Authors: James Smythe
Hikaru is next to arrive, and he is grinning.
‘This is exciting,’ he says. We have a special cupboard of food especially for him, of white bars of soya and tofu and processed chicken. He’s not fussy about drink colour, apparently: just the food. Tobi and Lennox arrive together, and with them is Inna. Tobi pulls herself to the side and waves her hand out, allowing Inna past, as if this is some sort of formal greeting. Everybody smiles and greets her. They’ve all met her before, but only briefly, when she wasn’t originally a part of this team. Bonding was low on the list of our desired achievables before launch; far lower than making sure that she was ready for this challenge.
‘Hello,’ she says. She shakes our hands, reintroducing herself. None of us have forgotten her name, because she’s vital to this, and because we’ve all been talking about when she would join us.
‘Great to have you,’ Hikaru says. ‘You as excited as we are?’
‘Just about,’ she says. Her accent is curious. She’s from Georgia – Soviet, not American – but lived in England for most of her life. Her voice is very soft, only giving a hint of its origins on her Rs. She’s ten years older than Andy and myself, and in better physical shape than almost anybody else here, which is really saying something. Not sure how much of it is tinkered. ‘Can’t pretend that I’m not nervous,’ she says. She stretches the letters out, then the whole word. It sounds different, almost alien in its delivery. My own accent has been softened and lost if it was ever there in the first place; the rise and fall of my own language washed out. Hers is still there, and still prominent. Nerrrvous, she says, or it sounds.
‘You’d be crazy if you weren’t, I reckon,’ says Tobi.
I feel sick, and this feels loose. Wrong. I need to speak with Tomas one last time. I can feel the lack of gravity inside me. My guts, swollen up and churning, and like the slightest movement could upset me, could end this for me. I back away from them all, down the corridor, around the corner, and I open a connection and whisper at him that I need to hear his voice.
‘What’s wrong now?’ Tomas asks.
‘Are you sure we’ve done everything we can?’
‘Have a safe flight, Brother,’ he replies – he calls it a flight, which sounds so demeaning for what this actually is – and I hear the click of him cancelling the connection. Over the speaker system, the launch crew announce that they are opening up the airlock entrance. We’re boarding.
Every part of this process has been designed to ensure that nothing can go wrong. I cannot stress that enough: the level of control that we have enacted on this entire operation. Entry to the
is as controlled as everything else. There is no room for error. Everything must be checked, processed, run through before we are allowed on. There are exacting checklists full of bullet points that take days to tick off. It’s these things that can mean the difference between life and death. This is how the systems can be guaranteed to work when we need them to, how we can streamline them and make them user friendly while still retaining the safety: they are prepared and perfected, and instigated with absolute care and diligence.
‘Are we getting on anytime soon?’ Tobi asks. She looks at the clock on the wall. Less than half an hour until we leave. Sedation takes only a few minutes to completely set in; the paralysis less. We don’t control the boarding process from the ship: we are nothing but passengers for now.
‘Not long,’ I say. I am running through their final checks in my head, and as I reach the final one, the door opens. It slides satisfyingly and the launch crew inside the ship move backwards, grinning. They’ve got balloons and a banner, both hanging in the middle of the air. My crew laughs, almost hysterically.
, the banner says.
From the moon to the stars
, under it in smaller type. They applaud, and we applaud them. We walk through to the corridor in single file as the ground crew start pulling aside the decorations, and we all find the bed labelled with our names. (I pretend to not know which one is mine, even though I dictated where the beds lie. I arranged them, like chess pieces.)
‘I want to go last,’ I say to Inna. She nods.
‘You’re nervous?’ Nerrrvous.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’ve been sedated before. Nothing to be scared of.’
‘Good,’ she says. ‘I always think it takes better the less wary you are.’ She preps her injections. She clicks the first one in, a bullet into the hypo’s chamber. I catch a glimpse of a mark – a tattoo, I think – on her collarbone as she moves, as the fabric of her shirt pulls away, but not enough to see what it is. I wonder what it is of. I wonder how big it is. ‘Who’s first?’ she asks the group. Hikaru raises his arm, and, in one motion, starts to roll up his sleeve. ‘Neck,’ Inna says. ‘It’s better there. It takes faster.’ He shrugs and lies back on the bed. The magnets click in, holding him in place, and she folds herself down a little to reach him. The hypo seems to fizz as it empties the contents of the pod into him. He winces, and then shudders, shaking the injection off.
