a story with sound
It was October, the neighborhood was inside watching TV, while Soren looked through the small lens of his telescope. On moonless nights, the planets came into view. He had learned to make out their shape and color. He could see their moons. Even the mountains on their moons. Some mountains spewed out lava, red and orange. The stars he looked at too. He wondered if someone somewhere else had a scope pointed at him. Around him the neighborhood made sounds, but Soren wore headphones. He entered the precise locations one after the other of his targets in the sky. Even at his young age, his expertise was undeniable. He had a gift for looking up.
On nights when the clouds covered the sky, Soren went out with his friends from school. Everyone liked it when Soren came out, he was lean and healthy. His eyes moved with a passion with life that made him inspiring to be around. He was confident but he was always searching. He could so easily capture you with all of his attention but soon he would be looking off to the horizon at the changing clouds. Most of the time he seemed happy. But Soren never felt completely at home. Something was missing.
As youth turned into a man's life, Soren became surprisingly restless. He found himself driving as far as he could in the evening to find the best spot to watch the sunset. He drove out into the plains, far beyond the houses and power lines. He drove until he could hear nothing but the wind and see nothing but the orange sky fading into stars. Sometimes he did not return until after the moon had set and his eyes were blurry from looking through his telescope.
After college, Soren had already applied and been accepted into the international space program's training academy. Here he began his training for the first mission to leave our solar system. It was a program nearly 30 years in the making. Soren would be the first human to leave our star's reach. Around this time, when spring was shifting into summer and they days were at their longest, Soren met someone. Of course, he did not mean to, Soren was in the park and a white fluffy little beast ran right into him and all over his papers. His tongue tossed around wildly. Soren looked around for the owner. She was easy to spot, running after this puppy of hers with the most simple and loving smile. Her name was Katherine.
That summer they walked and walked. Talked and talked. They threw the frisbee together in the park and in the fall, when all the leaves trickled off the trees. They walked in the wind and the leaves swirled around them. She kissed him while his lips broke into a smile. This was all new for both of them. To Katherine, Soren seemed to burn for life. He always had his eyes on the horizon, the next great moment. She was not that way, though she too had a quiet kind of intensity that you could not miss. Her gray blue gaze felt like afternoon storms, and it seemed to calm his restless thirst.
Soren always knew he would say goodbye to this world. That never bothered him. He listened to the Beach Boys with Katherine in the car he had built himself. It had no roof and even in the winter he drove it with a heavy coat on. And Katherine was happy to wear her coat too, and to feel the cold wind rush through her hair. On the stereo the song played, "Don't worry baby, everything will be alright." Katherine believed the words. Soren just listened to the music, he watched the yellow and brown maple leaves twist and fall in the rear view mirror. Their movement made sense to him. They drove out into the autumn together, this season made sense to him. He knew just how the Earth tilted at a 23.5 degree angle away from the sun to make Fall in the northern hemisphere. He knew it was Spring in South America and that soon the Earth would be the closest it would come to the sun in its trip around the sun. He knew that Jupiter and Saturn would be in alignment soon making his path out of this solar system possible. That night, when they walked through the door together Soren kissed Katherine, he kissed her long on her mouth. She was tired now and ready for sleep. Soren was restless and awake. As they parted ways in their new house, Soren raced a bit to the garage to pull out his scope. Saturn was in view this time of year.
That same year Katherine Amand became Katherine Baldersen and Soren stood outside in his best clothes kissing the woman he loved. He had never dreamed of getting married. He never imagined having kids and watching them on swings in the park. He never wondered whose eyes they would have. He figured it was just fine to have his DNA not be copied again. His life would still be worth something even if it did not continue indefinitely. This all was fine with Katherine too, she was busy with her life. She made documentary films. She traveled to Chile, The Congo, Siberia. She had a dedicated crew who traveled with her. They had won important awards with their last film about aluminum mines in Chile. A mine collapsed on Chilean miners and Katherine had it on film, and she filmed the government cover-up that ensued. She made movies with her heart and she was good at it. It all took her total energy and focus. All the while her mother reminded her constantly, "Honey, your biological clock is ticking." Katherine never knew what she should say back to this. When Katherine told Soren what her mother had said, Soren didn't seem to have anything to say.
