Photo by Billy Huynh on Unsplash

A Distant System

Amélie Matte
Oct 29, 2019 · 4 min read

No one ever tells you just how cold space is. They tell you how to triple validate the airlocks. They tell you precisely where to snip the dehydrated food packets. They tell you how to pin photos onto your standard issue cork board (deep, and into all four corners). But they don’t tell you about the cold.

In training, we wished for cold. We begged for fresh air to pour into our claustrophobic, sweaty practice suits as we ran drills. For a single fan, let alone air con in our bunks. It turns out leaving everything you know behind is a hot business. Hot tears. Searing arguments. Slammed doors. Sometimes it was just easier to be numb. Cold is a salve.

I told them I would write. Which we all knew couldn’t be true, at least not for long. Well, long for them. Not for me. Time works different on mission; searching for a new home that none of them will ever get to enjoy. I wonder if she’s walking yet? If she has a favourite colour? If she has a job, a career? If she’s a grandmother? I wish I could be a memory for her, but they said the planet was heating up and I knew that finding a place to plant humanity a new life was more important than the life I’d just created. It’s easy to get a god complex about procreation. Try keeping your ego in check when you’re asked to be a caretaker for humanity’s future.

I missed her warmth. Her skin on mine. The nine months when her skin was mine; pressing on the edges of her reality anxiously waiting to join ours. I miss her, deeply and in all four corners. And I wonder how much humanity we can really be bringing with us if we pressed them all away. Everybody on this ship has a ‘her’, a ‘him’, a ‘they’. We don’t really do names anymore. It makes them all too real, too far. Based on the time we’ve been on this ship, too dead. Maybe we’re the people who should’ve been left on the dirt. The people who jumped at the opportunity to leave behind the thing they were supposed to save.

My favourite days are the ones where we circumnavigate solar flares. It can take weeks. Once, months to clear a star’s field of radiation. If you find the right porthole in the right moment when no one’s around, you can close your eyes and remember sunshine. Remember summer. Remember a cheek pressed against yours. If you get real lucky, your brain brings you to blades of grass, hot in the sun, wet from a sprinkler churning and swishing on the lawn. Giggling. But then you flex your toes into the green and find only grey. Boots, cold and hard and synthetic. Space.

I thought the numb would protect me. I really did. All those sessions with the pre-launch program psych to give me the o-kay. Thumbs up. Green light. But I guess it just got me good and practiced at all those fancy terms for pushing it away. Compartmentalization. Dissociation. All I learned is that pushed away isn’t the same as gone.

I hear her crying sometimes at night. The gravity control ensures that it’s my pillow that ends up wet.

I bet you her favourite colour is yellow, was yellow, like the sun. Like a smile.

We haven’t passed a star in a while now. I’ve charted the next one at a couple days away. Most of the crew prefer to spend the days in cryo. Cold and knocked out so their minds and their bodies don’t have to feel the pull of time. I know I’ll need to join them at some point to keep my age on par with our targets, but not today, or tomorrow.

The longer I stay in there, the farther I am from her. Maybe I’m the only one left who remembers her. What if no one’s thinking about her while I’m sleeping? Isn’t what they say true death is, when there’s no one left to remember you. I hope she was a good grandmother. The kind with soft, squishy hugs and ooey fresh cookies. The kind of woman who radiates sunshine from the deepest part of her belly and isn’t afraid to share her warmth with anyone. I hope she got to be the kind of woman I couldn’t be for her. I wonder who taught her how.

Her photo’s been unpinned. I found it creased in the palm of my hand. I smile, because it’s warm in my hand. I push her back onto my board, away from me. Push the pins in snug.

She’s crying in the middle of the night again. She must be cold too. I wrap my bunk blanket around my shoulders and pad down the hall to her room. Her light streams in from the window. She’s so close. She needs me. I flick the three switches to close the space between us, to close the air between my body and hers, to get as close as I can to the warmth of her body without swallowing her whole. I wonder if she’ll still fit in the crook of my arm.

No one ever tells you just how cold space is.

Amélie Matte
Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade