He sits waiting near the Heart of the Sun, steel skin blistering with the hot and cold of space, that nightmare which would kill him if not for the technological wizardy of the human race, each nut and bolt fasened under the sweating brows of faceless workers back on Earth.
Sometimes, he wonders what would happen if one of them had left a bolt loose or misattached a wire. What would go wrong first - and would he even notice? Was his living and breathing out here as important to them as his arrival and return - proud newspaper headlines proclaiming another human success against the monster of space? Did they really need him, in particular? What was he but a man in a tin suit with wires attached, his total existence reduced to heart beat and breath rate registered in lighted numbers and graph paper on some anonymous machine somewhere on Earth?
He doesn't even put the ship through its paces, doesn't turn its nose towards the surface of this giant world, or away. Blinking lights do the thinking for him, testing pitch and roll to the whir of cameras. Thousand-miles circles slip under him, land masses flash in and out of view, jungles appear, rivers run, oceans open wide. Sparkling yellows fade on mountain crusts like huge questions marks. The planet fills with darkness, a bulging circle of black with red edges.
I'm so cold, he thinks and checks the life support, as if the machine could make a mistake. Every number is perfect, every reading exactly right. I feel so small, like a shrunken Alice someone has hung on a string.
The rockets rumble, and the change in velosity drags upon him - not quite like gravity, but almost, dragging him away from one more conquest. He, the new Columbus, watches his own reflection on the dim viewing screen, his face impressed upon the face of this shrinking world, his breath clouding the numeric details, the size and gravity, the possiblities of life.
He parades past such worlds as if following a string of pearls, sighing over dry seas and mountains vomiting flame, alarmed at each passing as if he expected to fall off the final edge. But do they really need him for this, when the discoveries are recorded by machines, leaving him as nothing but a silent witness to their brilliance?
The computer bewilders him, shoveling its measurements through humming transistors, his lifeline to home. The lights flicker in the compartment like candles in a church, and he is the child holding the smoldering remains of a long black stick. He deposits a dime for each new blaze, the smell of burning wax and burnt wood lingering in his nostrils and drawing tears to his eyes.
I can feel mother kneeling beside me, smiling at me, mistaking this crying for devotion while I try to pray. Damn it! I want to believe that my prayers will do some good. "Oh, Lord, I want...."
He shakes his head, but his helmet bumps against the hard plastic of the compartment wall. His air-hose stretches and crackles with complaint. The stars appear as the ship twists away from the planet, its programmed pattern preparing him to encounter other worlds, unseen as yet in the distance.
"Lord, I want to know if they need me," he says, his voice registering in a flurry of lights as it is transmitted back to Earth, as one more monitoring device measures the reactions of this high-priced monkey in his billion-dollar cage. "Why the hell am I here?"
You seal me up and leave me, and I am alone.
"Is something wrong, Bill?" the voice of Earth asks after an appropriate delay.
"No, George," he lies. "Everything's all right." The strap across his chest suddenly grows tighter. "I'm just awed by the sights."
The delay passes in silence; the stars breathing deeply before the next words are heard.
"Sure as hell know what you mean, buddy! I wish I was there, you lucky dog!"
"So do I, friend. So do I."