Ad Astra

by Angela Glotfelter

This is Earth.

Welcome to the Third Industrial Era, to metal and rust and dirt, to red electricity and veins that flow with machine oil instead of blood. Welcome to grey air, to broken skyscrapers replaced by structures that reach in a smooth way towards distant stars. Welcome to progress: Over the centuries, we built down as well as up, and we turned the planet metal to its core, a core that now burns with all the frightened energy of a dying sun.

Welcome to Earth.

But I would lie to suggest that Earth is all there is.

When we had seen every square foot of this planet, our hungry eyes yearned for more, and we directed those eager stares to a higher plane, one that lay still and dark above our flurried activity.

Space is a strange thing. We ought have known what it was when we first gazed into its starry depths. We said it was vacuum but not vacuum, empty but not empty, nothing but everything. But I say we were wrong, at least in some way.

I say it’s not as simple as that.

There’s something infectious about space. The way those violet nebulas spread in the void, pricked with light, the way blue rings of distant planets dance in magnetic fields. How the great stars, flaming beacons in the perpetual night, flare up and bend their reaching arcs out into the cold darkness.

Who could resist it?

So, this is space, as well.

Welcome to sleek silver ships, to mint- and bubblegum- and chocolate-flavored oxygen, to blue lasers and hearts that beat with the rhythms of thrumming engines. Welcome to the icy vacuum, to bolted portholes that look out onto swirling galaxy vistas. Welcome to the new frontier: Over the course of many years, we’ve built for ourselves a fleet of sharp metal corsairs, for we are the mariners of the new era, and we sail the crashing solar tides, in our hearts a mixture of anxiety and eagerness.

As for me, I am simply Jones.

My ship is the Meridian, and her plasma engines burn with an intensity that could vaporize you with a sudden burst of steaming, radioactive mist. Should you get too close, that is. These engines hum with a kind of old, old cosmic energy, baby, they told me when they built the ships. Don’t try to tame it. Just let it run. There were four of them, they said. Four plasma ships. All brand spanking new.

And, for the first time, instead of Cadet Jones, I was Captain Jones.

 

Montana, July fifth, 2197, I saw them for the first time.

“This is one of the last places where you can see it,” my father said to me, taking my small fingers in his large, warm hands.

The way the dead leaves crunched and swished under our feet—it was lush, rich in the dark. I wasn’t accustomed to anything other than brown scrubby tendrils, dirt, dust, rust, dry earth. An excitement bubbled in the air, which smelled different, unrefined and thick and somehow more pure than the air back home. We came out from under the branches.

Then, the expanse exploded around me, and I was suddenly smaller than I thought possible, just an insect cowering in the long grass. In the night sky, there was a whitish rip—no, it was a scar, stretched out in the heavens, and the scar was made of a thousand, thousand, thousand pinpricks of light all sewn into a huge, magnificent, sparkling tapestry that hung, suspended and solemn, above our heads. It was like someone had knit together the skies.

The lines around my father’s eyes crinkled in a smile. “There it is.”

Via Lactea.

“Still, even in such a black vacuum of a void,” said my father, “still there is substance. Those lights are stars. Many of them have already burnt out, but we can still see their light.”

There is a reminder of this in the bright rocks that plummet from the heavens, leaking shining trails that last for only a second—and then they are gone, disappearing over some night-scape marred by pockmarked mountain ranges. And over the distant horizon, over the mountains and the mirror water, flashes some remnant of civilization, but its small luminance is nothing in comparison to the lights of the void.

My mother was upset.

By the kitchen sink, she leaned into her hands, and her shoulders hunched up by her ears. First she hung her head, like she always did when she was upset, then with her gray eyes squinted out the window into the dusty, sunburnt city.

“You’re a fool,” she said simply, without looking, and my heart stung a little. “Everything about space is wrong for you. Blood’s a liquid. It boils. But you don’t really care, do you? About yourself, about your father, about me. You’ll go anyway.”

I didn’t meant to upset her. I did care. She just couldn’t see what I saw or hear what I heard.

