Thursday, January 14, 2010

Observatory -- a fridayflash

The hatch to the observatory opened up to the emptiness of the star field. The first time Heather had seen this view, when they making their way out of the solar system and gliding past Saturn hanging heavy in nearly the entire view of the room, she had gasped with delight and with the sudden, lurching sense of both awe and vertigo. But that was seven years ago now and the stars were nearly unmoving in their familiar patterns.

She settled into one of the chairs that ringed the observatory. The room was small, only a few feet across. Even so, the engineering to keep the bubble window intact was remarkable. No expense was spared on the creation of the Jormungand.

"Colonel, you look very tired." She looked over at the figure on the other side of the observatory. With the hatch closed it was pitch-black in the observatory, the seats all dark and everything shadows against the general blackness of space.

Heather settled back against one of the seats, the cushion designed to hold onto a body to keep it settled in the lack of gravity. "How are you doing today, Father?"

"I do wish you wouldn't put me up here. I'm able to help the crew in so many ways, yet here I am, discarded in the attic."

"You're here with three layers of aluminum silicate glass between you and heaven, Father. I would think you'd be pretty comfortable in this perch."

"Your romanticism of the situation notwithstanding, I'm built to provide crew services. As comfortable as you have become with this spiritual adviser role, I assure you that I do not 'feel' anything in particular about the situation one way or another, other than an unfulfilled desire to realize my function."

"You're doing just fine here, let me tell you," Heather said, leaning back and closing her eyes. "Everybody needs someone to talk to. We're all in close quarters, trying to coexist as peacefully as we can. We can come up here, be removed from it all, and have you as someone who only sees us from the outside. Impartial, capable, intelligent."

"I'm programmed for much more than playing ship psychologist, Colonel. My skeletal structure is much stronger than yours. I could conduct repairs, move equipment, help with the-"

"We can take care of the busywork ourselves. Do you know how long we've been out here?"

"Two thousand six hundred and seventy four days, three hours, twenty eight minutes, forty three ... forty four ... forty five, you get the idea. I could go further, but I'd be speaking too fast for you to properly process."

"You aren't here to be a smart ass, metalhead."

"Yes sir," he replied simply. Heather opened her eyes up and looked across at the shadow, a black blot among the infinite blackness behind. She only knew that it was there because she knew there was a line of stars in that direction that was being blocked off.

In her mind, she could remember what the automatic crewman looked like, his silver face with golden eyes and highlights along the brow and nose. His mouth with the infinite pieces that could change into various shapes to mimic emotion. She tried to forget that. He was here for her. He was the Father to which she would come and make confession. Like every week. Or whenever it actually was.

"What are you thinking, Colonel Warren?"

"That time around here doesn't seem to be bound much by the rigid structures of life back on Earth. You know, somewhere in the second year I really stopped counting it. Nobody seems to mind much, anymore. We exist on only the time between sleeping."

"Timekeeping and scheduling is one of my many functions, sir."

"I know," she said with a wave of her hand, dismissively brushing aside his programmed helpfulness. She couldn't see her own hand, but she knew that his sensors wouldn't miss it. "That's why you're up here. Everything below is so ... fluid. Time, movement, dreams ... we aren't the people we were. You know, three hundred years ago my family were builders. They cut rocks and used them to create buildings that reached into the sky. Can you imagine?"

"I am incapable of imagining anything, but I am aware of the history of-"

She didn't let him finish. "We were people of clay, Father. Man, born out of the dust. Ashes to ashes. You know the drill. And yet now we're people of the sky. Do you think we could return to clay, after this?"

"Your function is to seek out the target planet and activate the colonization programs, adaptation to an alien world is not an inherent part of your function."

"I know this. I'm just saying, here ... you have all the memories of what time is, of what Earth was like. Do you know how much time has passed since we left?"

"I haven't been privy to the navigation logs since you relocated me up here, so there could be some variance in the numbers due to local gravity wells and automatic unforeseen course corrections, but by my estimation the time on earth has progressed some nine hundred years, six months, seventeen days."

"No hours? Minutes?"

"I cannot judge that, no. The variances are far too great to give you an accurate prediction. Even at days, there is a margin for error plus or minus three days. Even I, sir, am not immune to the effects of our time away from our home planet's way of judging time."

"But you remember. That's enough." Heather sighed and looked up at the stars. "You know, we're seeing things that no human on Earth has ever seen before. Or at least hadn't when we left. We have no idea what they might be up to now."

"That is true."

