“It’s okay,” Sean reassured me. “Focus on the silence, feel it around you, let it keep you safe. One deep breath, then another. Good, keep going. Almost there,” he whispered.
“Okay, thanks, I feel better.” This was the third time this month that I had a problem during the service, but so far only Sean knew about it. I guess that’s what best friends are for: protecting secrets.
It was hot in the power plant today, even more than usual. People think space is cold, but not in here. The whole ship is like a sweaty, tropical moisture bubble. It’s a good design, one that recirculates water (human-produced and otherwise) through the system all the time, and which makes it possible to grow food and plants everywhere on board. Like being in a floating greenhouse traveling at high velocities.
But the paradox was sometimes hard to handle, being so warm in here but surrounded by the frigid near-vacuum of space. For some of us, just a few really, the tension was difficult to bear, while most of the others seemed completely fine with it. I was, too, until recently when the breathing issues started.
“When I learned about deep space missions as a kid,” I said to Sean as we gathered our belongings and headed to the mess hall, “I remember the teacher talking about how there was no air in space and that it had to be created from other elements, some that were brought on the trip and some gathered in flight. They made it all seem so simple then, but they left out the part about breathing with intention. What about you? Did they cover the power practice in your classes? I didn’t hear about it until college.”
“We actually got into it really early,” he said. “My parents were yoginis by practice and it was always something we worked on at home. They wanted to see it work in space, but never had the chance.” I saw moisture briefly well up in the corner of his eyes, but the subtle scrubbing of the evaps dried it quickly. It was an ingenious system, really, making us all part of the living machine that buoyed the ship.
“I think about mine, too,” I empathized. “They gave everything for me to be here. I guess that’s what parents do, or at least are supposed to do. I wonder if they’ll ever know what becomes of us out here.”
I trailed off as the chimes sounded for the next shift to take its place in line at the mess. Sean and I stepped automatically into the queue and began filling our trays with the daily fare. It was consistently Spartan and simple, yet somehow colorful and zesty at the same time. The cooks were skilled at making the most from yeasts, molds, algae, hydroponic vegetables, condensed proteins, and (of course) water.
We ate mostly in silence, as was the custom, briefly nodding at one another to indicate with our eyes something or someone at another table — almost an expression of contempt, but more like ridicule. A glance and an eye-roll and an infinitesimal head-nod in a direction was all it took to say everything that needed to be said. After seven months aboard the ship, we could communicate without even a word.
Scraping the remnants of lunch into the comp-bins and placing the trays into the waterless cleaner, we ambled out of the mess and toward the gyro-gym. “Up for some regeneration?” he asked. “I hear we’re low this month, and there’s an extra ration for anyone who boosts their output by 30 percent.”
The gym was a marvel of intricate efficiency, with every station elegantly placed to minimize the use of space and maximize the sense of motion. Treadmills, steppers, stationary bikes, presses, punchers — every item was calibrated to capture the force produced by human bodies and convert it to energy. The gym was always full, morning and evening alike, and it was a main hub of social interaction on the ship.
“Yeah, sure,” I replied, sounding more enthusiastic about it than my body actually felt. “I could use a workout before the next cycle in the power plant. Maybe it’ll help channel some of the nerves I’ve had.”
We worked the machines for 45 minutes, imperceptibly sweating into the reclamation scrubbers the entire time and generating valuable backup wattage for the battery banks. The cooling effect of sweat beads lifting from one’s unclad body briefly countered the usual tepidness. It left one with a feeling of freshness to conclude a session clean and dry, and likewise to know that calories were going to good use. It also helped with sleep patterns during the small cycles that were interspersed through the day.
“I’ll see you at the plant at four,” I said as we parted ways in the divided corridor. “Have a good rest.” As I strode toward my quarters, I stopped along the way to use the personal facilities.
The lavatory was clean, sleek, and efficient. Water continually flowed through the sinks and toilets, using a gravity-fed system that harnessed wave patterns from the subtle course motions of the ship. The system was entirely paperless, instead utilizing the flowing water and the omnipresent scrubbers. In the treatment plant, the water was separated and purified, and every element removed was used for another purpose on board: solids for fertilizer, acids for cleaning, salts for cooking, hormones for medicine, bacteria for cultures. It was strange at first, but one got used to it soon enough.
I rested for almost two hours before meeting Sean at the entrance to the power plant. We shuffled into the gleaming white convex space along with dozens of others, carrying only our personal cushions and visual focalizers. Silently shuffling into the hall, we took our place among the sea of naked fellow crew members. The chime sounded, and we began to chant in rhythm with everyone else in the room:
Om mani padme hum…
It was ritualistic yet completely superfluous in terms of achieving z-space, but we all did it as a matter of course. Having trained for this mission for over a year, and being in space for many months more, the practice was second nature by now. The chime sounded again, and we all donned the optic gear that helped to focus the light rays and consolidate our thoughts on the center of the round room, where the ship’s primary engine slowly rippled within its thick Lucite walls. It was clear and shimmering, as always, and the soft bubbling of the water in the massive transparent ball served to enhance the experience.
“Breathe, be one and many, feel the connections,” cooed the visualization guide. “Breathe, focus on the core, let go of yourself, focus, let go, breathe…” As our rhythm progressed, the sense of shared purpose grew; one could feel the room getting warmer and (even with eyes closed) see the water in the core bubbling more vigorously. It was elegant and pragmatic at once.
The method had been designed many year before the first long-range cruisers were launched. It was based on experiments conducted decades earlier, where people in an assembly hall were asked to focus their thoughts on a vat of purified water on the stage. When given prompts, like thinking about raising the water’s pH level for instance, even these crude tests with untrained participants yielded surprising results. Somehow, the unique elemental properties of water allowed people to imprint thought upon it.
Over the years, the process was refined, and trainings were developed to harness this power of focus. Through diligent personal practice and conducive environs, people could be encouraged through guided meditation to raise the temperature of water, which could be harvested as a low-impact energy source.
Water, the lifeblood of our bodies and our ship, perpetually circulated all around us. When we focused on it as an energy source, it responded and generated pressure and tidal forces. But sometimes, for those of us who were particularly sensitive, this energy and pressure could be directed back at us. This is how my breathing problems developed during the rotations required of us in the power plant. For me, Sean was a lifeline in those moments when the pressure rebounded; others weren’t as lucky.
“Thanks, Sean,” I said softly as the session ended without incident. “I’m glad you’re on this voyage.”
Holding my gaze, he nodded and smiled. During the generating sessions our minds could be as one, effortlessly and without boundary. Yet outside of that space, our bodies fell back into themselves. The overarching experience was intimate but asexual, energizing but not arousing, loving but not romantic.
“See you at the gyro-gym later?” he asked.
“Sure, see you there in a little while.”
Turning, we walked in opposite directions down the corridor, the sweat from our bare bodies subtly evaporating into the ship’s circulatory system. We were all part of something larger than ourselves.
Lemar Starland, breathing consciously