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The Silent Whales of Lunar Sea (2018 rewrite) by Magnus Graham

© Magnus Graham

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A Quick Note: Despite outward appearances, The Silent Whales of Lunar Sea is a novella about drug addiction and how young lives can spiral out of control. The story jumps back and forth between three different time lines, one set in space, one that is set immediately before Buzz and Angel join the Deep Space Exploration Project and the third - the one set in the 'present' - set in the Centre for Recovering Astronauts. Some of the themes are not apparent from the extract you are about to read, but come to the surface as the story goes on. Events are revealed from the point of view of Billy 'Buzz' Stevenson and he may not be the most reliable of narrators.

Thanks for taking the time to read and review my work.

Chapter 1

CROSSING THE RUBICON

The tension is unbearable, your nerves fraught. There’s a knot tightening around your stomach and the electrical charge of excitement is so palpable you can almost taste it.

These are sensations every astronaut experiences moments before that first trip off world. No matter how many times a person subsequently sets forth into the big black, nothing will ever eclipse the thrill and the terror of that first launch.

During my time as a deep space pioneer, I wandered the arid rock-strewn deserts of Mars, submerged myself beneath the icy surface of Europa and descended into the perilous depths of Miranda’s treacherous labyrinth of caverns. Once I travelled to the very edge of the solar system, where the sun – that blazing ball of light that is so essential to our very existence – appeared as little more than just another star in the night sky. That far out, the moons and asteroids are what they are...Frozen relics left over from the dawn of time. They do not pretend otherwise.

As members of the Deep Space Exploration Project, it fell to us to explore these far-flung reaches. Yet, as I look back, I increasingly find myself wondering whether any of us could claim to have truly left our home world at all. Perhaps our motives for taking part in such hazardous voyages were suspect from the start. All too frequently our actions were indications of a desire to escape, rather than an urge to explore.

There were casualties along the way. And now the corpses of those who perished litter worlds other than our own. Time and time again, I have questioned the wisdom of so many of my decisions, but to what avail? Perhaps, given the self-destructive nature of our species, such foolhardy exploits are inevitable. Yet, even this realisation seems to offer nothing but cold comfort.

My gaze wandering from the television screen, I look around the room. There are others here with me, but we pay each other little heed. Each of us is lost in our own thoughts, haunted by our own specific ghosts.

I’m seated in the recreation room in the Centre for Recovering Astronauts. A documentary about the history of space exploration is being broadcast on TV. The screen depicts a ship readying itself for lift-off, one of the reusable launch systems of the 1980s and 90s. The effort of scanning the room has made my head feel heavy, so I turn back the television.

On screen is footage recorded moments before launch. The astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery are strapped down, their nervous eyes staring upward through the toughened glass of the cockpit. With the adrenaline coursing through them, none of the crew will be thinking of their return to Earth. Yet, these astronauts will not be ignorant of the side effects of prolonged weightlessness. All are likely to experience some degree of bone density loss. Too long in a weightless environment and this condition can prove all too permanent.

But in the excitement of lift-off, such thoughts will be far from the forefront of the mind; these astronauts are fit and healthy and as ready as they’ll ever be for what lies ahead. Other ailments these brave space-farers are likely to experience include disorientation, feelings of extreme nausea and a deconditioning of muscular and cardiovascular tissue...

...Countdown commences. Inside the claustrophobic confines of space shuttle Discovery, the thunderous roar of the rocket engines will be deafening. Once in flight, powerful gee forces will exert a crushing pressure; the shuttle will shake so violently that the crew will inevitably question whether or not it will hold together. Prayers will be proffered like sacrificial offerings. Some of the crew – educated and intelligent men and women – will put their faith in a god they don’t believe in. The darkness of space will close in upon them, until finally it encloses all seven in its protective cloak.

After they return, astronauts often require orthopaedic casting. Premature aging and paralysis are also common.

As you leave the Earth’s atmosphere, everything will go quiet as the grave. The crushing weight of gravity will be no more. Strapped down in the vacuum of space, all will be tranquil. ‘Serene’ is the word that comes to mind, but I’m not sure why. Far below, the glowing blue and green orb that was home will shrink away. In no time at all, it will appear so small, so inconsequential. The trials and anxieties of Earth will fade... Temporarily, at least.

