I never felt more alone than when I was in the vacuum of space. Probably something that goes without saying, I guess, there is an awful lot of it out there after all. But us humans have a particularly narrow understanding of scope as it pertains to the Universe and I've seen more of it than most. Too much, in fact, I wish I could take it all back. Even the things mesmerizing to my eye. After floating through the never-ending ether that stretches far beyond the small human concepts of infinity, I eventually wished space had remained something that only existed outside my tiny sphere of experience, wish I had never felt its tendrils reach down my throat and withdraw my heart, along with my last tenuous thread of sanity. I wish I had never been inside the vast expanses of the cosmos and that they, in turn or in retaliation, had not entered me.
I dictate this story to you now not as a warning, as my experiences in the void have carried me far beyond the human consciousness, so mind-bendingly distant that I no longer feel an overwhelming connection to the race that spawned me. No, I tell this story now as a final will and testament, so you will know my wishes once you find my frozen and mangled shell floating listlessly in the deep, dark clouds of the outermost spaces, and as a final message to you, my beloved. Please understand that everything that arose after I left Earth was because of you, that I hoped to meet you, to gaze upon your face one last time, to prove my memory was correct in picturing you as perfect, forever silhouetted by a sun that did not scald and breathing air that did not sting. I'll never possess any of these things again, I've made my peace with those simple facts now, but in truth I do not want them. Only the low, barely inaudible hum of some far off energy calls me now, a siren in the dark, luring me towards rocky shores. To whoever finds this, know that I didn't suffer, that I went willingly and without looking back. And that, originally, I was one of you.
As my breath fogged up the bay window I was stargazing out of, my
thoughts once again returned to the reasons why I had agreed to a
7 year one-man mission to the nearest star Sirius. In some
ancient Earthine cultures, solitary confinement was considered a
punishment, capable of cracking the fragile psyche of even the
most hardened criminals like an egg. As interconnected as the
world had become at that point, solitary confinement had become
one of the most debilitating forms of torture, cutting the
individual off from the invisible social networks that beamed
through the air and into their visors. Yet here I was taking on
this self-imposed exile into the inky depths of the Universe
voluntarily. I may have been trying to punish myself,
subconsciously, but that's a revelation I didn't come to until
much later in the journey and as I just touched upon, we've got
plenty of time for a story.
I used the sleeve of my cotton body-stocking to wipe off the condensation pooling on the window. Back then, I could never grow tired of watching the long streak of a star as it passed by at lightspeed, imagining what unknown worlds might be circling it, what eyes might be pointed back at me. It became my custom to concoct wild stories about the imaginary civilizations I was passing, were they benevolent, insightful starwanderers, like myself, or tyrannical warlords, strip-mining the worlds they enslaved before moving on to their next conquest. Once, you wont believe this but once I swore I passed a star bathed in a pink glow which immediately brought up evocative and carnal scenes of a sex-worshiping society that was in the midst of a world-wide, never-ending orgy of deviant pleasure and erotic bliss. I began writing a story about it, fancying myself a nomadic spacefaring novelist, writing bestsellers from a rocketship that never stopped probing the galaxies, but the idea was, ah, a little too evocative and the remainder of the night was spent attending to my own carnal urges. Desire, it would seem, never strays too far from the basic human matrix of needs.
Passing through the rings of a massive gas giant was another
sight I could never grow weary of. Watching as the tiny, frozen
particles ricocheted off the rocket's wings, ping-ponging their
way through the floating fog of ice and creating a chain of small
shattered stars would have been the making of a fantastic
painting, in dark, smudged charcoals with tiny dabs of white for
the chunks of ice. I did manage to take a screencap with the
window's sensors, but the near perfect 1:1 capture just never
felt as real to me. And anyways who would I have shown it to? A
memory is only memorable if you can share it. And it would never
be long until I could witness the entire scene playing itself out
again, a cosmic recital always trying to get that last step
right. Endless were these discoveries though possessing a strange
similarity that I could not shake, like the brushstrokes of a
singular artist. But I would never bore of the illimitable wonder
and the new discoveries on the way to that small pinpoint of
light that was my final destination, to you.
One day, or as nearest as approximation as I can make to days, the ship passed through a lightyears-wide ocean floating through the void. For what must surely have been a week, the ship was submerged in this amorphous amoeba of moisture, deep in its belly I could see no penetration of light in any direction, only liquid. And the creatures that lived inside this untethered sea! With resources that stretched longer than planets, they had grown to sizes unimaginable! I peeked out the window one night to see a giant eye that stared back at me, questioning as I was, what are you doing here? Where did you come from? To what do you go to in such a hurry? I watched in awe for long stretches of time, from inside the giant cloud of water you could never have guessed there was never a land to touch it. No shore for wayward flotsam to wash upon. It was its own Universe, and yet as the wonders of this oceanic space floated through me like mist, still I thought of you.
There was no real measure of time at that point, no barometer to which I could track the rise and fall of the local sun. I could only rely on the onboard clock, but I had been thoroughly trained in the relativity issue, and how those same streaks of starlight that stretched past me were somehow aging faster, growing older as I passed them by. I tried not to dwell on this idea for too long, lest the thought take hold of me, unshackling the carefully constructed locks of my neurosis, threatening to engulf anything that would emanate from me, like the black holes I skirted the edges of. What subdued me at those moments alone were my thoughts of you.
