A ship is designed to carry only what it is meant to carry, for exactly as long as it meant to carry it. For to have even a hair out of place could mean tearing open the tightly sealed hull, or scrambling the control unit, or distort navigation, or throw off the air pressure. If a ship is damaged in flight every human being would die in seconds, still strapped to their seats in the empty vacuum, the one-way travel tickets frozen against their breasts as the open wound of their ship drifts into infinity.
To make the prospect of such horrible and swift oblivion more palatable, a photo of a fairly handsome, thin white man in an Apollo astronaut suit, with short receding black hair smiling bashfully at the camera is nailed above the flight cabin of every passenger rocket firing off into the milky way. Underneath him is a plaque that read the following:
Shown above: John Young.
Ill-advised carry-on pack lunch.
You see this as the flight attendant is strapping you in, and as the in-flight wait music begins to flood unwanted through your ears, through the wires wrapping around your cranium down through the display implants behind your eyes, to the vibrating peg in the cochlea of your inner ear.
You don’t understand the sign. The history of interplanetary flight was made classified three years after you were born. But the plaque and the photo are still there. The Astronaut’s bashful, embarrassed smile is a comfort.
“I too, like all of you,” that smile admitted, graciously and humbly, “Am an idiot.”
You are amazed to recognize the music being pumped softly and directly into your mind. Johnny Cash brushes gently against your inner ear, just as it did connect to the redtooth in your father’s study. The Man in Black, dead for over one hundred and twenty years, hums gently into your ear. The music reminds you of your father.
You wish you could cry. You can’t. Your tear ducts were deactivated the moment you came on board. Your tears would have been an element not pre approved aboard the ship.
Your father with charged and executed for crimes of insanity when you were eleven years old.
After the Final War, the UE Parliament had replaced the government of individual nations. Once their formation was cemented, they began the process of putting bills in place to ensure that another war would never take place.
It was generally acknowledged that in the post psycho-atomic age, for human beings to ever again attempt war would be for the planet Earth to commit suicide. It was decided that only a human being with a severe case of insanity would want to make the human race commit suicide.
The terminology of mentally ill was abolished eleven weeks after your ninth birthday. The day your brother died, a new definition of insanity was uploaded to yours Matrix implants: Insanity is the result of a malfunctioning brain.
Your brother had died in space, in a rocket just like this one, with thirty-one passengers, three flight attendants, a pilot and an automated co-pilot. You wonder what seat number he’d had, if he was trapped in the isle like you or if he’d had a window seat. You wonder if he’d been so close to the front he hadn’t felt anything at all when the cockpit exploded. You wonder if where he’d sat is at all close to where you sit now.
There is a countdown singing in your head. You feel the world around you shaking. This is the prelaunch sequence. You wish you could shut it down, the numbers ticking backwards from 100, each beat mixing horribly with the music you didn’t ask for.
You can feel your teeth chattering. By the time the countdown has gotten to 71 the music has begun to die away. You don’t know that the voice of the countdown had been designed to sound reassuring and familiar. It isn’t for you. You’ve never listened to Frank Sinatra.
You would do anything to make that countdown stop. You hate the voice of the countdown more than you hate the rattling of the world around you, more than you hate the faint smell of rotten cabbage coming from the passenger sitting across from you, more than the fake smiles of the flight attendants strapped to the front of the cabin, or the soft gloves of the surgeon who had updated you each year.
You want to reach up, to dig in to the server at the base of your skull, the one under your ear. You want to dig it out, to rip the tendrils from your head, to smash the receiver against the cold steel of your armrest until the voice of that countdown stops forever
You know you won’t. You know to disconnect would be to die. Or if not, then at least to be arrested, and then to die.
As the countdown ends, you feel the great roar of the engines beneath your feet. You wonder if you’re going to throw up. You assume that this is another bodily function that would have been switched off as they strapped you in, but you still feel nauseous as the rocket begins to push upwards into a grey sky you cannot see.
Suddenly, the man sitting across from you, the one who smells strangely of rotten vegetables leans forward. You can’t help but notice how yellow the whites of his eyes are as he looks at you. But he must have seen something on your face, something he recognised and understood, because as he puts the hand on your knee, covered by the same gloves of the same jumpsuit as everybody else, you don’t feel threatened or afraid.
“Don’t worry,” He says, in a throaty whisper, and you wonder how you can hear him over the roar of the engines. “There’s a trick to it, you see? A trick to staying in your own head.” You then wonder if you’re hearing him at all, or if the voice is just inside your head. He grins, and his teeth are as yellow as his eyes. You find yourself thinking of bananas.
