6080 words, short story
It was on the day of the last wake that the Murchú exploded.
Mickey clasped her hands to her chest as she felt the dull concussion of detonating hydrogen and oxygen tanks rattle through her kidneys and bowels before exiting through her sternum. She looked down at the front of her blouse, past the two smooth stumps of her long-missing fingers, and fancied that the bleached fabric beneath them fluttered excitedly at the passage of such energy.
Still she didn’t turn to watch the rocket’s flaming wreckage fall into the livid mud of the bay. She saw the flash fill the landscape before her, the shadow of the tower stretching bladelike along the shingle beach toward Bantry town. Those at the wake would have an exquisite view of her handiwork. Which was the point, of course. She didn’t necessarily want anyone to die, not yet, but by God she wanted them to pay.
Orbital & Intersystem Lines had built the tower as part of a marketing scheme. Billowing out in front of the old Bantry Aerodrome runway like a crystal spinnaker, it was a supposed nod to the seafarers that had used the bay for centuries, if not longer. In reality, it was a kit-printed O&I conference center. While all of the rocket vats, fuel plants, and the launchpad itself were across the bay among the ancient, rusted tank farms on Whiddy Island, the tower was where they held the “wakes.” These riotous parties were where loved ones would say their last farewells to passengers bound for the new world of the Torc.
The timing was delicate. Six hours out and the pad would be cleared while the main cryogenic propellant tanks were filled. But they would start loading crew and passengers about three hours from launch, so the window was small. She wanted the passengers outside, on the apron below the tower, posing for photographs in their launch suits of the finest fullerene milk-silk, with the squat bulk of the shuttle in the background. She pictured the people inside the tower, canapés frozen halfway to gaping maws, a confetti of broken glass, and sticky, oversweet fizz at their feet.
She wanted them all to have a taste of destruction.
Pádraigín watched Mickey teeter on tiptoe as she stretched for the tea tin, the rust of a century slowly eating the faux oriental scene on its skin. Her mother set the caddy down on the counter, then scalded the pot, emptying the boiling water, tanned by remnants of the morning’s leaves, into the deep white sink.
“Do you remember when we told Mairéad about your first job, Mam?” said Pádraigín.
She heard Mickey inhale, but somehow the old woman’s shoulders slumped at the same time. Then she chuckled.
“Oh, Jesus,” said Mickey, “‘Like-like-a, like-like-a.’ I didn’t know what the girl was on about at first.”
Mairéad had been six years old when she first asked why her grandmother sent things “into outer space.”
“It’s the family business, pet,” was the stock response.
“But who owns the stuff we send up?”
“People who need things that they can’t get any other way, love.”
“Things like what?”
“Oh, all sorts.”
But Mairéad was not one for vagueness. Every time she returned from school, Pádraigín met her with a demand: “Tell me the first thing you learned today,” or the best thing or the strangest thing. Now Mairéad turned the principle on her grandmother. Hands on hips, feet planted, she demanded a response.
“Tell me the first thing you sent into space.”
Mickey made a show of dredging her memory while she caught Pádraigín’s eye.
“Oh, let me see now. I think it was a box of circuit boards.” This had the benefit of being true. Her first payload was about four kilograms of hardened components atop a single-stage solid-fuel rocket, and she remembered being barely able to breathe until it made orbit. The maintenance and repair hub that hired her, unwilling to pay O&I’s exorbitant carriage fees, had become a regular client over the years.
But Mairéad had spotted the surreptitious wink that her mother and grandmother shared.
“No, what was the first thing you smuggled?”
“Who taught you that word?” Mickey had said, perhaps a bit too sharply.
“Aisling O’Hehir,” she answered, clearly storing her grandmother’s reaction as a button to be pressed later. “So? What was it?”
Mickey was unashamedly direct this time.
“It was a little dog called Stanley, and it wasn’t really smuggling. We bundled him up in a little dog space suit and gave him some special little dog space food and we sent him on his way.”
