Every day, it goes like this: I wake to golden light, with the surface of a star just beyond my wide viewport window. As the hours pass, a supernova forms, enveloping my little research vessel. I check my monitoring equipment, I eat my favorite meals, and then in the evening, I die.
I’m quite content with this looped life. I have learned to sunbathe in the late afternoon rays of the supernova, stretching out my belly like a cat. The shifting plasma and dancing flares outside can mesmerize me for hours. When the end comes, there is no pain, just the sensation of bright acuity that comes before the burn. At times, I idly wonder if this is my heaven.
I know my days well, so I am caught by surprise when an astronaut falls past my window. Seeing that dark figure against the warm dawn-like glow of the dying star jolts me out of my sleepy reverie. This is new. This is wrong.
I watch, curious, as the astronaut reaches toward my ship. At the closest point of her trajectory, I can see inside her helmet. Her eyes are wide and desperate. Her mouth moves, speaking words I cannot hear.
I wonder how I must look to her. It’s been a long time since I have thought of myself through the eyes of another.
Trapped on course by inertia, the astronaut soars past and is incinerated in the molten sun. Her death is barely a blip on my solar data readout. It’s a shame, and fascinating, but by the next today, it will be as if she had never existed.
I burn, and wake, with no time at all in between. The one thing I miss is my dreams. I can’t have them anymore, no matter how long I nap on the warm metal that lines the single room of my ship. Seeing that astronaut felt like a dream. My memory of her will be trapped in this loop with me for all eternity. Another immortal death.
Although I try to go about my day as normal, I can’t help but watch the clock. The last pack of dehydrated ice cream, which I have enjoyed every day, tastes like sour ash this time.
Seven hours into the loop, the astronaut falls past my window again. I press my palm to the thick glass, appreciating the power of my ship’s heat shielding. My window is cool and impenetrable. The astronaut reaches for me. The astronaut burns.
It’s been a dozen loops now, and I can safely conclude that the astronaut has been trapped in my little temporal bubble, sucked in like a moth to a flame. I watch her fall from the safety of my starship home and wonder if she remembers as I do. Each day, her mouth moves in the same way.
She falls again. Dark sweat-slick hair sticks to her forehead and globules of tears float freely in her helmet. This time, I’m ready with a camera, recording her last words.
I play back the video, acutely aware of my role in this dance. If I were a better person, I wouldn’t need to know what the astronaut was saying in order to rescue her. If I were a worse person, it wouldn’t matter either. There’s no better or worse person here, though, just me, and I want to know.
The video of the astronaut plays on all my monitors as the star begins to swell behind me. I watch myself mirrored in the webcam display and try out different sounds.
“Help” is easy enough to figure out. “Help me,” she’s saying, over and over again. It’s the last word that catches my attention and spurs me into action.
“Help me, Amaranthe.”
How does she know my name?
The astronaut falls again, and this time I catch her. The mechanical arm on the side of the ship was meant for sample collection, but I know the astronaut’s exact trajectory and speed, so it’s easy enough to nudge her close enough to grab onto my ship.
Hand over hand, she approaches the airlock. I can feel my heart racing as the doors hiss open, but I keep to procedure, and wait for everything to stabilize. My hand trembles on the unlock button. It blinks green, and I press it.
The astronaut steps inside and removes her helmet. Her eyes are clear and golden as a nebula, her hair is as black as space. Little burn marks mar her cheeks where her own tears boiled against her.
“Amaranthe, thank God,” she says, breaking two hundred days of silence. “I’ve been trying to rescue you.”
“Rescue me?” My eyes narrow. If this stranger disrupts my peaceful loop, I’ll never forgive her. Maybe I should have left her falling outside. “What do you mean? Who are you?”
“My name is Jet,” she says as she strips off her gloves. “Just Jet. I’m part of the crew on a long-haul ship, just happened to be passing through this system. Not a scientist or anything. Your looping nova here is a bit of a tourist destination now.”
“A tourist destination?” I repeat, feeling suddenly exposed. This isn’t heaven, then: peace does not have an audience.
“Yeah, but no one’s gotten close enough before to realize there was someone still alive on this ship. I got curious, tracked down the crew manifest.” Jet sat down to tug off her boots. “So here I am. Miscalculated a little, though. Like I said, not a scientist. Thanks for grabbing me, else I’d have burned right up.”
