Yes, I asked her to be my girlfriend, and yes, I asked her if she would marry me, and to both questions she answered, “Yes.” But that was before I looked at myself with the eyes of the universe and saw nothing but emptiness. I never told her I loved her and honestly, I don’t know why. That’s probably why things turned out the way they did in the end.
“Don’t let go!”
“Rotimi! Can you hear me? Don’t let go!”
I can hear Tinuke screaming into the comms system as the shuttle silently disintegrates around me. A cluster of debris is beside me and what is left of the Orisha-1. Or maybe it is above me. Or below. I don’t know. Directions are arbitrary in space and I’ve lost my frame of reference. All I know is that the pieces of shattered steel and fibreglass are approaching me and the chunk of the Orisha-1 I’m fighting to hold onto. Meanwhile, the chunk is still accelerating, falling towards Europa faster than it can spin away and creating artificial gravity I need to fight against.
“Hold on. Don’t let go.”
She keeps screaming, crying, but we both know there is no point. I’m being torn apart in the blackness of an impossibly big universe, holding on to a damaged spacecraft and almost crying because I already know I will die out here alone, in the cold and the dark.
I knew I did not love Tinuke three months after we started dating, but we were comfortable enough with each other to not need much else. We worked together, had similar interests, and enjoyed each other’s company, but I didn’t love her and I never lied that I did.
I don’t know why I didn’t just tell her how I felt. Maybe I’m a coward. Maybe I was afraid of hurting her with the truth. Every time I worked up the nerve to tell her how I felt, I would look into the infinite, glistening blackness of her eyes and in them see something pleading with me not to let go of us. So I didn’t let go.
I hit the comms button on my suit, exhale, and talk.
“Mission failure. I repeat, mission failure. The Orisha-1 cannot dock with EES. Severe impact damage. I’m barely holding on here. Can someone tell me what happened?” It will take a few minutes for the electromagnetic waves my voice is riding to reach them. I close my eyes to shut out the blackness and the debris and the stars and the possibility of tears.
“We don’t know, but…” Tinuke starts before Elechi, the main Abuja dispatcher, interrupts her, trying to maintain some semblance of control. “Oga, EES A.I. is reporting a damaged starboard solar rotary joint. The main truss assembly broke off. We think that’s what hit you on approach. We’re still checking.”
There is the necessary silence. Then I say, “It doesn’t matter. Orisha-1 is completely gone. There is a cluster of debris moving faster than I am. It’ll hit me soon, in a few hours or so.” I wait.
“Don’t say that.” Tinuke pleads a few minutes later, “Pull yourself to something, anything you can use as a shield to protect yourself.”
I haven’t heard her voice this shrill and pained since I first told her I had volunteered for the African Union’s Europa exploration mission.
Drifting, Europa comes into my view. It’s such a beautiful, still thing from far away. It’s very blue and very brown and it’s wrapped in this wispy corona like God used an Instagram filter before he posted it up in the universe and that’s so funny I start to laugh and laugh and then I start to cry because I know I am going to die here.
“Sure. I’ll try.”
There is sluggish chaos and terrifying silence all around me. The fragments of the shuttle that cradled me and carried me here, so far from home, are coming toward me slowly, like apex predators. I pull on the tangled wires tethering me to the bulk of twisted metal and carbon fibre but it is accelerating away from me. I’m fighting a cosmological force and I’m losing. It feels like I’m fighting against the very essence of things. I think I already lost before the fight even began.
I tried to make myself love Tinuke. I took her out to her favourite places in Abuja; spent as much time as I could with her when we visited the proposed launch site in Yola, long before I knew I’d volunteer for the mission. We even spent the Christmas before we got married in her parents’ house.
I made love to Tinuke desperately, as if the act could emotionally arc a spark between us. I pulled and dragged and willed myself closer to her, but it was not enough. There was always an emotional space between us I could not overcome that left me feeling hollow and empty.
All I did was replace the emotional space with a physical one.
“I care for you more than anything in the world,” I told her two weeks before the launch, as I stroked her hair in our bed. She was crying. “You’re the best thing that has ever happened to me.”
It was the closest I ever came to telling her I loved her.
I couldn’t hold on.
I couldn’t let go.
I should have let go.
I let go.
The wires and cables slip from my grip slowly, the difference between my acceleration and the bulk of Orisha-1’s makes me drift away in slow motion.
“Ah! Rotimi! What happened?!” Tinuke’s words come after the long, lovely silence, throttled into a whine.
“I’m sorry Tinuke. For everything.” I pause as she starts to sob. And then I add, “I love you very much.” I owe her that much. She deserves that much.
I hit the comms button on my suit to shut out transmissions. Silence wraps itself around me like a blanket. I spin and drift lazily.
Something hits me.
Everything goes blurry for a few seconds or minutes or hours or even days, I can’t tell.
When I manage to open my eyes again, there are stars. So many stars. Ineffable spheres of faraway light. Little jewels set into a tapestry of darkness. Coral beads embroidered into expensive black aso-oke. The million eyes of a lonely and fragile god. They shine and glint and gleam in every corner of my vision and I see myself in every one of them. The tears fall.
I am alone, but I am no longer afraid.
I mattered to someone.
In the darkness and the cold, I finally let go of myself and cling to that knowledge.
WOLE TALABI is a full-time engineer, part-time writer and some-time editor from Nigeria. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Lightspeed, Omenana, F&SF, Terraform, Abyss & Apex, The Kalahari Review, the anthologies Imagine Africa 500, Futuristica Vol. 1 and several other places. He edited the anthologies These Words Expose Us and Lights Out: Resurrection and co-wrote the play Color Me Man. He currently lives and works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.