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Curtin University of Technology
Sitelines

The Earthling

 

Banx awoke in his cryonic sleep chamber with a terrible crick in his neck. He must have slept wrong, which was bad news since he’d been in there for three years. It would be days before he’d be able to straighten his neck again. Not only that, his finger and toenails had not been cut for the whole time either. They had gone curly.
            The fluorescent lights of the Starcraft Kierkegaard were harsh on Banx’s eyes. Groaning like an old man, he scrambled out of his tube and hobbled over to the door - squinting and with his right ear resting on his right shoulder. His overalls were hanging on one of those little plastic hooks that you attach to the backs of doors using double-sided tape. He took them down and climbed into them. In his chest pocket he found a post-it note that read: “don’t forget to re-animate the cat”.
            Feline officer Spock the cat had been assigned to Banx in the capacity of Uncritical Companion. He was now frozen solid in a small cryowave. Banx hit the defrost button and watched the cat-laden platform within start to rotate while the timer counted down from thirty. When it hit zero, there was a loud “ding” and he opened the door. Spock emerged, steaming and a little soggy. He jumped onto the floor and stretched before sitting down to give himself a thorough licking.
            First they went to the mess hall where Banx threw down a high protein synthetic energy tablet. Spock ate horse mince. As they ate they watched a movie from the vLibrary entitled "Escape from New York". The film depicted the city of New York in the distant future of 1997, in which the whole of Manhattan had been converted into a maximum-security prison.
"So this is what 1997 will look like," said Banx. He laughed, straining his neck in the process. "People haven't lived in New York for years, and it's only '96 now."
Spock ran his paw over his ears in agreement. Indeed, the world had become a vastly different place since Sylvester Stallone ended the Cold War in '85, using only his impassioned speech from the climax of Rocky IV. He had convinced world leaders everywhere that if he could change, they could change. Everybody could, in fact, change. In 1987 he created the Hard Rock Party with Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis. When they came to power in '91, the U.S.A. was doomed.
            The subsequent redistribution of global finances had been beneficial to Banx’s island home of Anguilla, which had used its newfound wealth to begin its own space program; the Anguillan Aeronautics Program (AAP). The AAP became the world leader in cosmic sciences, inventing SPT (Socratic Paradoxal Technology), the foundation of which is that ignorance of any given subject is the key to its mastery. For example: in the early days of brain surgery it was thought that the brain was one large organ that performed one task, i.e. thinking. The opposite turned out to be true, of course, when surgeons discovered that the more they learned about the human brain, the more there was to know and the more confounded they became. SPT proposed a more “ignorant” approach in which, the less scientists knew about something, the more likely it was to work. Scientists at AAP had absolutely no knowledge of physics or aeronautics. They were, in fact, philosophy and communication graduates.
            He turned the television off. There was much to do before the Kierkegaard touched down on Ganymede, the largest of Jupiter’s moons. The Kierkegaard would be conducting atmospheric tests, soil composition analysis and a marketability evaluation, and Banx had to make sure that all of the ship’s windows were washed before touchdown, in his official capacity of Silical Decontaminant Officer. Time to trim these nails.

***

“Look at all these windows, Spock.”
            The main hall of the lower deck was an expanse of white lino and floor to ceiling glass, looking out into blank, empty space.
            “We’re here to clean the windows, but if we weren’t here there wouldn’t need to be any windows, so they wouldn’t need window cleaners.”
            Spock looked doubtful.
            “Never mind,” he said as he set his stepladder down in front of the first window, #338. “I’m not about to complain. What other job am I gonna get with an Arts degree?”
            He stepped to the top of the ladder, squeegee in hand, and began cleaning.
            “You know, Spock, this ship, she’s meant to be so great. Self-sufficient. The computers, they take care of everything: navigation, engine maintenance, but can they get the windows completely streak-free? No, for that they need the gentle, loving touch of a lowly human.”
            In the top right hand corner of the window he could see a short, silver hair. He brushed at it with his fingers, but it wouldn’t come away.
            “Oh my lord,” he said. “That’s a crack, Spock. A crack in the glass. Tiny one.”
            From his pocket he produced a small tube of Tarzan’s Grip, the strongest glue known to humankind. Using the handle of the squeegee, he trowelled some over the fracture.
            “Crisis averted, eh?”

***

A few days later the mail came. Amongst the pizza menus and offers for free home valuations was a letter from Shirley Rafferty, the Head of Operations at the AAP.

Dearest Banx,
I hope this letter finds you well and that your window cleaning duties have been productive. All of us here at head office are thinking of you and sending our best wishes.
I would like to take this opportunity to warn you of a serious condition that has befallen some of our other Silical Decontaminant Officers. It seems that some of you have been hallucinating after prolonged periods of solitude. I like to call these hallucinations “Space Madness”, thought the AAP lawyers have asked me not to.
On an unrelated note, my wife and I have recently purchased time-shares in a lovely villa on the northeast coast and are looking for other interested investors. If you or anyone you know are interested please let me know and I’ll fill you in on all the details.
   Regards,
   S. Rafferty.

How he wished Rafferty would stop using that ridiculous (and barely legible) “Bradley Hand” font on all of his correspondence. He suspected that Rafferty thought he was fooling everyone into thinking that he hand-wrote all of his letters, even though most of the time they were form letters and you could tell by the way he often forgot to un-highlight the merge fields before printing them. Still, there was something vaguely charming about a man of his standing still being so delighted and fascinated by the intermediate functions of word processing software. As he threw the letter into the wastebasket, he thought he saw, out of the corner of his eye, he could have sworn that one of the ship’s struts (really?) had floated past the window.

