Storm on Solar Seas
“If it is given me to save a life, all thanks. But it may also be within my power to take a life; this awesome responsibility must be faced with great humbleness and awareness of my own frailty. Above all, I must not play at God.”
– from The Hippocratic Oath
* * *
There are many types of silence and each is a song. How it feels is the dance. In a full room, silence may be the rustle of clothes, the sound of breathing, the occasional cough. Dark empty houses are silent with the ominous creak of wooden stairs and roofing timber. In forests, it is the rush of a nearby stream out of sight, leaves swaying in the gentle breeze, the distant mating call of an unknown bird.
Only in the vastness of space can you occasionally, very occasionally, capture the absolute silence of the great emptiness. And only then if you still your mind and body.
When I eat, the sound of my jaw moving up and down—swirling saliva, teeth crunching on rich meat, precious fuel for my body—beats the silence of space. It is the sound of life in the vacuum, defiance against death. And with the sound of swallowing, my throat bulging, I feel nothing but joy and relief, free from conscience and infantile thoughts about expanding waistlines and calorie counters. It’s more than the firing of neurons, a primitive response; it transcends and becomes an act of faith and devotion, even if my prayers go to a deaf, unhearing God.
The ZSS Changamire Dombo, first of her kind, is the whale in whose belly I lie as I lose and find my religion over and over.
And she was a beauty, too. Smooth all round like a river stone. Black and strong, casting her long shadow across the Launchpad as the television cameras followed us four astronauts striding along in our stainless white spacesuits three years ago. One thousand, one hundred and eighty six days to be exact. The year, the length of time the Earth takes to make one revolution around the Sun; day, a single rotation of the Earth on its axis. These measurements of time are both meaningless and meaningful at differing moments. The star burning brightly, an arrogant gemstone in the centre of all things, takes scant notice.
But I do.
And I remember.
Makomborero Gwede. Rangarirai Pasuwa. Jabulani Dube. Fathers, sons, husbands, brothers, friends, infinite possibilities and personalities and thoughts stacked into bodies of flesh, water and bone. My fellow and very able crewmen.
*When I was fifteen my father, the captain of a hydro-airship, told me a story that happened a few hundred years ago, when the word “ship” implied vessels that sailed across the oceans of earth. In 1884 an Australian purchased a yacht in England which he christened the Mignonette. A beautiful word, very effeminate, the name of a small herb with fragrant greenish-white flowers. But the people who own vessels are seldom the ones who sail them, and so the gentleman hired a capable man called Dudley to brave the rough seas and make the perilous journey all the way to Australia.*
I would never have followed in my father’s footsteps, much as he tried to cajole. The tug of my mother’s profession was far too strong. I became a doctor instead. But fate plays her own tricks and I was tempted into space medicine, and if I were older when I made the decision I could claim some other rationale than that it sounded cool and exclusive. Being one of four such specialists in Zimbabwe, I never applied for the post on the Changamire Dombo. I was selected because of the three other doctors one was asthmatic, the other in his sixties, and the last, South Sudanese, was disqualified by his nationality (though the official version of events would have you think this was not a factor and he was given equal consideration).
What they don’t tell you is the worst part of being an astronaut is the food. We found no shops en route to Jupiter, no floating lettuce for salads and no fish to catch as we sat on the hull gazing at distant stars. One got tired of high nutrient ration packs of flavoured Soylent Ultra for most of the week, which made one gassy. Then at the weekends we shared meals at the table like a family: biscuits, dehydrated fruit (my favourite masawu), canned crap, and the usual stuff like instant noodles.
By the first year we had drunk our recycled urine many times over. A small price to pay to tour Jupiter’s moons, walk on Europa, and study the system, but there were moments I would gladly have swapped everything for sadza with muboora and spicy ishwa. That and alcohol and sex. We were forbidden intimate relationships as they might have affected group dynamics and, ultimately, morale aboard our large tin can.
