EDITOR’S NOTE BY Benjamin Samuel
There’s a remarkable sleight of hand at work in Seth Fried’s “The Adventure of the Space Traveler.” On its surface, it’s about a character literally floating though space — I know several writing professors who would be quick to condemn this as plotless — and yet, as readers, we are compelled to follow. So how does Seth manage to sustain this story, how does he keep us engaged?
In his essay, “The Talent of the Room,” Michael Ventura asserts that true writers know how to be alone (which is different than being lonely). While solitude is necessary for writers of fiction, it’s considered a mistake for their characters. Characters, we’re told, need to interact, to be in conflict with other characters; they cannot, we are instructed, exist in a vacuum. But that’s exactly what happens in Seth’s story: Barington, a hapless repairman, is adrift in space, separated from the infinite by a few millimeters of spacesuit.
Why is it that we must spend time alone, writing or otherwise occupied, to understand what makes us human? Perhaps it’s because perspective is best gained from a distance, at a remove, and this is true whether you’re tucked away in your study, or, like Barington, sailing across the cosmos. Barington is cut off, yet he is preoccupied with how others think of him. He wonders, if rescued, what will make his a life worth saving, a story worth listening to.
“The Adventure of the Space Traveler” is about literal and figurative isolation, but it’s also about the way we connect with others. This is not a story built on suspense; it is not a question of rescue, but a question of endurance and how we discover who we want to be. In this story, Seth brings to light our own loneliness, our own struggle to make sense of the senseless, and our absurd capacity to find and pursue romance in the most unlikely circumstances.
Co-Editor, Electric Literature
The Adventure of the Space Traveler
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WHILE REPAIRING A COMMUNICATIONS DISH outside the space station Triumph I, Arnold Barington inadvertently fired his rivet gun into a tank of pressurized gas. In the resulting explosion, Barington was thrown out like a dart into the vacuum of space at roughly five thousand feet per second. His heavy spacesuit withstood the force of the blast, and so he found himself, in a strictly immediate sense, unharmed. As he watched Triumph I rapidly diminish into a small, pale-white point in the distance, he greeted his predicament with a short grunt of embarrassment.
He pulled his right arm from its sleeve in order to flip the toggle switch near his navel that activated the suit’s emergency locator beacon. He performed this operation automatically despite the fact that the beacon was understandably useless when the space station’s communications dish was out of order — which, Barington recalled, it was.
But his suit was designed for long exposures, and its life support apparatus would sustain him for as long as the suit’s battery cells held out. Since they had been fully charged when he exited Triumph I, it meant that the suit would be able to keep him alive another 5.6 years. Sailing helplessly through the infinite expanse of the universe, Barington felt that this would certainly provide enough time for him to be rescued.
Strangely, one of the first things he remembered from his training was that toward the lower front half of his helmet there were two cyanide capsules concealed beneath the helmet’s lining. All he needed to do was pull back the fabric and allow the capsules to float into his mouth. He had no intention of doing this, but he still took comfort in the knowledge that the capsules were there, if only because it implied that his current circumstances were common enough to necessitate such a provision. Even though he understood that he was in a great amount of danger, what was occupying his attention more than anything in those first few moments was that original pang of embarrassment.
Preparing to fix the communications dish, he had been poised on the main ladder leading up to the exterior communications panel when he momentarily allowed his mind to drift. He had literally been staring off into space when he gave the trigger of his rivet gun an unintentional squeeze. The sheer senselessness and stupidity of his mistake was so apparent to him that he was at first only able to concern himself with the simple but seemingly essential task of directing every single curse word in existence at himself.
The thought of the suicide pills was the only thing able to set his mind momentarily at ease. Since his suit was capable of sustaining a person for such a long time, it was a practical consideration of the manufacturer that an occasion might arise in which the suit would keep a person alive in a situation that was otherwise untenable. Barington thought of miners who had mishandled their detonators and found themselves trapped in winding Martian tunnels. He thought of xenobiologists who had ended up lodged in the digestive tracts of giant kretworms. In those first few moments of crisis, Barington was deeply grateful for all the foul-ups that the presence of the pills in his helmet implied in that they allowed him to feel as if he were not alone.
He was unable to interpret the pills as signifying anything less reassuring than this, because, like everyone, he secretly regarded his own death as an impossibility. In fact, shortly after having been comforted by the pills, he immediately began to contemplate the extraordinary nature of his inevitable rescue.
