Three

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A Chinese spaceman is haunted by noises in the night... above the rattle and hum of Earth, something strange is blooming among the stars.

Submitted: July 22, 2015

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Submitted: July 22, 2015

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Thump. 
Thump. 
Thump. 
Wait- I told you to start earlier than that.
*
If you had found yourself in a strange cold desert in the mountanous, lonely backwoods of China last October, you might have seen an unusual sign. Well, the sign itself wasn't unusual. It was just a sign. But it was unusual in that it read Jiuquan Satellite Launch Centre. It was also unusual in that a bird's foot dangled from it, but that's beside the point. And if you had tunnelled under the security fence and tranquillised the guards; if you had leapt cleanly across the drainage ditches; if you had clambered a red skeleton of pole and gangway up to a small porthole, you might have seen a face.
I was sweating inside. Outside the autumn winds were whipping this way and that across the plains, but the capsule itself was warm. I could just see the sky if I craned my neck. Waiting to be propelled into the vast blue nothing inside a gaudy firework tightened my veins a little, as it would anyone's, I suppose. The endless safety briefings did little to dampen any residual fear. Everyone knew about the disasters. The tiniest malfunction of some obscure piece of cabling could scatter me up to the heavens on the breeze, in a million tiny flakes. 
Still, there was no backing out now. The livelihoods of the people at ground control- hell, the livelihoods of thousands more: builders, engineers, scientists, rat-catchers- all depended on me. Somewhere below Secretary-General Lee would be chewing at the bit. I had encountered the man before, and he wasn't the kind who suffered fools gladly. And I would be a fool to turn this down. The whole circus was allegedly a media spectacle, although I had been too enveloped in the bubble of training and preparation to pay much attention to that side of things. 
More than that, this would be one for the history books. No more than any other mission, but even breaking into the footnotes was a start. Eiji Narazaki... I mulled the name over. It didn't have much of a ring to it, but then again neither did Yuri Gagarin, and it hadn't caused him any problems. 

At that point I stopped thinking because the rocket began to shake like a butterfly in a cyclone.
 
The takeoff was rough. You’re told how violent it is in a detached, academic sort of way; told the procedures in case of a disaster (scream and pray); told that it will only be brief- but nothing can prepare you for it. That blustery October day in Jiuquan, I was not prepared for it. The brutal, conscussive force, splattering your brain against the inside of your skull and rattling your flesh from your bones, kind of defies description, you know? It was only several hours later that I realised it had been the rocket shaking and not the earth. 
You get used to all this, of course. You have to. Just when you think the rocket is going to fall apart and your body is going to fall apart and the sky is going to fall apart, you burst through the atmosphere and suddenly there is gentle, eerie peace. You sit there, reduced to some sort of boneless human mulch and the radio speaks to you and you speak back and everything is going to be OK. 
You can even see the earth spread-eagled and glowing below, shimmering in an incandescent haze. I remember wondering whether a spaceman would see a planet like Earth if lost and in dire straits, in the same way you would see a mirage if lost in the desert. But then again, who could, of their own mind, conceive of what I was seeing now? It’s easy to see why so many astronauts become Christians. 
By the time the rocket had broken up into its constituent parts, which had fallen dreamily back down, we were approaching the station. It was an odd thing close up; an angular tin-foil tangle of girders and struts, chrome and steel, one side glimmering gold in the sunlight against the inpenetrable studded darkness. Approaching from afar, its isolation became clear- you saw the glint and made for it, but soon you realised just how much dark you need to surf through to get to the tiny, shimmering thing. It was literally in the middle of nowhere, sad and stranded between the earth and the moon. 
Still, any apprehension was easy to quash. I was diving into the great unknown, a deep ocean of uncertainty and firsts. The wispy glow of the earth dimmed them, but I could see more stars than ever before, glistening out in the darkness forever. Constellations bloomed. I was only reminded that we were approaching the station by the the buzzing nag of the AI, warning of my impending liquidation. 
Craft like mine didn’t normally dock on this station. My ship was named the Belgrano, and as advanced as its AI was, a human pilot was still needed- human skill to guide the ship in; human knowledge to respond when something went wrong; a human face to be plastered on screens down there. Thankfully, the ground crew had pre-empted any HAL situation by allowing the AI to be overruled in times of crisis. I chanced another glance down. The dim swirl of a storm was brewing over Asia. 
I docked the ship by the skin of my teeth, but these procedures are always tense. One false move would mean certain death, and at that, a death which been drummed into you as if you were a snare in an over-zealous Puerto Rican marching band. The cabin would depressurise. As there is no oxygen, you would lose consciousness in as little as fifteen seconds. The lack of air pressure to keep your fluids in liquid form would cause them to “boil”, but this would mean they would lose heat rapidly and hence freeze before they were evaporated totally. Your tissues would expand rapidly due to the boiling fluids. You would be bombarded with cosmic radiation. You would be turned into a bulbous, ungodly peach melba. 