After what I was told were years of shooting through the protracted dark, infinite matter, I one day saw the light that I knew was my final stop on this voyage. I had been floating alone in the darkness for so long without you, but the journey was not over yet: there was still a few million miles to go. what kept me warm in the near absolute-zero temperature of space was the conversation I imagined we'd one day have. One day, on a bright, blooming world, away from the lightless precipices of the cold, dark forever, in a place where sounds could be heard, where the brightness was sometimes too much for eyes to look upon, where things crawled and energies of only human origin swirled, one day on this small green globe of my desires, I imagined I'd tell you about the many wonders I saw out in Space. Of the twisting galaxies devouring each other, of the pillars of multi-hued gas that stretched farther than you had the ability to crane your neck, of binary stars that circled imaginary points in nothingness, locked in an eternal dance. I'd tell you of all these amazing things the Universe held.
And then I'd admit that after all we'd been through, after all I'd seen, after every startling revelation I made about the concept of space and what it means to be human, all of it only made me think of you.
Those were some of the last human thoughts I remember having. If my story had ended there, which at times I have imagined it did and that we finally embraced and we were happy, together on a rich, vibrant world, it would have been perfect. A beautiful love letter between literal star-crossed lovers, to the Universe as a whole, and to the notion of home. I wish the story had ended like that, but now there are so many things I have wished for, to turn the internal tides of fate and live the life I had dreamed of, not the one that pierced me through the chest like a harpoon. My journey through the dark heart of the Universe would not stop at its intended destination and there was no warm planet welcoming me home. Something indeed took hold of me out there, something that latched onto my spinal cord and began leeching vital fluids to survive, but it started as a nagging thought. Some of your scientists might explain this phenomenon as a sort of brain hiccup, an inconsistency in the electrical neuron pathway, much like the errant chemical spike that produces what your Earth refers to as OCD. It began for me as the recognition of a recurring pattern, the similarity I discussed earlier and how in an infinite, vast Universe, certain occurrences seemed to be repeating, but only subtlety and only noticeable by a mind unfettered by the minutiae of daily life, of the survival instinct, of social constructs, of any goal but that of waiting. This symmetry could only be recognized by someone in my exact position, racing through the cosmos, staring in awe at all the passing celestial bodies, and devoid of any kind of concept of inner time. After a few years, which I can safely vouch for because of the onboard computer informing me of the Earth years that had passed, I began to realize that the limitless Universe was not so vast after all, that despite the statistical possibilities out there the invisible artist behind it all had started running out of ideas, that things were repeating. And that was when I began unraveling.
The ladder clanked beneath my feet as I climbed down to the lower maintenance level. Halfway down I pushed off and allowed my momentum to propel me weightlessly into the open room. It was a familiar sensation that gripped and cradled me through the open air then, the closest thing I could get at that point to a loving embrace. Moments lulled me into a near sleep, before I realized my eyes were closed, but opening them revealed no new information. It was another long moment, groping aimlessly for something to grasp, searching frantically for something to anchor my self and my thoughts. I had missed the light switch. That brief pinch of panic rolled though me as I continued to float, remembering my meditation techniques I had perfected from years in remote isolation aboard the ship. I steadied my thoughts and calmly assessed the current situation. But my thoughts continued to stray, recognizing the similarity between this darkened room I was gliding through and the encroaching vacuum of space outside its walls. A space within a space, I thought, thanking the strength of the walls with a silent prayer.
My head banged against the hard surface, that prayer quickly turning into a curse. Those were exceptionally firm walls, I mused. I rubbed the back of my head as the lights suddenly flickered on, one by one. The silvery metallic surface shined radiantly, a reminder that the walls were there to protect me, perfectly designed for keeping whatever was out there, out. Though more often it was beginning to feel like they were only keeping me in. My eyes adjusted to the bright glow, beams and girders trailing off into the far distance.
"Good morning, Mason", the onboard computer greeted me, a cheerfully obnoxious voice that seemed to emanate from all around me and nowhere in particular.
"Christ my friggin head that hurts", I answered, knowing only a split second too late that I had just triggered one of its automated responses.
"Have you been injured, Mason? I can open up the medical bay immediately and attend to your wounds if you--"
"I'm okay, it's okay... I couldn't find the light switch and then this wall came out of nowhere. But I'll be fine. Thanks for your concern, Captain Computer", shaking off the pain, I propelled myself back through the room, able to more accurately navigate myself towards my original purpose.
"Head injuries can lead to concussion, Mason, it is important we examine your injury as soon as poss--"
"No I'm fine! It was a joke. I was joking, thanks", I could already see the circuit box which I knew was the cause of our recent electrical problems on the brig. My legs extended outward to brace for my touchdown.
"Okay then, I understand. I'd like to make your day more interesting. Would you like to hear a joke, Mason?" the voice, which I knew was pre-recorded and programmed to respond to nearly a million different variables, asked. I had only just woken up half an hour before and it was way too goddamned early to be having a canned conversation with the space ship.
"Yeah sure, knock yourself out".
"I know you're a fan of jokes, Mason, I think you'll like this one. The Dog Star walks into a lunar cafe and orders a drink, complaining about the loud noise from the nearby holodecks. The bartender responds--"
"'But without holodecks on the moon, there's no atmosphere", I replied along with the automated voice, adding myself: "Cant wait to hear more".
