The first thing that strikes you when you come out here is how small and insubstantial you are.
At home you can be a king, but here in the deep black pit of space you are a humble guest, head bowed as you enter from the rain and wiping your dirty feet on the doormat. Back home you probably would not have done that; you probably would have barged your way in the door after a days work and immediately set about reclaiming your throne. Pompous, proud and fat. The Universe however, does not allow such brusqueness.
I have been out here, in the court of another king, for months now. Although I am at the mercy of a vast, inhospitable court, no sleep has been lost. My life back home was nothing but shades of gray. The houses were gray, the pavements and roads were gray. The clouds were permanently pregnant with rain. They loomed over the cities like school bullies.
I used to find myself counting yellow taxis. The grimness of the world made them seem cartoon-ish and therefore more interesting. On the television grey-suited and faceless politicians condemned other grey-suited and faceless politicians, nobody was getting anything done. I never lost count of yellow taxis but I did lose count of the words 'scandal', 'failure', and 'recession'.
I remember, when I was a child, my father showing me the constellation Orion, and from then on I would gaze up at the sky at night and look for the other constellations. I had spent years delving into the glittering stars and the carnivals of the sky; nebulas, supernovas and galaxies. A few decades later and I was among the stars, space-walking on satellites. A dream came true. Still, it did not feel like it was enough. But I had been given (no, had seized) this opportunity, this honour - to travel into the depths of space. Living that old cliché: 'where no man has gone before!'
I can remember my colleagues back home, the respect they had shown me amidst their bewilderment, "God knows, it's not what any of us would choose to do."
The days leading up to lifting off were like a dream, the details are still alien to me. I had watched as the Earth became smaller and smaller, and it became apparent that our lives at home were but mere flickers of the universal eyelash. Of the two-hundred and fifty billion known stars in our galaxy, we were nothing but a single, perhaps inconsequential cell. For days my hands tore through my scalp at the thought.
It was not long until my body started to ache. That is what they, my masters on Earth, had expected to happen to me. I did not worry, I had known of the tribulations ahead. I felt like Christ on the cross. Accept the pain. The shuttle itself seemed designed for torture. I would look to the ceiling and see the floor. White, sterile shuttle walls were the padded rooms of the future. I would reiterate to myself over and over that it was not the journey that mattered, but the destination. Still, I would close my eyes and dream of the sounds of home; birds chirping and singing, a countryside stream gliding and trickling down a valley, leaves bristling in the wind, people laughing ... And people shouting, people crying and car engines roaring and doors slamming shut or swinging open and alarm clocks ringing and trains screeching and cash registers-
-I opened my eyes, and the infernal sounds were gone. In the deep vacuum of space, sound died. It was so quiet. And peaceful. My cell was again my haven, and at that moment I fell in love with space again.
Another few days pass … I think so at least. I stopped the clocks. Smashed them. The constant metronomic tick tick tick had become too much. I did not want to count each individual second. I am not sure what day it is back home, but it does not matter, it is always a different day somewhere else anyway. I always wanted to see Mars. My father had told me all about it as a child, the facts and the fables. More than anyone I wanted to be the first man to tread its soil. I would not die before I got there. Not before I got there... I will die when I get there...
Whenever I closed my eyes I would dream. Of a time before now when things where better than good, when they were perfect. I would betray everything I have now just to be there, in that idyllic time. When my old love and I were fresh to one another and we had sat staring out at the estuary from a bench at the top of the hill. It was a cruel October; everything, grass or concrete, was suffocated under a sheet of frost, the wind was like a wave of nails, and our faces were ghostly white and our noses were red. I joked nervously with her, but it was okay because she always laughed with me. She would throw her head back and laugh, and when she was done her eyes would stare at me intensely and she would lightly bite her lip. I had told her that I was shy, despite my constant joking and rambling. She said she knew, because it had taken me a long time to slide across the bench towards her. She leaned over slightly, but suggestively. My skin nipped with the cold, but my insides began to unfurl like a flower and I felt breathless. There was a momentary silence, and she kissed me. Our faces were numb, but her mouth was warm, pink and almost life-giving. Her breath on my face… The feel of her nose gliding past mine as we kissed… Not even the bullying wind could intimidate us; in fact it only made the embrace deeper.