Soren continued his training and Katherine continued her life too. Six months before Soren was to leave on the Centaurus 1 carrying the first human out of the solar system, Katherine told Soren she wanted to have a child. Soren was surprised and defensive. He tried to be kind but he could not understand how she had changed her mind so drastically. He was about to leave this planet, let alone this house. How could they begin a family like this? She told him the morning before he left for the continued intensive training program. It was the final push before take off that winter. On the way to the facility he kept replaying her words, her eyes. As his truck moved smoothly over the new road to the base, it started to make sense to him. A million and a half things could go wrong up there. It was more than a slight chance that he would not return to Earth. The propulsion system on Centaurus 1 had never been tried before on a craft so large and over such great distances. If Soren never came back, Katherine wanted a child to take care of. Maybe even to remind her of him. She wanted to be a mother, to have more family than just him. Soren began to soften to her need. With his phone balanced against the steering wheel he told her that he loved her over the speaker.
Katherine didn't know it when she had told Soren, but she was already pregnant that morning. They both found out after Katherine felt sick for a week straight. The doctor pronounced proudly that the baby would be born in July, six months after Soren's launch date. He would be passing Saturn's rings as their little baby came into the world. After the nearly 24 hour delay, Soren would receive the first images of his child and Katherine. They both thought the same thoughts over and over. Katherine never asked him to stay she didn't want to hear the response. Soren had trained his whole life for this. It meant everything to him. Soren could never stay put. The baby was an accident, truly, and they both knew it. Of course, they hoped for the best and Soren trusted his team. But every day, Katherine feared deeply. She feared she would never see his face again. Never drive together through the leaves on cold days. She feared she would raise their child alone, a widow at 33. There were so many things that could go wrong for Soren. If one system failed, if one digit had been overlooked, she knew it would all end in a few seconds. Her life and Soren's were tied to an immensely complicated network of systems designed to keep a person alive for as long as it would take to enter the star system of Proxima Centauri, our closest neighbor in the galaxy. The ship would travel at 88% the speed of light once beyond the debris of our star's reach. Out there, beyond Pluto's orbit, Soren would surpass the fastest ever human made object by thousands of times. Though every possible precaution was made, it was uncertain what the effects of this speed and the resulting time dilation would have on the human body.
Soren trained seven days a week, even on the sunny Christmas morning that came and went. It was warm, even in December this year. Most of the Northern hemisphere rarely felt the child of winter anymore. Once the ocean's of oil had finally dried up in the Middle East the temperatures stabilized and winter's were only recorded in history books. Training finally halted a week before lift off. Katherine and Soren took time to just lay together in the green grass at the park near their house. They laid still, the sun from behind Soren poured into Katherine's eyes so all the shapes and colors lit up as if from within. He always loved to see her eyes in the sun. He never knew how beautiful his own eyes were to Katherine.
They made plans for when Soren came home in eleven years. Katherine would wait for him. He knew she would, she knew too. Nothing had ever made her feel so happy and so scared at the same time. She was tied to Soren, here in the grass or beyond the reach of the sun. When they held each other the Earth seemed to stop its turning. Freedom and pain melted into one simple moment. It never lasted long enough.
Soren remembered hugging Katherine. He was surprised to find that it was the only thing on his mind as he sat in the command capsule moving at 953,000 miles an hour. Though he moved faster than anything ever had before, it was quiet. Even the radio was quiet. No more chatter from Earth. Three months ago the communication array was struck by something the size of a pebble. It was moving fast enough to puncture layers of uranium lined radiation shields and hundreds of gallons of water. The little stone was an old remnant near the edge of the asteroid belt beyond Mars but before Jupiter. This had always been a risk of traveling out this far, but no one ever considered it a serious threat.
Now Soren replayed every moment of that week before he left. He replayed Katherine's eyes in the silence of the quiet command hub hanging out into space. He wondered where she was. He wanted to feel the lump of her tummy. It wasn't just Katherine or the baby that he thought about in the whirring silence. He tried to remember the feeling of wet grass under his feet. The feeling of breathing humid air by the ocean. Always these times of remembering ended in a dry feeling of cold. The ship was clean and white for the most part. There were plants growing in the green bay, where Soren grew food and recycled CO2 into oxygen. Headquarters had debated sending a team of 2, 5, even 12 people on the mission. But the combination of space, resources, and possible team conflict had ruled out this possibility in favor of a single stable individual who had diverse training. Soren had worked with the world's best psychiatrists, experts in the effects of human isolation and extreme conditions. These doctors had worked with the athletes, prisoners of war, even mystics. But it wasn't the loneliness of the isolation that pushed slowly into Soren's heart. It was regret. How much time he had spent wishing he was away. How little he had truly appreciated the Earth and the sky. Swimming in the river in summer. He had enjoyed his life but he had never really known what it was worth. Everything was always secondary to his dream of just being gone. And now he was so far gone.