"...The Dog Star didn't laugh however, to which the bartender replied--"
"Why so Sirius??" I responded in a mockingly incredulous tone. The onboard computer had been programmed with 2,489 jokes, all space-related, because I just simply couldn't get enough space in my life, hurtling through it every day for years. And during the last however many years, 2,489 jokes had been repeated roughly 2,489 times each. I had gone through several cycles of thinking they were maddeningly hilarious and just being plain maddening. Anymore I just found them to be straight maddening, though this was mostly in the mornings. I breathed out audibly, safe in the knowledge that the computer had no programmed reaction to exhalations, no matter how annoyed they obviously sounded. The circuit box creaked beneath my feet as I reached down and pried open the lid, all manner of tubes and fuses buzzing from within.
"It has been 231 days since your last scheduled maintenance of the Brig Circuitry Matrix, Mason. Would you like a diagnosis?"
I cringed, hoping the onboard cameras hadn't detected my strained facial expression and ask what was wrong, though I knew there were few electronic eyes this far down in the bowels of the ship. "I cant deal with you today. Australian voice".
The command changed the accent of the computer-generated voice from a non-distinct dialect to a regional Australian, which actually made it harder to discern the words but the voice had a purring, sonorous quality that I found soothing.
"Is this better, Mason?"
A silence followed, leaving me alone in the dimly lit patchwork of girders and support beams of the maintenance level, except for the constant whirring from the box beneath me. I knew the computer was loading and sometimes I swore a faint humming accompanied it.
"Brig level lighting systems are suffering from a malfunction in the zeta cluster of hytons on Pathjet 33.567. This is affecting halogen output in rooms 3, 7, and 8 and corridor A5. We can repair this, Mason, though it will require synchronization of stations. Would you like to proceed?" The spot on the back of my head tinged with a sharp pain, accompanied by a blurring in my vision which lasted even after rubbing my eyes. I yawned it off, remembering I had yet to drink my morning coffee. The thought stopped me for a split second, as my standard wake-up routine had kept me from missing a morning coffee since my first week on the ship. So long ago it seemed now, and it was. But recalling that first week seemed difficult now, like I was trying to remember someone else's experience. That was no longer me, the fearless young man who stepped aboard that ship so many eons ago. Someone else had taken his place, though still inhabiting the same general shape and outline.
"Mason, would you like me to repeat the question?" I was startled. I would have asked how long I had been daydreaming, though I knew the automated response time when unanswered was about a minute. Those minutes could seem so long though, streaming by at speeds inconsistent with my homeworld, though I shook this thought away. The training had been adamant that you shouldn't dwell on the relativity issues, though it was personal experience now that kept me from following that line of thinking. I quickly snapped back to attention.
"Ah, um, yeah. Yeah, let's get this taken care of now. Which station should I hit?", she had always hated it when I put things off. After our first night out, I hadn't asked her out again for weeks. And what was this expedition through time and space if not a reason to prove to her that I had changed, that I was better?
"Station Orion is closest in proximity to the malfunctioning node, Mason. I'll meet you there".
I sighed once more, still after all those years uncomfortable with the artificial affability of the computer program that was designed to be my assistant, doctor, buddy, and warden. The humming sound tickled my ears.
"Is there a problem, Mason?"
This response disturbed me, I had assumed I was out of range of any facial recognition devices down in the Maintenance Level but a flashing light directly overhead drew my eyes to the camera hiding in a darkened corner. It had read the anguish on my face, responding with the appropriate algorithm.
"No, I'm doing good. Thanks buddy, I'll meet your at Station Orion. How about another joke?"
The ladder clanked once more as I shuffled up it, preferring the tactile sensation of climbing to floating up cramped tubes. Sailing through the air was pleasant and sometimes even deeply satisfying, but after so many years I came to appreciate the small exercises in Earthly locomotion, it made me feel a little more connected to the world I had left behind. Another section of the intensive training regimen had taught us the importance of holding on to anything that reminded you of home, even the small things you probably overlooked as an Earthwalker. They had warned us about the addictive quality of weightlessness, that some cosmonauts became so entranced with it that they spent years in that empty cocoon, their bone marrow withering away until it could no longer support their frame under normal gravitational conditions. Still, we were informed, weightlessness had its benefits, especially when transporting materials or yourself across the ship, so it was germane to find a healthy balance between the two modes.
I pulled myself up through the Leisure Level floor entrance. Any unattended maintenance issue nagged at the back of my mind, but that cup of coffee was nagging just a little bit louder. Missing it this morning still intrigued me, I somewhat marveled at the fact that I had inadvertently broken a years-long routine. Not that it really mattered as it would be remedied soon enough, but so much time enslaved by the binds of convention can generate either joy in the revelation that they can still be altered, or a persistent and lingering dread. I wasn't sure which this was as I floated over to the Kitchen Module.
"Can I have some music, light jazz?", I asked the open air as I fumbled towards my coffee.
"Absolutely, Mason", the room came alive as I entered the kitchen zone, some dull lights pulsing to the tones of the 20th century's Art Porter, Jr.'s saxophone. Next to the sink was the large dieffenbachia I had taken custom to watering while I drank my coffee, its slightly sagging leaves indicated it was in desperate need of water, another routine I had somehow neglected. I fished in the sink for my favorite coffee cup, a handcrafted ceramic mug with a 1950's era concept of what a rocket ship would look like, in reds and yellows, with the caption: "Up, Up, And Away!" in star-bedecked font. Rinsing it out, I repeated that morning mantra to myself, at one time in the past hoping that incantation would magically whisk me away to an instantaneous state of alertness, though I rarely managed those levels of responsiveness until several cups' worth later. It occurred to me that this was a routine I was not forgetting, and I repeated it once more out loud.
"Up, Up, and Away".
"Would you like me to play 'Up, Up, and Away' by the 5th Dimension, Mason?"