The little girl broke into a smile, clapping her hands and almost leaping on the spot. “Like-a-like-a. Like-a-like-a.”
It took Mickey a full minute to know what she was on about. Then she laughed like a drain. “Oh, like Laika? Yeah, I suppose so.”
Pádraigín was none the wiser. “What the hell is a Laika?”
“Just Laika. ’Twas a dog the Russians sent into space more than a century ago. Hopefully, little Stanley had a happier end.”
The tears were still streaming down the laugh lines on Pádraigín’s face as Mickey poured the tea. It had been twelve hours since the launch.
“What are we going to do without her, Mam?”
“I don’t know, pet.”
“Have you heard anything?”
“Not yet, pet. But I’m sure she’ll be fine.”
If you took the view that the island of Ireland, as seen from above, looked like a teddy bear seated in profile and with an arm outstretched into the North Atlantic, then near the tips of its fingers would be the town of Belmullet, once the gateway to the Mullet Peninsula, now itself an island. If you imagined the index finger wearing a tarnished silver ring, that would be the Pollatomish rocket range and landing strip.
Every summer, Pádraigín and Mairéad would make the long drive to Mickey’s farm. There were vegetable patches and even some livestock, pigs and hens mostly, but “farm” was still a bit of a stretch.
The conversation moved along a little each year, but the nearer they got to their destination the more likely it was to crop up.
“Mammy, why do we send people to the Torc?”
“It’s what people do, pet. They explore, they settle, they colonize. Always have done.”
“But why do they want to leave?”
“Well, I suppose they see wars or droughts or floods or diseases or whatever down here and they decide that they’ll have a better life up there.”
“But what about everybody else?”
“Well anybody can go, if they have the money, or if they want to work their way up there.”
“Why don’t we go?”
“You have to be over eighteen, pet.”
“Well, why don’t you go then?”
“And who would look after you?”
It was a well-rehearsed bit. Pádraigín would wait to look sideways at Mairéad’s raised eyebrow and they would both laugh. Even then, Mairéad knew her grandmother’s reputation for absentmindedness when it came to domestic affairs. Print, fuel, and launch you a rocket? No problem. But pack a school lunch box? You’d be taking your life in your hands.
Like children everywhere, calm reassurance and diversion would fix things for a while. In the early days, the talk always ended the same way, with a child’s blind optimism: “I think we should try to fix down here first.”
“Well maybe you will, pet. When you’re older.”
On the day of the accident, their car pulled into the farmyard and had barely stopped before Mairéad launched herself out of the door, her city nose wrinkling at pollen, or dung, or some other unfamiliar irritant. She ran toward Mickey, who sat on a small rickety bench outside her kitchen door fussing over her dogs.
“Can I see the vats, Gran?”
Most of the machinery of Mickey’s livelihood was hidden or dull. She made her own fuel, from water desalinated out of the brackish lake to the south, and gas out of the old Atlantic Pipeline that made shore on the far side of Dooncarton Mountain. But the machinery appeared no more dramatic than what you would find in a school boiler room.
The vats were different. The name was a throwback to when polymer printing or metal sintering was done using a tank full of material and a laser. But Mickey’s machines, housed in what looked like an abnormally tall agricultural shed, were unbounded—seven or eight highly precise printing nozzles on articulated robotic arms, some of them printing metal, some graphene-silk, some just churned out old-fashioned PVC piping. Some of them printed the hollow, birdlike bones of the rocket’s frame, some of them laid fuel lines or etched coolant channels into engine bells. More appendages carved aerodynamic surfaces from heat-resistant foam or polished the rocket’s skin. All of it was interwoven like a puzzle. Each limb knew where the other was, they never clashed, they never paused, they just danced forever in space.
Mickey played at reluctance. “Oh, I don’t know. We’ll have to ask your mother.”
“Come on Mam, please? If we don’t go now, it will be too late, it’ll be done.”
