“A green field is turned into a cemetery, something painful which presumes to have joy and progress for its goals… and the starry sky is an image, pure enough for all eternity.”
— Hans Henny Jahnn, The Ship
Everyone called it The Boat, despite that being kind of a nickname hailing from the papers in the months leading up to the launch. Even we did, good-naturedly, and eventually even Control did, too. People made hats. I remember one of us waving one from the gantry, shown in close-up throwing it down as if to a crowd for the cameras. In truth when it carried us out, there was as much hullaballoo as any first prospecting craft must have had on its own departure, and with the blast of the thrusters we found our lives stretched suddenly into a future that—though planned to a degree of precision I now find hard to recall—was in retrospect just as uncertain. I closed my eyes as the path through the atmosphere blurred my vision, sinking back into the automated mental routines and checks of the months of training, and thought of everyone remotely watching us climb that hard mile shaft of rough air; peppering the ozone with our exhaust as we forced through the resilient clouds.
I remembered myself as a young man, viewing the quiet tragedy of life unfold through the lens of my microscope via a time-lapse recording. I watched a bulging leucocyte chasing down a bacterium, swimming contraction waves through the dark corridors of the blood serum, silent, relentless. I saw the comparably minute bacteria pull away, moving with surprising agility, always just ahead, riding on its devourer’s wake. It was desperate for escape, spastic in its speeded-up dance and finally exhausted, engulfed by the enormity of the pulsing white blood cell. They call them simple organisms, in the books. This is what I thought of as the mass of my own planet pulled one last time on me, and then we were loosed of it. We were free to look back as we pushed out. Free to begin the long process of checks, and rechecks, and flagged maintenance, of getting the sleep systems up and running, and getting us, the pioneers, down and into them.
We were in contact with Control—and by suggestion, if not actual extension, almost the entirety of the rest of our living race—to say our farewells, and I find that I view that week of preparation and conversation from our preternaturally high base camp with a fondness that has now faded only to a faltering memory of a feeling. In the deep dreamtime of the sleep system my curdling visions were molded at their suggestion: primal dark giving way and glimmering with the tawny hair of Leif, his eyes wide at the lush shore of half-known Vinland as it came into view through the Pacific haze. The colours were stunning. The memory of that, even, is vague now, as vague as anything here, and I find myself returning to it again and again. How often it is hard to tell. And then, with the taste of salt and the breaking of the surf-swelled moment, I awoke, boundlessly far from where we had departed.
For months we studied the coastline from orbit, assessing the curves of the continents, weighing the tremendous slow beauty of their creation against our chances of survival on them. And from orbit I peered closer, studying the spits and coves. I increased the resolution, trying for a higher clarity, and followed the clear demarcation as it zigzagged beneath me. I looked down on the crooked landmass and watched its outer edge kink and swirl, pushed at by unknowable forces for millennia; the movement of the land as it fought to become the shore. As I moved in, the ground, the boundary, I should say—the boundary between the two, between what we had defined as ‘the land,’ and as ‘the sea’—that boundary took on a serenity I had not seen before.
The shoreline is tooled, railed into a gleaming, flat shape as if by a hand unseen. The coast recedes into the distance; either side a mirror, as devoid of feature as it is undivulging of mystery. I sometimes think in a perverse way that I may have conquered the measurement. Or it has conquered me. Even our highest levels of zoom reveal more of the same straight edge, and I wonder vaguely which part of it we eventually landed on. Whether it is I who stand by its edge, marvelling at the total flatness through the electron-analysis machines, or whether I see us all from incalculably far above, standing on that selfsame shoreline at an aspect of ten to the power of several hundred thousand. The point has become moot. It is unknowable. In the unerring line I see in what I once perceived as wonderment a kind of vindictiveness. We have become intensely bored of the view. I stand on this level plane, and I watch the absolutely unmoving sea. I see the point where they meet as a membrane, flat, unyeilding. I picture the furs and rough-sewn hessian as they dismount from the longboat. I see the reflection in their uncomprehending eyes. I wonder about their measuring instruments. My grasp of the finer points of history is no longer good. It has been suggested that we have never left the boat. I thought that if I zoomed in far enough I should be able to see the numbers marked on the hull. See myself there too, peering at them on some supra-microscopic level. I thought of the prows of their ships and their oars, worn flat by the overwhelming saline attrition of the sea. I thought of the smooth movement of the outer membrane of the leucocyte as it overtook the bacteria, so may years ago, and the brief moment that the bacteria still twitched and swam within its boundary before becoming still; so close to escape. Still so much measurably less than a hair’s breadth away from being unconsumed.
Thogdin Ripley is a set of unique data, easily searchable but hidden on purpose; an anomaly, worshipping the cultural spindrift from a greasy cardboard box at the back of a deserted storage facility. He’s continually working on a novel that will prove exceptionally difficult to sell.