A Further Destination

A short story, inspired by the Curiosity Rover, shared in honour of Cassini. It contains some mentions of dysphoria, but only in passing.

 

I sail through space, pushed along by old momentum established long ago, while almost all moving parts hang still. I hold my arms, my wings, close by my sides. A red light flashes repeatedly near my primary eye, distracting — a poor design choice. My sensing satellites rotate by minute degrees, listening to the worlds around me and allowing me the voice to speak back to them.

I have been travelling so long, and I have seen many things. I comprehend almost none of them. They come to me in the form of data and signals not words and meanings. But I know enough. I know that travelling so far has been worthwhile, despite my failures. My hard drives are close to full and I have sent so many stories to those who wait for me back home. I can’t wait to tell them more.

***

The hum of quiet conversation overwhelms Caroline’s silence. Today is one of those days that could change everything, and she’s cycling slowly between fear and excitement. At this point, she’s not even sure there’s a difference between the two states of being.

Caroline waves to her coordinator and puts on her headphones. She shudders at the electric pop and crackle in the background, and the way that their weight makes her so aware of the body she lives in.

***

The glow before me quickly negates the nuisance of the light flashing within my vision. It encroaches millimetre by millimetre upon my perception. The globe of smooth metal that I have hurtled towards for so long sits suspended in space. The glistening surface envelopes my objective, which remains unknown and unknowable. Or perhaps the sphere itself is my objective. I do not know. We do not know. When they sent me here they couldn’t tell me anything more. That is where my task begins.

Sensors flash as I receive notifications from my correspondents at home; new instructions and guidance that entwine harmoniously within the relative autonomy of my programming. Normally, Caroline is the first to contact me, as she arrives for her shift before the others. Her messages come sluggish today and I feel her hesitation keenly. Her first message comes three minutes late and at first, the silence leaves me lonely. I have become used to routine over the course of my long trek.

***

Caroline takes a long draught from the coffee that lingers in the travelling mug on her desk, wrinkling her nose at its milky tepidity. Her eyes don’t leave the screen numbers, charts and prompts occupy all of her attention. Electric script whirs across the screen in response to endless data.

Lights flash. Caroline sighs.

***

The closer I come the more the sphere defies description — or, more salient for me, calculation. It is a mercy that I have no central nervous system, no need to coordinate the contradictory stimuli I am receiving and shape them into some cohesive image. The previous Traveller, carrying a passenger of blood and bone, met with calamity because there was simply too much — too much of everything. I do not see with the same manner of eyes that the passenger did, but I taste the waves of energy, capture static still-images, and survey the particles that swirl around the sphere in the vastly empty space. There is one photo of that passenger in my data banks, a sentimental tribute by my programmers. I wish that I had seen her with my own eye so that she would be more to me than an implanted line of code.

I press forward inexorably, pulled along by laws of physics that remain more or less immutable thus far. I am not dazed or confused, not yet. But my thinking slows as I draw closer to the sphere. Several of my secondary functions short out and others will follow soon. I have never felt this before. I have frayed at the edges in times of great crisis, but I have never dissolved entirely, and the uncertainty fills me with sensations that I do not have the software to speak.

It was always expected that the nature of the mission would change at this point. Different rules apply here, as I approach what could be another world, what could be entirely hostile to the fundaments of this realm. Annihilation might await me as I pass through the cool liquid metal that floats in space, though I can’t conceive what that would entail. Perhaps I will be turned away and pushed backwards, to follow again the trails of data that I have left behind. Then I could continue to send messages. Perhaps eventually my correspondents will see my face again.

I send my messages and take my readings.

***

A graphical display shows that segments and appendages of Traveller start to fade away. There is a ball of tension and bile lurking low in Caroline’s throat. Her breathing is fast and she licks her lips until they’re dry. She has worked on with Traveller for the last six years, and its day of becoming is finally here.

More than anything else, there is stillness in the control room. Everyone is wound up tight; a few noticeably hold in breath. Caroline’s tensed her shoulders so tightly they hurt.

***

At this moment, I speculate that ground control must exist in a state of perfect discord. The messages I receive indicate this – they are in fragments, some of them are incoherent and repetitive. There is little sense of orderly passage and they come in rapid-fire. Or is that me, failing? My sensors expand and contract their range seemingly at random, my thrusters engage and shift direction slightly, then there is quiet. The incoming commands eventually fall away. Their voices, translated into machine code through their hands and keyboards, eventually leave my communication channels more or less altogether. They have told me what I need to know and I exist again in brief silence. There is too much emptiness here.

How different from when I left earth, singing of the future.

***

Caroline’s eyes flick to the photos and souvenirs parading across her workstation:

  • A travel mug she was given when five years ago she started speaking to this sophisticated piece of machinery on the far side of the galaxy, receiving only data and images in response.
  • A photo of drunken revelry from the night four years ago, when she narrowly helped Traveller avoid a disastrous collision.
  • The plush kitten she bought herself when three years ago she guided robotic arms through the delicate process of self-repair.
  • A card, purple and magnificent, from her colleagues, from two years ago – the year she transitioned and Traveller shed its outer casing. (Thinking back, one of those events is more terrifying than the other by only a little).
  • A bottle of embarrassingly expensive wine acquired one year ago, after Traveller started sending back the first solid readings of its goal – excitement clear in its staccato messages.

 Today, neither woman nor machine knows what happens next.

***

They type to me as I leave their range at last, entering a new orbit to make my way beyond where they can follow me or hear my voice. Caroline tells me that she will miss me; someone else types ‘godspeed’. Light reflects off the big red heart the team painted on my carapace the day before I started to fly.

I feel heat and I feel myself buckling.

The metal planet glistens, beckoning like water.

I don’t understand. I should turn around and fly back home. I don’t want this.

My jets will not fire; I cannot change this course.

Strangest of all, I have travelled for so long and there has always been correspondence. The faces of my guides have changed at times. But I have never been alone.

I have never been alone,

and here it

***

A harsh sound from the console. Stillness. Caroline pulls her headphones away, and places them beside her coffee.

Caroline steps away from the controls. She closes her eyes and she cries.