As I watch TV, my eyelids droop. Distracted, my mind wanders to a time before I ever set forth into space. These recollections feel dream-like, as if they belong to someone else. I recall what it was like to be a teenager, to have Angel at my side... Back when we were both young and healthy...

*

Both of us were seventeen. Comfortable with the silence between us, we lay next to one another, the rumble of traffic nothing more than a muffled background murmur. Somewhere nearby, concealed within a clump of grass, a cricket called out, it’s chirping announcing the onset of dusk. The first of the night stars were already emerging, pinpricks of light that were growing more visible as the remaining embers of sunlight slipped away.

Our school days were now behind us. The world was our oyster, yet neither of us felt much in the way of excitement. Looking back, I can see we were waiting for something to happen, something big, something that would free us from the shackles of our planet’s gravity. Angel and I both needed to get away. When the opportunity arose, I guess neither of us looked too closely at what we were letting ourselves in for. We acted on impulse.

“Won’t your mother be wondering where you’ve got to?”

Angel’s question rescued me from the dissonant babble of dark musings racing through my head. I took my time answering. So much had happened. My father was dead and the mother I’d grown up with was disappearing with each passing day. For a few seconds I said nothing. Increasingly, I was finding it difficult to conjure up a likeness of my mother in my mind’s eye.

The flecks of grey in her hair had been there for some time. Even before Dad had managed to get himself blown up, those strands of grey were increasing in number. Whenever Dad returned from his latest tour of duty, the greying process seemed to cease. Then, as soon as he set off for distant lands, it would start again with renewed vigour. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

Sometimes it felt like the war would never end. The ‘War on Terror’ was how it was being billed. Its aims and objectives were vague. Like grains of sand clasped within a clenched fist, the country’s reasons for going to war were hard to hold. Truth and lies were indistinguishable. Both slipped from your grasp just the same. Nothing the authorities said to reassure people was reliable. Nothing was solid.

‘Terrorism’ was now the watchword. Politicians repeated the word over and over, nurturing it, feeding it and helping it to grow. Now even the word itself feels diluted, watered down, or curiously ambiguous.

The war did come to an abrupt end... For Dad, at any rate. And once he had gone, my mother spent every waking hour fussing around the house, dusting and polishing everything in sight.

“Mum worries about everything now,” I replied, in answer to Angel’s question. “I can’t bear to be around her.”

Back then, that little patch of waste-ground where we were lying was our only retreat. A forgotten corner of the city, overlooking the stagnant water of a disused canal, it was sheltered behind several mounds of rubble and the burnt out shell of an abandoned car. This was our private oasis in the desert of life. Little did either of us realise what lay ahead, the discoveries we were destined to make, the anguish and torment we would go on to suffer.

Angel was the one person in the world I could talk to. She alone knew my true feelings, the resentment I felt towards Dad for getting himself killed; the cynicism and bitterness that coated my throat as people I barely knew offered their condolences. The guilt and shame that dogged me... The rudderless frustration burning within me.

At home, people were always calling round... Friends of Dad’s, army buddies mostly. Some of the faces were vaguely familiar, others not so, yet in my head they morphed into an indistinct mass. They offered their heartfelt condolences with genuine, but uncomfortable sincerity. Sometimes people would remind of how Dad had ‘given his life to save others’, or had ‘died a hero, doing the job he loved’. With an outward semblance of politeness, I listened, all the time suppressing the nausea I felt incubating within me. I played the part everyone expected of me... Did my best to behave in a manner others would deem appropriate. But on the inside, I wanted to scream.

Did all those dim witted squaddies really think Dad was so selfless? The man had died whilst fiddling with the inner workings of some crudely constructed explosive. Would it not have been simpler to clear away anyone standing nearby and detonate the fucker? Or was it that some stretch of dusty road in some desert hell-hole on the other side of the globe was worth more than a soldier’s life, more than Dad’s life?

By the time he died, even Dad had voiced his misgivings about the conflict he was involved in. The last time he was home on leave – the last time I would see him alive – was the only time I ever heard him discussing what he would do if he left the army.

Once he was dead, the house became a shrine to his memory. More and more photographs of him were appearing on a daily basis, moments in time, captured and framed. They adorned the walls, stood to attention on the mantelpiece, as if waiting inspection. Photos of Dad in uniform; photos of him relaxing with other soldiers, weather-beaten faces and white teeth. There’s one of Dad playing football with me out in the garden. I must have been seven or eight when it was taken, but I can recall nothing about the day itself.