A small sandy colored globe with a thin black disk was visible from the command hub window. With his forehead pressed against the glass he was only 8 inches from the total vacuum of space. -360 degrees and such low pressure that your blood would boil into ice vapor. It would turn you inside out, if you spent just a few moments beyond the thin walls of the ship. It was truly a marvel of humankind that engineering had achieved this level of perfection and strength. But not one of the priceless systems on the ship could make Soren feel any better as his heart ached in the silence. There were no more days or nights. The ships lights would slowly begin to dim every 15 hours, signaling the coming of an electrical evening followed by a darkness during which Soren was supposed to rest in the spinning living module where gravity was simulated. But lately, Soren sometimes went whole cycles without sleeping and then would sleep for nearly 15 hours. It became a kind of rhythm for him up there. The duties of the plants and the normal maintenance of the ships recycling facilities kept him busy for half of each day in space. When his duties were finished he sometimes replayed the conversation that the computer recorded before the communication array was damaged. There on the screen, he saw Katherine and his old friends, the command team wishing him good luck as he passed by the moon. Katherine looked so beautiful in her simple purple shirt. Even through the thousands of miles of space and dust, her eyes still shined with watery light. Soren could never tell if watching these videos made him feel better or worse, but he would usually replay one or two each day or so.
He spent much of his time peering out the small glass window watching Saturn approach. The rings were edge-on and the bands of gas and storms on the planet were now clear. Saturn's little moons floated like children suspended from strings. Soren felt oddly sad looking at the moons when he saw them. From this distance the white crystals in Saturn's rings made them look gray, much different than they had looked to Soren when he was a boy looking through his telescope in the backyard. It all looked so different now that he was here. It was beautiful, but still so far away somehow, like it could still not be touched. Soren still felt the feeling of being separated from his dream, even here. It had been hoped that when Centaurus 1 reached reached its namesake star Soren would have the possibility to explore the planets and moons in the system for signs of life. The first encounter with life was the holy grail of discoveries. It had been Soren's dream since he was 10.
Soren knew that millions upon millions of miles of empty space separated Katherine and him. It was most likely that she had already given birth by now. Time was very strange now to Soren. He could not remember the last time he had done a space walk outside of the craft. Sometime ago, he had done a free walk outside to asses the damage to the array. Now there was no real way to measure the days, the seasons that never came, the drifting black and stars that sung so softly through the windows. It all seemed to never end, or never begin.
Centaurus 1 swung around the crescent Saturn it picked up the needed speed to pass on to Neptune. The ship's cameras shot thousands of photos and measured the radiation field that spread for thousands of miles beyond the blue-green planet. Soren could listen to the hum of the planet itself as it was reproduced in sound waves by the computer. This unneeded feature was added by his friend Mark, the chief programmer, who had always wanted to hear "the symphony of the planets" as he had called it. Soren had laughed at the time. Mark was the only artist on the massive team of engineers and scientists that made Centaurus 1 a reality. Before joining the team mark had been a cellist in college, Soren remembered. Neptune hummed in the speakers between long silences as the radiation bands pulsed through space. Like the soft moan of a thousand unnamed instruments at once, there was an immensely peaceful feeling to the sound and the silence between the humming. Then, again, slowly, it would rise but never exactly the same. It was like an ocean of voices washing together and beating back some opposing force that threatened to overcome the music. Soren wished so badly that he could share it with Mark now. The computers recorded it all and Soren knew someday he would listen to it again, back on Earth in Mark's warm living room some evening. Soren would be almost 45 when he came back. He watched lighting split across the blue atmosphere and listened to the crackling ripples in the speakers.
Neptune was the last planet between Centaurus 1 and the Oort cloud, the last bits of dust and gas in the solars system. The Sun was still the brightest star in the window. Each time the craft spun, it came back into view. It was a little more hazy now though, becoming more and more of a point like the stars behind it.
Once safely beyond the Oort cloud, Soren would deploy the 'Halos'. These were two massive flat ovals the swung out from alongside the ship like wings. Inside the Halos was a hydrogen mixture that provided all the fuel Soren would ever need to easily reach Proxima Centauri and return. It was the largest controlled fusion reaction ever attempted, each Halo represented a combined effort or the best scientists and engineers in the world and totaled almost 250 billion dollars each. From outside the ship they were an off-white gray color with rings of clear heat sink tubing.
