Travels through the kingdom

Travels through the kingdom


He left the world for the view. 

That is, the straw that broke the back of his indecision, that propelled him down one path and not another, was the promise of perspective. The opportunity to view his former (and hopefully future) planet from afar, to see its lines and curves, its shapes and shades, through a different lens. All things considered, it was this carrot that finally lured him into orbit. 

One would not be wrong in surmising a certain modicum of hope on his part that this shift in perspective might in some way alter his relationship to the place left behind –  and its to him. One would not be wrong, but one would not be entirely correct either, for such hope, while surely present, was still for the time unexpressed in his inner. 

He left the world for the view. And, at least in the beginning, he accepted this explanation prima facie, not needing, nor seeking, any deeper explanation.

At first, in the beginning, he had practiced the enunciation, the delivery of these words, still in the future tense – I am leaving the world for the view – emphasizing this syllable or that, finding the perfect balance of humility and pride, of resignation or promise, tweaking the intonation as dictated by the situation. In press conferences, magazine interviews, newspaper profiles, he had repeated these eight words so frequently that they began to lose their meaning, a mantra, a series of tones, boomeranging back to him from the television, the pages of the morning papers, from the glossy spreads of the periodicals, and he both uttering and hearing, sometimes not knowing which came first.

That was then. At the beginning.

Now, and for a long while past, alone far above the world he had left behind, he had no microphones before him, no human ears to receive his sounds. He was alone and had become accustomed to regular repetition of the words with no need for an audience to receive them. I left the world for the view, he would say, as is reminding himself why he was where he was and not where he wasn’t.

Over time, he found himself mouthing his mantra more and more often, to accentuate the turning of a page in his book, to greet himself in the small morning mirror (or rather, the mirror he faced upon awakening, there being no sunrise or sunset, no demarcation of time on the craft). He uttered the phrase as a curse when stubbing his toe or spilling some vacuum packed liquid, as a prayer when forced to chase its floating droplets throughout the dining module; he used the words to exercise his lips while pondering a specifically problematic philosophical quandary or contemplating his next move in his never ending solitary chess game.  He muttered them absentmindedly, shouted them emphatically, whispered them quietly to himself when snuggling in his bunk to sleep. A catch-all phrase whose sounds no longer held meaning for him, that could be pressed into service to express almost anything, or nothing, or the endless stages in between the two.

I left the world for the view. 

But he had not abandoned hope. Who knows, he thought, perhaps he would have the opportunity to say these oft rehearsed syllables, to once again imbibe them with original meaning, when he next exited the craft. A witty little amuse bouche to start the conversation, an icebreaker, the mot juste for his very unique situation.

I left the world for the view.

During the course of his recruitment (or, looking back on it now, the wisdom of hindsight, his conscription, seduction perhaps, or even outright coercion), there had been other factors whose logical mass and implications weighed heavily upon his decision. Surely, there had been other aspects and connotations of purpose, the possible results and ramifications of the trip which, together, had been more determining in nature, pushed the scale collectively down more than his simple desire to see things from on high, but still. Those had faded, his mantra had not.

And so, in his mind at least, his reason for leaving was clear. As to why he had been chosen, well certainly, there had been other incitations, other catalysts, both major and minor, presented in tones both pleading and persuasive, in words parsed to appeal to whichever of his base or better qualities was most vulnerable at any given moment.

Of all men….

Who better than you?

Think of the symbolism….

Think of the repercussions for the Kingdom…

And of course:

It might be good to get away, no?

He had been propelled. But still. It was, in the end, his choice. After all, he had great experience in ignoring the cajoling of others, had in fact honed this particular skill to razor sharpness. And so, when he had made the final decision, with a soft nod of his head, a small smile and a shrug, the straw that finally bent this particular camel’s back, the grain of sand that took him over from one side of the glass to the other, was the view. 

The idea of seeing the kingdom, all the kingdoms, from above, rivers and fields, the mountains and valleys, the swirls of blue, green, and white… Think!, he had thought, the insight, the sense of relativity that one must surely gain. The latter having been attested to by all those who had gone before, who spoke of their experiences upon their return, waxing poetic on the nightly talk shows, in their published memoirs, even in the taglines of the products they endorsed. And even if he had not ever felt firsthand the effect of this supposedly metamorphic experience, it not being fully transmitted through photos or films, he had faith in its inevitable impact, never thought for a moment that he was being misled, that something nefarious was afoot. He had accepted that to know, one had to do.