When I woke up here, in the terrible present, it was just as cold as that October. The dream a cruel, recent memory. My face felt the same as on that day, frozen and wanting. I wanted to feel warmth, I wanted to feel and taste her. But the only warmth came from the sting in my eyes. When I fell asleep again, there was no dream but of darkness.
More time (time?) has passed. I find that I keep looking at my feet, but cannot tell whether or not if down is down and up is up. Everything was skewed, and my head ached as I tried to make sense of my surroundings, but everything seemed oblique, distorted in a fun house mirror. There is no north, south, west, or east. Where am I? I could not tell you how many days have passed since I lost count. The days could number the hundreds, or more frightfully, a dozen. I know nothing of seconds, minutes or hours. I know nothing of dusks or dawns. There is no night, and no day, only an endless, infinite vacuum. Here, the circadian rhythm of normal life is obsolete.
Several months (?) of space and silence began to take their toll, and I was sure that I heard voices, phantom voices calling my name. I had given up on talking to myself some time before because it had started to hurt my throat, which had become to feel like a rusty pipe, and had not been exercised even to whisper. Perhaps it was my brain reminding me of who I was before I forgot. Sometimes I wondered, and was both frightened and humoured by the possibility of a ghost in space.
One day (or night) I had caught a glimpse of something in the corner of my eye; some strange, distorted shape of a man. A man? I thought I was alone. Had someone stowed away? ... No, I was alone out here. There was not another living being for millions of miles. The realisation chilled me; what if I was not alone, there would be no one to help me if I was in trouble. If I was attacked then I would have to fend for myself. I did not mind dying, but not this soon. Then I laughed at the thought of a haunted space shuttle, and remanded myself for such fantasies. Still, the voice called out for me; never growing tired, and only getting louder the longer I denied its presence. Shivering and frightened I went to sleep, my dreaded mind paranoid of creeping figures even in my dreams.
The greatest enemy of the mind is self-doubt. Like a man buried alive, I found myself eagerly awaiting my demise. To hell with what I want, let the masters at home have their experiment done and let me be. The looking-glass of space has rendered my dreams and desires into twisted, malevolent reality.
Shut up. That voice again. Sounds like a broken video, warbling, rewinding, chattering, rewinding again. My body and mind are in a race - who could deteriorate faster? I think my mind has the lead, so far at least. But my body is not lagging far behind. My eyes hurt and itch constantly, and my mouth, no matter how much I drink, remains painfully dry. Sometimes I am too weak to stand up, and I wish the onboard gravity in here would die.
I shambled toward the glass cockpit and stood there, hunched and crooked, a 21st century gargoyle. Far in the darkness shone a faint reddish pin-prick. For the next few days (or perhaps for a longer or shorter period of time) I watched as that small spot grew and grew until it was the size of an orange. I reached out to clasp it but clashed with glass. I doubled over in pain; I could hardly bring myself to move for long, it hurt too much. And then I began to feel afraid; afraid that I would never reach the Red Planet alive. Now that would be a tremendous waste and shame.
Shhh! That persistent, heckling voice. I had convinced myself it was all imaginary. If it were real, would it not echo? Would not it grow tired or thirsty as I did? It would if it were real… Tell me, would it not die as I did? Sometimes I still see shapes flickering past me, strange marionettes dangling before my dimming vision, and vanishing just as my eyes began to focus upon them. 'It's my brain keeping itself stimulated', I remind myself again and again. Still, I am afraid.
She visited me again. I rubbed her shoulders to see if she was real. Her skin, in contrary to my own, was warm and soft. She felt more real than I was. Could I be imagining this? I do not know if I am dreaming. How could I be so cruel to myself? I held her face, ran my fingers through her hair. My fingers caressed her cheeks like scabrous worms over porcelain, like a nightmare. But it was a moment as real as any time back home when I had held her. Back home, our little kingdom did not last forever. Before I left for this journey, I had not seen her in almost a year. I know she remembers me. She must. Sometimes I dream that she dreams of me. But she is not my life anymore, no matter how much I want her to be. But I would not be forgotten, that was Limbo. To be forever remembered, that was worth dying for.
