Far Reaching

Awwww, man. Sometimes it’s just hard to get up and face the day. It’s not that there’s anything to avoid, it’s just another day. Another long day. In the next room I surveyed the line of blinking lights and graphic displays. None of them were red, I took this as a positive sign. I switched on the master display, a giant screen at the room’s apex and stared at it. It was hard to tell if the monitor was on, what with it showing a black void. Sighing, I moved over to what I laughingly call the kitchen. It’s a drawer filled with bags of freeze dried crap. Just add hot water, wait a while and you’d have a bag full of mushy, chemical flavored slop. The bags were marked with the names of comfort foods, like macaroni and cheese, Denver omelet, meatloaf… it all looked and tasted the same. Same, same, same.

I was, of course, in a spacecraft. No, not a space ship. Nothing that romantic. Just your basic thin walled aluminum can with an ion engine stuck on the end. What it didn’t have in acceleration it made up for in economy. It was accelerating at 0.01 gee, just like it had been for the past four hundred and thirty one days. It was supposed to keep this up for another seven hundred and more days, at which point I would be screaming through space faster than any human ever had before. The engineers said I would be traveling at a half million miles an hour –or so. I figured that the screaming part wouldn’t be about speed, it would be me in protest of the extreme boredom this trip was subjecting me to.

It all sounded so heroic when they pitched it to me. I was laying in a bed in the Seattle VA hospital, suffering through chemotherapy side effects. The chemotherapy hadn’t worked; nothing they’d tried had done any good at all. The fact was, I was going to perish, but not any time soon. So they came to me and asked if I would like to contribute one more time. Just like when they told me my country needed me and sent me to Vietnam and then soaked me with dioxin based herbicides that gave me the cancer that was dissolving my body and soul. They didn’t want to sound crass, they said, but the fact was that I wasn’t going to make it. My life was going to be a misery, gravity pressing down on my always weakening bones until I collapsed into a puddle of mush. But I could give a gift to science, they said. I could live in a weightless environment, they said. I could have everything I wanted to amuse myself, they said. That is, if I was willing to take a one way trip out of the solar system.

The idea was to send a human. They had all sorts of reasons for it. A person could give insights that robotics and recording mechanisms couldn’t. I could go well beyond the reach of communications, sending my observations back on tiny spacecraft that would relay my findings and thereby answer lots of questions about the universe. It was, of course, a one way trip and so they were having a difficult time locating volunteers. At least, volunteers that had high intelligence. As if they could find a smart person dumb enough to do this. But I found it an interesting prospect, what with a longstanding interest in science and cosmology, and they said that they would take care of my family, elevating them all into the heady class of the one-percent. They would be rich and pampered in exchange for my selfless gift. They turned up the medication dispenser that would, at the press of a button, squirt morphine into my veins and asked, “whaddaya say?” ¬†Feeling the euphoric rush of the drugs I said ‘ohhhhh, yeah.’ and they nodded approvingly. “You won’t regret this.” they said. A mere thirty days later they strapped me into a Russian rocket and tossed me into orbit where I got to spend two days getting ‘space legs’ before I was transferred over to this metallic coffin that has become the last home I’ll ever see. I’d have preferred my last month on earth to involve lots of beaches and turquoise water, naked women and sex, all experienced through an alcoholic haze, but it was jammed with instructions about how to work all of the gizmos and gadgets that would be under my care. Most everything was automated –apparently they didn’t trust me to do more than the most menial of tasks. They could have automated the entire mission, except that a slight body like mine was lighter and more adept than a bunch of servos and gears and computers to control them.

I cleaned up after my sumptuous meal and went to the reader display to continue reading a book I’d started. The book was awful, but not as bad as staring at the sterile innards of the spacecraft. Like Jonah in a whale, my sea the endless blackness of the void. I envied Jonah the occasional fish that flopped into the whale’s gut. At least that might offer some change. The only thing that changed in my environment was the occasional sigh of the gas exchangers and purifiers that kept my air breathable. Other than that, all I had was the reader display to show me texts or videos, now all of them canned. I was too far away to receive anything updated and yet I was still within the solar system. It would be another few months before I put it all behind me as my craft kept its steady increase in acceleration. Just before I settled to read, I had the cameras outside show me what there was to see around me. As with the main display, it was all blackness, save for the odd white point of light that were the planets, or stars far beyond them. I’d expected to see a whole field of stars, the way things appear when standing on the ground and looking up at the night sky. But that isn’t the reality of things. Only certain areas showed glittering groves of stars. All else was the never-ending black.

