Wednesday, 23 September 2009


    Stefan pressed his back against the rough wall, scrawny legs tucked up to his chest with his fingers locked around them. It was cold and he was tired, and he could not sleep in this dusty carriage. He wanted to be home and be tucked in bed and have Mama reading him a story and stroking his hair. But she wasn't here, and he wasn't at home. Shivering, he hugged his legs tighter still.
    “Papa?” Stefan ventured again. Opening his mouth filled his lungs with the stink of the dead and the dying, and so he didn't speak very much. No-one did.
    “Boy?” came the soft reply. Papa was slumped over in the corner.
    “Papa where are we going?” Stefan asked, for the hundredth time.
    “I don't know. No-one knows. We won't find out until we get there.”
    “I love you.”
    “I love you, too.”
    The silence hung in the air, and in the dark someone began to cough into their coat.
    “I'm scared.”
    “I'm scared, too.”
    The train rattled on and Stefan peered at his father. He looked so old, now. His skin fell pale against his cheekbones, draped like bits of old school books, where his proud features used to be. His lips were dry and cracked, his dirty hair fell tangled to his nose. But this stranger was still Papa, still his Papa. His eyes! They sparkled at him fiercely blue whenever they spoke, winking out I Love You in the dimness of the carriage.
    Somewhere beyond, a girl began to sob. Stefan could not see who or where she was and so he imagined that it was Analiese. But he didn't like that very much, and besides he knew it was not her. It could not be Analiese and it could not be Mama.
    “Stop crying,” rasped an invisible voice. She did not stop. “Stop it!”
    “Leave her alone,” breathed Papa.
    “What's it got to do with you old man?” the voice replied sharply.
    “I'm not... old.” Papa began to cough, but tried to hide it in the sleeve of his thin jacket. He pulled himself upright and the coughing subsided and Stefan did not know what to do to help him. A shadow moved slowly across the carriage and suddenly without warning a boot crashed into Papa's chest.
    “Papa!” Stefan cried out, but he did not move. The boot hit Papa in the chest again, and again. He screamed and slumped back against the wall, eyes gazing at the unseen attacker, pleading. Why are you doing this?
    “Please,” Stefan saw Papa's eyes stare through him, “My son.” Why didn't he do anything? But Papa could not move and he could hardly breathe, and the boot smashed into him again. This time something gave way, but it was not Papa. The lowest plank of the carriage wall creaked and groaned and the boot kicked Papa again and the plank cracked and the boot hit him again and the plank broke. Sunlight streamed gloriously through the hole, but Stefan could only look on at his Papa gasping for breath and he had never seen him like this before. His eyes weren't shining like they should but glistened wet. In the warmth of the fresh sun, Papa wept.
    “Stefan?” The boot had stopped kicking now, and the shadow had retired. Now Stefan could move, and he scuttled over to where his Papa was sprawled on the floor. No one else had moved to help, or even seemed to notice. People just like him and Papa sat or lay about, exhausted and weak just the same, but no-one would do anything. “Stefan,” Papa repeated quietly through the tears so quietly, “It's time to go. I'm so sorry.”
    Papa brought his head level to Stefan and looked at him square on.
    “I love you so much.”
    Stefan clung to his Papa and begged for time to go backwards. The older man breathed heavily into the nape of his neck as they hugged each other, but the train carried on clattering and the dust carried on swirling. Then without warning Stefan felt himself shoved towards the hole and he was through and then he was flying through the air, and the sun blazed hot on his skin again. As he rolled into the cool soft grass at the side of the track he turned and saw Papa's face disappear into the darkness, eyes sparkling like before.
    Papa, Stefan mouthed, I love you.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Long Distance Relationship : Part 3

Four days passed. McLean had been dividing his time between his bunk and the arboretum; The hydrangeas were flourishing. Only occasionally would he venture onto the bridge of the ship to check things were still running smoothly - they were. The computer had everything under control, as usual, and the humans aboard were still just cargo, still just along for the ride. On the fourth day, after an uninspiring breakfast of Oatmeal Foodtube and Orange Juice Drinktube, McLean sat on his bed gazing out of the small circular viewport above his head. He smiled as he remembered for a moment the last real meal he'd eaten, made from ingredients that didn't have to remain edible for the next two years. And then, Foodtubes.

The languid spin of the craft made focussing on anything for longer than half a minute or so tricky, but over the last ten rotations he was sure he had spotted something new. A previously unseen object winked at him weakly from across the depths of the inky black.

