There was nothing keeping him on the colony, so one night he got out of bed far too early for it to be late anymore, and he headed down to the docking areas where the spaceships passed by on their way to somewhere else. There he arrived at a small waiting area that served as tavern, information portal and intersystem trading hub. He located the crew from that strange ship that would sometimes stop by, asked them again about the terms of the contracts they were offering, and this time he took a seat and listened hard.
It was a well-known contract in the manner that such things become known, spoken of in rumors and hushed half-beliefs. Lazar knew few people who had truly investigated all its murky corners.
The recruiters were friendly without being imposing. They gave him the impression that they would be happy to have him and remain happy once he had signed up but would not take it personally if he did not. They also gave him the impression that they knew where they were headed, which made them all the more appealing.
Their contract was remarkably clear in tone. It was for a whole year, that odd span which has become actual time without yet being truly long. A year was the smallest unit with which to measure the increments of one's life; and so it counted towards the future without eating it up.
During that year Lazar would not be allowed to leave the ship on his own volition. Were he to attempt disembarkment, the contract stated he would be confined to his quarters until such time as he could be given passage to a nearby colony, while the recruiters calmly stated that he would, in fact, be confined to a container and jettisoned into fucking space at the pilot's whim. This was not a contract for uncommitted people, nor with those who retained any longing for their past.
He would sever all ties with his old life. There would be no communication with anyone on this colony, or anyone anywhere else unless required for a pilot-sanctioned mission. The ship would undock, with Lazar on board, and that would be it.
During this year he would be paid a fortune in salary. Word also had it that the capsuleer who ran the crew could be extremely generous in all those little ways that matter infinitely more when your daily routine is dictated by others.
After the first year he would be free to go. When he asked if recruits tended to leave, the recruiters shrugged and admitted almost reluctantly that nobody ever did. People, they said, found something on this ship they were looking for, and they didn't want to ever let it go.
It suited him well.
They gave him a datapad with tests and watched as he answered the questions, some of which were stranger than others and a good part of which seemed related to personal identity. He handed back the datapad to a recruiter who looked it over, smiled and handed it back with an offer. The offer was in ISK. He had never had ISK before.
He signed the datapad with his autograph and his personal key, and he handed it back, and he left his old life for good.
The ship was an industrial, five hundred strong, although Lazar was told that he likely wouldn't see but a fraction of it at the outset. He was confined to a particular section of the ship where he would work, live and interact with the same limited subsection of the crew. He had not been allowed to bring any personal possessions, but the ship was well-stocked in both entertainment material and basic necessities. Many of the onboard systems were automated, even the personal hygiene ones in the living quarters, which Lazar suspected was a welcome novelty for a ship used to taking long trips in deep space. The lack of amenities annoyed him at the outset - he wanted to shave his face with a blade, but there were no razors and, oddest of all, there were no mirrors on the ship, either - but if that was the worst he had to suffer on this strange trip, he expected he could handle it.
He met his crew section every morning at reveille. Strengthened in his intent to accept whatever the journey brought him, he found himself more affable than he'd been in years, and made quick friends with most of them. One in particular caught his attention, though he tried to rein himself in. She had long, reddish hair, thick lips and a voice that slid gently into his ears. Her name was Reania.
She agreed with him that the ship's automation took a little getting used to, and that the lack of mirrors was frankly bizarre, but added that the capsuleer in charge of this ship was in fact a very nice man. He had his kooky side, as she called it, but they all did, and his crew served him without compunction. He also had a lot of money - again, as they all did - and spent a great deal of it on this ship and its crew. The others, busy with eating but apparently listening in, nodded in gentle approval. Lazar wondered whether he would ever meet this man, but asked whether he would ever meet the rest of the crew. Reania said that eventually he would, after the initial adjustment period had passed. Long trips took getting used to, and they did not want him to get lost in this life before he had truly found his bearings. He did not ask anything else. She smiled at him, but she was not smiling.
That night he started getting sick. It began with a slight vertigo and a photosensitivity that turned increasingly vicious as the night wore on, until the point where even the gloom from the stars' faint halos, penetrating through the darkness of his covered windows, felt like needles slowly piercing his brain. The vertigo forced him to keep his eyes open - he was absolutely not going to run to the bathroom and vomit, not in the dark - and he spent his time counting the luminous shapes that appeared to slither over his bedroom floor, like oil over metal. When he moved his gaze up at the wall, the shapes followed.
Somewhere in the middle of the whorl, he fell asleep.
The next morning people kept asking him how he was doing. He reasoned that he must really look sick, but without any mirrors he couldn't tell for sure.
The day went on and was followed by others. He did his chores, which were simple and appeared to be aimed at gauging his talents rather than putting him to a proper day's amount of work. The crewmembers who worked alongside him kept an eye on his progress, but they were gentle enough about it, and so forthright in their watch, that he did not feel belittled nor ashamed.
