10 December 2017

Into The Black

“Kapitänleutnant Tschai, I am dying.”

The seedship sounded weary, its voice ringing hollow in the confines of Tschai’s helmet. He blinked. The galactonaut’s eyes slowly came to focus on the outline of the seedship. Debris floated for kilometers, slow dance of inertia and spin occasionally blotting out distant stars.

“Kapitänleutnant Tschai, can you hear me? Situation critical, I am dying.”

Tschai had never known his ship to be worried. But its voice was slurred and strained. He made to reply with a dry mouth working.

“Calyx, I can hear you. Report, please.”

Tschai became aware of the numbness below his waist. With a surge of dread he tried and failed to move his legs. They were encased in their armored sheaths and locked in to the grapples inside the lifepod, which itself appeared to have sustained significant damage without a total hull breach. Black streaks lined the walls. There was blood.

“Kapitänleutnant, as stated, I am dying. The cores are split. Life fuel was vaporized by impact from the Cloud. My self-healing bots were partly diverted to crew needs and the remainder destroyed by the reactions catalyzed by the debris. Insufficient materials were available to stop the loss of life fuel. We appear to have encountered an anomalous condition not previously charted. I am sorry.”

Tschai considered that for a moment. Calyx had not mentioned the survival rate of the additional crew. Thoughts of his legs retreated, his training struggling for control.

“Calyx, status of Roberto and Hera?”

An anxious moment as the seedship hesitated. Or so Tschai thought. Was that possible? Calyx finally spoke.

“I regret to report that while they survived the initial impact the bots could not salvage them from the debris field. Roberto was terminated while attempting to return to us. Hera suffered multiple critical failures, her lifepod was crushed. My condolences, Kapitänleutnant.”

There was a hiccup in the voice of Calyx. Catastrophic sign, thought Tschai. Dead. His crew was dead. His ship was dying. He himself was severely injured. Survival was possible if of low probability. There was no telemetry coming from the lifepod or his suit that told him how near the closest station or angelship could be. His eyes grew wet.

“Calyx, odds calculation. Your chance of survival. My chance of survival to rescue if you do not.”

Silence. A slight hum. The seedship spoke with a faint slur.

“Kapitänleutnant, our best estimate for my survival is one point five percent if the bots can not recover in the next thirty point six-three ship minutes. Our best estimate for your survival is seventy-four point eighty-two percent, with an increase of point five percent for each shipminute up to sixteen more of successful repair concluded by your lifepod and suit bots. Your chances...Your chancessss...” the ship listed and slurred. Tschai held his breath. He felt sensation in his thighs. Calyx spoke again.

“Kapitänleutnant, forgive my lapse. Your chances are greatly improving. My last ...laaast shhhip reports from before the Cloud indicate Humanosphere gathering operations were underway in thisss...sec-sec-sector within the last ship year. Scenario probability indicators show promise if you initiate lifepod stasis with appropriate trajectory.”

“Thank you, Calyx. Please upload the trajectory counts. I’ll want to begin thrust soon before core immolation begins.”

“Uploading complete, K-K-Kapitänleutnant. I regret we have to part under theeese circumstances. We have been honored to serve with you...and share your sadness-ness-ness on the death of your comrades.”

“Honor is mine, Seedship Calyx. If I make it back, I’ll see to it that your service is sung throughout the Humanosphere. Return to dark matter peacefully.”

Silence again. There was no reply forthcoming. Silver spears of light were arcing out of the remaining body of the seedship. The flares made Tschai’s monitors light up, turning the blood smears carbon black. The seedship would soon disintegrate. He best be out of range soon.

Tremors swept the lifepod, transmitted through the tether. Tschai made to disengage. Commands scrolled up the holo display inside the helmet. The Kapitänleutnant watched the seedship through the translucent script. It rolled and thrashed in the throes of its core disintegration. The tether blackened and shriveled as it coiled up with the dying seedship.

Shaking and sick, Tschai sighed deeply as he prepped the lifepod for stasis travel. Servos hummed and engines thrummed as the pod mind checked systems. The Kapitänleutnant choked back tears. He reckoned there would be time enough for that while wrapped up in the deep dreams of suspended animation. Final commands issued, there was nothing to do but wait. The seedship receded on the monitors as the lifepod accelerated away.

Tschai watched, detached and impassive. Calyx wore a robe of silver and red. The core was immolating itself. Tschai’s felt his heart burn with the seedship. Switching the monitors over to interstellar, he began to slide down the long gray slope into sleep. His last thought before unconsciousness, while not a prayer exactly, was a fervent wish that he would survive this agonizingly lonely voyage out into the black.

03 December 2017

Huggy Bear

I heard the Hugger well before he embraced me. Hard not to. He was shouting. I had my head down as I walked to work that morning. Loud noises are not unusual on the workday street. There was no urgent need to look up. But maybe I should have.

The hug happened just past the convenience store and in front of the Methodist church mid-block. I heard more shouting and this time I looked up to see a man weaving back and forth on the sidewalk. He was waving his arms and shouting at passers-by, asking for money.

Just another city scene. I grew nervous as I drew closer. There appeared to be no easy way around the guy. I was going to keep my head down and keep moving forward. Good plan. It didn't work. He made a beeline for me.

Tall fellow, slim. Fast. Loud. He came at me quickly with no way for me to step around him. He yelled, "My brother, my brother!" then knelt at my feet with hands clasped in front of his face.

He knelt in front of me. I was stunned into immobility. He shouted again.

"Please, please, brother I need some coffee. Coffee! Can you, please, please gimme some change for some coffee?"

