Angles of the Mind
Monday 31st July 2017
This piece was written as part of the Sci-fi-London's 48 Hour Flash Fiction 2017. It's a short sci-fi feminist piece about motherhood and technology. Each participant was given a title and line of dialogue from which to write an original short story, in the 48 hour time limit. The line of dialogue I was given was: "Of course! Let's ask your Mum, she's bound to know" - one of the worse possible lines of dialogue anyone could have received, but it ended up shaping the entire story. In many ways it is a love letter to my own mother, who died when I was a teenager. Please read and enjoy.
Angles of the mind
Coloured lights flickering through the window, I stared out at an indifferent world, passing me by; apathetic to my watchful presence. A new day stirring as the dregs of the previous night washed away. The drifting sounds of drunkard merriment beginning to abate, and sleepy barmaids making their way home for a well earned rest. I often remembered those journeys. Every summer on the way back from Space Camp, my mother driving through the night, the car radio murmuring easy listening tunes into the unspoken silence. Those were the days before the self driving car, and my mother had to concentrate hard on the road, her sleep-filled eyes struggling in the darkness. I would sit there, entranced by the spell of the nighttime world. I too said nothing, out of fear of breaking the enchantment.
There was an advert on the radio that always struck me. It was for some laundry detergent or stain remover, and went something like “Jam on your jeans? Smudges on your sweatpants? Of course! Let's ask your Mum, she's bound to know”. I didn’t have any concept of laundry back then, I would leave my dirty clothes on the floor and they would magically appear clean and folded in my wardrobe; but the words “Let's ask your Mum, she's bound to know” seemed like the most logical thing I’d ever heard as a child, because my mum did know everything. At least it felt that way. She was an aerospace engineer and helped design the first space shuttle to successfully transport humans to Mars: Mankind may have put men on the Moon, but my mum put women on Mars.
We played this maths game in the car, “guess the angle”. It was nigh on impossible to play, like trigonometry but without the triangles. I could get the occasional one right, if I could use pythagorus theorem, but I couldn’t calculate cosine or sine without a calculator. There was no beating my mum though, she was a walking talking computer, and met every challenge, barely hesitating, and only for dramatic intent. I would flick through my maths book, furiously hunting down the hardest possible questions, keying the numbers with such ferocity into my calculator that the buttons became loose and got stuck on certain modes. Despite my admirable dedication, she always got them right.
That time spent as a child, with her on those long car journeys, were some of the most joyous times of my entire childhood. She worked religiously on the space programme while I was at school, and I spent every summer at camp, following desperately in my mother’s footsteps. It seems strange now to think back to those trips, life is so different in so many ways, and yet she is never far from my thoughts. At night my dreams are still illuminated by neon street signs, slurred words and lamplight, racing past my eyelids. As I wake, my lips wordlessly mouth the late night advertisement slogans, angles haunting my waking moments.
I wondered whether astronauts felt a similar serenity when looking down on Earth, as it spun without regard for the orbiting spaceship. Shaking and trembling with life and movement, entire species ignorant of their tender watchful gaze. Playing God, as mankind slept and woke and grew. Perhaps their dreams were lit by the light of a million households, nations marked by a glowing mass of electric currents. Broadcasting out into the open abyss: Here is life, come find us. Did the martian settlers look behind them as they left their motherland, or were their eyes fixed on the infinite throng of stars, enticing them to their new destination? A one way trip and not a second thought for the world they were abandoning. Did she wave to me from the shuttle as she left, or was I only a regret, evidence of a mistake and a life she was leaving behind.
When I was little, I hoped I’d play our game with my own daughter: To know as much as my mother, to watch my own flesh and blood tear through her maths book, clutching at her calculator with the same heartfelt urgency I did when I was in her place. A long time ago. This was only a passing fancy, since humanity has evolved to surpass the maternal instinct, making mothers a dying breed. The word itself has taken on new meaning, now that babies are grown in artificial wombs. “Mum” no longer means nurturer, parent or protecter, but is the name of an engineer and pharmaceutical company specialising in vitro fertilisation: Maternity Unit Management Inc., or mumi for short. The method was revolutionary, and overnight women’s rights groups secured equal pay and work opportunities for womankind, altogether eradicating the term “gender”. Women were liberated from the constraints of biology; technological advancement had paved the way for human evolution.
I stand now in her shoes, and wait shaking and silent. They run test after test. Checking the engineering work, fuel lines and supply levels, thruster capacity, and the computer and communication systems. I feel sick with fear. Was my mother scared when they strapped her in, did she spare a thought for me? The footage of her expedition plays on repeat in my brain, unable to separate her journey from my own. A lifetime of training has led me to this point and yet I sit here in my suit, calming my nerves by picturing triangles in my mind. Tracing the length of each side, each corner, each angle, as if I’m still that little girl, sitting in the back of her mother’s car.
‘This is ground control to Major Stacy Harbour, all checks are complete and we are ready for take off,’ the disembodied voice echoes through my intercom. I hesitate, stuck inside my own memories.
‘Major Harbour? Can you hear me? Orion 2.0’s systems are ready, can you respond please.’
Finding my voice at long last, I reply: ‘Loud and clear Commander Armes. Major Harbour, pilot of Orion 2.0, speaking here and ready for lift off, over and out.’
I am fed commands through the intercom and I follow each stage with perfect precision. I’d rehearsed these steps a hundred times and could do them in my sleep. I swallow my doubts, ignoring the churning sensation of my stomach, and perform my duty without mistake or equivocation.
'T. minus 20 seconds,’ ground control begun the countdown, ‘firing chain is armed. Go for main engines start. T. minus 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, all engines up and burning. 2, 1, 0 and lift off. The final lift off of Orion 2.0, mission populate Mars. The human race waits in wonder as it waves off its second voyager, good luck and god bless.’
The craft shakes the very blood in my veins, propelling itself up towards the stars. It too yearns for adventure, longing to fulfil the purpose of its design. I sit glued between my fellow crew-members, almost exclusively women. We are crammed tightly shoulder to shoulder, our chairs tipped skywards, the Maternity Unit securely on board. My breathing is heavy, the force of the launch feels like weights pressed hard against my chest. And then suddenly I’m floating up in my harness. Space surrounding me.
I unbuckle myself and drift towards the window. It’s there. It’s all there, looking up at me with its one big beautiful eye. I’m breathless, choking back tears as its sheer brilliance dances across my face. Coloured lights flickering through the window, I stare out at an indifferent world, passing me by; apathetic to my watchful presence. A new day stirring as the dregs of my previous life washes away.
‘Of course! Let's ask my Mum, she's bound to know,’ quivers soundlessly across my lips, as I gaze out into the vast myriad of the universe.