I saw the sleek ships, elegant lines held back in the cages of the docks as tiny, ant-like workers crawled over them to repair nicks and scratches and scrapes. I saw the sun, Old Sol, fiery orange in the sky as it beat heavily down on dusty, scraped roads. But when I looked into the eyes of astronauts, I saw a different kind of flame in those depths, one that could not be extinguished by cold, nor even by the raw ice of the void.

She couldn’t hear what I heard, either. If you listen carefully, though, you can hear the song of the Deep. It called to mortals long ago. Its siren-sweet syllables breathed into the ears of men, and some of them listened. They lifted their gazes up from a hot, war-torn Earth to the cool, milky monochrome of the moon, then looked beyond it to the stars and felt within their chests a sudden pull that made gravity seem featherlight. And that same aching wanderlust, the one all those star travelers knew, had already welled up in my heart. I had seen the stars, and I could not erase them from my mind, nor could I apologize for recalling them.

 

Earth is dying.

I’ve known it since my small feet first touched its ragged soil. The warmth that permeates the ground has begun to grow weak, and the fire of the sun now beats down harsher than ever before. Its steady heartbeat has begun to falter. Earth is rust and blood and dirt, and metal crisscrosses its surface like artificial veins. We have already dug down as far as we can. We only have one direction left to go.

There were plenty of people who agreed with me.

Ad astra! they shouted, white smiles on their faces and starlight in their eyes, and they raised their flagons bubbling with strange colors in those neon clubs that inevitably popped up near fleet bases.

But space isn’t tame. And mortals are so, so fragile.

There was hypoxia, the bends, ebullism, barotrauma. There was radiation, fire, ice. Then there was the whole assortment of other injuries one might sustain from malfunctioning equipment, strain, disease, human error. They warned me all about it when I went to apply, but I told them confidently I had written these things off as acceptable risk. I had known this was to be expected. Then they asked me what else I knew, and I found that I didn’t know anything about anything.

Physics, they said, slapping down slabs of paperwork for me to fill out, mathematics, navigation, engineering, biology, chemistry, astronomy—what do you know about those?

Nothing, but I was ready to learn.

I tried to see my parents at least once a month. My mother’s gray eyes were sad at first. And her fingers were fluttery with worry, but gradually she came around and fussed with the lapels on my blue uniform and kissed the top of my head and asked if I was getting enough to eat because I looked thin and my cheekbones seemed a bit sharp. My father sat quietly at the kitchen table, large, cracked hands clasped loosely together. The brown around his temples was starting to turn a little grey, the lines around his eyes a little deeper. But he was smiling.

“So, it’s cadet, now?” he said. “How does it feel?”

It felt good, although my brain ached at me in dull complaint sometimes, like it couldn’t expand to the size I demanded. I was full to the brim with stars and physics and clean lines, and at night I fell asleep to the phantom sound of engines humming. But I was smiling. And maybe I wasn’t eating as much as I should, but it was only because my appetite was for adventure and not food. And my father was still smiling. In his eyes, I saw that same gleam that had been sparked in mine, and for the first time, I wondered if my dreams had been the same dreams that he’d dreamed at night.

But he had never seen his own come to fruition.

 

Upon contact, something in the expanse of space wracks mortals with a violent disease. Or maybe space itself is the disease. Maybe it’s a curse; maybe it’s a blessing—maybe it’s both. In my life, I’ve learned of only one thing that is truly free. Because there are sinners, and there are saints, and there is only one thing separating the two.

I met many people, people like myself, people with the strangest kind of stardust clouding their eyes and dirty engine oil pumping through their veins. They had seen what I had seen, and they’d been infected by the same disease that had gripped me with its malaise. But it was a wonderful disease, at that, and the pain of bearing it bound us together in shared suffering.

One day, in the hangar, I glimpsed the leviathan for the first time.

Under its shining metal skin there rumbled a deep, ancient cry, one that shook danger and spoke release into the throbbing air. And I was afraid. I was afraid because this metal beast had been made by men. Its hull had been mined and melted and refined and beaten and manufactured into this shapely, terrible structure. Our hands had made it, our eyes had seen the twisting gears of its bowels and the blue light of its engines. This was ours. For metal and blood and dirt and desire belong to mortals. This was the kind of beast that could be tamed—granted, at a cost—but still, it could be tamed because we knew what it was.