Thankfully, death would come quickly. 
All in all, pretty grisly. But I docked the ship without passing out and turning into a pulpy French dessert, and the radio emitted an audible sigh of relief. “How are things up there, Eiji?” 
“Not bad,” I said absurdly as I stared down at the blissful, leafy plateaus of Earth, “The landing went all right.”
“Well done there, by the way. We were all worried for a moment, Old Man.”
“Don’t call me Old Man, Takeo.”
He laughed his low, husky laugh. I could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. 
“Too old for the record, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, Eiji. I bet Yuri Dostoevsky still haunts your dreams.”
Ah, old Yuri. As I had ascended through the program and it became clear that I was going to make it on one of the manned missions, I had realised that I was going to beat Gherman Titov’s record for the youngest person in space. He was twenty-five and I was two years younger. But then some Russian bastard called Yuri Dostoevsky flew up nine months before I was due to leave, apparently bound for Mars on Russia’s first manned mission there. He had been born three months and eight days after me- close, but no cigar, Narazaki.
"If anyone's too old, it's you," I retorted hotly. "They've virtually had to exhume you. You're an interstellar Benjamin Button. You were partially fossilised when they dug you up." 
"I'm in my prime, then," husked the radio amiably. "71 more years before I blink out of existence." 
I depressurised the airlock, the hiss momentarily terrifying as always- had we docked properly? Pulpy French desserts? – before it slid open cleanly and I clambered through into the station, passing a cavity containing three gleaming spacesuits. After the tight, economic confines of the rocket, the station was surprisingly spacious, though it didn’t come close to eliciting agoraphobia. 
The surfaces were gleaming, burnished metal, stark and utilitarian. No flab, no waste. Up to five people could be comfortably housed for about a month, at which point the oxygen regeneration units become exhausted and everyone starts clutching at their throats- but until then, it’s happy families. 
The last crew had departed a few months ago, their experiments done. The place was deathly silent. Occasionally a sullen duct burbled with liquid somewhere below, but otherwise the silence deafened you everywhere, looming out of every corner and booming in every crevice. Total. Absolute. “Hello!” I ventured, just to hear the sound of my own voice, or any voice. It sounded thin and reedy. A few seconds later, a low humming of machinery faded into being. It wasn’t totally silent, I supposed. And even if it was, it was almost refreshing after the rattle and hum of Earth.
Almost.
There was something shiver-worthy about the whole business. The closest life forms were scuttling around on the surface of that blue-and-green orb out the window. It wasn't the same as sitting in a sealed chamber in China, play-acting as a spaceman so the men in white coats watching the simulation would say you were fit to go. If I hit my head on something, I was dead. If there was a power outage, I was dead. If a bad-tempered stone hit the craft, it would depressurise and crumple like a paper bag, and yes, I would probably be dead. It was quite a feeling, being alone in the weirdo backwaters of life, where anything could happen, and occasionally did. I fingered the cross around my neck. 
BZZT
I woke up and hammered down the button of the communicator. “Benjamin?”
“You crack me up. How are you coping with the anti-gravity?”
“Getting the hang of it. How are you coping with senility?"
"Getting the hang of it. You need to report back as soon as possible."
As I was typing, he said to me, "You know, I always dreaded being assigned you."
"Why?"
"Because I know you too well. I may as well be sending my favourite dog into space."
"You flatter me."
"Believe me, I do."
"You're a dog lover then?"
His chuckling was fuzzy through the cabling. "Watch it, Eiji. We both know where that lip has gotten you."
It had gotten me to General Lee's office several times, once with a toilet seat around my neck. I brushed the image away.
"Occupational hazard."
"Only because you make it one."
"Those people were very passive-aggressive. Or just aggressive-aggressive."
"All thirteen of them?"
"That many?"
"Yes," he said tersely. "Thirteen. Not thirty. Thirteen."
"That was only because seven of them jumped me at once that time."
"The time you called one of their mothers a leathery hag?"
"I must be thinking of a different one."
 "Listen," he muttered, switching on the authority. "You were accepted on this mission because you have talent. Other... shortcomings may be overlooked. Once. Twice. Perhaps even thirteen times. But never on a mission. Never out there."
I looked into the darkness outside. "No." A strap hung just beyond my left hand and I stretched for it- "Listen Takeo, I like you-" (there was a disgruntled laugh) "and I hope that we can have a long and fruitful working relationship."
There was an incredulous hiss; "Steady on, it's only three days."
The earth was visible out of another window, beaded with islands and bearded with cloud. It seemed a very long way away. "Yeah, well three days seem longer than that up here. If we can be professionals and get the data we need, we won't have to stay a minute longer than we have to."
"We."
My right knee itched. "Well, me  then."
"I."
"What?"
"I."
"Were you always such a pedant, Takeo?"
"I think I acquired it in my senility, Eiji."
"I suppose scientists have to be pedantic." 
