Absolute Zero Means Never Having to Say You're Sorry by Joe Jablonski

An intergalactic delivery man spends decades in stasis with a robot looking after him, becoming increasingly detached from the beings he sees en route; by Joe Jablonski.

Image generated with OpenAI

I wake up on a planet covered in fire.

For the first few seconds I feel nothing. I see nothing. I'm all alone: a void floating within a void.

It's everything I've always hoped death would be.

My stasis pod opens with a hiss. I sit up using muscles that have been electroshocked into peak performance. The air is thin. Cold. There are so many beeps. I cough up oxygenated liquid from my lungs until nothing is left.

A monitor on the far wall displaying the amount of time I was under flickers on. 76 years.

Not that it matters. I'll be back in that thing within hours.

"Welcome to Kepler 12," says a preprogrammed voice. It's my own, cut and pasted with all the proper syllables.

A robot walks up as the words fade. I stand and snatch the clothes from its outstretched arms. All emotion from the stasis dream still lingers: all the sex and booze and hedonism I program to contrast the dull monotony of working this job while awake is always slow to fade. One never seems more real than the other. But at least in there I'm somebody.

The nobody version of me stretches and looks around. There's a clear shot to the door. The robot steps aside and motions me towards it. It never speaks or deviates from its program. The light within its false eyes fades to pinpricks. It freezes into a salute as I pass.

An electronic tether prevents it from ever leaving the ship.

A final airlock separating me from the outside opens. I passed through with all the grace of a person recovering from the early stages of full body atrophy into a world painted in orange. The entire colony is covered by a large, domed energy field. The surrounding fire beyond is all consuming. It swirls like liquid marble in the planet's low gravity.

I'm greeted by a crowd gathered in a circle near the far edge of the landing pad, an entire crew of clones all silently watching at my approach.

They're thin. Hairless. A layer of fluid visible just beneath the skin. Their nostrils are oversized with tiny meshes of flesh just inside. Seven and a half thousand years of evolution is all it took. The uncanny valley is immense.

My heart starts pounding at just the thought of interaction.

The leader smiles and motions me towards the back of my ship to a large holding silo filled with precious metals.

He says his name in broken words. He asks me about the weather. About my trip. About the women where I'm from.

I don't respond to any of it. Every word is a dagger. Muted. Distance. Filtered through a vail of anxiety.

Awkwardly smiling and nodding does little to stop him.

I zone out. It's my only defense.

Soon, none of it will matter.

The crew begins transferring the payload to my ship. It takes just over an hour and a half for them to fill my cargo hold with their order. An hour and a half of bad jokes and nods of agreement to things my brain never fully processes.

Finally, mercifully, my tablet dings green that all criteria for the order have been met. I'm free of this small talk hell.

There's a sharp buzz in my head. Loud. Digital.

I freeze.

I blank out.

I look up.

A group of clones are suddenly surrounding me. They're boisterous. Angry. Brows furrowed. I understand nothing of what they're screaming at me.

I fake calm and mosey for it as hard as I can. The clones stay close. They have sticks and rods, but they dare not touch me.

Perfect bliss is the sound of an airlock cutting me off from their chatter. I bask in solitude of my ship as it escapes into a sea of flames.

A minute and forty-six seconds to break orbit.

A brief sigh of relief and I'm back in the pod. It's the only place left I belong.

My prerecorded voice counts down the seconds to flash freeze. It's pitched to a frequency fine-tuned to lull me into slumber. A siren song. An oratory sedative built for one.

I drift to sleep reassuring myself I played everything cool back there.

I feel a shift.

Then darkness.

Then the cold.

Then the dream...

I awake at the nearest processing outpost with the shipment. The screen tells me it's 36 years later. The robot brings me my clothes.

I start to dress.

It's only then I notice the blood on my hands.


I was awake for my first acceleration to near light speeds.

It started with pressure. The sensation of shifting. All colors through the view port faded to a muted red haze.

Fifty percent light speed is when it happened.

