Tuesday, 20 March 2012

March Pictonaut: Space Junkie

My good friend The Rogue Verbumancer aka Glempy started a fiction challenge. He dubbed it the Pictonaut challenge, and the concept is very simple; each month he provides a picture he has found somewhere on the interwebs, and our challenge is to craft a short story of around 1000 words based on or inspired by this picture. I've been meaning to take part for months, but for one reason or another I never got around to it. Partly because  I'm lazy and have far too many hobbies anyway, but mostly because none of the picture prompts got me really fired up.

Until this month. This months picture immediately set off ideas in my head, but it took reading this post from The Rogue Verbumancer with similar themes to get me started. And once I started I found I couldn't stop. Words came pouring out and I finished this in under three hours (it would have been less, but I had work to do as well). I haven't edited it all, save to correct spelling. I found I kind of like the rambling internal monologue style, so I kept it.

The picture that inspired me to get writing for the first time in well over a year? It's a picture by Chris Cold and Tobias Roetsch and is called "Any Direction".

This is the piece inspired by it.

Space Junkie

Space is really fucking beautiful. Sometimes it's so beautiful that it makes your eyes hurt, your throat close up from the sheer power of the emotions running through you. And they're never emotions you can recognise that put you in this catatonic state, oh no. It’s never anger or lust or greed or hunger. Those mundane sorts of emotions that happen every day. These are BIG emotions. Scary fucking things that you're never sure how to process. They're vast and complicated and you only recognise some elements on the edge of a big emotion like that. Some sort of pride in humanity's achievements coupled with the wonder of life itself. Big sodding emotions.

And when I say space is beautiful, I don't mean the actual space. The black never-ending void that's just waiting to suck the life out of you if you put a foot wrong. That's not beautiful, that's fucking terrifying. I mean the stuff floating around in that airless freezing void. Planets and stars and nebulae and weird stuff that we've not thought up names for yet. It never looks like the pictures we send back to Earth. Those pictures are beautiful in their own right, but they're nothing compared to the wonder of a new planet up close. There's emotion associated with these things when you're actually there. Emotions that are big and scary and complicated and add to the beauty of it. I see this shit every day. New stars and their systems, new space anomalies. Every day for the past ten years, ever since I joined the science division out here. You'd think I'd be used to it.

You never get used to it though. All this wonder and emotion and awe. Veterans on their last day before retiring still have the same gobsmacked look on their faces as the freshest new recruit on their first day.

It wears you down. Being in this constant state of awe and wonder, being constantly moved by what the universe has to offer and trying to catalogue it in a cold and clinical matter. You lose the ability to feel more mundane emotions. How are you supposed to get excited about someone's birthday when your life is filled with constant wonder? Those of us who do this job, we lose something vital in order to do it. There are 5000 people on this ship and we never talk to each other about anything except work. We don't socialise, we don't chat. We barely even remember to use manners or common courtesy anymore. Those are small, insignificant things and we have to deal with the extraordinary on an everyday basis. We've lost the ability to form meaningful relationships, every single one of use. We don't have families. Most of us never bothered to put the effort into starting one; those who had families have lost them.

Space is like a drug. The wonder and excitement is like a constant high. It's the greatest drug that ever existed and you can never quit. Going cold turkey can never work, and there is no substitute for seeing the things we see out here. We're addicts, every single one. Being on leave is more like torture than a reward. When you go back to Earth or one of the colonies, you go back to a place that is so mundane. Boring inconsequential worries fill your time, but they can never fill that hole in your chest where all those big emotions were. Your sense of wonder fades, and you can't take enjoyment in anything anymore. Nothing satisfies except the drug itself. It's not so bad when you're on leave; you know you'll be going back soon enough. A few weeks, a month maybe and then you can have another hit. You get through because you know that you'll get that high back.

But what happens when you retire? You've spent maybe thirty or forty years up here in space. Thirty or forty years on a constant high, the likes of which you cannot get anywhere else but out here on the fringes of everything we know. You go home, tell yourself you'll be okay without your drug. But nothing can ever replace the life you've known. Nothing will ever compare to the things you've seen. You can't function in regular society. You're an addict, and you've been cut off from your drug of choice. So you start experimenting with more conventional drugs. Humanity has invented all manner of powerful hallucinogens and psychotics, just for this very purpose. Even in the beginning, the high doesn't compare to the high you were on most of your life. So you ramp up the dose, start mixing them together until you can't remember your name anymore because of the cocktail of drugs rushing through your system.

Most veterans end up overdosing, those that don't commit suicide. Because nothing can replace this feeling in your chest everyday you're out here; nothing can ever fill that hole because it is as black and infinite as the void itself. That is the price for the privilege of seeing extraordinary things.

The suicide rate amongst retired science officers who've done this job is many times that of the suicide rate in the normal population. That's no secret. But the fact is that the suicide rate on science vessels like this is almost as high. Some people overdose on space; they want to get so close that they step outside the airlock without a suit. Some people just can't handle it; space is just too big, too terrifying and too wonderful for them to cope. Some people just snap. They say if you make it through your first year you're a lifer. Most don't make it through their first year out here. The families aren't told the truth of what happened; in space there are a million and one accidents waiting to happen that can be blamed for the high attrition rate.

Space is dangerous. It is infinitely beautiful and it is infinitely cold and it doesn't give a shit about humanity. Being out here isn't humanity's greatest achievement, it's their greatest folly. We're simply not built to cope with everything the universe has to offer. If you don't get killed by some space virus, or a solar storm, or a landing party gone bad, then you'll get driven mad by the sheer fucking beauty of it all. You wind up a washed out space junkie who's lost everything that made you human in the first place. People aren't meant to be out here. Life is 100% fatal, but space has a knack of killing you quicker and more inventively than any weapon the human race has ever managed to come up with.

I've still got 20 years left on my contract, but I'll be damned if I'm going to die in a pool of my own shit and vomit hopped up on enough psychotics to liquefy my brain. That's not the ending I deserve. I've seen the wonder of the universe, stared the void right in the eye; I'm a junkie, but I'm sure as hell not going to die like one.

So I've decided I'm going to take a walk. A long one, off a short pier if you will, or maybe out the airlock. Maybe I'll put a suit on, and stay out there, as close as a person can get to heaven and wait until my air runs out. Falling asleep wrapped in the sheer intoxicating wonder of the universe. It'll be like being born, only backwards and more glorious.

Yes, that sounds nice.

I'm going out. I may be some time.

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