McLean dragged his naked feet briefly across the cold metal floor and slid them into his comforting and worn brown slippers he had brought all the way from Earth, all that time ago. They had become his regular footwear soon after departing Mars, after all what was the point of wearing shoes if you never went outside? The soft material reminded him of the soft floors, and soft skin, of home. He sloped towards the Viewing Room, a room containing a single large screen and a quartet of plush velvet chairs.

He flicked the light switch and the room brightened to a comforting half-light. Dark walls illuminated sordidly by yellow uplights; this homage was missing only the slow coil of cigarette smoke. McLean had always imagined that whomever designed this particular room was a frustrated home cinema enthusiast, barely stopping short of providing surround sound and a popcorn dispenser at the back. Flopping down into one of the deep chairs, he lazily manipulated the control column for the external camera array and panned the view to centre roughly on the distant craft. McLean locked the cameras onto it to compensate for the ship's rotation, and stepped through the magnification levels. Five times, ten times, one hundred times - the white blink now resembled a small comet with a fiercely bright nose and a long blue-white tail behind it.

McLean snorted derisively to himself. Looking closer still, he could make out a tiny sphere at the front of a long cylinder which was presumably the ion whatsit. That sphere can't have provided particularly agreeable living, but then no nuclear missile was ever built for its creature comforts. He sat back in his comfortable chair, allowing the massage function to work its undeniable magic, and said a silent prayer of thanks to the incalculable genius that decided massage chairs were indispensable in the advancement of spaceflight.

He didn't dare magnify the image any further in case it transpired Bryant really was wearing a Stetson.

He flicked on the chair intercom. "Bartlett?"

"Here Commander!" came the bright reply.

"Put me through to the One Child Policy, please." Bartlett acknowledged and in a few seconds she signalled that the channel was ready to transmit. McLean hadn't really thought about what he might say at this juncture - he was almost slightly surprised at himself for seeking out communication with the unwelcome intruders. But Intruder is such a strong word, he thought. After all, space is pretty big. There's plenty of room for both of us. What about Interloper, or even Tourist? But, McLean acknowledged privately, this should have been his big bit of space.

Yes, he was being petulant, and Yes he was being difficult, but he had enjoyed being on the only inhabited ship to experience this area of space - such as it was - first hand. Now suddenly he felt crowded, his private resort overtaken by towel-bearing German tourists.

"Hello One Child Policy," he stated. Not a question.

"Well hello!" came the easy reply. McLean didn't need to ask who he was speaking with, after all who else could it be?

"How's things going over there?" McLean's interest was piqued by pangs of jealousy - had he now been relegated to the B Team?

"Well there's never much room to move around," Bryant answered dismissively, "But we're still accelerating and I think we're on schedule!" He thinks?

McLean paused for a second. Two seconds. Three.

"I've been meaning to ask, actually," he pondered aloud in measured tones, "What exactly is your schedule?" McLean knew his own ship's schedule intimately and was morbidly keen to learn how the two craft stacked up. With three months left to travel to reach the Rally Point, he wondered exactly how B Team was he?

"Well you know, it's not long at all! Here, let me check." How could Bryant not know this? "About 3 weeks."

Bugger. It. All.

McLean flicked off the intercom and sloped off to talk to his hydrangeas.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Long Distance Relationship : Part 2

A day later the light was blinking noticeably faster, and the screen underneath it ticked over with the results of the sensor's mass spectrometry. A small craft, much smaller than their own, but following a near identical course and at much greater speed. The craft had halved the distance between them. McLean had strewn his lanky frame sideways across the angular pilot's seat, legs flopping over one arm of the chair and his back perched awkwardly against the other. He really was too big to be sitting like this both in size and years, and quite frankly, he thought, it would be more comfortable to just sit up. He did not move, but instead reached across to the old tape player stuck to the edge of the control panel and pressed play. Johnny Cash lilted out of the tinny speaker and McLean shut his eyes. He cared little for this "anomaly" but just wanted to arrive at the Rally Point in peace, and hopefully stay there for a time, in peace. Then he would eventually return home an International Hero, and all would be well.

The faint crackling on the ship's speaker was at first barely audible above The Man In Black's sombre tones. Steadily the signal it grew stronger however and the static became fainter, and as Folsom Prison Blues drew to a close McLean could not deny that they were being hailed.