“All right, all right, go on. But be careful.”
Oblivious to the dumb love of Mickey’s lurchers, all misshapen muscle and slobber, Mairéad skipped off down the yard in her flowery dungarees and her red wellington boots, with the two women sauntering through the August haze behind her.
“How was the drive?” asked Mickey.
“I swear that road gets worse every time. It certainly seems to take longer. A bit tiring, but you know . . . ”
Mickey nodded. She did know. As each year passed, the visits seemed to get both shorter and further apart. The family business had never been an option for Pádraigín.
Mickey had learned her trade in the Shannon free trade zone, in the early, frontier days of the Torc. In those days, it was still a wonder of engineering, a savior, a way of moving all of humanity’s eggs out of one basket.
But then the war had come, and the launch site and runway, once a secondary landing strip for the old space shuttles, were reduced to a series of pater noster craters, full of mosquitoes and unexploded munitions.
So Mickey went solo and moved north to Pollatomish. More room, more freedom and, somehow, more sky.
The two women walked slowly down the yard to the shed that housed the vats. Pádraigín poked her head through the hangar’s wicket gate to check on the girl.
On a wood and metal chair, rescued from a condemned local school, Mairéad sat transfixed, as the articulated arms spun around before her, spraying, carving, polishing, slicing—adding musculature to what Mickey, in either Michaelangelic or megalomaniacal fashion, referred to as “David’s skeleton.”
Pádraigín turned and leaned a shoulder on the jamb. Mickey craned her neck to look past her.
“She’s really into them, isn’t she?” the older woman said.
“She is. We may make a missile-woman out of her yet.” Pádraigín knew the girl’s interest made her mother swell. The passion for rocketry had skipped her, and Mickey was doing everything she could to foster it in her granddaughter.
They were alike in other ways too, meticulous about the little things at the expense of the bigger picture, prone to pour more energy into machinery than into human relationships, and both were quiet and slow-moving. But while she could tell her mother nothing, Pádraigín knew that all Mairéad needed to dissuade her from doing anything silly, such as touch a hot stove or over-hug a cat, was an occasional eyebrow-knitted glare or a sharp “Moya!”
Pádraigín told herself afterward that this was why she felt safe enough to take her eyes off her. She and Mickey chatted about this launch and that, which cousins had married, the falling price of Torc citizenship, who in the town had died since last they spoke, and all the other ice-breaking gossip that either could come up with.
The first Pádraigín knew of trouble was Mickey swearing “Oh Jesus fucking Christ” and bolting past her into the shed. Pádraigín turned—Mairéad had silently crossed the fifty feet from the chair and now sat directly under the rocket, watching the slicing, scalding, crushing arms whirl above her. Pádraigín felt like someone had pumped cold seawater into her womb. The girl had somehow ducked under the lowest optical beam that would shut off the system. If it even worked, which was always a coin toss in Pollatomish. She ran.
Despite her mother’s head start, Pádraigín was the first to reach Mairéad, her legs sliding like a baseball player past the girl just milliseconds before Mickey swept a hand downward to break the safety beam at head height. Pádraigín put her left hand down to steady herself as she pulled her daughter to her chest and spun, putting her body between Mairéad and the robotic arms, not knowing how fast they would stop, what their range of motion was, how sharp they were.
Sick with a combination of worry and fury at her mother’s approach to safety, Pádraigín could hear the grinding screech of a crash stop above. She couldn’t bring herself to look how close they had come, so she crawled past the yellow and black chevrons that marked the boundary of the danger zone, with Mairéad slung beneath her like a baby ape. Once over the line, Pádraigín sat up to see her own terror reflected in her mother’s face, while the girl squirmed in her lap to keep sight of the machines that made rockets.
It was Mairéad who first noticed two of the old woman’s fingers, lying barely bloodied on the concrete floor of the vat.