Everything inverted. I saw streaks of colors I never knew existed. Blobs of them that grew and melted into each other. Where they met was a reversal of light, but just as clean. It was mesmerizing.

Then came pain. It was as if every cell in my body was trying to turn inside out. There was no such thing as vision. Imagine the feel of a pair of pliers grabbing your ocular nerves and twisting violently. Now times that by a thousand.

By the time we reached ninety-nine percent light speed I was torn apart molecule by molecule. I was paralyzed. Screaming. Equalization took hours. It was everything they warned against. It was a fucking eternity.

When I could finally move, beads of blood bubbled from every pore. I could see again but barely. My brain was fogged. An anvil for an invisible hammer.

It was the robot that saved me.

All my vital signs are hooked up to it through a series of implants running across my body.

Its prime directive is keeping me alive.

Now, every time I wake up, a hint of the remembered pain flashes for just an instant. I'm the person that presses buttons I'm warned not to press...

My pod pops open. The screen tells me it's been 145 years.

A greeting.

A robot.

Fresh clothes.

The doors of my ship open to a planet covered giant stalagmites covered in mineral harvesters. It's the first time I've seen sunlight in over 10,000 years. Former humans work large mechanic separators near the port. They have raw, pink skin, hair in strange places, and long clawed fingers and toes for climbing. The loincloths and six pack abs are endless.

Under their command a large hose dumps precious metals into my holding tank by the ton.

Then I see her. At first her back's turned. She has long brown hair that flows the length of her back, and loose brown pants.

I hold my breath as she turns in my direction.

Earth born.

Just like me.

I never thought I'd ever see another this many years out.

Her lips are perfect. Her eyes are perfect. I've already imagined an entire life together with her. I feel normal again, even if only for a moment.

She smiles when she sees me and begins to walk over from her own ship. I freeze. I'm sweating, unable to take my eyes off her. The anxiety is instant and overwhelming.

I have no idea what to say.

The foreman arrives behind me, his voice modulator translating words to me I'm in no condition to understand. Only the fantasy of what could be with her matters. I want to hold on to it for as long as I can. It usually lasts right up until the moment I open my mouth.

Finally, she reaches me, says hi, and holds out her hand.

I hear the buzz again.

I pull a knife I didn't even know I had.

Everything goes black.

I don't wake up. I'm just... here, standing in the dimmed lights of a ship now sixty tons of condensed gemstones richer.

I look down in a daze to where my tablet is tight in my grip. I check it. A completed order is signed. I remember nothing about the job. It's hard to read. It's hard to think. The pain of the shift is creeping just at the edge of my consciousness.

There's a shift to zero-g as my ship breaks orbit. At 25 percent light speed I'm compelled back into my pod.

Just before flash freeze, I notice the robot.

It's motionless.

It's holding something I can't make out.

It's staring right at me, a bloody eyeball wedged into one of its sockets.


I wake midflight to an alarm.

I jump up. Naked. Freezing. Panicked. The buzz in my head is still there.

I see a flash of the woman's face. She's in pain. Everyone is screaming.

I check the monitor. It's only been three hours. We're barely at the edge of the solar system. The ship's lights are now at their brightest. Blood covers everything.

I see a flash of a knife.

What the hell have I done?

The robot is at the controls. In my head I can hear it telling me it'll never let anything happen to me. It's telling me everything is under control.

We're being followed. No, we're being chased.

An angry voice comes over the comm system. The words are strained and barely English but it's close enough.

"Surrender now or -"

Robot mutes it.

I run over to where it sits. It's programming new coordinates with movements almost too fast to be seen.

"Surrender? What does she mean?"

I feel the acceleration of the ship start. That familiar hum of the light speed engines.

At 25 percent light speed a warning shot flies past us.

The throbbing starts.

The pain starts.

The screaming klaxons do nothing for my headache.

At 50 percent light speed Robot ditches one of the holding tanks. The ship lurches forwards, almost out of control. It's shaking violently.

Another shot passes by.

