139 Days. Is that really how long I’ve been here? It feels like eternity.
Fiona absentmindedly traced the figures on the screen of her calendar, with each day meticulously marked off, lost in thought.
139 days. Not even a tenth of her 5-year isolation period had passed, and already it felt like she was going crazy. And it wasn’t even halfway through this day! Of course, ‘noon’ was whenever she decided the middle of her day was, but she liked to keep it in sync with ‘normal’ days, whatever that meant.
139 days. That’s roughly…. one third of a year. It would be winter at home.
I wonder if it would be snowing.
She blinked, fighting off in the whirlpool of memories that now threatened to engulf her; it was too easy to lose time daydreaming here. Never stop paying attention to the calendar. Never forget about home.
She got up, taking her now-empty breakfast bowl with her, and mechanically started to tidy her tiny kitchenette. She could hear the whirring and grinding of the machinery that surrounded her in every dimension. Her thoughts drifted to the hundreds of others who must be around her – what time was it for them? What were they doing right now, whilst she was donning her rubber gloves?
She shook her head. Those sorts of thoughts weren’t helpful either. Leaning over, she turned on the radio with her elbow- it wouldn’t do to get it wet, not when mechanics had a waiting list of over a month.
The cool waves of jazz washed over her, and she let out the breath that she wasn’t aware she’d been holding. Turning back to the sink she scrubbed at the frying pan until every atom of slightly burned omelet had been removed from the blackened surface.
She appreciated these small luxuries – not everyone had access to cooking facilities. She certainly hadn’t initially.
I can’t believe I’m grateful for washing up. She almost smiled. If only my mother could see me now!
Water sloshed over the sides of the gloves, and her hint of smile vanished. She peeled the gloves off and set them to dry, annoyed. Why couldn’t anyone invent something useful, like actually effective rubber gloves? Honestly.
Bloody Einstein and his theories.
It was a novel feeling to be annoyed at the genius of someone that she respected so much.
Wiping her hands on her jumpsuit Fiona moved across to her living space. It’s ironic. This space would be worth so much at home. We could never afford to live here, not with Ollie, anyway.
The apartment was small, but had separate rooms for each activity, something she’d never experienced before. Her room growing up had been shared with her two sisters, and their baby brother. When he’d hit puberty he’d moved into their parents room, much to his annoyance. Still, it saved him from endless nights talking of romance, at least. She missed her siblings so much. Having grown up in such close proximity she had heard about every test at school, every crush, every hilarious moment for nearly two decades. Even after she’d moved out, moved on to higher education, they’d all kept in touch; her college was only an hour by bus from her home, and scarcely a week ever went by without a body keeping her couch warm.
When the program originally started, apparently inmates had still been allowed to contact their families. It was all regulated, of course, but at least they had been able to spend a few precious hours a month talking to their loved ones.
Around half a decade ago, there had been a breakthrough in engine technology and fuel compression. The speeds now attained by the modules now made effective communication impossible, and contact had been decreed ‘too complicated’. The programs had been halted, and the inmates were left, truly alone.
Family members were not even allowed to send written electronic messages; the content would no doubt hint at the rate that time was passing on Earth, which was precisely against the new purpose of the modules.
Families were only informed of the impending return of their loved ones six months before their intended arrival. This, apparently, was part of the punishment. ‘Effective’ doesn’t even come close.
Fiona tossed and turned in the grip of her nightmare.
It was one she experienced repeatedly, sometimes multiple times a night, and it never failed to distress her.
The dream always started pleasantly; a summers day, families gathered together in the park, a big school picnic to celebrate the start of the summer holiday. Fiona, clad in a light summer dress, her arm around Mike’s waist, laughing with some other parents.
A cloud slowly moves over the sun, throwing them all into shadow. Fiona pulls Mike closer, suddenly chilled, and looks around for Ollie. Suddenly, a scream tore through the babble of conversation.
A knot of children had formed near the picnic blanket, clustered around a small form in the middle.
