Author’s Notes Some may perhaps remember the reluctant astronaut Tabitha from my earlier story “Mission Improbable”, but I hope this story can also stand alone. I would also like to add that though it is, of course, a work of fiction, WG Sebald, Max to those of us privileged to know him, was a real, and wonderful person, and "The Rings of Saturn" is a real, and wonderful book.
It’s almost a proverb in itself that proverbs have a contradictory proverb – on the lines of look before you leap and he who hesitates is lost and let the buyer beware and many hands make light work and too many cooks spoil the broth. But so far as I know there’s no contradictory counter to Beware of what you wish for.
I didn’t beware of what I wished for. I was delighted to be offered a chance of getting out of the mission to the moon (I love everything to do with astronomy apart from actually getting into a spaceship!) only to discover two seconds later, from our college principle Mr Bourne, that I was being sent to Saturn instead.
So, instead of Project Luna, here I am on Project Sebald. It’s called after a famous writer who was a professor at the predecessor (or one of them) of the university where I studied, who wrote a book called The Rings of Saturn. Which, incidentally, has very little to do with Saturn. I gather he was very clever and very quirky and very kind. I was about to say the kind of company that might just make this journey more bearable, but on reflection, nothing could.
Well, on reflection, maybe one thing. And that, mercifully, is what I am going to be granted, as much for practical reasons as any other. Before very long the spaceship and I are both being sent into Suspernation. Or, in other words, suspended hibernation. I have already been injected with a slow working sedative, and the computers will see to it with the ship. In the ship’s case, to save power. In my case, it might just save my sanity, though I don’t know if I’m exactly at ease in my mind about being put to sleep for a couple of years. True, rockets can travel more quickly now than people ever thought they would, and a new record seems to be broken every day, but until someone manages to harness a wormhole (now there’s a mixed metaphor if ever there was one!) or master a warp drive, it’s still one heck of a long journey.
I think the sedative is already beginning to take some effect – maybe it was even a half day ago when there was all the palaver about lift-off. I’m no shrinking violet and won’t pretend I didn’t enjoy aspects of it (or at least it distracted me) but when people whom you know to be atheists make a point of wishing you Godspeed then it’s more than a bit off-putting.
The earth is already just the tiniest dot on the horizon, far more distant than in that picture they call Earth Rising that still moves so deeply even after more than a century. And I’m getting drowsier. “When that happens, lie down, make sure you are tethered down on the bed, and perhaps you might like to listen to some music,” they advised me. “It will seem like no time at all before Project Sebald lands on Saturn!”
Well, they’re certainly right! It seems as if I have barely blinked. And despite myself and my fears, goodness, am I excited! I will be the first human to see those Rings of Saturn – not beamed from afar, however beautiful and breathtaking the pictures – but close up.
If I could find the right place to look, that is. And I wish that computer would catch up and switch on the lights in the spaceship. I’ve never been remotely scared of the dark – for me it has always been the time of stars! – but something about being in total blackness hurtling through the solar system at speeds never reached before, and yet seeming to be drifting so, so, gently, in total blackness, well, that’s not quite the same thing. I can see just the faintest glow on the instrument panel, and grope my way over to it. There is a constant faint hum. But the tone and volume are not constant, they ebb and flow, and just as they are about to become soporific, they become disconcerting.
My flair has always been for research and science rather than the technology of the thing, but I’ve been given a crash course (I could wish they’d found another phrase!) on certain aspects of aeronautics. Anyway, you hardly need a degree in rocket science to just look at a clock. Or rather at three clocks. All digital, of course, displaying Earth Time, Mission Time and Saturn Time.
And on Earth Time, only a couple of months have passed. The computer and the Suspernation feature evidently aren’t working properly. We have a problem. I will not panic. Not yet. I will do something reassuringly old-fashioned. The basic communications system will still be working, won’t it? It better had be!
“Mayday, Mayday. This is Project Sebald. There appears to have been a dual malfunction.”
For an awful, seemingly interminable few seconds, there is no reply. Then a welcome, steady voice, that seems to fill the whole ship, the whole dark, drifting space within space. It is coming from inside, not from outside. But I expect that is normal enough. “Please give us more details, Tabitha.” I am pretty sure they must know, after all, they know all about what’s going on at mission control, but maybe they just want me to have something to do. So I explain about waking up, and discovering that I am still only a couple of months out from the earth. This time there is hardly any pause and it seems as if several voices are speaking at once, some male, some female, some both or neither, in harmony and unison and yet in a thousand strands. Polyphony. That’s the word, isn’t it? I am so caught up with the fascination of the sound that at first I barely pay any heed to what is being said, and that won’t do at all. Yet I still wish I were just talking to Jack Hammond at Mission Control. Just hearing that one gruff, gentle voice.
“We will attend to this Tabitha. It is nothing for you to worry about. It is a shame you had to undergo this experience.” I realise what is odd about the voice or voices, apart from there being so many of them in perfect unison and with a thousand strands. They don’t sound robotic, not like those old fashioned voice synthesisers, but they space their syllables too exactly, too evenly, giving equal weight to each one. Un-der-go Ex-per-i-ence. Or maybe I’ve already become hypersensitive to sound – maybe it’s because of the darkness. I know that though scientists say there’s no real truth in blind people hearing more keenly, actual lived experience suggests there is. I am not blind, of course, but I might as well be, apart from the muted display on the instrument panel.
“Lie down again, Tabitha. Lie down on the bed and tether yourself. Put the music on if you wish. There should still be more than enough sedative in your veins, but if needs must, we can send some through the air. Just let yourself drift, Tabitha. It will be fine.”
But I wanted to go home!
Well, no matter. I had resigned myself to this, and I can do so again, and soon I will be asleep, sleeping like the ship in the darkness.
“Does she sleep now? Yes, I think she sleeps now ……”
No, she does not, I want to shout, not yet!
“We were careless. We must monitor things more carefully.”
Now sleep is most definitely coming, and, strangely, the voices seem softer and sharper at the same time. “But no real harm is done. And she still thinks she is only going as far as Saturn.”
“And she should still be fertile when we land.”