Once Upon a Space Story
Two travelers in space are in their spaceship, alone, for eleven years. Their routine is simple. Catherine wakes up every morning to run on the treadmill for three hours. Then she makes breakfast for her and her shipmate. She sends signals to outer space, clears the workboard from the night before and enters the gravity chambers to complete a puzzle.
Catherine is from the United Northern State, where the population is just over two million spread over the frozen North Western hemisphere of Earth.
Daniel, her shipmate, wakes up a few hours later and starts his day reading literature from previous centuries of human existence. Daniel is from the Northern coast of the African continent, he came from a densely populated mining city where bustle and chattering were heard even in the early hours of the morning. He prefers the sounds on the spacecraft.
As Catherine prepares a fresh pot of tea, Daniel enters the gravity chambers to join her for breakfast. This routine began after their first year together and continues peacefully eleven years later.
In the afternoons the astronauts debate. The conversation spins from one of the many documentaries or citizen videos they can browse through. Sometimes they share a memory of culture on Earth, they sit back on their reclining seats laughing at videos; today’s video of elephants playing in pools of mud.
Neither of the astronauts had ever seen an elephant in real life, they had never touched its wrinkled skin and wet trunk. They had never felt the ground tremble as a few elephants walked by. Yet stories and videos made their existence common, even in the deep trenches of distant space.
After business and maintenance are tended to, Catherine, who is knowledgeable about many of Earth’s religions, prays. She made a chapel in the corner next to her bedroom, sticking pictures of prophets to the window, blocking the darkness outside. Before Catherine’s mission began, thousands of pictures, drawings and symbols were sent to her to be carried on her journey.
“Prayer can be a communication device, like a telephone,” Catherine said to Daniel on their first day aboard the ship as she unpacked the dozens of idols she brought with her.
Daniel smiled and said “Yes” and he retreated to his quarters for the remainder of their first week.
Sometimes, at any hour of the day, the astronauts are startled by a piercing snap coming from the spaceship’s message board. This has happened only a handful of times, mostly in the first year leaving Earth. There has never been a direct message or enough information to suggest life. Catherine and Daniel got used to the occasional snap, each other’s sounds, and the silence.
Silence is hardly silence in the spacecraft. Humming from wires and electronics never stops, but the astronauts acclimated.
Daniel would often sit alone mimicking the noises, harmonizing with the many devices. At night time -only distinguished from day by the adjusting lights in the ship- Daniel works alone in the gravity chambers. His relationship with the preservation council on Earth allowed Daniel to negotiate the division of equipment on board, and so the ship was suited with a digital printing studio pulling from a satellite orbiting Earth.
A photograph was taken from the spaceship, every second, from the moment of departure and for the next consecutive three hundred and sixty five days. After that, Daniel manually set the satellite to photograph cities he had traveled to, places where his relatives had settled and areas of the inhabited oceans.
He would also photograph the village where Catherine was born and raised, print the images and spend the longer hours of the night cutting pieces away leaving heaps of puzzles for Catherine to busy herself with in the morning. Daniel was mesmerized by Catherine’s ability to match variances of white as she pieced together waves of arctic tundras. The astronauts cherish secrets and solemn abilities as they nurture their loneliness.
On a day like any other, Catherine had made broth and grains and she sat with Daniel to listen to a radio podcast from the early years of the twenty first century. The program was about dreaming. Since the airdate, the science had become common knowledge, so much so that the show seemed like a pantomime revealing the magician’s secrets.
“Dreams, like prayer, are also like a telephone,” Catherine recited as commonly as she knows she is in space. Daniel sat back humming with the display screen.
“Catherine, you dream, do you recall your dreams from Earth?” He asked.
“My dreams I never recall, I also never had a telephone, but they do seem as marvelous as prayers. Although data drops are far more convenient.” She said.
Catherine brewed another pot of tea and Daniel chose the next film about the Earth’s now extinct species in the rain forest. It was heartbreaking for both of the astronauts to watch because over the first year of their departure they had seen the vicious implosion of the rain forest from the satellite images Daniel had printed.
That night, before Catherine retreated to her room to pray, there was a snap from the message board, but nothing else followed and their attempts to capture a conversation with other beings was in vain.
Daniel sat for a long time with his instruments. He tried to remember the sounds of the desert, miles from his city on Earth.
