Authors: Lavie Tidhar
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From above the ecliptic the swarm can be seen as a cloud of minute bullet-shaped insects, their hulls, packed with photovoltaic cells, capturing the sunlight; tiny, tiny flames burning in the vastness of the dark.
They crawl with unbearable slowness across this small section of near space, beetles climbing a sheer obsidian rock face. Only the sun remains constant. The sun, always, dominates their sky.
Inside each jalopy are instrument panels and their like; a sleeping compartment where you must float your way into the secured sleeping bag; a toilet to strap yourself to; a kitchen to prepare your meal supply; and windows to look out of. With every passing day the distance from Earth increases and the time-lag grows a tiny bit longer and the streaming of communication becomes more echoey, the most acute reminder of that finite parting as the blue-green egg that is Earth revolves and grows smaller in your window, and you stand there, sometimes for hours at a time, fingers splayed against the plastic, staring at what has gone and will never come again, for your destination is terminal.
There is such freedom in the letting go.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
There is the music. Mei listens to the music, endlessly. Alone she floats in her cheap jalopy, and the music soars all about her, an archive of all the music of Earth stored in five hundred terabytes or so, so that Mei can listen to anything ever written and performed, should she so choose, and so she does, in a glorious random selection as the jalopy moves in the endless swarm from Earth to Terminal. Chopin's Ãtudes bring a sharp memory of rain and the smell of wet grass, of damp books and days spent in bed, staring out of windows, the feel of soft sheets and warm pyjamas, a steaming mug of tea. Mei listens to Vanuatu string band songs in pidgin English, evocative of palm trees and sand beaches and graceful men swaying in the wind; she listens to Congolese kwasa kwasa and dances, floating, shaking and rolling in weightlessness, the music like an infectious laugh and hot tropical rain. The Beatles sing “Here Comes the Sun,” Mozart's Requiem trails off unfinished, David Bowie's “Space Oddity” haunts the cramped confines of the jalopy: the human race speaks to Mei through notes like precise mathematical notations, and, alone, she floats in space, remembering in the way music always makes you remember.
She is not unhappy.
At first, there was something seemingly inhuman about using the toilets. It is like a hungry machine, breathing and spitting, and Mei must ride it, strapping herself into leg restraints, attaching the urine funnel, which gurgles and hisses as Mei evacuates waste. Now the toilet is like an old friend, its conversation a constant murmur, and she climbs in and out without conscious notice.
At first, Mei slept and woke up to a regiment of day and night, but a month out of Earth orbit, the old order began to slowly crumble, and now she sleeps and wakes when she wants, making day and night appear as if by magic, by a wave of her hand. Still, she maintains a routine, of washing and the brushing of teeth, of wearing clothing, a pretence at humanity which is sometimes hard to maintain being alone. A person is defined by other people.
Three months out of Earth and it's hard to picture where you'd left, where you're going. And always that word, like a whisper out of nowhere, Terminal, TerminalÂ â¦
Mei floats and turns slowly in space, listening to the Beach Boys.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“I have to do this.”
“You don't have to,” she says. “You don't have to do anything. What you mean is that you want to. You want to do it. You think it makes you special but it doesn't make you special if everyone else is doing it.” She looks at him with fierce black eyes and tucks a strand of hair, clumped together in her perspiration, behind her ear. He loves her very much at that moment, that fierce protectiveness, the fact someone, anyone, can look at you that way, can look at you and feel love.
“Not everyone is doing it.”
They're sitting in a cafe outdoors and it is hot, it is very hot, and overhead, the twin Petronas Towers rise like silver rockets into the air. In the square outside KLCC, the water features twinkle in the sun and tourists snap photos and waiters glide like unenthusiastic penguins amongst the clientele. He drinks from his kopi ice and traces a trail of moisture on the face of the glass, slowly. “You are not
,” she says, at last, the words coming as from a great distance. He nods, reluctantly. It is true. He is not dying, not immediately anyway; only in the sense that all living things are dying, that there is a trajectory, the way a jalopy makes its slow but finite way from Earth to Mars. Speaking of jalopies, there is a stand under the awnings, for such stands are everywhere now, and a man shouting through the sound system to come one, come all and take the ultimate tripâand so on, and so forth.
But more than that, implicit in her words is the question: is he dying? In the more immediate sense? “No,” he says. “But.”
That word lies heavy in the hot and humid air.
She is still attractive to him, even now: even after thirty years, three kids now grown and gone into the world, her hair no longer black all over but flecked with strands of white and grey, his own hair mostly gone, their hands, touching lightly across the table, both showing the signs of gravity and age. And how could he explain?
