He was late – even though the email had told him where and when the spaceship would appear. And there it was, a white-hot ember flying through the sky above him! At ‘apogee’…literally the high point.
For an instant, the extra-terrestrial craft hung directly above him – and only him – on the planet. In perfect balance between the forces of Earth and heaven. His very own Star of David.
It was travelling eight kilometres a second. Eight kilometres per second! That’s eighteen thousand miles an hour, in old money, he used to tell Mum.
‘What would Lucy – Lucy with her piercings and Death Eaters’ tattoo – make of it?’ True, she worked in Harry Potter; but he was sure she’d love it. The rotten deckchair groaned beneath him, its dank fabric straining in protest beneath his bulk. Yes, next time he’d finally do it. He’d invite her home, so she could share in this other world.
His phone’s small memory card was nearly full of video from the previous encounters, but he couldn’t resist capturing the last few moments of the Odyssey as the ship began to sail away on the celestial sea above him.
The burning speck continued its journey, arcing perfect across the sky. He’d post the video later. He always included a link to the NASA website, so his Facebook friends could find out when the spacecraft was flying over them, too. Lucy hadn’t registered, yet. Perhaps he could show her how to do it? He knew she’d be interested. He belched, tasting his microwaved dinner again.
At times like this he felt that he should say something. Surely, we should all have words for such moments? He wasn’t usually good with words. He hadn’t even been able to say those he’d rehearsed for the funeral. But once – he blushed as he remembered – once when watching the spaceship’s rapid progress across the night sky on an earlier visit he’d knelt. He’d actually knelt and said it: “To boldly go where no man has gone before…” The lines from Star Trek had felt right at the time. Fact into fiction…fiction into fact?
What would Galileo, Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Ptolemy, his bearded brethren at Stonehenge, have made of it all? He shivered but not from the cold.
All this from an email! Before computers, the internet and all, how long would it have taken to work out the movement of a celestial body? Using astrolabes, Cosmolabes, and planispheres? That ancient Greek computer they’d discovered? Oh, what was it called… The Antikythera, that was it. Sounded like an episode of Dr Who. He hummed the theme tune.
For a moment that feeling, the usual feeling, returned, knowing he’d never be asked back onto the local pub’s quiz team. He fought the temptation to look down in shame, instead fixing his gaze doggedly at the heavens.
To think, a magical formula, an incantation, a simple mathematical equation had predicted – indeed invoked – the flight he was witnessing. If only Lucy might be conjured up, here, now with such arts… Reaching out with one hand, his fingers gently caressed the heavenly body above him.
One day he knew Earth would finally get the message from Alpha Centauri, or some other solar system: ‘Earthlings, we have come to visit you.’ He spoke in the perfect tongue of a Martian. The accent practised for nearly fifty years since the child escaped into the Cadbury’s Smash ads on TV as Dad beat Mum again and again as he clutched his light sabre helplessly.
And even if this ship, his ship, wasn’t from Alpha Centauri, or Mars – or Cadburys… Well, when you thought about it, NASA was almost as good, wasn’t it? His breath billowed white, like oxygen fuelling Apollo.
NASA – The National Aeronautical and Space Administration. Just saying it made him feel important for once. An email from NASA – NASA! A message on his phone would regularly drop from the sky to tell him when and where in the night sky the ISS would appear; the ISS ‘or International Space Station, as we call it,’ he would say with his best nerdy voice to the few colleagues he’d left uninitiated at Forbidden Planet.
The International Space Station: launched 1998, just before Mum died. Hundreds of people, a few at a time, sailing through space over twenty years in 150 Billion Dollars’ worth of SciFi technology! When you thought about it, well, it was amazing. Just amazing, wasn’t it?
The NASA website let you enter a postcode, a street, a town from anywhere on Earth, wherever you were. And then you’d get emails telling you and where the Space Station was orbiting. When it would pass over you. 400Km above the planet it flew: “Or 250 of your Imperial miles, to you, Mum,” he used to translate to her.
Even in the pitch dark, in the inner space of the small untidy garden, he could see one of her faded gnomes, still just visible in the overgrown shrubs, watching him reproachfully. Reminding him of the broken promise to keep the garden as she’d have wanted it.
But Lucy wouldn’t mind about the garden. And he could clear up the mess of cat bowls and litter trays. Change the sheets, hide any offending magazines under his narrow bed. Lucy wouldn’t care, at all. Anyway, she’d be busy looking up at the stars, with him. He always shook with excitement, however many times he’d seen the ISS, his shooting star.
He looked through some binoculars. ‘Nothing wrong with that’ he remembered Patrick Moore saying on the Sky at Night all those years ago.
There weren’t many people like that on TV anymore? Normal people. Real people. People like himself. He missed Patrick Moore almost as much as he missed his mum. He imagined up a Xylophone and played a short requiem for both, for Moore and his mum, without once looking down from the sky.
Already, the spaceship was on the wane, inching away from him. Growing colder, dimmer, deserting him for another day, perhaps longer?
He looked through the spider’s web of his phone’s cracked screen, its white glare almost blinding him:
ISS [Basingstoke] disappears 23:58: 11° above East North East
Of course, after all the years gazing, he knew by heart where East North East was. But he liked to double-check. To make sure.