But we didn’t know space. It wasn’t our hands that had spread those sparkling vistas, nor our eyes that had seen the genesis sparks of new stars, nor our breath that had set the solar tides into motion. No, space was not ours. It was an entirely foreign beast. And that behemoth roar lay rumbling in the vacuum, ringing in our ears as we gazed up at the sky.

And we were afraid.

 

My father coughed, and my mother’s gray eyes became worried as she laid her hands on his shaking shoulders.

I had been away too long. Comet dust had made me blind.

My father’s large hands were cracked and worn, and the gray around his temples had spread to the rest of his hair. The lines around his eyes were deeper, but they were still smiling lines, and his eyes still sparkled with that same old tune. My mother’s hair was shorter, and the veins in her hands were more visible. She had always been beautiful. She still was, but her beauty had become that of a thorn’d rose, once a ripe crimson red now faded to a duller, but still vibrant, maroon. Her lips pressed a little tighter together, too, especially when my father coughed.

I had been away too long.

The city was the same. It was still sunburnt and dusty and the distance still streaked with remembrances of skyscrapers. It was still an orange-ish, mechanical place, with steam coming through every crack and rising up to a sky crossed with thin, wispy aerosol trails.

I had been away too long.

When night fell, with my father, I went outside to look at the sky. My mother’s dark, slim silhouette stood at the window, pensive, arms crossed.

There were no stars. We were far from the rich, earthy place where I had first glimpsed and embraced that mad, mad dream, far away from the silence that had first stilled my racing heart then set it apace with a new rhythm, one that could not be subdued by the blood and dirt of my ravaged Earth. But for the first time, I wished within the deepest parts of me that there were some water on this barren planet that could quench my fiery thirst and satiate my burning wanderlust.

But there simply was no such mythical spring.

There was only this dragging at my heart whenever I saw the grayness of my mother’s eyes, the lines of my father’s face. There was only this compulsion, this duty to stay, to be tied down to a sphere that rotated me with it against my will, spinning me through space on a trail that was not my own, until I was too old to try again, too old to see the stars, too late—too late!

My father coughed and asked: “Are you happy?”

I had been away too long.

Ad astra per aspera, they said now, and I said it with them. It wasn’t with the same naïve jubilance that we’d first uttered the motto, but it was with the same determination, the same communal, thunderous heartbeat.

The pressure increased.

I felt my mind straining with the weight of understanding, and I felt a thin edge begin to form within that same comprehension. It was a strange line, but it was becoming a precipice. On one side was firm ground, where I simply absorbed information, took them at their word, didn’t question. See, memorize, do. Lather, rinse, repeat. But that ground had its own hairline fractures. On the other side, there was this dark chasm, and my mind yearned to leap there, to ask, to wonder, but I was afraid to find out what lay in the deeps.

This is the way we do things, they said. Do not question. Lather, rinse, repeat.

And my mind grew burdened with the weight of knowledge.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

We began our physical training, and now I knew why there should be no questions. Here there was only sweat and pain and fire, only ice and rock and bone. Once you knew them, you could not go back. Lather, rinse, repeat. And there could be no question, no doubt, otherwise this psyche would crumble, and you would most surely fail.

 

When I had passed the test, I returned home.

I caught glimpses of myself in the surfaces of my old city, and I did not recognize the person I saw there. A sudden and complete terror erupted in my heart. Had I been erased, remade beyond the point of recognition? What had I done? I looked up to the skies, and Old Sol screamed, raging, at me, and I shouted back, angry at the sickening, killing rays he flung down.

Earth is dying! What is left? What is new under the sun?

I blamed the burning star for his destruction, but he accused me of much worse. Was it me who stood in that barren place and watched the smooth buildings rise up about me, or felt the tectonic plates shift with a frightened intensity they had never known before, or saw the black clouds of steam and rust and breathed them in willingly, or stitched metal into the delicate skin of the earth, or crushed the green sapling under my foot?

