The Flight of the Manatee

In space, you are an oxymoron.

You are both a complete anonymity and a bright beacon, able to be seen from anywhere in the darkness around you. You are one in a million, one in a billion, one in a trillion, a quadrillion, an infinite army of space explorers exploring this infinite space, completely alone but shining like the Sun. You stand out from everything around you, and yet the vast magic that lives amongst the stars swallows you up and turns you into a single blip in this giant, never-ending thing called the universe.

You are no one. You are the only one. You don’t belong. You fit in perfectly. You are the only you around in this endless sea, but in this ocean, being you doesn’t seem to matter. You are nothing and you are everything.

You think of all this as you follow the manatee through the asteroids, wondering if it will ever make its way back to the preserve.

It floats aimlessly, farther and farther from its home, no destination seemingly in its mind. Its only will is to explore that which has yet to be explored.

And you follow because that is your goal, too.

The creature rounds an asteroid. You round that same asteroid. It dives below another, so you dive below it, too. It flops its tail up and down, propelling it further and further and further. You kick your feet up and down, keeping up with the beautiful, beautiful, beautiful thing. There’s a strange beauty to its oblivious ugliness. It reminds you that it is just one spec in the entirety of space. It reminds you of you.

You keep your distance, staying back so as not to spook it, but staying on pace so as not to lose it. You don’t want to lose this manatee. There are only a handful of them left in this final frontier, and the asteroid belt preserve from where it came is a hidden gem in an entire solar system of awe-inducing attractions. You could have chosen to go anywhere—sliding around the rings of Saturn, rafting down Venus’ acid rivers, sunbathing on Pluto where the sun simply blinks like any other faraway star—but for some reason, you chose right here, and it’s the best decision you’ve ever made.

The manatee turns and suddenly its grayscale hide turns to silhouette black. The sun burns in the distance behind it, and you can’t tell the difference now between the space mammal and the space rocks. You can only see the sun, a sun that is like you, too. It shines bright, an actual beacon for all interplanetary travelers, but it’s one of millions in the darkness. It’s exclusive, yet cookie-cutter by design. You wonder if everything is uniquely the same like this—you, the sun, the stars, the big rocks and the little rocks, the planets and the people who inhabit them—and as you wonder, you lose sight of the manatee for good. It has drifted off somewhere unknown, somewhere only it now knows.

The manatee is gone, and with it, your will to continue. So you float. You float and you float and you float and you float. You float with no direction, no destination, no desire to go anywhere else but where you are now and tomorrow and the next day and forever—not after the manatee, not back to the preserve, not going anywhere but nowhere, shining bright in a homogenous dark, being the ubiquitous individual that everyone everywhere is, exemplifying that standout sameness we all strive to be, that original oxymoron that you, me, them, us, we are.

Now you realize that it doesn’t matter where you are. You are an oxymoron everywhere.

~

The Argo IV commuter spacecraft shot past Mars, and as it approached the asteroid belt, its prideful pilot Commander Columbo radioed Earth.

Houston, Argo IV has reached rocky territory. Clear path sighted to desired destination: Jupiter. No worries regarding route. Uploading travel plans now.

Commander Columbo pushed the trajectory file into the ship’s dashboard and watched its twinkling display as the Transmission Loading screen popped up. The file began to send: ten percent, twenty percent, thirty percent, and so on, all the way to completion.

Once finished, a new communication from Earth sounded in the cockpit.

Argo IV, your message has been received. Proceed with caution.

The Argo IV pushed onward, plans approved, into hazardous space. The Commander never grew tired of the views from his pilot’s seat. Asteroids would amble aimlessly around the ship, orbiting the sun with the rest of the solar system. Comets would blast through the dark void beyond, their tails trailing in wisps of white. Meteoroids would plink and pang against the Argo IV’s exterior, exciting the passengers within every time. They would gaze out through reinforced portholes from the comfort of their cabins, the stars in their eyes as brilliant as the stars outside. The metal hull would hold, as always, and they would pass safely through. Commander Columbo never had any problems during his routine flights.

The ship had just soared past the belt’s halfway point when Columbo spotted something—or someone—in the distance. Perched on a large asteroid fifty units to the right was a stunning creature. Its radiant skin glowed against the sun’s unobstructed rays, its voluminous hair fell in wavy white curls around its head, its piercing, hypnotic eyes bore deep into the Commander’s own, and most captivating of all, its smooth mermaid-like tail waved back and forth against the rough rock beneath it. It was the most beautiful thing Commander Columbo had ever seen.

He updated the ship’s destination coordinates.

Argo IV, we’ve received notification that your flight path has been rerouted. Your passengers will not arrive on time with this new trajectory. Please revert to the previous course.

The Commander didn’t respond, listening to a faint ringing echo in his ear. He stared, pupils dilated, as the breathtaking creature and its rock became the ship’s new destination.

Argo IV, return to course immediately. We spot a large asteroid directly in your path on our radar.

But Columbo did not budge. He watched in blissful fascination as the ship grew closer and closer to the creature, its beauty unfaltering. It waved an outstretched hand at him, to him, for him, its arm undulating in the zero-gravity. The asteroid on which the creature sat grew larger and larger, big enough to wreck the ship, but Commander Columbo pressed on.

