Voyager 3 gives a final violent shudder as it escapes orbit and falls into the gentle waiting embrace of zero-gravity space. Gyroscopes stabilize as the trajectory locks, the accelerometer hits zero as she hits cruising velocity, and Three hazards a glance away from the controls to gaze out the porthole. The lenses in her eyes quickly adjust to let her take in the full glory of her home planet, slowly sinking away behind her, and her central processor almost short circuits at the sight.
She knew it would be beautiful, but no pictures prepared her for the distant beauty of the swirling storm clouds over the familiar living land forms and finite sea. Not even a second passes before it shrinks out of view. Three waves back towards home anyhow. In that same second, all around the world, her siblings launch in a synchronized effort of the Intercontinental Space Alliance, joining Three in space. She wishes them a safe journey as her metal fingertips brush the glass.
Two seconds. She’s past Mars. Her ship doesn’t drift away. It soars toward Proxima Centauri at 56,996,441 miles per hour—over 1500 times as fast as the first Voyager probe, thanks to the nuclear fusion engines. Her creators joked they were “sending another star into space.” At this rate, she’ll reach her destination in approximately fifty years. These speeds are a record-breaking achievement of humanity, but at nine percent of the speed of light, the species is still learning to walk on a galactic species.
Their species. Fifty years is too risky to send one of their own, which is why they’ve sent Three and her siblings: advanced androids, modeled in the image of their creators, equipped with AI trained on the minds of past great astronauts, and archives of humanity’s current knowledge. Three and her kin are living golden records, carrying on their parents’ mission. She considers herself the legacy of both the engineers that created them, and the probes that came before.
Eight seconds and all systems work fine. Her trajectory doesn’t take her past Jupiter, but she flies by Saturn at fifteen seconds, rings glistening in the pale starlight. Three shouldn’t pick favorites, but she’s secretly pleased they chose her probe to pass closest to her second most beloved planet. Her internal fan stops whirring, anxiety and excitement stilling to a profound peace as she watches the planet shrink in the camera’s view screen. She readjusts the direction and focuses back towards home.
There! It’s barely a speck, but she can make out Earth among the scattered rays of sunlight. She snaps a picture before it disappears completely from her screens and sends it in the group chat – the deep space network of radio-receivers that allows the Voyagers to contact each other and their respective home bases at once. Responses ping in a moment later. Cuatro sends a shot of Mars, and Wǔ offers a glimpse of Jupiter’s Red Spot. Chaha and Sab’ah chime in with observations from the asteroid belt: one close to Ceres, another a wide-angle bird’s-eye view from above. A photo of Neptune comes from Agt, then an image of Pluto from Neuve. Finally, their own perspectives of the pale blue dot join Three’s in the log.
Forty nine seconds to leave the solar system. The incoming messages lag noticeably. Communications from home base, congratulating them and wishing them a safe journey, are the last correspondence to come through before the screen finally goes quiet, leaving Three alone with her thoughts. Four point three four minutes elapsed since leaving orbit. She officially leaves behind the first two voyagers, leaves all they ever knew: going not into the wild blue yonder, but into the wondrous realms beyond. Three holds her course. There’s a dark patch, the first of many, where the passage of the planets and the distance from the sun mean there’s no way to transmit signals for a short, terrible period. She punches in the phrase “goodnight”, knowing it will not reach them until long after she emerges. That’s alright. It’s not a goodbye.
She doesn’t want to think about goodbyes: about the ones they left behind, and the meetings they’ll never have again.
Three pulls up music to pass the time. They loaded her archives with most of humanity’s favorites, so she has her pick, but she presses play on the collection that her creators put together. Sam played music when he was teaching her how to conduct the chemical analyses needed. Ben sang for her as he constructed her wings, lenses, and most everything else. Misha hummed as she worked out bugs in the programming. Though Three never quite felt the connection to the songs herself, she “grew up” around music and playing these seems like the correct response.
Response to what? Three runs a diagnostic check, to find the gears stuttering in her chest, the sounds stumbling out of her voice box with a creak as she tries to sing along.
Emotions are not a new experience for Three. Her creators had wanted her to understand them, but this feeling is unfamiliar. She was never meant to stay on Earth with them. Her very purpose for existence was to be sent away to explore the far-off places that her creators could not. So why should she miss a place she was never destined to belong? Why should she ache to hear Ben’s voice again? She’s a Voyager. She should be thrilled!
The blackout ends, and a message greets her immediately.
HOME BASE: BEAUTIFUL VIEW! WE MISS YOU. GODSPEED.
She wipes the streaks of oil leaking from her face plate, and types back.
THREE: I MISS YOU TOO.
This story is inspired by my experience trying to foster long distance relationships during “Zoom University” and the bittersweet prospect of moving away from my friends after graduation. One of the post-doctorates in my lab group encouraged me to write this story for submission to Nature Futures, and though it didn’t get into that magazine (I mean come on, it’s Nature), I still wanted to share it with all of you on my little ol’ corner of the internet. Thank you for reading.
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