Crater*

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Chapter Five

Day 23 on board the Gybe.

In the infirmary

Harvey wanders idly around the infirmary, pausing in front of the GEM-bird’s cage. He strums the bars with his thumb. The thin metal picks out a rusty key and the bird inside blinks at the timbre.

‘Not very lively is he?’

‘No.’

‘Not much of a songbird, either.’

‘No.’

‘Not much of a conversation is it?’

‘Mmm? Sorry Harvey, just busy. It’s not a songbird, it’s a canary.’

‘Oh. Unusual to get permission for live cargo.’

‘Well, it’s for a research paper.’ Addie hoped Harvey would swallow the lie and continue on his perusal of the lab.

‘Oh. Can it fly?’

‘Yes, if I let it out.’

‘Do you?’

‘Mmm?’

‘Are you even listening to me?’ Harvey turns away from the cage, to see what Addie is doing. ‘What are you doing?’

‘I’m splicing.’

‘Really? What?’

‘Hopefully a better blend of coffee. See? This is the aroma-specific gene. Did you know taste relies heavily on smell? Dougal asked if I could improve on the strains we’ve bought with us, so I thought I’d see what I could do.’

‘I didn’t know you were a biochemist?’

‘I’m not, I had to do a course in genetic engineering in my final year at Docmed, for the gene-therapies board.’

‘I liked the coffee as it was.’

‘You’ll like this better, I promise. I make great coffee.’

‘Gene-therapies. Can’t believe an old technique like that is still so widespread. You’d think they’d have improved on it by now.’

‘It’s a misconception to think old means obsolete. Anyhow, most of the work is used for routine preventative medicine. Our enemies are two-fold. Bacteria and Virus. Twins of re-invention. Medicine will always only be playing catch-up to them. Gene-therapies are a tried and tested approach which works.’

Harvey wanders off again towards the viewport. ‘If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’

‘Mmm?’

‘Nothing, engineering proverb.’

‘Mmm.’

Harvey smiles at her absorption in her work, and checks the time. Dougal would be just about coming up for a coffee-break. He was always good for a chat at this time of day and it was clear the doctor was not in an expansive mood.

Day 28 on board The Gybe

In the galley“Noona, you’re having breakfast with us?” Irv shifts his cup of coffee up the small galley counter as Noona squeezes between him and Harvey.

“Well, it was my last night so I thought I’d catch up on a little gossip and then get some sleep for a while.”

“Cross-over, that’s come round quick. Here try this, Dougal made it. Its jam.” Addie hands over a spoon full of a pale jelly substance.

“Yuk! Too sweet! Any coffee? Thanks Harvey, all set for the late shift?”

“Yeah, but cross-over is always tough. I thought I’d try and sleep this afternoon.

See if I can ease myself into it. First time I did a cross-over, this was back on The Loof, I tried ups. Not clever, fifty-two hours with no sleep and then I came down. Woke up in restraints. Apparently I had decided I wanted to get off the ship so had set about depressurising the cargo decks. Took me a full two years to work off the fine.” Harvey pauses and sips at his coffee.

“The Loof! I didn’t know you were on her. I did my training on her. Well, part of it anyway, she was up for decom. She was a real lady.” Noona sighs “Not many ships of her class around these days.”

“That’s because she was a great hulking antique, a waste of resources and energy. She was well overdue for decom.” Irv shakes his head.

“Youth!”

“Fossil!” Irv ducks as Noona swipes a hand at the back of his head and, jogging Addie’s arm, sends her coffee to the floor.

“Hey, watch it you two! There’s no room in here for fights; I’d almost forgotten what a bad combination you two are! Here, you can mop that up.” Addie hands Irv a cloth.

Irv nonchalantly drops the cloth on the floor and with his toe, pushes it haphazardly through the coffee.
“You're just making that worse!” Addie sighs and pushes Irv out of the way, finishing the
mopping up herself. She throws the cloth at Irv who just manages to catch it before it hits him in the face.

“Well, two more days and we come up on coms-lull.” As soon as Harvey says the words he regrets them. No one needed to be reminded of it. The last chance to talk to loved ones face to face always seemed an emotional point of no return. Up till then, they were just a bunch of different people thrown together by the company, still connected and involved with their lives on Mars. From then on in they were self-reliant and alone and their universe would shrink to the size of the Gybe and would only be inhabited by the five of them.

Harvey sighs in the ensuing sobering silence, “Sorry, stupid thing to say. You all knew it was coming up anyway.”

“It’s OK Harvey.” Addie pats his arm reassuringly, “Well, duty calls. I’m down in the labs if you need me.”

“Yeah, I’m going to try and catch up on some sleep. See you all later.” Noona follows Addie out of the galley.

“Hey, nice way to clear some space in the galley!” Irv stretches and yawns.

“Me and my big mouth.”

“Well, makes a change, normally its me and my big mouth. Don’t look so glum, all the more jam for us. This stuff is great.” Irv helps himself to a huge spoonful of the jelly and Harvey smiles wryly.

“Nothing wrong with your big mouth, I see. I don’t know how you can eat it like that, you’re meant to spread it on bread.”

Day 30 on board the Gybe

Coms-Lull

Addie punches in her code and waits for the linkup on her viewscreen.

Destination/mars/decom2297/gybe34/…

…/destination gybe2297/ mars34/request info route login/…

…/login /home/…

…home confirm/secure line/…

‘Addie! Addie! Can you see us yet…’

‘Ssh! Don’t yell. Hold on, we’ll get a picture too, dear. Sit down. No move over then Lil can perch on the end of the sofa. Hello, darling?’

‘Mum, Dad, hi…can you hear me OK?’

‘Yes sweetheart, and we can see you too. You look tired…’

‘Don’t fuss mother. It’s your father here Adelia…’

‘I know, I can see you Dad…’

‘Well, I just want you to know, even though we won’t be able to be in touch we’ll be thinking of you darling.’

‘Thanks Dad…Lil!’

‘Addie, sweetie, you look great, ignore the old fossils, you were on the pt again. The Company are really throwing a lot of money at this mission, you’re going to be a hero! Look I spoke to Jon, he sends his best love but couldn’t get back in time to see you, brothers, who’d have them…’

‘Don’t hog your sister, Lillian, your mother wants a word…’

‘Addie, sweetheart, you look after yourself. I’m so proud of my beautiful girl…’

‘Thanks mum, look I’m fine and I love you all, OK, and stop acting as though I’m about to drop down a black hole, it’s only com-lull. I’ll speak to you all soon. Send my love to Jon and make sure…’

The picture stutters and is lost, returning the screen to a blank square of grey static.

Addie sighs and stares round her bunk. But there is nothing remotely interesting to look at and so she gets up and wanders off in the direction of the gym, maybe a g-run would help.

‘We've made a recording for you, well, Chip has made a recording for you. I’m sending it now, you can run it on your system at your end…’ Christophe is interrupted by Chip.

‘Mum I’ve put in a looped version so you can just press play. We were doing biology at school, the human heart and we saw a totally live synth-heart transplant on vidlink and it got me to thinking and Dad said in space you found the distance the worst aspect, the thought we were so far away and so I thought about what would make you feel like we were near and so I taped us both and then overlaid them and then it seemed to work and Dad thought it was cool.’ Noona smiled at her son’s voice, his never-ending sentence finally halted by the need to breathe.

‘It sounds intriguing, it’s nearly finished downloading. Hold on, I’ll play it back now.

Noona switches the sound from her headphones over to her cabin’s speakers and presses play on her console. At first, the noise seems strange and alien, a soft double beat she can’t place, it grows in volume and is added to, by a second slightly slower beat. Noona suddenly smiles in recognition,

‘It’s your heartbeats!’

‘Yeah, pretty smart that son of yours.’ Christophe moves Chip away from the viewscreen camera and leans in, his face filling her console. ‘When you are lonely, just press play and we are travelling with you, Noona. I love you, you know that and you know it’s true, you can hear it in my heart.’ Noona reaches out with her hand and traces Christophe’s lips with her fingertips.

‘I love you too, Christophe, now put Chip back on before you make me cry.’ She can barely keep her voice even and can feel the tears welling up in her. Chip’s face reappears and she smiles, blinking away any sign of her sadness. ‘It’s great, Chip, I love it. Now, you promise me to look after your father. You know how useless he is at everything when I’m away. And be good at school for me. Be good generally and brush your teeth and don’t forget to…’

‘Yes Mum, I know! I know! And don't you forget to look after yourself!’

‘I love you Chip.’

‘Love you too, Mum.’

‘Bye for now.’

‘Yep. Here’s Dad again.’

‘Noona.’

‘Christophe.’

The image on the console stutters and jumps and then closes to a small dot before filling with nothing but static. Noona drops her head onto her pillow and gives in to the tears she has been fighting, sobbing silently while the cabin echoes to a double heartbeat playing on a loop.

Dougal looks up briefly from the screen to check the time. Coms-lull, for a second he wonders if he should be calling anyone, but no one springs to mind and so he returns to the work in hand and is soon absorbed in his calculations again.

Harvey logs on and sends the final engineering and navigational reports. It was not necessary to send them manually but it lent a sense of occasion to coms-lull. A little personal acknowledgement of their new-found freedom. Liberated from Mars, from the Company from all the constraints of their lives. He watches the information download and then as the screen jumps to static he smiles to himself, The Gybe suddenly feels like home.

Irvin lies on his bunk staring at the ceiling, trying to imagine kissing Addie. It sure as hell beat trying not to think about coms-lull.

/login Irvin/ ‘Anyone talking to me tonight?’

/login dougal/ ‘Just me.’

/login noona/ ‘And me.’

‘Noona! This is great; I’d got really bored with just Dougal and me. Great to have you back on line.’

‘Hey, who are you calling boring!’

‘OK boys, no fighting. So what’s new on the logins then?’

‘Well, I have been trying to expand Dougal’s musical tastes with a little Pulse.’

‘Pulse! Any luck?’

‘No, it is completely banal and puerile and…’

‘Let me guess, he tried you on Scuffgoat.’

‘Ah, now I hadn’t thought of them, no it was only a little Visceral Tongue. I really need to listen to some Scuffgoat now you’ve mentioned them….’Dead sweat / heads wet / come on with some lung song…’’

‘And I thought Visceral Tongue were bad! Noona, have you heard of Katy Capet? They remind me of your songs.’