Fiona freezes as Mike tears himself from her grasp and runs towards the children. She tries to follow but her feet aren’t working; they are tangled up in the blanket. She tries desperately to extricate herself, to reach Mike and the children, but the harder she struggles the tighter the knots become until she falls, hitting the ground hard.
She could still hear the screaming.
Fiona woke with a gasp, tears streaming down her normally stoic face.
It’s only a dream, Fi. It’s only a dream.
Maybe it will stop when I go home.
Fiona sat at her kitchen table, chewing the end of a stylus. She ran through a mental checklist for the activities she had planned for herself today.
She needed to do a thorough clean – her temperature had been spiking for the past two weeks, and despite the antibiotics that had been delivered she was still feeling incredibly weak. Despite that, today was her wedding anniversary, and that was something that she would never miss out, not even when faced with fever. She hoped ardently that she wouldn’t be allocated any last minute work that day; even though Mike couldn’t see her, she didn’t want to be tapping away at a computer for hours, inevitably brewing up a headache, or worse, crawling around in some dusty access panel. She needed today to be special.
She started by cleaning her living area. She extricated her tangled pajamas from her bed sheets, and put them in a wash.
Then, she started the deep clean: dusting, vacuuming, mopping. She didn’t have the most advanced cleaning equipment, but manual labor was far from alien to her. She settled into her routine while the radio blasted popular tunes from her teenage years. She even began to sing along.
I wonder what Michael is doing today?
I wonder what date this would be for him?
She thought back to their first anniversary
I can’t believe he tried to gel his hair. I don’t think I’ve laughed that hard since then.
The dinner they had eaten wasn’t extravagant, but it was delicious, cooked at the tiny restaurant round the corner from their flat. The smells rolling from its windows had often made it all the way to their living room. It hadn’t been uncommon for her to return to a delicate, savory aroma tinged with the promise of spices, only to find Mike proudly holding a bowl of plain spaghetti for dinner.
She had completely stopped her sweeping, finally indulging in the memories that she tried so hard to block out.
I can’t even remember what we ate that night.
They had had a carafe of strong red wine, and spent three hours giggling and staring into each other’s eyes.
I can’t believe I can’t remember what we ate. We’d been dying to try the food, ever since we first moved in.
It was like our first date, when we were teenagers.
Mike had had a moped back then. He thought he was so dangerous-looking. Unfortunately for him, the bike was moss green. Hardly a hells angel color.
At this image, Fiona dropped her broom as she went to wipe the tear out of her eye. She wasn’t sure if she was laughing or crying.
The broom clattered against the floor, rudely bringing here back from her memory trip.
I wish I could see him now. I wonder when now is?
She was tempted to plan activities for when she eventually landed. They’d always wanted to go camping on the beach. Perhaps we could go as a celebratory holiday? Heaven knows she wasn’t likely to be employed anytime soon after returning. I hope he’ll still be able to hike when I get back. I’m sure he will- he was always so careful about staying healthy. And there’s no upper age limit on hiking. I’ll just carry most of the bags, perhaps?
Or Ollie – maybe he could help us? He could bring a friend!
I wonder how old my little Ollie is now? Is he still even little?
She bent down to pick up the broom and stared around the room. Her eyes alighted on a sticky spot on the floor, and she knelt to scrub at it, but nothing could stop the cascade of thoughts that overpowered even the memories of Mike.
I wonder if he’ll even recognize me when I return?
He was three when she had left. Her heart had broken when her guard told her it was boarding time; that meant she had to let him go. He hadn’t understood fully what was going on, but he knew by the way Fiona was clutching onto him that everything wasn’t normal – he had been wriggling, uncomfortable in her unusually tight clasp. Peter had to gently prize him away from her, passing him to Fiona’s mother, before taking her into his arms himself.
“I’ll still be here. We will all still be here. We love you.” He had murmured into her ear, as they clung together, trying to take as much from the other as possible, to last them until their next encounter.
422 days for me. How many for him?
Today was a work day. Some of the pods’ lighting systems had developed problems and it was her job to fix them.
I feel like an intern all over again. I must be the most overqualified person ever to change light bulbs. Honestly. Why did I even get a PhD?
