I couldn’t go down as the biggest disappointment in the history of man, after all, we had strived for it throughout our entire existence. The Plutocape was just exactly as expected, but just a little bit more dangerous. There was the possibility of death right outside the ship, no matter how well constructed it was. We were always told to remember that everything, other than experimental versions, were built as cheaply as possible. This ship was no exception. He could only hope that they had come a long ways towards perfection since beginning to design the thing.
He strolled in front of the window, a massive screen that curved around the very front of the vehicle. If it wasn’t for the shield covering it during flight (a misnomer for sure), you could see the universe as it passed by between planets. He looked downward, outside of the ship, and saw it reflecting the light of the sun, thousands of millions of miles in the distance. At this distance it was hard to distinguish it from the background stars, those that surrounded Earth, itself millions of miles away and quite unperceivable.
Instead of looking at reflections and illusions, something done as a normal exploration back in the travel agencies of Earth, he looked up and into the stars beyond our own planetary system. It was a massive crushing of his ego, seeing something so immense that his mind could scarcely allow it’s existence in his simple, threatened mind.
From the position of Pluto at the given time, as far out of the planetary plane as it ever was, it gave his a view that almost allowed him to see the edge of the galaxy. To the left, behind the trailing swirl of star dust and sunwave bands, he could almost see the bulge that was in the center of the Milky Way galaxy. His curiosity had always been peaked when he compared the simple planet system he was raised on, and the similar construction of the galaxy, indeed, most galaxies. In this case the galactic bulge was trillions of stars, some so big as to make ours a mere speck in comparison, all huddled together to give notice to those other star systems that it was there. It was just as our star dominated the planetary plane from the very center, a dark one without stars with planets instead of the blinding intensity of light that the stars gave off.
Billions and trillions of miles, light years, and their shine was nearly painful to look at without the filter of an atmosphere, or in this case, various screens. He removed his glasses, wiped at a minute bit of dust that clung to the lens, and put them back on his face, having eliminated a single dull star that followed the position of his head at every turn.
It was very tempting to step out into the hostile, atmosphere, or rather, the virtually lack of one, just to prove that he was actually here. In his old age, there was very little to lose anyway. This trip was his last dance, his final fling before settling into the cocoon of rest, his euphemism for his casket. The wooden box that would carry him to the only place known that couldn’t be gotten to by a flying ship.
And he had come prepared. He had smuggled an opener as he departed, just as he had designed a distraction to rid his travelling companion. It was hard not to giggle at his own cleverness, but it was not even that sneaky, just a spur of the moment impulse. Although it was in his thoughts to go out in a ‘blaze of glory’ for many years, he never thought the chance would ever be offered to him.
He had studied all that was known about the ships prior to his departure. Knowing that they had to be built by someone, he found out the lists of individual component suppliers, and used the knowledge to get the blueprints and theories necessary to pilot the ship. The installation of the trip was way beyond any chance of his remembering, the complicated formulas were much too intense for him to juggle, even with the best computers at his disposal, and it was unnecessary as well. It was much easier to let them plan the travel arrangements, and go from there, to take advantage of the procedure. His planning had been of the ‘just in case’ scenario, if things happened according to procedures, and he could take advantage of them.
Now he stood in front of the sealed window to the stars, his belly bumping the plastic aluminum as it also curved, though it’s curve was much wider, encompassing the front of the ship, while his encircled the expanse of his stomach. He wondered silently if it would be noticed when he was discovered by some other creature of the galaxy.
He knew it was unlikely that human’s would recover his body, having jinxed up their machine by leaving the door open. It couldn’t be recalled, not even through the intense calculations that they were already pouring over, attempting to get him back as he stood there thinking. A few moments passed while he escaped and they argued about whether it was simply a glitch, or if it had been intentional on his part. After dealing with his near travelling companion as a thief or a terrorist, they returned to find out that the countdown had gone off as scheduled, but with only a single occupant. This time he did chuckle, remembering how easy it was to tuck the opener into her handbag while she searched for travelling pills.
It was almost too difficult to resist, his revulsion at her ignorance about travelling by lightwire. There was no instances of anyone ever getting sick from it, yet she insisted on taking pills that would keep her from becoming nauseous. He knew that flinging particles across space couldn’t produce any such thing while the body, along with this whole ship, was mere specks of light, separated into particles until they reached the other end of the voyage.
He wondered how she had even been chosen to take such a trip, but then recalled his own history, one not expected to be sent either. He was old, a bit crotchety, overweight (as his belly flattened against the viewing screen attested), and certainly not so wealthy as to be some kind of showpiece for the company who sent his here. Suddenly a sad wave of remorse swept through him as he realized that he was slighting a woman who was every bit as likely to travel across the galaxy as he was.
“The standards must have really dropped.” He thought about the ability of humans to pinpoint themselves anywhere in the planetary system. Even as he had stepped into the ship they were talking about doing the same thing across the galaxy. It would take new formulas, better computing abilities, and a bit of time as they put it all together. When it came down to it, there was very little difference between this little jump he had taken, and that of launching someone into a nearby star system. The exact distances where well known, even with the expansion of the universe occurring at all times, along with the jostling of every speck floating in space large enough to land on.
He was a bit of an old stogy man. Leaving his own planetary system was unappealing to him on the basis of loyalty. It was a silly concept to be loyal to one’s planetary system, but someone he didn’t want to go further than that. When it all came down to it, now that he was here, it was already a disappointment as it was. Calculating every viewpoint that he would see had been easy compared to that of figuring out an actual trip out here. The virtual trips were stunning (and probably enhanced as well).