‘Well, at least I’ve introduced you to Katy Capet, I suppose, all hope is not lost.’

‘Well, your depth of music knowledge, Irv, surprises me. I wouldn’t have thought you’d be into her.’

‘Her? Them, they’re a band.’

‘Really? Do they do her songs then?’

‘Whose songs?’

‘Katy Capet’s of course.’

‘You two have got me lost. I’m logging out. See you later.’

‘Night, Dougal.’
/logoffdougal/

‘So, Katy Capet is a real person?’

‘Was, she was a folk figure, very peripheral, around the beginning of the twenty-first century.’

‘And she was a singer?’

‘Well, no one knows for sure.. she certainly wrote several songs.’

‘I’ve never heard of her.’

‘Few people have.’

‘How do you know about her then?’

‘Well…she was an ancestor of mine.’

‘Weird coincidence or what? Look, this is the login: Music / Contemporary - Drifted / Artist A-Z / K / Katy Capet /. They are really good. You’ll like them. They’ve been together for about two years, so there are four albums.'

‘I’ll give them a go. If you’re interested in the real Katy Capet I can dig out some stuff on her.’

‘Yeah, OK. Bit of history never hurt.’

‘Well, I’m wide-awake still. I hate cross-over. Any suggestions for sleep?’

‘Stupes, a bottle of dross and six hours later…’

‘I meant legal suggestions.’

‘It’s a lyric, from Scuffgoat.’

‘Goodnight Irv, I’m going to leave you there and try a shower.’

‘Stupes, a bottle of dross and six hours later, puking on the floor, too raw for you baby…’

/logoff noona//

/login music // contemporary-pulse / artist a-z / v / scuffgoat / albums / snuffle / song no. 3/

Stupes, a bottle of dross and six hours later, puking on the floor, too raw for you baby /

Its nothing personal, you give great haze but I’m bleeding into my mind /

Trying to find ways to tell you and it’s a shame I’m too raw for you baby /

And it’s a shame I’m too raw /

Pulsing on the floor /

Stupes, a bottle of dross and I’m lost to the laws of your heart and still too raw./

/logoff Irvin//

Day 32 On board the Gybe.

In the gym

Addie wakes suddenly, jolted from her sleep by yet another nightmare. She checks the small digital readout in her bunk's display console. 5.30am. Too early for breakfast. Maybe a trip to the gym instead. For the last week or so, Addie's dreams had become more and more vivid with an ever-growing feeling of menace. As though she was overlooking something, something imminently dangerous. From her cabin area, across the infirmary, the GEM-bird stares at her unblinking from its cage. She stretches and walks over, giving it a handful of bird pellets and refilling its water bottle. The bird hops to one side of the cage and back, pecking at the pellets and she ruffles its feathers through the bars.

Common sense told her her dreams were simply a reaction to the extra effort everyone was having to put in to get ready for the rescheduling of the refit. But, just in case it was something else, Addie resolves to talk to Dougal about it later. First though, a trip to the gym to clear her mind of the nightmare.

Addie slides into the gym through the hatchway to find it already occupied by Irv. ‘Sorry, I thought it was empty, I’ll leave you in peace.’

‘No…no, its OK Addie, you can train alongside if you want to.’

‘Well, I know you like a bit of peace and quiet while you work out.’

‘You don’t disturb me, Addie, I like having you around, anyway do me good, it’s too easy to slip into bad habits when there’s no one there to check what you’re doing.’

‘Not cheating on my schedule are you?’

‘Might be, only one way to find out.’

‘Actually there’s two ways, the gym automatically records performances and routes them to your medical files. As doctor, I know how much cheating goes on.’

‘Oh. I didn’t know that.’

‘You’re not supposed to. It’s part of the invisible care programme I provide. Plus, you don’t cheat.’

Addie straps herself into the walking machine. ‘Well, want to go for a walk?’

‘No thanks, rowing is my thing.’

In the following silence Irv glances at Addie, seeing a tiredness, a tightening in the brow maybe. He longs to reach over and smooth down her hair, soothe away whatever the worry is. Tell her it will be alright.

‘So, how are we holding together, doctor?’

‘Physically?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Not too badly, actually everyone’s meeting their new targets well.’

‘Including you?’

‘Yes, including me.’

‘So we should all be fit by the time we reach Earth?’

‘Yes. Yes, should be.’

‘You know its going to be really gruelling don’t you?’

‘Yes.’

‘…Addie, whatever happens. I mean, if you get into trouble at all. You call me OK?’

‘Oh, oh, OK. Think I won’t make the grade then?’

‘I didn’t mean that. I…It can be tough, you know? And on a first mission, you think you’re invincible. Never think you’ll hit trouble…and people team up. Noona and Harvey are a team. So I'll be your team, ok? We'll look out for each other.’

‘What about Dougal?’

‘Dougal’s Dougal… and he doesn’t look so cute in a space suit.’

Addie raises her eyebrows in disapproval at Irv, trying not to smile.

‘Well, if you think anyone looks attractive in a space suit, as your doctor, I should probably be prescribing a psychometric evaluation. Either that or a G-run.’

Irv laughs.

‘I am being serious Addie, about teaming up. So, if you need help, I’ll be there.’

‘OK, thanks.’

Despite Irv’s reassurance, Addie cannot shake the uneasy feeling gnawing away at the edges of her subconscious, as though she has overlooked something. But what? What is it she is failing to notice? But her mind draws a blank and, for lack of any conversation she throws herself into her workout, glad Irv feels no need to further the conversation. Glad of his company.

After her workout and a quick shower, Addie wanders down the central hubway of the ship in search of Dougal. There was something she wanted to ask him. Further down the hubway she could see Harvey on his back, a service hatch beside him, fixing something. As she draws nearer, the silent spray of some hydraulic system fountains out across the floor.

'Watch your step, it's just deionised water!' Harvey raises his head from his work and grins at Addie. 'It's coolant for the navigation computers, for washing through their biomatrix of nanochips...where are you off too?' From his vantage point on the floor Harvey could appraise the doctor's long legs, even if they were hidden under her uniform.

'Oh, just wanted to ask Dougal something. Thought he'd probably be down on the farm beds. How on earth are you going to fix it?' Addie ducks under the fountaining water and peers into the cabling duct. A spaghetti of cables and pipework spills out from the panelling.

'With this.' Harvey retrieves a small roll of soft, slightly sparkling tape from his pocket.

‘Will it hold?’ Addie looked dubiously at the tape, 'It looks very low tech!'

‘This is Tacky Tape, of course it will hold.’ Harvey pauses and smiles, then hands the roll of tape to Addie. ‘It’s the equivalent of your gene therapies, only this binds not splices.’

‘So, if it is broke, fix it with Tacky Tape?’

‘Sounds about right.’

‘You know, I’ve seen this stuff around the ship and wondered what it was.’

‘Well, now you know, it’s holding the ship together. As we get closer in to Earth, there's still so much space debris out there, some of it will impact with the ship and some will get through the Meld-all and compromise hull integrity. This stuff is the quick fix till we get back home. ’

‘What’s it made of?’

‘Not a clue, but like it says on the label, it’s tape and its tacky.’

‘Love help us, I’m sailing in a ship held together with tape.’

‘Look on the bright side, makes decommissioning easier.’ Harvey finishes smoothing the tape over the fractured waterline and stands up. ‘Good as new.'

Addie inspects the roll of tape in her hand. Under her touch the material is malleable, almost fluid. 'So, this is a sort of engineering panacea. What happens when something major breaks, it'll need more than a bit of this surely?'

Harvey chuckles, ‘You should see the size of the roll of this stuff I have in my cabin!’

‘Ha, ha, very funny.’ Addie shakes her head and throws the roll of tape back to Harvey. ‘I guess I’d better stop peeling off all those bits of tape I’ve been spotting round the ship, then.’

For just a second a look of doubt and worry creeps into Harvey’s face as Addie carries on down the hubway. She smiles sweetly at him and then crosses her eyes before disappearing from sight through the next hatchway. Harvey chuckles to himself and pockets the roll of Tacky Tape and then sighs as it occurs to him sometimes Addie is just a little too cute for comfort.

Day 41 on board the Gybe

Moonshine

/login Irvin/ ‘Anyone talking to me tonight?’

/login noona/ ‘…Not talking baby, singing…

‘Noona? You sound out of it.’

‘Well, yes… Hey, what are you doing! Get your own keypad!’

/login harvey/ ‘Come and play, we’ve got some moonshine.’

‘Where are you?’

‘Noona’s cabin. Bring Addie.’

‘She’s asleep.’

‘Then wake her up, but be quiet. Dougal’s on duty.’

/logoff harvey/logoff noona/

/logoff Irvin/

‘Addie, Addie, wake up!’ Irvin gently shakes Addie’s arm.

‘…What?.… What’s wrong?… what time is it? Irvin, what are you doing…it’s only eleven…’

‘Ssshhh! Come on, get dressed, we’re going to Noona’s.’

‘Noona’s. Noona’s what?’

‘Shh! Come on, you’ll see. They’ve got some moonshine, come and have some fun, Doctor!’

‘It bloody better be after waking me up. I’ve only just gone to sleep.’

Addie grabs her suit from beside her bunk and slides into it under the thermowrap then follows on after Irvin, stumbling slightly.

‘Hi, come in, come in, close the hatch.’ Noona swings her legs up onto her bunk to accommodate Addie and Irv. Harvey is propped up on the end of the bunk, legs dangling over the viewscreen, slowly sipping from a coffee cup.

‘So why the secrecy?’

'The reason it’s a secret is because its Dougal’s alcohol.’

‘You mean real alcohol?’ Addie reaches for the bottle next to the viewscreen sniffs it. ‘How did he get it on board?’

‘Brews it on board which is why its called moonshine. Try some, its pretty neat.’ Noona points to a couple of empty coffee cups on the floor, ‘Use those, they’re almost clean.’

Irv takes the bottle from Addie and pours out a good measure into each cup.

Noona continues, 'He brews it down in the farm beds, thinks we don’t know. But I found it the other day, I was looking for more jam and I found where he hides it. He must have made some more after Harvey's binge.’

‘You stole it?’

‘Can’t steal something which doesn’t exist, now, can you?’ Noona smiles and Harvey laughs.