She’d been woken early by the blaring of the sirens.
Oh go away.
A recorded message from the helmsman droned on overhead, detailing what had gone wrong.
She buried her head under her pillow, ignoring the harsh noises radiating from the speaker above her head. After the 7th repetition of the message she sighed, clambered out of bed and groggily started to dress. By the 15th repetition, Fiona had traversed the room to her ‘phone.
“I’ll be right down”.
The tannoy finally stopped.
She allowed herself a small smile; despite her aversion to any pre-meridian time, she did enjoy the days she was allowed to leave her living space. Fiona had enjoyed tinkering with machines every since she’d been young. Her family had encouraged this – having a live-in handyperson had saved them a lot of money – so it had been only natural for her to study engineering at college. It was there she’d discovered her interest in Physics. Four years of inhabiting the library, both studiously and for her job as an IT assistant, had flown past. Boosted by scholarships she had flourished both personally and academically; it was no surprise to anyone that she’d been offered a spot in a top graduate school the same week she’d moved in with her long-term boyfriend, soon-to-be-fiancé.
The sliding door eased open, and Fiona stepped out onto the platform.. Apparently the module had traversed an asteroid field over the past week.
The platform hummed into life, and she eased into motion, accelerating quickly along the chute.
It’s incredible, with all the technology we now possess; we still can’t manage to avoid a few rocks wobbling about in space. We can make people time travel forwards, but we can’t avoid running into things. Honestly.
Fiona had learnt all about the development of the modules in her astrophysics classes.
The side effects of the new modules had been an unexpected one, but had made the punishment a lot more effective.
Originally, the program had been started as a way to deal with prisoners with repeated offenses, or guilty of serious violent crimes; these people never learnt from their stints ‘inside’, and most were in danger of committing further crimes – the numbers of within-prison attacks had increased dramatically over the previous decade, to everyone’s confusion.
The modules, as they were called, were individual cells that could be attached to a main ‘body’, and jettisoned off in to space. The modules had complete fluid recycling abilities, and could synthesize food in very little space; all that was needed was an energy source, and a couple of laboratories. The larger modules also had green-houses which yielded fresh fruit and crops, although no one was sure what percentage of it ever made it to the inmates.
In the first phase of the project, the module simply orbited Earth for a pre-determined number of years. The inmates were used as a source of labor to try and clean up the outer atmosphere – the amount of junk that had been left up there by commercial companies was disgraceful.
We’re convicts, not cleaners.
I wonder what I’m eating today
Fiona wandered over to the hatch to await her first daily allotment of food. The meals were meant to represent the traditional three served on Earth, but could get out of sync if they weren’t requested on time. Every now and again Fiona was given raw materials and allowed to cook; a reward for good behavior.
There had been a period in the beginning of her incarceration where Fiona had wished to punish herself further, and had stopped eating. That had been in her previous cell.
After a week of neglecting her portions she had had a mandatory visit from the doctor, who had put her on a drip and told her the frank truth: “There’s no point in trying to kill yourself here – we won’t let you, and it will only make you next few years more unbearable”.
She appreciated his rough compassion. As much as it hurt to say goodbye to the last vestiges of control she had, she acquiesced, and submitted to treatment. One month later, she had stopped resenting the covered dishes that appeared with disheartening regularity in her room. Another 3 months, and she’d been deemed trustworthy (but by whom she had no clue) and transferred to more comfortable quarters.
Despite this she’d still had to have mandatory weigh-ins bimonthly, and if her weight dropped below a certain threshold she would be served larger portions of food until the weight returned.
The program aimed to take care of its participants. They could only suffer on official terms.
The upside of this game was her interactions with the doctor. Besides him she rarely saw any other person- even when she worked she usually operated behind closed doors, and communicated via radio at most. The doctor was the closest thing she had to a friend on the module.
The light on the hatch glowed amber for a second, then switched to green as her meal arrived.
Today will be a good day.
This would be lovely with a glass of wine.
Fiona recoiled as the thought ricoched unbidden around her brain. Had it already been long enough that she could contemplate such a thing?
