Final - part three of three.
I saw 'Interstellar' on the weekend, and it was pretty fantastic. I think part of the reason I loved it, despite its flaws, was that it dealt directly with the kinds of themes that I've tried to explore in this project: belonging, the unknown, escape, return. Science Fiction made personal. Go see it.
Only a few minutes to go.
Everything was set. Protocols in place, safety measures collated and quantified. This would be the eighty-third time that Rafter would oversee a New York launch, but it still made him tense. The tension and the paranoia and the attention to detail were the only things that made him good at his job. And terrible at nearly everything else.
Rafter stood up from his screen. Stretched. Yawned. A ritual, encased in superstition. He practiced his carefully remembered moves, rotating through muscle memory, his arms folding and retreating. The ritual drew to a close, but Rafter’s breath suddenly caught as his hand struck a can of soft drink settled on the desk. An anomaly. A shift in the pattern.
He knocked it to the floor. It spilled harmlessly on laminate.
Some of the rest of the control centre team looked up from their work, briefly, and ignored it.
Rafter’s mind fractured slightly, and rebuilt itself. Nothing. It was nothing.
“Terrence. Get that, will you?”
“Sir?” Terrence looked up from a tablet.
“I’ve spilt my drink, here.”
Terrence hurried over, nodding. “Do you want another one?”
Rafter shook his head. He checked the countdown clock. Still time.
Rafter stepped around the crouching Terrence, past the rows of workstations huddled around giant display screens, all manned diligently by GreyLink launch staff, and moved towards the viewing window. He liked to stop and to look, just before pushing the button. In all honesty, at this point, he didn’t have to do anything. The computers were taking over now, clicking through with atomic accuracy, and he and his team were only there out of an archaic human sense of mistrust. Just in case. Just in case.
Stretching out below him, twenty metres below the elevated control centre, a wide platform. People milling about, saying their final tearful goodbyes as remaining crew members for this Alpha jaunt climbed aboard the waiting launch ship. It would be, at minimum, fifteen months before they would see them again. That was for those that were just going for the journey. Others, of course, would stay on at the Alpha colony. Those, they would probably never see again. And that was how it was for everyone. Constant change, the flapping of fins to stay alive.
The departing were, one by one, turning away from their loved ones, their backs slowly making their way up gangways to the interior of the large interstellar ship that waited on the launch platform. The ship was, for now, a cluster of tightly formed ceramic shells, large dishes that protected the craft from the burning melodrama of atmosphere. The dishes would break away as the ship left orbit and headed for space. Underneath was a strange series of awkwardly arranged cubes and spinning artificial gravity wheels, covered in indefatigable instruments and lights.
Rafter liked that the ships launched like this, hidden under a shroud. It was still a mystery, that way, less perfunctory and clinical. Going off world remained unknowable to those that hadn’t done it themselves. Like disappearing into the ocean.
Rafter stood at the window, let the scene fill his vision.
In the centre of the platform, he watched a man and a woman stand opposite each other, a few metres apart. Their conversation seemed cool, reserved. Strange, for an occasion such as this. Rafter watched them intently, let his mind focus, forgot for the moment about the impending complexity that would have to unwind just so. He forgot about that, and watched this young couple say goodbye.
They didn’t get closer to each other. Remained separated. The man’s face was fixed, certain. The woman’s betrayed something else, but Rafter couldn’t pinpoint what, exactly. The bright glow of the New York Spaceport reflected in puddles around her feet. It had rained earlier, but now it was clear – just as the computers had predicted. They were always right.
He checked a nearby screen, which showed an automatic heads up display. Cameras swept in, checked over the man’s face. Garret Lorezzo. On the crew manifest. Cleared for boarding. GreyLink accounts operator, only recently volunteered for an offworld position. So soon; such a change. Rafter wondered if this young man had really thought it all through. Realised the scope of the choices that he was making, and the fact that, even if he came back home in a few years, those choices would continue to tumble out through his life like an echo.
Rafter watched them both, the man and the woman, just for a moment longer. They weren’t speaking now. Just standing and watching.
The woman reached up, and placed the palm of her hand flat across the man’s stomach. Pressed it for a moment, and then took it away carefully. At the exact same moment, they turned away from each other. His back moved up onto the ship. Hers moved away to the viewing area, where the other families huddled on benches as the launch platform cleared out.
The viewing area was a section of tarmac a hundred and fifty metres back from the craft. Well clear of the blast of the engines, but close enough to feel the heat. A little gift from GreyLink to the families that they’d split into two and stretched apart by light years. One last look.
The woman approached the safety line and stopped. She snuck a glance back toward the man. Rafter knew that all she would have seen was his slowly retreating back, disappearing into an airlock.
“Okay, let’s tense up.” Rafter turned back to his team. Sat down at his station, and watched the clock.
“Everything’s green, sir.”
“Count them off.” Rafter looked down at his shoe. It held slightly to the sticky floor where his drink had spilled.
“Section one, clear for launch.”
“Section two, clear for launch.”
“Section three, clear for launch.”
“Section four, clear for launch.”
“All systems are go.”
“Computer,” Rafter said. The computer was always listening, and always knew that it was him speaking. Recognised the wavelength and digitised timbre of his voice, and the security clearance that came with it. “Computer, launch sequence initiate.”
The screens all flicked over to green. A countdown appeared in the corner. The word INITIATED watermarked over every view.
Rafter leaned back in his seat. Looked back toward the window, and tried to see if he could see the young woman in the crowd.
There she was. Sitting alone. Her hands resting carefully on her knees. One eye closed, the other squinting through the grey air of the spaceport. Rafter wondered what she was thinking about.
Suddenly, a slight beeping. Getting louder. More incessant.
Rafter looked back. This wasn’t in his muscle memory. He could feel his mind beginning to fracture again. Had to forcibly peel his shoe from the floor.
“SitRep. SitRep.” He spoke calmly. A lie.
“Losing track of diagonistics…”
“…communications link broken…”
The screens filled with raw code. Scrolling fast. Meaningless and erratic. A network attack. Rafter’s mind calcified.
No response. He turned to his team. “Manually override the launch. Do it now.”
The countdown hurried towards zero, rolling ever forward towards nothingness.
“I can’t establish…”
“…it’s not responding to…”
“…no link to the internal…”
“Radio Captain Morbery, get him to pull the override in the cockpit.”
“Sir, no response from Captain Morbery…”
This was quite unlike anything Rafter had trained himself for.
He watched the mess of the screens. GreyLink’s system was a distant memory, wiped out by malicious and deliberate incursion. Rafter did the only thing he could think to do, and stepped over to a fuse terminal at the rear of the room. He fumbled with keys, desperate to try and open the locked terminal box.
He found the key, struggled to insert it into the lock.
Click. Turn. Rafter ripped open the cabinet, went to flip off the power – but just as he reached for the override switch, everything smashed to black on its own.
The room went dark. The hum of the machines blanketed. The crew all looked up in silent surprise. Power gone, Rafter’s fingers still inches away from the button.
Rafter held his breath. But he knew.
He stepped over to the window, and watched the young woman sitting in the viewing area with her hands on her knees. Unknowing. One eye still squeezed shut. Peaceful.
He breathed out in unison with her. He thought of a spilled drink, and wondered. Would wonder forever.
The launch ship was torn apart by fire, its shrouded shells soaring outward, floating through the air like leaves in the wind.
The spinning discs tumbled towards the control station and the viewing platform and the rest of the port with speed.
Rafter watched the young woman close her other eye.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image copyright David Keen.