"Well, if we weren't pedantic progress would just be a word. If Darwin hadn't been pedantic he wouldn't have cared about the beaks of those finches. Reason and rationality mean nothing if we're not exacting. It replaces the theories we want to believe with the theories we have to belive."
"Very nice. You should quit the day job and just narrate things."
There was a long, laboured sigh. “It’s probably wise to turn in. That journey would wear anyone out."
"Thanks, Ben." 
I depressed the communicator button and then realised that “morning” didn’t exist in space. 
Some indeterminable time later, I struggled into my sleeping bag, which was effectively a cocoon on the wall. It could be on the ceiling. It didn’t really matter. Another lovely quirk of being in space is that fact that sleeping untethered means you will probably drift off, literally. I might drift off tonight- well, there isn't really any night in space. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that it’s always night. It certainly looks like it... darkness outside... darkness forever...
*
Thump.
Thump. 
Thump. 
 Faint stirrings... what was-?
Thump. 
Thump. 
Thump. 
No, Chyou... too early. It’s too early. Still dark, still- I’m awake, jolting up into a sitting position. My hair was swirling around me. Outside was the endless night of space.
Thump.
Thump. 
Thump. 
My brain was whirring furiously, trying to process the situation. I sat frozen in the underwater green light, submerged. It’s the hull cooling. It’s fluid in the pipes. It’s something floating around and banging into the walls. 
Thump.
Thump.
Th-
I was out of the cocoon in second. I scrabbled for the straps in the wall and found one, propelling myself forward. I felt like a diver in a sunken ship- the weightlessness, the vacant bunks, the claustrophobia, the dimness. I swung across the surface.
Thump. 
Thump.
Thump. 
I soared through into the main living area, feet dusting the floor. The controls glowed dimly and I reached them, filling the room with clinical, merciless white light. I turned left. I turned right. Nothing moved.
Thump.
Thump.
Thump. 
Think, Narazaki. My head was full of noise. Breathe. Sterile, recycled air. I felt the easy flow of my lungs and decompressed a little. 
Thump. 
Thump.
Thump.
It was coming from the wall facing me... it was pure white, comparatively bare (though no wall on GH-1 was really bare- all are littered with wiring and switches and stuff. Dials, readouts, levers, screens, handles...) Focus. I glided across, never releasing the straps. 
Thump. 
Thum-
I had my ear to the wall for the last thump. 
Maybe I felt the vibrations or maybe it was s my imagination.
Whichever way, I backed off. I fumbled for the communicator in the console, hammering down the button. “Takeo!” Gentle crackling static; gentle washes of noise. I released the button and pushed it back down, fingers slippery. “Takeo! Come on-“
“Eiji?” 
“Takeo!” Silently, I thanked God. 
“Eiji? Are you alright?”
“There’s something thumping in here, thumping on the wall.”
“What do you mean, thumping?”
I switched fingers on the button, the first aching. “Some sort of banging-“
Thump.
Thu- “It’s regular. It’s the same each time, Takeo.”
“Eiji, relax. Calm yourself down. It’s probably-“
“It’s not the hull cooling. That wouldn’t be so consistent.”
I swirled around, hair billowing- it was stationary while I moved forward so wisps went in my eyes- and saw stillness. “And there’s nothing flying around in here, Takeo. There are no loose objects.” 
“Take it easy.” He was speaking slowly, his voice the leisurely purr of a thousand audio-books. I brushed it off. “Is it the pipes or something?” 
“Maybe so. That's plausible. It could still be the hull cooling too.”
Thump.
Thump.
Thump. 
I wanted to reach through the wiring and shake him. Of course the people on the ground would jump to those conclusions. I did too. But as much as we all desperately try to allocate rational explanations to things we don’t understand, sometimes we can’t. Sometimes life is murky, and strange. Sometimes we don’t know why things go bump in the night. 
Sometimes the only possible explanation is that there is something outside. 
The thought I had hidden from stared me in the face, and didn't blink. The air conditioning sent the hairs on the back of my neck rippling.
Thump. 
Thump.
Thump. 
Takeo was saying something, or rather the radio was. Takeo was a long way away. “Takeo,” I murmured, “Listen.” 
There were a few dead seconds of hushed silence.
Thump.
Thump.
Thump.
“Do you hear that?” My whisper was carried four hundred kilometres by invisible waves, the tiny silver station fading as they made the fiery plunge into the land of the living. 
“Just about.”
“Then you know why it is none of those things.”
Heavy, indistinct breathing. 
Thump.
Thump.
Thump. 
"The crew down here are investigating as we speak- just sit tight up there, Eiji. We’ll be with you as soon as possible.”
A diplomatic answer. Then the communicator was speaking in fuzzy static once more, waves crashing on some distant digital shore. I let go of the button. Silence reigned, for a comforting instance, and then:
Thump.
Thump.
Thump.