Irvin takes a large swig of his drink and chokes as the alcohol claws at the back of his throat. Eyes smarting, he coughs and tries to recover his composure whilst Noona and Harvey dissolve into fits of laughter. ‘I did say it was pretty neat, here try it with some water Addie, you’ll thank me for it.’

Addie sips at her drink, feeling the heat of the alcohol travel through down her gullet. It had a sweet, aniseed flavour. ‘What does he make it from?’

Irvin refills his and Harvey’s cup, ‘who cares, it’s good stuff. ’ His voice is still gravelly from choking.

‘Well, you know Dougal, ever the perfectionist.’

‘Hey, we should have some music to go with this.’ Harvey swings his legs off the viewscreen and logs on, punching in his code with slow deliberation, how about … any requests?’

‘Scuffgoat!’

‘No! No bloody scuffgoat. Don’t put it on Harvey. Choose something else.’ Noona gently tweaks Irv’s ear. ‘You have no music taste whatsoever.’

‘Not much in the logins, Visceral Snog? What the hell is that?’ Harvey looks up from the screen, ‘ any takers.’

‘No!’

‘Never hear of them.’

‘Yes! Even better than Scuffgoat.’

‘Sorry Irv, you’re out voted, three to one. Katy Capet?’

‘Oh, I like them, they’re good. Put it on. I like to dance to their stuff.’ Addie can already feel the effect of the alcohol. ‘This moonshine is very good.’

‘Dance! Brilliant idea!’ Noona leaps from the bunk and grabs the bottle. ‘Come on, lets go up to the viewdeck, we can dance up there.’

‘What about Dougal, won’t he hear us?’

‘No, he spends half his shift in the galley and the other half in the gym, with a quick tour of the labs. He never goes up there. Come on, just be quiet past the galley.’

The viewdeck is in lowlight mode and already picking up a rhythm in the music Harvey routed through.

From the window-seat sill beyond the tulip tree
The passing heron drags his feet
And grazes the water’s still
Too deep to dredge
Stand back from the edge.

From the pebbles rolling under feet
The skitter of the cobbles
Falling to the sea
And we could build a castle
Out of stone
A place to rest when rage has turned to bone.

Still I hear them all

And turn back to hear the call
I’m sorry I would say
I’m sorry
It never turns the way
You think the cards would fall.

Addie is dancing and the whole of the viewdeck is full of music and light as it flows across her skin and into her heart. There is even a warm breath of air, like dancing in a garden, with the night breeze drifting over you.

‘Katy Capet is great. I love this song. I love dancing. Join me. Where’s the breeze from?’ She beckons to Irvin who is watching her dance.

‘Harvey’s rigged it so the air-con responds to the music too.’

Irvin hesitates for a second as Addie beckons to him again and then, putting down his drink gets up to dance.

From rain dripped eaves the evening glows
The grass is all but cut too fine
For light is turning low
And my flowers are drooped
A sudden storm
And they are weighed down with silver wine.

From the bench the contrail spins
Its feathered breath a chance
To take flight
And I could jump on board
And fly away
To where the world is never wet with rain

Noona grins at the two of them dancing, ‘Come on Harvey, leave the music alone, let it do its own thing. I want to see you on the floor.’ She grabs his arm and drags him over to the other two.

Still I hear them all
And turn back to hear the call
I’m sorry I would say
I’m sorry
It never turns the way
You think the cards would fall.

And still I hear them call
I’m sorry
It never turns out the way
Those cards fall.

‘So, is this a private party or can anyone join in?’

‘Dougal! Where have you been? Come and join us, we’re dancing.’ Addie throws her arms around his neck and drags him through the hatchway.

‘So I see. I could hear you all in the gym. What are you doing?’

‘Dancing.’ Addie twirls him round.

‘And drinking, don’t forget the drinking.’ Irv adds.

‘Drinking? What the hell are you drinking?’

‘Well, it’s your alcohol. It’s very good. You ought to try it.’

‘You’ve been drinking my alcohol?’

‘Yes, and now we seem to be having a party.’

‘With my alcohol?’

‘Yes, what’s so funny?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Are you angry with us?’

‘No. But I should be.’

‘Oh. Well, have a drink, then and dance with us.’

‘He can’t have a drink, we’ve run out.’

‘Can we have some more of your alclohol, please, darling. Did I just slur my words there?’ Noona turns to Harvey, ‘Am I drunk?’

‘Yes, we all are.’

‘I think you’ve had enough of my alcohol for one night. I’ve brewed up a new batch of beer. Let’s have that instead.’

‘Is it as good as your alcohol?’

‘No but it is legal. What’s this music?’

‘Scuffgoat.’

‘How did you let him play Scuffgoat. I hate Snuffgoat. Put on more Katy Capet.’ Addie can feel the viewdeck beginning to spin and so she collapses on a nearby seat. ‘My heads whirring.’

Harvey sits down next to her.

‘You sing for us, Noona. Sing us a song.’

‘I can’t, I’m too drunk.’

‘I’ll get the beer, I can see this is going to be a long night.’ Dougal ducks back out of the hatchway and descends to the farm beds to retrieve his latest batch of beer. Above him he can hear the strains of Noona’s song. Clearly she had decided she could sing after all.

(Leopard)

‘Oh, it’s a thorny problem
And I’m rooted to the spot
So does anyone know the answer
To this tiger’s spots.

Oh, it’s a knotty problem
I think you will agree
And I’m still far too muddled
And somehow all at sea

So does anyone know the answer
To this tiger’s spots.
Did they fall from the moon
In a big fat tune

And drop upon his fur
Did they start to appear
As we drew near
Just when did it occur

Oh, it’s a knotty problem
And it’s tied me up a lot
So someone please untie me
I’m getting rather hot.

Oh, it’s a thorny problem
I’m tangled up in a knot
So does anyone know
Where his stripes should go
Because I’m still seeing spots

Does anyone know the answer
To this tiger’s spots? ‘

‘I think it’s about sex. All lyrics are about sex.’

‘Rubbish, Irv. The music you listen to is all about sex. It’s about confusion.’

‘So not tigers then?’

‘It’s a metaphorical tiger, not a literal tiger. It’s about confusion.’

‘Confusion over what?’

‘The tiger’s spots.’ Noona starts to laugh. ‘Ouch, don’t pinch me Harvey. It’s funny! It’s just a song, you know, just a song.’

The five of them are sprawled on the floor of the viewdeck, drinking Dougal’s beer.

‘Well, I still think song lyrics are to do with sex.’ Irv shifts to a more comfortable position.

‘And the reason you think this is because?’ Dougal punctuates his question with a belch ‘Pardon me.’

‘Because they are. Some of my most successful chat up lines have been song lyrics.’

‘Spare us the details, please!’

‘No, go on! Like what?’ Noona laughs.’ Um, let’s see, …what was it, ‘Stupes, a bottle of dross and six hours later, puking on the floor’ I can see how that might work! Hi darling, fancy some stupes, a bottle of dross and six hours later, we could be puking on the floor, very romantic!’

‘Works for me.’ Addie lies with her cheek on the cold deck, watching the ceiling slowly spin. ‘You have no idea how bad some of the lines I’ve been given are.’

‘Such as?’

‘So, you’re the ship’s doctor, want to see if you can find my pulse?’

‘Hey, I said that to you!’ Irv replies indignantly as the others laugh.

‘See what I mean? Anyone know how long the ceiling is going to spin for?’

‘Try some coffee, it sometimes helps. Come on then, everyone’s most successful chat up line, starting with you Irv, clearly it wasn’t, ‘want to see if you can find my pulse’.’ Harvey helps himself to more beer.

‘’Are you for real, angel, or are you a sweet dream’…I never got the girl out of the bedroom for three days, best party I ever went to.’

‘Spare us please!’

‘What’s yours then Addie?’

‘Um, oh. Um, can’t think, hold on, someone else go first.’

‘I picked up Christophe with probably the worst line in the world. First day at college and he was on the same course and I saw him, fell madly in lust and went up to him and said the first thing that came into my head, which was…’Can you touch the end of your nose with your tongue?’

‘And you complain about my technique?’

‘Well it worked, we’ve been together ever since. Your turn Harv.’

‘Hi, my name’s Harvey. Would you like to dance.’

‘It worked?’ Irv asks incredulously.

Harvey chuckles, ‘Works every time. Never needed another.’

‘It works? I don’t believe you, does it work, Addie, Noona?’

‘Actually Irv, it does. It’s honest, straightforward and friendly. And you get to dance at the end of it if you want to.’ Noona grins at Addie, ‘What do you think?’

‘Works for me. I like dancing. People try too hard to impress. Dougal what’s your best line?’

‘Well, I’ve never needed to use one.’

‘Rubbish, everyone needs a line.’

‘People seem to prefer to use theirs on me. I’ve never had to start things off, as it were.’

‘Oh, I’ve just remembered one of mine, at a party, ‘If you stand on my foot again, I’ll kick you.’’

‘Nice line. What happened?’

‘He stood on my foot again, so I kicked him.’

‘This is a side of the Doctor I hadn’t imagined. So then what happened?’

‘Well, he pulled my hair, I burst into tears and had a screaming tantrum and my Mum sent me to my room and refused to let me have any of my birthday cake until I apologised to the boy I kicked.’

‘Addie, you were a kid!’

The others laugh at Irv’s disappointment.

‘I was eleven and I went out with the boy in question for a whole two weeks, I forget why we broke up… We need more music, something drifted.’

Harvey crawls over to the console. ’More Katy Capet?’

He calls up another song and the lights begin to fade to the rhythm and a soft warm air steals over them.

(Beautiful woman)

In my arms I would hold you
Very gently enfold you
Caress your sweet and scented skin
Slowly make you laugh again
Beautiful woman

Every kiss to bring pleasure
Tender loving twined together
Letting loose your hair
Falling careless in the air
Beautiful woman

Breathless bring you down to me
Softly fill your eyes with dreams
Teasing all your nerves on fire
Enflaming each degree of desire
Beautiful woman

In my arms I would hold you
Very gently enfold you
Caress your sweet and scented skin
Slowly make you laugh again
Beautiful woman

The next morning

Dougal stands in the galley, munching thoughtfully on a piece of toast. As he eats, Addie arrives, followed by Noona and Harvey.

