This story was submitted as part of India Science Festival’s flagship science fiction writing competition, ‘Spin Your Science’.
The old man hobbles with his cane on cobblestones, his shoes scuffing the stones in synch with his mouth scoffing, spitting out words of disdain and discontent. He stops by a lamppost, pulls a cigarette from the pocket of his tattered jacket, and strikes a match. Sulfur and phosphorus burn the hairs lining his nose before the tobacco catches the flame. His eyes, glassy fire. Inhaling deeply, he feels the smoke etch his lungs but doesn’t care. He pulls his coat tightly around him to stay the chill, looks up past the stratospheric glass dome to the stars beyond the rings of Saturn, and wishes out loud for another chance.
He can’t keep it secret anymore, but there’s nobody to tell. No one’s left from the colony… no woman in his life. The accident that took them, his fault. He wasn’t monitoring the nuclear reactor when the fuel elements failed, leaking radiation. He takes another draw, watches the smoke dance in the empty air of the terraformed landscape. His other hand is stuffed in a jacket pocket clutching an object wrapped in a clean linen napkin. He found it in a subsurface cave here on Enceladus while being derelict in his reactor operator duties. He reasoned that the computers had been doing such a competent job for the last forty years that he wasn’t needed in the control room. But system computers malfunctioned and he wasn’t there to scram the reactor, to mitigate the damage, or to keep the colonists safe.
The next supply and rescue ship from the Martian colony isn’t due for three more years despite solar sail technology; the solar wind isn’t ramping up enough until the sunspot maximum around 2080; emergency diesel generators won’t last a year before life support fails.
He pulls out the object, unwraps it to catch the full fluorescent light. It looks like an apple, this lump of hidden gold. He sees himself, but not as in a mirror, but within the thin layer of its skin, in its purple aura, its birefringence. Light dances into the golden layers of the hologram. Mesmerized, it holds him captive like a spell. But whispers, gentle susurrations, warn him to stop. Compelled by the enchanting images of himself in youth, and of the entire universe sparkling in the palms of his hands, he lets himself fall into it. A surge electrifies, cocoons him. He swoons in and out of time—the past, the present, the future—all folding on itself.