*
No spark of insight defibrillated the communicator, and it remained dead for the rest of this strange lunar night. Eventually I clambered back into my cocoon and walled myself in. I never turned the lights off. Hour after hour passed in the limp, terrified monotony of the thumping on the wall; the clean, unmoving station; the icy darkness everywhere. I drifted in and out of a thin, fitful sleep, my dreams quietly oozing unease. 
I dreamt of my home in Shanghai. Dragons and neon against the dark, skyscrapers and glowing western logos and crowds and heat and sweat and wild feverish colour and clouds of steam unravelling into the sky and crowds and noise and people and the unhinged Disneyland energy of living in a city of the future.
“In a city of the future/It is difficult to concentrate”
...Was that Radiohead? (Thump Thump Thump) Think so... but it didn’t make OK Computer.
The
Thump.
Thump.
Thump. was now just as natural as breathing. It was my new heartbeat. It was wired into my very being. 
I dreamt of Chyou, and the dimples in her cheeks and her hair billowing out and her clawing hands drawing long jagged gouges in the hull as her lungs concaved and her head ballooned. 
I dreamt of Wu Gang the wood cutter, a reckless drifter who travelled to the mountains to find immortality. A wise old immortal taught him there, first showing him the herbs to cure sickness, but Wu Gang soon became bored. The immortal tried to teach him chess, but Wu Gang lost interest. He was given books of immortality to study, but of course quickly tired of them and begged to go somewhere exciting. 
Angered at his impatience, his master banished him to the moon palace and told him he must cut down a huge Cassia tree before he could return to Earth. Wu Gang chopped and chopped, but the tree healed his every blow instantly. Legend has it that he remains there to this day, forever unable to fell it. 
Thump.
Thump.
Nothing. 
For a moment I thought my heart had stopped. 
I didn't know how for long I have lain buried, but suddenly there was total, blissful silence. At first I refused to believe it and turned over. This quickly abated. The silence coaxed me out of my hole and I reached the main living area in no time at all. 
Everything looked the same. The same pure, white walls and the same dim glow of the console. The wall that had taken the same impact innumerable times in the night was the same. It had not caved in. Of course it hadn't. I light-footedly approached and flattened my hand to it, then my ear. Nothing. 
*
“Takeo?”
A moment’s pause before Takeo’s unmistakable, gravelly, wonderful tones filled the airwaves. I had never noticed his slight Beijing accent before. “Eiji? Are you all right?” 
“Yeah, I’m OK.” 
“It’s morning in Chinese time down here. I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you last night. It’s just that-“
A barely perceptible intake of breath.
“I didn’t think I could say anything that wouldn’t worry you. We looked into the possibilities all through the night..."
“I know, don’t worry about it. It’s all over now.”
I surprised myself with my confidence. There was no morning in space, but this surely counted. It was done. I was alive. It was already fading like a bad dream, becoming malleable to the imagination. “What happened?"
I told him everything. There wasn’t much to tell, really. When I finished he let out a slow whistle, which distored a little on the journey. There was a moment’s silence, then I shot dead the elephant in the room: “So now what?”
*
We decided to keep working. Perhaps it was madness, or burying our heads in the sand. Perhaps it was a kind of stubborn, degrading rationality; a refusal to legitimise the unexplainable by even admitting its existence. Perhaps it was the decision of the hundreds of faceless, voiceless people Takeo represented. It was probably pragmatic. We had to finish the mission, and could not simply flee like scared children before noises in the night-time. To turn back now would be failure, and besides, what excuse could we give the people? Aliens? Red buttons would be pressed. Far better to get what data we could and get out. 
There was also the noisy, tingly, implicit promise of more.
The mission itself was to try and acquire precise, detailed measurements of wind speed and direction over Earth’s oceans, by the way. Using specialised microwave radar, we would make about 400,000 measurements, which would be used to aid research towards climate change, weather predictions and storm warning. That day was spent collecting and cataloguing data, which was then relayed to ground control. I threw myself into the work as best as I could, trying with faint, giddy desperation to distract myself from the looming knowledge that one day books would be written about me. But it was always there. Slinking between the numbingly endless lines of data. Forming in the pauses in Takeo’s speech. Flickering every time I hit something with my foot- thump. 
The earth night seemed to arrive quickly, dragging the space night behind it. Well, I say the earth night but I mean the Chinese night; out of the porthole I could see the Asian continent being subsumed by darkness beneath thick, whirling cloud, like post-stir coffee. Takeo’s demeanour was ostensibly similar, but there was a wired vitality to it now. His replies were quick and curious. The knowledge that we had been dragged into the Great Unknown, and may yet be dragged deeper still thrummed through my mind, and his speech. 
My eager fear was beginning to be diluted by tiredness as we reached eleven thirty, Beijing time. Takeo and his associates down on the skin of the earth were still clinging on. Midnight trickled by. There was no more data to catalogue. I was stifling yawns, which must have been audible over the radio, but went uncommented on from Jiuquan.
I belatedly threw in the towel at one o’ clock to disappointed, cordial murmurings from the radio, and freighted myself through to the sleeping area. The place felt totally different at “night”, and yet no different at all. For an instant, my hand lingered over the controls for the lights, but then it lifted again and I cocooned myself in, white-lit. The silence stagnated horribly. 