It was becoming a morning of sighs, though before an automatic response could kick in, I answered back, "Okay".
I poured the swirling water into the plant, silently apologizing for my neglect. The leafs rustled in appreciation as words floated into me:
"Would you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?
Would you like to glide in my beautiful balloon?
We could flow among the stars, together you and I"
The otherwise quiet room was complacent and still, though a casual glance out the bay window caught the familiar streaks of stars zipping by. There was a comfort in routine, I knew. Returning to it had calmed my nerves considerably. Monotony, despite the years, had its benefits. Up, Up, and Away, I repeated in my head this time.
Though aloud, I said: "Coffee".
I still couldn't bring myself to do the task at hand, so drifting through the ship I went, propelling myself along the way with the handrails, while casually sipping the coffee as it dripped up to my mouth. New trainees always assumed that traveling at light-seconds would make the view just mundane streaks of light, stretching forever past you until they suddenly vanished into nothingess, but the truth was that some of the floating superstructures in the cosmic ether were light years long themselves, so they seemed only to creep endlessly before you. It took me a long time to adjust to the unfathomable sense of scale my senses were straining to comprehend. Being constantly confronted by things a million times more massive than I was able to imagine never really grew old, but it was the eventual realization that they were so common which would become even more frightening. I knew what those things scientists called ants must have felt as they looked up at my shoe blotting out their sun, and pondered how such infinitely gigantic things could ever, no matter how far away, be obscured merely by my thumb.
We were sideswiping a Black Hole which despite looking dangerously close, was just so incredibly vast in its size that light years stretched between us. The ship was in no danger of being sucked into the event horizon, even if it its trajectory hadn't been pre-programmed, it had more than enough intuitive ability to avoid threatening space objects. Nearby, in cosmic terms, a gas giant was being slowly stripped of its million miles-thick layer of fumes, a long uncoiling stream feeding the ravenous Black Hole. I shuddered, the act of cannibalism on such a massive scale horrified some primal part of me that surely could never have dreamed of these giant monsters in the dark. But regardless of any previous ancestral experience, some ages old revulsion inside me somehow knew to be scared.
As usual in these types of situations, my training kicked in. We had undertaken months long VR sessions, placing us within meters of celestial objects many millions of orders larger than the Earth's Sun, which impressed most of us tremendously. The virtual sessions only heightened my gullibility, making me even more sure of the fact that I was ready to tackle the Great Wide Open. But, as most kids find out early on in school, artificial experiences can never compare to the real thing once you feel it crawling under your skin and beating down on your face like rain. The first time the ship skirted a supermassive star, I fainted.
The handrailing was as cold as ever, the outside freeze creeping into the steel and bonding with it, so I shoved myself off into the direction of the Recreation Level.
"Full window exposure", I ordered. As I sipped the coffee trickling up to my lips, I watched as the entire multiple-story wall seemed to blur out, its facade of strong, metallic hardness dissolving into a penetrating inky blackness, spotted by dots of light that only popped into existence when you looked at them. I floated upwards, marveling at the scene which no longer held the power to make me faint, but nonetheless still unsettled me. Our training had also taught us about Cosmic Threat Levels, which was the official bureaucratic way of saying everything out in space will probably kill you, it was just a question of which one will do it first. We watched a video, surely made in the late 3200's if the holotech display quality was any indication, that informed us of all the random phenomenon that we'd most likely never see in a million years of light travel, with tangential infoboxes listing the probability of surviving and ultimately being killed by each. The scientists who designed the program had been humble too, a final infobox acknowledging the possibility of "unknown anomaly", with a certain death probability of multiple question marks. Whatever we encountered out in space, they were trying to say, there was always the chance of something even bigger, we had all come to understand at our own times.
Black Holes were considered one of the most certain of dooms. A centurcycle earlier a team of researchers had gathered incredible publicity and financial backing to embark on a journey into one of those dark wretched pits, attempting to prove the time travel applications of black hole transport. They, of course, were never heard from again, but they had been streaming live onboard footage and few had the resolve to watch the ensuing carnage as the ship seemed to twist and bend into itself, as if being crushed by a giant invisible hand. The feed cut out shortly after and the grieving families had prayed for a quick demise to the scientists, hoping they hadn't suffered. An investigative thinktank, however, was able to illegally seize the Blackbox recording and make all 677,156,787,908 (and counting) hours of recorded static available for anyone in the star system to view. We were all warned of the time dilation properties of a Black Hole's Event Horizon, which when captured would stretch out the victim's perception of time to a near infinite level, even as their atoms had been slowly untangled millennia before. No one mentioned that part in the news, though everyone who watched the recording knew that the concept of a never-ending Hell was then a confirmed scientific certainty. We may not have proven the existence of God that day, but we all came to believe in an eternal torment.
I grasped the edge of the Rec Level floor and pulled myself up to my feet, asking for Normal Gravity to resume. My coffee was nearly finished as the lights iluminated all the clever diversions I had: vintage arcade machines, holodome, rampvaults, loungepods, and an ancient game involving the strategic angling of small, ceramic balls with a wooden stick. I had bored myself to near catatonia on each, though I really had no intention of taking up a game at that point and extending my agony. I walked past the RainRoom Visualizer, my pace quickening as I realized I had inadvertently put myself on a path towards Station Orion, when I was hoping to kill more time in the Hot Sphere. I was already too close, it was likely I had tripped one of the ship's proximity sensors.