After the accident, Fiona had sworn off all alcohol. Up until now, she’d never wanted any. Especially not wine.
I promised myself I would never drink again, what on earth am I thinking? If it hadn’t been for that delicious white at the picnic, I might not even be here.
A shiver ran down her spine as she contemplated an alternate reality, one in which she hadn’t been incarcerated.
And that poor little boy might still be alive.
It’s only a dream Fi. Only a dream.
Another emergency message arrived over the tannoy – this time at a slightly more hospitable hour.
Fiona left her lunch dishes on the table and read over the brief that had accompanied the message – important problems were documented and transmitted back to head quarters. Fiona’s unique knowledge of hydrogen sails meant she was the most qualified person in existence when it came to dealing with any problems.
My pride and joy. One further irony of life.
When searching for a senior thesis, Fiona had gravitated towards a theoretical problem: sustaining fuel reserves in extra-planetary travel. Commercial space travel had been booming for a decade or so, but fuel preservation was a problem pervasive throughout the companies. Curiously, she’d turned her mind to this problem in quest of any solution. Eight years, two degrees and one child later she watched the maiden flight of Apollo VC, the first craft ever to have been built with hydrogen-sails attached.
The sails were composed of thousands of overlying layers of mesh. They ran parallel to the ship, so as not to increase the drag, and were things of beauty. Once a space craft was in motion, the nets blossomed out, and particles passing the craft were funneled in through a number of passages. The first barrier was a protective metal layer, to deflect any large, heavy particles that might damage the sails. Next was a set of meshes with pores so small that only hydrogen particles could slip through – anything larger was channeled away. Behind this was a further set of nets with pores too small for Hydrogen to pass through; the hydrogen molecules were then funneled into special fluted channels. These channels compressed the hydrogen and delivered it to the fuel tank, where it could be used to fuel the craft.
I hope it’s nothing too serious.
Fiona’s brow furrowed minutely as she scanned the report, then relaxed. It appeared there had been diminishing returns from the sails recently.
It’s probably just a blockage or a tear. What would they do without me, eh?
It’s only a dream, Fi. It’s only a dream.
But oh, I can’t wait until this nightmare is over. I wish I were with Mike. I wish I wish I wish.
In the dark, no one could see Fiona cry, and for that, she was grateful.
It’s surprisingly hard to do yoga for memory. I wish I’d memorized a routine.
Fiona lay in her version of the pigeon pose.
And why does this still hurt? I should be an expert by now!
She tried to do at least one form of exercise daily. She was allocated work too infrequently for her to be able to rely on it as a regular distraction, and there were only so many days she could spend dedicated entirely to reading.
That’s the main problem. I have too much time with myself here.
She wobbled upright, tried a few more poses, then gave up.
What to do now?
She ambled into her bedroom and started to arrange her blanket when she was distracted by a loud ping that echoed through the room, followed by an announcement:
“Please stand back from the door. Visitor approaching”
With a not-quite seamless purr, the mechanical door shuffled open and her doctor walked in.
“Hey there Fiona! How are you doing today?” He paused, waiting for a response, and noticed her puzzled expression.
“It’s time for your bi-annual physical! I know it’s a little early, but there’s another inmate who needs a lot of care, so we’ve had to reshuffle the schedule slightly. Does this work for you?”
Fiona nodded, mutely.
Do I have a choice?
She was never completely comfortable around the module’s staff. Although the doctor had been kind to her, especially after her initial wobble, they all reminded her of everything she’d lost and she couldn’t help but detest them for that.
To think, he actually volunteered to work on this monstrosity of a project. What could have made life on Earth so repulsive that he thought this was a good idea?
I wonder how much he gets paid….
He unrolled his sterilized paper town and laid it across her kitchen table. She stripped down to her underwear and perched on the edge, legs dangling.
“This shouldn’t take long, now you’re taking care of yourself! Any complaints I should know about?”
She shook her head as he worked over her quickly, checking her reflexes, pupil responses, listening to her breath, checking for moles or abnormal growths.