‘Nothing to it,’ he says. The others line up one by one, and they all act as if it’s nothing, but I see in their hands the mild tremble of fear at the injection itself; or, maybe, at the thought of being asleep and not being in control. I never used to drink, for that loss; I never used to take painkillers, for the same. Tobi goes first, then Lennox, then Wallace, and then Inna turns to me. ‘You next,’ she says.
‘One second,’ I say, as she readies the hypo. I pull myself to the cockpit and open a connection to Tomas. ‘Can you hear me?’ I ask him.
‘What is it?’ Tomas sounds annoyed at the sound of my voice. I know how busy he must be. I speak quietly, and turn away from the rest of the crew. I don’t want anybody to see that I’m worried.
‘Is everything okay?’
‘It’s fine. Why would it be anything other than okay?’
‘I just wanted to check.’
‘You think that I would let the launch happen if everything wasn’t okay?’
‘No,’ I say.
‘I have work to do, Mira.’ And then he’s gone. I turn back to Inna, who’s waiting. ‘Let me get into the bed,’ I say. ‘Do it there.’ I am next to the central controls on one side, with Inna on the other.
‘You can’t,’ she says. ‘You have to do me after I’ve done you.’ I nod and sit on the edge of the bed, unbuttoning the top of my shirt, and I pull it down to show the part she needs. She leans in: I feel the press of the needle. Like a bore, followed by the break of the skin, and the liquid. That’s the worst part: feeling it rushing inside of you, something where it should not be, mingling. It hurts for a second, nothing more. ‘It’ll only be a couple of minutes before you feel it,’ she says, and she pulls her top to one side and exposes the tattoo again. I can see more of it: the head of a bird, blue and yellow, eyes wide, mouth open. An eagle’s beak. It seems to run lower, towards her chest itself. She puts the capsule in and then hands me the hypo, and points with her finger to where I should place the nib.
‘Ready?’ I ask.
‘Of course,’ she says. The hypo rests against the peak of the bird’s head. I press the button and she barely reacts; I pull it away. She folds her top back up. ‘Now,’ she says, ‘time for sleep.’ She swings her body round into the bed and I hear the hiss of the magnets. ‘They lower the doors for us?’ she asks.
‘They will, but you can do it yourself if you want.’ I glance over at the others, their frontages still up. ‘Sleep well, everybody,’ I say. They murmur; they’re already under. It hits you like you don’t know it’s coming, and you’re suddenly elsewhere, in total darkness. It’s brutal, how fast it is. Inna lies back.
‘See you when we wake up,’ she says. She reaches for the lid; her touch alone makes it descend, bringing it down around her. The glass darkens as it lowers. I flatten myself against the bed as well, and I fasten the magnets, and I try to stay still, because I am still not used to this; the feeling of never being flat, of never being orientated one way over the other. I rest my head on the bed, snug inside the plastic form that’s been moulded around our individual physical shapes. I wait until a click comes over the intercom, and I hear Tomas’ voice.
‘This is the first milestone on the road to the stars,’ Tomas says. ‘Beds closing in five. Four.’ He finishes the countdown and the glass slides down and seals me in. Enough air to breathe, to sustain, that’s the deal. When you sleep you naturally need less. Your body rights itself, puts itself into a state of optimum intake. It aids the depth of your sleep as well, having less air. I shut my eyes and wait for sleep to take me. I know that it cannot be long now.
I hear the engines kick in, and the rumble that they send throughout the entire ship. For that second, it feels like an explosion. I hear the joining door being retracted, and the order that it be so, and I hear Tomas’ voice over the intercom telling the ground crew to prepare for launch. I keep my eyes shut and think about the path we’re going to take, and how the launch will look. We’ve run so many simulations – and a simulation was how we knew to launch from the NISS in the first place, how the money saved on building an extension here to do it was proven to be the right choice by another simulation – and I can see them all running at the same time.
