Science Fiction Fiction

The flickering lights of the spaceship woke him up from what seemed like an eternity of sleep to him. The humming of the engines grew louder with the buzz of electricity until both reached complete stillness. The pod gently slid open and Cole pushed himself to a sitting position. The effort alone was enough to bring much needed heat back to his muscles, but before attempting to get up, he made sure he stretched every inch of his body very, very cautiously as if he were handling a thin glass vase. He slung his legs down the pod, but they didn't quite reach the floor.

"Nothing's gonna happen, it's fine, you're fine..." he repeated inside his head until that hasty, frightened voice turned into a calm and reliable one. Clinging to the edge of the pod he mustered his courage, leapt down and a moment late his feet touched the floor. As he struggled to find his balance, he clenched his teeth, preparing for a great pain to cripple him. Mentally he was already down on the floor, ready for the suffering cramps would bring, but these reflexes proved to be unnecessary when he found his reflection on the mirror standing perfectly healthy.

One would think he would have gotten used to it by now, but waking up without pain, being able to get back on his feet and walking again was always a treat no matter how many times he experienced it. He cherished every step he took toward the now completely lit walkway and onto the cockpit.

The seats were empty which meant he was the first to awaken, therefore, it fell to him to do the routine checks to make sure that everything went smoothly and that they had arrived at their destination of planet FH-253899 or as Cole would have it, "Sunbathers Paradise" where the sun would set for about maybe ten minutes until another one rose to grant its habitants the tan they deserved. Reluctantly he reached to turn on the navigator screen, but didn't feel the need to go along with it as the big red planet was orbiting right in front of him and he had been here enough times to recognize it. He was taking a step back to better enjoy the view when the steadily approaching mechanic foot step voices distracted him.

"Happy birthday young explorer!" said the tall and bulky service unit with as much enthusiasm as a machine could have.

"Young and bold." added Cole.

"Happy birthday young and bold explorer!" the unit corrected which clearly messed up its timing since Cole heard a confetti explode inside it before it could take it out of its compartment and now he could only see the scattered colorful pieces of papers inside.

"Why thank you, I AM feeling very bold today."

The service unit went about its way to the other passangers. Cole grinned and turned towards the great dark before him. Sunbathers Paradise didn't seem as intriguing as it was a year ago, he now knew the best spots to watch the multiple sunsets, he knew where its most refreshing water sources were and in one of his expeditions to the cave systems, he had even discovered that the vegetation had fled the sun scorched surface and formed underground jungles. Nothing new was to be found in Sunbathers Paradise so instead, his eyes surveyed the vast hole of emptiness beyond it.

Even after two years it was still terrifying to look at and it didn't help that the only thing between him and that was a glass pane. For a moment he imagined the glass shattering, darkness swallowing him in a matter of seconds and his mind skimmed through memories for anything remotely close to how that would feel like, but there was none. He had no idea what would come after that and that scared him. Fear tried to find its way into his heart, but again, he was feeling very bold today.

"Who's ready for the best birthday ever!"

His parents were awake and ready to turn this day into something very special. Cole didn't share their cheerful spirits though. On the contrary, just hearing their voices made him feel nauseated and confused. Was he ready? After all, the entire reason they were here was him and his wish to see everything that there was to be seen.

Staring at his parents approaching from the walkway and then back at the infinite space, he shivered all over. The more he stared at it the more his bones froze, so he reached for the box behind the pilot seat, grabbed the grey wool blanket that his grandmother had knitted for him and the soft, warming sensation enveloping him immediately brought memories of her cabin in the woods back on Earth.

That cabin was probably his favorite place to be in as it not only had the best cook/baker/storyteller in existence who wouldn't let his overprotective parents love and care for him morph into a paralyzing bubble, but also it scratched every itch Cole ever had. During the day it served as a hub for his many expeditions to the green heaven that surrounded the cabin in search of caves to delve into, hidden waterways to discover and -if he were feeling unrealistically optimistic, a portal to some uncharted land. While the mere thought of Cole losing his way in the forest or worse, hurting himself so badly that he couldn't even scream for help, let alone trace back to safety terrified him, he didn't let fear shackle him and keep him from his destiny.

"Quite the adventurer he is..." his grandma had remarked one day which hadn't quite fit with Cole's perspective of himself. He wasn't seeking adventure. He wasn't jumping out of his bed as soon as his consciousness kicked in to find thrill and he certainly wasn't rushing his breakfasts to test the limits of his physical capabilities. Facing danger and surviving it wasn't what filled his little heart with overwhelming joy, it was just an inevitable consequence of his journeys. No, he was not an adventurer at all...

"Explorer." Cole had corrected.

Picturing himself finding places no one had ever seen, leaving the first footprint on a soil that had never been stepped on before, daring to go where others couldn't and being a pioneer dominated his dreams. So much so that if he was unable to climb up a slope, he would come back with a rope (that would be safely hidden from his parents gaze under his purposefully picked baggy shirt) the next day, tie himself to the nearest tree and try again. He wasn't particularly strong or agile, but that never bothered him as he believed that growing up would solve that problem eventually and the spirit of exploration within him would grow ever stronger. But time proved only the latter to be true.

Unlike most children, Cole got weaker and weaker over the years. No one had any idea what was going on. His muscles cramped out of nowhere, leaving him contorted in pain, afraid to even twitch. Suddenly standing upright had become the hardest thing anyone could ever ask of him and they rushed to the hospital. Back then he believed - or more so wanted to believe that there was nothing that the doctors couldn't cure and he brushed the whole thing aside as a temporary setback. However, that temporary setback he refused to acknowledge deteriorated his body until he couldn't walk without a walker. Only when he was confined to a wheelchair did he realize he needed to readjust his dreams which -to everyone's surprise- he did so in a single night with no real difficulty. His solution was very simple, he no longer needed to literally set foot on undiscovered places, he was fairly content with just setting eyes on them and so he turned his gaze towards just that, the skies.