***

“Are you worried?” he asked himself.
            “I’m not worried,” he said, scraping soapy water from window #443. His reflection looked as though it was outside, bobbing in space.
            “Because now is not the time to start hallucinating.”
            “I’ve never felt more clear-headed.”
            “This far from Earth, you start losing it, you got trouble.”
            “Oh come on. I could clean these windows with my eyes closed.”
            “Maybe. But perhaps that’s not the problem.”
            “What are you talking about?”
            “Maybe you need to start thinking about what’s holding this ship together.”
            “What does that mean?”

***

Throughout the night Banx slept uneasily. What was eating at him? Did his subconscious know something he didn’t? Something about the ship’s engine. The Kierkegaard had been built according to Socratic Paradoxal theory. Basically, they welded a heap of scrap metal together and tipped in a random bunch of nuts and bolts, with a collection of Arthur C. Clarke paperbacks. Perhaps some Ray Bradbury had been slipped in there, thus weakening the genre-drive.
            His thoughts were interrupted by a loud creaking noise. He sat up in bed and listened. Then a large piece of siding from the ship’s hull floated past his bedroom window and, sitting atop it, Spock the cat. The expression on Spock’s face was that of mild annoyance.
            “Spock... no!”
            But Spock was already doomed. All Banx could do was watch as his companion drifted into the darkness.
            “Of all the souls I have encountered,” he said, “His was the most human.”

***

The mess hall, night. Banx eats his tablet slowly, shaving bits off with his teeth and rubbing them between his tongue and the roof of his mouth. Banx sits across the table from Banx, chewing a tablet of his own like a teenager chewing bubblegum.
            “The ship’s fine,” says the first Banx.
            “You think the ship’s fine.”
            “Exactly. It’s working. Everything is okay.”
            “You’re delusional.”
            “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. What are you talking about?”
            “How does the ship’s engine work?”
            “I don’t know. I’m not an engineer.”
            “The ship wasn’t built by an engineer.”
            Banx looked at him. At himself.
            “If everything’s fine then why should I be worrying?”
            “Happy thoughts.”
            What?”
            “Don’t lose your happy thoughts.”
            “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?”
            He got up and left. No point listening to that guy. He wasn’t even sure when his internal monologue had become a dialogue. And exactly what was wrong with ignorance? If it hadn’t been for ignorance this great ship wouldn’t even have broken Earth’s gravitational field, let alone made it all the way out here. All this way out, so far from everything and everyone. There was a great shudder throughout the ship’s decks. Lights flickered and then righted themselves. Things were getting serious.

***

Day ten. Banx awoke from a dream in which he was standing in the middle of his high school science class with no pants on. Shaking, he walked into the bathroom and washed the sweat from his forehead.
            At breakfast he forwent the energy tablet and ate a portion of Spock’s raw horsemeat. His usually high standard of window washing had deteriorated to shooting a few squirts of window cleaner onto the window, often not bothering to wipe it off. Then he discovered it.
            He had gone to the toilet to clear his head (among other things). He had rooted through the magazines lying on the toilet floor, looking for a copy of NME that he hadn’t yet read, and there it was. A textbook.
            “Introduction to Physics” said the title. Horrified, he jumped up and washed his hands. This is it, he thought, this is the reason the ship’s failing. A poison pill! After deliberating for some minutes, he knew what he must do. He would blow the piece of filth straight out of the airlock.

***

He took the textbook down to the lower deck, holding it between thumb and forefinger. The ship was grumbling and the lights were threatening to shut off completely. He opened the inner door of the airlock and tossed the book into the small white room, then closed it again. Through a small window in the door (#186), he could watch the evacuation. Next to the door was a red safety button marked “outer door”. He pushed it. The book’s pages flipped open as all the air began to leave the room, then it was pulled over to the expanding doorway, then it was pulled through, into space.
            Immediately the lights went back to full power and the turbulence stopped. If I keep saving the ship like this, he thought, I’ll be up for some kind of medal.
            He turned and walked up the main hall. Through the now grimy windows he could see Ganymede approaching. Not long now, he thought. Not long before we set down, do the damn tests, and then get out of here.
            Something flickered up past the window. That damn book. He averted his eyes as quickly as he could, not wanting to even catch a glimpse of the thing that had nearly caused his end.
            But it was too late. Before he could look away, the book had danced into his field of vision, open to page one hundred and fifty-three. Without meaning to, he read the following sentence:
Aerodynamics is the name given to the physical science that deals with lift...
And that was enough. The ship resumed its trembling. The lights finally went off. The window in front of him (#336) cracked like lightning, top-left to bottom-right. He fell to his knees. This was the end. In a mighty, awe-inspiring display of destruction, the Kierkegaard tore itself apart.

Postscript

As Spock tumbled through nothingness his mood shifted from annoyed, to less annoyed, to full of wonder. He was seeing things that no cat had ever seen before. The stars, the absolute black of space and, looming before him, the vast milky surface of Jupiter. Then more feelings came, thrust upon him by an external intelligence. In his mind he saw things; the beginning of time, the end of time, all things coming and going at once. And lights. Bright, dazzling lights, shifting and flowing over each other. His consciousness was being elevated at an undreamed-of rate, millions of years of evolution in mere seconds. His thought processes overtook that of a human and became something new. He became something new, something never seen before. Then he knew why he was there. Some extraterrestrial being had summoned him, brought his whole ship out here unharmed. The entire mission had been leading up to this. Spock kept evolving until his mind no longer had use for his body. His consciousness floated out into the universe. He was the first Earthling to make contact, the first Earthling to evolve past the need for physical being. He was Space Cat.

 

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