Laconically he beeped back once - ready and willing to receive a message. Ordinarily, a man sixteen months into a trip with only three others for company would be craving another voice, another companion, or at the very least be desperately curious. McLean was reticent; this would be some kind of unwanted intrusion, invading upon his serenity. Of course it would probably be a Chinese craft, and then the interruption would be short and likely violent. But, accepted McLean, what was to be done about that?

"WSC Long Distance Relationship, Long Distance Relationship, do you read me?" came the faint distorted voice. Not a Chinese voice after all, but a long Texan drawl. McLean's heart actually sank and the gears in his brain started to grind.

"This is she," was the reply. A long pause.

"This is the WSC One Child Policy, approximately two million miles distant," crackled the voice. The ship relayed the encrypted handshake codes and signalled success. The identification checked out.

"I know how far away you are, thank you." Silence. Perhaps they had been expecting someone a little more verbose this far away from home. McLean pondered through the silence, however. What was another Western Space Coalition ship doing out here? These missions didn't just happen without years of planning, billions of dollars. As the silence dragged on and on over the radio waves, McLean furrowed his brow and considered. What the hell were these cowboys doing tearing up space behind him? "Repeat your name and ident please?" he finally muttered, almost to himself.

"Yup this is the WSC
One Child Policy and I'm her Commander, Rusty Bryant." Rusty? Figures.

"And Rusty, what exactly are you doing all the way out here, if you don't mind me asking?" queried McLean. There was a brief pause.

"Well I assumed you knew that Commander McLean," came the measured reply. A ripple of doubt swelled through McLean's thoughts.

"Enlighten me."

"Well we're the test flight for the ion reactor!" exclaimed Bryant suddenly and jubilantly, "They set you off way back when, and then a coupla months back they set us off! We're in a big race!" Yeah, except no-one told this crew we were under starter's orders, thought McLean.

"And what of this race?" he shot back. Ion reactor?

"Well, either way the WSC beats the Chinese - either you get there and we don't get there at all, or we get there faster!"

Oh great, a Texan with a death wish. This would explain how they could be going quite so fast, and appear to still be accelerating. McLean wondered exactly what kind of speeds ship with an ion reactor was capable of reaching. It was a technology he knew a very little about - the theory, at least - but he never thought it would come to fruition during his lifetime, let alone during his trip. His trip! He was supposed
to be the first one to Jupiter, not this disembodied Stetson.

The theory of the ion reactor was simple - Heat up argon or something similar with some science and make an ion beam (The details had always escaped him), heat the beam up to a million degrees or thereabouts and you have an engine that can accelerate forever. Simple. Simple in theory but apparently devilishly hard to make work in practice. But someone somewhere had done it, in secret, and here we are. An impossible engine capable of unbelievable speeds, and McLean had the honour of being the one to be overtaken by it. The peace of his private pilgrimage rudely cut short by a nuclear bomb with a Texan strapped on the front.

"And what's with the name anyway?" McLean was genuinely curious now but he was greeted with static as his only reply. "Hey! The name?" he inquired as he thumbed the Transmit key back and forth. However, slowly the gain died down and the static resolved to a gentle fuzz. He stared at the communicator for a minute or so, willing it to reply, but it steadfastly refused. Eventually he flicked off the speaker and trudged back to his bunk.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Long Distance Relationship : Part 1

McLean idly watered the tub of hydrangeas, humming to himself. The arboretum was constantly humid and the climate maintained precisely, so there was no real need for him to be here; but doing things yourself can be so therapeutic. One of the reasons he was all the way up - out - here was to get away from it all, but sometimes even that became too much and he had to get away once more.

Tending to the flowers helped to soothe his busy mind: They can't talk back, and they always seem to thrive on listening. Now however, the chamber was almost silent save for his humming and the hiss of the sprinkler system; the warm glow of the heater lamps made a welcome change from the clinical walkways and gantries of the rest of the ship. Perhaps he should put some peonies in a vase for the Bridge?

Drops of moisture condensed on his face and began dripping off the end of his nose - his damp black hair was plastered to his forehead, and for the last few minutes his attempts to puff it out of his eyes had been in vain. He blustered upwards once more and blew water into his eyes.


"Yes?" McLean sighed deeply, aware that his reverie had come to an end.

"How are the hydrangeas?" Bartlett had this unsettling habit of trying to put him at ease with an irrelevant opening gambit.