She doesn’t remember. Clearly there are rules to this game of time, but no one gave me the handbook. I am a little grateful, though. Her deaths were not at all like mine. I doubt her mind would have survived such a fate. I try to choose my words carefully.
“What does it look like from the outside?” I cross the ship and place a hand against my window. The star’s roiling surface is just beginning to flare out of control.
“A bubble, pretty much. Blinks fast as hell. Something’s weird with time and space in here. Can’t get signals in, can’t get signals out. Not even that nova can escape.”
“But you’re here.” I turn to face her, backlit by the dying star. Wispy curls frame the angles of my face. I was beyond age, beyond beauty, beyond change. I’ve enjoyed becoming essence itself. Now I can feel the thoughts I left, creeping back into my psyche.
“I thought, if you made it in, maybe I could too.” She shrugs. “It was worth a shot. What happens when you try to fly out?”
“I haven’t tried,” I admit.
“Oh.” Jet falls silent. She rakes a hand through her short hair and stares at the budding supernova. I don’t blame her for her disappointment. There’s a reason I’m better off alone.
“I’m sorry you went to all that trouble for me. I’ll figure out how to get you back to your ship.”
“Okay.” Jet sighs and stops unbuckling her spacesuit. “I guess it’s none of my business.”
“It’s not,” I agree.
She sits on the floor and contemplates this while I go about my day. I eat the last packet of dehydrated ice cream, check my instruments, and do a little yoga by the light of the solar flares. For a while, I forget that I am not alone.
“What is it like?” Jet asks. I flinch. Nothing unexpected has happened for almost a year of todays, and I’m not used to newness anymore.
“What is what like?” I move into the next yoga pose, arching my spine and straightening my arms into a perfect warrior stance. I’ve had plenty of practice, after all.
“Dying,” says Jet. Her bravado cracks, just a little. “The loop. All of it. I have a crew, a family–when the star goes nova, will I just disappear?”
“You won’t feel a thing,” I say. It’s answer enough for all her questions.
That night, we burn together.
Jet is still there when I wake up. I think I’m dreaming before I remember that I can’t. She wakes a moment after I do, blinking hard and staring at her hands. She’s back in her spacesuit. The burn marks on her face are the same as before, and I feel a stab of guilt when I realize they will never fade. Maybe there’s some salve in the med kit.
“Did you feel the supernova?” I ask, stretching languidly. The star is at its dimmest, and the ship has a pleasant chill.
“No, you were right.” Jet takes off her helmet and presses her cheek against the window, peering up and away. “It’s like it never happened.”
“You’d better get used to that. I don’t have to worry about food, though, or air, or fuel. It’s a nice little life.”
Well, it was, until Jet showed up. Now everything is wrong. I hope that if I’m polite and help her leave, things can go back to normal. The stability of the last cycle is a good sign. If the loop is localized to my ship, it should stay when Jet departs.
Jet rummages through my rations and pulls out the last packet of ice cream.
“Mind if I have this?” she asks.
“I mind.” I cross the room and take it from her hands. “Listen, Jet, I’ve got a routine. I don’t mind if you stay here for a few loops, but please stay out of my way.”
“Right. Sorry.” Jet’s frown is a little crooked. It’s kind of endearing, but not enough to make me give her my food.
Instead, I start going through my files, looking for a way to send her home. It’s a nice challenge, actually. I haven’t done any good, hard calculating since the looping started. Jet tucks herself respectfully into a corner and watches the star seethe as I work.
I can’t find a solution before the nova swallows my ship, but that’s okay. I’ve got no shortage of second chances.
“Hm?” Jet rolls over on her blanket, propping her head up with one arm to face me. It’s been a few loops now, and I hate to admit it, but this strange freighter woman is growing on me. I want her to know the truth, at least, so she doesn’t make the mistake of getting attached to me in return.
“In the sun. Not like we die together, but before, when you were falling. You died a dozen times before I caught you.”
“That’s alright. I’m sure you tried your best, and I don’t remember it anyway.”
“I didn’t try. I let you fall.”
I catch the hint of a crooked frown on Jet’s face as she turns away. She runs her hand over her scarred face, over the bright red skin of brand new burns. When she turns back, she’s smiling.
“Well, hey,” she says, “I guess I can’t fault you for that. No one tried to rescue you either, did they?”