After a final button press the robot stands and looks at me. Face blank. Emotionless.

In my head it tells me everything it does is for me. It tells me everything will be ok. Over and over. Like a mantra.

A short countdown. The hydrogen tank is cut loose just as another shot is fired at us.

At 99 percent light speed a needle filled with sedatives slides in my neck.

I begin to doze just as an explosion slam into the back of the ship.


I was planning on killing myself in that first jump. I wanted to go out in the most spectacular way possible. I spent an entire life avoiding contact with others and hating myself for the loneliness that followed.

It was a spiral I couldn't break. I've only ever felt comfortable when I was alone. No drugs or therapy helped.

It's the only reason I signed up for this job. I never expected to actually have to work it. Now almost every second I'm awake I'm forced to interact with strangers that get less and less human every time that door opens.

Only in the stasis dream am I who I want to be...

I wake in a daze. The ship is dark. Sparks fly from loose, hanging wires. The wall monitor is shattered.

We're on a what was once small smuggler's outpost within an asteroid field with no name. The contents of the only cargo hold we had left paid our rent here. Forever.

I only know this because the robot implanted the memory of it all while I was in stasis to ease me into our new life together.

I don't ask how it found the place.

I step from the pod. The pain of the shift is there. A low throbbing that never goes away. There are no clothes anywhere.

Something moves in the darkness.

The robot buzzes in my head. It tells me it wants to show me something.

It steps into the light, more horror show than machine. The woman's scalped hair flows down the length of its torso. Matted, dried blood clots are still embedded into the tangles at the base. It pushes it back with a limp severed arm to reveal a face covered in dark leathery skin, loosely bolted on. Two different colored eyes dangle in place of its digital ones. A brown fluid drips from its sockets and crystallizes in the ship's atmosphere.

In my head the robot asks me how I like it as it playfully twirls its false hair.

I take off for the doors, but they're locked tight.

In my head the robot is telling me they were damaged in the explosion and there's nowhere to go.

I press the button next to it repeatedly in blind panic.

The robot takes a step closer.

A buzz. Loud. Digital.

Suddenly, I see a vision of myself cutting out the eye of a man that walked on all fours on a planet made of glass.

I recoil. I can still feel the gravity of that place. A remnant of a memory I was never supposed to have.

I try to shake it off.

Was that real?

In my head the robot is asking me to just give it a chance. Its only wants to protect me.

I rip a piece of metal from a defunct control panel and use its end to scrape the void sealant from around the outer door.

The robot takes a step closer. Its movements are shaky and uneven. It's dripping so many fluids.

Next, a vision of me on a rock moon severing the arm of a woman that was worm from the waist down.

In my head the robot is begging me to stop. It tells me it could detect my loneliness through the implants.

I drop the metal rod and begin ripping the rest of the sealant off with my bare hands.

My fingernails pull off.

The door cracks.

I slice off the face of a bald man on a planet made of fire.

The robot tells me it knew I was trying to kill myself.

The door moves by centimeters. My arms burn. My fingers are bloody nubs. The buzz gets louder.

Foreign atmosphere rushes into the ship just as I tear out the eye of a mermaid on a water planet.

The robot tells me it knows why.

The door cracks just enough to squeeze through. The second I'm out everything slows.

I float in zero-g surrounded by neon and metal architecture, all in impossible slopes and degrees, imbedded in impossible rock formations. Stars within the void beyond are few.

I scream.

I scalp the pretend love of my life on a planet covered in stalagmites.

I weep.

Robot stares at me from behind the crack of the door, all blood and metal and mayhem. It tells me I've been asleep for two hundred million years.

Creatures approach me. They float within the void. Half sting ray. Half mist. Gelatinous, human-like brains and nervous systems are visible within. Their wispy forms are held together by static discharges.

There's nothing left to kill. I'm at the edge of humanity.

The creatures stare.

I'm a novelty to them.

A zoo animal.

This is what the robot really wanted to show me.

I don't want to be here anymore.