After all, he had reasoned, how many of life’s fundamental joys were unable to be conveyed in any meaningful second-hand manner, could only ever be experienced in the very first person? The scent of your favorite flower (his a rose on a spring morning), the taste of your favorite food (for him, baked bread slathered thick with newly churned butter). Or, for that matter, the tickle of a puppy’s nose nuzzling in your ear? This last example, he thought needed no generalization, must surely be universal. And while he knew that any or all of these fundamentally incommunicable things would surely pale in comparison to what he was to witness, that all the things of before were, of course, minor, secondary, tertiary, further down the list, when stacked against what was to come, the analogies, he thought, held. The most important things can never be conveyed, they must be experienced.

Floating through the empty ship, he had time a plenty to craft his analogies, the clever phrasings he would use when once again reunited with others. For while “I left the world for the view” would serve ideally as an opening gambit when he once again left the ship, he would need to quickly follow these choice words with a deeper explanation of what this trip represented. He had purposely avoided the obvious comparisons: music, literature, love, hate, and (naturally) sex. These, he thought, while surely having to be experienced through one’s own filters and senses in order to be truly felt, were, in the end, the most subjective of all experiences, and as such they would not serve his analogy well.  And after pondering the various phrasings, the alternate intonations, available to him, the range of philosophical or spiritual references or connections he could sculpt, he had decided to seek instead a description of the universal, of the unifying. He wanted words that could appeal to all strati and classes, be understood by all ages, genders, and occupations. Words that would be as easily grasped and taken to heart by the uneducated and illiterate as they would be praised and exalted by the most learned of citizens. He sought to craft an unfettered, undisputed, all-inclusive, empyrean analogy. The Emperor of Analogies. No one had asked this of him, no one expected it, and, in fact, no one had so much as questioned his motivations for the journey – or what he expected to gain from it –  at all. 

But still. To date, he had arrived at nothing better, nothing more inclusive than his mantra.

I left the world for the view.

And so, imagine his befuddlement, his discombobulation, when he discovered that the craft in which he was to spend the next thirteen- and three-quarter years had not a single window. This neglected (or calculatingly withheld) fact, had it been made known to him, would have certainly influenced his leanings on such a weighty matter, would have most likely incapacitated the various inveiglements of those who urged him skyward. For even if he knew that the portion of his journey where he would be offered vistas of the planet below would be, in the relative scale, short and terribly transitory, it was this small enticement that had prompted his final decision after all. 

And so, when he had first strolled through the craft, examined its various compartments and features, gone through the dictated checklists to ground control’s satisfaction, when he had finished unpacking the single crate of books he had been allowed to take (a luxury, he knew, a ridiculous relic they claimed), when he had stowed his e-readers and clothing, arranged his toiletries to his satisfaction, when he had strapped himself into the cockpit, it was with a slightly concerned frown that he had pressed the button on the intercom and, in the most diplomatic and patient tones possible, had made his dissatisfaction clear.

“Excuse, me,” he had said, “not to be a bother, but…”

“Yes?” came the crackling reply.

“There do not seem to be any windows.”

“Yes?” The voice, seemingly not understanding the question.

“I’m sure,” he continued, “that it is I who have merely failed to find them, that they are surely hidden by panels or devices requiring some action on my part, but…” He had trailed off, forgetting to release the microphone button, waiting in vain for a response. When he realized his mistake, he cleared his throat, spoke again. “Yes,” he had said, “it seems there are no windows.” He released the microphone button.

“Of course not,” came the quick reply through the speaker, “You are correct, there are no windows.” The voice went on to explain the structural unviability of glass portals, the unnecessary and antiquated notion of windows perfectly replaced by the series of monitors spread out before him. “At the press of a button,” the voice had said, “you can access any of the external cameras, in addition to any of the data banks of film, music, or other entertainment. You can, in other words, choose to see exactly what you wish to see at any given moment.”

He had absorbed this information silently, flicked through the various channels. A ballet, an action film, a live feed of the top layer of the wall being built along the border of the Kingdom. He accessed all of the one hundred and thirty-two cameras mounted on the exterior of the craft, their images on the array of monitors providing a 360 degree view of the launch pad, the scaffolding, the ant-like scurrying of the engineers and other facilitators around the base.

“Copy,” he had said into the microphone, attempting to adopt the nomenclature of the moment, thinking that he had heard a slight snigger come back at him through the static. In truth, the cameras provided a much better view than any limited series of portals would have ever done, would offer angles and expanses far beyond what any circle of glass could tender, but he found a feeling of bubbling disappointment rising within, nonetheless. Some things, he thought, must be experienced in the very first person.