“I let you die,” I stammer. “Over and over again. You’re not upset by that?”
“A little, sure, but it makes sense. Besides, I’m here now. Some rescuer I turned out to be.”
Her compassion turns my stomach. I wish that instead of me, mission control had sent a saint. Maybe then Jet would have a worthy match.
I don’t reply, but I get up and set about my calculations. I work twice as hard today, calculating fuel reserves and flight trajectories sufficient for one suited woman to leave the gravitational pull of the star. Jet deserves to go back to her freighter crew. They must miss her. Anyone with half a heart would miss someone like her.
This time, I can sense that I’ve almost got it right. I face my fiery death chanting equations, burning them into my memory so that they at least will survive the transition back to morning.
As soon as I wake, I rush to my console and type out everything I remember. The adrenaline pumping through my system makes everything feel fresh, electric. I’m excited, I realize. I want to solve this puzzle and save the day. It’s the first goal I’ve had in a long time.
“Did you figure it out?” Jet hovers over my shoulder, peering at my monitor and tugging at the buckles on her spacesuit.
“Not yet.” I hunch my shoulders and type faster. “Trying to remember what I did before.”
Jet retreats. When I finish recording the last number, I turn in my chair to find her slumped against the viewport window. Silent tears stream down her cheeks, following the tracks of her burns.
“What’s wrong?” I stay in my seat, keeping as much distance as I can from her in this severely restricted corner of spacetime.
“I’m sorry.” Jet swipes her sleeve over her face. “Did I disturb you?”
“I finished what I remembered. You can talk to me, all right? I may not be the best company, but I won’t bite.”
“I’m scared, Amaranthe,” Jet admitted. “I don’t want to get trapped here. My crew must be wondering what happened to me.”
“I’m sure they are.” I want to turn back to my monitors, but Jet is still looking at me. I don’t know what else she expects me to say, so I speak my mind, as usual. “Why did you leave them for me?”
“Not for you, exactly.” Jet’s cheeks flush. “I just wanted to do something heroic, for once. I thought this was my chance. Swoop in, save a damsel in distress, come home victorious. Guess I didn’t really think too hard about the details.”
“I see.” So Jet isn’t a saint, after all. She’s a martyr, and a martyr in vain, because I don’t need to be rescued. Her foolhardy decision makes me like her more than her selflessness does. Her unhealed tear-burns tug at what few heartstrings I have left. “I’ll get you back to your ship. Just give me a little more time.”
She nods and wraps her arms around her knees.
I finish my calculations around the time Jet usually falls past my window. If she suits up with a gas tank, and aims its nozzle just so, Jet will head in the direction of where she told me her ship was docked. If I get my research vessel up to speed, and give her a boost, she might just break out of the bubble. From there, she can hail her crew.
When I relay this plan to Jet, she cries again. A lump forms in my throat as I hand her the canister. I swallow hard and start up the thrusters.
“You could come with me,” Jet says. “Leave the ship behind, leave this tourist trap to its loops. You’d be welcome on my crew.”
“No thank you.” I smile. “I’m happy here.”
For the first time since Jet’s arrival, I wonder if I really am.
Jet nods and steps into the airlock. We reach the calculated velocity. I open the outer doors, and for a moment Jet falls across the starry void, just like the first time I saw her. Then she opens the nozzle on her gas tank and flies with purpose, out of sight.
I die alone again.
Jet isn’t there when I wake up. My plan worked perfectly. The gas canister she took isn’t with the others, proof positive that escape is possible. I could leave this loop at any time. It’s just that no one would want me to.
The supernova monitoring mission wasn’t intended to be solo, but no one signed up to join me. I get it. I’m the only person I get along with, no matter how hard I try. After I mistimed my return course and woke up unburnt behind cool glass, it was easier to stop trying.
I pull my ice cream out of my rations and sit in front of the window, waiting to see if Jet will fall past again, even though I know she will not. The hours come and go. I try to do my yoga, but I keep seeing her out of the corner of my vision, with her burnt tears and her golden eyes.
Jet doesn’t fall. The star is as lively as ever, and galaxies spiral away in the empty distance. The false sunrise of the nova is unmarred. Everything is normal. This is exactly what I wanted.
In the afternoon, I reach for the last packet of ice cream, but it’s gone. I ate it already. Everything is normal, but I’ve been set askew, knocked off course by Jet’s brief visit. Tears prick my eyes like sunspots on the star. I can’t figure out why I’m crying, and I hate it.
