A Universe All to Himself – Ryan Priest

A Universe All to Himself – Ryan Priest

April 2021

Except death, this was the worst-case scenario. This was the inevitable cost of the space program. Given enough runs, this was going to happen to someone and you just prayed it wouldn’t be you. The very mention of the possibility passed like a cold draft through the rec rooms or cafeterias of any space station. When a pilot failed to return from a mission, you hoped secretly, for their sake, that they were dead. The alternative was a man or woman hopelessly lost in space.

Erik Hale, Pilot #1225, had just won the lottery. Outside of his spaceship there was nothing; no star, no planet, no swirling black holes, not even the hollowed-out core of a dead gas giant. It was just cold, empty space.

His upper lip began to tremble.

The way leaping worked involved the compression of near-empty space. The astro-pilots called it the Planet-to-Planet Freeway. The computers charted a course between two planets orbiting in different star systems. Then the engines compressed the empty space between the two points. What was left? Usually only a few miles of concentrated space dust to cross and then your ship was there, at the other end, in a new solar system. The Leap window could only exist for a little over a second, and so a pilot had to circle the origin planet a couple of times to build up the speed to slingshot their ship fast enough to get out the other side before the window closed.

But you had to have a planet for the Leap back home. Without the planet’s gravitational boost, the ship’s propulsion could never build up the speed on its own. If you tried to use a star, the orbit would take too long; by the time you made it back around the ebb and tide of celestial movements would leave you pointing in the wrong direction. The planets, stars, galaxies were in a perpetual state of motion, like an ocean, never all in the exact same alignment twice.

The problem was that long-range telemetry could be unreliable. When analyzing celestial bodies tens of thousands of light years away, there was no way to be sure those planets would still be there on arrival. The computer analysts did their best to calculate good candidates; the brass wouldn’t intentionally send you to a system that might have gone nova or to a planet with an orbit they weren’t sure about.

Once arriving at their destination and landed, the astro-pilots collected data with their computers and sensors. Soil and air samples to check for human colony feasibility, astronomic readings to hunt for even more unknown planets, possibly so far out that they were undetectable from Earth. The pilot’s final duty was to take a picture of his or herself holding the Western Earth Union flag. This was what really mattered to the brass. International space regulations required a live human being to physically be on the planet to establish ownership. The remaining nations of Earth were in a race to find and lay claim to inhabitable or resource rich exo-planets. Footprints and flags — the moon landing writ large across the galaxy.

With the job done, the pilot and ship reentered orbit and jumped back to their point of origin— for Westerners usually the Neptune or Pluto orbital stations.

But there were mistakes. When flying off into the universe in a blind rush, there was bound to be an error here or there. A black hole might have eaten the entire star, a collision with a comet might have destroyed the planet. No one would ever know for sure, because without the anchor planet, there was no way to establish a return trip to Earth. In the cases when a pilot did not come back, that destination was marked in the database as a ‘No-Go’. There were no rescue missions. The only thing worse than losing an astronaut to space was losing a second astronaut sent to find out what happened to the first one.

Without the Leap Engine, a regular five-minute trip back to Earth from Pluto took over three years, even with their fastest engines. To get to the next closest exo-planet would take thousands of years. For a lost pilot — for Erik — there was no going home. Earth was gone and the Sun was only one of a million dots of light in the ship’s portholes.

Erik was overcome with the desire to cry. He felt claustrophobic all of a sudden, and couldn’t breathe. The safety harness squeezed his chest with every breath; it seemed alive and hostile, holding him to his seat, pinning him to this predicament. He felt as if all the blackness in the universe were closing in around him, suffocating him. He clawed at the restrictive harness in a panic, hoping he’d wake to find himself struggling with a sheet wrapped around his neck. But this was no dream. He was trapped; the universe had trapped him out here alone and his mother wasn’t going to flip on the lights and make it all okay. His mother was gone, now and forever. She’d be told he was dead and she’d collapse into his sister’s arms and they’d weep together. But then they and the world would ultimately learn to go on without him. His entire life was now separated from him by an unimaginable and uncrossable ocean of black nothingness.