Triumph I was a large enough facility for both Barington’s error and absence to go unnoticed for quite some time. His superiors were waiting anxiously for the communications dish to be repaired, but the task was involved enough that it would be several hours before they suspected anything was amiss. Barington knew that by then, even if someone else was sent out to restore communications, he himself would have already traveled so far out that the signal from his locator beacon would in all likelihood prove too faint. From there, even if members of the crew were able to deduce in which direction Barington had been cast (perhaps by noticing the angle from which the tank of pressurized gas had been ruptured), they would be forced to wonder whether Barington’s suit could have withstood such a blast and if attempting to rescue someone in such an uncertain state would only be a waste of resources.
These more immediate concerns proved easy to suppress. Barington took for granted that he would be rescued one way or another, and so his primary concern was actually that it might happen too quickly.
On account of his embarrassment, he was afforded a sudden insight with respect to human nature. He knew that the level of annoyance of his peers — the men and women with whom he had worked and shared close quarters for a little over a year — would be inversely proportional to the amount of time he spent in danger. If he were to spend several days with his life in jeopardy, his coworkers would no doubt treat him kindly when they found him, praising his courage. It would most likely not even occur to them to question him about the cause of the incident. When an individual has faced a terrifying or life-threatening experience, such an attitude is a matter of common courtesy. On the other hand, if he were to be rescued after only an hour or so, his peers would most likely be upset with him. They would feel free to point out the great risks they had taken in saving him, and demand an explanation as to how he had managed to commit such an incomprehensible blunder. So while he was eager to be back safely aboard Triumph I, he was also secretly grateful to each passing moment for putting him in further danger and protecting him from the scorn of his future rescuers, thus allowing him to enjoy the prospect of being rescued.
This line of thought was interrupted by a faint pinging sound produced by the suit’s life support apparatus. A small, green cracker shot up in a pneumatic chute that ran along the right side of Barington’s helmet. This was followed by a gurgling noise, after which a clear tube on the left side of his helmet filled with a foamy, pink liquid. Since he had already decided that it was to his benefit not to be saved right away, Barington resolved to put the more serious implications of his situation aside and enjoy his lunch.
He used his nose to open the pneumatic chute, and allowed the cracker to float into his mouth. These green crackers were the suit wearer’s processed and nutritionally enriched waste, collected from a series of tubes that were one of the grizzlier aspects of the suit’s life support apparatus. The crackers had a bland and vaguely medicinal flavor. The pink fluid, also waste, was sweet with a not unpleasant bitterness that Barington compared favorably to the aftertaste of grapefruit juice.
He felt as if he were on a picnic, his predicament a welcome respite from all the tasks and work orders that he would have been faced with if he had successfully repaired the communications dish and been thrown back into his normal routine. He chewed the cracker slowly, and took in the spectacle of distant stars and nothingness. As he finished the pink fluid, he began to feel quite at ease. He locked the joints of his suit and stretched leisurely against them. After a few more moments of peaceful contemplation, Arnold Barington, lost in the universe, fell asleep.
According to his calculations, Barington had now been adrift in space for three months. This figure was based on his sleep schedule, which, although inexact, was his only possible point of reference. Whenever he determined that a day had passed, he reached up into his helmet and marked the inside of his visor with a tally, using a wax pencil he had found in his suit’s utility compartment. After the accumulation of seven tallies, he erased them with his thumb and drew a W for Week.
This already imprecise system was further complicated by the fact that — due to his extreme boredom — he often convinced himself that he had forgotten to draw a tally for that given day or that he had absent-mindedly added one too many, leading him to add or subtract days arbitrarily. What’s more, due to the awkward angle of his wrist, his W’s often ran together. When counting up the weeks he occasionally noticed a W with three troughs, and therefore needed to decide whether a superfluous trough had been added or a necessary one withheld, causing him to add or subtract entire weeks just as arbitrarily. But because this method of keeping time occupied so much of his attention in a place where there was little else for him to do, he was very much committed to it.
At the very least, he knew that enough time had passed that his coworkers would not be irritated when they found him. Such a reaction was now out of the question. This was no longer some minor workplace mishap, but the type of potential tragedy which Barington had often seen reported in the news. Young Boy Survives Shark Attack. Elderly Man Survives Lighting Strike. He could already see the headline: Engineer Survives Three Months In Space. But while shark attacks and lightning strikes were common enough to be used only on slow news days, he felt that his current predicament was rather dynamic. His story was full of danger and the unknown.
While he formerly believed that each moment spent adrift was protecting him from the outrage of his peers, he was now convinced that each moment was heightening the level of attention that would be directed at him upon his rescue. When he regarded the accumulation of W’s on his visor, it was as if he was enumerating what would be the public’s astonishment at the startling episode he had endured. This was perhaps the greatest motivation behind his attempts to keep time. His growing collection of W’s gave him the sense that he was on a deliberate exploit, as if this accidental voyage through space was something he was cultivating for his own benefit.