Despite everything, throughout that time in my life I never once shed a tear for my father. Not then. It was only once I had left the shackles of Earth’s gravity that I was able to do that. From time to time I’d take myself off to some quiet corner of whatever ship we were on and cry like a baby.

Lying on our patch of waste-ground, I drew myself up into a sitting position and began studying the crumbling facades of the derelict warehouses beyond the canal. Despite their obvious frailties, these redundant structures could still appear commanding. Silhouetted by the fading embers of sunlight, they conspired to resemble a Gothic castle, proud and majestic. Even the junk protruding from the dark syrupy depths of the canal seemed to be paying homage to their majesty. Shopping trolleys, traffic cones, a bicycle frame, all coated in a thick layer of scum, did their best to mimic the skyline behind them.

Lying next to me, cut-off denim shorts showing off her sleek tanned legs, Angel remained still, staring unblinkingly up at the stars. Back then her long dark hair was so glossy. Spilling out from under her, it shone with life and vitality. Only her eyes appeared sad, world weary before their time. Sometimes I still wonder whether she was already seeing our future among the stars... The years we were destined to spend in the cold vacuum of space.

“I take it your parents still aren’t getting along?” I asked, sensing what I thought was on her mind.

“You could say that,” Angel snorted, before blinking a couple of times, her forehead creasing to a frown. “They’re still in denial, of course... clinging to their pathetic illusions of marital bliss and financial affluence. I don’t think it’ll hold up much longer. It can’t. Seeing the two of them together is like watching a car crash in slow motion.”

On the far side of the canal, a mangy cat trotted purposefully along the bank, the carcass of a young rabbit gripped within its jaws.

“I’ll bet you anything Dad’s stormed out by now,” Angel continued, her eyes still fixed upon the stars. “No doubt Mum will be in tears. She’ll probably be clutching a bag of frozen peas to her face... God, she’s always such a state after Dad’s slapped her around. Mascara everywhere... Sometimes I swear she looks like some sort of demented clown staggering out from the site of a bomb blast. One time, I couldn’t help but laugh.”

Across the canal the cat stopped in its tracks, as if suddenly sensing my eyes upon it. For a short time, we sized each other up across the stagnant divide, before it continued casually on its way, the young rabbit still hanging from its jaws. Obviously I represented little in the way of a threat.

“I don’t think people realise just how badly beaten Mum often is,” Angel continued, her tone detached, like the pathologist in a crime drama explaining a cause of death. “After she’s done with the tears, she does a pretty good job of hiding things. I think some of the neighbours have their suspicions, but no one ever says anything. Then there’s her need to concoct some bullshit story... some farcical account of how she walked into a cupboard door. It’s pathetic. Fuck knows what I’m supposed to do.”

“You’re not planning on confronting her again, then?”

“After what happened last time? Not fucking likely. Sometimes I swear I can still feel the sting where she slapped me. There are times I’ve woken during the night and I’m convinced I can hear that slap echoing around the room. At the end of the day, I kind of figured that if Mum’s happy enough to let herself get slapped around, then who am I to stand in her way? Fuck her... Fuck both of them.”

In the grass, the cricket stops its chirping. The silence is ominous, like the insect senses something we don’t.

Sometimes, when I’m bored, I open their mail – the little red letters, the ones marked ‘Private & Confidential’.” Angel lets out a snort of laughter before turning towards me. “You know, I probably understand more about the fucked up state of their finances than they do.”

“Naughty girl.”

“Dad’s building firm is finished. He must know it – deep down, I mean. Mum’s in complete denial, of course. I think that’s part of the reason Dad takes his frustrations out on her so much.”

Resting my head back on the ground, I held Angel’s hand in mine. Dark clouds were rolling overhead, obscuring our view of the stars, placing a barrier between us and the wonders beyond our little world. The first teardrops of rain would be along soon enough.

I remember Angel’s dad as a builder rather than a businessman. Despite their plush family home, the spotless four-by-four parked in the driveway, whenever I saw him, he always managed to look as if he’d just finished a day on the tools. Getting his hands dirty whilst taking an active role in the construction of each new project was what made him happy. But as his business grew, he’d had less time to do what he enjoyed most. The paperwork was a chore at the best of times. When the housing market took a downturn... Well, I guess nothing justified his behaviour towards the woman he married.

