A God Alone
You died. You remember it well. You were in the living room playing with your grandchildren when it felt like a horse kicked you in the chest. You blacked out, but came-to in an ambulance. The look on the emergency medical technician’s face told you everything — your obesity, hedonistic lifestyle and heart disease had finally caught up to you. You died.
But now you are conscious again, shrouded in darkness. Are you in a coffin? Is this hell? You try to speak, but your voice cracks as if your throat is coated in dust.
You notice a growing light. You hear a voice.
“Welcome back Paula,” the voice says, “please be still and allow the stasis to wear off.”
You wonder who Paula is. Your name is Carl Frederick Holliday. But you have a nagging feeling there is something more about your life, something you forgot…
Light gently grows and realize you are inside some sort of pod. You try to raise your arms but it feels like gravity increased ten-fold. Even your breathing is labored.
The top of the pod splits apart and the cover slides away. You are looking up at a metal roof. The bottom of the pod on which you lay rises, lifting your upper body to a reclining position.
You look around the room. It is roughly twenty feet long and fifteen feet wide. It is made of metal. Heavy equipment, tools and supplies are attached to the walls. Touch-screens, blinking lights and access panels are everywhere.
Next to you, a robot approaches. It had a vaguely anthropomorphic face with wide friendly eyes and a smiling fake mouth, but the head is attached to a chassis with multiple grasping arms and sits on six spider-like mechanical legs. The robot gives you a caring look as one of the spindly arms reaches out and places a three warm, composite digits on your hand.
“How are you Paula?” The voice belongs to the robot. Its name is SAL. SAL is the ship and this is SAL’s avatar-drone.
You remember where you are. You are inside a spaceship. Your name isn’t Carl Frederick Holliday and you aren’t a grandfather. Your name is Paula Antoinette Mason and you’re an astronaut. You remember it all, and wish you didn’t.
You are a pioneer, dispatched on a three hundred twenty year journey to colonize Kepler 875c, an Earth-sized mega-planet in the goldilocks zone of a star some sixty seven light years from Earth. You departed with thirty two other colonists and each of you took shifts monitoring the space-craft. During your off-time, you slept a dreamless sleep in stasis.
You were on your fifth of ten planned, one-year shifts when something went wrong. Alarms sounded, a vibration rippled through the floor and a hint of smoke filled the air. SAL reported multiple catastrophic decompressions occurring across the frontal lobe of your spacecraft. A meteorite swarm penetrated the laser array, composite shields and reactive armor and was peppering the vessel with large holes.
It happened quickly. You didn’t have time to think before SAL grabbed you by the arms and legs and carried you at high speed into one of the surface habitation modules. The containment door slammed shut behind you just as you heard the terrifying whoosh of explosive decompression.
You were safe, but the rest of the spacecraft disintegrated in fire while you could only watch. The main vessel was destroyed and the thirty-one other crew were killed. It was just you and SAL.
The habitation module was designed as a lifeboat and could survive in space. Its reactors would function for hundreds of years and could provide you air, power and heat. There was preserved food for dozens of months and the bio-recycling systems would use bacteria and algae to convert your waste to a nutritious but barely edible slop, theoretically forever. You would survive. Forever.
You coasted through space and arrived at Kepler 875c as scheduled. But without the main body of the spacecraft and its drive system, you had no way to slow down. You awoke from your scheduled hibernation to watch the giant, super-Earth grow from a blue dot to a giant oval over the course of several days.
You looked out the viewport at the massive brown landscapes and turquoise oceans filling your vision. SAL told you the planet was indeed habitable. This was more crushing news than if it was toxic. Temperatures and gas mixtures were well within tolerable limits. The planet was sterile and lifeless, just waiting for someone to live there.
You had arrived, but had no way to slow down or descend to the surface. So you could only watch and weep as the planet — your new home — your own personal planet — shrank into to a blue dot and disappeared as you coasted away. You secretly hoped gravitational forces would pull you into the sun, but they just spun you around and spat you out of the solar system; back into interstellar space; away from Earth.
That was four hundred and seventy-six years ago. You had considered simply killing yourself, but SAL assured you that, barring another encounter unforeseen encounter with meteorites or a large object, SAL could keep the habitation module operating and intact indefinitely. You both had a duty to continue observing and broadcasting back to Earth — signals which wouldn’t be received for decades.
You were a galactic explorer. You had gone further and faster than any human in history. You had a globally important purpose. But after the accident, you were just a passenger. You were alone, afraid and desperately lonely. You opted for a dreamless, troubled sleep for many years.
SAL awoke you forty-six years into a slumber to report good news. You hoped for a rescue — perhaps a wormhole or faster than light travel — but it was not to be. Scientists on Earth had cracked the man-machine interface and SAL had sufficient materials on-hand to construct a device. You could connect your consciousness to his computational substrate.
Mission-control on Earth proposed a solution to your isolation. They transmitted specifications for a nearly flawless simulated world that had become popular on Earth. SAL could run a version, less robust, but still engrossing enough to provide a virtual life.
You lived three lives as a woman. Last time, you tried living as a man for variety.
You are over one hundred and sixty-seven light years from Earth. Back home, you are famous. Everyone on Earth knows your name, your face, your plight. You are the most admired and pitied person in history. Hundreds of millions pray for you every night and the comm system is overwhelmed with encouragement and well-wishes from home. You have never felt closer to humanity.
But you know it is all false. All your colleagues and loved ones are dead. You have never been further away from Earth. The news you receive now happened two lifetimes ago. The people sending you well-wishes are long-dead ghosts. You have no hope of real human relationships.
Every year you slip further and further away from home. Hoping for rescue or return is only a source of pain and longing.
This time, you don’t even bother to get out of the pod and catch up on the news from Earth. SAL starts to tell you about the successful landing of a second colony mission on Kepler 875c, but you don’t want to hear it. Their triumph on your planet is your failure in the empty void.
You tell SAL to restart the simulation and put you back under immediately. SAL asks what kind of life profile you’d prefer and you tell him you don’t care. You just want to wipe your memory for another lifetime and live some life, any life, other than this one.
You want to talk to people, love, laugh, drink and be happy. You want to strive, grow, cry, mourn and feel anything other than loneliness. You want to touch human flesh that isn’t your own, even if it is simulated.
You tell SAL you’ll take any life at all, so long as it’s not a lonely one.
SAL tells you it understands and lowers you back into the pod. The cover slides into position and seals itself shut. You shut your eyes, forget and are born again.
You coast along into the nothingness of space, a god alone in a tiny world within a world, known and loved by all, but reachable by no one.
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