The journey was to take him to the far side of Jupiter, but not quite to Saturn. There, between these two massive orbs, was the purported location of a newly discovered and inhabited planet. Said planet and its inhabitants (so far) being only in the theoretical, the mathematical, a series of numbers and computations providing what was claimed by those at the Department of Demonstrative Verification as irrefutable proof of its existence, and of the denizens thereof. This proof, in turn, naturally, questioned by the Office of Justifiable Incertitude, who preferred to refer to the perhaps planet and its inhabitants as a possibility yet unexplored.

There had followed many months of research and debate, the focusing of powerful telescopes on the darkness between the two lumbering giants so far in the distance. Finally, the famous scientist Richmond had been given the task of proving conclusively, once and for all, whether there was something there or not. After much work, and many sleepless nights, Richmond had succeeded in categorically showing that under no circumstances, in no possible iteration of physics or perception, could such a planet exist in the location suggested, nor could any life form exist if it did. Richmond had constructed a myriad of models, carried out an excess of experiments, done heaps of hypotheses, all of which resulted in the terminus of a resounding Nope.

And the kingdom rejoiced. For in all his career, through all of the multifarious means and measures with which he executed his experiments, devised his theorems,  Richmond had never once been right about anything. And so, the newspaper headlines screamed out: “Richmond has spoken – We Are Not Alone!”

This latter leap, from the probable existence of a planet to the actuality of others inhabiting said planet (hopping neatly over the questions of sustainable environment, breathable air, and the like) had been quickly gaveled through by the Office of Putting the Best Foot Forward (their stance, as always, being that in the absence of proof of the contrary, the most positive supposition should be supposed to be true). Grounded or not, this news was received with equally eager excitement by both the citizenry and governments alike. We were not alone. A rallying cry, a burst of positivism (sorely needed in this time of war), an object of focus. And a great clamoring arose. We must greet our new (and still theoretical) neighbors, we must send an emissary to Attis! 

Attis, being (naturally) the name given to the purported planet. This choice of name (calculated more to be unoffensive to the majority than to represent any more sturdy symbolism) had been scraped from the bottom of the mythological barrel of yore, all of the good names having already been taken. Attis had been a minor ancient god of vegetation, fruit, and rebirth. And none of these attributes destined to fuel any serious opposition, the new planet (and its people) had been named. Attis. Attians.

There had followed a flurry of activity, the Office of Expanding Our Reach, the Center for Staking Our Claim publishing reports and research daily, the lamps in their offices (and many others) burning around the clock. A slew of new Offices, Centers, and sub-offices popping up, the newspapers filled with articles theorizing the habits and predilections of the Attians, the evening talk shows debating the pros and cons of contact, the masses’ momentary shift of focus from the war to what lay in the dark between the Jupiter and Saturn. Novels had been written with plots playing out against an Attian backdrop, ballets choreographing the traditional rites of Attian culture performed, and a team of linguists had developed a working lexicon and grammar for the as yet unheard Attian language (resulting in great debate as to which dialect or pigeon should be considered standard).

And then, after this initial buzz of optimistic endeavor, a single low level official of the Office of Everybody Needs a Job had published a modest little paper, diminutive in its depth, in the paucity of its page count, even by his office’s standards, pointing out the fact that, despite the whirlwind of activity, no one, not a single office, not even the most lowly center or department, was tackling the issue of actually going to Attis.

A communal clearing of the throat, a global flushing of cheeks, and then a re-focusing of efforts, all hands on deck, and Project Shepard began in earnest. There had been much debate as to the naming of the project, with the bandying of Colonizer, Explorer, Trailblazer, and Guide, the proposal of Homesteader, Pilgrim, and Scout, and even the oddly liked Squatter all having a brief moment in the spotlight. In the end, again, all the good names having been already used, and the desire to find common ground outweighing all other considerations, Project Shepard had won the day.

A temporary truce had been called, the war put on hold, and throughout the kingdoms the combined intellects and endeavors of the citizenry and their various offices was brought to bear on planning the journey and crafting the vessel that would take it. And what a vessel it was. The outside of the ship, a sleek cylinder, like a fat, silver cigar, smooth, unblemished by windows or portals (a fact that he had somehow not been made aware of), its rocket engines recessed, its cameras hidden, a perfect marriage of form and function. Several actual marriages, in fact, had resulted from the cooperation between the various engineering and scientific offices and their art and design counterparts, the late nights, the glow of contentment at a job well done leading to other more corporeal collaborations. Church bells rang, things were consummated. 

The ship’s interior also a modern wonder, compact, but roomy, sleek and uncluttered, yet somehow achieving a homey feel, containing all the gadgets and tools needed to comfortably and productively live, work, and play for over a decade.