‘Well, you look dreadful Doctor, how’s your head?’

‘Don’t shout. Don’t say anything. I need some toast.’ Addie takes the piece he’s eating out of his hands. ‘I feel dreadful.’

‘I’d forgotten what a hangover is. Please tell me you have a cure Doctor. Ah, toast, just what I need.’ Harvey pinches the slice of toast from Addie and takes a bite. ‘How much did we drink last night?’

‘Too much. You better have some zaps on board Addie, or there’ll be trouble. How come you look so bright and breezy, Dougal?’

‘I haven’t been to bed yet. One of us was on duty last night. I also only drank beer.’

Irv stumbles in through the hatchway. ‘Euurgh.’

‘Is that a considered opinion?’ Dougal asks as Harvey laughs.

‘Ouch, don’t make me laugh, my head hurts too much.’

Irv takes the toast out of Harvey’s hand and crams the whole lot in his mouth. ‘I’m never bloody drinking any of your alcohol again. What the hell is it made from?’

‘Urine.’

‘Did you just say urine?’

‘Yes. It’s a new process I’m trying out. Seeing if we can get away with less purification of our waste water if it goes through a process of distillation after fermentation. But from the size of your hangovers, it sounds like it needs a bit more purification. Well, I’m off to bed, see you all later and, I'm guessing, Noona, you won't be keelhauling me for running Company experiments on Company time?’ Dougal chuckles to himself as he leaves. ‘Oh and before you ask, it was all my urine.’

Noona, Addie and Harvey all stare after him. Irv carries on munching his mouthful of toast.

‘No wonder my head feels like a toilet.’

Day 66 On board the Gybe

Approaching Earth

‘We are in visual range.’

‘Let’s get up on viewdeck.’

‘We can route it through to here.’

‘No, no I want to see it for real.’

‘Harvey, Harv! We’re in visual range. Is Irvin with you?’

‘Yes, we are on our way.’

‘Just Dougal to find then, where is he?’

‘Probably still asleep. I’ll go and wake him.’

‘Is Dougal up there with you?’

‘No, Harv, he’s still asleep. I’m going down to get him.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ll stop off en route.’

‘Dougal, wake up! We are in visual range.’ Harvey bangs on the hatchway wall with the flat palm of his hand, ‘Come on, up and at ‘em!’

Dougal starts awake. ‘Arggh! What time is it…, what are you doing Harvey? It isn’t my shift yet. Go away!’

‘We have visual of ISELP.’

‘Mmm?’

‘Visual on ISELP, we are in range. Get up!’

‘ISELP!’ Dougal heaves himself out of his bunk, ‘I can’t believe I’d forgotten we were so close!’

‘Well, I’ll leave you to get dressed then!’ Harvey disappears off up the hatchway as Dougal, too late, remembers he is naked.

‘Shit! Not going to live this one down.’

‘Is Dougal up?’

‘Um, yes, you could say that.’

‘OK, let’s open up the deck.’

The viewdeck shutters slowly wind back to reveal only blank, impenetrable space.

‘Turn off the lights.’

As the lights fade, slowly bright pinpricks of stars appear.

‘We should swing round shortly, we’ll see Earth with the sun behind it and part of the moon. We should pick up ISELP from this distance. She’s big enough.’

‘She might be in shadow.’

The Gybe gently alters course and the viewdeck starts to be flooded in light.

‘Have you compensated for radiation?’

‘Yes, it should start to polarise now.’

In front of them, sweeping in across the viewdeck’s gold windscreen is Earth, deep negative against a corona of sunlight, with the moon her barely visible, bleached companion.

‘Can you see her?’

‘No, no I can’t pick her out, can anyone else?’

‘No, there’s too much sun.’

‘We need to be closer in.’

‘Looks lost, doesn’t it? As though she’s hiding behind the sun.’

‘Earth. Home from home.’

‘She won’t afford you a very hospitable welcome.’

‘Does anyone else feel like…’

‘Like what?’

‘Like we have been here before?’

‘We have, all of us.’

‘Really, and when exactly was that?’

‘She’s in our subconscious. We, as a collective group carry her myth around with us. Man is from Earth. She is our mother archetype. Mars can never replace her.’

‘OK, you’re getting a little deep there. Let me know when ISELP is visible. I’ll be in the gym.’

‘OK, I’ve seen enough, how long before we arrive?’

‘Another day.’

‘Bye for now… mother. Want to give me a hand on some diagnostics on the docking hatches?’

‘Sure, beats blood analysis.’

‘Where is ISELP? Do you think she is still there?’

‘Hope so, awful long way to come if she’s fallen to Earth already.’

‘Is it likely?’

‘No, she should be too far out. We’ll get better depth perception as we move closer in. I’m going to route the windscreen cameras to all the viewscreens. We’ll spot her soon enough.’

‘I’m going to stay a while and watch Earth.’

‘OK, see you later…are you OK, Noona?’

‘Yes, I didn’t think I’d be so…affected by her.’

‘She’s no friend of ours Noona, we abandoned her for good reason.’

Noona sits on the floor of the viewdeck, bathed in sunlight, as the Earth begins to fill out from a silhouette into something more tangible. As she watches, words begin to fill her eyes.

Arrival at Earth

And our hearts echo
Blue world, blue world
Our hearts echo
Old world, old world
Echoing
To your orbit

Blue world adrift in the past
Of our consciousness
Please forgive this intrusion
In your slumber
Satellite spinning out
To the echoing beat
Of many hearts

We greet you
Salute you
Lay you to rest
Promise to keep the
Echo in our hearts
Of the blue world
We left

And our hearts echo
Blue world, blue world

As Noona watches, the shadows slowly deepen and lengthen, replacing flat tone with the first insubstantial ghosts of solid form. The ISELP is beginning to take shape. The superstructure, designed over a hundred years ago, had lost none of its ability to inspire awe. Its size seemed preposterous, until you remembered it was the base from which Earth Abandonment took place.

‘Castle in the air.’

Noona jumps at the voice beside her, it is Dougal, ‘Saw her appear on the viewscreen, thought I’d come and get a better look.’ Dougal wanders over to the windscreen and with his fingers, traces the outline of ISELP. ‘Monumental isn’t she.’

‘Ghostly, almost.’

‘Well, she’ll be solid soon enough. Hopefully, solid anyway.’

‘Echoes and ghosts.’

‘Very romantic. She’s simply a clunking, great bit of metal in a slowly decaying orbit around Earth.’

‘Hi, Irv. Who says poetry is dead?’

‘What’s poetry?’

‘Youth’

‘Fossil’

‘Shut up you two. We need to start an external visual monitor of her as we draw near. Plus start our monitoring of both Earth and activity on the Sun, plus the debris fields around the Earth and Moon, our orbit allows us…’

Noona groans, ‘OK, OK, we get the message, Dougal. Back to the grindstone. See you later, I’m on my way to navcom, come on Irv, no more sightseeing today.’

In the dark curve of the planet, the ISELP broods, cold, quiet and empty. Many of the satellite fields around Earth had been cleared, and the Craters' work centred mainly on clearing the moon debris field but even that had dwindled in recent years. The Company was focused on the Saturn relays instead, gearing up for the Pluto/Charon mission. The retrieval of the ISELP was the final piece in the jigsaw plan.

The International Space Exploration Launch Platform consisted of three sections around a rotational hub. At one end, the launch platform itself, complete with triple launch stations. At the other end the living habitat, with its spacetels and farm beds and in between the storage facilities. As the Gybe inexorably drew closer to it, the enormous size of the ISELP became apparent, an ancient leviathan waiting for them. Addie shivers at the sight of it. Waiting was the word, something was waiting for them. She sighs and gives herself a mental shake to snap out of it. The only thing that was waiting for them on the ISELP was hard work. Addie turns from the porthole back to the analysthis results and busies her mind with her work instead.

In the Resources Suite

‘Do you believe in premonitions?’

Addie's question punctures the silence in the resources suite where she had been wandering around peering into the tanks of filtering algae. Momentarily, Dougal looks up from the algae tank filter he was working on, startled by her question.

‘No, not really. Never really thought about it. Why?’

‘Oh, nothing.'

‘Must be something, otherwise you wouldn’t ask the question.’

‘Well, for all our science, is there such a thing as second sight? We still can’t prove it for sure one way or another. But, maybe it’s because we always try and quantify things. Maybe it’s immeasurable. Maybe it’s some primitive defence mechanism submerged away in our brains, only surfacing in times of danger, or need. We always look for answers, don’t we? For everything. Question and answer. Problem solving, it’s our key to survival.’

‘I thought adrenalin was the key to our survival.’

‘Well, that’s a chemical defence. But what about a instinctual response?’

‘To danger?’

‘To predicting danger.’

‘Surely then it’s purely an assessment of the odds of a particular situation. An assessment on a very fundamental level. Not a premonition, a probability figure.’ Dougal smiles at Addie, noting the signs of tiredness. 'What has brought all this on? Normally Noona is the one in touch with her feelings.’

‘I have this inescapable feeling of…well, of dread. It seems to be getting worse, the nearer we get to ISELP. As though it’s sort of linked to it, in some way. It feels like a warning. But I don’t know what about. Like I’m missing something obvious.’

‘Well, I think we are all a little nervous, Addie. The schedules have all been changed, we are all having to push ourselves far more than we thought. No one knows what state ISELP will be in when we get there, there is a lot at stake here. And this is your first mission, don’t forget. If your mind is ringing alarm bells, I would say it’s a very natural response to a stressful situation, not a plunge into uncharted psychological territory.’ Dougal gives Addie a hug. ‘Stop beating yourself up, you’re not going mad, it’s simply a case of the jitters, which is a recognised long-haul space flight condition. Everyone gets it, even old-timers like me.’

‘Is there a cure?’

‘Yes, a good night’s sleep.’

‘Mmm, having trouble sleeping at the moment.’

‘Well, maybe the problem is lack of sleep. You’re the doctor, what’s the cure?’

‘I’m being really silly about this aren’t I? I just need to take some sleeping pills and I’ll be fine. Sorry.’

‘No, no don’t be. Everyone gets the jitters and it’s a normal response on long haul. The probability of the ISELP being full of hidden dangers is high, you are right to feel nervous. But don’t let it take over, OK? You'll see, you’ll be fine.’