Soren trimmed a few of the larger leaves off his prized basil plant for a breakfast he saved for special occasions. Soy egg substitute and basil. The taste was not amazing, but Soren wanted to mark the final passing outside of the reach of the Sun's gravity. As he ate alone, he played the Beach Boys album "Pet Sounds". The lightness of the music made him uncomfortable though. He switched it off. He avoided his mind by coming up with what was still left to do. But again regret welled inside of him, longing. Each day he felt twice as far from the things he should have loved at home. Why had he always wanted something else? Why was it never good enough? The freeze dried slowly cooled and a gentle beeping sound came from the command module. Soren saw that the flashing red light was his sign that it was safe to deploy the Halos. He mechanically began the preparations. As he switched, checked and re-checked everything he felt a very quiet voice whispering to him. He ignored it as best he could. He swiped his fingers in the air in front of the thrust computer's screen and began the slow start of the ship's twin fusion reactors. The clear heat sink tubing lined the oval halos like a spider's web. They began to glow white. Soren heard the whispering voice in him again. It was a voice he could not obey. Soren swung between fascination and emptiness in his last few looks out the window watching the pulsing tubes glow brighter and brighter. A hissing sound could now be heard inside the ship. The hissing slowly changed into a humming and then into a low growl as Soren left the command module. He prepared his S.O.L.A.S.E. (Single Occupant Long Age Sleep Entry) which allowed him to effectively shut his body down to less than 1% of its normal metabolic function for the duration of the voyage between stars. Soren entered the needed information into the small screen and suddenly remembered 'Mickey' the chimpanzee who slept for 17 years while Mickey's own offspring aged and had little chimps of their own. Finally Mickey was woken up and returned to swinging youthfully between branches again, as if only having slept a few hours. Soren wondered if he would dream as he adjusted his own straps across his chest. He pictured Katherine as his old truck the day they drove together in that windy day in the Fall. He pictured the swirling leaves as the dome of the glass sealed tightly with a hiss. The sleeping compartment filled with enriched air and Soren's eyelids sagged slowly closed. The voice spoke again now to him directly. In the space between waking and sleep it whispered, "go home'. He could still barely make out the muffled countdown of the operating system's robotic voice. Fifteen, fourteen, and then Soren drifted into deeper than sleep.
At the moment Soren's halos reached their full fusion ignition, Katherine was standing in their front yard. Dark gray clouds painted thick and wispy shapes across the moon until only the glow of its light shone in the clear space above the clouds. A few bright stars shined too. It was the first night she had spent without their blue eyed daughter Amanda. Katherine's father's eyes lit up when Katherine handed over the quiet and happy girl wrapped in blankets. Katherine had a calendar Soren had given her with the precise dates and times of each event in Soren's voyage. It was printed on glossy white paper with images of his sights and pictures of the ship. Katherine had pinned a photo to the calendar of the two of them together a few years earlier. She continued pinning it through the calendar as she flipped the months up. She had hoped to spend the evening story-boarding the plan for her next film. She didn't have the energy though. She filled up a hot bubble bath in the quiet house. The hot water on her hands made her cry. She felt the burn go all the way through her heart. She opened her mouth and cried into the swirling water.
Thirty three years, three months, and six days passed on Earth. Eight years, nine months, and eleven days passed for Centaurus 1. The ship's operating system had been unable to stop the fusion reaction in the port side halo. Soren passed Proxima Centauri at 45% the speed of light. With only one halo still functioning the navigation was chaotic and the computer could not effectively steer the course. When the second halo finally burned through its fuel the ship attempted to slow its speed by firing its reverse thrust engines. These conventional thrusters could only slow the ship by a fraction of a percent. Soon their fuel too was exhausted.
Soren was slowly awoken inside the SOLASE hibernation system. Indeed he had dreamt. Just one dream though, a very short one. He sat by the edge of a clear rocky lake. Two snow capped volcanoes stood towering into the clouds beyond the lake. Katherine sat beside him. Together they tossed stones into the water. The lake was perfectly still before the ripples spread out evenly. Soren's little round waves met Katherine's and they moved through each other. Katherine said to Soren, "We can only throw a few stones." Soren looked at the beach that just a few moments ago had been filled with smooth gray stones. Soren was suddenly very nervous and wished he could pull back the ones he had so lightly tossed into the water. He held onto his last one tightly and pushed it down into his pocket. The sun was still glowing yellow in the sky between the two snowy mountains. Katherine smiled at him and tossed two stones at once into the clear water. She reached for his hand but Soren could not seem to let go of his last stone so he grasped her hand with his left hand. Her eyes moved through his and the sun washed the sandy beach. Soren knew she wanted to pull him into the water. He pulled the freckled gray stone out from his pocket. He looked at the little rock. He felt as if all of his sadness and regret were inside of it. It was so heavy in his hand. Again, he looked at Katherine smiling at him. He laid the gray rock down in the sand and reached for both of Katherine's hands. Her hands were warm as the two walked into the lake together.