Nothing prepared me for my first encounter with space. The empty presence is far greater than anything that can be imagined. I felt I was nowhere and everywhere at the same time, and my thoughts became as empty and dark as the reality that surrounded me. Some never overcome the fear. Some never overcome the fascination. You know quickly to which club you belong.
I have been off Earth three years, two of them piloting transports, but these numbers mean little where distance is measured in light-years. This voyage will cost four years of my life, and I’ve chosen to journey solo. Some choose to travel in pairs or as a team, but too often these contracts end in tragedy. Paired trips often end solo with many questions never answered. Close friends in close quarters can be dangerous to one another. Like two mink, two males in the same cage, often they both die, so I understand why solo, but I will never understand why deep space.
In space, the only thing tangible to confirm your existence is your ship, so the bigger your ship, the better. My cargo transport is gargantuan in human scale, the size of a giant asteroid or a miniature moon. The enormous size makes external inspection a daunting task and exhaustion multiplies the danger. There is no room for error. None. Even the slightest miscalculation can prove fatal.
It had been a long day yet I was determined to finish inspecting the last sector of the transport. After sixteen straight day cycles the constant grinding of the joints of my suit had torn through the armor of my patience. I heard no sound but felt the edges scrape across one another like a knife cutting stone. The only thing audible was my breathing, intensified by the hours of listening and ignoring. The wheezing of the recirculator and the shrinking confines of the transparent bubble enclosing my head amplified the sounds to the point of pain. My head throbbed with each heartbeat. Every cell of my body insisted it was time to quit.
Instead of returning directly to the mother ship, I killed all the lights, disconnected the recirculator hose, unlocked the hatch, then slid out of the pod into the dense blackness. Floating freely, I allow every muscle of my body to relax. I flex my spine and shrug my shoulders, then to relieve the cramps, I stretch my legs and my toes as far as my suite allows. In absolute stillness, in total surrender, I allow my mind to wander freely. Both my body and mind are free of gravity and free from time, but I don’t feel free. I remain connected by an invisible umbilical cord to my ship and my past.
Alone, at the end of my magnetic tether, my memories are my real lifeline, my only true friends. Memories are one thing, questions another. Some questions have neither answer nor meaning, and all my answers have failed to offer a single truth I can hold on to. In the stillness, my thoughts echo loudly, echoes of yesterday, echoes of tomorrow. To interrupt the menacing echoes I have learned to speak my words aloud. My words touch me, confirming my existence. There are moments of doubt, long empty moments. Silence can be dangerous. Questions can be menacing. “Why” isn’t a word I often use. It has worn the skin thin, scratched too many times. I have seen the blood; now I live with the itch. Why isn’t a question, it’s a trap.
Space is presumed to be empty, yet I always sense a presence that causes me to feel uneasy, expectant and edgy. Something lurks out there, something other than the pretended emptiness, but here fear serves no purpose. When death arrives, it will happen so quickly there will be no knowing it, so I’ve learned to ignore the possibility. Yet every so often there is a whisper, a twinge, a chill, a quickened pulse. Something has silently intruded, penetrated the barrier, found its way in from the past.
Reeling in the line of my drifting thoughts, I sensed something wasn’t right. A jolt of terror shattered my calm when I realized that in turning off the lights I also turned off my magnetic tether. The tether is my lifeline and without it, I am dead. With no hint of direction, in desperation I ignited my headlamp and was startled to see its dim reflection in the windows of the pod. With twelve thousand arch seconds, the pod could have been in any direction. There are no numbers large enough to calculate the probability of this impossible perfect alignment. Once again, I thanked my guardian angel. But getting back to the pod presented an even greater impossibility. Using the mini-thrusters built into my suit, I aimed myself like a missile, but it required constant readjustment to keep the pod in sight. Desperate and determined I slowly worked my way toward the flickering point of reflected light and forced myself not to panic each time it blinked out.
When I slammed into the pod I clung to the hatch with all my remaining strength, then somehow managed to crawl back inside. Starving for air I frantically fumbled to re-attach the recirculator hose and just before passing out I heard her whisper my name.
After regaining consciousness, I switched on all the lights aboard, then headed home. My ship, a great mass of steel, waited patiently to swallow me. Everything about it is cold and unyielding. Still, it is my home, my only shelter and it needs me as much as I need it.
After guiding the pod back to its berth in the landing bay, I half climbed and half fell out of the hatch. Weak and disoriented, struggling in my clumsy suit toward the ship’s core, I strain against gravity to cross the immense metallic cavern. The soles of my boots skidding on the deck, metal striking metal, the brittle echoes piercing my spine.
