Ulysses in Space

By L.A. Hilton

The idea of space was firmly outside. He pressed the release switch andLuke1 the latch on the metal door eased open. There were two buttons, both red, and he pressed the one linked to the monocognition machine. He heard it whirring into action underneath his feet, in the hull of the craft. The idea of space lay firmly outside. There were no windows from which to take a view. The designers had opted to leave windows out of the final craft due to what clinical researchers at the Institute of Astro-Psychology had termed ‘Space Insanity: Vacuoso 1’. The premise being that on long voyages, blank glaring from windows could induce a type of crazy that would leave the astronaut unable to comprehend life with shapes and surface. They had said that in many cases viewing absolutely nothing save the monochromatic interior of the craft could induce the same unnerving condition. Brian was, so far, unphased by this. He turned off the monocognition machine and lay in the reclining chair.

The craft was a good size for a one man mission. There was a main room, containing mission-control mechanics and other dashboard functionality, a kitchenette complete with food sachets set to last up to one hundred years, a selection of entertainment items including a reader and a Veriphone Double X. The main room also contained a large reclining chair which is where Brian spent up to fourteen hours of his day. There were separate sleeping quarters. Designers had included two bunks on the one-man-mission-craft for reasons that were never properly explained. Brian had left Earth one year ago yesterday and had recently been suspecting that this extra bunk may have been for any visitors that he happened upon. The thought worried him, but not enough that clinical researchers at the Institute of Astro-Psychology might have said he was developing any variant of the Space Insanity condition. None of the men and women who were sent on these missions had been informed of the Space Insanity condition, for fear that merely possessing the knowledge of its existence could drive one into maniacal reverie. It had been decided that it was a very volatile condition. Brian had been reading Ulysses by James Joyce at the rate of one page per day. He decided that it was as far removed from the exterior of his craft as possible. He would read his page and ruminate on its contents for the remainder of the day, only pausing to carry out routine work or make food. He was unaware of the directional course of the craft, as it was predetermined by the polycartograph machine under the dashboard. He had become very fond of Leopold Bloom. He was not sure why there was no contact with mission control, and hadn’t been for many weeks.

On one occasion while he sat reading Ulysses in his reclining chair he noticed that the room temperature had increased somewhat. He felt a bead of sweat drip down his forehead and watched it land on the polypropylene lap-tray he used as a rest for his tome. His immediate concern was that the wiring in the polycartograph machine may have become scrambled and he was heading for a nearby star. The craft, he had been told, propelled itself at a rate of 2,000 miles per hour, and that meant that with each passing second he may be shortening the distance for a warm encounter with a burning ball of gas. Brian was a pragmatic man and he made some calculations before panicking. He decided that there was almost no chance that he was nearing a star. The Sun itself had been in the opposite direction from where he was originally headed and mission control had told him almost a year ago that he was on due course. He was also not travelling anywhere near fast enough to have reached a different solar system with its own sun. It was improbable. He was still faced with the rising heat. It was only after two hours, hours he was not able to muse on Joyce’s prose, that he realised that the craft’s heating apparatus had malfunctioned. The dials showed a normal temperature but a glass conduction unit on the interior had cracked. Fortunately he had been able to fix the problem. As he sat back on his reclining chair he laughed to himself; had he not been able to isolate the problem he would have literally roasted.

It was a dull life but, by any account, Brian was making the best of it. He had trained for it – for the boredom – for years. It had been almost a century after the original moon-landing that space travel began to resemble what it had now become. Training now consisted largely of psychological practices, rather than extreme physical tests. Other than the initial take off there were relatively few strenuous activities, in part owing to newly-improved gravity distribution technology.  Candidates had to be vetted for mental health conditions that could interfere with the mission. They were exposed to boredom scenarios while at base-camp in Moscow. Brian had found these experiences to pose few, if any, problems and he was exceptional in his class. They had selected him for the earliest mission that was taking place after his graduation. Brian had enjoyed some of the boredom scenarios so much that he had requested he be able to practice them for relief while on board the craft. One of the scenarios had involved laying in a dimly lit room for seventeen days while listening to a single note on a piano (G#) without human contact; the trainees were allowed to turn either onto their side, front or back, but only once an hour. The G# would not be played with any rhythm or routine but would be played at least once every thirty-seven seconds. Brian found that he was able to make the time pass without difficulty by pushing himself into the ground so as to cause the maximum possible pain, thereby focusing on the relief gained from the hourly turn. He was not sure that this was an acceptable way to conquer the boredom so he kept this routine to himself. Doctors examining him following the test found extraordinary bruises on his chest, back and ribs, but following further medical examination it was assumed that these were anomalies and he was cleared to fly.

Six months after the issue with the increased heat Brian encountered an altogether more menacing problem. He was, as was his custom, reading Ulysses in his reclining chair, having just had a rehydrated breakfast. Mission control had made one contact in the last six months, sending a message exclaiming that transistor radios were at an all time low at Bob’s Bargains. He wasn’t sure what the meaning behind this was but was appeased that there was still, at least for the time being, life on earth. Shortly after finishing his page he began to consider the wider themes in the context of 20th century Ireland, when a loud bang was heard from the sleeping quarters. He went to investigate, supposing that it was probably an errant rock that had struck the craft and would not pose much of a threat to the craft’s Alum Compound Ironworks armour. He manoeuvred himself into the small room and looked at a large dent in the wall. It was the size of a Christmas ham and should not have been possible with the strength of the armour. He was at once both relieved and aggrieved that the craft had no windows. They would have allowed him an idea of what had struck the craft but this knowledge would not have served him in any way. He would not have been able to alter a thing, or deter it from happening again. It was also likely, although he was not an engineer, that the addition of windows would have weakened the craft’s structure, making it susceptible to aggression. He began to realise how firmly outside space actually was. He was within a familiar place – that of the craft’s interior – which was itself contained in a greater and much more all-encompassing void. He decided that it was unlikely to happen again. Perhaps the rock that had struck the craft had been bigger than the bang implied. He sat back down in his reclining chair to consider what he had read, realising that he may need to read it again following the disturbance. He had sat for a few minutes when the bang occurred again, this time on the alternate side of the craft, causing a large dent in the main room in which he sat. Brian’s eyes widened, as well they might. His heart began to race but, before he was able to make a decision, the craft was struck again, from the same side as before. It happened repeatedly and with more aggression with each subsequent strike. He jumped, alarmed as he had ever been, towards the control panel. He checked the subsystem menu for a damage report, but the readout revealed that there was no structural damage. Brian cursed the glass conduction units and their instability. He watched the damaged area on the wall of the craft grow. Unsure whether the fear was due to the unknowable thing that was attacking him, or the very fact that he was being attacked, he sat back down on his chair. The striking and bangs continued unabated for some time. It was as if the craft was no craft at all, as if he was being charged at by a rhinoceros from within a wooden hut on a great African plain. Damage and ultimately death seemed inevitable. He felt tremendous regret that he had only been reading Joyce at a page a day.

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