As a boy he would wander for days outside the metropolis borders, camping with sand builders. They would tell him stories of the land as he buried his small feet under the sand. He closed his eyes and tried to drown out the white noise of the spacecraft and hear only grains falling onto more grains of sand. He imagined the thunder of the elephant’s footsteps and the rustling of the leaves falling on the rain forest’s pit. He sat meditating with these sounds letting his body resonate with the pulse of the oceans and winds.
A few hours later Catherine woke up coughing and could hardly breath. She unstrapped herself from the reclined bed and with wide eyes, for the first time had recalled her dream. She dressed quickly and floated to where Daniel was meditating. He too was coughing from deep in his lugs. The astronauts struggled to inhale and with each exhale coughed a little more. When their breath leveled, they sat in silence, Daniel strapped in his meditation seat and Catherine hovering over him.
“I woke up from my dream, Daniel I woke up and remembered what I had dreamed.” Daniel did not respond.
“There was a woman, maybe experiencing pain,” she continued, “and the earth was binding her, like a cocoon. It was nothing from the Earth that I know.”
Daniel was still quiet. Catherine continued.
“Was I the woman? This is remarkable. You know I don’t even know if she was human, she was so beautiful though.” Catherine thought none of what she was saying interested her shipmate.
After the dream Catherine couldn’t return to bed so she began her day adjusting the light sensor on the habitat program. She strapped herself into the treadmill to run. After a long shower and pampering, brushing her hair and moisturizing her skin, Catherine went to the communication deck to send signals to space. Daniel was already manically tinkering with the devices.
“I sent all the encryptions through sonic portals and relayed the prompted messages through all languages that had previously contacted Earth” he reported to Catherine as she viewed the channels.
“Let’s be open to a variety of sound waves, light signals and digital encryptions” he continued.
“Well of course, foreign beings will be tricky to understand but we are prepared,” Catherine replied.
The astronauts waited for a pulse, a light beam, or any sound out of the ordinary that could be an attempt to contact the ship. Looking for patterns, they flinched even at a subtle change of light in the cabin as synthetic daytime grew brighter and brighter. The cabin was flushed with beaming yellow light, and Daniel for the first time in eleven years saw a shadow outside the window.
“This is it Cat,” he whispered. “Everything you’ve imagined as alien life forms will be replaced by what we will find out now.”
Then from the cabin radio came,
“Hello, hello come in pilots, can you hear me?”
“English!” Catherine lept forward to respond. “Cabin Echo here, charlie alpha bravo india november echo.”
“I don’t know what you’re getting at with that but I can hear you loud and clear” the man said on the other end.
Just then Daniel realized that the light in the room was coming from a sun behind them, and across the sky was a planet that looked like Earth’s horizon from the last days of Earth’s view.
Before he could marvel in the symphony of light and shadows dancing on his pale skin, Catherine was responding with coordinates and directions for landing.
The man on the other end patiently lured in the spacecraft towards the new planet’s orbit by instructing Catherine to dismantle the gravity capabilities and allow the back end of the ship to be pulled by the weight of the front.
Daniel decided that Catherine touch down to the new planet to meet the man first, while he then continue to orbit the planet photographing what he saw. Catherine prepared her landing suit with ease and kept weapons and medical essentials hidden in a pocket above her breast. With militant movements and very little fear, Catherine departed from the cabin with a thumbs up to Daniel.
The new planet sang a gentle hum with the spacecraft, as if the two were a duet. Daniel flew the craft closer, the sonorous atmosphere swirled in hues he hadn’t remembered since Earth. Green and glowing brown basins rolled under delicate clouds.
Daniel flew past three small moons, each flooded with glistening pools that looked like diamonds shifting over the surface. The new planet seemed smaller than Earth, but Daniel calculated eighteen hours to return to the place where he was to dock the ship, as directed by the man on the planet.
Daniel descended, like Catherine had, allowing the planet’s gravity to usher him in.
The vibrant sun, stationary in the sky, never seemed to get smaller as he floated through the atmosphere closer to the ground. The man greeted Daniel on the surface and insisted he remove his bulky astronaut suit and shoes to breath the new planet’s air.
“Your partner’s questions lead me to believe you are from a planet Earth” the man said.
“Yes, Earth, much like your planet here it seems” responded Daniel.