Later in the Resources Suite

‘Have you noticed anything wrong with Addie?’ Irv wanders up and down the farm beds, flicking at the plantings with his fingertips. Dougal pauses in his work and stares at him.

‘Why do you ask?’

‘Oh, nothing really, just thought she was looking tired.’

‘Oh.’

‘…and agitated. You haven’t noticed anything?’

‘Well, funny you should mention it but yes, I spoke to her earlier. Just nerves, nothing more, you know what it’s like on a first mission.’

‘Yeah. Anything we can do about it?’

‘I think the doctor has it under control.’

‘Nothing to worry about then?’

‘No, no I don’t think so…Irvin?’

‘Yes?’

‘Long-haul is just that, long haul. Everyone gets caught up in other people’s business. Everyone gets lonely too. It’s a long trip and we don’t need to be nursing broken hearts, everyone has a job to do.’

‘I wasn’t planning on breaking her heart, not that it’s any of your business.’

‘I wasn’t referring to hers.’

Dougal observes Irv closely, noting the slight confusion at being so easily caught off-balance.

‘Look, Addie is a smart, strong woman. She’ll be OK. The Company would not have her on this mission if she wasn’t capable, more than capable of completing her tasks. But you’re here for a reason too, so do us all a favour and concentrate on work instead?’

‘I was simply concerned about her, I thought she’s been looking tired.’

‘We are all looking tired, Irv. Don’t be offended. I’m pretty certain Harvey fancies her too and I know I do. Just be careful, OK?’

Irv sighs and smiles, ‘You must admit she is cute… OK, OK, I’ll back off. The doctor is now out of bounds, strictly work only. Although it is none of your business.’

‘I know. Merely an opinion.’

Arriving at ISELP

Day One of the refit

The Gybe, as are all Craters, is perfectly adapted for working alongside large orbital pieces of space junk littering the Moon and Earth debris fields. But the ISELP was something else. As Noona steers the Gybe in close the full scale of the ISELP becomes apparent. It was fully four times longer than the Gybe. Noona skirts round the launch platforms at one end and slowly trawls past the vast middle storage section, only coming to a full stop alongside one of the living habitat modules. It looked to have an intact docking hatch. A few hours later, Harvey and Irv have connected up the docking hatchway tunnel, necessitating a spacewalk by the pair of them.

Once connected the fun would begin, Noona reflects on their mission so far. The next few days would mainly mean working in space suits as they survey the interior of the ISELP and try to get some of her critical systems back online.

'It'll be like jump-starting a city.' Dougal's voice on the intercom makes Noona jump.

'Dougal, sometimes I swear you can read my mind.' Noona. 'Do you think we could get it air tight and the filtration system up and working? It will make life much easier if we don't have to work in space suits.'

'I'm hoping so. I have gone through the ISELP's specs with Harvey over the last few days and we think we can modify enough of it to produce a workable air filtration system in the time we need. To begin with, we may have to rely on the Gybe air circulation system as well, so keeping the docking tunnel open, which I know is against safety protocols, will give enough through flow to flood the first two living habitat modules we reach.'

'OK. We are now in a stable orbit with the ISELP. Time to go and see exactly what we're in for over there. I'll meet you in the suit room at the docking tunnel.'


Day Five

‘Is it me, or am I getting very paranoid?’ Harvey pushes the welding shield back over his head and straightens up for a moment.

‘Pardon?’ Dougal looks up from the joint they are welding.

‘Well, I feel very edgy.’

‘You too?’

‘Yes, you got it as well?’

‘Just pressure, Harv. We are working under pressure. Always gives for the jitters.’

‘I keep expecting a glitch or two, you know, to help…and then I remember we are on this tin can and not in the Gybe.You’d have thought on shift change the maincom on Gybe would pick it up…the tension. I mean I really feel tension between us all, Dougal, don’t you.’

‘Yeah, you may have a point there…I’ll get into the programming and see if there’s any kind of glitch in it.’

Day Seven

‘I am completely exhausted, please tell me you have something which is going to stop all my muscles aching and my brain from feeling like it is slowly oozing out of my ears.’ Irv leans over the desk where Addie is working in the infirmary.

‘Well, what can I suggest, ooh, how about ‘stupes, a bottle of dross…’’

‘I’m serious Addie, I’m falling apart.’

‘Well what do you want me to do about it, Irv, I gave you a training schedule. Look, everyone is feeling the same, if I start handing out stims to you…’

‘OK, OK, spare us the lecture… your bedside manner could bloody do with some work, doctor. I wasn’t asking for you to compromise your precious medical ethics, just a bit of sympathy would have done.’

‘Oh go screw yourself! You think you’re the only one feeling like shit? Join the queue.’

‘Up yours too, Addie.’

Day Eleven

‘Noona what the fuck are you doing?’ Harvey hits the side of the bulkhead with the roll of holo-schematics he has in his hand. 'Unbelievable!'

‘I beg your pardon?’ Noona replies, outraged at his tone of voice.

‘You’ve welded the wrong fucking bulkheads!’

‘I’ve what? Let me see that…shit! Oh shit! This is a joke! Fuck, well, half my shift down the drain. What are we doing here?’

‘It’s not just you, Irv has spent a whole four hours on the wrong section as well. This is turning into a nightmare. We’ll never get it all done in time.’

‘Well maybe if I wasn’t so fucking tired, I’d get the job done but that bitch of a doctor won’t give us anything to help!…Oh, I’m really losing it Harvey. What is going on?’

‘I don’t know, we all are. Try and keep cool Noona, try and keep cool.’

Day Twelve

‘I accessed maincom, there is no fault showing up in the glitch programming. Can you check out the hardware, see if there are any connections out?’ Dougal catches Harvey at the coffee machine.

‘Sure, look, Dougal, things are getting pretty critical over on ISELP. We could all do with some kind of diversion.’

‘I know, I know, these are tough conditions. Any suggestions?’

‘Too tired to think, Dougal, too tired to think.’

On day fifteen the Gem Bird sings

Addie is submerged, under a weight of water, falling through a weight of water and all she can hear is a bird singing. The sweet call of a bird on a distant planet, very far away and up in the light above her. ‘I’m drowning,’ the thought somehow seems random and pertinent at the same time, ‘and why is the bird singing?’ The water is heavy and slanting. Dragging her down. The bird is singing at an angle and Addie, limbs leaden, struggles to find a way to listen to the bird song, because its important, it describes the angle of the water. It describes the angle of descent.

“The finch, it’s the gem-bird!” Addie practically screams the words as she wrenches herself from the grip of her dream. Sitting bolt upright in her bunk she scrabbles out from under the cover of the thermowrap and still unsure if it was a dream, premonition or a reality, she pauses, her body shivering with the sudden burst of adrenaline. And there it is, faintly from a deck above, the sound of a finch, confirming what her inner ears are already telling her, the ship is listing heavily. She glances out of a nearby porthole for confirmation, the angle is all wrong, the docking bay is no longer visible and instead there is the bright rim of the Earth appearing on the horizon. ‘The ship is sinking!’ the thought spurs her into action and she grabs her suit from its hanger and rams her legs into it, heaving the fabric up over her torso and shoulders, at the same time navigating the space lock to the next deck. By the time she reaches the lab, she is zipping up the front and pushing her hair out of her eyes.

The lab is quiet and for a second and taken aback Addie wonders if she is still asleep. Then the finch starts its song again. Addie slams her palm onto a nearby panic button and boots up the maincom.

Across the ship the siren sounds and she can hear the others beginning to stir. The navcom confirms her suspicions, they are indeed listing heavily.

Dougal is the first to arrive in the lab, ‘Kill the alarm, we’ve all heard it. What’s the glitch?’ He looks tired and Addie glances at her watch, no wonder, he was due off his shift in an hour. Not good. Dougal was a brain-stormer they would need him alert. She thinks quickly, wishing her brain would kick in, still feeling foggy from deep-sleep. ‘ This is no glitch, Dougal, the finch is singing.’

‘Has been for quite a while, dawn chorus. I thought it was someone’s memlog.’

‘GEM-bird! It’s a gem-bird, modified to detect abnormal motion. The thing’s a fucking gem-bird!’ She tries to contain her anger at the thought that Dougal had been listening to the bloody thing singing without making the connection.

‘You mean it’s a warning?’ Dougal looks dazed. Addie points to the viewcom, ’We’re listing, can’t you feel it?’

‘Beginning to, I was in the galley, no port holes, no point of reference.’

‘Are you OK Dougal?’ Addie stares at Dougal, he seems to struggle with focusing. ‘Yes, yes, OK. Sorry, just shock. I'd forgotten we had a gem-bird on board.’ Addie gives a guilty start. Dougal had clearly known all along it was a gem-bird. She had never told him about the finch because…because she was superstitious and she had sneaked it on board under the guise of medical research.

Irv and Noona burst into the meddeck, closely followed by Harvey.

‘What’s the panic?’ Harvey strides to the maincom terminal and draws in a sharp breath. ‘Shit! How come the ship’s autonav didn’t engage?’

Addie shrugs her shoulders, ‘I don’t know, all I know is the gem-bird woke me.’

Harvey shakes his head ‘Systems failure, we have massive systems failure, all this navcom is dead. This is no glitch, this is real.’ He is joined at the terminal by Irv and Noona.

Douglas breaks the silence, ‘The meddeck is no place to try and save a ship. Harvey you need to gain access to the navcom hardframe and see if this is a hardware fry-up. Irv, I want you and Addie to get to the docking hatch tunnel. See how we are holding together with ISELP and, if necessary, manually unhitch us. Noona and I will get up on the bridge and start accessing all maincom ship status traffic, we need a full rundown on the state of the ship and how she’s holding together, and see if we can piece together what’s going on…’

Irv raises a hand in the air to silence Dougal ‘Did you hear that?’ he pauses and they all strain their ears in the silence. ‘There, hear it?’

At first Addie can hear nothing and then she registers a low grinding, it is the unmistakable sound of metal stressing. From his cage on the other side of the lab, the finch starts to sing again. It is all the noise they need to hear.

‘You don’t have to do this, you don’t have to go!’

