Starlutations

The steady, mechanistic hum of the AireXcape echoed through the walls as it kicked into activity, filling the capsule around her with artificial oxygen while removing the carbon buildup. In a few seconds her ears had acclimated to the sound, dimming it to silence. Without undoing her harness, the girl shifted slightly in her seat and reached for the cup beside her. A tiny beep signalled the disabling of the magnetic latch that held it in place as she touched it. She drank from the straw, gulps of filtered ionated water, and shook the device once before returning it to its holder, thereby activating the refill function through the silicone pipe attached to the bottom as the latch beeped closed.

Yawning slightly, she looked around. Her capsule was one of the newer models, designed specifically for family life. Beyond the usual necessary functions like auto-pilot and the entertainment pod, it also had a built-in toggle window running all along the diameter of the vessel, which she now triggered with a sweep of her small hand. The curved thick glass, usually white to blend in with the rest of the wall, turned transparent at her command, revealing the star-studded world outside. From where she sat, she could faintly detect the craters of Cerena, the planet she was orbiting, amongst a backdrop of tiny bright dots; stars, solar systems, or other capsules like hers. Although breathtaking, it was a familiar sight to the lone inhabitant of the vessel, and as the girl carelessly waved the view opaque, she wondered why she had even bothered with it in the first place.

A metallic ping brought her attention back to the hologram in front of her. A pop-up on the top left corner pulsed lightly; incoming call from “Mother”. She tapped it now, opening the empty call screen within. Another ping, slightly lower this time, accompanied the first message.

Hi. How are you?

A screen materialized on her right, revealing a list of five preprogrammed responses. The Vitaemotions chip clicked quietly into activity, reading in on her emotions to help facilitate communication. Without even bothering to read the other available options, she reached for the prompted response.

Fine. You?

Good.

The call continued fluently, ping after ping as each new message arrived. The chip – a tiny device embedded just below the skull at birth – not only efficiently measured and transmitted  various aspects of the bearer’s health to the Central Hospital, but also significantly improved both the speed and precision of conversations by interpreting thoughts and predicting responses.

More work came up. Looks like we won’t make it back this round.

The hologram screen flickered slightly, its blue text reflected in the hazel of her eyes. It took the girl a moment to realize the emptiness she heard was only due to the AireXcape shutting down as it completed its cycle.

By her elbow, the suggested preprogrammed message was flashing in annoyance at her sluggishness. Hurriedly, she tapped at the screen.

That’s okay.

Talk to you tomorrow. Love you.

Love you too.

With a small zap, the hologram call screen disintegrated. The girl unhooked the clip of her harness and felt herself lifting out of the posh leather seat. She glided smoothly towards the rear of the capsule, running one hand all the while along the polished cold surface of its white walls. Designed to accommodate up to three people comfortably, the oval capsule was quite roomy, and – excepting for the eating area and restrooms which were closed off from the rest of the complex – consisted of a single large, open space. Nestled against the back wall was the sleeping area, a section of carbon fibre upholstery luxuriously padded with memory foam, and surrounded by a dozen anchored pillows of the same material. She sunk into them now, face first, digging into the cushions until she was securely wedged in place. Then, with a flip of her wrist, she pulled up the time.

The hologram timepiece, reminiscent of the digital clocks of old, blinked back at the girl half buried in foam.

1754

Wiggling free her other arm, the girl reached up, feeling cautiously along the smooth curve of the wall. Her fingers came to a small notch, which she now pulled open, revealing a large hidden compartment underneath. Carefully, she pulled out a bulky wooden box with numerous knobs running along its sides. It was nearly a perfect square, running the length of her arm, and if not for the zero gravity environment this device would likely be too heavy for her to lift. She let it hover, spinning slowly at eye level as she traced with a finger the intricate designs carved into the grain. Then, she gingerly flipped a tiny metal lever hidden in one of the grooves.

A loud static filled the empty capsule with its sticky resonance.

