One by one, I removed the electrode patches that covered me from face to feet. Their steady pulses had kept my muscles from atrophying, and for that, I was grateful. Next, I removed the nutrient drip from my arm, bandaged myself, and collected the few drops of blood that had floated free. I then took a breath, readied some therapeutic profanities, and removed the catheter from the place where catheters go.
Ah, the glamour of space travel.
I could hear the faint rustle of my crewmates going through the same checklist of waking. The walls aboard the Merian are thin, but there are walls, and that point’s key. I’ve seen stills from classic movies in which space-travelling crews are put to sleep, but their chambers or pods or what have you are always lined up side by side, these grim rows of morgue-like containment. Let me be clear on this point: when you’ve woken up from nearly three decades of induced unconsciousness, and every orifice has gunk around it, and your nails look like talons, and your skin smells like a cross between a freshly-washed hospital bathroom and an abandoned pen at a zoo, and you’ve just pulled a tube wet with urine out of yourself . . . you need a minute alone. And that’s only taking basic hygiene and vanity into consideration. There’s an even more important psychological matter at hand during this time.
Once you remember who and what and where you are, your first impulse upon leaving torpor is to look. But just as waking up after a visible surgery can be jarring, so, too, can be those first moments taking in your altered body. You’re different. You need a moment to prepare, and likely several moments to process, and you definitely don’t need to be working through all of that in a group setting. And so, every astronaut’s cabin has a full-length mirror, which is yours and yours alone. The mirror is not facing the torpor chamber. It’s on the wall to the right of it, out of your line of sight but visible the minute you decide to float forward. The mirror knows you’re anxious to see yourself – but take your time, it says. I’m here when you’re ready, and not a second before. It is the kindest object placement I’ve ever seen.
On the chance that our methods have been forgotten or misrepresented – or you simply never learned about them – let’s take a moment to discuss somaforming.
Say what you will about Homo sapiens, but you can’t argue that we’re a versatile species. On Earth, we can survive a decent swath of both heat and cold. We eat a mind-boggling variety of flora and fauna, and can radically change our diets according to need or mood. We can live in deserts, forests, tundras, swamps, plains, mountains, valleys, shorelines, and everything in between. We are generalists, no question.
But take us away from our home planet, and our adaptability vanishes. Extended spaceflight is hell on the human body. No longer challenged by gravity, bones and muscles quickly begin to stop spending resources on maintaining mass. The heart gets lazy in pumping blood. The eyeball changes shape, causing vision problems and headaches. Unpleasant as these ailments are, they pale in comparison to the onslaught of radiation that fills the seeming void. In the early decades of human spaceflight, six months in low-Earth orbit – a mere two hundred miles up – was enough to raise your overall cancer risk a few notches. The farther you head into interplanetary space, away from the gentle atmospheric shores of Earth, the worse the exposure becomes.
Human spaceflight was stalled for decades because of this, crippled by the technological nut that could not be cracked: how do you keep humans alive in space during the length of time it takes to reach other planets? We beat our heads against the drafting table, trying to build tools that could do what our anatomy could not. We wrapped our brains around algorithms, trying to create artificial intelligence that could venture to other worlds for us. But our machines were inadequate, and our software never woke up. We knew there was life on other worlds, yet we couldn’t leave our own front yard. And while probes and space telescopes shed ever more light on our galactic neighbourhood, there’s only so much you can see looking through a peephole. To properly survey a place, you need boots on the ground. You need human intuition. You need eyes that can tell when something that looks like a rock might be more than a rock.
It ended up being far easier, once the science matured, to engineer our bodies instead.
We don’t change much – nothing that would make us unrecognisable, nothing that would push us beyond the realm of our humanity, nothing that changes how I think or act or perceive. Only a small number of genetic supplementations are actually possible, and none of them are permanent. You see, an adult human body is comprised of trillions of cells, and if you don’t constantly maintain the careful changes you’ve made to them, they either revert back to their original template as they naturally replace themselves, or mutate malignantly. Hence, the enzyme patch: a synthetic skin-like delivery system that gives our bodies that little bit extra we need to survive on different worlds. If I were to stop wearing patches, my body would eventually flush the supplementations out, and I’d be the same as I was before I became an astronaut (plus the years and the memories).