My father had always been a soldier. Much of the time he was away from home, serving overseas or away in some remote corner of the country on military exercises. Nowadays I often find it hard to recall exactly what he looked like. My frazzled brain conjures up a likeness for fleeting moments – his weather-beaten features and bright blue eyes – before the image slides, replaced by something blank, a shop dummy dressed in army fatigues, someone devoid of individual characteristics.

Back when I was a kid, there were times Dad and I would go on camping expeditions, hiking over hills and off the beaten track. During the evenings we’d pitch our tent beside a river or stream. With nothing more than dried kindling and a flint, we’d light our fire and cook the evening meal. And as dusk fell, Dad would point up towards the night sky, draw my attention towards whatever star or constellation took his fancy and explain to me the legends behind their names. By the time I was ten years old I could do a good job of navigating my way around the wilds using nothing more than the stars as my guide. It had been during one such expedition that I first told Dad of my desire to become an astronaut when I grew up.

“An astronaut?” he’d asked, laughing. “Well, it’ll certainly help to know where all the stars are. You wouldn’t want to get lost in outer space, that’s for sure.”

“I might even be able to find my way around on other planets,” I’d replied in earnest, picturing fantastic and outlandish alien worlds in my head. “...Or even the moon.”

“Well possibly,” Dad countered, his expression growing serious. “But surely the position of the stars would alter depending on what planet you happened to be on.”

I hadn’t thought of that.

And for the next few months that was how I envisaged my future: as a space age pioneer, mapping out strange new worlds. With the childish naivety of a ten year old boy, nothing is impossible.

“Well, I’ll keep my eye out for any jobs,” Dad joked, but with mock sincerity. “You never know.”

Next week I’d even scanned the ‘Situations vacant’ page in the local newspaper, but there appeared to be little call for astronauts at the time.

*

Memories are so hard to hold. All too often they remain in the shadows, far away, or out of focus. Like faeries at the bottom of the garden, they tease, taunting reality until they slip beyond the conscious mind. Out of reach.

In the here and now, in the Centre for Recovering Astronauts, I’m aware of a shadow looming over me. Distracted, I turn my attention away from the space launch on the television.

There’s a tall, gaunt looking man standing over me. With a haunted look etched upon his pale and pinched features, he stares vacantly at the screen, transfixed by images of late twentieth century space exploration. Using a pool cue as a make-shift crutch, Archie looks as if he’s seen better days. His drawn and wasted appearance is an all too uncomfortable reminder of my own condition. All recovering astronauts suffer a similar weariness. Earth gravity weighs heavily upon us.

Registering my questioning gaze, Archie’s forehead creases into a baffled frown, as he struggles to recall the reason why he’s standing next to me. Even simple memories can often be mislaid. I turn back to the TV, content to let his frazzled brain work things out at its own pace. We’re all patient with one another here. No one is inclined to rush.

The countdown to launch is imminent. The type of shuttle on the screen is one of the old reusable launch systems, the type made famous during the last two decades of the previous century. Clinging tightly to the larger external fuel tank, the shuttle points skyward, dark cockpit windows looking like narrowed eyes staring unblinkingly towards the heavens –

“You want a game of pool, Buzz?” Archie asks suddenly, his determination to get the words out before the question is forgotten again, all too apparent.

“Not at the moment,” I reply, eager to watch the launch. “Maybe later, yeah.”

With countdown commencing, Archie shuffles away, the old footage on TV unable to hold his interest.

Countdown over, the shuttle soars up into an ocean of blue sky, racing towards the vacuum beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Content to sit back in my chair and let recent recollections slide, I study the images with conflicting emotions. Part of me envies the astronauts on board, the sheer excitement and exhilaration they will be experiencing. They will feel more alive than they’ve ever felt. Yet, at the same time, I – like the astronauts on the shuttle – understand all too well the numerous hazards of space flight... The side effects of weightlessness... The risk of exposure to radiation... The slightest error in any one of thousands of mathematical calculations...

There are times I wonder what the future holds for any of us here in the Centre. Will any of us truly readapt to Earth’s dense gravity? Or have some of us simply spent too long away from the planet where we were born?

Two minutes into the launch and the pair of slender white tubes on either side of the external tank detach themselves. These are the solid rocket boosters. For a moment they appear to hang in the sky, before gravity has them in its clutches. Continuing to climb, the shuttle clings to the larger rusty orange coloured external tank. Like a whale and its calf, they surge through an ocean of sky, mother shielding her offspring from danger.

