Don’t get me wrong, she thought I like Emily Dickinson as much as the next person. But hope is no thing with feathers, and the last thing it does is perch in the soul.
Two years in, Tam had stopped speaking aloud to herself, again, and for the final time. That–saying full sentences aloud to herself, asking herself questions, answering–had begun about a year into the trip. The first few months alone, she had been comfortable in the quiet. Then she had stumped her toe and said “Ouch!” but it had come out more like “Hruowf!” She had told herself it was from phlegm, but she started talking to herself out loud soon after. Someone in flight school had grown up as a military kid and told her that you knew you were really getting the hang of a new language when you started dreaming in that language. Tam’s dreams had been neon-blue, black, bright, and silent.
Emily Dickinson just knows something I don’t, I guess, Tam thought, as she went through her daily checks: support systems–still online and operating; filters–cleaned; comms–still down and no responses. Hope definitely doesn’t sing. No singing ‘…the tune without the words.’ There’s no wordless song, just wordlessness.
Even though she had undergone all the tests and been pronounced “exceptionally psychologically sound: a prime candidate for a three year solo space mission,” and been through the entire year of seclusion on Earth, Tam could never have been completely prepared for where she was now. Firstly, the test on Earth–a year of encapsulation on a simulation-space craft underground–was just not the same as actually being alone in space for three years. On Tam’s ship Elpis, there was no big red ALERT button that would open the hatch in the ceiling to reveal sunlight and palm trees and a psychiatrist holding a sedative syringe.
Also, while on the underground simulation, emails and voice messages had always operated perfectly. Other mechanisms had failed, causing their appropriate amount of anxiety. The oxygen filter had gone out one night, sending the entire system into panic-mode. Red emergency lighting; a bone-shaking, guttural, MEEP MEEP MEEP had begun and not stopped until Tam had fixed the twisted blue line that she found in the second repair hatch she checked.
When communications went down in the Elpis, Tam had spent 32 hours awake checking and re-checking every hatch, line, power grid, switch, button, and process in the entire ship. Without communications, she not only was left completely alone mentally and emotionally, but also navigationally and mechanically. Any solar flare or debris impact came completely unexpected and affected her and her alone. Six months into the trip, when she had to change course to make way for that asteroid belt, she realized how little she and her command center had really known about her trajectory. They knew she wouldn’t hit a planet or star. That was about it. Everything else was too small to detect from Earth. At the time. Were all of the commanding officers in the space program Dickinson fans? They had been anticipating access to better and better technology as Tam’s mission had progressed. They were supposed to be able to help her in the future with problems they couldn’t understand at her launch by using uninvented tech that they knew was simply inevitable.
“Yet – never – in Extremity, [Hope] asked a crumb – of me.” Fucking Dickinson. This was the part that really got to Tam. Well aren’t you just a lucky bitch, just little Miss Lucky-Luck Emily. The sun just smiles down on you. Maybe because you never got out from under it. Tam didn’t think Emily Dickinson had ever experienced an Extremity like being completely alone in the hostile vacuum of space. The comms had gone down four months into the three year flight. Tam still could have turned around.
It had been three years and four days since Tam had launched. This is Extremity, Emily, and it sure feels like Hope has been asking a hell of a lot out of me.