Gateways: “An Iteration” by John Keefe

TRANSCRIPT: This story is written by John Keefe. John has written comedy for several years for sites such as, Cracked, and Chicago Literati. He also writes radio serials for Locked Into Vacancy Entertainment. He describes himself as “Excruciatingly imaginative”. This is “An Iteration”.

Connor died briefly when his oxygen recycler failed. For thirty-five seconds, Connor’s
overworked heart stopped beating for the first time in forty-eight years. For seventeen of those
seconds, Connor’s brain received almost no oxygen on even the smallest molecular level. For six seconds, the innermost core systems of Connor’s brain ceased to operate, and contained within those six seconds was eternity.
Then the medical apparatus to which Connor was strapped injected him with a strong
adrenaline solution and exposed him to 250 joules of electrical charge. Seized by blinding and incredible awakeness, he grabbed blindly for the emergency release lever and found it. The lever pulled easily, and the doors to the medical coffin popped open with a pneumatic bang that blew out one of Connor’s eardrums. He slumped forward in his straps, focused on nothing but breathing, rocking his head gently against the pain and the whining of his deafened ear.
He detached his harness and thumped to the ground, and the pain in his skull felt like it
belonged to someone else. His vision starred, then darkened. Connor rocked his head against the steel and fell unconscious, and when he awoke, there was a stream of sunlight arcing before him, refracted by the shattered porthole windows. It was cold. He shivered some life back into himself, and then began pulling himself across the floor by as flinging his hands forwards and yanking them in, like grapnels. Dust and bits of charred metal rattled against him and clung to his ruined clothes.
Minutes later, Connor swayed shakily on two bare feet, with the display screen upon the medical pod telling him it was worse than it looked.
Connor bandaged himself as best he could. He wasted a roll of medical tape shrink-wrapping his torso, and an entire jar of burn cream coating his shoulder. Gingerly, he pulled a burn sleeve over his right arm, and he clutched the limb at the wrist and rocked side to side as he waited for the analgesic spray to alleviate the pain. He coughed again. A tooth fell out. He stepped over it as he climbed out of the medical bay and into the ruined hallway, unlit and cave-like save for the gentle sparking of severed wires, popping off like fireflies in the acrid gloom.
At the end of the hallway was a door, and Connor grasped the emergency release handle and covered his good ear with his good hand. The door popped off its tracks with the sound of a gunshot and drummed upon the steel floor when it landed. There were still emergency lights inside the server room, red utility bulbs oscillating slowly, sketching shadows of ruined server towers upon the walls.
It was this sight that introduced Connor, once again, to despair. For in the center of the charred and pulverized server towers sat four steel crates, and each of them was welded shut by such unreckonable gouts of heat that they resembled melted dice. Their keypads both electric and mechanical were charred into hieroglyphics, unusable. The steel of the lids had joined the bodies, entombing their contents until at least the invention of the diamond-tipped industrial drill. The heat- ablative coating had likely protected the contents – many hundreds of solar-powered touch screens, so intuitive that even monkeys and dogs and rats had been able to use them. And thousands of drives and disks, each color-coded, scented, and wrapped in uniquely textured plastic, and each with a small speaker that projected a noise in conjunction with the touch screens, such that even the basest sapient creature might understand that good things would happen if the two items were joined together.
Useless, now. These crates would fossilize beneath the topsoil for a billion years.
Hours, then. That’s all the time Connor had to deliver the completeness of human knowledge to whatever sapient creature was nearby. His mind began to race, outpacing his despair but only just. Forget Harry, he thought. Forget Tina, forget Williams, forget Garcia, forget Mei. They’re dead. Just like everyone else. Just like you were, half an hour ago. Remember?
He tried to remember. He spooled back the film of his memory, back to the months of space travel, budgeting fuel by each precious atom, timing bursts carefully, first to achieve lightspeed and then to surpass it. Back to the weeks of panic as the mission drew to a close, of worsening morale, of endless cycles of bitter fights and tear-soaked hugs. Of dwindling food stocks, of reconstituted protein gel harvested from the septic tank and flavored with packets of dust. Back to the hours upon hours of tedious, silent spacewalks, replacing solar panels perforated by meteors the size of sand grains, or antennae baked by radiation, replaced and then re-replaced and then finally returned to their original outlets when there were no replacements worth using.
Back to the final days. The days where there was no more RNR, no more sleep. Days where the survival of the entire craft relied on seven people performing complex tasks at peak efficiency for hours at a time, where any mistake by any companion would blink them all out of existence so quickly that none among them would have a word for the others.
Connor did not know who made the final mistake. He knew the portside airlock decompressed with the force of ten howitzers, killing two astronauts in an instant and dragging a third out into space a moment later. Twelve hours ago, Mei died in an emergency spacewalk when an exterior exhaust valve became loose and passed through her helmet at many thousands of miles per hour. Connor saw her heartbeat monitor go black with his own eyes in the medical bay. Her last words were “Re-attaching starboard panel G6” and then she was unreachable to anyone.
This is it, thought Connor. This is what it came down to.
Inside an hour, Connor was leaning upon some ancient mutation of a pine tree, as big in girth as the ship smashed to smoldering pieces in the crater before it. He panted heavily, taking in deep gulps of the freshest air he had ever enjoyed. It was an impossibly heady bouquet of scents, so ripe and fierce they could almost be tasted. Each gust of wind told a story, of rotting trees and the patterns of birds and even the murmurs of insects expressed as subtle notes barely apparent to his nose.
And now, from upwind, the scent of human sweat.
It was evening, and the slanted red sunlight fell upon human forms, creeping between the trees and scrub, silent as panthers, with clubs, spears, and lances raised on their shoulders in attitudes of readiness.
You’re the ones, thought Connor. The ones who came to look. That’s all I needed. Someone to come see…