The cabin had again come to his rescue since it was near impossible to observe the stars with all the lights in the city, especially when you live in a third floor flat. So grandma's became an even more frequent destination and at some point, it even became his new home. The moment Cole caught a glimpse of a star in the deep blue sky, he would perch his wheelchair on the balcony with his telescope and let his imagination go wild. Usually he fell asleep there, trying to picture unthinkable landscapes and impossible formations just waiting there for him to discover among the infinite number of planets. Nobody dared ask him to come inside to sleep, so instead, his grandma just knit a wool blanket that kept him warm all throughout the night. Perhaps maybe even too warm as sometimes he would wake up all sweaty under that heavy, staunch defender against the cold.

Every so often the damp clothes sticking to his skin reminded him of his days in the forest, unwaveringly wiping the sweat off of his face and continuing on his path. He missed his strength, it even brought him to tears on occasion, but he didn't long for the past. He didn't let his mind latch on to old memories and relive moments of his life, because the past meant path traveled, it was already discovered territory and it didn't sit right with him that an explorer of his caliber would simply be satiated with familiarity instead of seeking something new.

Later he even admitted to himself that his interest for the woods had started to diminish, long before his condition got worse. The trees had started to look the same since none of them had anything distinct to attract his attention anymore. The caves, few and short as they were, led to the same spots he had been a thousand times before and the only thing that forced the rose tinted glasses over those times was that they were before his sickness. The sickness that ultimately didn't matter, as Cole had his eyes on the stars now and the only real obstacle between him and them was arranging a vehicle, so he found solace in the fact that if he were to come upon a spaceship one day, he would be fine with it not being wheelchair accessible.

"I want to see them all!" which was more of a helpless protest againts the disease that was eating away at his body than an expression of excitement. Everyone knew he didn't have much time left, even him, which turned his nights of wonder into maddening count of days. It wasn't fair, it wasn't fair that death came for him at such an early age, when he was afraid and uprepared. He wasn't ready yet, he needed more, more time to seek, to see, to explore.

But there was no cure, no treatment and no miracles. The only thing they got was an offer:

"It's still in experimental stage, but..."

They didn't even need to hear the rest of it. This was the solution, the only one that could fulfill Cole's wishes. It wasn't a treatment, not even remotely. In fact in order for it to work, they needed his heart to stop which Cole knew wouldn't be a long wait. So he accepted the only offer that provided him the time he needed.

The arrangements were made, MRI's, various tests and scans were performed on his brain, so that when Cole's body failed, his mind would be alive and well, perfectly safe within the confines of a software, free of pain and sickness and with eternity itself to explore as he wished.

At the age of twelve, a sudden ache in his chest crumpled him and he fell to the ground, watching his parents rush to him. He smiled at them, at least he felt like he did and shut his eyes. When he opened them again, he was here, in this spaceship, able to stand up, run, jump and even age.

So he spent his last two years searching for every bit of detail this virtual word had to offer and at first, it was all he could have asked for. His mum and dad would spend whatever hours they had left from their daily lives here and they would travel the galaxies, just like he wanted. But for better or worse, things change, as Cole found out so early in life and the fact was that Sunbathers Paradies or any other planet here had become a common sight for him.

"Did you know that there were whole new cave systems here, who knows where they might lead?" his mother said to grab his attention, but Cole already knew the asnwer. He took a deep breath, trying to feel each muscle expanding as air filled his lungs and finally he turned to face them:

"Is this all there is?" he asked. The question itself was simple enough to answer, but the troubled voice implied something more which left his parents confused.

"Well, we could go for a random galaxy if you like. Come on, here, just give it a spin and we'll set the course, okay?"

They stared at him long enough to know where this was going and hoped to see a sign that proved them wrong. Cole reached out his hand and they quickly grabbed it, as if he would slip away from them if they hadn't. He looked at their eyes, both so full of love.

"I think I am ready now."

He was surprised to hear himself say that without hesitation. Even inside his head, the words felt worlds apart from one another. But they were out now, echoing inside their heads, urging them to do what they feared the most.

"But..." they didn't continue. This was their agrement. When the time came, they would do as he wished, no questions, no reasoning or no persuasion attempts. So they nodded and a second later, their bodies vanished into thin air.

They were all gone now, in a way they never really were here, just avatars created by the software to make him feel less lonely. But the voices were really them and as a fourteen year old body, alone in a ship drifting in endless space, he could use a familiar sound. The growing silence was starting to tense him up, but before it could get to him, the speaker on the console turned on.

"We love you son."

"The engines stopped. The lights shut down one by one as he approached his throne that was the pilot's seat.

"Young and bold..." he repeated to himself to stop the fear and loneliness taking over him, yet with each passing second, the voice that urged him to reconsider his decision grew louder. He no longer felt certain about anything and fear found its way out of his mouth:

"Will it... Will it hurt?"

He realized for the first time how small he sounded. This was the first time he ever felt like a child rather than a brave pioneer.

The speakers crackled, but there was only silence. It turned off and on again until finally an uncertain voice answered:

"We don't know."

There was no tone of comfort in that voice, just blunt honesty which helped the young explorer better than any words of consolation ever could have. Now he knew for certain that he was on the right path, the path into the unknown, like he was always supposed to be. As the red planet and the stars before him disappeared and the feelings of consciousness started to blur, wonder and excitement filled him once again, more intensely than ever before. He shut his eyes, eager to discover what was beyond.

February 24, 2022 19:45

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