"Would you like to get started on the maintenance to Station Orion, Mason?" I pretended not to hear and dashed past the blinking booth, shaking off my body stocking as I skipped away. I made an order for the Hot Sphere to open and bounded inside, the gravity well catching me in midair and revolving my body to be hit be a burst of water from all 360 directions. I felt like a chicken basting as I turned, enveloped in a warm cocoon of water, hitting every inch of my body at a pace of 1,032 bursts a second. I'll never forget learning as a child about our ancestors that resided in grounded homes where the vertical shower systems sometimes only dispensed hot water for a short period of time before drenching the poor inhabitant in ice cold blasts. When they had invented the Hot Sphere, did Humans finally know what it meant to be clean?
Living an isolated life with no prospect of curious eyes except those of the passive ship's computer meant I didn't have to fear the transparent settings on the Hot Sphere wall. Actually, I would most likely have become an interstellar nudist in that ship if it weren't for the fact that weightlessness puts your junk in all sorts of awkward positions. The tickling of an invisible force as it probed all my loose parts was enough to send me back to my cabin, putting me several minutes behind schedule, regardless of how many times I had previously touched myself that day. No, I saved those moments for my time inside the Hot Sphere, information which I now realize was totally irrelevant for you to know, whoever you are, and I hope you don't assume you accidentally intercepted the viral marketing campaign of a Hot Sphere salesman.
The intercom inside the sphere buzzed on, "Excuse me, Mason, I know you're busy right now, but would you like to schedule the maintenance for later?" That voice penetrated my skin where the water couldn't, giving me a momentary feeling of embarrassment before I remembered there were no cameras inside the sphere, thank gods. The fact that the voice could still find its way inside the sphere was a little too intrusive however, so I made the command for Com Silence instead. This would interrupt me for emergencies, but it was my best defense against the incessant quizzing of the Computer. That is, until the unflinching quietness drove me mad and desperate for any kind of contact, even programmed. A good few minutes were finished inside the Sphere before I exited, drying myself off as I dripped past the blinking booth wanting my attention.
A clothed finger rubbed out any loose particles of wax accumulating in my ear, as I watched the gas giant in front of me, unfolding its matter off into the hungry infinity behind it. A Black Hole was not strictly speaking something you could actually see, but it was the lack of anything that gave away its presence, no pinpoints of light dotted the encroaching circle of blackness, nothing inside seemed to move. It was a star become one with the void that birthed it, a dark matter hole punched through the fabric of space, revealing the empty puppeteers' quarters behind it, a backdrop of nothing. Sometimes I imagined the secret to the Universe, the grand-unifying theory of Everything, was right there before us, staring us in the face. On us and around us and filling our veins. The Black Hole, though not being classified as an "Unknown Anomaly" surely laughed at our claim to define it as anything else.
"Would you like me to get some clothes for you, Mason?" The goddamn cameras had found me, I quickly covered up, picturing a secret room of the ship that gathered all the recordings of me from every angle in every room since the beginning of my mission for a short, squat man who's entire existence was to monitor my facial expressions, body movements, bodily fluid output, calorie intake, and how many times I touched myself and in which rooms. Would they one day be played back for me, penalizing me for each errant rubbing, as childlings in the zealotry schools surely imagined their Deity would someday do to them? And how many hours of peeping had been accumulated by then, I wondered as I attempted to tie my towel around my waist, enough to match those doomed time dilated researchers? I asked for Zero G, feeling my feet suddenly lifting off the floor and floating back down the ship's levels. Though the Black Hole's gaze was intently fixed upon that bloated and dying giant, a small part of me prayed it wasn't also fixed on me. Some eyes you can never avoid, it seemed. I hoped that the imaginary surveillance room in the ship was the only current recipient of my movements, though who knew if that puppeteer's quarters were just as unoccupied as the cosmos.
There was a certain path I took then, hugging the inside corridor through the exterior levels, that was absent of any roaming eyes, the feeling of not being watched frequently brought me to this section. It's a mystery to me why that extended tunnel lacked cameras, it could have been due to a lowly engineer's oversight or maybe it was sympathy for whomever was forced to live under such scrutinized conditions, that they should at least have some space purely to themselves. My hand pushed along the handrailing like an oar, dipping in every few minutes to replenish my forward momentum. As I floated along I tried not to look at the ominous scene playing out light years away, even though I had requested the view.
The ship would have been a wonder in more ancient times, though by modern standards it was hardly sufficient, a bare bones package nowhere near the splendor of a luxurious lightcruiser. Those were being outfitted with the latest emmersive holotech, weightless pools, and the most attractive part to me: live streaming with Earth or even your intended destination. "Live" was somewhat of a contrived term in this sense, however, as there was still considerable lag between sent and delivery times due to relativity gaps. The hazards off light travel meant you could be in the lavish suite of your own personalized spaceliner talking to your auntie in "real time", but they would actually be responding from somewhere in the past. If you landed after only a week's worth of light-travel, they might just recall the talk you two had shared a few years back. Most kids learn the basics of relativity in grade school these days, several even growing up with parents on missions to distant cosmic sands. For them, the concept of time as a fluid river with many branching tributaries able to fold itself into complex origami-like shapes was part of the common core. I had always been uneasy around the relativity-stretching complications, but at that point in my mission I would have killed, literally killed, for any kind of communication with the world outside my lightspeed prison.