“What if it does happen?” trainees always asked when first confronted with the possibility of a failed jump.

“It won’t happen. But if it does, then press this button. That’s all for now,” the trainer would say, and shuffle them on to the next lesson. Every ship had a button, a red one hidden out of view, near the floor and covered by a black latch so no one ever had to think about it.

What did the button do? People seldom spoke about it openly, but you’d hear things; there were theories. Some said it released a pistol or maybe some suicide pills for the pilot to take. The old space freighter captains claimed that a hundred years ago, when transit around the solar system was still new and could take years, the old timers all had such pills aboard for worst-case scenarios. Back when if something happened to your ship, you were months or possibly years away from rescue. Erik could do months, he could even do years, but never was a different hell altogether. The pills had been a quicker and supposedly less painful death than freezing, roasting, suffocating, or any of the other ways a botched space flight might end you. Supposedly.

Others thought the button was a self-destruct for the entire ship. They said it was designed that way so you wouldn’t know you were killing yourself. Proponents of this theory said it was for the religious minded who might fear that suicide would damage their chances of a pleasurable afterlife. You could press the button as many times as you liked, but it was programmed not to engage unless the ship missed its departure window.

One pilot, #108 Sheila Gates, after arriving, had found her host planet’s sun moved in-between her anchor planet and Earth. She’d been forced to wait for the planet to orbit back around the other side, four and a half Earth years. When her ship did return, Sheila was inside, alive but catatonic. Other pilots said that she had been locked up in a room somewhere in the Department of Space. Rumor was that she’d pressed the red button.

He looked at the black cover for a moment or two. It was as if opening the latch and seeing the red button underneath would make this all permanent. If he did it, then he was admitting that a real disaster had happened.

“Think Erik, think!” His voice cracked and he found the simple task of focusing on anything beyond his grasp. This was bad, this was very bad.

“Why would you want to fly off to plant flags on planets you’ll never see again?” his old friend Benny’s voice ran through his memory. They’d been co-captains on a space-freighter that hauled minerals from asteroid mining sites to giant space platforms.

At the time, Erik had kept his motivations personal and shrugged him off with, “Hey, after two hundred jumps and with some smart investing you can retire to a comfortable life.”

Benny was a couple years older, had more hours in space. For him, the gift of steady work was all that he ever wanted. To Erik freight hauling had only ever been a means to collect the flight time needed to apply to be an astro-pilot in the Department of Space, and once he had them he was gone. He’d really liked Benny, but growing up, Erik had had three different stepdads and more “mom’s boyfriends” than he could count. He was used to saying goodbye to older men.

Now, facing catastrophic loss, he was asking himself the same question. Why had he done this to himself? Did he really think it mattered in the grand scheme of things that in two or three hundred years there would be children growing up on faraway colonies, learning in school that he’d discovered their planet? Maybe even a planet named after him? In his one hundred and fifty-seven jumps, he had found seven inhabitable exo-planets. Seven new worlds where everyone would know the name starship pilot #1225 Erik Hale and the subsequent endnote, that he was lost in space.

Hours later, and his eyes were still locked on the round, red knob on his floor. Maybe death, maybe insanity, maybe salvation — but what other choice did he have?

He prepared himself to die. He took a deep breath of sterile air, enough to carry his spirit into eternity, as Ernie, one of his mother’s many boyfriends, had explained. Ernie had worn an old Native American jacket and vintage tie-dyed shirts. He liked to talk about spirituality and that sort of thing. This had been Erik’s only exposure to any type of religion and it, along with his mother’s relationship with Ernie, had been brief.

It amazed him what chose to pop into his mind at this, potentially last, moment. He latched on to that amazement — not a bad feeling to go out on — and exhaled as he let his hand press down on the button…

No explosion, no afterlife, no death. He was still lost and alone, yet his life seemed to taste a little sweeter. Two small, blue pills had ejected from behind the button like a coin-operated candy dispenser, and the computer screens in the cockpit had all gone blank. Erik picked the pills up off the floor. They were ovular, like vitamins, but he knew they weren’t vitamins. They were the opposite.