When I used to fly in airplanes I would shut my eyes for a second as we took off and picture the plane exploding, bursting into flame. They say that if a plane is going to crash, it’s statistically most likely to happen as it takes off. I figured that if I got past that I was pretty safe. I imagine this ship exploding. I imagine the pieces floating all around me in space. I imagine me floating amongst them.
Tomas does the other checks, his voice talking through every stage, and I start to wonder why I’m not asleep yet. I should be, by now. This is crucial. Sometimes people need a few minutes to really let the sedative sink in, I remind myself. Sometimes the body’s natural adrenalin, the endorphins, they need longer to be counteracted and swallowed by the sleep. But then: now I am worrying that I am not asleep. In my life I have insomnia, I suppose, of a sort: when pressure mounts and the following day carries any sort of importance, I will worry all night, worry that I am not going to achieve the required amount of sleep to function at an optimum the following day. This is a self-fulfilling prophecy, as the worry is then the thing that conspires to keep me awake, rolling around in my head in circular patterns that never stop looping in on themselves. Only when I have given up all hope do I stand a chance of actually falling asleep: when I have managed to pass that point, to realize that there is nothing I can do now, and that the day I was so worried about is likely ruined. It is a hindrance; a horror. I sleep so badly, because almost every day carries that pressure. Tablets do not help, not really: all they do is render me more tired than I would ordinarily be when I awake. Eventually nature takes over and I sleep: but it is fitful, and it is not what I want. This injection: this is to be my salvation for this leg of the journey. After this, I will worry about it as and when.
I cannot see a clock from here. There’s nothing. That’s an oversight, and I should have thought about that. There are no microphones in the beds either, another oversight. It’s to protect the seal: the fewer holes there are, the less chance of there being a crack. The pilot on the
died before they even woke up, probably because of a gap in the seal, something like that. So we were cautious. It’ll settle in. I’ll sleep soon, because this is medically controlled. This is something I cannot avoid. On occasions, when I have been at my most desperate for sleep, I have taken painkillers: something strong enough to dull everything else, to remove my faculties from worrying about the sleep itself. This is like a better version of them: unavoidable, inevitable.
‘Launch crew prepare,’ I hear through the ship. You can’t open the beds from the inside once they’ve been sealed. If you could, you could accidentally do it, and there’s nothing worse than that thought. The speeds that the ship will reach as it pushes off from the NISS – free of the trappings of any real gravitational pull, free of the resistance offered by an atmosphere – are so ridiculously powerful that they could – or would – damage the human body. Our bones, our bodies, they are not strong enough. The beds are pressure sealed to provide an environment that the body can cope with. They create their own pressure level inside them; protect the crew from the g forces. It’s another of mine and Tomas’ innovations. Another way that we are making this expedition work. If any of the crew were to be out of their beds – and the controlled environment created therein – they would likely die. Their body would be found pulverized, as if it had been beaten to death. But I am not loose. I am in here, awake. I don’t know if this is dangerous. I cannot think about how dangerous this is. I shout.
‘Help,’ I shout, ‘I am not asleep yet!’ I call Inna’s name, hoping that I’ll see her descend and open my bed, and inject me again, triple-strength, able to level me to slumber while this flight happens. I was always scared of flying as well: of seeing the Earth get smaller underneath me. Not like I will see it from space, that doesn’t faze me, because you can see everything in one go: more the sensation of suddenly glimpsing people as specks, and cars as ants, and then everything smaller and smaller, houses like dust, and then whole towns. But Inna doesn’t come, and everything is dark, soundtracked by the rumble of the engines proper: through everything, right through the hull. Everything underneath me feels like vibration, nothing else. I feel my bones rattle, and my teeth in my jaw. ‘I should be asleep!’ I shout, but my voice dulls itself against the inside of my bed, and against the growling of the ship, and against the paralytic. My words slurred.
The engines fire for launch in three phases. First phase is a warm-up, bringing the temperature of the engines up to the necessary point. The second phase – the phase that I feel kick in through the rumble, like a foot on a gas pedal while the handbrake remains pulled on – adds the injectant and coolant into the burner, readying to add it to the engines themselves. ‘Please,’ I hear myself say – an echo through the rumble – and then the third phase.