by Emilie Reed.
Sidney is skimming the tent of her fingers along the in-cabin entertainment screen. Her gestures have been getting more grandiose over time, so when I stare at her back, I notice the force of each movement sending her slightly sideways in space, like a ticking clock hand. Eventually she notices and reaches for a crevice at the beveled edge of the screen to lock her fingers onto, pulls herself back upright, and repeats the motions.
She's searching. Newbie that she is, she took HR's word that there was an abundance of in-flight entertainment options on the Martian transfer flight. She packed her personal items locker with photos of her husband and children too, actual paper ones, since there’s no charging ports for consumer grade electronics inside the shuttle. Of course, having just left them, she doesn’t really have the time to miss them yet, so the photos are mostly useless to her. I know, I’ve been there. I try to modulate my tone, to scrub it of all condescension and knowingness, pump it full to bursting with sincerity.
“Anything good?” I ask. She hesitates and I think: ninety six days approximately, minus… twelve? Has it been twelve? Eighty four. And then I dismiss it from my mind, deliberately. I can only let myself do the calculation once a day, or at least, it seems sensible.
Sidney turns to me and frowns.
“I don’t know… Nothing jumps out at me. I can’t pick anything. There’s certainly enough of it, but…”
I can tell she wants to flop down on her bunk in a huff, but the artificial gravity generator has been on the fritz, powering itself down every time it hits a variation threshold, so she can’t. She’d have to angle herself sideways and wiggle between the sheets, then use the backup straps to hold herself down. Instead she stretches in the air and sighs.
“I just wish I could take a nap. But I’m still not used to sleeping…” She gestures at how I’ve set myself up to read in my own bunk. “You know. They didn’t even mention that there would be zero g on this flight. It still makes me so queasy.”
“You weren’t trained for it?”
“I mean, only the basic emergency training. They made it out like it would be a pretty comfortable flight to Mars. Like a really long airplane ride, or sleeper train trip, or something.”
I don’t say anything about how I have seen the traversal of this span of space go from a touted feat of science, to a circuit for feted professionals, to something banal and slightly shabby, all in less than a lifetime. Like getting on a cross-country jet had been for my grandmother, who didn’t leave the bounds of her home state until her 60s, space travel was still a wonder for my fellow passenger. By then I had learned many times over to hate airports. And that’s what Mars is, the parts you get to see, anyways, the inside of one big airport.
“I’m sorry the generator shut down,” I offer in sympathy.
“It’s fine, you couldn’t fix it any more than I could anyways, being confined to the cabin “for our safety.””
“Well, the ones going out to Jupiter don’t even have simulated gravity part of the time, so we’re still the lucky ones, in my book.”
“Of course they don’t,” she says flatly, looking at me like I’d said something strange. “None of those are manned, it’s just secured cargo.”
I tuck my chin down behind the book I’m holding against my chest. I say nothing, hoping she takes it as a slip on my part. That the “autonomous” mining projects past the asteroid belt have full-time, on-the-ground staff, equally the hard to employ on Earth and those who couldn’t distinguish themselves or run in the right circles to secure a steady research position on Mars, was basically an open secret, only lightly ring-fenced with NDAs among those who were in the know. But Sidney was hired as someone who had only worked as a researcher on Earth so far, she obviously wouldn’t know anyone who dropped into the Jupiter circuit.
She pauses on an image and looks at it.
“Interesting choice,” she comments.
“How so?” I ask, though the image, when I look at it, seems to speak for itself. Humanoid figures are dashing across the surface of a planet surrounded by beams of light, and new moons are drawing close all around them, but the feeling of the painting is hard to discern. Excitement? Joy? Panic? Despair?
“Well, given the period and location, it seems influenced by the Russian Cosmists in style. Alongside revolutions in governance on Earth, they were interested in a sort of humanist ideal of equality and communal living extending out infinitely into space.”
“And now it’s just an ad for people who want you to feel great about making them the first and only name in interplanetary travel,” I say, catching her drift.
“Yeah, it’s ironic,” she replies, and I get a slight laugh out of her, but not a happy one. “You know it surprised me so much to hear about something like the Voyager record, you know, from the 1970s? That people would just kind of gather up bits of art and culture and just send it out as illustrative goodwill. Now there’d be tons of copyright and licensing squabbles about something like that. Everyone who’s an “owner” trying to get their piece. Like this painting is public domain in theory, but the collector who has it in a vault somewhere is the one who loans it out to some state museum to show, and then the photo they take can be licensed out for commercial use, such as in-flight entertainment.”
The shadowy figures, standing out against the light emanating from the alien planet, the strange moons, have come a long way. They have lived a strange life or series of lives, subject to the context their image is thrown into, though totally imaginary.
“Plus they’re outside.” I add. “We won’t be anywhere like “outside” for a good long while.”
“Not even in a suit?” She asks. I find myself thinking, how the hell did they sell this position to her?
“For you, a cultural historian? Way too risky. Even for someone who can do technical repairs like me, I’d still need hours of training before I’d be the one they call for external stuff.” I see her frown, and feel bad that I can’t help being so cynical.
“Is it really so bad?” She asks. She takes one last look at the painting before sliding it away with a hesitant gesture, and the screen fills with a high-res image of an abstract, geometrical composition, a prismatic set of rainbow stairs stepping up to a golden sun wreathed in green, set against a dark background of unreason. “I was so excited to take the job, you know, the first person studying the history and culture of a society that’s not even on Earth… but talking to you always makes me feel kind of depressed about what I’ll find.”
“Nah, don’t listen to me. Except, you may want to bring a nice long book with you next time.” I hold my own book out to her, my finger still wedged against the passage I was on. "You can borrow it if you want, you know. You can read it and then we can talk about it, or something. That should fill up the three months, maybe." I want her to take it, but also feel nervous. If she rips it up or cracks the spine or wrecks it somehow, even though I know this is a weird anxiety, one I have no real cause for, because she seems like an entirely sane and normal person, I feel like I will honestly leap up and start throttling her, despite the hours of training in conflict-de-escalation we both had to take. I feel an unpleasant sensation of surprise at the rapid progression of my own thoughts. I heard from someone at the last leaving party that staff cabins on the ships to Jupiter were the same size, but with four people, and no similar amenities. How do they not kill each other?
"Maybe," she says, back to searching. "I'll look at it when you're done with it."
"Well alright," I say after a while. I open the book again, and start at the top of the page, briefly considering going back to the start of the chapter, to really keep my train of thought intact. You have to take up the time out here, almost assertively, or the monotony chips away at you.