#11 – Lighthouses

The story below was written and based on concepts provided by one of my best friends, Austin MacDonald.

The astronaut slept. When he slept, he dreamed. The dream never changed anymore. It began with him on a raft, or perhaps some kind of skiff, far out on the ocean. In the dream, he was a mariner, not an astronaut. It was night and the sky was black overhead and the sea below was the kind of fathomless dark that only exists when light has never visited at all. The sea roiled, and the ship rose and fell in the wake of each wave. The sky above was dotted with stars, tiny pinpricks of white in the inky firmament. The mariner adjusted the tiller, veering towards shore. He could not see it, but he knew it to be there. 

A beam of yellow shone out across the water. No sound of foghorn to accompany it, but it was a beacon all the same, a spear of sunlight in the night. Once more the mariner adjusted the tiller, turning his way towards home. Above him the stars glimmered, brilliant and immovable.

Then he woke up, and he was an astronaut again.

–––––

The astronaut unstrapped himself from the sleep module, using the grab bars to launch himself forward through the ship towards the ovoid command module at the end of the corridor. He drifted past empty cryopods and did not look at them. Viewports on either side of the ship revealed the stars, but he never looked at those, either. His only check-in on the way to running the maintenance cycles was on the crop of soybeans that grew then under white light like sterile hospital light. Dew clung to vibrant green leaves, the only true source of colour in that place. The astronaut was pleased to see them progressing, but the memory of the last crop lingered in his mind. This yield would be less than that. A knife of worry turned in the astronaut’s gut. This was the third crop in a row with diminishing returns. 

The astronaut left his plants and drifted through the ship, back towards the command module. The astronaut’s beard floated around his face. He had considered cutting it, but decided not to. Like everything about him, it only had so long. The beard would be a marker of time passed.

There was no door to the command module. They hadn’t thought they would need doors. The astronaut angled himself forward, using the wall’s inertia to push himself to the seat. He brought his knees to his chest, fetal-like, then drifted into place. A quick glance at the monitors showed that all readings were sound, just as they were every other day. Spontaneous mechanical problems didn’t exist in a vacuum the way they did on Earth. In space, everything was as it always was. 

The astronaut dimmed the lights. He wondered why he still checked. The readings said what they always said. 

All systems go. Cryopods offline.

Only one lifeform aboard.

–––––

The ship’s life had begun out of desperation. A cloudless night in late April on the bluffs outside Tel Aviv had been the place of revelation. An Israeli astronomer had spied a dark patch in the sky that occluded the nebula he was looking for. He tracked it over the course of a couple nights. It did not take him long to realize what it was, and he reported the discovery, excited, but otherwise nonplussed. The prospect of discovering an asteroid and getting to name it was an honour, but it wasn’t what he looked at the sky for. He wanted to see beauty, not darkness. He kept the discovery to himself, not wanting to tell others until it had been confirmed.

A few days later, he had been contacted by members of Mossad and the American F.B.I. They had brought him to a dark room in a dusty building on the edge of town. Sounds of traffic reverberated through the sheet metal walls, making the inside seem even more vacant. Fear had taken the amateur astronomer then, and he had prayed quietly for succour. Then the door opened, and two men sat down. They reminded him that he was not handcuffed, and they apologized for the dramatics of the situation.

They then very politely and carefully explained to him that the world was going to end. 

The astronomer paid little attention to what they said next. Only the basics were clear; top-level space agencies had done the projections for the asteroid’s course and calculated its size and mass. It was approximately one-and-a-half times as big as the Chicxulub impactor that had led to the death of the dinosaurs. Worse, it was due to impact the Earth in six months’ time. The estimated impact site was in the Alboran Sea, thirty kilometres south-south-east of Gibraltar. 

The agents then carefully asked the astronomer if he had told anyone else and he said no, he had wanted to wait. They asked him again and he said yes again. Then they asked him what he would name the asteroid. The astronomer thought for a minute and then said Abaddon, for surely they were looking at Hell itself. 

The agents nodded and said that this made sense. The American agent then withdrew a pistol and shot the astronomer in the head. They left that place and never came back.