"The hydrangeas are fine, thank you Stephanie. They are blue, as expected," he raised his eyebrows, "and growing uncommonly well for this time of year." He sighed again and examined the dirt-stained fingertips of his gardening gloves. So much for a day of solitude. "How may I help you?" he said, looking up.

"Well Commander," Bartlett answered, hesitantly. Had she sensed she was unwelcome? "One of the proximity alarms is firing. Would you care to take a look?" In truth, no. But he was in charge, and so, Yes. McLean nodded somberly and tossed his gardening gloves to the floor.

"Let's go."

He sloped wearily along the walkway that fed through the centre of Arm B of the spacecraft WSC Long Distance Relationship and Bartlett, a good foot shorter than him, scuttled along beside. Halfway down, McLean paused at one of the viewports and gazed out at the hull still 150 metres away, and beyond into the black. Would he ever get tired of looking into that distant nothing?

"Please Commander, I'm a bit anxious," Bartlett stressed, looking up at him through worried eyes. She was often a bit anxious, so this gave McLean little cause for concern. They walked on.

Commander Anthony McLean and Stephanie Bartlett were two of the four person crew aboard the spacecraft, and it frustrated McLean that even after sixteen months he was yet to persuade Bartlett to call him by his first name. Their mission was purportedly "of historic importance" and "a vital strategic milestone", but he had long since come to terms with the reality - that it was motivated by petty rivalries and long standing jealousy. It was the dubious honour of McLean and his crew to be the first humans destined to inhabit The Jupiter Rally Point, mankind's deepest large scale foray into the Solar System. This space station had been assembled autonomously over the last ten years at near incalculable expense by what had become known as the Western Space Coalition, and even as they were in flight final preparations were being made by the sizeable force of automata in attendance.

The Western Space Coalition was really a worldwide conglomerate of nations, monikered Western merely as a poke in the eye to the Chinese, who still resolutely refused to be part of anything involving the Americans. The ribaldry had continued in earnest, both sides taking cheap shots at the other for no discernible reason or advancement. The West had established the first inhabited base on the moon, the Chinese the first on Mars. The next logical step, in the eyes of the controlling forces of the WSC at least, was an outpost even further out: The Jupiter Rally Point. McLean always felt a sinking feeling inside when he considered this quite frankly ridiculous outcome.

The problems began - if you can really consider this a beginning - when it turned out that the Chinese had planned all along to allow the Rally Point to be built, and then take it over by force. The space station was never designed as a weapons platform (Upon whom would the weapons be trained while orbiting Jupiter?) and so in reality would be all but defenceless. And so the schedule was accelerated, and sixteen months previously the construction of the WSC Long Distance Relationship was completed to a not inconsiderable fanfare.

In truth, she was an odd looking craft, and McLean always wondered where the aesthetic design budget went during its construction. Three arms extended away at irregular angles from the elliptical main hull, which was all engine and fuel and supplies. At the end of one of the arms was the arboretum which until recently was where McLean had been passing the time. Its designed purpose was to serve as a natural air scrubber but he had misappropriated it otherwise. Obviously on the craft's inception the propaganda machine whirled into action and it was hailed as the greatest spacecraft ever created by humankind, but now it felt like a well-worn, well-loved dog toy; dirty and battered by sixteen months of radiation and debris, chewed up and spat out by the harsh climate of deep space.

McLean could taste the difference in the air as they arrived in the cold blue light of the Bridge: Sterile, lifeless, and all too serene for his liking. The light desaturated his skin and gave his face the deathly sheen of a cadaver. He thrived in the chaos of the organic, not this dry, rasping atmosphere and it was at that point that the Commander realised he must have been having some sort of moment when he agreed to do this mission. Still, here he was and he was making the best of it. McLean turned to the long range threat alarm which gazed tirelessly over the surrounding five million miles and delivered its verdict through its slow, measured, blinking screen. Five million miles - not a great deal to be worried about after all, but after a year and a half together McLean had learned Bartlett's foibles well.

He leaned in close to the the screen and its red glowing symbols warmed his face back into the land of the living. "Stephanie, I'm sure it's nothing to worry about," he cast offhandedly, "Probably a rogue asteroid or something." Never much of a People Person, McLean hoped Bartlett understood his foibles too.

"Sure thing," Bartlett muttered, unconvinced. She lingered for a while, to see if anything would change. Nothing did, and she wandered off to her bunk. McLean remained, unmoving, in the Bridge as the Long Distance Relationship powered its way silently and swiftly towards the stars.