The possibility of celebrity was such an intriguing prospect that a great deal of Barington’s mental energy was spent trying to imagine what shape this celebrity might take. Of course, the level of attention paid to a disaster often depended on the charisma of a particular victim. He recalled a story about a young newlywed couple caught in a landslide while vacationing on one of the moons of Boreas. It took three weeks for the two to be rescued, before which they had been forced to survive on insects and rain water. The two were charming, well spoken, and attractive. As a result, they were interviewed on several morning programs and even a few of the late-night talk shows.
Barington liked to think that this was the type of victim he would be. He was a member of the working class, but his job required a certain amount of sophistication. Communications dishes did not exactly repair themselves, a fact that his present circumstances seemed to emphasize. He was reasonably well educated, and was confident in his ability to express himself. More than that, Barington had always believed that his personality was somehow special. Granted, he was not particularly outgoing. He knew his coworkers did not think much of him beyond the fact that he was quiet and approached his work without complaint. He also frequently suspected that his awkward physical appearance inspired in his peers a vaguely bemused distrust, a lack of confidence in him that they were just barely able to conceal. Nevertheless, he had always been convinced that given some chance public exposure his true self would be appreciated.
He imagined himself backstage at a talk show, preparing to give an interview. The last film he had seen before making the journey out to Triumph I had been The Lady at Raisin Creek, in which the charm and talent of the celebrated young star Samantha Carlyle had managed to catch his attention. And so he was shaking hands with Samantha Carlyle backstage, who was intrigued to be meeting this odd young man who had inadvertently flung himself like a meteor through the cosmos. When she squeezed his hand, there was a spark of curiosity in her eyes, or possibly even the first inklings of attraction. While she had been at work on some new project, pretending to kiss a jewel thief in Rome beneath the camera’s cold gaze, Barington had been up above her in the night sky, weaving himself among the stars.
“What was it like?” Barington asked himself in falsetto.
“Lonely, Miss Carlyle. I found it incredibly lonely.”
The domed interior of Barington’s helmet caused his voice to reverberate, making his words sound pinched and nasal. He lowered his voice in order to compensate.
“I found it incredibly lonely.”
It was not until he said it a second time that Barington was reminded that he did in fact feel unpleasantly alone. This thought created in him a sudden, powerful discomfort that was almost immediately alleviated by the imagined attentions of the stunning Samantha Carlyle.
Miss Carlyle was beginning to blush as she addressed Barington. His heroic misfortune had awakened something in her. As quickly as he created it, he attached himself to this daydream as if it were a matter of life and death.
Many acts of self-care, which he should have undertaken in the interest of simple self-preservation, ended up occurring to him only in as much as they preserved what he felt was the daydream’s plausibility.
His moment in the public eye would do him no good if, once rescued, he were too weak to move. And so he held himself to a rigorous exercise schedule that involved hours of straining against the locked joints of his suit. The suit’s life support apparatus was designed to exert a subtle pressure on Barington, thus preventing the loss of bone mass and slowing the process of muscle atrophy. But without the benefit of exercise, shaking hands with Samantha Carlyle would prove physically impossible.
He saw it as equally important that he take measures to preserve his mind. He knew that a long solitude was dangerous for a person’s mental health, and felt he would certainly need the cerebral fortitude of a sane person in order to navigate a conversation with a beautiful movie star. For this type of exercise, he drew from a variety of sources. As a child he had been sent to a Catholic elementary school, and so he made much use of his Latin. Hours not spent straining against his suit’s locked joints or debating the presence of a tally on his visor were often committed to oral recitations of the first four declensions (Barington never recalled that there was a fifth), conjugations of ferre and esse, a brief self-lecture on the formation of adverbs, and anything else he had retained from his boyhood encounter with Classical Studies.
In high school, an English teacher had required him to memorize a poem from the class’s reader every week. At the time, he had regarded these assignments as sadistic, but, fifteen years later and in outer space, Barington was happy to have something to distract himself with:
Brown Viking of the fishing-smack
Fair toast of all the town! –
The skipper’s jerkin ill beseems
The lady’s silken gown!
The meaning of Whittier’s poems remained obscure to him. Nevertheless, he was often moved by the dramatic sound of the language. He also found it entertaining that such strange passages had managed to take root in his memory. Such recitations caused Barington to marvel at what a powerful and resilient organ was the human mind.