Commander Gwede, an air force officer, was a hardened man of few words, strict on protocol but with enough savvy to know which rules to bend. There was a wolfish air about him accentuated by sharp canines. He was as distant to me as he was with the rest, something that reminded me of the aloof, mysterious captain of the Leonora Christine. Jabulani was our clown and the soft spoken Rangarirai, big and meaty, pined for his wife and children every second. The messages between us and the Mother Earth felt like old letters, but they reminded us we were not alone, that we belonged to a community on that fragile blue ball of light which from afar looked like just another star among billions. The exercises and scientific experiments we carried out nearly every day kept our minds busy.
*The voyage to Australia in 1884 was no safer than it had been when Cook discovered the continent. True, there were better maps, charts and navigation, but the deep blue sea was still the devil. Captain Dudley hired three men to help deliver the yacht: Stevens, his mate; Brooks, seaman; and a boy called Parker. Preparations for any type of ship be it sea, hydro-air or space are pretty much the same: hiring of a capable crew, charting of the journey, securing provisions, insurance. The rest lies in the hands of whichever god everyone involved may believe in. On the 19th of May, the Mignonette set sail heading south to round the Cape of Good Hope, where they could pick up provisions and rest along the way.*
When I stop to think, I realise how much of me lives in memories, recollections of the past revisited and reinterpreted, a little less in the present and least of all in the future. It makes the ordeal of living bearable amidst the stench of B.O. and lordknowswhatelse.
One of my jobs aboard the Changamire Dombo was to do routine maintenance of the air purifying systems. It sounds complicated, but I like to think I was both physician and glorified cleaner. The systems were modified versions of the ones used on old space stations, an activated charcoal bed and lithium hydroxide sorbent bed with fans to capture, purify and circulate the air.
The air never smelt like home though. It was too crisp sometimes, other times it was slightly off, like when you land at an airport in a foreign country and you can smell the people, the food and everything for a few hours before your nose adapts.
A small bungalow at the bottom of a cul-de-sac.
An entire planet.
We saw marvels no one else had ever seen. Left footprints on dead worlds. Planted flags, not to claim territory but as symbols, just like cavemen drew on rocks. And when we were done, we defied the mighty pull of the hypnotic red world and turned for home.
We sailed the solar sea, stem firmly pointed towards the brightest star of them all to the eye.
And sail we did in the vast emptiness, a leaf navigating the eternal gravitational tug-of-war between Jupiter and the Sun. Then suddenly we were caught in a storm. We learnt it rains in space.
Our sensors missed it. And it started as a series of light taps, almost like someone was drumming their fingers on the hull. Moments later the whole ship sounded like a tin drum as primordial ice and rock from the dawn of the solar system’s creation rained down on us. Commander Gwede adjusted course—wrong decision, he flew us right into it. Our reinforced hull was no match for nature’s own armour-piercing rounds. The first breach was in the kitchen, which was pulverised. The graviton engines took a hit next, leaking gas and fluid out into the void of space. It only lasted minutes, but by the time the storm was past our ship looked worse than the bullet-riddled V8 Ford Bonnie and Clyde died in.
I was in the med-lab, desperately holding onto handles as the air was sucked out. Drawers flew open, bacteria cultures, medicine bottles, tools, everything flew out as the rocks flew in. I felt a powerful hand grab my arm and pull me, unsuited, across the ship, towards the bridge, my lungs emptied of every atom of air. The fluid in my body expanding. Every nerve screaming out as if I was burning and drowning simultaneously. Death in space smells of sweet metallic doom.
Commander Gwede threw me into the bridge and sealed the door. By some miracle, it was the only part of the ship left intact.
“Oh, my God, Ranga and Jabulani are on a spacewalk,” I cried, as soon as I caught my breath.
“Bridge to zero two and zero four, respond, over,” Gwede said via the comms.
There was no reply.
“Bridge to zero two and zero four, respond.”
He repeated himself over and over, his voice growing weaker with each attempt. Only the crackling white noise of the radio replied.