Twisting the knobs in every which way, the girl slowly maneuvered her way through the sea of white noise, guided only by the wobbling needle of an inlaid meter. The sound moulded beneath her fingertips; sometimes refined, like the cosmic dust that collects in the ventilation filters of orbiting vessels, and sometimes rough, like the rocky surfaces of asteroids she’d seen whiz by on occasion, but never ceased.

Apparently satisfied with her handiwork, she released the contraption and glanced again at the time display.

1759
Perfect.

The girl leaned back and closed her eyes.

The digits of the timepiece struck the hour, unnoticed. A split second later, a single, quivering tone cut cleanly through the static. It hung for a moment – as if uncertain what to do – until ushered out by a series of four beeps, in quick succession; three low, one high.

Despite the constant efforts of the high-sensory thermostat, the girl shivered slightly.

It’s starting.

A new sound rippled into the silence that followed. Softly at first, it dripped, slowly gaining momentum until it grew into a bubbling stream that gurgled and flowed. It was interrupted at regular intervals by a deep, rumbling noise. A third, tinny voice joined the fray, squeaking up and down with an unparalleled vigor as it danced between the tunes of the other two. The tempo frantically rose, faster and faster till the girl could no longer distinguish which was which,  before ending with a loud crash of metal on metal that sounded eerily akin to that one time at age three when she had misjudged her own strength and collided with the wall of their orbiting vessel holding a spoon.

A short silence, folowed by a light intake of breath.

“The time is now six o’clock, and you’re listening to Salutations.”

It was a male voice, low and confident, rich and confiding. But for the girl and the millions of other souls floating in space for whom the advancment of technology had invalidated the need for spoken communication, it was simply alive. Unlike the artificial sounds of her world, this one pulsed, each syllable leading into the next, wave after wave of particles in motion.

It was an alien, but oddly familiar, sound.

“And now”, the voice continued. “To stay or to go? Earlier this evening the president of the United Nations called for an emergency conference to address the alarming data uncovered by research teams in the Antarctic this past Tuesday. We are joined in studio today by Scott O’Mauhtney, environmental specialist from the UN Special Findings Force. Scott, what can you tell us about the current situation?”

The device itself was also very different from any she had ever seen. It had popped up on the capsule’s radar one day, just another piece of space junk to avoid in the grand scheme of things, but its regular shape and unusual size had immediately caught her intrigue. Instead of leaving the auto-pilot system  to do its thing, she had commanded a fly by catch. The material was unlike any she had ever seen before, glossy yet warm to the touch, and a quick ID scan pulled up empty. It had taken weeks to work up the courage to handle it gloveless, and as many more to discover its function, but one day she had given the knob a twist and startled so suddenly she triggered the emergency distress signal from her chip and had to endure the embarrassment of explaining to the hospital response staff that yes, she was perfectly fine and no, there was no need to send for a quick-response crew from the nearest mediship.

“We’re seeing radioactivity readings beyond anything we’ve ever seen before, or predicted to see in the next million years. This kind of data is worrying for a lot of reasons, and begs the question of whether or not our international legislation is prepared to respond.”

“Are you saying that a response is absolutely necessary?”

“It is difficult to say with only the preliminary data we have on hand. Our research team on the field is conducting verification experiments as we speak, but should this become a reality, I think it would be essentially impossible to continue on as we have.”

It was her secret pleasure to soak in these sounds from the comfort of her sleeping unit. Although, it wasn’t so much wanting to keep the machine a secret as it was not having anyone to show it to. Her parents, separated, both worked long hours and rarely ever came home, and before she realized, listening to the contents of the box had become very much a part of her day.

“Thank you, Scott. Officials are still debating the matter in what is to be a week-long conference involving representatives from all fourteen nations. We will update you with more information as it becomes available.”

It was easy, too. Unfailingly, every seventh day (an oddly arbitrary cycle) at 1800, the static would give way and for half an hour the oval capsule would overflow with this music. A little queer, sure, but it wasn’t worth risking losing the sounds to open up the device and study…whatever was inside of the thing.

Plus, as long as it worked, what did it matter?

“Until next time, this is Salutations. Thanks for tuning in.”

And as she drifted her way back to her seat, the Vitaemotions system logged a short sequence of uninterpretable brain signals.

word count: 1716

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