Suicide pills. Erik looked at them in disappointment. A second ago, before pressing the button, he might not have cared, but now he was very sure that he wanted to live.

“So, your ship has been lost in space,” came a familiar voice out of the ship’s speakers. He couldn’t place it at first, but when all the monitors faded in with an accompanying video, he recognized the face immediately. It was H. Gregory Gladstone, Secretary of Space and Exploration. “The first thing you must remember is not to panic. Take a deep breath.”

Erik complied. Trying to calm down, he realized just how tightly wound he’d become. The muscles in his neck and shoulders felt carved in stone and he had a clenched mouthful of gritting teeth. He closed his eyes and took three deep, measured, breaths. On the final exhale, he let his eyes open. It was better; things were somewhat clearer.

“In your hand are two blue tablets. If you take them, death will be quick. However, you have also been given a key that unlocks a special box on this ship. Should you choose to use it, this box contains the means not only to your survival, but also your sanity. More importantly, in this box you will find the tools necessary to regain what you’ve lost, a meaningful life, love, friendship. It will require an incredible amount of work, but I promise you, should you choose, there is still a life for you to have.”

Erik looked down and saw that a brass key had also been ejected from the emergency latch. He picked it up, and held the key in his left hand and the suicide tablets in his right.

“Take a moment.” Gladstone’s face was calming. He’d been a public figure for over forty years and had been one of the lead designers of the Leap system. He’d managed to keep himself above all the political fray and stand out as someone for the intellectuals to follow and support. He had no agenda other than the continued exploration and eventual colonization of space. That was his brand and it came with a good public reputation. He was like a family member, only one who lived entirely on television and whose interactions were completely one-sided. Still, Erik had always rooted for his success and supported anything he did.

“In seven minutes, your tablets will dissolve and become useless to you. Sorry for putting you on the spot, but you pressed the button, which tells me you are ready to move ahead, either in one way or the other. It is time for decisive action. The choice you make now must stand. You will either decide that you want to live and are willing to put forth the work and sacrifice that is necessary, or you will die now and commit yourself to a different journey.”

At that, Gladstone quit speaking but continued to stand there, looking into the camera, lest you be completely alone in your final moments. There was no judgment implied in his tone. Erik wondered how many other pilots had watched this video, made this choice. It was generally assumed that if a pilot didn’t make it back, they were dead, but who could know for sure?

He fought back sobs. How had he put himself in this position? He didn’t need a planet named after him. That all seemed like such an arrogant conceit at this point; barely more than celestial graffiti. Now he had H. Gregory Gladstone telling him he might just want to kill himself and be done with it?

He looked down at the pills and instantly pictured himself foaming at the mouth, twitching and swallowing his own tongue. He dropped the pills to the floor as if they were on fire. They’d already begun to crumble and, in a few minutes, they’d be nothing but inert microscopic dust.

This was it. Whatever lay ahead, this was his life and he would try his best to make the most of it and hope that the Secretary of Space really did have some ace up his sleeve.

Gladstone suddenly came back to life. “If you are still listening to this, then that means the pills are gone and you are alive. I am proud of you for making such a difficult decision in this, such an uncertain time. But rest assured, the road to your new life begins now.”

Erik was directed to the rear of the ship, in the already cramped storage area. He saw that a new box was waiting for him on the floor, recently ejected from a hidden compartment. He felt a delicate beat of hope rise within him. There was more to this puzzle. Director Gladstone did have a plan for him.

With the brass key still clutched in the fingers of his left hand, he approached the box and, sure enough, there was a lock waiting for him to open it. All the pageantry was likely for psychological effect. Here was a box that he knew no pilot outside of his situation had ever seen. This box was truly a mystery and every possibility in the universe could very well be inside.

He ran his fingers over the top of it lightly, the same way he always did with a new ship. This was what was going to get him home. The box itself was maybe three by four feet and not very high off the ground, about the size of a great chest.