Argo IV, return to course immediately.

We’re almost there, the Commander replied.

The Argo IV drifted dangerously close. The Commander could hear frantic knocks on the locked cockpit door. He would not answer them. Instead, he listened to a haunting melody that grew in volume as the rock loomed nearer. The sound seemed to fill the room, fill the asteroid belt, fill the entirety of infinite space itself. The creature was singing to him. It waited for him, there on the rock, knowing Columbo was all it could ever want. Knowing it was all Columbo could ever want. He would do anything for this mysterious creature.

Argo IV, revert to previous course now!

Seconds before the Argo IV crashed into the asteroid and instantly became space-junk, the mystical creature swam away from its perch, its weight becoming weightless in the darkness. Its glittering skin turned to gray, its metronomic tail turned to stub, and its luxurious hair turned to space dust. Tiny black eyes in a bulbous gray head stared back at the Commander as his own eyes widened with a fearsome realization. The manatee chirped at the ship, its call echoing in the soundless space, and silently paddled its way further into the depths of the asteroid belt.

In the final moments of the Argo IV, Commander Columbo understood his fatal mistake.

~

Last manatee I wrangled up was mighty feisty. A real tricky lady. They’re a real rare find, but when you spot ‘em, you’ve gotta be sure to snatch ‘em up—great for milkin’ and even better for eatin’.

So that’s just what I done did.

I was zippin’ on through the Milky Way Wilds—the far side of the asteroid belt—when I spotted her. I could tell she was a she from the way her tail stubbed short, instead a bein’ a longer kind of nub. Anyway, she was just floatin’ there without a care in the world, bits of space dust collectin’ on her back, a few soft chirps here and there, the whole manatee shebang.

I just knew I had to have her.

I kicked my spurs into the sides of my trusty steed, Tigertail. He bucked a little, whippin’ up his coiled tail and shootin’ a little bubble outta his long snout. I might’ve seen a little Tigertail Jr. pop outta his belly, too, but I’m not too sure. I was so focused on gettin’ that beauty up in front of us that I wasn’t payin’ no attention to him.

Anyway, we started forward, but that gray thing must’ve heard us or somethin’. She turned her head back and stared at us with those black eyes of hers and as soon as she done saw us, she darted off into the rocks.

That lumpy girl swam quicker’n I thought she could! She raced off, probably knowin’ she was about to get git, and I knew I had to have my ropes out if I was gonna catch her. I plucked my lassoin’ rope from my belt hook and started swingin’ it in the zero-G—which, by the by, is real tough at first, but once you get the hang of it, its simpler’n shootin’ a Coke can off the back fence with a ray gun. You’ve gotta swing the rope like you’re stirrin’ a pot of cookin’ beans: wide and slow to keep it all from gettin’ stale.

“Let’s get her, Tigertail,” I shouted as I kicked again, sendin’ him into overdrive. We shot forward, swimmin’ closer and closer to the beast.

It was quite the chase, I tell ya. We darted ‘round asteroids, dashed through open space, dove into dark voids, circled the sun, all the while gainin’ ground (or space, I guess you could say) on that slippery gal. I was gonna catch her one way or another.

After about a good ten minutes of chase, give or take, Tigertail and I were real close to her. I figure we must’ve tired her out, ridin’ after her for so long. I’m surprised she didn’t give up no sooner!

Anyway, I threw my lasso at her, slowly whippin’ along through the dark until it swooped on over her and rounded that blobby head of hers.

I pulled and the lasso went taught ‘round her neck. My Lord, she started to squirm! I’d seen other girls like her before—never wantin’ to be tamed, squealin’ like a hog, needin’ to hold onto that free spirit of theirs—so I was used to all the fightin’. I just held on, ’cause I sure as hell wasn’t gonna let this fine gal get away. She was my first catch in months and probably the finest one I’d ever caught. Ain’t everyday you see a prime piece of meat like her floatin’ ‘round the Milky Way.

After wrestlin’ back and forth for quite a while—longer’n I was expectin’—she calmed down a bit, and that’s when I pounced. I leapt off Tigertail with the end of the rope in my hands, driftin’ closer and closer until I was on her. Then the real fun began.

She didn’t like it much when I wrapped my arms ‘round her thick hide. She bucked and she kicked and she did everythin’ she could to get me off, but I wasn’t goin’ nowhere. I just held tighter and tighter, and as soon as she started calmin’ down again, I wrapped that little rope ‘round her fins, makin’ it impossible for her to go nowhere.

In other words, I reckon, she was got.

I let out a holler when the deed was done. I laughed and laughed. It felt good gettin’ back in the saddle and ropin’ up one of them manatees after so long without one. Tigertail must’ve sensed it too, because he moseyed on over to us and blew some of his bubbles, whinnyin’ and prancin’ like the happy spacehorse he is.

To this done day, it’s still one of the best catches I’ve made. Me and Tigertail were smilin’ the whole way back to the ranch. The manatee, though, was all tied up to the saddle, draggin’ along behind us, frownin’ and probably wishin’ it had wandered away from wherever else in the galaxy it was. To that, I just say, “Too bad!” Them manatees ought to know better’n to drift on over into my neck of the belt.

Because every time one comes my way, well, they’re sure as hell gonna get git.

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