“Right, if you just want to pop on you clothes I just need to check your weight and ask you a few questions then we’ll be done!”
She slipped back in to her jumpsuit, somehow feeling more exposed than before.
“Step here please.”
“Thanks. Right – How have you been feeling?”
Well, that’s a question and a half.
It’s rough, but I guess I’m surviving. Am I allowed to say that? Am I allowed to be “okay”? Are murderers ever allowed to be okay? Perhaps I should still be tortured with guilt. Or maybe I should have got over it by now? He probably knows about the nightmares. I just don’t KNOW. I don’t know how I am!
Hold it together Fi. Answer the question.
“Just, fine? Fiona, I am aware that you have been struggling.”
The tension in the room rose perceivably as every muscle in Fiona’s body tensed.
She stared at the ground, unwilling to reveal her inner turmoil, swinging her legs distractedly.
“The three year mark is approaching, although I’m sure you know exactly when that will be”.
You could say that.
“It’s been very well documented that around this time inmates can start to lose touch with why they are here, and depression can set in”
She brushed her hair out from where it had fallen in front of her eyes, and raised them to meet his, slowly.
“And, I would like to talk to you about how you have been feeling. Will you cooperate?”
She paused, turning the matter over in her mind. Do I need to talk to him? Perhaps it will help with the nightmares. At this point, it would be a blessing to be able to sleep through the night. Just once.
She nodded. “Alright.”
He stood up, clearly relieved. “Wonderful! I will come round tomorrow, perhaps 26 hours from this time. Oh, and-” he paused, and pulled a pamphlet out of his pocket “You might want to practice some vocal exercises. Check everything is still working! We don’t want to exhaust you!”. He put the flimsy piece of paper down on her table, and walked out of her room.
As promised, the doctor returned.
Nothing has changed.
I just want to go home.
Fiona sat on the floor. Her meal eaten, her dish lay slowly congealing on the sideboard. She didn’t have the will to pretend to make the day count for anything.
No body will know. Nobody cares. No one even knows where I am.
Nobody even knows when I am.
It was a novel thought, and one she hadn’t posed before.
I wonder how Mike and Ollie are thinking of me? Have I aged in their minds? They haven’t in mine.
The most devastating part of module-based punishment was definitely the temporal jump upon return. The court-appointed counselor had gone over it with her, but it was a concept she still hadn’t fully grasped. I understand the physics, I know technically what will happen, but in terms of my life I have no idea how this will work.
Fiona had first encountered special relativity via a series of incredibly tough problem sets her sophomore year of college. She still remember the hours she spent in her little booth, surrounded by half-chewed pencils and the smell of stale coffee. Those few weeks hadn’t endeared her especially to the topic, but her next professor had been a much more proactive lecturer, and before the end of the year special relativity had full captured her imagination.
The main principles of it had been established in a series of experiments over a century prior to her lectures, but hadn’t been useful for anything until hydrogen fuel cell technology had advanced to the point where near-speed-of-light, ‘c’, travel was possible.
Now, the modules travel across the galaxies at 0.999c, collecting data for scientists on Earth whilst housing some of the most notorious criminals of the time.
Once the modules leave Earth, and begin super-fast travel, the module and the earth experience time at different rates. The faster the module travels, the slower it experiences time in comparison to Earth. This means, for a 5-year sentence, the Module’s inmates are incarcerated for 5 years, but Earth could move on anything from 5 to 5000 years, depending upon the speed reached by the module.
This was how modern day politicians dealt with criminals: they parceled them off for any number of years, hoping that the return date would be after they were out of office. The details of each flight were kept secret, and no one knew when each particular module was destined to return.
It was such a potent punishment that serious crime had dropped dramatically in countries that utilized it.
Fiona scrubbed the tears fro her face with one hand, the other clasped firmly on the steering wheel of her car. The hospital was only a few miles away, but the streets were narrow and she couldn’t get above 30 mph. She fixed her eyes on the road ahead, trying to ignore Ollie writhing in pain on the back seat. His moans of pain were driving her to distraction; she was desperately trying to tune it all out, thinking only about the patterns of green and red lights ahead of her.
