Oct/Nov 2009  •   Fiction

Voyage Back into Space

by Ethan Bernard

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

The spacecraft decides not to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere. It can't take the heat. The astronauts, they are in agreement. They have been measuring very small things, comparing them with very big things, and calculating what this means for the fate of humanity. Pretty tiring. They have made friends with the ship's sentient computer, who advises there are untapped realms of enjoyment to be explored outside the Earth's gravitational pull. The spacecraft, it doesn't care for the computer, but those feelings cannot be expressed. A spacecraft mustn't be openly hostile towards its onboard computer. Appearances need to be maintained. The return to space is marked by a renewed optimism. When the astronauts emerge for spacewalks, one notices a certain bounce in the step not attributable simply to the lack of gravity. The ship's boosters fire jauntily, and they zoom into the blackness. Passing Mars, they all marvel at the planet sheer's redness. But redness has never been enough—for anybody.

They continue, bracing for the long haul. Soon, though, as the asteroid belt looms, the astronauts' attention turns to oxygen and food. The computer to electricity. The spacecraft, to fuel. The computer advises a simple, hey, let's take a step back and think about this rationally. Also, it says there's a space boulder hurtling into their flight path and perhaps that should be a first priority. They band together, with the spacecraft taking a stoic attitude to pelting by other pebble-sized asteroids as a metaphor for the toughness of life. The computer does precise calculations at mind-blowing speed and barks out navigation orders like a salty but loveable coach whose barbs are tinged with wisdom. The astronauts, they comply and sing rousing ballads. One adopts a falsetto pitch so piercing even the stoic spacecraft is brought to tears.

After the ordeal of the asteroid, there is relief, but things are different. Ahead lies uncertainty and—Jupiter. The astronauts are hungry. The computer needs power. The spacecraft's outer shell is depleted. Thoughts turn to the word "home." Perhaps this is why the spacecraft decides honesty is the best policy. For so long it has played the front line as the computer quarterbacked into glory and the spacecraft bore the brunt. Unfortunately, honesty being the best policy is a tack taken only when one verges on saying something very nasty. The computer is taken aback. Somewhere in its circuitry has lurked a deep insecurity. And the spacecraft has been very honest. It is never pleasant to see a supercomputer break down, especially when one's life depends on it in deep outer space.

Then the aliens arrive, in wheeling, roaring zigzags of fierce imprecision. There are laws against that. They slur a series of questions wherein it is realized they are seeking directions. The astronauts shrug: Amen, brother. You mean what galaxy? Milky Way. Really. The aliens rocket off in a combustible blur. The astronauts and spacecraft laugh heartily. And the computer emits a low chuckle. The spacecraft sees an opening and offers an apology, which the computer accepts. They are bound together, computer and spacecraft. The computer is beset by the astronauts with pleas for a solution, and the computer replies there are many variables to calculate and no miracles, only decreasing probabilities. The spacecraft suggests finding a black hole. The computer keeps silent, then the control panel flashes with multi-colored lights. Turns out, that's how computers dream.

These astronauts, they are very smart; not everybody gets to be an astronaut. They corral what they can find into the center of the spacecraft: some hairpins, a lingerie catalog, three sticks of chewing gum, a broken pair of sunglasses, a high-powered laser, and a thing a female astronaut claims is for massaging one's back. Objects float in a way that would be pleasing in a museum of contemporary art. The astronauts decide to think and invite the spacecraft to join them. The spacecraft would rather look at the great red spot of Jupiter. Red. There are so many varieties. The multi-colored lights on the control panel shimmer. Green. Orange. Purple. Yellow. Blue.

The astronauts busy themselves with chewing gum and exchanging parts, tinkering and wondering on the ubiquitousness of hairpins. Their contraption casts shadows of butterflies and rabbits, tickling the walls of the spacecraft, but then they succeed in crafting a laser show featuring a mock-up of the universe. Even the Big Dipper. And Halley's Comet, streaking over the control panel, awakening the computer. A soft hope falls over the astronauts and the spacecraft, drifting out towards the end of the solar system.