Commander Jackson’s career came to an abrupt end the day they jettisoned him out with the garbage somewhere between Saturn and Jupiter. As a small gesture of mercy they allowed him to wear his space suit with a pack containing about twelve hours of oxygen. Cold comfort, he thought as he steadied himself after the blast from the jettison hatch.
For a long time Jackson had suspected the Saturnians were not a race to be trusted, unlike the Martians with whom he had quite a few dealings earlier in his career. It was not that they did not make excellent crew. They learned quickly and were able and willing to take on tasks and responsibilities that most of the Earth crew were reluctant to. It was just something he sensed about them: a feeling, a smell – they were far too eager to be obedient, so unlike his Earth crew who sometimes proved difficult with questions that he could not always answer. This mutiny had proved that his intuition was, in fact, right.
He feared for his Earth Crew still on board but mostly he feared for the colony. It was plausible that the mutiny was part of a larger strategy. They certainly had the numbers to take over the thriving society of disaffected and displaced humans on Saturn. Now they also had the means for interplanetary travel: his beloved ship that was fast disappearing into the distance. If he concentrated hard enough he could just make out some faint green and red stern lights.
A sudden jolt from behind sent him into a series of forward summersaults. It had been a long time since he had experienced weightlessness. Not since Basic Training at the Space Academy, and that was thirty years ago, about the same time they began fitting out the ships with artificial gravity. He found it rather exhilarating so he pulled his knees up as far as he could and pushed forward. Two more summersaults resulted and he felt elated.
As he quietly drifted in space it occurred to Jackson that this was the first time he was not connected to anything. There was no safety harness, no instant messaging, and no video conferencing. It was just him, Peter Jackson. Back on Earth he would have tensed at the thought but in gravity-free space it was hard to feel tense. In any case he was slowly coming to the realisation that he had probably always been alone. Apart from his children, most of his relationships had been relatively superficial. His wife, whom he had originally loved so dearly, had divorced him many years ago.
There were so many times he could have gone home. He could have taken the lecturing position at the Space Academy back in Australia that had been offered to him early in his career. He could even have talked his way into a job at the Radio Telescope Array there or on the Moon. That would have meant he could have spent his weekends and holidays on Earth. Maybe that could have saved his marriage. But there was always the next opportunity to travel into unchartered space, too many new species to encounter, so much of the unknown universe to explore.
Gazing out into the vastness of space, he watched as an array of meteor-dust splashed across the face of an outlying galaxy. A small light with a blue tinge shone in the far distance. He wanted to believe it was Earth. He wondered whether that was the Saturnians’ destination. Probably. ‘Regardless,’ he thought, ‘all that was beyond my control now,’ so he returned his attention to the present moment and the brilliant cosmic lightshow all around him. There were millions of clusters of stars reaching so far back in time, he could only sigh at the brilliant sight. This was the first time in his life when time didn’t matter. He now understood the concept that time didn’t actually exist.
Never before had he so few choices, but he was calm, more serene than he had ever been. For the first time in his life he actually felt free. He took one last look out into the timeless space around him. Raising his right hind to chest level he reached out as if to pluck a star, like a tiny glistening flower in a giant celestial garden to hold gently between his fingers. Then, with quiet resolve, with his other hand he reached down and found the valve on the oxygen pack and slowly turned it off. He was now ready to go home.