“Either we get there or we die,” He says.
You close your eyes, surprised your eyelids still work. You can’t feel the hand on your knee, maybe he’s taken it away. But the voice has replaced the voice in your head, broken rasps replacing smooth confidence. “Don’t worry there’s a trick to it, we get there or we die,” The voice says, and it says it over and over, becoming a mantra. You wonder if you’ve begun to malfunction.
“Don’t worry there’s a trick to it, we get there or we die,” You like the words because they’re true. You wonder if someone had said something similar to your brother as the cracks in his hull began to show, twenty-five million kilometers away from solid ground.
You are still repeating yourself as the soothing, intolerable tones of Sinatra in your head reach zero.
You can feel your signal beginning to fade as the rocket reaches escape velocity, roaring fast enough to escape the gravity of planet Earth. You can remember the only other time in your life when the signal bleeped out of existence. You remember the day you came home to find your father dangling from the ceiling fan.
You don’t understand what you’re seeing, you don’t understand what the strange spaghetti-like cords wrapped around your father’s neck are supposed to be. You are told later that they are antique landline telephone cords.
You remember seeing him struggle and convulse before the world went dark. At first you wonder if you are malfunctioning, or if you’re going to die. You’re not. Your eyes, and ears, and all forms of sensory output have been shut down at the vision of your father hanging in the space above the floor. Even your signal is disconnected, so that you can’t look up footage of what’s happening on the public feeds. You were a minor at the time. Imagery of suicide and extreme violence are restricted. Your cortex isn’t reactivated until after the ambulance has taken him away.
Once your father had recovered enough to be discharged from hospital, he was charged and tried for trying to commit suicide. When he took to the stand, he repeated what he had said to you, alone in that starch-white room. “I just couldn’t take it anymore your honor,” He said to the judge, gesturing at the base of his own skull, where a light blinked steadily on and off from under the skin signed that his implants required an update. “I just can’t take all these god-damn telephones.”
You heard a beep instead of the words “god-damn,” because profanity is also restricted for children. You didn’t know what a telephone was.
When the Plaintiff asked what he would do if he was found not guilty, you father remained perfectly calm and honest. “I’d go home and do it again,” He said. When asked to clarify, your signal began to fade again, to block violent and suggestive language. Years later once the footage was no longer restricted, you got to play back what your father said on display. “I’ll get there and then I’ll die,” He said.
Your father was taken out back behind the courthouse and shot to death by firing squad, for being found guilty of the insanity of wanting to commit suicide.
You have no memory of your father’s testimony. You had the memories filed and redacted.
The man sitting across from you is shaking slightly. His calm, craggy demeanor began to fade half an hour after you lost the signal. You can’t help but wonder if his calm was induced, if he had paid for mood-mods before take-off, that went offline as the ship was carried out of range of earth. Somewhere, a flight attendant is speaking calmly, apologising for the loss of signal. They promise that once the ship is in range of the Titan satellites, signal will be restored.
That won’t be for another two hours. The man across from squeezes his eyes shut. You can see his lips moving, yellow teeth appearing and disappearing, but you hear no sound. You reach out, but your arm isn’t long enough to touch him the way he’d touched you. “Don’t worry,” you try to say, but you hear no sound and know audio has been switched off, but you can still feel the hum of the words in your throat “We’ll get there or we die.”
There’s a whining in your ears and you know that something is wrong. There is audio beginning to leak back through, and you can hear what the man is saying.
“I can’t go anywhere without my telephone,” He is saying. It is deadly quiet. Nobody else is making a sound. Even the rattling of the cabin is gone. The only noise you can hear is that little man. You find yourself staring at the little scars along his hairline. You wonder what they mean.
“I can’t piss without my telephone,” The man moans. “I can’t leave home without my telephone, can’t do anything without my telephone!” his voice is rising to a scream. You can see that familiar red sting in his eyes, and you know that he would be crying if his implants would have allowed it. You can almost see the tears streaming down his face, mixing into the dirt of his grey beard, splashing onto his navy jumpsuit. “I can’t eat without my telephone, can’t drink without my telephone. I can’t fuck, I can’t sleep, I can’t live without my telephone,” His voice has sank to a whisper. His shuddering has died down to only the occasional twitch
“I can’t leave the world without my telephone!” He screamed, and you flinch in your seat, surprised that your reaction time hasn’t been dialed back.