I read and time passed. Hours or minutes, who knows. It was getting hard to tell time by sensing its passing. All I knew was that there was a ping kind of sound, and then all hell broke loose. Alarms went off everywhere as warning lights flashed. The book I was reading was wiped from the display and replaced by columns of data that scrolled by too quickly to read. I felt my ears pop and knew that the pressure inside my craft was dropping. No doubt I’d managed to hit some small pebble or chunk of ice, and it had easily penetrated the skin of the spacecraft because of its high velocity. Reacting to my training, I hit the button that released a viscous fluid in globules. Pulled by the vacuum of space, they would find and plug the hole. Hopefully. I then began to toggle the various switches that would stop the alarms and give me enough presence of mind to think. When they were silenced, I could hear the hiss of escaping air, my necessary lifeline to existence, as it evacuated the spacecraft. I kept waiting for the noise to stop, an indicator that the airborne sealant had done its work. All the while I kept a running commentary, the log that might someday describe my voyage to others and provide some of that important information my trip was supposed to produce.

My ears were hurting and feeling the lack of pressure more and more, and my eyes had begun a burning sensation. Breaths were getting harder to take and I wondered when the sealant would do its work. I busied my mind considering what I would need to do once the leak was stopped. It seemed to me that it was getting darker –maybe that was my imagination. But I was now seeing little white dots and flashes in my vision, and realized that my perspective was beginning to tunnel. Then came the realization that I was passing out, and wondered how long I might be out before the spacecraft healed itself and set about correcting the problems the collision created. I pressed one last button, which ejected one of the tiny repeater craft and sent it on its way to relay my log and the equipment and observation logs back home. I barely made it to my bunk when

 

Where was I. Oh, yeah. When my head cleared and vision came back the silence had returned to the craft. Apparently the sealant and automatic repair system had done its magic, but not without leaving me with a headache. A particularly nasty one. But still, I made my way around the craft, finding no issues of concern. I went below into the lower level; this was the first time I’d ventured down there. It was where much of the support systems were located –versus control systems. I looked at the hydroponics stack and noted that all of the leafy materials were a bit yellowed and wondered if that was normal, or if the leak event had somehow damaged the plantlife. Of just about everything except water reclamation, the plants were of chief importance to my ability to breathe. But there was nothing I could see that looked obviously abnormal, and besides, if there were something, I had no idea how I might fix it. It’s not like I could pop over to Home Depot for some mechanical systems or gardening advice.

Back in my usual roost I put myself in front of the reader display and saw a lot of gibberish. The government is way too enamored of acronyms and initials. What might have been readable text looked more like what floated atop the milk in that alphabet cereal crud. I stared at it dutifully for a few minutes, and came away no more informed than when I started, so I cleared the screen and put the book I was trying to read back up. I don’t know whether it was disinterest or some hangover effect from passing out, but I just couldn’t concentrate, reading and re-reading passages over and over and getting nowhere. I finally abandoned the book and moved so I could look at the primary display screen directly. I turned it on and was greeted by a large rectangle of blackness. Using the joystick that would aim the outside cameras, I wandered the perspective left and right and up and down. I finally centered a small group of little white dots in the center of the screen. I then pushed the zoom lever all the way to the top, maxing it out.

The image became blurred, mostly from the minute vibrations in the spacecraft playing hell with the long distance of the focal point. But I could see the lights more like bubbles of light, their circular nature a freak of imaging more than a display of roundness of the objective. I had no idea what it was I was looking at –whether it was a cluster of some sort or just a series of stars that happened to be in the perimeters of vision. Perhaps they were solitary bodies, billions of miles apart. I thought about the stars which, like me, stood a lonely post, and like me, were hurtling through space to an unknown destination. They say that the universe continues to expand, and that eventually all of the bodies in it will be so spread apart, so completely distant from one another that no matter where its looked at, the sky will be and endless blackness. Not even a single pinprick of light to be seen anywhere. Thinking back, I remembered one of the early astronauts saying that it wasn’t until he got into space that he could really see the hand of God. Looking from my vantage I considered him lucky. I couldn’t see any hand but my own. I recalled that the universe was described like a balloon, always inflating, always expanding and thats why all of the stars, planets, asteroids, comets, gasses and what else were moving constantly apart. The problem with imagining the universe as a big balloon made me imagine some gargantuan clown blowing up the balloon, and trying to imagine what kind of room the clown was standing in as he huffed and puffed the universe larger and larger. “You just called God a clown, you moron.” I said aloud to myself. And as I thought more of it all, I figured why not. There is some cosmic joke at work here. I thought of all of the people who focused on their families and careers, scientists hard at work trying to explain away all of the magic that was science and nature, and thought how it could all be brought low by a malicious child at the clown show wielding a hatpin.

There was a mesmerizing element to staring at the screen and the representations of light, tiny that they were, on it. I decided to call it a day, and then laughed at myself. As if there was such a thing for me anymore. There might be passage of time, but there was no day and no night, just an infinitesimally small human riding in a tin bubble through an apparently endless cosmos. A great big balloon. I set my sleeping restraints on my hammock and closed my eyes to the dim light of the console displays and went to sleep.