32 - Outside

When strange occurrences rock the crew of a construction ship near the edge of the galaxy, their captain is forced to wrestle with the possibility that leaving is dangerous to both body and soul.

JO (36) is the manager of a small maintenance crew installing jump gates across the galaxy. FTL travel was discovered a few thousand years ago, but it requires a jump gate at either terminus, which has to be manually installed.

Jo and her team arrive at a location, install the gate, and activate it. A new gate then jumps to them, along with news from the last hundred years or so. Sometimes they get a new ship, which is always nice, but by this point lightspeed and near-lightspeed travel have come up on physical laws of the universe, so there’s not usually any upgrades big enough to be worth it. They then go into cryosleep for a hundred years or so while they fly to the next jump point.

Everyone they ever knew has been dead for thousands of years at this point, which was a known factor of the job, which means only a certain type of person applied. Jo didn’t have any immediate family, and had several debts - financial and otherwise - that made a fresh start a few thousand years in the future appealing.

WALDO (70) is Jo’s closest friend. He had a terminal disease that would’ve killed him in a matter of years; by signing up for the jump crew, he got a free sleep to the future until a cure was found. He’s stuck with it because everyone he knows is dead, so why stop now?

The others on the crew are APPLE (23), who’s super excited about science and living in the future; IGGY (30), who’s convinced he’s going to go back to society as one of the wealthiest people alive thanks to compound interest; and ZIA (44), who’s new as of the last jump gate, just there collecting experiences - she’s chronologically older than all of them by a few hundred years, gets around in cryosleep and lightspeed.

Jo and her crew finish setting up a gate, and immediately a new gate jumps through it, along with some news and other forms of media.

There’s not a lot that’s particularly interesting to the group. The company they work for has been bought and sold again; they’re now “Tragala” employees instead of working for “Bold, Inc.” Their job is the same, so who cares?

Iggy’s bummed because his stocks aren’t doing great. Waldo’s starting to look at retirement options, so he browses through what sectors of the galaxy are inhabited enough to be comfortable, but so much that he won’t be able to be alone. Sure, it’ll all change over the next several hundred years, but maybe if he finds something especially nice he’ll retire sooner than planned.

All of them are getting pretty excited about the gate after the next, though. Their next gate goes to the edge of the galaxy, just inside the astrosphere; the one after that goes just beyond. They’ll be the first people to ever leave the galaxy.

Apple’s the most excited, but Zia is skeptical; “They’re not gonna let a bunch of construction workers be the first to do anything.” She hopes she’s wrong, of course, but she’s convinced they’re gonna get replaced at the next gate.

Jo, for her part, views it as just another job. Like, it’ll be cool if they get to be the first ones and all, but then after that they’ll just jump to a different gate and then it’ll be back to the same old gig.

They enter cryosleep, and suddenly they’re arriving at the edge of the galaxy.

It’s black. Looking in one direction, there’s just nothing. There are no galaxies close enough to see with the naked eye. Just darkness. In the other direction, because they’re just a little above the disk of the Milky Way, they can see basically the whole thing. It’s spectacular.

Of course, that’s not drastically different from their last gate, but it’s the starkness of it that makes it so striking. There’s not just a couple stars, there’s literally none. Just black.

The gate construction process takes a couple weeks; they get started on it. The whole time, though, there’s something weird going on. People will put things down in one place, and find them in another. Lights will switch on when nobody’s in the room. Nothing that can’t be put down to run-of-the-mill forgetfulness, but it’s common enough to be weird.

The blackness wigs out Jo and Waldo. It feels like they’re falling, or being sucked in. Waldo doesn’t even like turning his back to it; just knowing it’s there creeps him out.

They’re installing part of the jump gate when Iggy suddenly freaks out. He abandons his post, runs to the maintenance level of the ship, and starts rewiring some panels. Nobody’s sure what to do, and Jo’s just about to incapacitate him when the ship goes through a hard reboot process. Everything shuts down; gravity, air recyclers, everything. It all starts kicking back in before anything too bad happens, but it’s enough that Jo knocks Iggy out and puts him into confinement.

Before they can worry about interrogating him, they run a complete systems check to see what he messed with. It turns out, he didn’t break anything - he fixed things. Without his emergency repairs, and without them at that precise moment, a key subsystem would’ve failed in such a way that it took the backups down, too. With the gate still weeks away from being completed, they wouldn’t have survived. Iggy saved them all.

But the specific way he saved them is far outside his wheelhouse, and was difficult to spot if they’d known exactly what they were looking for - he shouldn’t have had any way of knowing or noticing, and even if he had, he shouldn’t have known how to fix it.

They let him out of containment because, you know, he saved their lives, but they have questions. He explains he’s caught in a time loop. He’s been reliving from the moment he sprang into action, until the day he dies. He’s lived hundreds of lifetimes now - some long, some short. A lot of the first ones were short, until he figured out the ship’s problems. He’s fixed the ship hundreds of times, maybe thousands. He’s studied physics, chemistry, biology, and he knows every inch of the ship, everything that’s wrong with it, every minor fix that could improve it. He has advanced knowledge of the next couple thousand years of science.

His knowledge makes it hard to refute his story, but nobody’s sure what to do about it. They’re completely isolated until they get the gate up and running again. They have enough emergency fuel to get back to the last gate, which is what Waldo wants to do, but Jo refuses. She asks Iggy for more information, but he doesn’t have any. He’s tried to stop it, over and over again he’s tried.