Once in orbit the external fuel tank will be jettisoned and left to burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. Watching these images is a reminder of how quaint space travel once was. Everything about the reusable launch system now looks dated. It is little more than a curiosity, a relic from a bygone age.

The nuclear fusion spacecrafts of the Deep Space Exploration Project are what Angel and I travelled to the furthest reaches of the solar system on. It feels odd, but my recollections from those times are jumbled up in my head. They form little in the way of a coherent order. Instead, everything is an indistinct blur of mayhem and insanity. Back then, we were able to convince ourselves that our cause was noble, that we were taking a leap in the dark for the betterment of humanity. But ultimately our reasons for flight – why we were all so desperate to free ourselves from the suffocating influence of planet Earth – were entirely selfish.

As I watch the screen, my eyelids begin to droop. Tired... burnt out, my frazzled brain flies alongside the shuttle and out towards the darkness that was for so long my home...

*

At almost a mile in length, the nuclear powered spacecrafts of the Deep Space Exploration Project are a remarkable feat of human engineering. Aboard is everything required for prolonged survival in the cold vacuum of space. A lush and verdant oxygen garden – its temperature and lighting regulated by computer – provides crew members with fresh food and also contributes to the ship’s oxygen supply. Fully equipped laboratories allow astronauts to analyse samples gathered from asteroids, moons and alien worlds.

These sleek super-structures are capable of travelling at speeds of up to 288,000 kilometres an hour, a velocity that is vital in ensuring humankind can reach the furthest flung reaches of our solar system. To the bow, a massive saucer shaped dish acts as a shield, protecting ship and crew from debris and the harmful effects of solar radiation. Two rotating gravity modules house the living quarters, and each module has a gravitational pull that is a little under half of Earth norm. These are vital for the health and wellbeing of every man and woman onboard.

Yet, despite the many wonders of these truly space age vessels, the reality of life aboard is one of constant struggle. In the desolate emptiness of outer space, the line between survival and death is often wafer thin. Nerves are continually strained and tensions can boil over with little in the way of warning. Also, the dehabilitating physical cost of spending years away from Earth’s gravity, silently take effect, gradually wasting muscles and weakening bones.

Perhaps humanity’s desire to travel to inhospitable new worlds is sheer lunacy. On the other hand, it can be argued that such apparent folly is an essential part of being human, the very constituent that has allowed us to question our reasons for being and separates us from all other life on Earth.

But often the line between what is creative and what is destructive is difficult to see. Sometimes the stories we tell are not what they appear. Unanswered questions can weigh heavily, burying those who ask them in paralysis and confusion. Ultimately, any individual can experience madness capable of crippling every aspect of his or her health and wellbeing.

*

The Deep Space Exploration Project has ambitious plans for the planet of Mars. The process of altering the conditions of our nearest neighbour – terraforming it to be more Earth-like – has already begun. By the time Angel and I set foot on the red planet, a thriving base camp was already established and the first of the pollution pumps – the ones only half jokingly tagged ‘Exxon Valdez’ and ‘Deepwater Horizon’ – were being readied for use. By now these monstrous machines will be busy belching out monstrous amounts of carbon monoxide into the thin Martian atmosphere. Together with the vast space mirror now positioned above the polar ice caps, the pollution pumps will work to gradually raise the surface temperature. And once a greenhouse effect takes hold, the temperature will rise further and at a quicker rate. In the not so distant future the Martian surface will become hospitable enough for algae to grow. The landscape will then be transformed from an arid red desert to a lush green carpet. As unlikely as it sounds, the noxious gasses pumped into the wafer-thin atmosphere by ‘Valdez’ and ‘Horizon’ – the very gasses that threaten to poison our home planet – are key to the birth of this new Eden. The prospect of humankind having two homes in the solar system is now very real. And what’s more, it is far closer to hand than most people realise.

Not so long ago, Angel and I had gazed out over Valles Marineris, that legendary 4000km canyon – one of the largest in the entire solar system – surveying the dusty rock-strewn landscape with a shared sense of exhilaration. Carefully picking up a fragment of rock, I tossed it over the precipice. Gravity being only a third of that on Earth, the rock appeared to fall in slow motion, twisting and turning in flight as it descended into the abyss.

