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Time in Lieu

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Erica was impressed. “Three weeks? Three whole weeks! How’d you get that approved?”

“It was easy, I’ve been saving for two years so I’m owed.” Janice leant closer. The tea room was less crowded than usual but still the hubbub of voices made normal conversation difficult. “I’ve also got some time in lieu so I just made a little song and dance and hey presto, three weeks leave.”

“I can’t imagine it! What are you going to do with yourself?”

“Oh I’ve an idea, something a bit different.”

 

“Your suite, I hope it is to your tastes.” The steward held Janice’s bag as she stepped into the room. Circular, barely four meters wide the floor, walls and domed ceiling were all a uniform dull grey. Dominated by a double bed and recliner on what appeared to be a Persian rug, a small bedside table and lamp completed the furnishings. She went to the chair, sinking into the soft enfolding leather and smiled.

“It’s beautiful, I can’t believe all this is just for me.”

“Thank you ma’am. They are all period pieces, the rug a twentieth century antique. If I could just demonstrate how the services are controlled … .”

 

“They leave weekly so it does fit your plans.” The travel agent was all smiles, as well they should be given the cost Janice thought. “I’m quite excited for you, I don’t believe we’ve ever had one of these.”

“I’ve been planning this for years.” She squirmed, spreading her elbows to eke out a little more space. “You can book it for me today?”

“Of course! I just need some details … .”

 

“… plus voice activation.” The clip of the steward’s heels rang from the steel plate as he placed the control down on the bedside table. Not for him to walk on the rug, that would never do, it was the guest’s privilege.

“It seems simple enough. Could you just go through the menu options again? I’d hate to be stuck on stir fry or foie gras the whole time.”

“Of course ma’am,” beaming at being able to once more show off his knowledge “if you would care to press the yellow … .”

 

“The Polaris, the luxury I can understand, but she’s doing this!” Erica slid the flimsy across to Deidre.

“Seriously? You just never know, you think you know someone then they go and do something like this.”

“I know, it’s so perverted isn’t it?”

“Utterly anti-social.”

“I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.”

 

The wall closed behind the retreating steward, sealing Janice in. She took off her clothes, picking up the thick bathrobe before sending the closet back into the floor. She hesitated, thinking better of it. Hell, she’d signed up for this and her nakedness was symbolic really. She allowed herself a small giggle as she threw the bathrobe on the chair.

 

The first meal on the Polaris told her where she was. Silver cutlery, gold trimmed china and crystal glasses were light years from tube paste food and crowded benches. She’d felt at ease rapidly, everyone else assumed a certain level of social standing simply by being here. It never crossed anyone’s mind she was simply ordinary.

“My dear, how exciting!” gushed Doctor Martens. “It is something I’ve never heard of, how could they have this and not actually let on?”

“It’s not advertised,” Janice said “practically no call for it I’m told.”

“Well, I have no doubts.” Mrs Martens interjected “I don’t think there would be, I mean, how on earth could one expose oneself like that?”

“Oh I don’t know dearest, it would be quite the experience I think.” he replied.

“But all by ones’ self? My dear” taking Janice’s hand in hers “what a brave, brave soul you are.”

 

She filled the bowl to the brim with hot soapy water, an exorbitant luxury. She’d toyed with the idea of a shower too but no, waiting would make it so much sweeter. She dunked her face again, blowing bubbles and trying to laugh at the same time. Drying her face she sent towel and bath fitting back.

The dull grey room now changed to pale orange. Janice looked about in anticipation, five minutes left. She lay on the recliner wrapped in the absolute silence, tilting back until she was gazing up at the domed roof.

 

“It’s a real possibility in our profession, so we all do it, although only for a day and not in the same luxurious surroundings.” Captain Ström continued over dinner. “Some see it as one of the little perks of the job, others more as a test of endurance.”

Janice smiled, enjoying her last meal on the Polaris. One day out, they would part ways in a few hours to be reunited sixteen days later. “I can understand, it’s hard to explain how I feel. Excited, nervous, maybe a little scared.”

“Exactly how I felt. Believe me it’s lifechanging, transformative. It’s not lightly done, and you by choice.” He raised his glass. “A toast to your courage and openness.”

 

The room changed from pale orange to soft blue, lights fading, the signal. Janice was truly by herself, the Polaris many lightyears away. Involuntarily she gripped the arms of her chair, tensing but then slowly relaxing, talking to herself. It’s what you planned for, the scrimping, saving, stupidly long working hours, all for this, for the fear and trepidation of this moment and those beyond, for the stupendous solitary silence. Even so a lifetime of being no more than two meters from another human being, living cheek to jowl to sweat stained stinking body with thirty billion other people left an indelible, vociferous other inside her. Her heart and soul knew she was the only person within five hundred lightyears, cocooned in her pale blue goldfish bowl. It was only her mind that needed convincing.

The floor became transparent, leaving her on a magic carpet suspended in an inky darkness strewn with thousands of points of light, russet pink nebulae bursting through darkened gas lanes searching for nearby yellow suns. She imagined herself in some enormous snow-globe, eternity behind her, blue shielded roof above. Breathtaking in scale, heart rendingly empty yet full, a soft-spoken command and the furnishings vanished leaving her floating naked to the cosmos.

 

“Not quite, it is something more, quite more.” Captain Ström had the pleasure of Mrs Martens’ company on the bridge, watching the small dot recede rapidly on the Polaris’ tracking screen.

“I’m not sure I could, I get all overwrought if I’m by myself in an elevator never mind out there. To each their own, I hope she enjoys it.”

Captain Ström gazed wistfully at the tracking screen. “Oh she will indeed Mrs Martens, she will indeed.”

 

Janice had lost all sense of time. Captured by the stars below she felt herself changed, the walls and roof now fading rapidly until they too were gone. She now seemingly hung unprotected, alone, utterly exposed to and wrapped in the universe.

Her mind rejected what her eyes told her as her heart leapt, rejected it again even as acceptance dawned, realisation that the stars strung out as diamonds on velvet behind her were not so in front. She remembered to breathe, short ragged breaths heaving oxygen through her body to eyes transfixed, irises huge dilated black orbs soaking it in, feeding it all to her now ravenous mind and soul.

Directly above the eagle nebula hung gloriously as if waiting to pounce, vaulted burning buttresses cradling, enfolding her. Soaring towers of interstellar gas surrounded her, burning luminous green, red, indigo blue as millions of young close-packed stars fed their furious growth, a cosmic nursery birthing blue white life, beauty, belonging.

Janice felt the years fall, the layer upon layer of confining communal conformity peel away, the griefs and frustrations of one small life erased and uplifted by the infinite, finding herself as she lost herself. Her tears matched only her laughter, the soundtrack of her rebirth.

 

END

 

 

Biography.

 

Ever since he could read Ishmael A Soledad has read and watched science fiction and thought it was time to give back instead of just taking. His work has appeared in Aphelion, Antipodean SF, Far Cry Magazine, Ibn Qirtaiba, Planet Web Zine, and Quantum Muse. In between writing, working and reading he likes to daydream he's a rock star and annoy the neighbours with his guitar collection. He lives in Australia with his long-suffering wife and psychotic cat, and can be found on Twitter (@Ishmael_Soledad) and Wordpress (https://hawkingradiationblog.wordpress.com/).

 

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