My sleep was deeper that night, but still far from deep. At God knows when o'clock, I found myself resurfacing in the land of the living. For a fleeting instant I could still feel the sun filtering orange through Shanghai’s polluted sky, warming the cool tiles of the apartment. I could still hear the soft hiss of the traffic out in the real world. I could still sense the blue air heating around the sun above us. I could feel Chyou’s soft hand in mine- and then I was pressed against a grey wall in a nest of grey fabric, like camping.
I skimmed through into the living area, unable to get back to sleep. I was getting better in this environment, I noted with distant pride- maybe good enough to do full space walks if I ever did it again. I propelled myself over to the window like a tadpole. The view never changes, but you would never want it to. For a few minutes I peered down and drank it in. A pipe clunked beneath me. Stifling a yawn, I reached for a hand-hold from which to drift back to-
Thump.
Thump.
Thump.  
I was at the communicator in a heartbeat, thumbing down the button. Takeo was probably asleep. Minutes passed. My first reaction this time was anger; seeping, churning anger at the intrusion. The thumping continued unrepentant, metronomic. What does it want? Then out loud: “What do you want?” 
"To turn you into a tasty Parisian after-dinner treat." said the wall. 
Except it didn't. It just said nothing and thumped some more. 
I was questioning my sanity by the time Takeo surfaced- “Eiji?”
“That thing’s thumping again, Takeo.” 
He tried and failed to conceal the excitement in his voice. “Right, hang on...”
Crackling static. Thumpthumpthump.
Then Takeo was back on the line- “Right, which wall is it thumping on?” 
“The far wall, the one opposite the communicator station.” 
“OK. How loudly?”
Thump.
Thump.
Thu- “Pretty loudly. Loud enough to keep me up last night.” 
“Can you see anything out of the windows?”
Apprehensively, I pushed off to each of them in turn, craning my neck to look out. I could see nothing but seamless blackness, but the line of sight from the windows wasn't enough to see around the corner of the station anyway. I told Takeo this and he sighed. 
“Are there any instruments on the exterior of that wall?” 
I racked my brains- “No.” 
“Do you- do you think it’s trying to get in?”
“So we’re admitting there’s an “it”?” 
“For the purpose of this exercise, yes.”
I considered it for a few seconds, then “Probably not. If it- whatever it is- is intelligent, then it would go for one of the windows. It knows it can’t get through that wall from last night.”
The unspoken question of Why then? hung in the air, before Takeo somewhat lamely broke the silence. “We’re working on it down here, Eiji. If it was going to get in, it would have already. It must be trying to do something else.”
“Like what, Takeo?”
His “We don’t know” clearly pained him a little. 
We exchanged pleasantries and signed off, the communicator reverting to fuzzy-static-mode. 
Thump. 
Thump.
Thump.
“Go to hell.”
Later, I realised that whatever it was probably didn't have any concept of hell. 
To my great surprise, I slept well for the rest of the night. The thumping continued until morning, when once again it ended as abruptly as it began. In the cocoon, I filled up and bubbled over with triumph. 
*
Takeo was already up when I entered, hearing me billow forward. “How are you doing, Eiji?” 
“Fine. Well, great actually.” 
A chuckle crackled through the speakers. “What... really?!” 
“Yeah. That thing’s not going to stop us finishing the work here. And then other people can come up here and put it in a glass jar.” 
Bright laughter filtered through the speakers. “Better you than me, son.”
After a minute, he added “Maybe it’s old Yuri out there.” 
We laugh. 
*
The day was palpably better than the last. The conversation flitted between memories of Earth and anecdotes about ground control. The data filled up the computer quickly and effortlessly, sensors on the underbelly on the station twitching. Around midday, sun suddenly poured in through a window as the craft rotated into its path, and drowned everything in its heavenly, corrosive light. By mid-afternoon, we were making serious progress. So serious that we were willing to breach the unspeakable- after a long pause, I heard Takeo murmur “Eiji, what do you think that thing was?” 
No confirmation of what he is talking about was needed. “I have no idea.” 
“Me neither. But you won’t need to stay there much longer; we’ll have enough data to leave tomorrow at this rate.”
“And then what? Will other people come to investigate?”
“Maybe. Mission control is certainly desperate to know what it is.”
I can’t resist. “You mean you are.”
“Well, I’m part of mission control. And I'm a scientist. It's my duty to be curious.” For a minute or two, we busied ourselves with cataloguing the weather data. “You're the same you know, Eiji." 
For a moment I was startled, cut deeply, almost offended. All I wanted was to get the data and get back... but Takeo knew more than he was letting on, the wily old fox. He was right. I did want to know what that thing- the great unknown- was; I suppose anyone in my situation would. A change in the course of human history was thumping on the wall, and I was supposed to roll over and go back to sleep. 
