“The World has become an assemblage of voices…a multitude of opinion and dubious factoids…So little of our constructed ‘universe’ do we actually ever bear witness to.”
– Fred Best
Alex Kobaknov gazed uneasily through the rectangular port window. The eternal satin cloak which enclosed him had been more haunting of late. At this range out into the impenetrable cavities of the galaxy, the reassuring glint of the stars was negligible – and with no planetary bodies close-at-hand there were no tangible reference points with which to converse.
Captain of the Sartorious – a long-range exploration cruiser departed from Earth orbit – Kobaknov cursed his present situation as he turned and inspected the swollen rivets on a nearby bulkhead. Hastily pressed into service, the Sartorious stood testament to the logic of WSEA – the bromidically named World Space Exploration Agency.
“Untested software crammed inside inadequate machinery”, Kobaknov grunted ruefully as he shuffled down the portside serviceway towards the medical pod. The thrum and shudder of the air-conditioning system rang above his head and a spool of ungainly wiring slunk beside his slipper clad feet, running the length of the long, cramped corridor.
When the Institute for Interstellar Research in Dubai had proudly unveiled the results of their quiescent Mars reconnaissance mission, nobody could have reasonably foreseen the radical schisms that would engulf the World.
Leader of the project, Professor Joseph K. Schwartz had stood at the podium beneath the glaring middle-East sun and announced that a manned mission to the ‘Red Planet’ had recovered a fragment of material which, it was speculated, could lead to a new era of human exploration. A previously undiscovered chemical element, Schwartz enunciated to a meagre knot of bored journalists, held the key to faster-than-light travel; an element which he and his fellow scientists had now successfully manufactured on Earth. In conjunction with a mass of past experimentation and advances in ‘light-speed’ simulations conducted over several years, the element – the name for which was still being fiercely argued over and which originated within the Mars rock fragment – had provided the catalyst to a new avenue of thought for the scientists as the IIR.
Keeping the precise details of the discovery childishly simple so as not to further disengage the already reticent crowd – who sat chewing pen lids, typing, scribbling notes and gulping complimentary bottles of water – the professor happily concluded his announcement and awaited questions which predictably never arrived.
Unsurprisingly, the discoveries heralded by Schwartz and the IIR were not immediately received with world-wide celebration or by universal enthusiasm.
The World had grown blasé about such scientific nonentities, the very notion of space travel and exploration beyond the boundaries of Earth’s own atmosphere. Wearying decades had passed since the ill-conceived Space-Shuttle program had brought an end to NASA – the once grand U.S Space agency – and vigorously snatched with it any optimism or romance that mankind once held for the universe.
Upon the penultimate scheduled shuttle flight – where a series of “critical” (according to an official mission summary) solar radiation experiments were to take place – a wayward commander had inexplicably defied ground orders from Houston and manoeuvred the vehicle into too higher an orbit, causing it to coast listlessly into the vastness of outer space.
All seven crew were lost during the incident; unsalvageable, unreachable and confined to an eternal graveyard – insufficient fuel to return to Earth and consigned to forever stretching out ahead of them. In the aftermath, the space agency was chastised under the microscope of the entire world’s media where subsequently massive systemic incompetence and lethargy were exposed throughout the organisation. The space program – it was acutely observed – had grown lazy and tired. On this occasion, a failure to satisfactorily screen their crews’ psychologically was cited as a critical and ultimately terminal error in a concluding document presented before United States Senate.
The U.S government, weary of such embarrassment and scathing scrutiny – with the heroic successes of the increasingly ancient Apollo missions distant and fading artefacts in the Smithsonian – called an immediate cessation to funding for its space agency. The case of the rogue commander – Thomas McGinty – was hastily arrested and closed with no conclusive or enlightening information as to the specifics of his breakdown ever released.
Files were boxed, padlocks fitted and the lofty gantries and the monstrous Vehicle-Assembly-Building at the Kennedy Space Centre became inert starkly strewn beacons jettisoned across the east Florida coastline. Ghostly corroding skeletons of a time of patriotism and vitality.
In the wake of the collapse of NASA, a movement of public thought emerged; one devoted singularly towards anti-space sentiments. Coming under increasing political and public pressure, the remaining major space agencies of Russia and China were forced to curtail their own projects and cease any thoughts of future space exploration. Just as in east Florida, great graveyards – formerly proud space gateways – now appeared at Baikonur and Nanhui; Rotting, looming edifices of steel and concrete; moss and weeds sprouting amongst them feverishly – birds gracefully twisting and gliding about the gargantuan aching structures, their chirps and squawks the only sound for miles.
Humanity had sneered at the great unknowns of the universe, collectively shrugged its shoulders and was thus contentedly confined to the Earth once more.