East North East… Google Maps could guide his gaze in an instant. But he still preferred to stick with some of the old ways. Using the Silva compass he’d never returned to Akela. Not that Mum would ever have let him go camping with Cubs to use it.
East North East, where the Newbys had moved in. Where another extension on the Avenue was already appearing. Another alien pod on a street of once modest 1930’s semis. Day-by-day bricking-up his view of the heavens forever.
‘Houston, we have a problem.’ He muttered without smiling.
Perhaps it was time to sell up? It had always been a struggle to keep the place going on his own. But it was home. His home. It always had been. Even without Mum. And anyway: why should he move? It was plenty big enough for two, even with his collectables and memorabilia, the hundreds of Star Wars action figures… It was, of course, big enough for a family – if Lucy wanted kids?
The dark feline form of Uhura rubbed her way seductively between his legs, cruelly reminding him of his established vows to her.
Of course, he knew what they thought of him. He hadn’t even needed to use the drone to find out. He’d heard them often enough. Getting majestically drunk in their gardens. Laughing at him. Just because they could see him sitting in his deckchair gazing at the heavens.
Them! with their Earth-bound fire pits and endless skips.
Them! cackling round pizza ovens like witches’ covens.
Them! with their safety-netted trampolines and noisy teens
Them! going on-and-on about their hideous new ‘spaces’ which didn’t belong, whatever Kevin McCloud on the TV said. Their ‘space’. What did they know about space? And anyway, what about his ‘space’!
They who would literally block out the wonders of the night sky? He was sweating, despite the frosty night air, steam rising from the neck of his old Cagoule. But for now, for tonight at least, there remained just enough space to watch the finale.
What was he thinking! The ISS had almost flown. He waved his farewell, the spaceship replying with its usual cheerful wink back at him. Then it was gone. His star had flown. “Beam me up Scotty,” he said aloud to the heavens.
It was past midnight. He had to be up early tomorrow for the long commute into work.
He walked down the loose patio steps back towards the house. His WiFi was just about in range. He swiped the night’s video into the ether; from fractured screen to router – R2D2 he’d named his hub – then onto the ‘cloud’. His video of the ISS now instantly shared through the space-time continuum of the internet for the world, for his Facebook friends – perhaps even for Lucy – to see?
Was that another chink of light from a neighbour’s bedroom window? Why couldn’t they mind their own business?
Time to re-enter the airlock, back through the old French Windows into the vacuum of his own inner space. To feed Uhura. To boil a kettle on the stove for a hot water bottle and make some Bovril: “That’ll warm you up again, my melancholy sunshine,” as mum used to say. The washing-up in the sink wasn’t going anywhere. It could wait another day.
It was hot and crowded as he swayed with the herd. No one on the 07.35 from Basingstoke ever got a seat into London. Sweat trickled down his T-shirt, making sinister black holes under his armpits.
It was pouring outside. The rain clouds wouldn’t clear all day. No ISS visible tonight, then. ‘Not a good start,’ he muttered to himself under his breath as he took out his phone.
The train’s WiFi was usually crappy but it was going to be a good day. He found a signal so, for once, he could check his Facebook on the way in.
Lucy had posted. The train bounced over some points. For a moment, he felt giddy, weightless…
It was a video. A video of…a cat. He hit ‘play’ on his phone’s screen. It showed a cat trying to swat a goldfish through its tiny glass bowl. Again and again, on and on, minute after boring minute. 147 ‘likes’, loads of comments, and banter from everyone at work in less than eight hours. 147, for that?
But what had Lucy to say about his post? Hurriedly, repeatedly, he stroked the screen. Where was it…? He found it. His video from the night sky started playing automatically:
His voice sounded thin and tinny through the phone:
“…live from the Plani-Gardium, Basingstoke (roll of drums…) I bring you… the International Space Station!!!
“Or, as I prefer to call it ‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’😊”
All that was visible was a dirty grey pixel crawling slowly across a pitch-black void. Then the recording played the sound of him belching.
Next to his video flashed a banner ad. It was for cat litter.
If he was honest – he always felt the same disappointment. There were no ‘Likes’. None. Not a single one. Not even one from Lucy…
As he stepped from the train, rain hammering above on the grey glass terminus roof, he only just heard the faint signal of the message arriving:
TONIGHT: ISS [Basingstoke]
ISS APPEARS 23:57: 8° above West.
ISS DISAPPEARS 00:00: 13° above East North East.
Maybe, just maybe, by the time he got back from work, the deluge would clear. And then with Uhura back on his lap, once again he’d be able to see the stars and be transported back to the heavens…
Nick Wray is a freelance writer who also works on ‘Futures’ projects. He has written for the Independent, Screen Digest and Viewfinder, as well as other publications and media. His short play ‘Heart of Glass’ – based on two Tweets about Google Glass and wearable body sensors – was recently short-listed for production at the Finsbury Theatre in London. Nick has recently completed ‘Castles of Steel’, a play for Radio 4 about the First World War naval engagement known as the Battle of Jutland. Castles of Steel is available on Amazon here.
Nick has a degree in Experimental Psychology and an MA in Interactive Media from the Royal College of Art. His polemic on the digital world, The Living Garden, won the ICL-Fujitsu prize for innovation in media. Nick is based in Winchester where he splits his time between writing, freelance work and raising his two boys, Alex and Tom.