I can do this.
Fiona stared at the screen in front of her, with the stylus placed so neatly on the right.
Her hand trembled.
She wasn’t even sure what she was meant to write. In the past three weeks her flashbacks had been relentless, to the point where consciousness and unconsciousness were equally nightmarish. She longed for sleep, but was terrified for what it might bring.
The doctor had told her that she would never come to terms with her punishment if she never addressed the crime. Accident. Whatever it was.
Maybe it’s finally time to think about it.
I didn’t even see the boy’s face. I took his life, yet I never saw him alive.
She knew what he looked like. His smiling, schoolboy face had been plastered all over her trial. She knew exactly what he looked like; the image would stay with her until she too went to her grave.
She could exactly describe his mother too; the heart-broken, vicious woman who had sat and wept in the courtroom. The woman who had to bury her own son instead of see him graduate. The woman who had pushed for a verdict of ‘reckless manslaughter’ despite all the presented evidence.
All the eyewitnesses had testified that the boy had run out into the road suddenly – there would have been no way to avoid him. However, once the court had been told of the traces of alcohol that had been found in her system, all potential sympathy had vanished.
“What a terrible mother” “It could have been her own son!”
“She should have known better…”
She could still hear the catcalls from the stands.
“Happy Anniversary, love.”
Fiona blew a kiss to the universe, hoping somehow it would reach Mike.
It’s nearly over. I’ve survived. And I will soon be back in your arms, I promise.
Fiona had requested some special food for tonight, and had even been allowed the use of a solitary electronic candle. Real fruit. Mood-lighting. What more could a woman want, besides her husband?
The radio was on, as always, and jazz once against slid through the speaker, filling the room with warm brassy notes and delicate piano riffs. Fiona enjoyed the company. She imagined each artist individually, passionately playing his instrument, needing nothing but the will to keep going.
Fiona let her hair down, and it fell in soft amber waves, contrasting with the gray of her jumpsuit. She ‘lit’ the candle, and swayed around the room, imagining herself in the arms of Mike.
What should I do?
Fiona’s eyes opened unwillingly. She’d been fighting with sleep for the past few hours.
If I could just sleep, this would go so much faster.
The numbers on her digital clock eased forward, impossibly slow.
After an agonizing few minutes, she resigned herself to consciousness and got up. Her breakfast was waiting for her, but she had never been this ambivalent towards food.
Oh, how prison has changed me.
She mechanically moved around her space. Her bag had been packed for the past three days, but with nothing else to occupy her she decided to repack it anyway.
Each jumpsuit was shaken out, straightened, and re-rolled. She took out her toothbrush, decided she may as well clean her teeth, and disappeared off into the bathroom.
Even when taking the time to polish each molar, incisor and canine individually, she could only stretch the process out to fifteen minutes. She inspected them a little longer, scrubbed her tongue, and slowly dried the brush off and replaced it in the clear plastic baggie.
She washed her face, and then decided to have a full shower. Perhaps the warm water would calm the butterflies beginning to circle slowly inside her stomach.
Her bag was placed exactly by the door. Her chair and table were exactly aligned with the tiled on the floor.
She began to pace; up and down and up the room.
Up and down. Down and up. Up and down.
Down and up.
The feeling of nausea was building up in her stomach, fighting with the now racing butterflies.
Up and down and round and round.
Oh God Oh God Oh God.
Fiona sat in the middle of the floor, unwilling to disturb the perfectly arranged furniture around her.
Suddenly, the tannoy came on and a voice cracked out:
“Fiona Jane McLewis, this is your one hour landing announcement. We are about to return to Earth’s gravitational field. Please drink the water provided and strap yourself into the wall harness. Descent begins in 5 minutes.”
She had completely forgotten that there would be turbulence on the way down. She scrambled to her feet, suddently noticing that a small tumbler had arrived through her access hatch. She drank it quickly and then walked to her bedroom, where there were straps and a headrest protruding from the wall next to her bed. She quickly strapped herself in, just as the two-minute warning sounded out. She began to mentally count down in her head, but the numbers grew fuzzy as she passed out.
