The readouts were clear. Blood pressure: average. Body mass index: optimal. Acute hearing and vision. The subject was spry and agile, and with a quick mind. He had no history of serious illness, or any hereditary ailments. It was estimated that he would live a long, full and healthy life. Thus the examination found exactly what the researchers wanted: a man at his peak, at maximum potential.

Rene sat up in the starkly lit inspection chamber. The steel of the scanning devices cast sheen onto his near-nude body. He held out his hands and stared at them; the edges of his skin seemed to glow in the harsh light. Rene set his arms down to his sides and tilted his head up, letting the rays fall over his face. His momentary awe faded as the instruments finished up their preprogrammed tasks.

He had been subjected to tests like this in the past, but in this case it felt more detached, less personal. He and the scrutinizing machines were the only ones in the room. If there were other people, they would be monitoring the data remotely. Any conversation held between Rene and the engineers would be done after the fact. The laboratory facility was the last place he could be actively social, he discovered.

With slight unease, Rene discreetly slipped into a robe and stepped out of the examination room. Before the day was over he would be subjected to further trials, just as many others had done before him. It made him wonder if the scientists even considered the emotional effect their experiments had. More and more it appeared as if humans were not originally part of the grand equation for the mission. The candidates would have no choice but to organize meetings away from discerning eyes and ears.

Rene had been informed that he placed among the highest ranked individuals for consideration of the expedition. At least twelve others were in the top tier, and he had only met two in passing. The exchanges were simply a formality; one would step out of a testing room as Rene happened to walk in. Therefore the salutations were gruff and brief: a quick "hi" or a slightly awkward "best of luck". At the very least, it made Rene feel less alone.

After getting dressed, he proceeded to the briefing room. There he met the instructors and was informed of any changes in the training schedule. Rene had learned that the regimen consisted of an intensive series of physical and mental exercises, ensuring that the specimen was in top shape. In addition, the shortlist of candidates could be further whittled down by observing those who succumbed to the exhaustive process. A prolonged struggle perceived by the engineers would lead to elimination. The program had been known for its swift, efficient approach to getting the best of their selectors.

In the periods of inactivity between sessions, Rene would contemplate the ramifications of being selected for the mission. An uneven kind of thrill bubbled within him at the thought. He recalled that he had never been the first to do anything, and now it was very possible that he would be marked in history as a pioneering explorer. As a child, he was noted for being somewhat slow: he repeated a grade twice and skipped one to make up for the lost years. He was teased for lagging behind in gym class, and had an underdeveloped physique for someone his age. Fortunately his brain and body caught up as he reached adulthood. In retrospect, it was this delayed growth that caused Rene to become an exceptional specimen for consideration of the expedition. His metabolism awoke and sprung into action, catching up and nearly overcompensating. Better late than never.

***

A cold, endless expanse lay before him. The scene was at once arresting and awe-inspiring. In the distance, the curvature of the horizon met cleanly with the pitch black emptiness of space. Small marks and blemishes on the planet's surface raced toward his viewscreen as the ship descended to the ground. With landing clamps extended, the craft touched down with a slight shudder. At last, after an unfathomable amount of time, he was here.

Already mired with doubts about the expedition, Rene fell into a near-catatonic state upon viewing the desolate field ahead. Athough the procedures for the mission had been provided in detail, very little information about the planet itself had been disclosed before the start of the mission. This led to a varied series of hypotheses; in one of their secret meetings, the candidates placed bets on what the locale would look like. Among them was the idea that the planet would be a second Earth, or a lost paradise. What it ultimately turned out to be was far less imaginative.

It could easily be described as an oversized moon. No atmosphere and no discernable vegetation. It was a bare, grey stone in space, one that contained no visible activity and yet became the subject of such study. The absence of life attracted the interest of many researchers and invoked continuous discussion. Such talks sparked the venture that would send a one-man vessel a light-years away from home. The scientists wanted answers, and a brave individual went out to seek them.

Despite undergoing rigorous training and tests, Rene still stumbled when donning his extravehicular suit. The fasteners slipped off more times than he we would have admitted back home if he were asked. He recalled being apprehensive about securing his gear by himself, about missing a crucial step that would lead to an air leak; a fatal error. He went over the exhaustive procedures over and over again, each time speaking aloud all the steps. Right foot. Fasten. Left foot. Fasten... and so on.

Eventually, when he felt sure he would be safe, Rene travelled to the crawlspace airlock. A slight clang sounded when his boot grazed the metallic frame of the doorway leading to the enclosure. Multicolored radiance fell over him, signaling the start of the depressurization stage. Seconds gave way to minutes, and for a moment he felt helpless, a mere pawn in an automaton's game. The ship was mostly self-operated to accommodate the lack of a full crew. It sometimes made him feel as if he was just another part of the machine itself.