I had been out here for perhaps a thousand days and I felt possessed of a body a thousand years old. My nose was blocked, and the veins in my neck felt bulged and clogged, as though someone had their hands around my throat and were slowly choking, choking the wind from me. My head felt split, and my bones were like timbres fed to termites, every muscle was wasted and my mind dangled on the verge of madness. Every second stretched like an ever-tightening rope. I clung on desperately to life and sanity. The end of my journey was within grasp, I would not die before then, I would not! The shuttle had already given up on life. I heard the engines cough and splutter as they died, the first real sound in an aeon, albeit an unwelcome one. The vessel had not been engineered to last long. I am sure the masters back home were leaned over their computers excitedly, delighted and marveling that I was outliving their machine. Soon the lights would fade, and the life-support system with it. Eventually, my legs failed to work, and I lay crippled, basking in the light of the looming Red Planet as it began to fill the hull.
I have come far. Very, very far. But it is an agony to not know the distance already ran and the distance left. The Red Planet was before me but still so remote and alien. Soon the shuttle, this tomb, will die completely and leave me to the mercy of my new Lord, the Universe. But that would not matter at all if only I could get a little closer.
And indeed, the shuttle's computer consoles faded into shut-down, and the lights dimmed. As they faded and died, so too did the walls and monitors. Now there were no walls, floor or ceiling, and as the gravity ceased I began to float, and suddenly there was no shuttle encasing me. Instead I floated through space of my own accord, a man already dead and ascending through Heaven.
Mars… It was growing larger and larger; soon all I could see through my dying milky cataracts was a domineering, scorching red. I had finally reached my destination. My good, patient friend Mars; it had been out here in solitude for billions of years. Like myself, it was alone. Its summits and nadirs dressed and jewelled, but unvisited. Do not worry friend, I am coming. Now the only obligation left to fulfill was to my old masters on Earth, my duty to die.
I admit to you, a return journey to Earth was never part of the plan. Success rates for journeys to Mars were under fifty percent. Most probes are lost, and communications ceased in the Earth-Mars Bermuda. They (and I, willingly) had conspired and constructed this plot: to send a man into the outer reaches of space not for exploration, but endurance. We had felt the coldness of space, and kicked the dust of our Moon; however the human body was not created for doing so. Just how far could we go before we broke? If we knew, then we could improve ourselves and finally explore the foreign worlds whose greatness was formerly assigned to probes, machines and imagination. So they had sent me out here to die. In return I would get to touch the stars, ride the night-time carnivals, and taste all the different colours of the planets, any colour I would like.
I had longed to join the likes of Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd, who were but men (mortal men!) but whose names and legacies would endure time. Plato, Socrates, Jesus Christ... Were their day-to-day lives as dull as mine? Did they even exist? The answers did not matter, because the mere legend of their names ensured their immortality. In a millennium who is to say that Yuri Gagarin would not join their ranks as legend? Who is to say that I would not join them in immortality? A short, dull life is common. But a short, dull life punctuated by one monumental moment (a crucifixion, a journey into space, a sacrifice) would guarantee greatness.
Starting from my fingertips and toes, I felt a prickly sensation take over my body. The voices in my head (indeed, if they had only existed in my head) grew dimmer, more hushed now, reduced to a respectful whisper. My insides grew colder, my body shuddering either with the bleak cold or its approaching death. But my spirit was soothed in the light of the Red Planet and the two -mind and body- had never felt so separate. Now I can see the crevices and peaks of Mars. To see its corners, contours and shadows… The icy peaks and plummeting depths… I would cry if I was capable.
Please, do not pity me or my lonely end. My attempts at living were a futile exercise, my foray into death an achievement history will remember. I thought of a simple carpenter who became to be worshipped. In the future it will be the first men of science and discovery, not magicians, who will be remembered and revered.
I flexed the ruined muscles in my face, perhaps for the last time and smiled. I had done a great thing for my people and for myself. I could have laughed - I would land on Mars... And I will die there...
I remembered my old love, I would dream of her one last time, maybe she would dream of me from now on.
And who knows, maybe in another few thousand years, we will all be Gods someday.