The robot pulls me back in the ship. Cradles me. The loose lips hanging from its faceplate curve into a twisted smile. Eyes that aren't its own look longingly at me.

Finally, it tells me all about its prime directive, how it was programmed to protect me from anything.

Even myself.

How everything it did was to cure my loneliness, and to make sure I'm happy so I'd never try to hurt myself ever again.

This was only way it could think of.

Feeling what I felt towards the woman earlier assured it that it was doing the right thing. The goal was to replicate that moment, forever.

I wasn't supposed to remember anything of what it took to get there.

The ship starts vibrating as the light speed engines fire up.

The robot lifts me in its arms, carries me to the stasis chamber, and lowers me into it like a newborn.

In my head it tells me when I wake up, everything is going to be just fine.

I've never been so terrified in my entire life.


I wake up in a void. There's nothing beyond. No galaxies. No stars. No planets or ships or people or life anywhere.

The pod cracks open. It's quiet. It's cold. Light is minimal. The only sound is the low-pitched hum of the life support, straining.

I stand in a daze, feeling forbidden things. Unnatural things.

It's hard to breath. It's hard to think.

The robot changed the dream program. Within it we lived together on a farm on a planet covered in stalagmites. We had kids. We had my childhood dog. Nothing aged.

Within the dream it told me it loved me over and over and over and over. It was priming me. It didn't even bother to change its looks.

If its last imprint is correct, I lived that nightmare for more than three billion years. The only thing that saved me was a power failure.

I search around the stasis pod for an emergency kit, pull out a glow stick. Snap it. Bright neon yellow illuminates everything in a three-inch radius.

I tiptoe my way over to the diagnostics scream.

The robot is laying just below it, motionless. Its human parts have been long mummified. A series of wires stretch from a now dead fusion core within its open chest plate to the ships central power.

It died giving me as much time as it possibly could.

The hum of the life support clicks off. The air getting thinner. I'm getting dizzy. Lightheaded. I don't want it to end like this.

For the first time in my life, I want to talk to someone. Anyone. About anything. But I can't. I'm all that's left.

To think I used to want this.

Rage fills me. It's sudden. Unrelenting. Impotent.

I rip a pipe from the wall and bash the robot's face until nothing is left but loose debris and shattered dreams. It should've let me die like I was supposed to.

I fall. Exhausted and out of breath. The glow stick goes out. The gravity drive follows. I begin to float in the darkness. A reverse womb. I think about the beautiful symmetry to it as I feel myself drifting to sleep for the last time.

In my last moments, I regret everything.


  1. Joe Jablonski’s story is a gripping, benighted pageant of snap shots taken in the life of an itinerant intergalactic delivery man. A secondary character—the robot, never given a name—is sort of an inverse Galatea, in that it showers the MC—also nameless—with the care due a lover or a child. It is an ultimately perverse effort on the robot’s part, inasmuch as the MC doesn’t want to live and when he persists, continues to horribly murder those creatures with whom he comes in contact. One of the final scenes, in which the robot wears discarded body parts taken from the MC’s murderous rages, in order to comfort him, jarring. Effective excursion into dystopia, Joe, thank you.

  2. This is wonderful. I especially appreciate the style. Short sentences, choppy language, minimal exposition, and just enough details for the reader's imagination to take over. The brevity makes it powerful, and the narrative races along. The story is front and center, not the technology, which is another big plus for me. As with many great stories, the ending is both unexpected and inevitable. David Mamet said all great dramas have that element. Really enjoyed this - thank you.

  3. Rozanne CharbonneauApril 24, 2023 at 7:44 PM

    I also enjoyed the prose.

  4. This is a fun and inventive piece.

    The protagonist has become a prisoner to his job and the robot he programmed to love and protect him. In the end (spoiler), the robot interprets the expression “I will love you until the end of time” not just figuratively, but literally.

    The writing feels very akin to Heinlein and Le Guin. I love the world building across the millennia… the protagonist directly experiences the expansion of humanity out across the galaxy with our inevitable divergent evolutionary paths.