There came a point when Pádraigín missed the arguments. At least they were communicating. They had become an unwanted tradition, part of the trip home from Mickey’s, but Pádraigín did her best to delay them as long as possible. On a good day, they’d make it to Limerick. The last one she really remembered, when Mairéad was about seventeen, started up just outside Athenry, her daughter’s staccato outbursts uttered without ever breaking eye contact with her phone.
“Did you know that they use people to strip heavy metals out of their recycling systems? They feed them tainted water, and your kidneys and liver trap the cadmium or mercury or whatever and the urine you pass is cleaner. By the time you die of cancer, it’s years later and no way to trace it back to the cans.”
They weren’t even halfway through the drive back to Cork, and Pádraigín knew they wouldn’t be talking by the time they arrived. She recited her own mother’s words in her mind. “It’s a teenage phase,” “you have to make an effort,” “she’ll come around.” She tried to engage with the conversation as honestly as she knew how.
“Mairéad, that doesn’t even make business sense. If you really wanted to make money, you would just process the urine, strip all the minerals and metals out for processing, sell them, and sell the residents back clean water.”
The girl sneered. “Oh yeah, business sense. It’s all about business with the canlords, Mam isn’t it?”
“Don’t be rude, Mairéad, I don’t know where you got your information, love, but it’s my job to correct it when it’s wrong.”
“Mam, it’s true. The skeevier canlords, they know that at the rate people move around up there they’ll never be caught, so they run bad water and bad air through the system, they don’t maintain them properly and then they . . . ”
Pádraigín interrupted her.
“Mairéad, that’s just a conspiracy theory, put about by fringe lunatics. Nobody in their right mind believes that. Why would they want to hurt people? They depend on them for their rent and for their labor.”
“What would you know about labor?
“Mairéad, do not talk to me like that,” Pádraigín growled.
Mairéad ignored the content and the tone. “Actually, their home nations pay the rent, Mam. Unless they get indentured out, they’re stuck, moving from one can to another.”
Pádraigín knew overcrowding was a problem. O&I alone had lofted eight and a half million people to the Torc in the past five years, and AstralGet had moved as many again through, on their way to the Lagrange habs. That inevitably meant stowaways, defectors, workers who reneged on their contracts or were just plain fired. They had to go somewhere.
“The cans” were the assorted habs that the contractors had lived in while they built the first big Torc habs. They were large, labyrinthine cylinders chewed out of asteroids by rock-eating bacteria and attached to ground-built docking hubs. Once the job was finished and the workers were paid, often with residency or higher-paying jobs on mining stations, they left the cans in orbit. Uncomfortable and only designed to be temporary accommodation, the structures passed from owner to owner, letting agent to letting agent, subdivided, and then amalgamated again and again until no one really knew who owned what for sure.
Nobody wanted to live in them full-time, but if you didn’t have papers, or money, or a job, that was where you ended up until you could earn your way into the Torc. Some people had been there for years. Sending people back down the gravity well wasn’t as expensive as getting them up there, but it wasn’t free. Once you were up, you were up.
“Am I to feel sorry for every no-hoper who hasn’t made a success of their life, Mairéad, am I? Well, I can’t. If people are willing to work hard, then there is work for them. If people are looking for a free ride, then they get what they deserve.”
“Ah, Mammy, you’ve no idea what it’s like, up there or down here. Why don’t you just admit the truth, that you prefer to live nearer the top down here than nearer the bottom up there?”
Pádraigín paused, slightly derailed by her realization that that was probably indeed true.
Mairéad, however, barreled on.
“Mam, there are canlords who don’t let temporary residents leave until they’ve taken a shit.”
“Ah Mairéad, for goodness’ sake. And don’t swear.”
“It’s true. A week’s poo could weigh three kilos. That’s worth something to these animals. They’ll flog it to the farms.”
“What farms?” Pádraigín thought and tried to give her attention to the road. They didn’t talk again until they reached the city.