The "windows" on the ship were not even truly transparent, they were digital displays that filtered the outside view, no matter which direction you were looking, into a more coherent and vibrant picture. Steady, unblinking darkness gets a wee bit rough on the eyes after so many years, so the early ship engineers devised a system that could significantly alter the incoming protons, making them a little easier on the old rods and cones. During training, they compared the window display tech to that of archaic "digital cameras", a device early humans had to carry around with them to take pictures with (I remember our teacher telling us they were primarily used to capture scenes of trees and cats, making us all giggle), which possessed a very rudimentary form of color adjusting. The window displays on the ship would similarly darken retina-piercing lights and brighten the surrounding darkness to be more visually accessible. It helped deepen the textures of the slowly depleting gas giant, keeping everything in sharp focus despite its distance, but I couldn't help but wonder how the scene would look without the partition inbetween us. Knowing how it worked sometimes made me question whether the objects I was witnessing were even real or a product of the screen's "enhancement", though more often I ruminated on the fact that we required technology to make real life realer. The Computer's on Earth had been specifically designed to make life easier for us, though I often wondered that with all these enhancements if were somehow missing the bigger picture.
I tried not let these thoughts take root, or else I'd be rocking back in forth in a darkened corner of the ship trying to convince myself the displays weren't completely fabricating the scenes outside. Really though, how could I know for sure I wasn't sitting inside a simulation with a cleverly pre-arranged series of vistas surrounding me in my complacency? No, those thoughts were no good, I knew. My hand slapped the railing again and pushed off, following the bend in the long, empty though surprisingly carpeted corridor. I didn't go through that way often, but the fact that somebody had laid down carpeting in a ship capable of artificial gravity always made me chuckle.
A door spiraled open before me, allowing me entrance to the cargo bay. I didn't have any real purpose there, but the giant interior was an interesting enough diversion when everything else was failing to stimulate. There were no windows in the cargo bay, only a few small passenger ships, the doors to the escape pods, and the Emergency Gunner Drone, a cockpit that was to be entered only if the ship encountered trouble that required blasting itself out of. I had never needed to use anything in the Cargo Bay, but sometimes I liked to climb into one of the passenger ships and sit quietly in its stuffed leather seats, imagining a comely waitress serving my every need. I guess it cant be seen as a surprise to anyone that these long isolated missions bring out the inner conversationalist in a lot of cosmonauts, talking with all manner of inanimate objects and personifying everything from tools to plants It was described in the training as an effective means of staving off psychosis, despite how odd it may seem. "Talk to everything", they had said, "Talk to your chairs, your fork, the waste seats, name the plants, argue with yourself. The vocal chords can deteriorate just as easily as bone marrow, so it's important to work them out". I had heard of cosmonauts who reached their destinations and wouldn't leave without the plant they'd affectionately named Gary. Another trainee told me her nuncle wouldn't even leave the ship once it landed, he had to be forcibly pried away from the massaging table he had nicknamed Ellasandra, which he had developed quite the unhealthy attraction to. Our instructor laughed when I had brought this up in class, mainly just so I could embarrass my fellow trainee, saying that the story was true and that if an odd bond between you and a device is the only mental deficiency you walk away with, then they consider it a successful mission. I had not yet named anything that was bolted down, but my thoughts constantly lingered on that unwatered plant. I opened the passenger ship door with my retina code and entered, finding my favorite chair and reclining.
I looked around, seeing all the familiar faces from home who I'd brought along in my head. "You ass", she hissed at me, "I told you that story in private! My nuncle never was the same after that". I thanked the server as she sat my favorite murky blue drink, the Hanaghan, down with a wink on the seat tray. I watched as she returned to the bar, light briefly glimmering off the steel in her pocket.
I chuckled, "Come on, how can you tell me your nuncle was in love with a vibrator and expect me NOT to share it?", the liquid tingled on my lips, as through my veins I felt the warmness spreading. Perfectly made, I thought, as I held the drink away and admired it. She didn't seem quite as pleased with the current situation.
"You're an asshole and you know it, and that's exactly why you did it. I'm never sharing anything with you again. You'll have to learn to start caring for people some day", she folded her arms in an overly theatrical manner and stuck out her lower lip, pouting. I knew she wasn't really mad at me, though there seemed to be a kernel of truth to this childish outburst.
I took another sip before continuing, breathing in the deep cigar smoke from a nearby patron, "Look, you know I wasn't intentionally trying to be an ass, it just comes instinctively. What really happened with your nuncle?" She eyed me suspiciously, though I knew how to crack her defenses. I prided myself on being able to read her and it was clear her outer demeanor had already begun to crumble.
"It's not... something I like to talk about".
"Except to whisper to me in the middle of a training session, come on let's hear it, starshine". A light flashed in the corner of my eye, though I ignored it. Instead I saw the flame flicker on in somebody's pocket torch, lighting a magnificently packed cigar.
"The massaging chair wasn't the only 'mental deficiency' he exhibited upon his return", she hesitated, biting her lip as her eyes darted around the room. I knew she was checking to see if anybody was listening, but no one was, everyone was wrapped up in their own personal illusions. "Something had changed him while in lightspeed, he could no longer remember his own name, nor any of us. They said he had... Space Inversion", she nearly whispered the last two words. I finished off my drink and flicked a finger at the sever, motioning for another.
"Oh starshine, I'm so sorry, I had no idea", Space Inversion was a seriously debilitating mental disorder that initiated all kinds of psychotic breaks from reality. Sometimes, the victim believed that instead of the world aging around him while in the throes of lightspeed travel, he was the only thing that aged and everything else has remained the same since he left. Serious cases have involved the person believing they've aged to elderly levels, even exhibiting physical symptoms like dementia or scoliosis. It's especially hard on the family and friends who see a perfectly fit and youthful individual who's insisting they now need a cane to walk or can't quite recall their spouses' name. And on occasion, a cosmonaut afflicted with Space Inversion just comes back stark raving nuts. "Did he ever recover?" I knew most people suffering from Inversion never did, but she obviously wanted to talk about it so I asked anyway.
