In celebration of the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, I am writing a series of creative pieces based on or inspired by the works of the Bard. Here is the first…
Chris Milton sat at the control panel of the Arbitri and wondered about his life, gazing out at the vast oblivion of space beyond. What could possibly be gained from this? What more? God, he was tired of it.
His team were behind him, sitting in the next room, yet still visible through a large window set into the steel dividing wall. He did not know how best to chivvy them along. They sat in their seats, sternly looking down, seeming like statues, perhaps even ghosts.
Sandra Chisholm. Bruce Wilson. Ellen Visley. Sven Sigurdsson. The four other physicists who made up the team were all silent at the rear of the ship, looking intently at read-outs on screens. No life behind the eyes. They would all argue it had been space that did that.
It had been 2023 when they had left Earth, and in 2027 they had lost their communications link with NASA. It was now 2031, and their mission cycle was nearing its end, with them due to return within the next three months. But they had received no real communication of substance from anyone in the intervening four years. They were floating, weightless, purposeless, around the universe. They had carried out the experiments, sure, but whether Earth even wanted them back, or whether there would be anyone there waiting for them, they had no idea. Even thinking of it made Milton weary. It seemed an age since he had last slept.
NASA had wanted results. That had been the directive. They had had to go out and scout distant planets for minerals and energy sources. After years of travel, they had found nothing, and had been wondering whether to abandon the mission and simply return home, to the disappointment of NASA and of the general public, who had been promised a giant leap forward. But then, all of a sudden, there had been progress. Three months ago they had gotten wind of an asteroid near Jupiter and had decided to investigate for possible samples they could bring back. Drifting around in the same area of space, orbiting Jupiter for the past few weeks, they had found nothing. Pebbles. Space dust. Nothing more. But suddenly yesterday, out of the blue, the asteroid had gone past them. They had followed its trail, only to have it cut across their craft and leave a minute, minute cut in its side. The net result of their entire mission was now the fact that they were leaking oxygen. It was an almost infinitesimal amount, and barely noticeable. But eventually it would do for them.
Milton had not told his team about this. He had left them to continue their work, such as it was. The minerals they had managed to harvest thus far were yielding nothing much, he gathered, but they had been all too happy to work away with what they had just the same. He, meanwhile, had confined himself to the bridge until such time that he plucked up the courage to tell them all that they, at some unspecified point in the relatively near future, were going to die. They all knew that from Jupiter it would take 6 years to get back to Earth. Their mission was closing out but they had no established means of communication with home. They didn’t know whether they had anything to go back for.
Looking around the darkness of the bridge, from which the panoramic windows showed him the enveloping blackness outside, Milton sighed to himself. Nothing to be done now. They were on a flight of fancy, and who knew how it would end. Eight years in space is a long time, and he longed for it to be over, if only he knew how.
The words of an Army Major, Skipson, who had been with the team throughout training, came to him now. Carpe momento. Seize the moment. He had always thought Skipson a bumptious creep, full of his own self-importance and forever telling others little statements that he himself liked to believe were gospel. But, Milton thought, he still could. There was still a way to seize the moment. To be decisive. Skipson, intimately involved with the mission, had confided something to him prior to the launch. If the mission became so dangerous or so beyond hope, it was a last resort. The ship had a powerful engine, unused, which acted as a variety of self-destruct. And Milton possessed the knowledge and whereabouts of which button to press to activate it. If he became so overcome with the pain of watching his fellow team members suffocating, he could merely press the button and end things painlessly.
Alternatively, he could risk it all in a last-ditch, fuel-burning effort to get back to Earth, with little or no assurance that they would make it in time. Madness. A flight of fancy like no other before it. How could he even contemplate it?
Something beeped at him from the glittering, silver control panel. A new transmission had come through.
A new transmission! It was unthinkable. But where could it have come from? NASA?
On the screen, which was set into the panel ahead of him, was a message. Clear blue letters against a black background.
‘To be, or not to be – that is the question;
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep –
To sleep – perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub.
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time
<< INTERRUPT TRANSMISSION
It was over. It had stopped as soon as it had started.
But where had it come from? And surely…they must be joking? This couldn’t possibly be NASA. Four years without a peep, and they sent him Shakespeare? Hardly instructions from on high, he had to say. Whoever it was must have somehow hacked in, and been able to transmit Shakespeare to a craft 588 million kilometres from Earth. Unbelievable. Why? At a moment of crisis, they gave him the Bard.
But still…was there something in it? Was there?
Another beep came from the control panel. Milton’s eyes quickly scanned for updates, and found them on the screen.
‘But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all
Chris Milton sat back in his seat, dumbfounded. He didn’t know what to do. This was a message of utmost importance, he felt, somehow. But he knew neither who sent it nor why. So he took the initiative, typing the message ‘Who is this? Are you receiving me?’ and sending it. A pain pulsed behind his eyes as he remembered how fatigued he was.
The immediate reply pinged back ‘TRANSMISSION FAILED’. He cursed, and entered the same message again. Nothing. Nothing. Each time, in quick succession, ‘TRANSMISSION FAILED’.
He had the choice, he knew he did. This only reinforced it. He could cut the corner and save his friends the pain, give in to the undiscovered country, as it was called. Or he could soldier on, and battle – perhaps in vain – to reach a home full of people that perhaps didn’t even know they were coming back – save for one.
To die. To sleep. The words echoed in his brain.
Sleep seemed very inviting. And he had the means to bring it about. He had had enough of indecision. Amongst all the silence, he longed for one moment of noise, loud, thunderous noise, and then there would be nothing. Nothing.
But did he have the right to do it? None of them would know. None of them could know, and he would be signing their death warrants. At least if they set a course for home they could die trying, seizing the moment.
To die. To sleep.
But where to go now? What to do? It was gnawing away at him like madness, like a disease, burrowing into him, consuming him. What to do? He couldn’t make up his mind.
To die. To sleep.
He had to fix this in his head, or else he would lose what reason he had left.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.
He would not be a coward. He would not die a coward. He would not.
He had made his choice. He rose, and made to go through the door into the next room where his colleagues – his friends – were working.
He could not have seen the transmission which came through just after he went to speak to them.
‘If it be now, ’tis not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.’
The Arbitri, sleek and white, makes a path through the void of space, on its way to an unknown fate. At its helm, an unswerving and loyal Captain, and in his service four dedicated colleagues. After a long mission, they turn to what will come next.
There comes one final beep.
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all