‘There’s no alternative. Look, I’ve walked before, it’s not a problem,’ Irv stops, noting the pressure of her grip on his arm, ‘Addie, look, there is no alternative. The docking tunnel must have frozen solid to the Gybe and if we don’t get it uncoupled, then we are all dead. OK? My life or everyone’s life. Protocol says the ship’s doctor stays in the ship. And so that only leaves me.’

‘This is insane. Isn’t there an override?’

‘Yes, manual…out there. Look, I’ll be…’ He is interrupted by Dougal on the intercom.

‘Why aren’t we uncoupled yet?’

‘Dougal, it’s not responding, it must have frozen on, I’m going to have to walk and uncouple it manually. Can you keep the ship from bouncing into ISELP?’

There is a pause.

‘Harvey says the hardframe is fully functioning, but we are locked out of the programming shell …Look, I can’t even access maincom, let alone navcom. We have to uncouple…’

‘It’s OK, I’m on it. Just keep on trying to get in.’ Irv prises Addie’s hand from his arm, ’I can do this, ok? Someone give me a guestimate on the amount of time before the docking tunnel shears and or we hit the ISELP.’

Noona’s voice replaces Dougal’s, ‘Less than ten minutes, I’d say eight and counting. Running up a countdown for you now, I’ll patch it through.’

Addie shakes her head, ‘This is insane. Why is this happening? Here, let me help you.’ She helps Irv with his suit trying to ignore the countdown now audible in the hatch.

Seven minutes and thirty seconds…twenty nine seconds, twenty eight seconds, twenty seven…

Harvey slides the panels back to reveal the whole of the hardframe, submersed in its coolant and bathed in light. His initial assessment from the inspection panel had been right. There was no sign of any damage, no trace of any heat spikes in the coolant and no corrosion or fusing on any of the boards. Not that there should be, the thing was designed to withstand…well just about anything. So what was going on? There was nothing wrong at all. Whatever was going on, it was in the programming, not the hardware. From a distance he can hear a countdown… Seven minutes and thirty seconds…twenty nine seconds, twenty eight … and he pauses briefly. Countdown for what? He slides the panels shut and hauls himself out of the hardframe cell, closing the hatch and locking it. Whatever the hell the countdown was, he wasn’t wasting any more time on the hard frame when he could be helping up on the bridge.

Dougal slams the palm of his fist onto the keypad, ‘Are you seeing this? This is unbelievable, the thing is rewriting itself faster than I can think!’

Noona’s heart chills at the frustration in Dougal’s voice. If he couldn’t correct the problem, who could? Certainly she had never seen this before. The ship was breaking down, internally. The software was writing itself a suicide mission to the Earth below.

‘All the manual overrides are out. We have periphery control of all life-support and communications…’ Dougal rakes a hand through his hair.’ This is insanity. Why is this happening?’

Harvey bursts in from the deck below. ‘There is no problem with the hardware at all. What’s the countdown?’

‘Time before the docking hatch shears. Irv is walking.’ Harvey freezes at Noona’s words.

‘He’s what!’

‘Walking, no choice, the tunnel is frozen solid.’

‘It’s not frozen, the tunnel isn’t frozen, it’s locked out. It’s a waste of time.’

‘How do you know?’ Dougal is distracted momentarily from the screen by Harvey’s words.

‘Because there is nothing wrong with the hardware, yet all over the ship systems are closing down, locking us out. We are being locked out. The docking hatches are fine, you cannot use external manual override when there is no problem and the tunnel is linked open. Risk of accidental depressurisation. It’s basic safety procedure with all external hatches. The only way to manually override when there are no faults is by re-writing its system code. But you can’t get into the system code because…’

Dougal cuts across Harvey,

‘Call him back, Noona, and get them out of the bloody docking hatch tunnel. Harvey, see if you can hack into the engineering web, we might gain access into the navcom that way.’

A dreadful coldness wells up in Addie as she watches Irv from the viewcom. Space walks, however often you undertook them, seemed to require a special act of faith, to step out into nothing, to truly embrace your fragility. She switches the radio channel to open and tries to think of something to say. Five minutes and twenty one seconds…

‘Addie! Get him in now!’ Addie jumps at Noona’s voice, cutting through the countdown, ‘Get him in now. The manual override won’t work. I repeat, it will not work. Get him in and then get out of the docking hatch as fast as you can!’

‘I heard that, what the hell is going on?’ Irv’s voice is curt on the radio link.

‘You heard as much as I know.’

‘OK, ok, I’m on the return. Just as I was beginning to enjoy stretching my legs!’

‘Not funny. Hurry.’

Three minutes and thirty seven seconds...

'Addie, we are evacuating in the lifepod! We are evacuating to the ISELP! We will send the pod back to the viewdeck evacuhatch, have you got that? Addie? You have to get to the viewdeck! Shit! Do you think she heard me?' Noona's eyes search Dougal's face for reassurance but he offers none, he is too busy steering the lifepod towards a docking hatch on the ISELP.

Two minutes and fourteen seconds....

'Addie we are not going to make it to the viewdeck, it's too far! You have to get into a suit, Addie, NOW, before it's too late!' He grabs Addie by the wrists and pulls her hands away from the docking hatch controls. For a second everything slows as she tries to process what Irv is saying. He is gesturing to the hatchway frantically trying to pull her away. She can hear the grind of the metal as the seals are being torn away by the Gybe as it lists more, the ship's nose beginning to dive down towards the planet and out of it's fixed orbit. 'We are going to depressurise, get out of here and into the suit room now!' He pushes her towards the the next hatch into the suit room and finally Addie seems to spring into action. By the time Irv has closed the hatch behind them, Addie is zipping up her suit. He helps tighten her helmet then he throws himself down the hatchway to the flight deck, he can feel the blood hammering in his temples as he forces his body downwards, feeling the rungs slip against his feet, barely holding his grip, falling through to the next deck. All around him the ship’s sirens are sounding, each deck an echo of the previous. Above him he can hear the laboured breath of Addie, following.

Fifty seconds....

‘Cut the sirens, I can’t think!’

Addie bursts through the hatchway after him and runs to the panic button, thumping it forcibly with her fist. The alarm on the flight deck ceases. Only to be replaced by the sirens on all other decks. She runs to the nearest console and punches in her code, but there is no response.

‘I can’t get in.’

‘Neither can I!’ in fury Irvin slams his palms against the console he is working on, ‘Why isn’t this piece of shit technology responding!’

Addie moves from console to console, but none will accept her access code. ’Try all the codes, everyone’s, any code you can think of. We need to get into the programming.’

Irv moves to a different console. ‘Addie, this is not working, for pity’s sake if Dougal couldn’t do it, we are not going to!’

‘Just shut up and keep trying!’

The sirens are beginning to be replaced by a newer, more ominous sound.

‘What the hell is that?’

For a moment Irv pauses and then shakes his head grimly.

‘Internal stresses, external stresses, the Meld-all? The Gybe is ripping itself apart. You know, I could really do with a drink now!’

Addie stops and stares at Irv.

‘Coffee!’

‘What?’

‘Coffee, Irv, the coffee machines!’ Addie runs for the hatchway, yelling over her shoulder to be heard above the sirens, ’They link into the maincom, remember your glitch, but the codes we punch in are only to access local memory in the machines themselves, to select the right drink but you don’t need a…’

‘…a fucking access code! Addie, I hope you’re right! You’re a genius if you are! Bring one of the portable consoles!’

Addie punches in a code and the coffee machine spits out a cup and fills it with black coffee. Addie and Irvin stare at it and then start to laugh at the absurdity of it. The cup teeters and falls over, splashing coffee over the floor, their suits, the machine and they are cut short in their laughter as they watch it spin away across the floor and the coffee begin to form in globules. They are losing gravity.

‘Oh No!’ Irv rips the front of the coffee machine off and Addie plugs in the console into the maincom port.

‘No codes, Addie, we don’t want to alert any security programs. Try navcom first.’

‘I’m through, I’m through. What the… what is going on? I’m going to try and override the flight deck controls to manual, get up there and see if you can get manual on anything.’

As Irv races back in to flight deck, the ship’s sirens cease, leaving a vacuum in his ears, through a porthole he can see the ISELP moving away from them, only it's not moving away, the Gybe is falling.

On board the ISELP

‘We have to try and save them! We have the lifepod, we could still get to them!’

‘The chances of reaching them before we are caught in earth’s gravitational pull are remote, Harv, we can’t afford to lose the pod as well, there are no other safety craft on the ISELP.’ Harvey turns away from the hatchway window, unable to watch as the Gybe falls away from the docking tunnel.

‘’Oh, for fuck’s sake Dougal, they are going to die! We can’t… Noona! You agree with me, surely?’

Noona hesitates, knowing the chances of a rescue using the pod are slim and without the pod, if anything happened on ISELP, they would never get home.

‘We should vote on this.’ Dougal pronounces grimly in her silence.

‘I say yes!’ Harvey folds his arms, glaring at the two of them.

‘I say no, Noona?’

Noona turns back to the window, seeing only the glass, nothing beyond, thinking only of returning home.

‘…No, I say no.’

Harvey turns on his heel and leaves the docking bay, kicking out viciously at a nearby chair as passes it. Dougal sighs and turns to look at Noona.

‘Maybe they’ll manage to regain control of the Gybe.’

Noona looks at Dougal.

‘Who are you trying to make feel better, me or you?’

Outside the Gybe, it’s suicide mission already written, is caught in the grip of earth's upper atmosphere and starts a steep dive towards the planet below.

Irv tries navcom first. Addie has managed to cut through the autonav programming and Irv struggles to try and regain manual programme control. The ship refuses to respond, all its systems collapsing into self-written chaos and the already too steep a descent is beginning to take its toll of the mainframe hardware itself. Addie’s voice cuts through his thoughts, ‘Irv, don’t waste time trying to re-programme the navcom, we’ve losing the hardware. Get to the helm, I’ll join you as soon as I…’

Addie’s voice cuts off abruptly. Irv pauses. Take the helm. Losing the hardware. Take the helm. Losing the hardware. The thought slams insistently across his mind. As though he is forgetting something, when the hardware is getting fried, what do you do? Pull the plug! ‘Addie,’ Irv practically screams the command. ’Pull the plug, shut down, shut down!’ There is no reply from Addie, was he too late, had they lost all the hardware too? If they had, then they were dead, dead and on a ride to hell.

