They say those hours before a man hangs are the longest hours he’ll ever see in this world. I don’t think it’s true. Those hours don’t feel that way. Not to me.
High-noon is the hour. It’s always been the hour. For as long as Cyrus has been hanging men. Every hanging is the same. The condemned marched in chains with a black hood over his face. The rope goes around his neck and…
My last dinner wasn’t half bad. It’s a lie that you get to have whatever you ask for. They’ll try and make something as close to it as they can but resources are scarce sometimes so you get what you get. Breakfast though, it looked good but I couldn’t taste a thing. That’s not true. The waiting left a cold, metallic dread in my mouth even the coffee couldn’t blunt.
I think the worst part are the minutes where they leave you alone. It’s not that way when you’re in for something minor. Like, if you get caught stealing and they lock you up. Thirty days and just about every minute they’ve got somebody coming to check up on you or ask you questions about what you did. They even wake you up a couple times in the night to make sure you didn’t take your own life.
When it’s their turn to take your life, they leave you alone that final night. Forty-seven nights and that last one was the only night nobody came to see me. I woke up to breakfast and a visit by the chaplain.
“Isn’t there any way out of this?” I asked the chaplain.
“Well now,” the chaplain started to say.
“But I didn’t do it!” I don’t remember if I whispered or screamed. But I didn’t do it. I knew the truth too. The other three men they’d hung didn’t do it either. That wasn’t the point though. Cyrus didn’t work that way.
Cyrus had changed. Lately he didn’t trust any of us. In his mind every last one of us was guilty and it was up to him to prove it. Eventually. There was no innocence. There was only suspicion. You never knew who was informing on who and what they told Cyrus. I can confess that I passed the word along about people once in a while just to try and keep attention off me.
Lot of good that did. It was me locked away in that storeroom converted into a jail cell down in the engine room. Forty-seven days and I hadn’t had a chance to look outside the plexiglass into interstellar nothingness. Instead, I had dull walls and a dark grey ceiling and floor where daydreams of new worlds and the beings that lived on them used to be.
“Tell me,” my guard had asked one day, “did you really reprogram the course that night?”
That was the charge. Cyrus believed that I, and three men before me, standing the late watch on the ship’s bridge had altered the course. That we wanted to deviate the route back toward familiar parts of space.
The four of us all were all basic voyagemen. Bought in slums and shanty towns back on Earth and the outlying corners of colonies like Enceladus and Qlax. They installed a chip under the flesh just below our eyes. Then they activated it and we were instantly, basic voyagemen. We could take the watch on the ship’s bridge and for the next four hours monitor the ship’s travel and operate all the controls without lifting a finger. Wifi poured volumes of navigational data into our cerebral cortex non-stop and relayed our responses to the ship’s systems instantaneously.
When they drug me out of my bunk and put me in irons, the first thing they did was shut off the chips. For the first time in a long time my mind was quiet. Free of all that data surging through my thoughts all the time. So quiet in fact I couldn’t take it. I dropped to my knees and cried.
“I guess I’d cry too,” one of the regulars sent to arrest me mumbled, “if I had folks back home depending on all that money a basic voyageman brings in.”
That hadn’t crossed my mind. In fact, ever since my chip had been activated I hadn’t thought much about home or Earth or the family I’d left behind that depended on the money my purchase doled out for them every month. Would anyone tell them the money was going to stop? Would a regular explain why?
Regulars. They didn’t have chips installed under their eyes. They weren’t enhanced the way we were. That’s what they called us though. Enhanced. A lot of regulars didn’t like us enhanced human beings. They saw us as dangerous. They worried that we’d start out as basic voyagemen or engine room techs, accumulate knowledge, and then turn regulars into the slaves of the interstellar space trade.
After forty-seven days in a five by five cell, my mind wasn’t quiet anymore. It took some time but things started coming back to me. Places. Names. Good times and bad times. And dreams. It was only in the last week or so of being locked up that I realized I wasn’t sure which memories were of things that had actually happened and which were of things I’d dreamt throughout my life. It was a strange kind of crazy I guess and one I’d need help getting past if somehow there were a reprieve for my sentence.
There weren’t many hours left for that reprieve to come through though. While I wasn’t sure about the things I remembered, I was sure I hadn’t done anything to change the ship’s course. Even if I did, it wouldn’t have been wrong. Cyrus had set the ship on a track that took us away from the usual trade routes. We were alone in uncharted territory and with no destination in sight.
“Do you know where we’re going?” I asked one of the regulars guarding me one night.
“Doesn’t matter,” the regular rasped back, “Cyrus knows.”
That’s what they always said. “Cyrus knows.” They had unfailing loyalty to Captain Cyrus, probably because he knew enough about each of them to make them hang too. He’d never hung a regular though. Just the enhanceds working on his ship.
Like me. It was hard to know which set of clanging footfalls coming across the grated engine room floor were the ones sent for me. If they were, when they were, they’d put me in irons and take me into an empty cargo hold. Almost all the crew would be there, regulars and enhanceds. They’d watch me walk toward the rear of the hold where the ritual would begin.
The last things I’d know would be the sensation of the tether being placed around my neck. The sound of everyone shuffling to the other side of the hold. The soft hum as doors unfolded from the ceiling and the walls to separate my side of the cargo hold from theirs. And finally, just for a second, I’d hear the sound of the external cargo bay door open behind me before the woosh of depressurization deafened me as it sucked my body out into the vacuum of space.
If I was lucky the force of it all would snap my neck once the tether went taught and the noose tightened. That would spare me those few seconds of gasping for air where there is none. And the brutality of science as the laws of physics sought to correct the difference in pressure between what was inside my body and the vacuum all around.
With any luck, it would all be over in three seconds or less. I could already tell those would be the longest seconds of my life.