"No, he could never fully adjust to life on Earth after that, he started acting like technology he had grown up with was now too complicated for him to operate. But that wasn't even the worst of it, besides his constant questions on whether Ellasandra was doing okay, he also kept asking about this other person who had been on the ship with him, when we all knew it was a solo flight. He was so convinced that he had been talking with somebody else, even when the Computer refuted this". She watched blankly as the bartender sat another frosty drink on my tray, looking right through the murky beverage. I stopped myself before reaching for it, thinking I should probably not telegraph the fact that I was more interested in the drink than her story. I don't want to sound rude to whosoever's listening to this, but I had heard so many similar horror stories, the kids in grade school jokingly referred to it as the Space Madness and everyone had known somebody affected by relativity psychosis. Who knows though, maybe I really just was an asshole. When it was clear she wasn't continuing, I finally reached for the drink.
"Do you mind?", she said through a scowl. Not knowing how to react, I slowly set the Hanaghan back down on its tray, thinking I'd been way too obvious in my disinterest. She shook her head, as if to answer my thoughts. "No, I mean, do you mind if I have a sip?" I'm not sure how surprised I looked, but I sure as hell felt it, handing the long stem over to her. She gripped it delicately. "Gods I needed one of these".
"Drink up, next one's on me".
"You're an asshole, but yet you're too good for this world, Mason", she breathed out. It had been enough to dissuade her from going down that emotional path in my presence ever again, and I'm sure, or at least I hope, it wasn't anywhere near her thoughts as we fucked that night. It was the first time, though it was the multiple times since that usually replayed vividly in my mind during those lonely nights on the ship. I looked around at all of the empty leather seats, wiping away the blur from my eyes. A long deep exhalation escaped my mouth as I leaned back on the top of the chair, wrenching forward suddenly when the sharp pain in the back of my head was agitated. That had been a fun memory, one I hadn't revisited in a long time. My morning felt complete now, so I pulled myself to my feet and exited the passenger ship. The cargo bay seemed as large and ominous as ever, I glanced over at the escape pod doors and grimaced. I hoped I would never have to use one of those, though certainly the concept of escape was particularly enticing. I had wanted to that night with her, but found escape comes in many different forms of nocturnal activities.
Enough time had been wasted, it occurred to me, and eventually the onboard computer would override the Silence Command if it had unattended notifications waiting to pump into my ears. It was time to get to work.
"Gravity off", I said, the floor releasing my feet. A nearby vac tunnel would shoot me straight up to whatever level I needed. I hopped in, ignoring the desire to shoot up and down the tube like a gerblin in one of those multi-colored plastic homes, and asked for the Rec Level. The air picked up around me, a surge shooting my body up several hundred feet in seconds. Suddenly everything died down and I felt the tunnel release its grip on me, stepping out into the arcade-style room. The Station Orion booth was still flashing, but my mind was more focused on that long-ago conversation in a smokey off-campus bar. You'll have to learn to start caring for people some day. I tried, I hope you know I tried, but you were the only one I could manage. The booth came alive as I approached it, lights and blinkers and flashing arrays whirring in ceaseless patterns, whether I was present or not. The theoretical tree fallen in the woods, though even when unnoticed I knew they existed because their continued operations kept me alive.
"Hello Mason, would you like to begin our synchronization protocols?" the ship's Australian voice recited. All those flashing lights and buttons were momentarily daunting to me. You're too good for this world, Mason. She had only said that because I was getting her drunk and the way she licked her lips after the syllables spilled out was indication that she was already mine. Though something she said later that night, while we stared up at the ceiling of the bar's rented bedroom, exhausted and out of breath, "Gods how could you be inside me and still feel light years away?" I shook my head, focusing instead on the blinking patterns before me. I had completely forgotten that or more likely I had actually assumed it was a compliment. Knowing me from the time before I took this trip, which admittedly was becoming increasingly harder to do these days, I had probably brushed it off as the nonsensical post-coital rapture that emerged after a good mind-rattling. A light blinking "ESCAPE" caught my attention, though I knew it wasn't what I was looking for at least, not at this particular moment.
"Mason, would you like some assistance in synchronization protocols? I have a number of tutorials I could sho--"
"Is it possible that I never treated her right?" I was really asking myself though I suppose I may have been hoping that in its petabytes of programmed responses, there was some long-buried algorithm for mending an aching heart.
"I'm sorry Mason I don't understand your question. Could you please rephrase?" the voice cooed all around me through unseen speakers. Of course it didn't understand. Why should it? I was truly alone out here after all. Too good for the world, I repeated to myself, in the same mocking tones I'm sure she had intended.
"It's... nothing. Uh, computer. I know how to synchronize, I'm clocking the Helioscopic Dial, tell me when to release". There was silence for a few moments as the inner mechanisms of the ship turned beneath my feet, a buzzing could be heard through the walls signifying the recycling of the carbosphere, and for a brief second I swore the lights all around me dimmed. My heart stopped, I had a nightmare several times last year of all the power going out in the ship and drifting lifelessly in the dark abyss. I knew it was a dream based on a real life fear of mine, I had spent way too much time during my meditation cycles staring out the window displays into the blackness, feeling it trying to claw at me and reach inside. If there were no source of illumination anywhere, even artificial, I knew I'd have no defense against it. The nightmare recurred for several nights one month until I started believing that the darkness I saw when I closed my eyes was enough to let it all storming in, a tormenting thought that kept me awake for six days straight. The computer had read my biosigns and prescribed a sleeping aid which I had taken ever since. Though every night when I got into my bed, I still sensed it waiting there for me.