Take the helm. The thought focuses his mind. Nothing else left to do but take the helm. Irv climbs back up to the hatchway, the Gybe’s deteriorating angle forcing him to use the blank, flickering console stations as footholds. Once in the hatchway, he crawls up to the viewdeck to find Addie already there.

‘The hardware?’

Addie signals to her ears and then draws an imaginary line under her chin, the message is clear enough, her comlink is out.

‘Shit!’ Irv moves towards her to try and see if he can fix the problem, but she waves him away, pointing to the portable console, on the screen she had typed the following message, ‘Radio out, shut down hardware, manual on helm only. All shielding barely holding up. Reaching lower ionosphere now.’

All around them small objects are starting to lift and slam into what was the ceiling. Beyond the heavy viewscreen shuttering is the sound of metal screaming into thin wires as the Meld-all reacts to the ionosphere.

Irv grabs the helm, desperately trying to wrestle control, knowing he needs to change the angle of their trajectory to have even the slightest chance of survival. Seeing him struggle, Addie joins him, lending her weight to the controls.

At which point of death are you dead? Is it the realisation of death, the slow inevitable giving in or the final exhalation of breath? The last echo of the beating heart perhaps? The final decaying impulse across a synapse in the brain? Do you embrace it? Do you fight it? Is it a release or a robbery? How do you measure death?

As Addie throws her weight onto the helm, she knows only the measure of her life. The insistent adrenaline-fuelled fire in her temples, the loud drumming of her blood punctuated with a breath-holding talisman, not dead yet, not dead yet, not dead yet.

The Gybe begins to respond to the helm, lifting its hull up and against the atmosphere, braking.

Irv is pouring sweat from his temples to his toes. Questions fire in quick succession in his brain. Could the ship hold together in such a steep dive? Could the Meld-all sustain the effects of the atmosphere? Would they explode on impact or be burnt up long before? What if they managed to land on Earth? What then? How soon till death? How soon till death?

The Gybe begins to heat up. The forces of gravity taking over, heat piling up on the Meld-all, stripping it away in long screaming ribbons, fusing it into grotesque tentacles, burning in towards the hull. The Gybe is turning into a meteorite and they are burning up.

Impact.

There is no pain, Addie and Irv pass out from the tremendous heat and pressure long before the Gybe plunges into an inland sea of salt. Perhaps it is this fact, their bodies entirely relaxed in their unconscious state, which means they survive the shock of it. The explosive force which causes the ship to slam into the surface at such an angle as to send it skimming with whatever little Meld-all left acting as a cushioning brake. It takes just over a kilometre for the Gybe to come to a stop and start to sink.

How soon till death?

The question makes the tiny leap across a synapse, firing life into another nerve. It requires an answer, it insists on an answer. Irvin is forced to concentrate on the answer, it requires answering. With the realisation of the question comes the shock of what the answer could be and a surge of adrenaline fuels his body into response and he scrabbling onto his feet. How soon till death?

Not dead yet.

The blood is slowing in her temples, the oxygen dwindling, the heart rhythm decaying away to an echo in her ears, slowing down but not dead yet. The talisman is working, not dead yet. Addie feels as if she is holding her breath but she is not dead yet. With the feeling comes the insistence, breathe, and she draws in a gasp of her oxygen-mix, feeling it pump into her lungs and force fire into her blood. Force life into her. Not dead yet.

Irv tries to orientate himself to their situation, but all maincom systems are out, there is no external visual, they are blind and cocooned in the Gybe. He sees Addie stirring and moves clumsily over to help her to her feet, trying to assess if she is OK at the same time. Addie, remembering her radio is out, reaches for the portable console and types in one word. ‘Earth?’

Irv reads it and nods his head. She continues typing. ‘Not dead yet!’ Irv takes the console from her and types his reply,

‘Yes, but how soon till we are?’

Outside the salt pan is slowly engulfing the Gybe in its corrosive, thick grip. They can feel the slow shuddering slip of the hull as it falls through whatever is outside, sinking to a certain point and then nothing, silence, virtually no movement apart from... what, a feeling like... Irv trawls his brain for some word to describe the sensation, trying to block out everything else. Floating, it feels as though they are floating. Was it possible, had they landed in an ocean? He types the word 'floating?' on the console and hands it to Addie. She nods agreement. Irv glances around. The navcom is lit by stuttering emergency lights. 'How long out?' Addie returns the console with another question. It was a good question, a question which they needed to answer as emergency supplies and power were limited to a three hour window. Irv climbs up to the hatchway to the deck below and tries to open it but without power for the hydraulics it remains sealed. Addie tries to boot up the mainframe but it is no good, all systems have failed, the ship is dead in the water. She shakes her head at Irv who tries kicking the hatch open but it refuses to move. They are sealed in. Addie glances at her oxygen-mix tank gauge, it reads half full, another hour or two and that would be it. Earth would claim them for her own and the Gybe would be their tomb. Irv starts ripping up consoles and seats and computer panels to try and reach the outer hull. It is as he is frantically pulling at the fabric of the ship that he is aware of a high pitched whine. It increases until the whole of navcom seems to be shaking then, suddenly, a circle of hull is ripped open from the outside and a screaming wind fills the navcom, knocking Irv back off his feet. From the small patch of fierce light falling through the hole appears a head, followed by its body. The person climbs into the navcom and takes the console from Addie's hands and types in a simple phrase as Addie stares at him. She must be hallucinating, perhaps the oxygen gauge was broken. Perhaps this was the end, now, a dream of angels. She reads the message he is typing.

'Welcome to Earth.'

Back on board the ISELP

'This is day fifteen'

'Sorry?' Noona struggles to make sense of Dougal's statement.

'This is still day fifteen of the refit, we have only got three days before we need to fire the engines and get out of here. We are still on company time.'

'You are kidding me, you want us to work after what's just happened? Fuck the company to Mars and back! Dougal... you saw the code, that ship was preprogrammed to fall to Earth! Well, I didn't sign up on for a suicide mission, you can go and...' Noona's words are halted by a welling up of anger and tears, consuming her voice and spilling out over her face in a wave of emotion.

'I'm sorry Noona, ' Dougal's voice suddenly sounds as old and tired as a cracked bell. 'You know there was no choice, Irv and Addie...' he stops suddenly with no idea of what to say, there were no adequate words to lessen the horror. 'We have to save ourselves. The schedule is even tighter now... and so we have only three days to get this crate flight ready. I'll be working out a new rota if you need me.' Dougal leaves Noona to her tears, what was done, was done.

Dougal pores over the holo-schematics for the ISELP provided by the Company and then the overlays he has drawn up from their own explorations of the ship. The schematics are incorrect. But not by a few bulkheads where contractors have skimped on their specifications. By a whole section. They should by now, after fifteen days, be approaching the launch pads of the ISELP. The living habitats and storage sections had been as on the schematics but there should just be a series of bulkheads between the storage section and the launch pads to secure. Instead there is an extra section, hidden within the bulkheads and sealed off with shield walls. This new section encircles the midsection of the ISELP yet you could travel through the centre of the ship from bow to stern and not even know they were there. A section of ship that the Company was unaware of? A section hidden away from the rest of the ISELP? Dougal can't shake the conviction that the recent discovery of this section and the timing of the Gybe going into self destruct were no coincidence. There was something much larger going on, something he could only glimpse at in the inaccurate schematics and the dreadful sequence of the day's events. There was now the knotty problem of whether to open the labs to check for damage or to ignore them and hope that the bulkheads on either side would contain any structural problems during the flight. The deadline is nineteen days. This is day fifteen. There is no time for any of this. They would have to ignore the labs and carry on to the launch pads. Ignore the Gybe. Ignore everything. Just get this heap of space junk moving before they are fried by the sun.

Addie and Irv On Earth

The Atacama Biome

'The Atacama Biome. This small biome was built here on the Atacama Desert as the test run for colonising Mars. Once Earth Abandonment had become the only option, a scientific crew volunteered to remain on earth living within the biome in order to monitor the planet and to see if could regenerate. It was a top secret project and those in the scientific community who knew about it, considered it a suicide mission. Once Earth was abandoned, there would be no rescue mission and there was no way of ascertaining how long, with such a small crew, the biome would be able to support life. The biome was built almost fifty years before abandonment took place and many systems were obsolete by the time the crew were left behind. Two sister biomes in Australia and the Himalayan high plateau were built to form a functioning observational global network. Within one hundred years, these pioneering teams had laid the foundations for a small but stable earth monitoring population, which now stands at just over five hundred people worldwide.'

Irv looks up from the text he is reading. 'So let me get this straight, not only were you left behind, you all volunteered?'

'Well, not us, but our ancestors, yes. We understand that what we are presenting you with may be an alternative history to the one you have on Mars. This mission was top secret so as not to derail the abandonment process from Earth. The only way the planet would ever regain some kind of stasis or indeed regeneration was by removing human life from it. We cut communication channels early on in our mission and we were, in effect, forgotten by Mars a long time ago and we wanted it that way. ' Dr. Melvina Trollope lifts the touchscreen from his hands. 'What you and your colleague need to understand is that we are not only surviving but thriving here; but it is in such a micromanaged way, there can be no return to Earth for humans for many centuries yet.'

'Want to keep paradise to yourself, eh?' But Irv's joke falls short of Melvina's troubled grey eyes. 'This is no paradise.'

'I was joking. And we are not planning to stay and this was not some mission to check out recolonising Earth. We were salvaging an old piece of space junk when the Crater suffered a catastrophic event and crashed...'

'Yes, we know about your salvage missions we have been monitoring them for a long time.' Dr. Darius Singh interrupts Irv. 'This is getting us nowhere, we know they had no radio and have not had any communications since they arrived, whatever the reason why they are here our focus should be in getting them off this planet and back to where they came from. Don't forget, we have only a small window of opportunity, the next large sun storm cycle is due within the next twenty days.'

Irv had to hand it to the man, he had a way of making you feel unwelcome.

'What Darius is saying is that we can get you off this planet. We can't repair your ship, but we can offer you a ship we have, it's pretty old tech but it will get you to Mars, or close enough for you to organise a rescue from there.' Melvina sighs and turns to Addie.

'You're a doctor, perhaps you can glimpse the enormity of this project and the need to keep the knowledge of this project secret. I have primordial bacterium that have been collected from the salt pans, life emerging... new life, life that has evolved in the few hundred years we have been absent from this planet. Who knows what new direction it will take...'