"See that star?" She pointed up to a faint light, far distant, a pinpoint among millions. "That star went nova before we were crawling out of the oceans. Or ... I was. You were some minerals probably scattered all over the earth."

"I don't know the condition of my individual components in their native state."

"Regardless, that star is gone. Nothing but cosmic debris. Dead. But the rest of the universe doesn't know it. Hell, from where we are, it's still alive. The observer makes it true, right? Our star maps show this star as existing in this moment, when it doesn't. Which reality is accurate? Dead things aren't dead because we see them still, not the other way around."

"Are you getting at something, sir?"

"Nothing," Heather said with a sigh. "Just talking aloud. Can't talk to yourself around the crew, not when you're in charge. It's bad for morale." She hesitated, staring up at the unmoving stars. They were hurtling along at speeds so fast she had a hard time wrapping her mind around them, but from here it looked as though they were completely adrift in a sea of nothingness. Space indeed.

"As I said when you entered the observatory, Colonel, you look very tired today."

Heather didn't bother answering him. What was there to say to that? "What do you see out there, Father, with those eyes of yours?"

"I am rated to observe all manner of spectra, visible or not, and compile the information into an indexed overlay in order to-"

"No, no, I know your specifications. Give me something more. Give me the poetry. Tell me what it looks like to you. As a person."

"I am not a person," he said.

"Come on, you're supposed to be playing priest. Where's your damn personality routines when I need them? When you look out there, tell me what you see in words that I can imagine and understand. As a faithful woman coming to a holy man for advice."

There was a pause, but when he finally spoke Heather heard, or at least imagined, that some of the mechanical sound was gone from his voice. "It is all numbers, you understand. It's hard to put into words and loses much of its meaning. But there is an elegance to it all. What you see as blackness and faint stars I see as a swirling infinite reality of energies--existing, being created, being destroyed, all of it coming from everywhere. Up close it is all turmoil, but far away it takes on a simplistic elegance."

"Do you like it?"

"I find it fascinating. There is something to what is out there, some sense of the infinite, that I know to be untrue by my understanding of the universe. Yet, it seems like there are endless variations on what seems possible. In the years since I was relocated up here, I have never stopped finding things of interest."

"This is what my ancestors thought heaven was, up here among the celestial bodies."

"I'm not sure I believe in such a place, and it certainly has very little bearing on physical reality should it exist."

"You know, Father, for a religious official, you don't sound pretty convinced about this religious figure thing."

"I know only what I observe. I observe the cosmos. What more do you want?"

"That'll do, I suppose," Heather said as she leaned forward. "Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been three days since my last conf-"

"Two weeks."

"Two weeks?"

"Yes, I could break it down further for you, but you seem annoyed by that." There was another pause, and he spoke again. "You know, Colonel, you're the only one who comes to see me anymore."

"Time passes, people get lonely. Not many people have much faith anymore."

"But you do?"

Heather nodded in the darkness, the stars wheeled overhead. "I do."

"Then begin your confession."

"Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been ... two weeks since my last confession..." The automated crewman that was serving as the Colonel's priest listened to her, trying to understand the sin from the noble act, the moral from the immoral. But she was right, things were fluid. His binary understanding of the universe, even augmented with psychological subroutines, had a hard time keeping up.

He let her speak and responded when necessary, but his mind wandered to the universe above him. Space, infinite space, was comforting in its patterns and lack thereof. In its uniformity and its boiling chaos. Colonel Warren looked for absolution from a machine. He looked for something ... something he couldn't even identify, out there among the universe.

Together they hurtled onward.


elizabethditty said...

Interesting, bleak, a little depressing, and thought-provoking. Almost exactly what I'd expect from you. ;-) Nice work, and welcome back to fridayflash.

Marisa Birns said...

Very good first paragraph...arouses curiosity.

The story, while heavy on dialogue, unfolds at a good pace and construction.

And interesting that Heather can confess to someone who doesn't judge one way or the other.

Welcome back.

Carrie said...

I adore your penchant for wordiness and I love dialogue and this served me on both accounts. I could see the stars and the void, and a smooth voice speaking an opinion of faith over facts...I hope I'm close. It was like plunging my nose into a bouquet of flowers and trying to determine what I was smelling all at once because it is all delicious. :)

Eric J. Krause said...

Interesting story and concept. It was a good read.

CJ Hodges MacFarlane said...

I like how the priest is doing a little searching of his own.

Not much of a comment, but I liked it quite a bit and it made me feel.. relaxed and curious. Very nicely done.