“It looks so beautiful,” Angel whispered, her voice a dream-like sigh in my audio receiver.

“Just think,” I replied, pointing out over the canyon. “One day water will surge through there until it reaches a Martian ocean. All around us will be dense jungle,” I continued, warming to the outlandish visions in my head. “As far as the eye can see, this planet will be teeming with life. The air will be thick with insects! Below ground, worms will tend the soil... And one day everything we can see now will rival the beauty of anything on Earth.”

Perhaps it was my imagination, but I felt sure Angel was smiling behind the reflective glass of her visor. But as my head brimmed with romantic notions, she took a small step towards the edge of the precipice and inspected the sheer drop before her. Worried she was about to do something foolish, I took her hand in mine and leaned in close so our helmets were touching.

“Come on, Ange; we’ve got to get back to base,” I cautioned, looking spaceward, up to the area of sky where Hermes – the nuclear powered spacecraft that had brought us into orbit – was hanging, silent and invisible above Mars’ gravitational pull. “Remember, there’s a solar flare warning, so we don’t want to be out here when it hits.”

With that we turned our backs on the precipice to begin our journey back to Mars base.

“Sometimes I don’t know what I’d do without you, Buzz,” Angel said, her voice little more than a mournful sigh.

As we took our first steps back to base, I was just thankful that she’d stepped away from the brink without undue fuss.

*

Once our time on Mars was over, Angel and I had been due to return to Earth orbit aboard Hermes. For me, the prospect of returning to the dense gravity of our home planet was not exactly something I longed for; but neither was it something that filled my heart with dread. Other astronauts had travelled out as far as Mars and plenty of their number had readjusted successfully to life back on Earth. I didn’t see any reason why we couldn’t do likewise. I guess I accepted our return as inevitable.

Angel, however, saw things differently. For her, the mere thought of returning to an everyday Earth reality was one that held countless unspoken fears. By the end of our mission to the red planet, she had become increasingly edgy. Biting her nails to the quick, she’d sit up and stare up into the night sky, a haunted expression etched upon her increasingly pinched features.

“I don’t want to go back,” she blurted out, on the night before we were due to return to Hermes. “I can’t. Not yet.”

It was late. I’d awoken after an hour or so of sleep to find Angel staring at the ceiling of our Martian quarters. It was obvious she hadn’t slept.

“If we get the chance to push out further, you will take it, won’t you, Buzz?” she all but pleaded, staring down at me as I rubbed the sleep from my eyes.

Not yet fully awake, I gave a shrug. “I guess,” I replied, believing the question was purely academic, that no such option was likely to present itself.

I was wrong.

With time to reflect, perhaps the prospect of venturing further out into the solar system was not so fanciful. The Deep Space Exploration Project was always pushing the boundaries. There were already those who had pushed out beyond Mars. There were nuclear fusion ships that had pressed out beyond the asteroid belt that lay between Mars and the gas giants beyond. ‘Crossing the Rubicon’ was the term given to such epic and precarious voyages. I guess Angel had given the subject more thought than I. But she was obviously keen to get my agreement in principle before any concrete opportunity presented itself.

Soon after we returned to Hermes – and with scant time for reflection – the two of us had hastily agreed to a transfer. So, as Hermes began its voyage back to Earth, we were getting settled into our new quarters in the less than welcoming interior of the Ananke.

Although both nuclear fusion ships were roughly the same age, there was something darker and more squalid about our new home. Not that Angel noticed... Or if she did, she certainly didn’t let it show. Right from our first day aboard our new ship, her mood lightened. The misgivings I had in regard to our new posting, I kept to myself. As it transpired, we could have done a lot worse than the Ananke and its flawed and world-weary crew of misfits.

Before we’d even met all the crew, we had set off on a path that took us close to the centre of the solar system. We then completed a dangerous slingshot manoeuvre around the sun, before shooting out towards the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, using the gravitational force of our star to catapult us away at close to maximum speed.

But, despite our increased velocity, time would often drag. Even at speeds well in excess of 250,000 kilometres an hour, it is a long journey to the outer solar system. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months. Stuck on a spaceship surrounded by nothing but darkness, was something that could surely test the mental stability of the most rational of astronauts. And for my part, I very much doubted whether any of us could be classified as the most stable representatives of our species. Anyway, by the time we reached the nearest bank of our space-age Rubicon, our time stuck within the confines of the Ananke could be measured in years.