Addie reaches over the large oval council table they are seated at and pats Melvina's hands. 'Don't worry, we understand. This was an accident, us being here. We owe you our lives and that buys you all the silence you need. This glimpse we have had of Earth is... extraordinary, beyond words but...' Addie can't find the end to the sentence.

'We're just a couple of Crater jockeys. Space is our home and we should be on the ISELP, getting it ready to go back to Mars. The Gybe was never meant to land here. What kind of ship are you talking about? I thought they all were commandeered for the abandonment?'

'Not this one, it's more of a museum piece now... it's housed up at the observatories. It was an escape route for the first science crew if the biome project failed but no one now would leave Earth, it is our home.'

Around the council table heads are nodding. 'Rubicon...it's name is the Rubicon.'

Irv jumps to his feet and claps his hands together, bored of the council meeting and keen to explore beyond the biome. 'Let's go and see the Rubicon then, no time like the present. The sooner we get it up and running the quicker we can go!' The Attacama biome council members sitting round the table rise to their feet, taken aback by the swiftness of Irv's decision. Addie glares at Irv, embarrassed by his abrupt ending to the meeting.

'What?' he smiles catching her look of disapproval.

An hour or so later Addie, Irv, Melvina and Darius are slowly ascending in a small jeep to the observatories, perched on top of a mountain range on the edge of the desert plateau.

'Keep an eye on your blood oxygen levels, the injections I gave you will help but we have tanks under the seats if it drops below 70.' Melvina indicates to where the tanks are stashed.

Outside the almost lunar landscape is stretching up towards a group of domed observatories clustered on the top of the mountain but before they reach them the road splits and they turn off towards the far side of the peak. Here, cut into the mountainside is a launch site for a small space vehicle like nothing Irv has seen before. It is small, old and ominously strapped to what look like solid fuel rocket tanks. An enormous firework. He tries to stop the thought but too late, the image is there. They were going to try to reach Mars strapped inside a giant firework.

For the next week a small team of Atacama scientists, Irv and Addie work around the clock to get the Rubicon ready for launch. In the rarified dry air of the desert mountain there is suprisingly little rust or decay to the craft itself. It is sound and all its ancient circuitry is still in working order. A few repairs, a lot of tests and the craft is declared ready for launch.

The night before the launch they attend a party held in their honour in the biome gardens, drinking, dancing and trying to forget what was about to happen tomorrow. At some point during the evening, Irvin finds himself sitting on a bench next to a lithe, fine-featured woman in her mid-thirties. She smiles at him and shifts her weight towards him, a sleek, feline movement that brings her face a little too close to his. 'Hi, you're Irvin aren't you, my name is Verity Nine. I was wondering if it was possible for you to deliver this to someone on Mars for me.' She smiles again, and presses a tiny plastic box into his hand. Then with another sinuous movement, she is on her feet and walking away.

'Wait.. who's it for?' Irv shouts after her, trying to make himself heard over the music.

'Oh, you'll know when you see her.' She smiles again and then is gone, lost in the dancing. Irv stares at the box for a moment, through its lid he can just about make out an old fashioned microchip and then Addie sits down next to him wearing a pink and silver silk dress and a cloud of perfume and he pockets the little box without a second a thought.

Late, late in the evening, Addie finds herself dancing in Irv's arms. The party is over and people have drifted off to bed, leaving them alone, under the biome roof, moonlight flooding the garden. She feels as though she should resist Irv's advances but the moonlight and the soft music and the fear of the launch all add up to an intoxicating haze and so when Irv's lips gently caress hers, she returns the kiss, losing herself, for once, in the moment. He whispers softly in her ear. 'Let's spend our last night here on Earth outside, under the stars. Under that moon. Free. ' She smiles and nods, the craziness of their situation beginning to impair her judgement, or maybe it was just the effect of the moonlight.

From the clifftop viewpoint the plateau spreads out before them, the salt pans silvery in the early light.

‘You know we could stay.’

‘We don't belong here, this isn't our home.’

‘But exploring this... we would be living, really living. Our own Eden.’

‘This is a raw vision of paradise, Irv. A raw vision.’

‘We could be Adam and Eve.’

‘Shut up, don’t even think it. You have to get into your head, Irv, that we are never going to happen, OK?’

‘I need a second opinion, doctor. I think we are happening, on some level.’

‘We should be going. We have to leave.’

‘Do you think this world will survive?’

‘I think it is just starting to, beyond the biomes I mean. There could already be complex life out there. But it isn't our life. It needs to evolve at its own pace, our lives are elsewhere…’

‘Where are you going?’

‘Back in a second.’ Addie ducks back into the jeep and returns with the gem-bird’s cage she had in the back.

'I'm going to set her free.'

‘Addie, she won’t survive long here either. You just said yourself it’s a raw world.’

‘But she would be living, really living.’

‘And I thought I was the poet. Set her free then but your plan is flawed, she has no mate.’

‘She’s a GEM-bird, her genetic destiny has already been described.’

‘We ought to give her a name.’

‘Why, she’s just a finch…’

‘Very clinical,’ Irv bends over the cage and lifts out the small bird, feeling it shiver in his hands, ‘Here, your bird, you set it free.’

Addie smiles and, placing her hands over Irv’s, opens them. The finch hunches down in their palms, blinking, refusing to move. Irv chuckles, ‘Seems she’s not ready for freedom.’

‘Here!’ Addie throws Irv’s hands into the air and the finch, sensing the momentum, spreads it’s wings and starts to sing and suddenly it is up and flying, then a long slow swoop into the scrubby mesquite trees below and it is gone.

‘Let’s go before they send out a search party. ’ Irv turns and climbs back into the jeep and Addie follows, for a second she thinks she can hear a bird singing and then the sound is lost in the wind and her thoughts return to the imminent launch of the Rubicon.

The launch of the Rubicon

'We have taken the navigational system from the Gybe and jacked it into the maincom on the Rubicon, it's not a perfect marry of technology but it will have to do... ' Irv lets the words wash over him as he stares up at the Rubicon, sitting on the launch pad, looking for all the world like the antique rockets he used to love reading about in his history lessons at school.

It takes the entire morning to be briefed and strapped into the rocket cockpit, a small six person space, the only modern piece of equipment that Irv recognises is the navcom. The rest is all keypad buttons, display screens and digital readouts. 'Hey, do you have any manuals on this?' He taps the nearest display monitor, 'It's a long trip home, I could do with something to read.' But his humour fails to raise a laugh amongst the scientist running through the launch sequence with them. 'There is a digital copy of the WWW on board. You can access it via your monitor...'

'The onboard computer should do all the launch sequencing for you, when to eject boosters and setting up a trajectory out of the debris fields around the planet. Once you're past that, then your navigational system should kick in and ...'

'There is enough food rations for you both to get you to Mars with no problem, the Rubicon was built to carry twelve people, the original science crew of the biome. Behind this cockpit you have the passenger crew seats and sleeping bunks, these two sections form the emergency capsule. Beyond this section are the living, storage and reclamation sections. All waste and water is recycled, I think you are familiar with this technology but this bioreclamation schematic...'

'The build up of CO2 and heat can be problematic and so we have calibrated exhaust efficiencies...'

'This monitor is readout from the Coronal Mass Ejection Constant Assessment Station, CMECAS, it still sends in detailed reports every three days. The further out from Earth's shadow you are for the next few weeks, the more at risk you are of a large CME event knocking out all your electronics. This rocket is shielded with a rheostatic polymer which will help the electronics with the risks associated with long term exposure to the solar wind but this window of opportunity to launch successfully is coming right up on an intense period of sunspot activity...'

'Now this, this is a radio, bit of a museum piece really but there was no time to dismantle it...'

'This hatch will be sealed from the outside, the launch sequence will commence precisely at 12.45 exactly. This sequencing screen will take you down through the launch procedure...'

'The launch sequencing is a pre-programmed closed system and launch will be automatic once activated it is a go only event...'

'Fly or die, nice!' Irv tunes his mind back in to the final briefing by the scientists and then they are alone in the cockpit and the hatch is sealed and the countdown is underway.

For a second or two he glances across at Addie but she is busy with a readout on a screen. Irv can feel the adrenalin pumping through his body as the countdown reaches four.

Three.

Two.

As a child he had often wondered what it was like to be blasted out of a planet's atmosphere into space in one of these rockets.

One.

'Rubicon, you have lift-off. Goobye and good luck.'

On board The Rubicon

'Hey! Look what I've found, an alternative history to the one we have on Mars.... ' Irv clicks on the small book icon on his monitor and starts to read.

'… Excerpts from ‘Earth History, a Planet in Crisis’

First published in 2200, yearly updates.

Medicine versus Profit.

Between 2000 and 2100 it had become clear that the social structure of the world’s communities had, with their total dependence on a monetary-based system, entirely overlooked the problems facing poorer societies when faced with epidemics and widespread disease. By making medicine and healthcare a financial acquisition rather than a basic human right, it became a case of the survival of the richest.

As the huge medical and research corporations in thriving societies pushed for ever-increasing profits and governments around the world privatised more and more healthcare options in an effort to minimise the drain on financial resources to maintain a minimal level of health service for their communities, large sectors of society found themselves unable to provide adequate funds to cover basic healthcare.

The schism between those with and those without grew to a point where, with the outbreak of the worst flu pandemic since records began, the 2062 influenza strain, over half (6 billion people) of the world’s population died as the wealthiest sectors of the global society stockpiled vaccine, leaving world shortages. The influenza’s short incubation period coupled with the ease of world travel meant huge outbreaks were left unchecked as charitable agencies tried desperately to mobilise aid to infected areas.

The flu remained at large within the world’s population for five years before a mass vaccination programme was undertaken. Both the human loss and the financial burden were immeasurable and the world economy and society collapsed under the crippling weight of debt, starvation and disease.

In under one hundred years the global society had been decimated and the rebuilding of the planet’s population meant fundamental changes to how society viewed healthcare, not as privilege but as a fundamental right, as important and necessary as water and food.

In 2072, the global charter for health and maintenance was agreed at the global summit. It set out a clear and defined charter that medicine and healthcare was a basic human right and should be free from financial negotiation and that the global community would divorce profit from all transactions in providing healthcare and medicine to all communities. '


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