Jason floated in zero gravity, and as the Space Wheel rotated, the Earth swung slowly into view. The blue orb was a satellite picture of land masses and sweeping clouds, so close he could almost reach out and touch it. The illusion infused him with the vastness of space and his own mortality. It was an awe-inspiring experience of profound, almost religious intensity.
He released the small metal housing that had protected a switch unit in transit, and sent it tumbling away, a flashing star in the darkness. Who would discover that piece of space debris? An alien? Or maybe, thousands of years from now, some human would overtake this piece of celestial archaeology, viewing it with a wondrous sense of displaced time.
The Space Wheel he was attached to was skeletal, the frame betraying just a hint of the project’s true scope. Soon enough it would boast a habitable section, with dorms, kitchens, bathrooms, a gym, water recycling and oxygen reclamation. Then the structure would grow exponentially, evolving into a waystation for journeys that defied current rationale; a stepping stone to a future. If humans were to survive, space travel was no longer a fantasy, but a necessity, and Jason was proud to be at the forefront of that new dawn.
They had been here for a week, and his task was done. Re-entry procedures would begin in a few hours. His colleagues on the intercom were waxing lyrical about what they would eat when they got home – nutri-packs sustained life, but at the expense of culinary enjoyment.
‘Burgers, chips and cold beer.’
‘Steak and onion rings.’
‘Roast beef,’ Jason added.
‘Heathens,’ Michelle’s voice bounced back. ‘When are you going to stop eating dead animals?’
‘When we’re dead, I guess.’
Commander Karne came online. ‘Jason? How’re you guys doing out there?’
‘We’re done. Heading back, now.’
Chi-Lee hooked his safety line to Jason’s and gave him the thumbs-up. Jason sent a tiny blast of air from the jet to send them in a controlled glide towards the shuttle.
‘Coming around the sunny side, now.’
There was a white face at the porthole of their docked Mark-8 shuttle, Neptune. He waved. Then the intercom flooded with an excited babble of voices.
‘Jesus, did you see that?’
‘What the heck?’
‘I can’t see – Look, there it is again!’
‘Christ Almighty,’ someone breathed.
‘I don’t believe it!’
There was a small whoomph! In the intercom.
‘You’re worrying me, guys. What’s going on in there?’
Behind the shuttle, a small burst of flame spat, roiled, then was gone. A wave of power sent them tumbling. Uselessly cartwheeling his arms for a second. Jason spat a thrust of air to stop his spin. He felt a faint tug as Chi-Lee hit the end of the line.
When they were stabilised, he called urgently, ‘Neptune, report?’
There was no answer.
‘Earth Control, come in? Come in Control. We have a problem on the shuttle. Are you reading? Over.’
The men hung there, listening to the silence.
Black space pressed frighteningly closer.
The red oxygen-warning light on his console flashed.
‘Chi? Can you communicate?’
‘With you, Jason.’
Chi’s voice was unsteady. All those disaster simulations had been to broaden experience and stretch the mind. They weren’t supposed to happen.
‘We’re approaching Neptune, Control. No voice contact with crew.’
Jason pushed the button on his console to set him moving again, but as he skirted the vessel, cold flooded his gut, cramping his breathing. The shuttle was split open, and there were human-shaped pieces of debris floating away on a dispersing cloud of oxygen.
Two years of intensive training had bonded their select group, consuming their individuality. Time had hung on schedules, programs and lectures, interspersed with too few weekends in the strange normality of home.
But nothing had prepared him for this.
Beside him, Chi Lee was breathing audibly, panicking.
‘Chi! Get a grip,’ he said. ‘We’ll head for the Shuttle, plug into the air cylinders and assess the damage.’
He moved with urgency towards the bay doors, his toolkit trailing behind.
But the oxygen tanks were gone.
As the Space Wheel turned on its axis, the Earth fell away, and he finally saw what had struck his colleagues with incoherent wonder.
‘Jesus! I have two minutes of air left. If you hear me, Houston, just listen. We have an alien craft standing by.’
The flash of a monitor in a shop window caught Tom’s eye. He was drawn to it, mesmerised. He’d seen it all before: the boosters blasting the orbiter into space, the separation, and the satellite images, but it still held the power to stun him.
And, there was the Wheel, the Space Station that had already been years in the making. After the shuttle had been brought out of hibernation, each successive US administration had discussed its viability and purpose – after all, what good was it to people who needed a home now? But each administration decided it was too important to halt, and so it continued to evolve, rotating serenely, catching the light, echoing the dreams of people.
He stared at the screens for a while, but nothing new was aired. The media was scratching for dregs. Everyone knew of the latest shuttle explosion, and about the crew who had set out so cheerfully on their great, final adventure. He would have gladly accepted death as the price for that experience, after all, death was simply the final part of life.
He flattened both hands on the window, with reverence. They were artist’s hands, long, white fingers made for shaping matter into forms of beauty. But no stained-glass he ever created would be as beautiful to him as the sight he saw now. Regret that he’d been born a century too early flushed through his mind, for in spite of his passion, his unspeakable need, for him space would remain a distant, unobtainable dream.