He turned the lock and took the lid off. Hand-tools, spare nuts and bolts, bags of soil, and several packets of seeds. At the very bottom was one more object, a small package whose label read: Protocol 6, Final Phase. Do Not Open Early.

He was careful to not even touch the Protocol 6 package. He would follow the rules; this was too important to screw up with impatience. The seeds were indication enough that whatever this was, it was going to take time.

A new program came up on his console. Protocol One. It was a series of instructions, laid out in precise steps. The first were on how to set up a garden and to expand the ship’s insides to allow for as much space for movement as possible. The garden was the most important part. The garden would filter and recycle the air and someday take the place of his mission packs when it came to food.

Sixteen hours a day. That was how much the program kept him working. When the day was over, he’d lie down while a monotone, pre-programmed voice continued to talk to him, encouraging him and telling him that it was hard now because these things had to get taken care of first, but the voice promised, it promised, there was something much better waiting for him if he followed the instructions step by step.

An alarm woke him up every morning. The voice urged him to brush his teeth, clean himself appropriately, and eat a protein bar. It always seemed to rush him along more quickly than he’d like, but he was usually too tired to care. Those first few days were about nothing but toil, every single day, morning, noon, and night, which meant absolutely nothing here in black space.

He hardly had any time to think about how his mother might be taking the news. No time to picture his own funeral back home and imagine the eulogy his sister Andrea might have given for him. Would anybody else even be there? He hadn’t seen Benny in years. Ernie and all the stepdads were long gone.

The thought of an empty funeral was a reminder that he’d failed to accomplish anything or make a positive impact on anyone’s life, though he’d wanted to. But like everything else, friendships had been pushed to the back burner in favor of that mad rush to pull himself out of the working class. In a moment of bitter irony, the life back home that had never been good enough for him had now been taken from him.

The ship was designed so that once he emptied out an interior panel’s shelves and drawers, the walls could be folded outward, expanding like origami. When completed, he’d have more than triple the space. Awkward and unflightworthy, he’d never be able to land the ship on a planet again, but that didn’t matter; there wasn’t another planet for a million miles.

“Moving on to Protocol 2.” The program’s voice droned on with instructions and random encouragements. “You’re doing a fantastic job. You’re almost there.”

He began to realize the program wasn’t just teaching him how to reorganize his ship, the program was designed to slowly but surely reorganize him.

This meant that someone had thought this through. Someone had done tests and planned for this, and they knew how best to survive the loss of, basically, everything he’d ever known. He took wry comfort in this, imagining a room full of college boys with all the answers planning out his every little move.

The nightly talk downs became more than just encouragement. As he sat on the cockpit chair, eating his dinner, the ship’s voice would ask him weighty questions and give him puzzles to think about over the next day. The questions ranged from the unanswerable koans — “If a tree falls in the forest…” — to highly complex exercises in logic — “If Archbishop Thomas needs a census of a kingdom containing ten villages, and he knows each village has ten more persons than the last, that no village has more than three hundred people and no village has less than two hundred, how many people total live in the kingdom?”

The program did not shy away from sharing its motivations. It was trying to strengthen his mind. Something really great was apparently coming down the line and having a quick and strong mind that could think things through was a prerequisite.

After two weeks, the expansion work was completed. He had his space home. The cockpit, the garden in the left aft of the cargo hold, the right side set up with his bed and personal effects. It wasn’t much at all, really, but it was much more than he’d had or expected when he started. That was the program, to make things better in small increments, keep him working for more, keep him busy. They were breaking him down, like basic training or a cult.

With Protocol 3, the computer led him through nightly, guided meditations. He was asked to picture simple objects, a beach ball or log cabin. Through a series of open-ended questions, the computer made him fixate on the mental image, flesh it out.

“What color is the cabin? Do the insides contain an odor? If so, do you like this odor? Why?”

At the end of the lessons and throughout the day, the computer would periodically remind him that something great was coming, that he was almost ready. Almost.