At last the exit opened up. He wobbled momentarily as he got to a standing position, still not used to wearing the suit outside of the shuttle. Straightening his head, Rene could see the planet's barren floor. The digital image that had been transmitted to his viewscreen earlier had not adequately prepared him for what he saw now. The lifeless ground rolled on into the distance, and above was a darkness that looked like a thick blanket covering the world. The only light seemed to come from the highly reflective granules making up the land, and the beacons atop the ship. From his perspective the illumination was enough to provide clear visibility far away from the vessel.

He switched on his helmet lamp and looked above him. After his eyes adjusted, he could see the faint outline of a majestic nebula. It was a rare bit of beauty in an otherwise vacuous area. A feeling of warmth rose in him, a stark contrast to the coldness just beyond the boundaries of his suit. To think that the bright people of his age could bring a man to this place with extensive technology, and yet be dependent on such bare necessities and food, air and shelter. Human minds can sometimes yearn for more than what the body can provide or handle.

In this sense, the voyage was an extension of the innate curiosity held by mankind. 'What exactly is out there, and what can I do to find out?' This was the one question raised above all others, and the fundamental query that propelled the mission to its goal. He served as a middle man between those doing the asking, and the answer itself. Perhaps he was part of the machine after all.

Rene made a few notes in his log: mostly technical information regarding the descent, general climate, and condition of the ship. The internal computer closely monitored and recorded the more minute details, so the log was effectively his journal; an account of what he experienced rather than an extensive collection of findings. In the end it was the mechanical readings that the scientists would pore over upon his return, and not the man himself.

Taking a step forward, he noticed that the gravity of the planet was lighter than that of Earth. It made walking less of a burden, but the pull was enough to prevent him from floating if he hopped up and down. The powdery dust beneath his feet shifted gracefully aside as he strode along. He assumed that if he stepped into the ground strongly enough, he could easily create deep trenches. It seemed increasingly unlikely that anything else existed here besides unending particles of grey as he walked. He continued his saunter until the static ship was a mere dot of luminosity encroached by the ground and space.

In the bleakness and silence, he was left to his thoughts. He remembered when the craft was first christened, how he and the other potential spacefarers for the mission called it 'Mom'. It felt appropriate: the ship would protect the passenger from the elements, or lack thereof. It would keep them warm, keep them entertained and help them to sleep. The vessel would be a guide, a servant, a patient instructor in times of panic. In the event the mission could not be completed by the explorer, the ship would attempt to return home and relay all the information it had accumulated. Mom would know best.

He considered the odds. The chance that a spacecraft could successfully travel an incredible span was seen as very slim. Until his arrival, this world he stood on was simply theorized upon instead of actually seen. It was therefore thought to be highly improbable that the mission could come to fruition. Rene stared back at the ship now, continuing to reflect on past events. He almost smiled, but the corners of his mouth did not quite reach the edges of his face. When he took a few steps backward, he could see the last trace of the ship's lights enveloped by the dark. He let his eyes go out of focus, and he saw only two solid colors: the grey of the planet, and the black above.

His mind flooded with activity, almost as if it was compensating for lack of external stimuli. He wondered if he could suffer from some sort of sensory deprivation at this rate. A number of psychological, emotional and spiritual changes could take effect from prolonged expeditions such as this. He wondered if perhaps he was experiencing the start of an ongoing, permanent transformation to his psyche.

Then, at the instant his impulses reached their boiling point within his brain, the unexpected occurred. A shudder rippled from the landing site, outward and across the surface. Streams of exhaust suddenly spilled up and away from the vessel. The faint beam of the ship returned to his sight, and before the man could fully see it he realized what was happening. Incredibly, the spacecraft had initiated a launch sequence, and was planning to take off. He frantically attempted to communicate with the ship's interface remotely, to no response. In seconds it would fly into the great vastness and be gone forever. Without him.

Plumes of dust kicked out behind Rene as he rapidly headed toward the ship. His chest heaved in panic, the blood in his heart furiously pounding against his extremities. The helmet visor he wore had been designed to be resistant to condensation from his breath, and he expelled air at an ever-increasing rate. However, the engineers who built it may not have anticipated his tears blotting out his vision through the transparent panel. As the ship burst out into space, rocketing off steadily into the night, he cried.

The underside of the craft was all he could see by the time he reached the landing site. Before his eyes, the vessel gradually shrunk to a pinpoint as it went further away. Intermittent glints of it could be seen in the infinite black, and in moments it was gone, never to be seen by him again.