“No this planet is not mine, I am far away from home and only landed a year ago I’d say, we’ve lost count, your partner is off figuring out the precise dates from my notes.”
“We? You are here with a community?” asked Daniel
“I landed here with one other, a female. She has just given birth, so now we are three.”
“You are alone on this planet?” Daniel asked
“This land is nothing near lonely,” the man insisted.
Catherine returned with information digested from the man’s meticulous notes.
“Our recollection of Earth’s history is inconsistent, I thought it possible we are from different centuries, your patterns of hunting are primitive, but your technology is much more advanced than I’ve seen.”
The man explained his Earth.
“It is a place of tolerance and peace. We are all reliant on the participation of individuals and a thriving ecosystem. Curiosity and wonder motivate discovery. A short history of power was dismantled by shared energy passed from the connections between organisms large and small.”
He told the astronauts that the decision to leave his planet, which he also called Earth, was made by his partner, but his skills provided the opportunity to travel this far.
The three humans walked barefoot over dense wet ground. Daniel was overcome with the sensations from his skin, his nose, the sounds in his ears, and the settled peace within his mind. Catherine was distracted by the man’s note taking gadget recording their conversation with tone, inflection and context in its documentation.
Daniel inhaled sweet air that gave strength to his organs and muscles. He felt alert and rested at the same time. His confusion was insignificant compared to the marvelous consumption of harmony moving through his body.
The man led them through a forest of trees as high as the clouds, although the clouds seemed lower than what Catherine and Daniel ever knew from their Earth.
There were no birds in the trees, there were no bugs on the ground, yet the forest throbbed with life. The man explained that the new planet’s nutrition was all underneath. Energy brewed from the diverse density below. The three humans stopped and kneeled to the ground placing their hands to the earth. Like a beating heart the ground throbbed.
“Unlike my planet, the center of this new planet is the home to many living things” said the man, “on my Earth there were hawks that soared the skies and worms that crawled the surface, and everything in between, predators and prey fighting to survive.
“At one point our Earths were alike” said Daniel
“Our Earth has structures, efficient ways to extract from an active yet dangerous core,” Catherine reported to the man. He smiled and the humans continued towards the camp. They walked down a valley and could see an ocean in the horizon.
“We set up our station by the water. Ida enjoys the waves.”
“Ida is your wife?” Asked Daniel
“No an assigned partner for the journey, and when we found the planet fit for our survival she suggested we procreate” the man said.
“Yes of course. Daniel and I can participate if we concur in finding this planet suitable as well” Catherine replied with enthusiasm.
There was a brief silence.
“I don’t find myself very hungry,” Daniel said changing the subject, “although we haven't eaten in hours.”
“The planet feeds you through your skin and through the air, but at times you’ll want a feast and it will provide as well. The earth will give what you seek if it is able to. Even my technology responds quite well, I haven't needed our energy pack since we were in orbit.”
They continued on the beach, the sand as soft as silk and Daniel began to run. There was a force that swept his legs along the sand as he felt the rays from the sun on his skin. Daniel had a dark complexion on Earth, but the pigment dulled in space, on this new planet he felt restored.
He jumped into the ocean’s waves and splashed his feet up allowing his body to sink. Under water he could see, there was no salt like the oceans on his coastal city in Africa. The water was clear, like the diamond pools of the three moons.
Catherine and the man remained on the beach discussing measurements of organic material. When Daniel emerged from the water he felt like the new planet was his home.
The three humans sat on the beach until sunset learning about each other's journey. Daniel laid back, and as he closed his eyes he caught a kaleidoscope of sun rays in his gaze. Arches of rainbows fluttered between his eyelashes and he gently hummed with the waves.
When evening approached Ida walked along the beach towards them. She also was humming, and she held a baby in her arms. The man ran over to assist Ida with the baby, but she insisted the boy remain with her. Daniel watched Ida walk along the shore with her newborn. Her face was familiar, and although she was still in the distance Daniel felt as though she were close to him, sitting just next to him in the sand.
As she approached Catherine gasped.
“I dreamed of you,” she said but Ida was too far to hear. Daniel rose to greet Ida and her child. She placed the sleeping baby in his arms.
“Did you give him a name” asked Daniel
“Not yet” Ida replied.
“Can we call him Aleph?” Daniel asked.
Aleph opened his eyes and smiled.