The journey, commencing with a celebratory explosion, the launch of the world’s largest rocket, carrying the ship into the outer atmosphere, would then continue with a few gravitationally assisting flybys of Earth, then three of Venus to pick up speed, before finally heading out into the dark, hurtling towards the supposedly not so empty space on the other side of Jupiter. 2372.5 days, there, 2372.5 days back. Nine months (an appropriately selected digit, all agreed) on the planet itself. Every detail had been arranged, every minute possibility considered. All but one. 

This time, without the urging of even the most insignificant of offices, a gradual scratching of heads began to spread, a collective sucking of teeth was heard. Who was to man the ship? What ambassador for the collected races and species, what representative for all that we had been, were, or could be? What vessel to contain all that we would wish to convey to the (by now, generally agreed) far superior Attians?

A complex application process was created, a screening protocol established, contests were held. Several universities, a handful of think-tanks, and even the ever-erroneous Richmond were brought in. But for every suggested candidate there was a yin and yang of responses for and against, all arguments equally convincing. And the craft stood empty and waiting on the launchpad.

And just when the collective offices had all but given up the ghost, just when the task of selecting an emissary who could equally represent us all was deemed far too daunting, an idea squiggled forth. From whence this idea came was unclear; some said it was the first thing that Richmond had ever gotten right, others claimed it to be simply the result of the process of elimination, a few even claimed it to be the overheard spontaneous and innocent uttering of a child. Regardless of from whence it sprang, the idea – and its undeniable logic – spread quietly among the highest levels of the highest offices and soon a consensus was had, a decision made.

And when the most senior heads of the most prestigious offices had approached their chosen emissary, their arguments assisted by colorful presentations, intricate graphs and table, their persuasions practiced and perfect, their oratory both compelling and beseeching, he had stood quietly, meekly, listening.

Of all men….

Who better than you?

Think of the symbolism….

Think of the repercussions for the Kingdom…

And of course:

It might be good to get away, no?

He had listened patiently, measuring the various bits of logic, the counterweights of risk and reward, and in the end, one tiny motivation nudging him over the line, he had acquiesced. 

He had left the world for the view.

To the papers, to the public, however, this process was kept hidden. A statement was issued, outlining reasons both too numerous and too obvious to go into, as to why the identity of the Passenger would be kept confidential. Said title for the ship’s lone occupant winning out over the unifying singular title of Shepard for both vessel and occupant. And the citizenry, with a collectively wise nod of the head, agreed that the identity of the Passenger would be kept strictly under wraps.

And knowing quite well who he was, at least as much as can be known, the Passenger entered the ship. And after having established the lack of windows, after having vowed to never say ‘Copy” again, after having strapped and buckled and tethered himself in per their very detailed instructions, the rocket took off. The force of the launch shut his eyes, the flare of the flames around the craft over-exposed and white on all the screens. He felt his cheeks pulled back, struggled to keep his lunch down, and hung on for dear life.

The shuddering, vibrating, trembling ship, his shuddering, vibrating, trembling body, both rising into the air. He heard the metallic clang of the first stage of the rocket dropping off, then the second, and after a few long minutes (during which he most seriously reconsidered his decision to go at all), the vessel went suddenly quiet and still and he was in orbit.

He eased his eyes open, looked at the screens. The gas or mist or clouds of smoke that followed the launch drifted aside like curtains from a stage, and after a momentary rolling vista of black, then blue, the ship righted itself, took its position in orbit, and there it was.

Before him on the screens, multiple angles, multiple exposures, was his view. And despite the buffer of wires and lenses, despite the second-hand nature of what he was seeing, it was, he thought everything he had hoped. He felt tears welling up in his eyes, let them run out onto his cheeks. The world below so fragile, so beautiful, so innocent from this distance. He leaned in closer to the monitors, forgetting for a moment that they were just that. He brushed away the water from his eyes, fished out the small notebook in his pocket, planted there for this very occasion, brought forth his specially designed pen. Below him, before him, the kaleidoscope of blue and white and green, the timeless flow of rivers, the spill of mountains, the dominance of the sea, and between them the twinkling, temporary lights of all the Kingdoms, strung like fireflies. He would have three orbits, four- and one-half hours, no more, to write down every thought, record every emotion, jot every feeling or sensation that this – his view – would summon forth. 

After, he would have the remaining thirteen- and three-quarter years to ponder his notes, to edit and revise, to formulate the message he would deliver when next exiting the vessel. All of it based on what he would see, what he would feel, in the next two hundred and seventy minutes. He blinked, focused his eyes on the slowly spinning jewel below, his pen quivering above the page, wanting to capture every single second.

And then the screens went suddenly, shockingly, permanently dark.