Jude Parker’s head is poking out from beneath the fly sheet. Grass rustles around his jug ears but through the noise he can hear muttering. The two brothers in the tent do not like him. They have mocked him for the way he speaks, for taking his tea onto the sofa rather than into the dining room, and for the dogeared sleeping bag he has brought. None of this concerns Jude now, though. Where he has grown up a person doesn’t see the night sky, not like this.
If Jude knew what the word ‘festoon’ meant he would use it, because stars and planets and space dust festoon the sky above the suburban garden. Jude does not, so he simply stares. His foster parents have arranged this sleepover so that he can make friends at his new school (and – whispered for some reason – so that they can get a break). Their reasoning doesn’t bother Jude, just as the reasoning of his next foster parents won’t either. What will bother him is if he falls asleep out here and gives the lads another reason to rip the piss out of him. It is time to retreat inside and get some sleep.
Miles and miles above, more miles than Jude will travel in his life, a spacecraft is perambulating. To those unfamiliar with space travel this will seem a silent journey across the heavens, an oiled orrery. The vessel’s occupant can attest to this not being the case. Air filtration units shudder and groan aft, whilst blinking filaments hum and sputter behind sweaty, frosted glass in the cockpit. Squealing rotator shafts manoeuvre solar panel arrays towards the sun, rusted umbilical cords nursing for nourishment.
The ship orbits Earth every ninety minutes. Just as well, because The Spaceman can’t bear looking at any one place for too long. Too much conflict, too much gone wrong. Take Europe, scrolling past the window now. Temperate climate, plentiful coastline. Mountains, steppes, desert, river, marsh, forest, valley, sea, and ocean. Something for everyone, room for all. Why is it then that twice in the last century – twice – it has been the nursery for death and pain on so vast a scale The Spaceman had fancied hearing the screams through the vacuum of space.
The Arctic appears, a milky spot on the degenerating eyeball that is Earth. There can be no clearer gauge of His failure than the translucent creep-back of ice and snow, year upon year. The Spaceman fancies that, on each rotation, He has to wait a millisecond longer before catching sight of the white blanket. It takes an extra millisecond for the Spaceman to remember His mission each time, too.
It’s not all gloom. The Himalayas like cockle shells in fishmongers’ dry ice, the Great Barrier Reef as mould spreading across a neon blue Pacific petri dish (The Spaceman has learned to be creative with vista similes by necessity). Nevertheless, the axes of creation are relentless. Another turn and the Middle East will roll into view. The Holy Land, Jerusalem, Gethsemane, Bethlehem, Calvary. He turns to the two cockpit seats behind him. One is empty, the other piled high with old food containers and used nickel-cadmium batteries. The Spaceman is reminded of the last extra-vehicular activity.
God’s honest truth is that the ship’s best days are behind her. Only two of six orbital boosters remain, whilst power is too depleted for most miracles. Gone are the days when a switch on the dashboard parted the Red Sea; the plastic buttons, once underlit, are dark and yellowed with condensation. The Ten Plagues Panel has been locked away for millennia, whilst the smite targeting system can no longer be trusted. The Spaceman can still spare power for minor miracles but he is reliant upon there being a magnifier, a lens through which small intricacies can be projected onto cities and suburbs, hamlets and homesteads. A perfect rosary formed by the seeds of a tomato in the local press perhaps, or YouTube footage of His Son’s face formed in a cumulonimbus. To think, he had once crafted this place in less than a hundred orbits.
The Spaceman is tired of relying upon proxies. Humans are clumsy tools, and devotion diminishes with every degree of separation from a strange fruit or wisp of cloud. In days of old He might have started again. The safety beacon would have flashed and bulbous, bruised, purpling clouds would have gathered below. Rain drops the size of dinner plates would have swollen every river, burst every bank. Filthy, sin-stained water would have swilled around the very mountain tops, drowning the humans’ treachery and His embarrassment. Those days are gone, however. Now He is circling the Earth in a vessel with all the ambience and technical complexity of a lean-to.
There is one method of inspiring awe still available to the Spaceman but it is barbaric, savage. He glances up into the fused silica of the windshield and sees a tousle-haired, heavy-whiskered old man with eyes rheumy from staring earthwards. Perhaps savagery suits.
Back in the dark times, before The Spaceman had begun his watching brief on dirt, water, and cloud, people had raised their dull, wide eyes to the skies for guidance. From thence mercy or damnation had always come – blessed rain or bitter frost, scalding pumice or jagged light. Savage perhaps, but the faithful had known to look to the heavens rather than down at their smartphones for salvation.
A simple course correction and it is done. By happenstance re-entry will occur over Scotland. The short darkness of a summer night lies light over the munros and the corbetts, the ribboned lochs and the stamp-flat central belt. Most lie sleeping, but in a small, suburban garden a disembodied head stares gormless at the sky, its trunk and legs napkinned by a green tent. Why not, for Christ’s sake? This whole damned business started in a garden after all. This boy, then. This boy shall be the witness, not of humdrum curiosities but of celestial flame and glory. This boy’s eyes and no-one else’s will widen as they stare at one last glorious, heathen streak across the skies. Who knows? Perhaps he might even tell his friends.
Matthew has stories in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Fiction Junkies, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, CafeLit, Best Microfiction 2021, Writer’s Egg, and Shooter. Matthew tweets at @mjrichardso0 and blogs at www.matthewjrichardson.com.