Who was to blame?

 

When I walked through the door, I was afraid.

I was still in my uniform, but the carefully starched and ironed blue creases had begun to lose their sharpness, and my polished shoes weren’t so polished anymore. I wasn’t so sure of the muscles that covered my bones and that moved with an odd strength, or the tendons that opened and closed my fingers, nor was I sure of the lips that moved with my voice or the eyes that peered out from my skull.

But then I wasn’t afraid anymore.

I wasn’t afraid because my mother flung her arms around me, and her hair tickled my cheek and neck as she murmured, “Congratulations, lieutenant.” Her familiar perfume whirled in the air, her light footsteps sounding in the other room when she went to get me some pop.

I wasn’t afraid because my father’s tired eyes were kind to me. I noticed now that there were clouds in them, clouds that were beginning to obscure the stars. I noticed now that he chose to sit—and slowly—bowed and slightly knobby legs crossing at the ankle, rough hands intertwining with each other. He only shook my hand after he embraced me.

We watched the sky, but it was dark with the dust and black particles that shrouded the celestial glow beyond them. The smell of rust and machine, of ozone and oil, of Earth, crept on the thick breeze.

“There was a time when you could see it here,” my father said. “There was a time when you could see it everywhere. But those days are long past.”

We waited in the dark.

“Are you happy?” my father asked.

 

When I returned to base, there were whispering rumors; word of a new breed of machine soon met my ears.

Plasma, they said, but not like any plasma you’ve ever seen, baby.

Everyone stirred with the new knowledge, hearts beating faster. These ships were special, and there would never again be any like them. Their metal was the last of some strange element we’d found on a distant, lonely mountain, an element we suspected had not come from Earth. Back then, they’d been unable to change it, to break and mold it, but that fog had passed, and the progress of many decades had shown us the way.

A strange, un-scratchable itch settled at the base of my cranium. My work grew dull, my hungry eyes no longer satiated by numbers and vectors and projections. Against my better judgement, I went to see the ships.

There were four.

Their shining sides lay still as workers crawled about the scaffolding to get at them. Welding sparks showered down like summer rain lit on fire. A thrummm! escaped from their mouths and settled in my bones as the engines leapt, growling, like tigers, to life. They were sharp and smooth at the same time, dreadful in their alien beauty.

An odd structure towered over me. As I stood in the strange light of that ship, heard the rumbling of that engine beast, men and machines and time passed me by, and I felt none of their tugs or cold touches upon my skin, but I asked them what the ship was called. They told me: Meridian, zenith, the culmination of our efforts. This is as far as we can reach, but is it far enough?

I told my parents about all the smooth, all the sharp, all the shining lines.

My mother’s head nodded, and the slight glaze in the whites of her eyes and the soft smile in the line of her lips were happy—but she did not understand. She flinched as my father coughed, breaking the silence, and laid a hand on his forearm. They sat close together, their gray heads leaning every so slightly toward each other and toward me. My excitement faded. They had given me so much, and I had nothing to return. My father did not mourn after the pain in his chest, and my mother did not lament the passing of years that had left her with what seemed like such a short time to truly live.

But I mourned; I lamented.

I tried to tell them this and received no understanding. Why should I mourn my father’s years of hard work? Why should I lament the sacrifice of my mother? Were their efforts not enough?

My father, voice low and raspy, having lost some of its former strength, asked, “Are you not happy?”

And I felt starshine in my eyes.

They did not understand why I mourned, why I lamented. They brushed off my words when I told them how much they had given me—too much, too much, I said. It’s a parent’s duty, a parent’s honor and calling, they said. It is what we wanted to do, they said, more than anything else. But it was too much.

Those falling stars left wet, salty trails on my cheeks.

My father coughed, smiling in exasperation. “Don’t you know what you have given us?”

 

“The mission of these three ships,” said the Commander, “unless expressly changed during the course of service, is to explore the cosmos in search of habitable or inhabited planets.”

A slight rumble of excitement swept through the gathered company, all of the fleet, a wave of blue and yellow uniforms standing straight and stiff. There were four ships, we all knew, but none had seen the fourth completed.