Over the following months, both the questions and the arguments stopped. Even the conspiracy theories disappeared, to be replaced by politics, activism, and a bullheadedness that reminded Pádraigín of nobody but Mickey.
She watched as Mairéad flitted from one pressure group to another, from well-meaning centrists like the Earth-firsters to nutters like the Green Ludds, all the while wondering what in god’s name the girl had to be so angry about.
With a pang of jealousy, it dawned on Pádraigín that Mairéad reserved all her ire over the great upper-class exodus for her. Mickey, who for years had kept the people Mairéad loathed in foie gras and earth-grown cocaine and goddamned bichon frisés, got a pass on the politics. To Mairéad, she was just a happy-go-lucky Han Solo.
But Pádraigín had to deal with the meetings that became more earnest and less raucous, the companions who were more furtive and less joyful and the visits from authorities that started with concerned neighborhood associations or exasperated local police and ended with serious-looking men who said little but recorded everything.
On their last drive to Pollatomish, Mickey watched their car crawl up the rutted track between the two water meadows. Mairéad’s boots were on the dashboard, her arms folded. The car came to a stop but only when her mother put a sharp word in her ear did the younger woman stir, unfolding herself lazily and swinging open the door, where Mickey stood waiting. Long gone were the flowery clothes and red footwear, in favor of blacks and dark purples, to match her moods and her eye makeup. It was all faintly incongruous against the bright red of her hair, thought Mickey. The boots were now big and black, but at least still looked waterproof.
“Let me look at you. You’re getting so tall,” said Mickey, alternating between an attempt at a deep hug and an arm’s-length inspection.
Mairéad ignored the observation and moved her head haughtily aside.
“Hi Gran. Can I go see the vats?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Mickey, trying to catch Pádraigín’s eye for confirmation. But she was half-buried in the luggage compartment at the front of the car. In the end, Mairéad just sighed and wandered off, a doddery old lurcher padding along behind her.
“How are ye doing?” said Mickey as Pádraigín straightened and stretched. She looked thin, the older woman thought.
“We’re alright, considering. How are you?
“Sure, I’m grand.”
“She’s too old for hugs now,” said Mickey, trying to keep it light.
“I said she’s too old for hugs.”
“Who knows what she’s into, Mam?”
Mickey gave a wan smile.
“How is she?”
“OK, I think, not that my opinion matters. Where’s she after going?”
“The vats.” Mickey cradled her hand. “Is that alright?”
Pádraigín shrugged. “Well it would seem a bit daft to stop her looking at them now, wouldn’t it?”
Mickey bridled. “This is her decision, pet. It’s not what I want for her. You know that, right?”
Pádraigín sipped air but thought better of what she was going to say and instead looked east toward the mountain, no more than a hill really. Unseen beyond it, the stripped turf bog that served as both runway and launch site. “How is the weather looking?”
“Sure, grand. It’s a bit wet, but the wind will keep off, so we’re eighty percent ‘go’ for the day after tomorrow, I think.”
“Are you sure about this, Mam?”
“I’m not, but she is.”
“She’s hardly thinking straight though, is she? I mean I could get her passage with O&I, but she won’t take it. Won’t give them her money, she says.”
“Well, look, it doesn’t make sense to me either, but she’s her own woman, pet.”
“Fucking ‘Earth Abú’ and their bullshit, that’s all this is.”
“Look, you can no more decide her life for her than I could decide yours. She wants to go up, and she’d rather do it with your blessing.”
“But she’ll still go without it,” said Pádraigín, handing her mother a small flight bag.
“She will,” said Mickey. “But isn’t that what any of us would do?”
Mickey returned from the vats late one evening and was surprised to see her granddaughter’s face staring out at her from a news channel.
Mairéad was standing with a group of service operatives, dressed in the overalls of half a dozen different conglomerates. The camera floated in that slightly disorienting way that most orbital footage had—the “gravity” of spin held everyone on the same plane, but the lines of the buildings and terraces receded into a vanishing point that would never exist on Earth, giving the footage a Wonka-like distortion.