Coming from genetically modified seeds, the plants were growing big and fast. With only the smallest amount of maintenance, he would begin producing his own food within a few weeks. The computers rewarded him with music while he worked, and even allowed the viewing of a film every so often. There was no way to tell how many hours of footage had been stored in the memory banks. It was inevitable, though, that one day he’d have run out of videos and have listened to every song. The program was designed to push that day as far into the future as possible.

By Protocol 4, he’d begun to notice results from all of his exercises. He was becoming mentally sharper. He was solving puzzles more easily, thinking through the koans more deeply.

What was Protocol 6 and how did it figure into all of this? Had there been a breakthrough in cognitive sciences? For years, people had been claiming the next wave of human evolution would see an increase in mental powers — telepathy, maybe. Would he become able to contact Earth and tell them to find a way to send a rescue? Was it even possible that they had a way to master telekinesis? Maybe he’d unlock some as of yet unused part of his brain and be able to move his spaceship across light years with just a thought. Anything was possible, and the program kept promising it’d lead to a life worth living. It promised an escape from this cell which, as it stood, would one day double as his tomb.

The meditations became even more involved. Now it wasn’t just log cabins. He was being asked to see whole landscapes, to hold the image in his head so long that he could account for every little blip on the horizon. The landscapes became increasingly involved. Erik always followed along. He asked himself the questions he was supposed to and he tried his best to come up with the answers. He did this in total earnestness, as with everything else. The Space Department’s motto was Cynicism Kills.

He’d always been good at following orders. He knew that about himself but wasn’t sure how he felt about it. With nothing but time on his hands and these sharper mental tools, he realized that he wasn’t weak or inherently obedient, he simply longed for a sense of fatherly approval. He was always trying to show the world that he could follow directions, that he was worthwhile, and that someone would realize this and take him under their wing to teach him how to navigate this confusing life as a man. That confusing life. He had to remind himself that his old world and any hang-ups that went with it were a thing of the past.

Erik had pushed forward, full force, the very picture of pluck and vinegar. He was no stranger to hard work. Hard work was how he’d pulled himself off the surface and into space. How he’d become a pilot and had eventually made it to astro-pilot. He recognized that effort multiplied by time inevitably led to results. He’d learned to subvert the part of himself that wanted to laze, to sit back and think of reasons not to bother. The voice in the background of every endeavor that whispered maledictions about fruitlessness, failure and abdication.

But the days turned into weeks, the routine became rigmarole, and try as hard as he might to tune it out, the voice of negativity in his head had grown louder. His situation was beginning to wear on him. Forcing optimism became more difficult with each passing day.

He missed home and he missed other people. Anyone. He missed mattering in someone else’s life or even the possibility of affecting another person. Nothing he did here, nothing he would ever say or think could ever be known by another living person. He was effectively a ghost, living without the possibility of consequence, and this was a realization that, once registered, could not so easily be broken free from.

“Do not give up,” the program chirped through the speakers. And he tried, he tried, to hold out hope. He practiced his exercises, but mustering the required energy was becoming an effort. He felt that he was growing weaker and not stronger. He began thinking up his own dark koans. “If a man exists without consequence, is he even alive?”

His hopes for Protocol 6 began to fade as well. If there was telekinesis or telepathy, why hadn’t they already used it to make contact with him? He began to suspect more and more that Protocol 6 was going to be a new set of suicide pills. There was no escape from this place.

Protocol 5.

“Prepare to meditate, Erik.” The computer was programmed to use his first name. It was just a series of 1s and 0s, with no humanity. “Tonight, you will think of a house. Not just any house; imagine your perfect house. This is the house you would most like to live in.”

It went on asking him to furnish this house. Did it have a pool? What was the climate like? This meditation went further and longer than all others before it. So much so that he actually began to find it taxing and, by the end of the lesson, had developed quite a little headache.

Every night the following week, the program immediately would tell him to concentrate on the house he’d created. He was told to imagine himself walking through the house. Going into each room, opening every closet.