He got to know them by their first names, them and most of the others he saw in this enclosed new life, and after the ship made its next stop somewhere in the deep of space he noticed that several of them had disappeared. He asked around, but received only smiles.
The night hallucinations continued. Sometimes he crawled to the toilet and vomited. He was glad for the lack of mirrors, for he did really not want to see his face.
One time at lunch someone new sat next to him. He hadn't yet met this person, but found him strangely familiar. The person greeted Lazar cheerfully by name, and Lazar ransacked his memory for the same, but came up empty.
"Who are you?" Lazar said at last, with what he assumed was a fairly silly grin.
"Oh, I'm Jatek."
Lazar said, half to himself, "Hey, that's the name of one of our guys who left recently."
The man said, "Yeah, that's me."
This was surprising to Lazar, who had gotten to know Jatek. "No, you're not," he said.
This was even more surprising. "Well ..." Lazar began. "You don't look anything like him."
"What size was he?" the man said, standing up.
Lazar looked him over. "Yours, but-"
"Yours. And you're wearing clothing similar to his, and you probably have the same shoe size as well," Lazar said as the man sat back down. He leaned in and added with a whisper, "But here's a telling little detail. You don't have his face."
"So?" the man said, with a puzzled and amused expression on those strange features.
Lazar blinked at him. He muttered, "I don't know what to say to that."
The man nodded - still with that amused face that Lazar half wanted to smash in with a goddamn rock - and went back to eating his lunch.
Lazar remained in his seat and resumed his own meal, which had lost most of its taste. He shot the man a look every now and then, but tried to focus on the positive things about this situation: He was happy here. He was free of the migraine, for the moment. And although his stomach was a little shaky, no less after this little act, he was keeping his food down.
Until the door opened and another person walked in, wearing different clothing and made of a different build, and walking even with a different gait, but possessing the exact same face as the Jatek pretender.
Lazar rushed out and barely made it to the bathroom before losing his lunch.
He spent the rest of the afternoon in bed, waking only from his doze when Reania came over to check on him. They had become close friends, or as much as one can get when adjusting to a new life and trying not to fall for one's coworkers. When she saw the state he was in, she immediately took over the flat. This included taking his dirty laundry off various available surfaces and having it cleaned, ordering the AC to air out the place (and ordering Lazar not to shut it off again), sending the cleaner bugs to take care of spatters from the most recent raspy dry heave, and sorting out a proper warm meal. Snacks were always available to the crew - this was one of those uncommon ships where practically nothing was rationed - but food had to be requested, as private quarters had no facilities to make it. Reania left and returned shortly after with something that Lazar thought smelled almost as nice as she did. They ate in the living room, him sitting on the sofa, her on a chair that faced him.
He got the food down, eventually. She sat there patiently, chatting with him in amicable fashion and doing a good job of making him feel neither alone nor helpless. To his relief she did not ask him what was wrong, for he could not truly have told her.
After the meal he was overcome with the calming warmth of a body nourishing itself. He ran out of energy even to talk, but even so he did not want Reania to leave him. She seemed to sense this and moved closer, sitting beside him and keeping up a slow murmur about her time on the ship and the sights she'd seen; stations, nebulas, anything but the present.
In a quiet moment he asked if they could just lie down. They did, there on the sofa.
For the longest time he didn't speak, not wanting to disturb this bubble of niceness and normality in which he was resting. But the mind never stops, and eventually he had to ask.
"Did you see Jatek and Kralen today?"
"Yes," she said.
He asked, with the tiny glimmer of stupid hope, "Oh, so they're back from the station?"
She said, "Well, yeah, silly. Jatek even told me he sat with you at lunch today."
Lazar closed his eyes tight and lay very still, hoping Reania wasn't going to ask, but certain that she would.
Eventually he took a deep breath and said, "Do you see nothing wrong with them?"
"No," she said. "I don't."
He took another deep breath, and another. Eventually he fell asleep.
They stopped off again, this time for a few days. More new faces, all the same old face.
He truly felt like he was losing his mind, and he found himself idly wondering if he should kill them all or merely kill himself. At mealtimes he avoided everyone. Someone spoke to him unexpectedly and he was so startled that he spilled food over them. He left immediately, because if he had not, he honestly would have fallen to the floor and cried.
Sleep was harder to come by, though the worst of the headaches had passed.
He did not dare say anything to anyone because he truly did not know if he was himself any longer, and if he started to yell and scream at those strange faces, it wouldn't matter either way: He would have become a madman. Even if he was right, he would have lost his mind.
