the suit. The faceplate keeps threatening to steam over. She follows Owen and they’re moving fast as they can, past a knot of feral children who grab at them, who lunge with knives, wicked metal that could cut down to bone, never mind penetrating the suits, children who reach but miss and children who reach and cry, past prisoners because staff is gone, the station has been deserted, everyone here is in endgame, everyone here has been sentenced and if they move fast enough, Owen can send ships back, they can get the others off, maybe once on the shuttle even they can wait long enough to bring Lily and Phil aboard and who knows how many others are innocent, wrongly convicted because technology said they were guilty and they couldn’t fight it or because someone didn’t fight hard enough for them or someone didn’t believe.
He reactivated her pc just before she sealed the suit over herself, breathing more air than she’d had in days, and even as she sucked in oxygen she heard his voice again, “Loveyou,godIloveyou. Don’t look back. Just run. They say that’s how little time we have.” And then he’d checked and they had twelve minutes to make it to the airlocks and it had taken him at least that long to come down. “Don’t look back. Just run. Run,” he said and she nodded to show she understood and followed him and the minute they were in the corridors the pc had failed. The station’s power was failing. Levels were breaking into darkness. They passed only a handful of prisoners and only a few of them grabbed for Owen and Phaesis, most were intent on their own desperate plans, there was no way to jump to a shuttle without a suit and no time to dock and create a seal and no time to force the people with suits to do so with the existing shuttle. People watched them go, intent on their own means of self preservation, intent on each other, intent on rage or despair or terror, and Owen and Phaesis ran.
She thought she might die here. The heat drove her and at the same time, heat made her claw at the faceplate, desperate to be out of the suit. She panicked, claustrophobic, but she followed Owen, silence between them and the clock running out and Owen had to believe, had to run, had to move forward without looking back, double checking. They had minutes.
The airlock was ahead of them. Phaesis caught sight of someone beside her, someone running, someone keeping up with her and turned fractionally, throwing herself off balance, there had to be a way to take them, she thought impossibly it was Phil and reached for the unsuited runner
as Owen reached for the airlock
as Owen turned
as the clock ran out.
She could almost taste the fear in his mouth. That one final second when he had to prove it to himself to believe. That last instant when he had to see her face, see that she followed. The inner airlock doors closed behind them. Owen hit the outer doors at the same moment he turned back to her.
He looked back.
Behind them, inside the station, someone hit override and opened the inner airlock doors.
Owen reached for her. She could see the shuttle behind him. Easy jump, a couple weightless feet.
Owen’s face. He was shouting. She could see her name on his lips.
The darkness of space rushed away from her. Force rushed over her. The darkness of the station tore her backwards, force pounded against her, her ears rang in the silence, her own scream filled her ears. It looked as if Owen rushed away from her when she knew she moved, pulled back into Elysium.
He stands at the edge of the station. Facing west. Even in space, the cardinal point is west. For endings. For loss.
He thought about cracking the faceplate. Thought about pulling the helmet off the suit, taking one last breath and letting it go into the vastness. He thought about untethering, letting the dying spin of the spacestation pull him tight against it or send him spinning into space or whatever it would do to him.
His pc flashed. Once. Dimly.
You’ll get me out of here, Phaesis said. I love you.
Late that day Elysium caught. The orbit stabilized, too close to Earth, rocky and chaotic and untrustworthy. There was still time for Earth forces to mount a rescue.
It they were going to.
Owen went to the court again, direct appeal, nothing he prepared, nothing he worked on, nothing written or digital. He had no more time. He went to them directly and he begged for his wife’s life.
This time he spoke directly to them. This time he didn’t accidentally send them the Ava Maria. This time they didn’t listen.
On Elysium, Phaesis had dinner with a convicted child killer who wore a flowered hat and a wrongly convicted rapist who looked up at her from time to time because she still chose to speak to him after what he’d done.
“You were afraid,” Phaesis said and she didn’t let on how hard it was for her to forgive him. “It’s understandable.” When Phil put his head down and stared at nothing and said nothing, just sat as if he’d turned to stone, she forced herself to speak again. “The station has stabilized. We have a little bit of time. Owen will get us out of here.”
He stands on Earth but he doesn’t look up at the sky. There’s not enough time. He’s working, out of his element, in over his head, he’s working every crazy idea that comes to mind. He’s bid on a shuttle on E-bay. He’s petitioned congress. He’s gone to the media with the story that Earth is letting the prisoners die and some of them are wrongly accused. He’s approached anyone with money to get other ships lined up. If nothing else, there will be shuttles before another 24 hours has elapsed.
She’s depending on him, but the music inside him has dried up.
She believes in him. He will not let her down.
He stands on Earth, working faster than he ever imagined possible. He is frantic, but centered. He will do this. He will get her back. Behind him, Ava Maria cycles. He didn’t cue it: It’s playing on its own.
He considers it a good omen.
He stands on Earth, working. Believing. He faces East, for new beginnings.
Jennifer Rachel Baumer lives, reads, writes, bakes and procrastinates with her husband and multiple felines in Reno’s North Valleys. Her work can be found in fantasy and science fiction magazines and anthologies, and in a number of short fiction collections from Monstrosity INK.