“Our three best candidates will be assigned to these ships as their captains, and each will be given the privilege, albeit with counsel and approval, to assemble their own crews.”

Another tremor of whispers, and the Commander held his hand up for silence. When we had settled, he continued, “All of you have worked hard to get here, but there will be a limited number who are chosen for this mission. Now—” he paused to look down at his notes, lifted a piece of very white, translucent paper “—I will announce the names of the new captains. If you are called, please join me on stage.”

 

I returned one more time.

My father lay under white sheets in a white bed in a white room. There were tubes all around him and bags of liquid. My mother sat, still and pale, holding his hand. My father coughed, and it was a wet, weak noise.

I had planned to say what I wanted to say, what I needed to say. I needed to thank him and say I loved him, and I needed to be strong for my mother, but it all dissolved when I held his rough hand in mine and he laughed softly.

“You need to stop making excuses,” he said. “When are you gonna see those stars?”

I smiled through my tears.

“I’m not saying that you’re not allowed to be sad,” he said, “but it can only be for a little while. I want you to think about those stars and forget about Earth. Forget about all this—” he waved a few shaky fingers at the room “—and I want you to answer a question for me.”

 

The clouds overhead were a navy-gray as the Commander announced: “The captain of the starship Aurora will be—” he paused, eyes searching the restless, breathless assembly “—Captain Serena Collins.”

Throaty, ringing cheers left the lips of some, and a few moments saw a slim, blond-bobbed woman make her way up to the Commander. Her face was pasty white, but a hint of cherry was beginning to creep back into her cheeks as she accepted the envelope. She took her place, standing straight in her pressed uniform, and the Commander continued.

“Captain Zachary Walter—” the screams erupted before he could finish, and he shouted the rest, a smile fighting to show on his face “—you have been promoted to captain of the starship Chrysalis.” Some girlish whoops sounded in the irreverent silence as a prematurely gray man with high cheekbones appeared to accept his envelope.

“And, finally,” said the Commander, clearing his throat, “remains the captain of the starship Meridian.”

 

I could feel the slight tremors that ran through my father’s hand, hear the impatient beeps of the equipment that counted his life.

“Are you happy?” he asked me.

 

I’m of Earth, of ruby-red sunsets that dance with the fire of a dying sun, of pale deserts of salt and glass and black ash, and of distant, distant mountains that rise, purple, to hem the borders of civilization. Over the blackened seas still flashes lightning that snaps the waves with a terrifying ferocity, and over the rolling waters still splits that crack! and rumbling growl. Still alive, still fighting, Earth’s heart pulses with the vigor of life.

But tell me, tell me, what is new here for us? What is left here for me and you?

Space calls with a weightless gravity all its own.

 

“Are you happy?” my father asked.

For once, I did as he told me, forgot all about that white room, about the faded Earth, about anything else but space and stars, and a strange peace overcame me.

“Yes,” I said.

 

There was a place up there, a place for me beside the two other captains, and a static, nervous energy arced among us. The envelope, white and translucent and strange, trembled in my fingers. Somewhere, somewhere far, far away, the Commander’s voice echoed out from the podium into the throng of cheers, shouts, whistles.

I looked out into the crowd and smiled, and I felt at home.

In the hangar, I looked up at the machine.

Welcome to space, the ship thrummed. Welcome to danger. Welcome to chemical adrenaline and artificial oxygen. Welcome to metal men and nebulas that twist together in the blue-black of the void. Welcome to the sweeping arms of spiral galaxies, studded with light, shrouded in the mist of ages. Over time, I’ve charted all the comet trails for you; I know where the magnetic fields will crush a ship in their invisible coils and where the black holes wait for you, silent, bending time and light into their soundless, gaping mouths. Welcome, astronaut with silver eyes, welcome to the new era.

Besides cultivating a passion for writing, Angela enjoys using her spare time to sketch, blog, and sing. Some of her favorite authors are Ray Bradbury, C. S. Lewis, Robert A. Heinlein, and J. R. R. Tolkien.