*On the 3rd of July, a thousand miles off the coast of Africa, the Mignonette was caught up in Poseidon’s wrath. The sea churned, winds blew and waves the size of small mountains threw her hither and thither. The valiant crew fought with the elements until she was overturned like a child’s toy. But survive the three men and lad did, to a worse fate. Sail-less, without fresh water and food, they drifted with thoughts of home, the abyss below them. My father said that when their need was most dire, they invoked the Custom of the Sea, and turned their desperate gaze to the boy Parker.*
To maximise survivability, the engineers who built our ship designed it to have four self-contained segments, each with their own power source and life support. The bridge was one of these zones.
“I’ve broadcast an SOS to earth,” said Commander Gwede.
I laughed. He got the joke and laughed with me. Mother Earth was 425,000,000 kilometres away and our ship was drifting off course, without power.
“We don’t even know if the antennae is working. There haven’t been any signals coming through.”
“You have a better idea?”
My knowledge of engineering was limited at best. For a fortnight we fed on chocolate bars, conserving every single cube. When they ran out, we ate ice.
“The Angolans launched their Luanda Cruiser for Ceres, two years after we left. If our signals are getting through, then there is a chance they can be rerouted to rescue us,” I said.
“That’ll mean scrapping their mission altogether.”
“The Law of the Sea applies, they’ll have no choice.”
“Even then, what are the odds of them finding us in time?”
I had no answer. Some questions are neither standard nor rhetorical, they carry the verdict of fact.
The bridge smelt of us and ozone. The only sound to be heard for long periods was that of our stomachs rumbling. When we’d had enough, Commander Gwede wore the only suit we had on board the bridge section and went out and retrieved Jabulani’s corpse, still tethered to the wreckage. When he had brought it in, we did what we had to do.
*On July the 27th the crew of the Mignonette were rescued by a German barque, the Montezuma, journeying from South America to Hamburg with a cargo of nitrate. They took the body of Parker to Britain, insisting they would give him a Christian burial. On September the 6th, the grateful crew landed in Falmouth. Their relief was short lived, for a policeman employed by the harbour heard of their tale and detained them on the charge of murder. Dudley and his crew appeared before the magistrate but the case was transferred to the Central Criminal Court in London. There they were tried. Brooks, who had turned Queen’s evidence, was acquitted; the Captain, Dudley, and his mate were sentenced to death.*
We make love in death’s antechamber. Makomborero is gentle, and without gravity tying us down there is no one on top or below. We make love parallel to one another and equal, floating through the stale bridge lit up by lights from the control console.
Under the stars.
I like to think his wife would have forgiven him.
Sex is hope.
Each morning, without fail, we broadcast a signal and I learn of a new type of silence. Unrequited love. The desperate letter peppered with tears and perfume sent to a lover. Opening the letterbox daily, only to find it empty. Not knowing what they thought. Wishing only for a line, one short line from them that would prove you exist. That was the worst silence of all.
But the hunger takes us again.
A vampiric thirst.
We invoke the Custom of the Sea.
Mokomborero looks into my eyes as we draw lots on the console. The computer, a cold indifferent machine, must make the decision for us. It must choose between 0 - him and 1 - me. And I gaze into his brown eyes to find an entire universe inside, wondering what he sees in mine.
The computer flashes those all-important numbers on the screen in front of us. It’s only fair. It decides:
I don’t know what I see on his face, fear or relief. For a split second there is something unveiled. Then he returns to the dispassionate soldier and salutes (me, space, the sun?).
*So strong was the feeling, especially among sea faring folk, that the justices were compelled to look again at the circumstances behind the case of the Mignonette. The nooses around Dudley and Stephens were loosened. Their sentence was commuted to six months imprisonment. I once told my father that the men should have waited. They were only adrift 18 days. If they’d held out, they would have all been rescued and Parker need not have died. He said I was too young and I didn’t understand.*
A warm, tiny bud grows in my belly; I feel it reach for fertile soil. On some nights I dream of a loud noise at the door, a man speaking. Umbundu breaks in and I am not alone any more. But while I wait, I look out at the stars. Then I bite, chew, chew, close my eyes, swallow and try not to retch. I cry, I hope, I feed.