Later, when I am calm, I reevaluate the situation. I just need a little more time, that’s all. I was unsettled when the loop first started, too. It’s normal for change to disrupt a routine, but my life will go on in the way that it always has. There’s nothing left to worry about.
With a sigh, I take my pillow and curl up in the largest shaft of solar light. I sleep my dreamless sleep and do not wake even when I die.
I miss her. I’ve spent loops and loops trying to deny it, but I’ve never been good at lying. I haven’t had a friend in years, even before I entered this alternate temporality. There’s no one out there who misses me. Even mission control never really cared if I lived or died, so long as I brought them their data.
Jet had seen me, just a name on a manifest, and she had given her life for me. I don’t believe she really cared who I was at first, but after, in the ship–
She saw me. She saw my coldness and my rigidity, my routines and my logic; she heard me say I had let her die, and still she offered me a place on her crew.
So yes, I miss Jet. I miss how she made me feel, and I wish I had recognized it earlier. I’ve spent days running the numbers on my situation, on this little bubble universe, and I believe that it will collapse if I leave it behind. The supernova will escape to rage unchecked through the system.
All these second chances, and I won’t get one with her.
One morning before the star dies, hundreds of mornings later, an astronaut falls past my window. I recognize the freight insignia on her suit. My heart skips a beat as I rush to move my ship’s collection arm toward her reaching hand.
“Amaranthe, thank God,” Jet says when the airlock doors finally open.
“Jet,” I cry, rushing forward. She’s come back for me.
“I’ve been trying to–” She freezes as I wrap my arms around her. “How did you know my name?”
I pull back. Awful realization floods my mind like searing light. Without another word to Jet, I sprint to my storage cabinet and fling open its doors.
All of my gas canisters are still there.
“What’s going on?” Jet asks. She kneels down to unstrap her boots, but watches me with those wide golden eyes. There are fresh burn marks on her cheeks.
“This has already happened,” I say, shutting the cabinet door and slumping back against it. Jet bites her lip and rubs her temples with one gloved hand.
“Well, yes,” she says after a moment. “I don’t know how to say this any better, but you’re stuck in a sort of time loop.”
“I know that,” I say, barking out a laugh. Jet looks taken aback. “Thing is, we both are.”
“What are you talking about? I came here to rescue you.”
“I know you did. From your long-haul ship, right? Just happened to be in this system?”
Jet’s face falls.
“If that’s true, then how many times has this happened?” Her voice is soft, fragile like an ungloved hand. “Why can’t I remember anything?”
“I don’t know. I remember you showing up in my loop once before, and I remember five hundred times when you didn’t, but clearly there are things going on here beyond my comprehension.” I cross the room and pull the last pack of dehydrated ice cream from my rations. “Here. You must be hungry.”
Jet sits against the window and eats in silence. When she looks a little less rattled, I explain everything I can remember. I explain how we are both trapped, in different ways, and when she leaves, it isn’t for long. I explain the difference between my deaths and hers, and what happens if I miss her on her way past my ship. I explain why, logically, she might as well stay in here with me.
Jet doesn’t take it well. It’s too much, too quickly, for even her boundless optimism to handle.
“I want to go home,” she mumbles through tears.
“Jet, you can’t go,” I plead, gesturing at the sunstruck abyss outside. “You’ll forget everything. It will hurt. And you’ll just come back anyway.”
“This isn’t what I wanted.” Jet is sobbing now, far from the brave, cheerful rescuer I saw that first time. “I didn’t think it would be like this. I miss my crew. I want to go back, Amaranthe.”
I have her with me for less than a day this time. We stay silent as she suits up, although I wish I could say something that would make her want to stay. When the time comes, I boost her out of my loop, and into her own.
Jet saw me, and I saw her. She masks her fear with bravado the same way I mask mine with logic and calculations. I can’t blame her for wanting to return to her own normalcy, even at the cost of her memory. I can’t blame her for her tears. I can’t blame her for wanting to leave me.
The next time I catch Jet, I don’t explain as much. I gloss over the details and say I will tell her about the loops later. I accept her offer of rescue and the place on her crew.
I don’t tell her that I already know how to send her back–I’ve had plenty of time to practice this little lie–and so we spend a few pleasant days together before her mood turns sad and desperate. Her crooked frown is all I can see when I shut my eyes. I pretend to finish my calculations and set her free.