“Space,” he tries to say. “The dark starry night which is eternal and forever, or as long as these words mean something in between the beginning and the end of spaceandtime.” But really, is it selfish, is it not inherently
to want to leave, to go, up there and beyondâfor what? It makes no sense, or no more sense than anything else you do or don't.
“Responsibility,” she says. “Commitment. Love, damn it, Haziq! You're not a child, playing with toys, with, withÂ â¦ with
or whatever. You have children, a family, we'll soon have grandkids if I know Omar, what will they do without you?”
These hypothetical people, not yet born, already laying demands to his time, his being. To be human is to exist in potentia, unborn responsibilities rising like butterflies in a great big obscuring cloud. He waves his hand in front of his face, but whether it is to shoo them away or because of the heat, he cannot say. “We always said we won't stand in each other's way,” he begins, but awkwardly, and she starts to cry, silently, making no move to wipe away the tears, and he feels a great tenderness but also anger, and the combination shocks him. “I have never asked for anything,” he says. “I haveÂ â¦ Have I not been a good son, a good father, a good husband? I never asked for anythingâ” and he remembers sneaking away one night, five years before, and wandering the Petaling Street Market with television screens blaring and watching a launch, and a thin string of pearls, broken, scattered across spaceÂ â¦ Perhaps it was then, perhaps it was earlier, or once when he was a boy and he had seen pictures of a vast red planet unmarred by human feetÂ â¦
“What did I ask,” she says, “did I complain, did I aspire, did I not fulfil what you and I both wanted? Yes,” she says, “yes, it is selfish to want to go, and it is selfish to ask you to stay, but if you go, Haziq, you won't come back. You won't ever come back.”
And he says, “I know,” and she shakes her head, and she is no longer crying, and there is that hard, practical look in her eyes, the one he was always a little bit afraid of. She picks up the bill and roots in her purse and brings out the money and puts it on the table. “I have to go,” she says, “I have an appointment at the hairdresser's.” She gets up and he does not stand to stop her, and she walks away; and he knows that all he has to do is follow her; and yet he doesn't, he remains seated, watching her weaving her way through the crowds, until she disappears inside the giant mall; and she never once looks back.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
But really, it is the sick, the slowly dying, those who have nothing to lose, those untied by earthly bonds, those whose spirits are as light as air: the loners and the crazy and worst of all the artists, so many artists, each convinced in his or her own way of the uniqueness of the opportunity, exchanging life for immortality, floating, transmuting space into art in the way of the dead, for they are legally dead, now, each in his or her own jalopy, this cheap mass-manufactured container made for this one singular trip, from this planet to the next, from the living world to the dead one.
“Sign here, initial here, and here, and hereâ” and what does it feel like for those everyday astronauts, those would-be Martians, departing their homes for one last time, a last glance back, some leaving gladly, some tearfully, some with indifference: these Terminals, these walking dead, having signed over their assets, completed their wills, attended, in some instances, their very own wakes: leaving with nothing, boarding taxis or flights in daytime or night, to the launch site for rudimentary training with instruments they will never use, from Earth to orbit in a space plane, a reusable launch vehicle, and thence to Gateway, in low Earth orbit, that ramshackle construction floating like a spider web in the skies of Earth, made up of modules, some new, some decades old, joined together in an ungainly fashion, a makeshift thing.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
â¦ Here we are all astronauts. The permanent staff is multinational, harassed; monkey-like, we climb heel and toe heel and toe, handholds along the walls no up no down but three-dimensional space as a many-splendoured thing. Here the astronauts are trained hastily in maintaining their craft and themselves, and the jalopies extend out of Gateway, beyond orbit, thousands of cheap little tin cans aimed like skipping stones at the big red rock yonder.
Here, too, you can still change your mind. Here comes a man now, a big man, an American man, with very white face and hands, a man used to being in control, a man used to being deferred toâan artist, in fact; a writer. He had made his money imagining the way the future was, but the future had passed him by and he found himself spending his time on message boards and the like, bemoaning youth and their folly. Now he has a new lease on life, or thought he had, with this plan of going into space, to Terminal Beach: six months floating in a tin can high above no world, to write his masterpiece, the thing he is to be remembered by, his
, damn it, in which he's to lay down his entire philosophical framework of a libertarian bent: only he has, at the last moment, perhaps on smelling the interior of his assigned jalopy, changed his mind. Now he comes inexpertly floating like a beach ball down the shaft, bouncing here and there from the walls and bellowing for the agent, those sleazy jalopymen, for the final signature on the contract is digital, and sent once the jalopy is slingshot to Mars. It takes three orderlies to hold him, and a nurse injects him with something to calm him down. Later, he would go back down the gravity well, poorer yet wiser, but he will never write that novel: space eludes him.