Startled at myself, I quickly buried this nonsense. It wasn't my job to investigate. Besides, there was no way I could reach it in the bitter vacuum of space anyway. “It makes you wonder who mission control are going to send, doesn’t it?” I muttered. “What would be their job title?”
“No idea, but they’d have to be good. No one is exactly qualified for this situation, are they?”
A thought occurred to me through his laughter: “Would it have to be kept secret? Would other countries know?” 
Somewhere in the back of my mind, the leaders of the free world were undergoing collective nervous spasms around a boardroom table. “Hmm... good question. At the moment only the top brass and those directly involved know, but things aren’t exactly conclusive.”
I eyed the wall apprehensively. “No.”
*
The night dawned once more but this time I was sitting up, waiting. Takeo had long since officially signed off to relay the data collected, but every few minutes the radio would crackle with his voice asking “Is it happening yet?” China was cloaked in darkness below, clouds churning and unspooling around the edge of the encroaching black. My temples were throbbing sickeningly, the bleary product of three sleepless nights. Heavy and dulled, I watched the time trickle by: eleven o’ clock... midnight... one o’ clock... My head was in my hands when the thumping finally began and I sleepily fumbled for the communicator. Takeo answered at once. “It is thumping on the same wall?”
“Yes,” I slurred, dragging my head from my palms. “It’s always the same.”
Thump.
Thump.
Thump.
“Three times. Why is it always three times, Takeo?” Every possible connotation of “Three” flickered through my mind- the three musketeers, the three-eyed crow, the fact that Earth is the third planet from the sun- before Takeo crackled back into reality- “How should I know?”
Thump.
Thump.
Thump.
I lowered my head back into my hands.
“Eiji. What can you tell me about it?”
“The same as last night, Takeo. It’s always the same.”
“Any louder or quieter?”
“No.”
My head was pulsing dully against the metal. “Are there any orders from down there?” I mumbled and was met with a resounding “No.” before Takeo apologetically added “Sorry. It’s just the same as before. We sit it out and the next crew up here investigate.”
 “But what is it?” 
“They’ll know soon enough. Get some sleep, you sound worn out.”
Damn right. But the entrance to the deep crevice of language had been bouldered off; I said nothing and set about numbly depressing the communicator and returning my head to the console. 
Thump.
Thump.
Thump. 
Eventually I sailed over to the wall and pressed my ear to it, feeling the sound waves reverberating through the thin, transient metal with awful tangibility. So close but so far. I banged my fist again the wall, then my head. The steel made a dull clunk, gently buckling like a new belt. I clawed at it with my nails, my teeth, tearing and leaving long bloody streaks and thin rolls of metal that unravelled from beneath my fingernails as I pulled them away and greater chunks, faster and faster and faster, with flying hair and red peeling snapping bones for fingers and no cares and finally something gave and the wall opened up and my legs were swept out as if by a strong tide and I was clinging to the jagged edge of something; the only something in an infinity of nothing but for Wu Gang hacking at that tree in the billowing lunar light, but with an axe smashed to dispersed powder and only wild sharpened teeth-
I juddered back to life against the console. The glinting LED read three o’ clock. For a moment there was silence, then:
Thump.
Thump.
Thump.
I sat there for some time. Takeo was probably asleep on the other end of the communicator. This was it, I supposed; the last night in heaven. The porthole was vaguely shimmering gold, with only the halo of the earth visible against the night. I swam over and peered down- the planet had never looked brighter, or more alone. Continents overlap, vivid forest-green under the night and the oceans were strangely frozen in the kind of blue the sea looks in a faraway places- a Galapagos blue, an expensive blue. Up here, you had to wonder why people ever believed the heavens were in the sky.
Thump.
Thump.
Thump.
There were storms tumbling waywardly across the surface. Sunlight drifted like a shadow over the floor, draping itself over objects. Somewhere, I noticed that the communicator was hissing murmured wisps of conversation. Takeo was awake. Presumably he couldn't sleep for the noises. The light hit my face and I blinked, blind and watery-eyed, illuminated golden in the dark, but soon the sliver of gold had escaped and was snaking away across the metal. “Eiji?” Something flickered in the corner of my eye. A rogue glint in the sun. I soared over. The three spacesuits were alight with effervescence for a moment. The light poured away once more, but my eyes stayed. 
Thump.
Thump.
Thump. 
“Eiji? Are you there?” Even in deepest shadow, the suits were visible; pure white, streaked with grey; light, thick, domed. They were cocooned in reinforced glass, which with zig-zagged with logos and warnings. Takeo said something else, but I didn’t hear it. I released the clamps and slid the glass back. 