There’s only one thing he hasn’t done: left the galaxy.

hat surprises Jo - surely, after hundreds of lifetimes, he’d have done it once? Especially considering it’s their next task. But he refuses - every time they’ve finished the gate, he’s quit and gone home. He will not leave the galaxy. It’s like it’s written into the core of his DNA. He doesn’t know what will happen, but he knows it’ll be bad.

What’s more, he tells them that nobody has. Or at least, if they have, it’s never been publicized. They never come back from building the jump gate outside the astrosphere, and neither does anybody else. Once you leave, you never return. Most of the time, his warnings have stopped them from continuing. Zia’s still gone several times, and Apple’s gone once or twice, but generally everybody takes the smart choice.

Iggy assures them there’ll be no more problems finishing this gate - in fact, he can automate the whole thing for them, if they want. They don’t want, but they get back to work, including letting Iggy participate.

In the meantime, Apple is pumped as hell. She’s constantly peppering Iggy with questions about the future and about science. Iggy doesn’t mind answering her questions - he stopped caring about “messing with time” several lifetimes ago. He does take a lot of time to himself, though - Jo catches him sobbing in the closet more than once. He insists he’s fine, he just misses his family from the last go-around. He knows he’ll never see them again - even if he meets the same girl, still marries her, he’ll have different kids.

Zia is much less excited than Jo expected. She’s mostly horrified. Iggy’s fate seems worse than death to her. Jo figured it’d seem like the perfect life, collecting endless experiences, getting to try anything and everything, but Zia says memories are more than just yours - what’s the point of collecting experiences if you can’t ever share them with anyone? Eventually they’re all gonna die, and Iggy’s gonna reset and he’ll still have everything, and they’ll have nothing.

As they finish the gate, Jo and Waldo share a beer and consider their situation. Waldo’s going to retire this time, for real. But somewhere with people. Still not too many people, but he’s not gonna hide out, either. He hopes Jo will come visit him.

Jo tells him she won’t. She’s gonna go through, gonna build the next gate. Waldo’s horrified, but also gets it. He wants to know, too, and it’s tempting to just say, “Hell, it’ll all reset for Iggy next time, what’s the point?” Jo appreciates him not trying to talk her out of it, but she wonders if she can talk him into coming, with her.

He says maybe.

They finish the gate, which is a much more ominous moment than it has been in the past. The next gate jumps through, bringing a new crewmember - Jo, except she’s 18. We’ll call her YOUNG JO.

Everybody’s freaked out, obviously, but oddly, not Jo. She’s too full of purpose to waste time being freaked out. Young Jo is there for the same reasons Jo started doing the work originally, and Jo insists to her that it’s not worth it. “You’ll lose everything. Everybody I know has been dead for a thousand years. There’s no family waiting for me. There’s nothing.”

There’s something weird about Young Jo. It’s almost like she’s blind, but she navigates the ship fine. She’s just never looking at anybody, even when she’s talking to them.

Young Jo says Jo’s whole “there’s no family waiting for me” thing is bullshit. If they’re the same person, all of her friends and family are still there. Who knows how, but Jo can leave right now and go back to them. That’s what finally really disturbs Jo - Young Jo knows all the same people, this is really Jo’s life. Are they really back there? And if they are, could she actually go back to them now, twice the age she was when she left them?

She’s convinced Young Jo to leave, but she refuses to go with her, even when Waldo tells her she should, and that he won’t leave the galaxy with her.

They take a group vote. Everybody but Jo doesn’t want to go on, but Jo is determined. She convinces Iggy to automate the ship for her so she can do it alone, and then everybody leaves her alone.

She sets the ship’s course, but doesn’t go into cryosleep immediately. She writes a will, just in case. Spends a week or so making peace with things. Then she enters cryosleep.

She wakes up in blackness. No ship, no nothing. She’s just floating in space, staring down at the Milky Way from above, rather than from an angle like they were at before.

Then she wakes up for real. Except she’s not at the next gate, she’s at the one she just left, as they arrived. She wakes up along with everybody else, except she’s a ghost, watching even herself wake up from cryosleep. The crew proceeds to go about everything just as it happened before, including Iggy’s breakdown and revelation of the time loop. Jo can’t interact with anyone, but she interacts with the ship just fine.

She realizes she’s the ship’s poltergeist. She can move stuff, and even if people can’t see her, they can see that objects moved while they weren’t looking. The ship’s lights will turn on when she walks in the room, because it still recognizes her.

Things progress until the point Young Jo shows up. Suddenly, Young Jo’s odd behavior makes sense - she can see Ghost Jo. She talks to her. Some of her odder conversations, she was completely ignoring the real (?) Jo and talking to Ghost Jo the whole time.

In particular, Young Jo tells Ghost Jo that she still has family waiting for her. Ghost Jo says no, she’s not real anymore, she’s a ghost, but Young Jo says that’s bullshit - she can see her. The ship can see her. It’s just the crew that can’t. Come back with her. See her family again. Even if they can’t see her, so what? What’s she gonna do, stay here and float all alone?

She spends the rest of the time until they leave hiding. Terrified.

The day of departure comes, and she runs out to them, past herself who’s deciding to stay. Young Jo smiles, takes her hand as they board the shuttle to go through the gate.

The shuttle flies through the jump gate, back to civilization.

The end.