After eighteen months in orbit, Mairéad looked thinner, but healthy, and as grimly determined and serious as ever. Mickey told the TV to increase the volume, catching the tail end of an interviewer’s question.
“ . . . have you called an unauthorized strike on Bristol?”
“Nobody has called an unauthorized strike as far as I’m aware. That would be illegal under Hoop law, as you know,” came Mairéad’s response.
Although Mairéad had remained stony-faced, Mickey smiled at the pun. Officially, the Torc had a different name depending on the surface country you were in or from, an attempt to engender a sense of nationalistic ownership to an immense multinational building project.
In Ireland, it was the Torc, supposed to conjure images of proud Celtic warriors striding out into the cosmos. But some smart-arse Dubliner had rudely referred to it as “de hoop” on a call-in radio show years earlier and the name had stuck.
“But you and your colleagues have stopped working, correct?” the interviewer continued.
“According to the conglomerates, I am an independent contractor and they are merely booking agents. Therefore my decision to withdraw my labor is an independent decision. I’m sure the same applies to all of my colleagues here, but I do not speak for them. They too are independents and make their own decisions about when they work, as per the standard contracts we are all subject to.”
The reporter pressed on: “What would you say to people who believe that all of these stoppages just happen to coincide on a Tuesday? That’s a bit coincidental, isn’t it?”
Mickey watched the smug flash of amusement cross her granddaughter’s face.
“Even on the Hoop, there are seven days in a week. If the conglomerates, O&I, and the letting agents have allowed conditions in the cans to deteriorate to the extent that one in seven of Bristol’s workers happen to have withdrawn their labor on the same day, then I would say the Torc has bigger problems.”
The screen reverted to a talking head in the studio decrying the stoppages. Mickey muted the screen and called Pádraigín, but there was no answer beyond a prompt to leave a message.
“Hi, love. Just to say I saw her on the news. She looked fine. Causing trouble as ever. You have to admire her really, I suppose.”
The following summer, the two women sat at Mickey’s counter, made of pine that must have been a century old and covered in blue tiles that had been broken and patched so much they looked like a craquelure pot.
The screen above the fireplace showed fresh riots, this time in Churchill hab. Drone footage showed venting gases and ravaged hab skin glittering as it twisted. The occasional area of the footage was hashed and pixelated, most likely to obscure a corpse or a recognizable body part. The remnants of a terrorist bombing, an inadvertent explosion caused by overzealous security, or deliberate company venting—who knew? But it was the third such event in a week, and neither woman had been able to reach Mairéad since Bristol vented.
The screen displayed numbers of the missing and of those confirmed dead, but just as with Bristol, it was assumed that not every victim would ever be found or identified. The presenters’ repetitive banalities were intercut with either Torc officials lamenting the loss of life and blaming anarcho-terrorists or with protesters blaming “corporate murderers.”
“I can’t watch this, Mick.”
Pádraigín rubbed the laminated piece of paper in her hand. Before it was entombed in plastic, it had clearly been folded and unfolded to the point of fluffiness. It contained just eleven words: “I have to do something, Mam. I’m sorry. I love you.” She had found the note on the dashboard of the car after Mairéad’s launch.
Mickey had made tea and put out two glasses of brandy. Pádraigín gulped hers before picking up the teacup, hardened her voice, and said, “Do you think she had something to do with it, Mick?”
Mickey spoke slowly and deliberately. “Pádraigín, we don’t know even know what happened yet. Which of these showers would you believe? The only person who can tell you what Mairéad was involved in is Mairéad.”
“I need to go up, Mick.”
“I know, love.”
“I have to try at least.”
“I know, pet. It’s all right. Come here, and I’ll talk you through it.”