*

“Fly-by in ten,” Angel called out from the corridor outside the lab.

“Be there in five,” I replied, forcing a smile, as I watched her grab hold of the top of the doorway to stop herself floating inside.

“Better get your skates on, then.”

I could feel her gaze upon me as I made a pretence of studying a batch of Martian soil samples with exaggerated concentration. For a few uncomfortable seconds, Angel hovered there, silently regarding me, as if attempting to read my thoughts.

“I’ll be there,” I muttered, with little in the way of enthusiasm.

With a twist of her hips, Angel got into a position that would allow her to push-off down the corridor. “You’d better be,” she replied, her attempt at a playful smile carrying threatening undertones. “Love you.”

Then she was off, using the door frame to propel herself down the corridor in the manner we’d long since grown accustomed to after so long in zero gee. Taking a deep breath, I steadied myself for what was to come. My Martian soil samples held little interest. I’d already examined them a hundred times; I just wanted to do something to keep my mind off what was to come. I’d always had a bad feeling about the idea of such a close encounter with an asteroid. Now such an event was imminent, my foreboding was all the more real. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t shake the feeling that such recklessness was a risk too far.

We were crossing the Rubicon. So far, all our calculations had proven accurate; we had managed to avoid any collisions and everything was going smoothly enough. But therein lay the problem. Several of our crew – Angel being one of them – were growing bored at the ease of our passage. They had decided we needed to get closer to an asteroid... To fly within a thousand metres of its surface. It wasn’t simply for the thrill of it, they claimed. During such a close encounter, we’d be able to record the surface of an asteroid from closer than ever before. It was difficult to disagree with their reasoning without looking like someone who had lost his nerve. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that what we were engaged in was nothing more than some sophisticated form of Russian roulette.

With no small amount of reluctance, I filed away the last of the soil samples before propelling myself towards the observation deck. Most of the crew opted to watch the fly-by from the cockpit, but Angel had calculated that the port side observation room was the area of the ship where the asteroid was likely to get closest to. Of course, it didn’t really matter where on the ship you were, if the four and a half kilometre long lump of space rock so much as grazed us, we’d all be dead.

Upon arriving in the obs room, my eyes were immediately drawn towards the darkness beyond the glass. All seemed peaceful, as if we were floating lazily through the emptiness of space. Angel had her head pressed against the window and it took her a few seconds to register my arrival.

“You made it,” she said, smiling, before returning her gaze to the vacuum beyond the toughened glass.

We were alone. And as Angel watched for the first glimpse of the asteroid, I regarded her with a keen eye. She looked happier than I’d seen her for some time... Like a kid awaiting the arrival of Father Christmas. However, my feelings of trepidation weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. There was nothing I could do. Whatever was going to happen was going to happen. There was nothing I could do to prevent it.

Then, as that bleak realisation took hold, the asteroid appeared.

At first it was nothing more than a barely discernible pinprick in the distance. From the second I caught my first glimpse of it, my heart began to thump uncontrollably. Within no time at all, it had grown to the size of a football, a misshapen airless football, but ugly and solid. And still it was growing, faster and faster, like a monster incubating in the most terrifying of nightmares. Suddenly the massive chunk of space debris reared up until it filled the entire window. Instinct told me to shy away. Then, for one drawn out second, every crag and indentation on the asteroid’s surface was visible. Dwarfed by the colossal chunk of rock, the Ananke was about to be smashed to pieces, obliterated.

Then it was all over.

The asteroid had gone.

As Angel turned to face me, my entire body was trembling uncontrollably. She was grinning from ear to ear. Grabbing hold of me, she pressed her body against mine and planted a kiss on my barely responsive lips.

“That was fucking awesome!”

Stunned into silence, I was unable to answer. I felt a bead of sweat trace a path down the side of my face, but I kept my eyes fixed upon the glass, terrified that the asteroid might come back.

“I think I like asteroids,” Angel panted, her breathing heavy. “They get me hot!”

With those words, she moved closer, forcing her lips upon mine. Grabbing my hand, she pushed it inside the soft fabric of her knickers. At that moment, as our tongues collided – the coldness of Angel’s lips contrasting with the moist warmth between her legs – I scarcely believed things could ever get more terrifying than they just had been.

But they did.

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