by Jonas Rindegard
A dozen tons of refined fuel burned each second. The stars faded from distant dots to white streaks through the darkness. Faster than sound — no, light — faster than anything possible yesterday, smoothed steel through the outermost limits of the known universe. Impossibly expensive walls were lined with state-the-art technology tracking every possible variable, accounting for every outcome of every scenario, calculating data by the zettabyte in the blink of an eye. In the cockpit, a pilot gazed into the infinite frontier in awe.
The communications system crackled to life: “Trailblazer IV, do you copy?”
“I, uh, I copy. It’s, um, it’s awfully dark out here, ” he responded, offering a well-practiced chuckle.
“Sir, it’s just like the neurosimulations. Don’t tell me you’re surprised.”
“What? N-no, just, uh, making small talk,” he said, stumbling through words. Static filled the air, joining the pilot’s nervous heartbeat and the buzzes of processing in filling the empty metallic halls. The comms then flickered back on: “Hal, don’t worry. There’s nothing you have to worry about. Everything’s been accounted for. Really you’re only here to supervise and make the touchdown. Just relax.”
Hal took a deep breath, filling his lungs with recycled air. He tried to clear his doubts, unsuccessfully, but still he replied “well, sure, I guess you’re right. It’s just that… well, it feels different actually being here, not just in the simulations, you know?”
“Not really. The simulations are incredibly accurate.”
“But, like… um… well, ok then.”
The silence lasted far too long, and far too uncomfortably for Hal.
Suddenly, a return to sound: “Trailblazer IV, hold on a second—” and the comms went quiet. The faint questions of “what the hell is that,” “where are these readings from,” and exclamations of profane wonder filled Hal’s ear.
“HQ, what’s happening? I—” and he looked up through the window into the expanse. Before him gaped a crack in the void. A shape never seen by human eyes, and scarcely imagined by such brains. The greatest minds of Dadaism, Surrealism, and Abstraction could not have put to picture something half as brilliant in its unshaped horror had they put their collective ingenuity together through a blender. Whirling, impossibly angular tendrils of pure negative space, forgoing the known laws of the universe. Hal gazed into its horrific beauty, wrapped up in its bright shimmering glow, unable to avert his eyes. An otherworldly presence seemed to emanate from it, borrowing its way into his eyes as he stiffened with terror.
Hal quickly cut fuel to the engines, but to little avail. The shuttle continued to inch ever-forward, its trajectory lurching uneasily as it approached.
“HQ, what the hell am I supposed to do here?” he asked frantically.
No response, save for the cold buzz of static.
He was alone.
He took the controls in his hands, jolting them back and sideways, but the ship’s response was negligible. Control seemed lost to the whims of the void. Sweat poured down Hal’s face, his hands trembling, and it seemed as though control of the ship wouldn’t be all that was lost. He tried taking deep breaths, like he’d been taught in his pre-light training. He tried to focus on his home, peaceful nights under the stars. The thought of stars only seemed to further his dread.
The way Hal saw it, there were two choices set out before him: either he diverted all the power to the retrorockets and tried to return home, or he stayed his hand and pushed through, into unknown territory. His heartbeat pierced his chest, breath shaking, skull closing in and crushing his mind. Going home would mean monumental delay. Lost investment. Shame. What he had worked for would be gone, forgotten, meaningless. The unknown would remain unknown.
What kind of person would he be if he left now? He pondered as the ship continued its pull into the nameless land beyond.
Reluctantly, he pushed ahead.
A hostile blinding whiteness coated the entirety of everything. Color, texture, shape, form — all of it was gone in an instant.
Existence came to a halt.
Hal simply existed in the never-ending nothingness, void of any sensation, save for the fleeting grip on what remains of consciousness as it too fades to white.
and incalculable hours
or years pass
as primal sense seeps back into the remains of his mind
it is there:
On the edges of perception, a triangle of absolute darkness encroaches on the serenity of null. It continued its path, gaining speed with each passing instant as the white is devoured by black. Then, on the edges of the approaching darkness, white returns. The blackness of new existence grew smaller, smaller, yet smaller, protruding out from what Hal could hazily make out from their absence of being.
It formed, as one might interpret, an English letter.
Hal continued drifting backward, infinitely slowly, as the negative space became inhabited by the sharp contrast of inky darkness. Symbols continued to form, more letters from them, and slowly Hal recalled what they meant. He read, from his distant memories of language:
“A dozen tons of reined fuel burn each second.”
Words continued to form in the blank expanse, their meanings finding resonance in what was left of his primordial mind. They described something… familiar, like a past life or memories of a long forgotten age.
He felt his senses returning, slowly finding himself capable of motion. Hal moved what he sensed was his head, regaining his bearings. Everything was slow, as though underwater. He tried to move his hands, though they did not appear before him. As he concentrated, reforming his mind, his physical form began to reconstitute itself, blurry at first but slowly gaining sharper details and definition. Somehow, for the first time in his life, Hal felt complete control over himself.
He swirled around, letting his body float naturally in spirals as words rotated around and around. He plunged onward, following the letters and words as they formed larger, more complex shapes, seemingly forever. Until they stopped. He read:
“Until they stopped. He read:”
Suddenly, more words appeared.
“Suddenly, more words appeared.”
Hal’s new mind formed its first full thought: he wondered, quite simply, where he was. Then, a realization manifested. With it, he slowly turned his head, facing away from the strange words for the first time in this plane.
The white space faded as he turned. Something warmer manifested, a sense of… color. Deep oranges and reds, a faraway blue, shades of heavy green, a misty shine of golden yellow. Comforting in its familiarity, though Hal did not recognize the patterns. He gazed into their magnificence for a long time, slowly letting them come into clearer focus.
When finally the horizon cleared, a new feeling arose in his consciousness: an ancient fear. Could he have found his voice, he would have screamed.
He stared himself in the face.
Hal, on a far larger scale, sat before a window, hands clacking and clicking on labeled keys, facing the words appearing in the negative void. The smaller Hal, nearly invisible to the massive beast of mimicry, located frozen in air. He opened his mouth to speak.
The Trailblazer IV continued its path through the cosmos, sailing smoothly through the infinite frontier. Hal soaked in his surroundings: the endless cosmos awaiting exploration filled his eyes, the sound of old friends through comms filled his ears, the residue of a freeze-dried meal filled his nose and tongue, the shuttle’s familiar seat and interface filled his body. A distant memory filled his mind — one of serenity and enlightenment, courage, and something…
He couldn’t remember exactly.
“Trailblazer IV, you alright? You cut out for a second,” Hals comms crackled. Hal looked around him. The stars shone brighter than before. He saw a white negative expanse hiding behind the inky depths of space, its facade concealing a blank canvas. “Never better,” Hal replied. He directed his shuttles power forward with practiced ease. For the first time, he soared.