They suffered an attack, in one losec system, and this is what wrecked him: He was bloody useless. Everyone stood their ground and did the work required, but Lazar did not. He couldn't face working beside those people. He remained at his post and he responded when he couldn't avoid it, but it was clear to him and certainly to anyone around him that he had flaked out. They said nothing to him, which only made it worse.
The ship took to the nearest station for repairs. While it was docked Lazar aimlessly wandered its corridors, not knowing even what he was anymore - certainly not a proper crewman, and barely a human being - and only came to a stop when his legs would no longer carry him.
He rested against a wall, eyes closed. The thrum of the ship was different when docked: not quiet, but more deeply throbbing, as from potential rather than motion. It was so strange to stop, but not even his next steps seemed real enough to make effort.
There were footsteps. He hoped he wouldn't have to talk.
He cracked an eye open and saw another one, the same visage as all the others; although on this one the face seemed entirely natural and a perfect fit to his body.
The wanderer asked if he was okay. Lazar nodded.
Then the stranger with the strange face did something that amazed Lazar. He knelt down and hugged him.
Lazar was too tired even to sob, so he sighed, again and again.
The man said, "We are all the same here. We all live this same life. Forever," and as creepy as it was, it was calming, too. Lazar found himself loving this man's voice, his support, and his apparent sanguinity of mind; for either he had already had his own face changed, like everyone else, and had simply dealt with it, or he hadn't had it altered and was now supporting someone like Lazar who, to him, must appear utterly mad.
Lazar rose from the man's grasp and sighed again, nodding at him. He tried to get a grip on himself.
The man said something like, "You're going to be okay," and Lazar didn't hear if it was a question or a statement, but he closed his eyes and nodded again. He heard the man walk away. As the steps receded it occurred to him that he hadn't even thanked the guy, so he made himself open his eyes, opened his mouth, and looked in the direction of the footfalls. He caught the briefest of glimpses as the man walked around a bend in the corridor before disappearing from view. The back of his head had a neural socket in it.
Lazar made his way home. Everyone on this ship, he was coming to realize, had been kind to him from day one. Everyone was supportive. Whatever this was, and whether or not they were doing it to him, they truly cared.
He had just been comforted by a capsuleer. He felt like an infant, rocked to sleep by a burning red sun.
That night someone rang at his door. It was Reania. She was there to comfort him, he said.
While they sat on the couch he admitted to her that he was wallowing in misery.
She said that isolation did strange things to people's minds. He said it couldn't be that; it could not just that.
Reania sighed. She said it was not.
"You're not mad," she said.
"What's going on?" he asked.
She closed her eyes.
He looked at her for a while. "You're not going to answer," he said at last.
She shook her head.
"But it doesn't matter, because I'm on this ship for good," he said quietly.
They sat for a while in silence. Eventually she got up and said, in a teary whisper, "I'd better be going."
She had reached the door before he said, "Don't."
"Please," he added.
She put her hand on the doorframe, leaned against it with her head.
He said, "Please don't leave me alone." She turned, and he added, "I don't know who you'll be tomorrow. Please don't leave me alone."
She laughed and cried at once, and went back to him, stroking and kissing his head. Later they moved from the couch to the bed, and even later, they eventually fell asleep.
The next morning he was determined: If this was madness then he would ride it, like a comet among stars.
Every face he saw was the same face. But when he returned home at night she was always there, and it kept him going, if not sane.
One night she said she would go away for a while, but she would be back. He said yes.
She asked if he was alright. He said yes, and yes, and yes.
He was riding the comet. Nothing else. He was in the dead cold of space, waiting to burn up.
They made love again, for the last time.
He slept a lot. He lost count of time. Once he woke up, sore and numb, and found it was three days later than he thought it had been. But he felt at ease, and managed to enact some manner of balance in his life. Everything happened for a reason.
They had to short up a bunch of damage after they got ambushed. He pulled Jatek out of danger after a circuit board caught fire, and promised himself he'd look into that; they were his responsibility. Kralen bought the rounds afterwards, since he'd been the last crewman to vet his guns before activation.
Eventually she returned. They met in the cafeteria, and ate, and after work they went their separate ways until the very end of the day, when she came to his quarters. She had an access pad and let herself into the dark room. He heard her come.
She walked quietly into the bedroom and laid down with him. She started to do things, but he stopped her.
She pulled back, apparently thinking he didn't want to, but she was wrong. He said, "I have to do one thing first," reached out and turned up a single light from a single lamp. Its faded brightness was like that of a setting sun, and it illuminated her new face.
"Are you sure about this?" she asked, with that old voice.
"The light stays on," he said, and reached for her hand again. She leaned down and kissed his fingers, then leaned in a little closer.
When they did it, he looked deep into her eyes. He saw his reflection, deep in those pools of darkness, and it was her own face. He whispered, "Yes."
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