When Jet leaves me for the third time, I do try to follow her. My acceptance of her offer was no lie. I boost her out of the bubble and then suit up, leaving my ship behind.
By the time I approach the edge of the temporal field, the star has begun its supernova again. The heat at my back is agonizing. I cry tears that boil. How could Jet stand it, all those times I let her die?
As I soar toward the space beyond my space, flames surround me. I look into the slow world outside the bubble and see the star’s superheated tendrils escape to consume an errant asteroid.
It’s just as I feared. If I leave like this, it’s all over. Me, the star, the ship, the loop. Everything in this system. And Jet. Jet, who is reentering her own loop, and may have already forgotten that I exist. I cannot sentence her and her crew to a fiery death.
I aim the nozzle of my gas canister at freedom and press down on its trigger, using the recoil to send myself flying back into the hungry mouth of the supernova. As I close my eyes, ready to wake again on the cold spaceship floor, I think that Jet would be proud of me.
“Amaranthe, thank God.” Jet tucks her helmet under her arm. “I’ve been trying to rescue you.”
I treasure these few days when our time loops intersect. Our orbits may be different, but we are bound to this star, and now, to each other.
I’m honest with Jet now, in a way soft enough not to hurt her. I tell her that I know how to get her back to her ship, but I’d like it if she stayed with me for a little while first. It gets lonely sometimes, dying all by myself every night.
“Do you mind if I eat this?” Jet holds up my ice cream. I look over from my yoga pose and nod, careful not to disrupt my balance.
“Take whatever you like. It’ll be back tomorrow.”
“Oh, right.” Jet tears open the packet with her teeth and takes a bite of vanilla. “You know, I’m kind of glad I don’t remember anything. It’s nice meeting you, and I get to do it over and over again.”
“I’ll never understand your optimism.” I have to turn back to the supernova, so that its gentle, shielded heat will dry my fresh tears.
“It’s easier for me.” Jet shrugs. “I don’t have to remember any times where this didn’t work out. I just have this time, and your ice cream.”
She takes another bite as the solar flares grow stronger. It’s my last evening with her for this loop. It feels nice, almost domestic. I understand where Jet is coming from, but I’m glad that I will remember this, for as long as this star shall die.
Every day, it goes like this: I wake to golden light, and I do my best to escape it. I rush to my keyboard and record everything I remember from the day before, then keep crunching numbers until I’m out of ideas on how to safely leave. Whenever I get tired, or sad, or just want to give up and relax in the star-warmth, I think of my astronaut, with earnest gold eyes and tears burnt onto her cheeks. I think of Jet.
Someday, Jet and I will meet for the last first time. I will finally break out of this eternal day and leave this ship behind to step onto hers.
Until then, I work. I die.
Lauren Ring (she/her) is a perpetually tired Jewish lesbian who writes about possible futures, for better or for worse. Her short fiction can be found in Pseudopod, Recognize Fascism, and Glitter + Ashes. When she isn’t writing speculative fiction, she is pursuing her career in UX design or attending to the many needs of her cat Moomin.
Author of “Sunrise, Sunrise, Sunrise”
What inspired you to write this story?
While I was mulling over the “Satisfaction” theme, I unexpectedly acquired a roommate. I have been living alone for a while, so I felt as though my little world had been thrown totally off balance. It all spiraled from there and I finished the first draft of this piece the same day I came up with it! I was also inspired by one of my absolute favorite short stories, N. K. Jemisin’s “Too Many Yesterdays, Not Enough Tomorrows,” from her collection How Long ’til Black Future Month?
What do you hope readers take from this story?
I hope readers take from it the value of simply trying. It’s difficult to break out of cycles, whether they are depressive episodes or a supernova time loop, but having something to strive for can make all the difference. It doesn’t have to be a person or a mission or anything in particular. It’s the trying that matters.
To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
This story was only submitted to one other place before finding its home at Apparition, but it was heavily workshopped after its initial draft. I was in a short story workshop with fourteen other people when I wrote it and I got feedback from all of them, so while the core is the same, all those edits definitely helped hone the piece into what it is now.
Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
Lately I’ve been reading a lot of Mary Oliver poetry to inspire myself for the novel I’m working on. I can’t recommend her work enough!