*
Ground control was floodlit even at night. The translucent haze of monitors riddled the sloping bank of desks with glowing orbs, at least when you’ve got your eyes half-shut. The facility was clean, clinical, and smelled of disinfectant. The place was never meant for human habitation, thought Takeo in sleepy irritation, struggling to keep his eyelids apart. The gradual Thump. Thump. Thump. emerged from the monitor once more and he tried once more “Eiji? Come in...” There was a faint hiss and clunk on the other end of the line. Takeo stopped dead for a second, struggling quite to believe. Then he began again: “Eiji! Come in-“
*
Somewhere far away, I was clicking the helmet into place. The noise of it was loud, but not unexpected. I carried out final checks that the suit is secure. Takeo’s noises had vanished. I took the length of rope that would bind me to the craft and pulled the glass back into place. There was a sharp crackle. “Eiji! Eiji! I know what you’re doing! Get that suit off now! You can’t seriously be-“ In spite of myself, a wave of fondness swept through me. I set off for the airlock. The suit was clumsy and large, but the lack of gravity meant it could be manoeuvred reasonably down the corridor, clinging to the straps on the walls. “Eiji! You have no idea what’s out there! Just stop, just think...” I reached the airlock. I keyed in the codes that would override the station's AI and twisted the wheel, hauling the door around. The interior of the airlock was white, clinical. The door was locked behind me. I set about depressurising. There was shouting and footsteps on the other end of the line. Quietly, I turned the radio off. I glanced around me one last time. The airlock was like the interior of a freezer- glacial, snowy. Handles protruded from deep-set crevices in the walls. A featureless whiteness rained down from above. 
What a beautiful time. What a beautiful time. Into the frontier. I twisted the lever beside me. I reached for the wheel. I turned it. I emerged into heaven clumsily, like a rhinoceros swimming in a deep tank; the door opened onto endless stars and I pushed through, emerging into the vast dark unknown with a clean conscience and wide eyes. After all, this wasn't for me. This was for the world. I clicked the rope into place beside the door and pushed off for the next hand-hold. It was like climbing an underwater castle at night. The glint and flicker of stars between my fingers was distracting as I pushed off once more. I missed this time, drifting off to the right. For a few seconds, I was soaring through the night blind and unimpeded. Then I ran out of slack and jolted to a halt, beginning to drift back the way I had come. I hauled myself back along the line until I reached the exterior of the spacecraft once more, then clung on and pushed off again. I reached the next hold, clipping myself in. 
There was total silence. I could now see the corner of the craft that blocked my view from the porthole. There was no movement visible. I pushed off once more. This time I had aimed too far to the left and bounced off the side of the ship. Suddenly I was tumbling away in slow motion, hands grasping wildly. All I could see was Earth-Dark-Earth-Dark, blinking, eyes rolling. The rope was terrifyingly beginning to tangle around my legs- with another shuddering jolt I snapped to a halt. I disentangled myself and hauled myself back. Climbing through space alone, I felt lonelier than I ever had. 
The corner of the station was now tantalisingly close. I clipped myself in and propelled myself forward. I managed- Yes!- to get a hand to the corner. Laboriously, I hauled through the rope and clipped myself in. Earth watched, uninterested. I reached out my other hand, and pulled forward in one final heave. I soared forward sleepily, drifting past the corner on the rope; terror and wild excitement mingling as one in my blood.  
At first I saw nothing. This side of the station was facing away from the sun, cast into deepest shadow. The glitter of the stars seemed to soak up light from the surface. I reeled myself in a little on the rope, getting a foot to the fabled other side. My free hand hung lamely out into space. The thick darkness was oppressive. Something seemed to move in the corner of my eye and I jerked round. There was nothing there. Your mind is playing tricks, Narazaki. I swung back. Perhaps there was nothing. Perhaps it was only heat-cooling or any of Takeo’s other excuses. Once more, something seemed to almost imperceptibly shift in the darkness. This time I stood my ground. Was that... I waited. My own breathing was deafening in the confines of the helmet. Again, something changed, now seeming to move... upwards, maybe..? Outwards? Wait-
*
The airlock seems whiter and smaller as I climbed back into it; sealing the door behind me, and hearing it produce a gentle hiss. My head was buzzing slightly. It was too loud in there. I passed through the next stage of the airlock and twisted off the helmet, hair unfurling out. Looking around was like staring into the sun, or an uncaged furnace. When I closed my eyes the room was burned white-hot into the retinas. I clung to one of the straps in the wall, mutely hanging there for... a minute? Two minutes? Eventually I noticed that the communicator was fizzing with stern frequencies- “Narazaki! Desist immediately!” 
“Hello?” The word emerged in a hollow-throated murmur, far less authorative than I had planned. 
“This is Secretary-General Lee, what do you think you are doing?”
I began, afflicted with only mild stage fright. The story bore a strong resemblance to the one I had rehearsed, but I managed to convincingly work in some ad-libs. I played up the we-needed-to-know-to-further-science angle, but Lee wasn't taking the bait. It was easy to picture him frothing and white-lipped somewhere below. “Narazaki, you are hereby suspended without leave until a tribunal can be convened to assess your actions.” 
Hm. No worse than I had expected.