“When your hand touches the wood, how does it feel? What do you see when you look out the window?” Oak, or at least what he imagined oak to be. It felt cool and smooth, it felt like money. Outside of his window were rolling green hills, a shimmering sea bay, backdropped by an impossibly bright, blue sky, sprinkled with cotton ball clouds. Every night, he made the house just a little more beautiful, just a little more him. He noticed that the more he did this, the less strain it caused. This, he actually felt he was getting better at. His brain was learning this imaginary house.

After this, every meditation began with the house and then expanded from there. He was told to walk down the street. It was like a game. He was sent exploring outside of this house. He could go anywhere he wanted, but there were rules. He couldn’t just imagine a restaurant and place himself there. He had to consciously walk down the street, see the restaurant in the distance and step by step approach it. He could have anything he wanted, and do anything, but there were no shortcuts.

The game became fun again as it challenged him more and more every day. He’d built an entire town in his head, and without fail could recall all of the details as clearly as the Akron suburbs he’d passed through as a child, longing for one of those lives with lawns and playgrounds. Only this was better, cleaner, greener, and brighter.

The game was the high point of his day. Any time spent concentrating on the game was time not spent in the downward spiral of hopelessness and loneliness.

“What is a town without people? Who lives nearest to you on the West? A man, a woman, a family?” The computer had him not only build people but build his past relationships with them. How had they met? Did he like them?

Erik’s imagined house sat directly east of a family named the Woodneys, a name he’d been asked to imagine on the spot, without any reference to anyone he really knew. The Woodneys were Tom and Cheryl, and they had one son, Zach, who was ten.

Where the game became really interesting started on a movie night. He’d been allowed to watch an old movie from the Nineteen-Nineties. Normal enough, but later that night, in meditation, he was asked to enter his fake house, in his fake town, and go to visit his fake neighbor Tom. By now, Erik had been asked so many questions by the program, he would be just about able to write a thousand-word biography of Tom Woodney.

However, tonight the program did something different. “You see your neighbor in the yard. He tells you that he just saw the same movie. He really liked it. Discuss the movie with him. What did he find different about the movie, if anything, than you did?”

And he found that this was a very easy and fun conversation to have. Tom’s words came out naturally, by necessity of his personality.

Before he knew it, the two-hour meditation session was over and he was called to return his attention to the ship and its clutter of blooming plants.

It was only when he was allowed another movie that he realized what the program was doing. He was watching some god-awful thriller from the Twenty-Naughts. Erik hated the movie, but he found himself excited to see what neighbor Tom would have to say about it.

That night he had another two-hour movie conversation with Tom while sitting outside around his dream house’s crystal blue pool. This mental game the program had him playing not only passed the time but was also enjoyable.

To his further delight, the program took away his time limits. As long as he followed the other rules, he could play the game as late as he wanted.

The last step before Protocol 6 was to keep the game going during his day. Periodically throughout the day, at different times, the computer would ask him to check on the game and see what was happening. He closed his eyes and then he was there, walking along the side of a lake, or shopping.

The program explained that Protocol 6 would be unlocked when he was able to go into the game while continuing to do his chores, mind his garden, perform the ship’s required maintenance. Access to Protocol 6 was on the honor system. A new option in the ship’s control panel read: PROTOCOL 6 and he could access it anytime, but like the little package bearing the same name, he’d been warned not to skip ahead, not to cheat. To make sure Protocol 6 worked, he had to be one hundred percent.

So the game went on. He tested himself — at one minute he’d be clipping some tomatoes, while simultaneously in the game he’d be playing second base on the local softball team he’d dreamt up. His directive had been to choose a sport, organize a league, and join a team.

He no longer even needed to close his eyes to be in the game and see everything in high definition. Just to be sure, he waited a while, until there was no question, until he spent more time in the game than he did out of it. He could water the plants and check the systems in fifteen minutes, then the lights would go off and he’d float in total darkness playing the game. By this time, he had a pretty good idea of what Protocol 6 would entail. He assumed it was designed that way.

He was ready. He sat in his cockpit chair and selected Protocol 6. The anxiousness in his gut was palpable. All this time he’d waited, he’d worked himself to the bone and he’d waited even more, and now here it was, Protocol 6.