He slumped against the tree and raised one arm to show them the blood. Slowly, the early men gathered around him, and a moment later, the women too. They eyed him warily, snorting the air with their odd noses. Connor slid to the ground and sat with his back to the tree and his audience rose their implements in one motion and then lowered them slowly. No kind of threat.
“Hello,” said Connor, and his witnesses grumbled at each other and cast side-eyes and bared their teeth.
“I had more to show you,” he said. “So much more. We’ve had an odd time of it. Us. You all and me.”
He rocked his head against the bark and felt the sun upon his cheek.
“We went up there,” he said, and he pointed with one finger, and after a few long moments, some of his peers cast their gaze from the finger itself to what it indicated – the crescent moon, hanging early in the darkening blue of the sky.
“We went further too. We went fast. So fast. Like this.”
His hands, the good one and ruined one alike, made strange patterns in the air before him, odd
circles and weird displays of dexterity. And at cue, he shot both hands forward and made a noise with his mouth and the men before him raised their tools at the suddenness of it, and even when they relaxed no eye was not upon him.
“We went so fast we went through time. That’s how life escapes. That’s how you beat entropy. It’s the only thing worth beating. It’s about getting closer each time.”
His hands rose again, and then fell in a welcoming gesture, open-palmed. And between the outstretched arms was a pyramid of dry wood in a circle of stones, the structure resinous and scented of pine.
“This is all I have to show you. Call it a head start.”
Hours later, and the strange man had died. The women each came forward to touch his
forehead,and then the men did too, so that they might know him. And each of them seized a handle of wood which had at its far end an angry ball of flame that the man had birthed from stones. They waved them nervously in the air and drew pictures with trails of flame that could never be seen again.
And in the days that came, they performed as the strange man had, clapping rocks at odd piles of wood, and trying to find in their own hands the artful motions he had shown them.

Karolyn Blake is an actor and improviser in Chicago with a passion for dogs, laughter, and inclusive spaces. She is a founding member of the Shrews Improv and proud to be a singer in the Shanty Shipwreck Show. You can see and hear her every month in Starlight Radio Dreams, recorded live at Mrs. Murphy and Son’s Irish Bistro and available wherever fine podcasts are downloaded.

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