“I struggle to fathom-“(faint gargle of phlegm) “your insolence. Despite specific instructions from Ground Control- and by the way, that man Liwei is dreadfully worried- you decided that you knew better than all our experienced technicians down in Jiuquan.”
“Liwei, sir?”
“Yes, Takeo Liwei, your correspondent here at ground control. Are you listening to me, Narazaki?”
“Absolutely, sir.”
The conversation continued in this vein for several minutes until Lee’s well of indignation finally runs dry. The ensuing silence was a terse, stony silence; the sort of silence that shrouds divorce proceedings, or announcements that the family Shiatsu has met with an unfriendly steamroller. The Secretary-General was still breathing as if he had just disembarked a treadmill. The line crackled faintly. The heavens seemed spooked. Finally, Lee could conceal his true intentions no longer. His voice receded to a husky whisper, only just audible: “So... what did you find?”
It certainly was very bright in there.
“Narazaki?”
“Nothing, sir. That side of the craft was facing away from the sun and my eyes were playing tricks on me in the dark. I felt my way along the surface but there was nothing to feel. There was no debris in close proximity, so my best guess would be the coolant pipes, probably.
“...Alright. We shall be speaking upon your return, Narazaki.”
“Of course, Sir.”
He signed off. The lights were still simmering in their sheaths. I made my way through to the sleeping compartment and drifted off underwater for the final time. That night Chyou came  to me in my dreams once more, but even she couldn’t fell the moon tree.  
*
You never forget. You never really can. Even as you float in seamless dreams in space, the feelings begin to swim back. Shanghai swirls with colour and noise; blurring with cars, spewing billboards and look-at-me din, so why am I afraid? I am alive. Tuks-tuks are tiny coccons of light. The towers are golden above. 
 In a city of the future, it is difficult to concentrate; the distractions blot out the reality. Up here there is nothing but reality. Maybe that is why it is not fit for humans. You find yourself desperate for company, terrified of being left alone with your thoughts. The days grow shorter and the nights grow longer. When the radio told me to return to Earth, it was a relief. Too much time in heaven will drive anyone mad. 
*
... And that’s the end of the story, I guess. The rest is fairly tedious. No one cares about the getting-back-to-earth, getting-reprimanded, getting-back-to-normal life ending. It plays out exactly as you would expect. Lee was maroon with rage. Chyou was pleased to see me. Blah blah blah... I need more paper. It’s starting to get soggy- all I can read of a few pages earlier is something about climbing around the corner of the station. There’s another roll. No, pass it here. Anyway, Earth is nice, I suppose. It doesn’t have the bite I remembered. You only appreciate something when you are deprived of it, but when you get it back you quickly stop appreciating it again. The city at night was always better in my dreams... God, this is getting ridiculous. Just tear that bit off and keep writing. I swear my vision is getting worse, you know. A few days ago I could see a metre or so ahead of me, at least. Getting old before my time, I guess. Older than that bastard Yuri. I wonder what happened to him- maybe he is up there right now. I think I might be heading up there soon. Breathing is becoming a struggle. The other day I was wheezing like an elderly asthmatic blowing through a straw. No you weren’t- wheezing like Thom Yorke with a hangover... I feel sort of hung-over, you know, just a little. Queasy. Shaky. My temples are pounding like a marching band, and have been for as long as I can remember. Well, not as long as I can remember, but you know what I mean. Just tear that bit off- it’s useless... what happened to Takeo again? The poor boy was very angry at me... promoted? Was he promoted? Was Lee promoted? I’m sure someone was promoted. Oh, who even cares? The story is over now. But you have to wrap it up. You need to tie up the loose ends. It’ll be told one day, you know. 
Paper... is there paper around? There needs to be more- there, one roll left. It’s clogging up the walls now; the toilet light is fuzzy through the sheets. This pen is nearly out of ink too, time for it to go on the pile. My hand drifts it over. It drops with a dulled clatter. The sheets are filling up the room. Blink twice and I am submerged in a snowdrift. I pull myself up from the metal box inlayed into the wall. 
I made a mistake. I see it now. Perhaps it was my own mislaid sense of importance- a sense of individual responsibility for what was taking place; of individual glory. I haul open the door- no, I do. The torrent gushes forward lumberingly, hissing and sucking at my feet. Not much paper left now. Perhaps the culture was to blame- filling my head with the typical encounter. One human. One other. In the bowels of the Belgrano, I fell for it too. Takeo unthinkingly made that assumption along with me. 
Three. It was always three. Why was that thing tapping on the wall three times? But therein lies the problem. I stagger forward dimly and sway against the sink. My eyes are gummed shut, and the eyelids strain back towards each other as I open them. Shapes wave in the mirror before me, seaweed in a breeze. I assumed that the three thuds on the wall were all made by the same creature. In the glass, my head is mossy and concave. One of my eyes is gone and the other is blueish and veined. When I breathe out, the air whistles through my barren gums. I look at the reflection, and my head tilts to one side. As do the two other heads beside it. 

What a beautiful time.
What a beautiful time.

THE END 


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