He also liked to exercise his mental faculties by telling himself jokes, occasionally stopping to tweak and embellish the ones he remembered. In moments of inspiration, he would even find himself arriving at new compositions:
Q: What did the embezzler say to the priest?
A: Forgive me Father, for I have skimmed.
He could occupy his mind in this way for hours. His composition of jokes would often degenerate into him laughing uncontrollably at words that just so happened to strike him as funny. Rat. Gut. Slump. The peals of laughter were enjoyable. Still, the silliness of this diversion would occasionally leave him feeling unsettled. He worried that the opinion of others with respect to his disaster would change if they discovered he had survived it in such a childish fashion. Barington knew he was alone, and that there would be no way for anyone to find out how he had spent his time adrift. But that did not matter. He wanted to behave in a way that would seem admirable to the people in his fantasy, because then his present circumstances would seem more linked with that fantasy. Doing something simply because it pleased him had the potential to be as frightening as the notion that he had been irreversibly estranged, that all that lay ahead of him was green crackers, pink fluid, and, though he could still only manage to think of them philosophically, those pills in his helmet.
“As I walked out one evening,” he said. There was a contemplative silence as the rhythm of Auden’s poem came back to him.
“Walking down Bristol Street.”
Ah, he thought, this was a good one. He would recite it to Samantha one day, on a beach.
Was that tally supposed to be there?
What did the pool boy say to the priest?
“The crowds upon the pavement were fields of harvest wheat.”
In the fourth month, Barington happened to pass a giant, ash-colored rock that was floating in the direction from which he had come. It was only fifteen yards away, and Barington knew that the odds of such an encounter were incalculable. It was a realization that in turn filled him with anxious thoughts. If only he had seen the rock coming and had contorted himself in such a way as to cause their paths to cross, Barington thought that the impact might have sent him sailing back toward Triumph I. This missed chance caused his situation to seem suddenly unbearable. As he watched the rock move off into the distance, he began to despair. In the abrupt manner of a child, he began to convulse with great, helmet-rattling sobs.
An uneasy period followed, the first casualties of which were his daily Latin exercises, which began to wane. He kept to his poetry recitations; however, he focused on more maudlin passages. He recited Eliot in a grave voice:
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling:
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
He still engaged in joke-telling, but the pastime was far less playful than before. His humor became marked by self-awareness and a mean-spirited sense of irony:
Q: How many Arnold Baringtons does it take to fix a communications dish?
And while he also kept to his exercise routine, struggling against the joints of his suit, he no longer saw it as an act of self-care. Rather, to his thinking, it was a matter of defecating enough energy so that he could go back to sleep.
Even his daydreams grew melancholy. He was no longer confident that he would have the wherewithal to woo Samantha Carlyle. The sudden urgency of his loneliness convinced him that all he would be capable of upon meeting her would be falling into her arms and begging her to accept him immediately into the deepest, most forgiving intimacy possible. It was a scene that ended poorly even in his most optimistic fantasies. The task of making her understand the pain he had endured in his immense solitude seemed beyond him.
In this way, he turned toward the possibility that there was no relief from his present circumstances. He told himself that even if Samantha Carlyle welcomed him at once into the warmth of her arms, even if she offered him every form of understanding and love, wrapping her body around his in the darkness of some soft, sweet-smelling bed, even then, there would still somehow exist a vastness between them, an infinite space in which he was lost beyond all recovery.
He recalled as if for the first time that many of his coworkers did not even know his name. Passing him in the corridors of Triumph I, they often called out with perfunctory greetings of, “Hello there, Arthur.”
He wondered why he shouldn’t tear up that cloth lining and take the pills sewn into the front of his helmet. He considered this for several weeks, and once even found the courage to pinch the lining between his thumb and forefinger. But just as he began to pull lightly at the stitching, he considered the fact that all this grim contemplation had been brought about by the presence of an object — that ash-colored rock — floating through the exact same space. It was a chance encounter that, when he thought about it once more, filled him with a great bursting-in of joy.
There were fluctuations from day to day, but for the most part this feeling of joy persevered. Even by his seventh month, he managed to maintain his focus and various routines. He marked time with the nub of a wax pencil. He ate his green crackers, and drank his pink fluid; he exercised; he practiced Latin, recited poetry, and told himself what he felt to be an acceptable amount of jokes — all with the resolve of a man stacking bags of sand against rising water. Most of all, he kept to his daydreams. The stars through his visor occasionally became the eyes of his future admirers, and he made certain that whenever they looked on him they saw a man worthy of being rescued.