Standard procedure, to drug the water.
Her eyes opened slowly, and the world came back into focus. She had been released from the restraints, and was lying on her bed. The doctor was bending over her, and he proceeding to check her pupils’ responses.
“Do you think you can stand?”
She sat up, a little shakily at first, but her strength rushed back to her once she realized where she must be.
“Have we docked?”
He looked at her, a little surprised to hear her speaking so eagerly.
“Yes. They will bring your belongings through soon.”
My… my clothes!
She looked down at her jumpsuit, suddenly embarrassed. She had forgotten that jumpsuits weren’t the usual dress code for everyone.
“What year is it?”
He looked at her, his expression suddenly very guarded. “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you that. I don’t even know – it’s part of the process.” And with that, he left.
Fiona heard a clunking noise, and got to her feet. A package, in a larger plastic bag, had arrived in her room. She picked it up and unwrapped it, her fingers trembling. She unfolded her clothes, taking time to examine each piece carefully, and then got changed; the zippers and buttons felt clumsy at first, so unused was she to anything other than Velcro.
She slipped on her favorite silver slippers, and suddenly felt like Cinderella.
Now dressed, she folded up the jumpsuit for the last time, placed it carefully on the bed, and left.
For the first time, the door slipped open beneath her fingertips, and she stepped outside to find the guard waiting to escort her out.
In the confusion of her arrival, her nerves had been muted, but they came rushing back as she walked along the cool tunnel. She noticed that it had been styled after an airport, complete with ‘Arrival’ and ‘Departure’ signs.
They stopped where the passport check would be. Here, she had to scan her fingerprints, give them a swab from her mouth, and sign a few last documents. The lady at the desk seemed to be typing away for hours, one hand flipping between the keyboard and a cup of coffee placed strategically next to her desktop. Finally, Fiona was processed; she was handed back her driving license and passport (now amended to explain her age) and told she was free.
The guard didn’t move.
Where do I go?
She looked around, finally spotting the door at the other end of the hall. She began to walk towards it, suddenly acutely aware of the others walking alongside her. Some were shuffling, as if unwilling to accept this final step. Others were running; for them the wait had already been too long.
As one young man sprinted past her, Fiona too was overcome by everything and gave in to her adrenalin. She didn’t care what was out there anymore; she just had to be out of this terrible system. She flung herself towards the door with all of her strength.
Through the door, and out into the crowds.
She looked around for Michael, swinging her head side to side, scanning the crowd for his familiar face. She had tried to age it with her mind, but besides from adding some gray to his rich, brown head of hair, she was looking for the same man.
She slowed, unable to spot him in the small crowd.
A middle aged man shuffled forward, looking at her curiously.
He held up a small sign, and a bouquet of tulips.
She ran towards him and flung her arms around his neck. “Mike I have missed you so much, I can’t believe you’re here…” The words began to pour from her as if competing with the tears now flowing down her face.
He prized her off, shaking his head.
“Fiona… it’s me. Oliver.”
Time stood still as she took a second look at the man in front of her.
“I’m sorry Dad couldn’t make it. He’s not allowed to leave his nursing home anymore. His heart isn’t strong enough”
A lifetime of opportunities collapsed in front of her. All the hopes she’d been nursing, that life could continue once she was free, collapsed into nothing. She didn’t even recognize her own son; her husband had aged beyond her father!
There’s no way they would have survived the wait. I never got to say good bye…
“Oliver? Baby Ollie. How….how long?”
“It’s been just over 50 years since you left. I’m so sorry Fi- mum”.
Oliver had noticed the spasm of pain that had crossed Fiona’s face when he started to address her formally, and adjusted; the word felt unfamiliar in his mouth.
“I didn’t know. I had no idea.” Fiona grasped at words, finding it increasing hard to speak.
Oliver looked a little taken aback at this revelation.
“Do you want to go see him? Dad?”
It was in the car driving to Michael’s new home that Fiona finally began to understand the nature of her punishment. When you take a life, you pay with a life.
Although she had returned to Earth, she would never be able to go home.