The world could then be segmented into two different groups of people: those who knew and those who didn’t. Most of the world, billions and billions, continued on with their lives in complete ignorance of their coming annihilation. Only the most powerful – the very rich, politicians, certain super-celebrities – were told. Once they were told, they began to plan. 

There were two schools of thought on how to approach the crisis. Given that the most major impact event in human memory was the 2013 Chelyabinsk air burst, there was at first a significant misunderstanding to the severity of the coming event. It is difficult for the human mind to comprehend how an impact off the European and African coasts might trigger volcanic events in Indonesia. It cannot conceive of tsunamis taller than skyscrapers, nor can it understand the centuries of global cooling that would follow. It is not capable of working on such scales.

There were some who wanted to remain. They would build bunkers and live their whole lives underground if they had to, palaces of concrete beneath hundreds of feet of soil. Even the architects of these vaults were not sure whether the residents would survive, but some thought it a better hope than the alternative.

The alternative was the Terra.

The Terra had been named in memory of what it would lose and as a representation of what might be gained. The ship itself was little more than a tube with wings, an interstellar dragonfly; even the wings themselves – solar sails – had an iridescent sheen reminiscent of the insect. 

The two plans were put into motion. The rich descended into their bunkers, where the sheer amount of soil cut them off from communicating with one another. A generation would be born, live, and die underground. The remainder looked to the stars.

Proxima Centauri is the nearest star system to Earth at a mere thirty-eight trillion kilometres, a stone’s throw in cosmic terms. The solar sails of the Terra would gather the solar winds, allowing the Terra to approach a few percentage points of the speed of light. The journey would take approximately thirty years. There were a few complications, of course; the amount of provisions that could be stored was relatively small, given that the success of the solar sails depended on reducing mass as much as possible. This necessitated that the ship’s available weight be devoted primarily to cryogenic chambers where the passengers, pilgrims from a desolated world, might sleep until they reached their destination. Tickets cost tens of billions and were snapped up in an instant. The passengers were put to sleep, not to wake for thirty years. 

Only one person would wake during the long journey, to perform regular maintenance checks.  A single engineer. 

They left the Earth three days before impact. The engineer, who was now an astronaut, stayed awake long enough to watch. It was night when it happened. Fire consumed the land, and all of the glittering lights across the darkened globe disappeared.

–––––

The astronaut’s beard was longer now, and he had to pull himself through the ship carefully. Supplements had done little to ward off the bone decay that astronauts typically experienced during long voyages. He was sure that a doctor might have diagnosed him with osteo- something or other, but even an orthopaedic surgeon could not have afforded a spot aboard the Terra. 

He realized now, thinking back, how foolhardy the plan had been. What if there had been a system failure on his pod and he had drowned? What if he had developed some kind of cancer, or perhaps an embolism? One person to maintain humanity’s future was an almost psychotic level of idiocy. In a strange way, he was glad he didn’t have to worry about it anymore. 

The astronaut floated to the viewport with a palmful of soybeans in his hand. The colour was almost painfully brilliant in that stark space. He held it up to the viewport, wondering how something that green might be allowed to exist in all that dark. 

–––––

A memory of blood. Each pod opened carefully, thawed. A pool of blue water. The rich didn’t know that it was just colouring, something to make the whole process seem more advanced than it really was. Something to disguise the fact that they were just upjumped primates who had come too far from home.

One punch with the screwdriver to the throat. The holes were always perfectly round, not even ragged at the borders. Ruddy crimson bubbles would float and pop as the cryopod’s occupant aspirated. Death always followed, too many minutes later. The astronaut was sure that they never felt a thing, and he told himself as much.

He wondered if God could see this far, and if He understood that a man needed protein to survive.

–––––

Countless years passed, and the bodies began to disappear. When the astronaut was not eating or drinking or pissing or shitting, he hovered in a trance. His beard was white and now floated in a cloud of snow about his face. It was dirty and tangled and matted in places. He had tried talking to himself, but a hyper-awareness of the possibility of insanity had made him stop. There was nothing to do other than to look at unchanging maintenance readings or the void of space beyond the viewports.