Once inside the pressure chamber I shed my plastic skin, leaving it heaped on the floor like the empty skeleton of an insect. The wheezing of the respirator lingering in my ears, my breathing labored, my sweat smelling like urine, but I didn’t care. A single desire guided me through the empty passages, my hands groping the walls like a blind man.
My fist slammed the switch when the gentle pressure of a finger would have opened the door to the airlock. Like a giant guillotine, the rear door closed behind me as the matching door on the opposite wall opened into a different reality.
Inhaling the rich air of the solarium into my starving lungs, I feel alive again. The rest of the ship is stale and metallic. I breathe the same oily air endlessly. It’s just the machines and me, but in the solarium the air is alive. The heat of the artificial sunlight radiating from the floating orb penetrates to my core. I raise my face to the make-believe sun and through my eyelids the sun glows in colors so brilliant they cannot be named. Surrounded by so much life and beauty, I don’t feel so much alone, and though exhausted I need to be here.
Except for my gardens, most of the solarium grows wild, and this sector has turned into a jungle with only narrow pathways leading toward the center. A well-worn path leads to a stand of crowded bamboo that encircles the small fishponds where I often nap in the shade. My body is desperate for sleep and I try to lie down, but I remain haunted my narrow escape from death and too restless to stay still.
Struggling against gravity I follow the outer circle of the dome to my favorite garden, which invites me in. After surveying which plants need attention, I begin my work, digging in the dirt, planting and transplanting, recycling the dead and encourage the new. I touch the softness, feel the wetness, and smell the flowers. Thankfully, there are always flowers. The orchids are my favorite, even though at times they seem too extravagant and too sensual for this bleak environment. The Narcissus stands proud, their aroma subtle in its seduction. The tiny Star Shadows are so small and inconspicuous that at first I failed to notice them, their fragrance is so delicate it requires a bouquet to yield more than a hint of their scent, but I’m reluctant to pick even one.
Working with the plants soothes my thoughts and takes me far away. The solarium has a thick, rich atmosphere, a mélange of smells sweetened by moisture and memories. Often these scents bring back the memories of my youth, that age when we learn the magic of scent, which we never forget. The pungent odors of the living soil often guide me back to Earth, back to a neighboring Dominion where I had discovered a secret pond hidden in the forest on the far edge of the wild reserve. The pond was filled with perfumed flowers, mosses, mold and mud, and I was filled with curiosity.
In the summer of my twelfth year I spent many lazy days hovering along the pond’s edge, spying below the surface, searching for the swimmers and the floaters, enjoying the cool mud squishing between my toes, and the warmth of a summer sun on my back. I transported my captured quarry in crystal jars back to my private place where I watched these alien creatures and wondered how they saw their world, and at times, it felt like they might be watching me.
Late one afternoon, lying in the grasses in the dappled sunshine on the edge of my secret pond, I woke from a dream, which followed me back into waking. This waking dream was filled with astonishing visions of worlds within worlds, of planets spinning like atoms. I watched the spinning planets circle a violent sun, and it felt as though I could reach out and touch those planets. Then, as I ventured further out into the endless expanse of space, and whole galaxies began to spiral through my thoughts. I had discovered the meaning of infinity long before I learned the meaning of the word.
After this vision, I began to imagine myself as a great explorer traveling alone through the Milky Way, seeing what had never been seen, seeing it so clearly that it became real for me. Inspired by this reoccurring vision, I began drawing detailed pictures and wrote stories about my adventures. In the middle of the night, I would often sneak out of the house to look up at the stars and knew that one day I would travel there.
Back then, God was my friend and I spoke with Him often. He would listen patiently and answer all my questions. But slowly they weaned me away from my imagined worlds and taught me what was real, and what was not. The Hyvve is protective and jealous and blind.
That innocent youth seems to have always traveled with me. There are silent moments when I feel his presence near. The body has its own memories and the power to recall the familiar yet almost forgotten feelings of youth. These memories transport me and I truly feel young again. Perhaps we always remain young. Certainly, we are younger in this moment than we ever will be, so maybe the secret of eternal youth is to celebrate this now moment before it fades into yesterday.
In my journeys into the past, I have often visited with young Benjamin and shared knowing smiles with him, yet we do not speak. Perhaps we have no need for words, or maybe it’s about the tears we don’t wish to shed. I’ve tried to recall if my younger self had been aware of these visits from a future me. I’ve discovered no clear answer, yet it’s fascinating to experience the connecting links between these two realities, one of an imagined future and one built from memories of the past.
So here I am, traveling the imagined journey of an innocent youth. How innocent could I have been to imagine a distant future and to speak with a friendly God?