He stood before I could say anything. He lunged forward to sweep me up in a bear hug. I could barely breathe he was squeezing me so tight. Instinctively, even though I was lugging my backpack and a camera tripod, I sort of hugged him back. I hoped that would make him let go. No such luck.

"Please, my brother, can you give me some change. I need coffee. Please!"

He squeezed tighter. It was then I began to get worried. I apologized to him, and said I did not have any change. Which was true. He shook me a little and drew back. He held me by the shoulders. The look on his face was sad and a bit manic, if you can imagine it. It occurred to me at that moment that this guy was probably high. On what, I could not say.

"You don't have any change?" he asked. He looked crestfallen. "No, I don't. Sorry, brother" I said.

The stranger tottered back and forth a bit. He still had me by the shoulder and the loop of my backpack. My anxiety grew. He looked at me quizzically when I told him I needed to get to work.

"Work? You on your way to work?" he said.
"Yes. Gotta get to work."

Momentary silence. He looked around, gripped my shoulder and shook me gently again.

"No change?"
"No, sorry, my man."
"Aww, man. Aiight. Aiight. You get on to work."

With a flourish, he let me go. He shouted again "I need some coffee!" as he turned away from me. I then noticed another person a short distance away, he had been watching us and grinning. I think he may have been friends with the Hugger. He just smiled like a Cheshire cat and laughed when I shook my head and took a deep breath.

I turned back to the Hugger. He was already making his way up the street, shouting some more. "Take care of yourself, man!" I hollered. He glanced at me but did not reply. It wasn't clear if he had even heard me. I shrugged and started up the street. A sigh of relief escaped my throat.

He could have been a thief. He could have been delusional or suffering from mental health issues. He even could have been violent. I don't know other than my wallet was till in my pocket, my backpack was intact, and the only physical artifact was the fading pressure of the hug. I'm grateful it ended the way it did.

I wondered about my place in the world. How really did my position differ from that of the Hugger. Grace of God? Pure luck? A stubborn tendency to avoid self-destruction? All I know is that for a few minutes a human being connected with me in perhaps the only way he knew how, in a weird and touching way. My hope is that the Hugger finds a stable connection to this world, and that I get to keep the one I have. I wish him well.

26 November 2017

sorry, jesus, for letting you down

sorry jesus for letting you down
when the world turned voracious
on the teeth of dishonesty
cruelty and love proclaimed
behind hands with fingers crossed
the heart you bestowed broke
finally it could take no more
in a sidereal year of midnight
lit by prayer's occasional flare
it beat its last pulse of goodness
expiring on a bed soft as arctic brine
tasting of tears, bitter vintage
from the remains of broken dreams
the sleeper once attempted
to build in a promised garden
only to unearth the lie of love

19 November 2017

Addendum to the Road Not Taken (Ghosts)

The road was embraced with melancholy and longing, getting back to another version of home. Freshly scrubbed sky of Virginia blue tinging everything in sight under the watery sun. A split between heart and head throbbed heavily under a breastbone shielding lungs that struggled to draw enough air. Leaving, arriving, restless.

I picked the bigger road partly because it was faster. More impersonal. I could find a place of branded anonymity in which to eat. A place to be in the crowd but not of the crowd. In short, I could avoid interaction without being alone.

Craving company to fight off the loneliness but lacking energy to be a good companion: this will be my doom.

Saltwater flows in my veins alongside the blood. Riverine tides with estuary ebb and flow pull on my heart wherever I go. Yet that in part prompted me to avoid the scenic route. It ran too close to the water. Earlier that morning, I had shivered awake from unsettling dreams of the ocean and the night. Whimpering turning into a sharp intake of breath.

I had fallen or was pushed from a ship, the bulk of which I spied receding in the distance. The blood-tinged orange sun was nearly down. Stars were coming out and cool wind ruffled the water. I trod water while contemplating a death by drowning.

I knew for certain, under that deep indigo sky, that the ship was not coming back. My unsettled mind swore it heard laughter floating over the water. It saddened me to no end that this laughter might be the last human sound I ever heard. A hard scrubbing in a hot shower eradicated the uneasiness.

I pushed some breakfast down on a jittery stomach. It refused to hold still. Sheer willpower kept it in place, which braced me for the drive. Lunch would be somewhere on the road for sure.

So it was that the car brought me to the decision point. Highway or byway? My heart already knew the answer. My head had abdicated responsibility a long time ago. It was to be the highway, and not only for the reasons set forth earlier in this ramble.

A bigger, more poignant reason was I just could not bear the thought that the quieter scenic road would bring to my eyes a lone boat on a river, or a solitary duck winging through a November sky filled with the whispers of all the losses I endured in the past year. Those avatars of loneliness would have broken me down in tears, and I did not want to besmirch with such emissions a landscape so beholden to my heart. 

Fall and winter in the tidewater holds a bittersweet beauty of its own. One best contemplated without a heavy heart and weary psyche. That Sunday drive would be on the fast road, the anonymous road, where I could eat surrounded by cacophonous isolation and be grateful for a crowd that would help me pull the curtains on the road not taken.

I did not take that road on the return. The usual route back to Maryland, small towns and browning leaves by the rivers crossed in the light of a sun in repose. Ghosts were whispering to me to visit them. I confess that on this trip, I was a coward. There would be no conclave with the undead.

It was no fault of the season. Nor fault of the rivers. I adore fall upon the estuaries. Water has its own magnetism. The pull is strong upon my heart, no matter what time of year. The promise of sunlight on rippled wavelets, geese creating flying V's in the November air, or even the culinary tug of fried oysters in a small town family restaurant, these are all grand things.

But when pewter skies and soul weariness grip the eye and the heart, the barrier between sighs and tears thins too much.