The memory pushed itself up. He tried to push it back, but it was seared into him. How long ago had it been? How long since he had awoken for that first set of maintenance checks.?

He remembered. He remembered the last time he felt hope. The pod had opened, and he wasn’t dead. An indicator next to it told him that a year had passed. A year since the Earth had died. All he had to do now was do his checks, then he could sleep for another year. He practically raced through the ship, scratching at the scruff around his face. His limbs were sore and cramped but his heart was full. He would survive! There was a future. Faces of his comrades looked out from their cryopods with shuttered eyes. Behind them, the whirr of the hydroponic array churned on, generating bulbs that would then be frozen and planted on the new world waiting for them. 

All checks were green, of course. The astronaut, who used to be an engineer, was impressed. In his experience, the rich loved to cut corners to save as much as they could. The fact that the Terra operated so smoothly told him that exceptions had been made in this case. Reassured, the astronaut floated back to the aft end of the ship. 

It was then that he saw it. An abyssal feeling of emptiness tore itself open inside him. 

Outside the port viewport, the solar sail soared out of view, a paper-thin skyscraper that reflected the blizzard of light from inside the ship. 

On the starboard side, there was nothing. Nothing save for a gnarled mess of metal and plastic where the sail had been. 

The astronaut felt his brain flood with adrenaline. Time slowed. A thousand connections and implications began firing in his brain, the neurons driving as quickly as they could, calculating, hypothesizing, all coming to the inevitable conclusion that there had evidently been some sort of accident and that he was now lost somewhere in interstellar space between a dead world and his destination.
Outside of the viewport, the stars peered back without blinking.

–––––

He never dreamed of land anymore. Just the sea and the lighthouse. That’s all there was.

–––––

The astronaut had tried, of course, to calculate the distance. But there were too many variables, and he wasn’t a physicist. All of the physicists had been left behind on this project, outbid for their seats after being promised that their work would be their salvation. The cryopods on this ship only had room for the truly important. The astronaut himself had been spared by virtue of his necessity; they simply could not make the journey without an on-board engineer.

The stars didn’t even look the same so far from Earth. Constellations were largely similar, for in a cosmic sense, he had only crossed the street. But everything was slightly off, and it made his measurements difficult. Complicating it further was that he had no sense of how the destruction of the Terra’s starboard sail might have affected their course. It was possible that, even if he got in the cryotube now, the ship might never arrive at Proxima Centauri. It would instead miss entirely, travelling beyond into an inconceivable emptiness.

The astronaut did the best he could. He used the ship’s readings to determine that the loss of the sail had had a massive negative effect on the speed of the ship. He ran numbers again and again, desperate to change them. But they never changed. 

It would take the Terra approximately forty-nine thousand, six hundred and twenty years to reach Proxima Centauri – or at least where he hoped it would be.

The astronaut looked at these notes for a long time. Then he tore them up. Bits of paper like two-dimensional gnats floated about his head. It was against regulation to tear up paper. The pieces might find their way into something important.

The astronaut watched them float away, wishing he could too.

–––––

Bones decayed and splintered. The mind frayed. The astronaut lived on. It was his duty. Not for the passengers, but for everybody else who didn’t get a chance.

–––––

He drifted now over a bed of dying plants, a sea of  autumnal yellows and golds that never belonged in this place.

Was he wrong to have spared his own life? Hopelessness is one thing, but there’s a far cry between ending a life and ending a species. Could he bear that burden?

He wondered again how far God could see.

–––––

Decades passed. The astronaut was asleep when the lights went out and floated emaciated and frail in a white-and-grey cloud, swallowed by his own beard. The sudden change prompted him to wake. The ship’s power had finally failed. Not even the core of the ship, the centripetal wheel, remained powered. The astronaut probed his mind, trying to remember what he had forgotten. What did this mean for the recyclers? For his air, for his water? Panic threatened to rise in his chest but couldn’t muster the effort. It disappeared as quickly as it had come.

The Terra was black and dead. The only light now from the stars. The astronaut floated to the viewport, pulling himself in with gnarled arthritic hands. He stayed there and looked out with ancient red eyes. He watched the stars as long as he could. 

They looked so much like lighthouses. 

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