You can see it behind the old man’s eyes. Behind the yellow and the grime and dirt, you can see your father’s eyes, transplanted into the passenger’s face. You wish you’d asked your matrix for a definition of the word telephone. But you can’t. You can’t access any matrix definitions. You have no signal.
“I’ll die without my telephone!” The man screams and his voice is so loud. and he is thrashing, convulsing in his seat. You are afraid he might hit you. You wonder why the attendants haven’t stepped in yet, but you can’t call for them on your matrix. You can’t do anything; can’t even turn away.
The man lunges forwards, and rips right out of his restraints. He has grabbed you by the shoulders, his fingers clawing at your throat. When he first touched you, it had been through the jumpsuit. You couldn’t feel the sticky dirt of his fingernails, you couldn’t smell the rot coming from his knuckles. “When I die, I gotta be buried with my telephone,” He gasps, and you can feel his breath against your cheek. You wonder why you don’t scream. You are afraid he might try and kiss you, and again you are again very aware that you cannot puke.
“It’s okay,” You stutter, unsure why the words should matter. “it’s a trick. We get there, or… or…” But the words slip away in your mouth as you stare at your father.
“Promise me,” He says. You are looking into his eyes and they are your father’s eyes, and it is your father’s voice that says in a small voice as something wraps around him, pulling him off you and away. “When they put me on the ground, make sure they bury me with my telephone,” He whispered.
And you understand.
The man is constrained and gagged in his seat until the signal returns. You know that the attendants are waiting for the signal to return. You know that things aren’t the way they used to be when your father was arrested. Trials aren’t necessary anymore. You feel the Matrix come back online, and know this means you are less than one hundred million kilometers from Titan.
You don’t look away as the attendants hold the man down, as the Matrix charges, assesses, and condemns him. You log into the trial sphere and find his case number in microseconds.
Trial Number: 42370.5
Charge: ill-advised possession of Malfunctioning Brain.
You lean forward, and you grasp the man’s hand before anyone can stop you. “It’s okay,” You tell him. “There’s a trick to it. You get there and you die.”
Someone is pulling your hand away from him as the needle is injected into his neck. He dies looking at you, and you just for a moment, it looks like he’s going to wink.
The body is ejected into space through the trash chute. You receive a message through the restored signal on your display, telling you that you will be offered fourteen hundred credits to redact the memory of the in-flight episode.
You can see shoulders slumping in your peripheral as the passengers around you take the offer. You choose instead, to call up your matrix, and ask for the definition of the word telephone.
Display says you still have another forty-five minutes before arrival. You now made it more than one and a half billion kilometers farther from planet earth than your father ever did. Eight hundred million kilometers farther from home than your brother.
You know your mother is still six and a half billion kilometers farther than you could ever go. You could never afford the stasis-trips. But she is barely a distant memory. You don’t care
You aren’t surprised when one of the flight attendants fills the empty seat across from you and sends an uplink request. You did not redact the memory, and so your statement must be taken. The attendant does not speak herself. An automated message hums through your ears from the uplink, and you are sickened to hear the same voice that performed the countdown at the beginning of the journey if you would like to lodge any official complaints or comments of any kind.
You stare into the attendant’s eyes, and it feels for a long time like you don’t want to say anything. There is nothing at all behind her eyes. You wonder if she’s watching a film. You look up to the front of the cabin, and the picture of the idiot grin of the astronaut who must have died two centuries ago, at the idiot grin painted over the face of a man who had not paid for a harmless mistake, because he had not had the implants to correct it.
You stare back at the flight attendant. You are sure now that she is watching a movie from behind her lenses. She doesn’t blink or flinch as you lean forward, the small red recording light still blinking in the vision of your left eye.
You wonder if this is how your brother felt.
“Don’t worry,” It’s the old man’s voice in your head, the body now floating in the empty expanse of space. It’s your father’s voice on the stand. You wonder too, if your brother heard this in his head in the moments before he had let the pre-programmed grenades he had injected into his bloodstream before his launch explode and rip a hole into the void. “It’s a trick. We get there and we die.”
“When I die,” You say, and you can feel the needles coming as the bullets and the bombs and the empty freezing of space already brushing against your skin. You suck in your breath, and then below with all the might of your malfunctioning brain, “BURY ME WITH MY TELEPHONE!”
*This story is part of the author’s forthcoming book, What We See in the Smoke
Ben Berman Ghan is a writer, editor, and student from Toronto Canada. He cares deeply for the piles of science fiction stories that sit in stacks around his room. His first novel Wychman Road was published in 2016, and his short stories have begun to crop up like weeds. Ben is the Fiction Editor of the Literary Journal The Spectatorial.