She picked up the bottle and motioned Pádraigín to the sofas. Mickey watched her daughter sit and draw her legs under her with the same hydraulic-looking motion she had in childhood, as if she was about to sit and watch Saturday cartoons.
Mickey began. “We’re using a small rig, smaller than Mairéad’s. It’ll be lighter, you’ll be the only payload, so it’s only about ten or fifteen minutes to orbit, but it could take the tug a few hours to dock and extract you. You shouldn’t be in there more than half a day or so max, but there’s air, water, and scrubbers to last a week, just in case. If we pass twenty-four hours, we’ll hit the alarm from down here and somebody more official will come cut you out. Failing that, you know . . . ”
Pádraigín did not need her to explain what “you know” covered.
“Jesus, I’m glad I skipped this part of the talk when Mairéad went up.”
“The launch will be energetic,” said Mickey.
“If that’s code for dangerous, I think I’d rather not know.”
“There’s some give in the foam, but it’s not designed like a true g-couch. It’s for emergencies only really.”
“Mick, it just has to get me there.”
“It’ll get you there, don’t worry. I’m more interested in what you will do once you’re up?”
“I don’t know, I’ll try to find her or her friends, figure out what really happened. Maybe even help.”
“And if you can’t find her?” asked Mickey.
“Mam, I don’t even want to think about that yet. What’ll you do down here?”
“Well, that depends on what happens to the two of you.”
Pádraigín walked out ahead of the launch transporter, kicking dark brown clods of earth under the tires and watching them explode into small puffs of dirt as the finished rocket inched its way along the old famine road to the pad.
It was much smaller than the O&I people-movers or even the old Atlas, but even on its side it still looked immense. Clad in thermal-shedding and mirrored skin, it somehow managed to become invisible against the blueness of Mayo’s sky, the eye fooled by the reflection of clouds merging with the real thing behind the rocket. Only at the shimmering edges did its shape and its size become apparent.
It was the first time she had shared some of Mickey and Mairéad’s awe for these machines. It did look like something made by gods.
While the transporter erected the rocket onto the pad like some sort of robotic pole vaulter, Pádraigín climbed the gantry ladder. Even just fifty feet up, she could see the flat black sheet of Carrowmore Lake to the south. Although the hill to the west blocked her view of Belmullet and the ocean beyond, she could smell the spray on the air and when the wind stopped whistling in her ears, she fancied she could hear the occasional energetic breaker.
The erector completed its work, allowing Pádraigín to look inside the hatch. You couldn’t stretch to calling it a capsule. In a void between an instrument bay in the nose cone and the top of what may have been a fuel tank that looked like it was made from fiberglass was stretched a printed acceleration couch. It was little more than thin strips of aluminum covered with memory foam.
There was just enough room for one occupant in a bulky suit, a CO2 scrubber, and a small bag of her belongings. There was no window—anything Mickey thought she should see could be directed to a HUD screen inside the helmet.
Was this really what Mairéad had ridden to the stars? “To do something,” she had said. It didn’t seem to matter what, or how.
Twelve hours later, Pádraigín was suited, booted, and bolted into the capsule. Her headset squawked.
“You all right up there?”
“Yes, just admiring my digs.”
“Are you ready?”
“I suppose so.”
“What, no countdown?”
“I love you pet.”
“I love you too Mam.”
Mickey pressed the screen with her bad hand, and then raised it to shield her eyes as the engines lit. She followed the vessel until it strained past the low clouds south over Achill, her cries lost in the crackling bellow of rocket fire.
The priest met Mickey outside the parlor in Belmullet, a good-looking young fellow. You didn’t see many young priests anymore, thought Mickey. She wondered if he even was a priest, or was he just an extra that the company had paid to officiate? How many more families were having to go through this? There surely couldn’t be that many priests around anymore, could there?
The young man welcomed her into a neutral office, and in calm, official tones, said he had certified the DNA test results and the feed from the hab. He handed her an isolation visor and kept talking as she put it on, his voice moving from real, but thin, to the rich electronic tones relayed in her headphones.
