Triggers: Sadness, loneliness, themes of failure
The window onto the test chamber is round, like the portals of the IPCS that I spent so much time floating at, in the reduced gravity of my intern days.
There is no floating here, in this grubby, worse-for-wear university lab, quiet and cold in the small hours of the morning. Quiet and cold and deserted except for me. This batch of testing shouldn’t take more than ten more minutes and then I can get home and shower and drink something better than stale university coffee.
That’s assuming the results are good. If this batch, this last batch of neural tissue that I have the energy and the hope to prepare, is not viable, after everything that went into this one, I might just throw myself quietly out a window.
The machine I’m running whirrs and blinks its lights at me. The machines I’ve already run tick as their cooling metal contracts and shifts. No other sounds break the stillness. So much silence is rare for me these days. Right now it reminds me, abruptly and intensely, of space.
Doing a master’s thesis, in this little known university, in an obscure town, should be a bit of a let-down after what I used to do. After all, I used to be my mother’s pride and joy: the famous astronaut. Space intern, really, but she never saw it like that.
I saw her heart break in her eyes when I turned down the full time research job in the Colony Station. I hate having to build my future from the shards of other people’s expectations for me, but what else can I do?
I could try and explain to her what I learned up there, about why I can’t face the stars again, but I’ve tried to explain lesser things and failed. Words don’t seem to mean the same thing to someone who’s never been off-world, as they mean to me.
The test chamber shifts into its final assessment phase. I’ll have results soon. I sip my cold coffee and watch the small output screen.
I disagree with my mother. This degree isn’t a let-down. In a lot of ways, it’s so much harder than being a famous space intern. The testing programme for interns is exhaustive and gruelling. Only the best are chosen, and not just the best in some sort of abstract, general way, but the best, the most perfect fit for the position you’re applying for. If you’re chosen, it’s because you can do all the things they could ever ask of you.
Here, with my masters’, there is no such certainty.
“But it’s such an ordinary thing,” cried my mother, “Everyone does their masters’. You’ve always been such a special child. Can’t you do something that shows how special you are? There are so many masters’ students. No one will be able to recognize a special one from all the others.”
“More masters’ students than all the grains of sand of all the beaches in the world,” I agreed, already implacable in my decision, “and I will be as insignificant as one grain among the innumerable many.”
I chose those words carefully then, co-opting the metaphor beloved of science-writers to explain the sheer insignificance of this pale-blue dot, home to all of humanity, in the face of the whole of the known universe.
I hoped she would see that there was more in between my words than I was saying.
I think it is often that way between mothers and daughters. She saw my distress and I saw her love, we just didn’t know how to cross that gulf. Humans know more about travelling the space between stars than crossing that gulf, so what I learned as an intern was left unsaid.
My insignificance as one masters’ student among many, is nothing in the face of Earth’s insignificance as one star among countless stars. That’s not a new idea, you don’t have to go into space to get that, but that’s not the worst of it.
The coffee is cold on my tongue and as bitter as the memory.
It wasn’t part of my research or anything, it just happened while I was there, as the most devastating of small fires do. The extra-solar probe ‘Herald’ came back. I was in the mess room when they made the announcement, way in the back with the other interns, but even from there I heard the news clearly.
‘Herald’ hadn’t found anything.
Not even ‘Herald’, who’d travelled the furthest, searched the longest, had found any evidence of other life. If ‘Herald’ couldn’t find it, it wasn’t there. There was no point in sending other probes. Even SETI shut down its listening dishes after that.
We proved then, in that single, sharp moment, that humanity is drifting in our planet’s insignificance, in our micro-mediocrity, alone.
I can’t even look up at the night sky now, let alone do another term in space. If I see the stars, burning cold and silent, the endless loneliness in which we are condemned to spinning between them consumes me.
So I came home.
The machine pings, slowly displaying the results of the test.
I came home and threw myself into research on sentient machines. If there were no voices to answer us from the cosmos, then I would build them here, in this grubby university lab, with neural tissue strands and self-learning algorithms.
I will take my masters’ thesis, grain of sand among innumerable grains, and make the machines that spread neural nets around us and protect us against the threat of cosmic isolation.
If this sample will only, only have worked then I can …
<Specimen Failed> says the tiny input screen.
I put my head in my hands as, job done, the test chamber begins shutting itself down. Slowly, the lonely silence of the lab is broken by my clumsy sobs.