THE WORST THING is the quiet. It's the catalyst for every unconstructive thought. Every whim that is not germane to the mission at hand.
In the quiet, I remember my family. The ever-present, dull, nuclear throbbing of the craft's hyperdrive lulls me into a state of remembrance, and the screams of my partner, my lovely, as the soldiers dragged me from our home flood into my mind. I remember the sheer terror in the eyes of my child—no, not terror, a lack of understanding of the situation for it to be terror. He was dumbfounded, ignorant, and incapable of understanding... or unwilling to understand. It's the same look I used to fawn over when he had just hatched. His six eyes taking in the world around him, learning and processing. It will be ages before I can see those eyes again, if I return at all. I remember the shrill electronic charge and the cracking thud of the medical officer's inoculation device as it plunged into my neck, and then a second shrill charge when he tranquilized me.
When I came to, a video was looping, playing my instructions. I was on a spacecraft headed toward a planet identified as Earth. The planet was of burgeoning intelligence, not yet capable of interstellar travel, but showing an advanced facility for art, critical thought, emotional attachment, and war. I was thanked for... volunteering... to go on this very long, but very safe mission. I was assured my skills as a biologist would come in handy in the collection and care of one of these alien creatures, so that it might be studied, and that knowledge might be used for the collective advancement of our species as a whole.
The video looped countless times. First I memorized it. Then I conversed with the video, "Say there, robot, what will my primary objective be?" Then I constructed an interpretive dance. Then the video stopped looping. Then the quiet.
I used to fantasize about the sample I was to collect. Would they be a scientist, too? Perhaps I wouldn't dose them into hibernation right away... perhaps I would communicate with them, learn from them, truly be a scientist, rather than an errand boy tasked with the maintenance of a research vessel and the abduction of some poor, unwitting fool.
And that was my next instinct. I pitied the sample I was to collect. I empathized with them. I would be dragging them away from their family, except there would be no return trip for them. Maybe that was for the better. Maybe it's best never to go home again, not after this long. My child will be the age I was when I left, a fully formed adult, free of my influence, save for the mitochondrial information I imprinted on his mother's egg. His mother. My partner. Surely she will have moved on, and who could blame her? Her life is her life, not some accompaniment to my own horrifically dull tragedy.
Now I feel nothing. Now all I feel is the quiet.
An alarm sounds, and I don't know how long it's been since I was last aware of my own existence. I lurch toward the windows and see a blue shape nearing. Earth. I tense up and release a primal, ecstatic yelp, the first sound to bounce off these walls since the video stopped looping. The engines cut off and suddenly it's even quieter. The insistent drone of the hyperdrive is hushed.
I take the controls of the ship to slice through the planet's atmosphere—the friction cooks the nose of the craft a bright orange. Iridescent lights speckle the rough browns and greens that crowd together amid vast, sweeping stretches of blue and gray seawater. As I draw closer, details begin to emerge. Mountains reaching toward the skies. Roads pushing defiantly into deserts. A collection of vehicles, and then more vehicles—strange, large vehicles and... canvas domiciles, all of them gathered around some massive, looming figure. It has the rudimentary form of a man.
I steady the craft to observe the crowds of people moving below. A member of this group will be my sample. Suddenly, immolation. The massive form, the statue, is ablaze. The crowds of creatures gathered around the burning man are elated. Now is my time. I engage the tractor beam and pluck a terrestrial creature from the safety of his home. For a moment, a pang of guilt. Then my sample is here.
The creature speaks while the ship's computer translates: "Holy shit, this molly is friggin' gnarly, dude. Oh wow, are you a space alien? Be honest dude, you can tell me, I went to Reed for seven months dude, so you can tell me if you're an alien—like—I won't blow your cover, because I know how it is, dude, because I spent like three weeks in Nicaragua, and people were like, 'Whaaaaat?' and I was like, 'Deal with it,' because it's like, 'Yeah, I'm here in Nicaragua, but don't worry, I'm not fucking George W. Bush, you know? It's like... my dad wasn't president of the United States. He was president of a bank, and banks are dope.' Do you have, like, a bathroom? Or like, a mandolin I can play? Or like, hey, where are all the girl aliens?"
Oh my god, fuck this guy. I panic. I reach for the tranquilizer, and for a brief moment I think about using it on myself, but instead plunge it into my charge's neck. He falls to the ground. Relief washes over me. Then he stands up.
"Holy shit, that was amazing, thank you, kind sir. Have you ever done ayahuasca? It's like the Devil's fucking your brain, but, like, you know he's in love with you..." and for the first time, I miss the quiet.