“Another official will be present at that end,” he said.
Mickey nodded. Whether religious or civil, they merely had to validate the security of the feed, so that the formal family identification would hold up in any inquest or later civil case. The priest asked her if she wanted anyone to join her. Mickey shook her head. The headgear was light, but had enough heft to accentuate the motion, adding a tantrumish feel to the gesture.
The priest asked if she was ready. She said yes and an image resolved itself out of the deep blue swirl of the two screens before her eyes, like a digital curtain being pulled aside.
The room was largely gray, a mortuary somewhere on Arbutus, with at least partial gravity. Mickey half-inhaled a sob. There she was. She was not strapped down to the slab, she just lay there, still, a sheet pulled up to her clavicles.
Her hair was the wrong color, surely? This was drab brown, like a week-old horse chestnut. She could see a knot on her right temple and the telltale broken blood vessels in her cheeks. Thankfully, the eyes were closed. The pathologist had said she had been knocked unconscious, probably striking her head against a strut or pipe, or struck by a piece of debris when the hab vented.
“She asphyxiated, but she was not awake. She wouldn’t have felt any of it.” She supposed he was trying to be kind.
Mickey slipped her hand into the haptic glove and watched the articulated hand on the hab follow her movements with minimal latency. She slowed her hand before touching her cheek with the back of her fingers. The skin was cold, but Mickey didn’t know if that was because the glove lacked the ability to transmit heat information or just because she was touching cold flesh.
She ran the glove through the hair, feeling the softness of the strands, and refused to weep.
“It’s her,” she said.
On the beach on the leeward side of the tower, where locals and spectators were tolerated on launch days, there had been no hors d’oeuvres. Limp, gray sandwiches, the occasional greasy bag of deep-fried dillisk, and flasks of tea and coffee were passed around.
The crowd’s excitement seemed inversely proportional to the dullness of their snacks. She had marveled that so many people could still be rocket junkies even now. These were the left-behinds, the people who lacked either the resources or the youth or the ignorant desperation to relocate to the orbitals and habs of the Torc, its thin pearlescent line visible zooming overhead even during the day.
Yet all of the spectators had looked smilingly west, their cheeks ruddy, their hair wisping this way and that in the breeze, exhilarated merely to witness what had become a mundane feat of engineering, a firework in a graying world.
One little girl, crowned with a bird’s nest of hair the color of stripped electrical wire, reminded her of Mairéad when she was little. She hopped and skipped around her mother like a sand flea freed from beneath an upended stone, ignoring her parents as they alternated between exasperated hushing and excited pointing at the launchpad, lest she miss a thing.
In the first, soundless flashbulb instant of the Murchú’s destruction, Mickey looked along the beach at the little girl. Incomprehension and old-fashioned awe fought for space on the child’s freckled face. Then came the noise, and her parents bundled her up, away from harm. At that point, all resemblance to Mairéad was lost. Mairéad, sadly, had never been afraid of anything.
Past the frozen spectators, their jaws slack, their vacuum flasks bleeding heat into the evening’s chill air, Mickey hobbled defiantly up the dead beach’s shingle, without once turning back.
Finbarr O’Reilly is an Irish speculative fiction writer who likes to explore how broken
technologies or unearthly events affect intimate locales. Why would you want to write
about alien battleships invading New York when you can imagine little green men asking for directions from a short-tempered undertaker in Carrigtwohill, Co Cork.
He has previously been published in Clarkesworld and in the anthologies The Best Science Fiction of the Year, edited by Neil Clarke, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Gardner Dozois.
Finbarr has worked as a journalist for almost twenty years, most of those as a sub-editor (copy-editor).
Like many Irish writers, Finbarr lives in self-imposed exile. He currently resides with his wife and two children in a small town in Lincolnshire, UK, too far from the sound of gulls and the smell of saltwater.