All the screens in the ship went blank momentarily and a familiar face dissolved into view. It was H. Gregory Gladstone again. “First, I’d like to tell you how proud we all are of you for making it this far. You are a testament to the true indomitability of the human spirit. Next, let me get this over with quickly. You are not going home.”

Inside, he had known that he wasn’t going to make it home, but still, the final confirmation came like a knife to his heart. Hope died hard.

“That being said, do not give up. I’m sure by now you must what realize what Protocol 6 is.”

“The game.” Erik responded, knowing that Gladstone couldn’t hear him. This message had been recorded years ago. All of it had, before he ever joined the space program.

“The game is your salvation. If you have done your exercises, then the world you’ve created in the game should have become, at times, just as real to you as the world of your spaceship. Here is the secret. It is just as real. Continue to play the game, give it your all, and you will be able to find fulfillment inside.” Gladstone looked solemn, his bushy, serious eyes reminding Erik that cynicism killed.

It was a lot that they were asking of him, but really there was no choice. The program had not lied. There was no way he could have played the game, not at such a high level, without the slow and steady buildup of cognitive training.

The game was his favorite thing. It occupied his thoughts, it was the source of his happiness, his humor. The people he met in the game now seemed just as authentic to him as real people in the real world.

There wasn’t any choice to quit playing. The game was as much a part of him now as his arm. What Gladstone was asking him to do was to go all in, to accept the game as reality.

“There is no difference to your mind if something is real or imagined. What makes dreams less important than reality is that we forget them and that they have no bearing on our future. Nevertheless, when we go to sleep and dream, no matter how fanciful that dream world, no matter how little sense it makes, still we accept it as reality without a second thought. Now you may open the final package.”

Erik took the small parcel from the floor and opened it. Inside were two items, their purpose immediately recognizable to him. A simple switch system for automated plant watering and a feeding tube.

“The rules of time and space no longer need apply in the game. You’ll find you can make time pass more quickly or more slowly. No reason to limit yourself to the ticks of seconds taken from Earth-based clocks. Now that the game is truly yours, make the very most of it.”

By now he loved Gladstone like a father. He’d had no one else since being marooned, but he knew this was the last time he would ever see him.

Gladstone’s final message was, “When you are ready, press continue.” And with that, his image faded back out into the world of the left behind. A big green button on the screen replaced him, bearing the label: Continue.

It had to be this way. There was no going back, there had never been any going back. Everything ahead lay in the game, a new life completely untethered from his previous existence. He began to make his preparations. His movements were slow and deliberate. He was cognizant that this was a turning point in his life. The end of one thing and the beginning of something entirely different.

He set up his plant feeders, double-checked the cycles, automated his food and waste processing. When he was finished, everything was set up to run on complete automation. At last, he sat down in front of the console and choked down one end of the feeding tube, which connected itself to the ready supply of processed food paste from his garden.

When finished and ready, Erik lifted from his chair until he was free floating, the cabin lit only by the soft glow of the green button. He pressed Continue. Everything went black. The monotone voice of the program came back online and swam through the air.

“Erik, prepare to mediate. You are in your house. You hear a knock at the front door. You open it. It’s a woman. She’s the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen. What color is her hair? What about her eyes? You like the way she smells, the way her voice sounds as she tells you, ‘Hello, I just moved into the area.’ What is her name?”

“Betty…” Erik said to himself while at the same time smiling at Betty and inviting her in for a cup of coffee. This was it. There’d be no more instructions.

The ship continued to float off into the cosmos, on its way to nowhere, a million miles away from where it started. Erik continued too, expanding his world. He married Betty, they had children. He loved them and knew that they loved him.

He found that time could pass faster in the game, living years in the space of months, full lifetimes in the course of years. He had evolved. He now existed as something different than a man. He had anything and everything he wanted. His existence was a beating pulse of a thousand different points of view in a world that continued forward with its own set of rules. He no longer cared if he had a planet named after him somewhere. He was now an entire universe unto himself.

Your thoughts?

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