The news flashed onto a different story, and he moved quietly back into his routine. Nights were when his best pieces drew themselves into his mind. It was a time when he could let his imagination float free, when he could interact with humanity, but not be bludgeoned by it.
Tom was a night-stalker by choice.
He turned a corner, his mind still light-years away, and had taken long strides into the lane before he was aware of the scrapping youths. He stopped short, cursing under his breath, as with a single co-ordinated movement all eyes turned towards him. The street-lights’ glow lent a sickly pallor to city-pale faces as the boys’ aggression funnelled towards him.
Irritated by his own lack of care, he sensed the pack mentality and knew if he ran they’d make chase. He walked forward, unhurriedly, eyes to front, his message clear: what they were doing wasn’t his problem. If the two fighting on the floor killed each other, he hadn’t seen it. No one had seen anything.
He drew level, their eyes followed.
Then, without warning, a thin youth jumped out in front of him, eyes challenging. Tom side-stepped to the right, the boy echoed his movement. He stepped to the left, his shadow haunting him. As they performed this ritual dance, the hard edge of something primeval and dangerous emanated from the shallow-chested boy before him.
‘Let me pass. I don’t want any trouble,’ he said softly.
Out of the shadows, a voice whispered, ‘Hear that, Vic? The prick don’t want no trouble.’
Vic puffed a little, swaggered in, and shoved Tom’s shoulder; a statement with no real force.
‘Give us yer wallet.’
‘No. I’m not giving you anything. I’m going to walk away quietly, and no one will get hurt.’
Vic pulled a flick-knife.
‘Who the fuck d’you think you are? Fucking Superman?’
As the blade snicked out, glinting in chill air, an orgasmic rush of power flooded the boy. Tom grimaced. This wasn’t going to end well. His own hands came up, open palm outward, a universal gesture of peace, but rather than deflect aggression, it brought the pack closer. They had scented blood and were now lusting for it. There was an inevitability about what was to follow, but he tried to diffuse the situation again.
‘You really don’t want to do this. I’ve got no quarrel with you guys.’
Vic gripped the knife professionally, blade upward, and teased it back and forth.
Tom’s eyes followed as if hypnotised.
‘Cut ’im,’ another voice said. ‘Show ’im who’s boss.’
Vic was on a high, now, dancing from side to side, flooded with all the power invested by his knife. Then his teeth drew back in a strange half-snarl, half-smile, and he lunged. Tom’s blur of movement was so contained he hardly expended any effort. The youth was spun around, the arm with the knife twisted agonisingly behind his back. The other hand rose slowly before him in supplication, then he froze, arced backwards towards Tom’s chest.
Tom casually put pressure on his bent arm. ‘Give it to me.’
Vic, on tiptoe, released the knife with a whimper.
They stood there, locked in intimacy while the rest of the gang gaped. With a thin smile, Tom pointed towards the road.
‘I suggest the rest of you lot run along home and grow up.’
‘Don’t you fucking leave me!’ Vic yelled, then hiccupped into silence as the blade of his own knife pricked gently at his throat.
‘Run along home, boys, chop-chop.’
The boys’ faces reflected comprehension at last. There was no fear in Tom’s voice and never had been. They backed away, hovering on the balls of their feet, then turned as one and ran.
Vic whimpered, ‘I wouldn’t ’ave ’urtcha. I was only kiddin’.’
‘No,’ Tom said softly. ‘You weren’t kidding. You wanted to see me bleed, but that wouldn’t have been enough. You wanted to kill me. I felt it in you.’
‘No,’ Vic denied, terror keeping him rigid in Tom’s deceptively easy grip. ‘No, honest, really I wouldn’t ’ave –’
‘Life’s been hard for you, I know. I’m sorry for that.’
Victor’s voice filled with desperate hope.
‘Yeah, that’s right. Me Da’s been a bastard ta me Ma, but I’m gonna get a job better ’n ’im, I am.’
Maybe the boy was still young enough to believe he had a chance, but there was darkness in his soul. If it wasn’t the knife now, it would be something worse, later.
‘Vic. You’re going to do one useful thing in your life; something that’s going to make a difference to all the other boys who were with you. You’re going to give them a reason to go straight.’
As if sensing the darker purpose behind Tom’s words, Vic uttered a wordless keening. Then the knife flashed. Vic was dying of shock almost before the gushing fountain of his blood hit the ground. Tom lowered the boy gently, settling him in the puddle of his own fluids.
Why did people make him do this? Why didn’t they bring their kids up to care? He bent down and wiped the blade clean on the youth’s jeans. Snapping the blade closed, he put it in his pocket and strolled away from the body, his coat flapping at his heels.
The shadows that lurked forever in the darkness around him coalesced, undulating around the still-warm corpse, settling on it like a shroud of dark silk. The merest whisper of approval slithered through his mind. He cocked his head, the better to hear, but silence settled, the moment passed. He strolled towards the brightly lit walkways of the precinct. Eventually, in the distance sirens ululated urgently towards the scene of a murder.