shortened from the original to “flash fiction” size
I checked my pocket watch, nearly midnight. It was late summer in Barcelona, and I sat at a table outside of a small café. A waiter nearby hinted with his posture that it was nearly time to close.
I put down my equations, and looked into the sky. The weak street lights and dimly lit storefronts did little to lessen the intensity of the stars and planets. One in particular moved fast across my field of vision, but not as quickly as a meteor. Then it stopped at the tail end of Ursa Major, and remained motionless.
It was Saturday night and the streets were still busy. I’d worn a fawn suit which I’d hoped would help me blend in. I’d needed to get out, but I shouldn’t have left my room. They were close. There was the faint telltale scent of ammonia in the air. They were watching. They had found shadow and were waiting. Perhaps there might be comfort in capture, I thought.
With this in mind, I picked up my notebook and hat and placed some coins next to my empty brandy glass, then walked into the crowd. My last night of freedom? Perhaps my cell would have a window, to watch the onset of autumn.
Some years later
I tap in Morse code on the wall of my cell, “Do they still use rockets?”
“Yes,” someone on the other side taps back, “of course. Can’t you hear the snap of the atmosphere whenever one breaks free? A guard has told me that they’ll be landing on the moon in just a few days. They’ll increase the Earth’s surface, when they do. They’ll create a whole new nation for men to die for. They’re launching tomorrow.”
Unlike me, whoever occupies the next cell isn’t in solitary confinement. He obviously has some limited access to the world, and is my only source of news. It’s a suspicious miracle, however, that he knows Morse code as I do. I wonder if he’s a liar, or if he’s even a prisoner.
Our dot dash conversation ends, replaced by a strange hissing stillness. I have no window as it turns out, and no way to measure time. They never turn out the light and there’s only one meal a day, sometimes none at all. The food trays slide in through a hatch at irregular intervals. It’s the same hatch my slop bucket slides through, back and forth. Occasionally, the food is drugged so that I can be removed and my cell cleaned.
This cube of a cell has absorbed me; all I have is its space. The demands made of space aren’t the same as those made of time. Space need only be occupied, and here I am. Time, however, must be up by dawn and dawn has been denied me.
A widely accepted scientific rule, called Newton’s third law of motion, is said to allow rockets to travel though empty space. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I believed in it once. A rocket engine is said to push on its own exhaust, created in the near vacuum of space. The exhaust, it is assumed, therefore, causes the rocket to move forward. The definition of forward, though, remains an open question.
I was close to providing an accurate definition, once.
The last time I saw the moon was the night in Barcelona. I barely remember it now. I’m certain, however, that it appears at night and sometimes during the day, that it has phases, and that its surface has been occupied for a very long time. Since before we had telescopes to look at it.
This is a recurring meditation. Dreams come when I sit awake on my mat. Psychosis. Voices. Meaningless conversations.
My most recent meal comes through the slot with a surprise. My pocket watch, the one they took when they incarcerated me. It sits there on a plate, next to the dry bread. I stare at it for a very long time, hear it ticking. I expect it to vanish before my eyes. It doesn’t and I pick it up, hold it to my ear. Then I sit in a corner with it. Its smooth cool and gold, with an engraving: On your becoming a Dr of Mathematics. All my love, Jessica.
Jessica? Yes, I suddenly remember: tall and elegant, brilliant, with the strawberry blond hair where June and July took refuge. We were to marry. How could I have forgotten? I haven’t thought of her for so long. It’s torture now, seeing her so vividly in my mind. The pair of us walking the grounds of the university, laughing at some absurd thing I’ve said.
I try the crown. The watch is wound tight. The hands say 10:33; a.m. or p.m.? It always ran a little slow. Maybe it still does, or maybe they’ve fixed it to run fast. Regardless, now I can measure time. I watch the hands for ten minutes. It all comes back to me: sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour, and so on. At some point I fall asleep.
I awake to tapping, coming through the wall. Morse code, somehow sounding emphatic. “The launch. The launch.”
I check for my watch, and it’s gone. But I see Jessica in the corner smiling. Holding out my hand, she fades.
Struggling to get up, I take the tin cup from the tray and spill the cold weak tea onto the floor. Then I tap out my reply: “What about the launch?”
“Successful,” comes the response. “Didn’t you hear the atmosphere go snap?”
“No,” I tap.
“They will be there in a few days, and land on the surface. Then the world will be a bigger place. The planet has gone mad.”
“What do you think they’ll find?” I tap.
“You already know, Doctor,” comes the answer. “Don’t you” Then, “Enjoy the rest of your stay.”