His finger ran over the smoothed button, a single protrusion in the middle of a rounded disk, a bump that as he was watching, seemed similar to the bulge in the center of the galaxy. Suddenly he held it up to his face and wondered. Lifting it to arm’s length, he held it out in front of him, between the window and himself. Shockingly, it was nearly the same view in either case, whether he was looking at the door trigger, or the galaxy on it’s edge. It was so close to identical that he mused that if he pressed the button inward, the suns of the galaxy might also depress themselves below the plain of it’s stars.
He hadn’t noticed it despite his innumerable trips to the abbreviation center (supposedly the views within the center were only an approximation of the real thing), his manipulation of the wiring within it as he modified it, that there was such a similarity. Nowhere could he see a difference between what they had projected into his brain, and that of the reality of being where he was right now, staring out into an unblinking star system, even though it was ‘the big one’, the whole universe seemingly in view with the twist or two of the neck muscles.
Of course, who would have thought that anyone would have put that much thought into a mere door switch, which was basically what he now held in his hand. His modification only allowed it to be opened while outside of the launching building, a simply radio telemetry trick to fool the ship that it was still within it’s structural confines, a safe hanger surrounded by breathable air. Air that had always been there, never failing to fill itself around the planet. Shortly he would find out how well he had re-programmed it.
He put on a simple helmet, one that contained enough of the precious gas to keep him alive for minutes at the most. Not wanting to trust himself, or his possibly fears, he didn’t want to allow himself to rush back into the ship in horror of what he had done, he didn’t carry any extra air with him. As it was, this would be highly suspect had he appeared at the ship holding a bottle of pressurized air. The ships were not meant to allow exploration once you arrived, and so extra air was not necessary. The ship had plenty for the short term visit, and there were enough safety features on it to allow a return trip, even if the passenger’s had been disabled by a sudden leak of the life sustaining gas mixture.
Pulling the finger out of the bottom gasket surrounding his neck, he then pressed the rounded button in the galaxy-shaped door opener. He hoped it would work, but he hadn’t been able to test it, and it seemed to be taking a while to function. Failure was a rising concern as he could see nothing happening to the entrance door just to the left of the viewing nose cap of the ship. But suddenly a crack appeared around it as the door pushed outward in the standard procedure of a regular airline plane. He could hear the seal being broken, and a little whoosh as the two atmospheres equaled, one with air, one without. With a push on the middle of the moving panel, it would swing further out of the side of the ship and then swing sideways out of the way.
Then there was the surface of Pluto. It was disappointing, quite exactly what he was expecting from the pseudo-trips he had gone on back on Earth. The surface seemed black, and not very impressive in size since it was barely a planet, but more of an asteroid locked into an odd orbit around the sun. The opened door faced the rocky stone of a hill or mountain jutting out from the more level site of his landing area. He couldn’t see around it, not even into space as he could while looking out the front of the ship. It seemed to him to be coal-like, shiny in places, dull in others, and very cracked and sharp-edged vertical lines.
He stepped out of the ship, taking a few cautious steps without much gravity to hold him to it’s surface. But then his throat quickly caught, and it sealed itself off for the lack of breathable atmosphere. It was infuriating to have so misjudged the contents of his helmet, but his anger was quickly overwhelmed by the fear of death. He had never had it before, but here, at the time of it’s delivery, it grabbed him and choke his throat and mind as he passed out. Only a little bit of satisfaction was gleaned out of the situation, the fact that they couldn’t recall the ship while the door was open. He would be found, if ever, on the rock of Pluto, endlessly surrounding the sun, his only one true sun that had warmed him through his many years, though clearly not at this distance.
Gasping as he sat hurriedly on the floor, facing that wall of black rock, he felt the helmet as it was being sucked in by each of his shallow breaths. It was a thin plastic bag virtually, meant to calm a passenger as they were transferred back to Earth. It was supposedly just a crutch for them to cling to as they passed out due to whatever failure had occurred. It puffed back into it’s rounded shape as he exhaled, each time clouding over with moisture as his breath hit it’s inner surface. Just as he noticed that it wasn’t expanding quite as much with each exhalation, getting smaller as it filled with carbon dioxide instead of mostly an oxygen mixture, he felt his thumb rubbing around the curved button in his hand. Oddly (because he was never a fan of children’s movies), he thought of Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz”, rubbing it as she would have knocked her heels together back on her voyage. He couldn’t help but remember her instruction from the good witch, “There’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…”
His finger stilled circled around the button where it intersected the flattened shape of the galaxy. He couldn’t recall if he had pressed it or not, but he remembered sitting on the floor of the space ship. Now he was lying on his back, and not looking into the black cliffs of Pluto, but into bright white lights that were blinding him.
Then he remembered pressing the button, initiating the journey that would take him all the way out to Pluto and back. He always hated waking afterward, those damned bright lights they used to bring you out of the drugged state. They always said that it was the least shock to the system upon returning, and in his case, because he was over ninety years old, they wanted to take the least dangerous method possible with him. Never mind that his heart was as strong today as it had been twenty years ago, they didn’t seem to care about that. And his eyesight, faltering as it will when you become nearly a hundred years old, didn’t need to be shocked every time he returned, but he never could convince him of that.
When he could finally see, and the blinding lights faded their intensity, he could once again see. It was a relief to be able to use his eyes again, always fearful that they wouldn’t work after that exposure. He was even surprised to find his vision good enough to see the black crystals covering his heavy boots, those they were made to wear to keep the blood circulating during the voyage, another fear that he didn’t share with his team.
He attempted to blow them off, but his breath wasn’t that strong. It was perhaps the one thing that his advance age was affecting. His mind swirled once again with the lack of oxygen, having blown it out towards those coal-like particles clinging to his feel.