I wasn't really sure if the lights had dimmed, regardless. It could have been just a trick of the eyes, a weary, distracted mind altering its own perception of the things around it. The dial held steady between my fingers as I waited for a signal. Had there been somebody else on the ship with her nuncle though? I swore I asked her about it some other time... but that time and space was quickly becoming so far away. If only, I thought. At that point, screw long range coms with Earth, I would have just killed for another friendly presence aboard that interstellar morgue. Everything seemed dead and lifeless, reanimated through some alchemical essence. Maybe I was dead too and just didn't know it, the lights having truly gone out eons earlier.
"Okay Mason, please release the Helioscopic Dial now and enter your Administrator Sequence".
"You'd tell me if I was dead, right Computer?" I'm not sure what was getting into me that morning. I thought maybe her nuncle had mistaken the onboard computer for another person, which could halfway explain his delirium. Gods only know this system of canned responses would some day do my own head in.
"Mason, your biosigns are reading normally on all requisite frequencies. Is there an ailment or symptom you wish to discuss?"
"Yeah, what do you recommend for a soul-crushing sense of guilt?" I began entering my Admin code, which would authorize the previous adjustments to the ship's core. My fingers stumbled on the right sequence, forcing me to start it again from the beginning. Something had changed him. It was all the self-restraint in me to not laugh at her nuncle and his vibro bed. He was just mad, clearly, she should have seen it too, but there was something in the precise placement of words that suggested she thought... or I dunno, maybe even knew... that something worse had happened to him. I restarted the sequence again, my fingers pressing the space between two numbers.
"Guilt is a natural chemical process of the human brain, Mason. Many cosmonauts feel an overriding guilt response on deep-field missions. Would you like me to enter Psycho Analytics Mode so we can discuss this further?" That was the last thing I wanted, my mind probed by an unfeeling series of codes. I didn't need to be picked apart by a machine that could never even begin to comprehend the human condition, when it was clear I myself had little clue about it. Although, if that old dead conversation was any indication, maybe I had never grasped how to be an effective human. Finally, I nailed the sequence. The booth stopped flashing and the ship resumed its regular hum.
"No thanks, Computer. Think I've done enough analyzing today. Anything else on the agenda?" The booth was left behind, walking out into the clicks and beeps of the vintage arcade machines. I glanced at the Star Commander game from the 20th century, when homo sapien had first discovered interactive video entertainment, and marveled at how ancient man had imagined spaceflight to be like. It was all a cacophony of electronic bleeps and bloops and random buttons as if cosmonauts actually had to pilot their own ships. They never imagined that most of our training was all mental preparedness. But gods bless them for trying because those games were still fun. Another mode of escape, I thought. Even our ancestors wanted to leave the earth behind. Maybe it had just always been in my blood.
The voice clicked on, "There are some routine patches for the Prime Piloting Station that require your attention, Mason. Would you like to meet me in the Pilot's Chair?"
"I'll see you there, starshine". I hadn't meant to use that term of endearment but the recent plunge into ancient history had gotten my perception somewhat entangled. The memories were flooding back though, as if some stormgate in my mind had finally snapped under the constant deluge.
"Listen, about your nuncle... I know you don't want to talk about it, but can you tell me what happened up there with him?" It was the same smokey room, though a different night, months separating it from our first experience.
"You're the one who doesn't want to talk about it, Mason. I accepted the situation for what it was a long time ago", she wasn't happy. Though it was hard to remember a time when she was.
Confusion wracked the contours of my face, "I dont want to talk about your nuncle? I don't even know the guy, why would it affect me? I'm asking if you want to talk about it". Confusion swelled to annoyance as the waitress dropped off my regualar drink, I thanked her for what would surely be the only joy I'd experience that evening.
"I meant us, Mason. You don't want to talk about my nuncle just as much as you don't want to talk about anything else going on inside that maze-like rattrap of a head", I honestly had no idea where all that anger had suddenly sprung from. Why had I not remembered this conversation before? Was it too painful?
Regardless, her rat-trap comment prodded me, "Honey, if you want to know something you just have to ask, pretty sure I've told you that if you'd ever listen". I downed the drink and motioned for another, it was definitely going to be one of those nights.
"Fine", she licked her lips, though this time it meant something entirely different. It was the opportunity to pounce, "Mason? Why are you afraid of being alone in the dark?"
"What?" I wasn't sure if I asked that then or when I was recalling it in the ship. I thought the aversion to darkness had been a recent affliction. Had it happened long before? When did we have this second conversation? "I don't, what in the systems are you talking about?"
The drink arrived and she quickly snatched it up, chugging it herself. She wiped the residue from her mouth, "Ahhh... you cant run and hide at the same time, Mason. One day you're going to have to start caring about yourself". The glass slammed down on the tray beside her and shattered, glass spilling everywhere, except for the shards that embedded themselves in her skin. She didn't cry then, even though I had seen her bawl from stubbing her toe once. All she did was leave, walking right past me though I couldn't tell you now where to, because I didn't bother to look.
I looked around, watching the "High Score" list appear on the Star Commander screen, all mine of course. You're too good for this world, Mason. I wished you had actually believed that, but just in case I decided to leave the world anyways.