But now on that ferociously hot morning – despite the dusty, earth-cracking heat and the lassitude of his audience – Professor Schwartz clenched his fist energetically in proclamation. He was a slenderly built man of sixty; fine brown hair interspersed with strands of white and maladroitly arranged teeth which jarred and lay at slightly odd angles, but now he was temporarily endowed with the allure and strength of a man half his age as he outlined a future in space for the isolated and distant globe on which he and his audience resided:
“Humanity has for too long lived in the shadows of past failures”, he cried in almost falsetto pitch, ending his speech, a strand of sweat-drenched hair slapping against his brow. “We must move forward as one and begin to explore our universe once again. We believe that the potential to travel at unprecedented speeds is now within our grasp. Today we have the keys to our collective future!”
Alex Kobaknov was living in what he was increasingly convinced was an uncertain and dubious present. He strenuously wrenched the bulky steel handle of the medical pod door down and heaved the weighty mass with his shoulder. Inside it was blissfully quiet. An alternative atmospheric system of superior quality served this area of the ship and the air was cool and refreshing; the faint odour of disinfectant lingered wantonly. This idyllic silence was suddenly permeated by an abrupt beep from a console and this reminded Kobaknov of the reason for this short but significant diversion from his maintenance rounds. Sliding past a series of white steel cabinets and a bank of switches and screens, Kobaknov Peered through a thick perspex window in the far corner of the cramped room.
Through the mist of vapour he was generating from his mouth, Kobaknov observed Mathers – his fellow crewmate. Lying prostrate on a thin medical bed, Mathers reminded Kobaknov of a corpse in a morgue; as if he were in attendance in order to identify the deceased with a grim nod of his head and a rueful stare – just like in a film he thought he could vaguely remember. The persistent pinging of the life monitoring equipment reminded him though, that for all Mathers’ idleness, he was still very much alive.
“How you doing?” Kobaknov enquired futilely, only the silent air providing a reply. “You just keep fighting”, he then uttered almost involuntarily, gently thumping his forehead against the transparent screen and sighing deeply. Turning away from the crisp light of the observation room, Kobaknov glanced at a small monitor which displayed a series of graphs and numerical figures which he dutifully acknowledged with an affirmative nod of his head. Edging hesitantly towards the cumbersome door, he flashed a rueful look back towards the other man’s cell and then quickly swung the creaking steel plate ajar, stumbling back into the cluttered, chattering corridor.
Making his way briskly back along the tunnel-like passageway, past a multitude of instrument panels and conduits which criss-crossed and dispersed into several directions, Kobaknov was halted abruptly by something in the window at which he had stood looking earlier. It was not anything outside however which struck him, for all that lay there was the unchanging still blackness, coldly glaring back with distain just as before.
It was the reflection of his own self which caught him by surprise and halted his progress. Checking back a stride and edging closer, Kobaknov narrowed his eyes and examined his appearance as a biologist might inspect some new species in a petri dish. He was of average height – five feet ten roughly – and had a strong, athletic build which he had done well to retain during his time in space. A crop of medium-length dark brown hair covered his head and he regarded his piercing blue eyes flashing back from the bleak abyss beyond. There was something there though; something which Kobaknov could not ascertain with any clarity; a difference in him – in those eyes. He thoughtfully tilted his head in a fashion reminiscent of an inquisitive canine and stroked his chin. The neat and fairly handsome jawline of his youth was still intact and striking enough, yet he felt disconnected from himself. A curious revelation most certainly.
Now staring beyond his visage into the blackness, he realised that he rarely looked at himself properly any longer for he had little reason to. He was able to shave efficiently and keep his hair in adequate shape with the facilities onboard and with nobody else around he had all but no purpose for cosmetic grooming or primping. In the time that he had been aboard (how long was it exactly?), he had slowly changed; aged, grown – without any great notice to himself.
“Hmm”, he murmured, “Gettin’ old Alex”, before shaking himself from this temporary stupor and slinking onward, his padded feet softly slapping on the steel deckplates.
Much to the delight of the IIR and Professor Schwartz, the breviloquent reports of those few weary and sun-stroked journalists in Dubai made their way back to editors across the globe carrying much greater gravitas than may have reasonably been expected.
In the intervening years after the termination of the space-age, the economies of the World superpowers had stagnated and atrophied. The U.S, China, the U.A.E and Europe had achieved a heightened state of equilibrium – one once thought impossible to achieve – trading freely and copiously with one-another and retaining a tight grip over the other nations in doing so. An endless chain of goods and wares was produced and manufactured in the ‘secondary’ nations and shipped to the blossoming tertiary economies of the world giants who generated seeming limitless employment through ever-expanding civil positions and state affiliated industry. This mutually beneficial trade had negated the need for armed conflicts, so fleets of warships endlessly circled the seas; their hungry crews eager for excitement. Like many industries such as car manufacturers and food suppliers, military contractors continued to manufacture new tanks, fighters and weaponry regardless of any deficit of requirement – vast stockpiles amassing in hidden silos – destined never to be called into action or put into use.
Lacking any new natural resources to explore, plunder or exploit, the major economic powers had staved off the threat of pollution and climate change by investing limitlessly in a series of giant ‘bio-domes’ which provided protection for entire continents. These enormous structures resembled semi-built green houses and stretched several miles into the sky. A specially developed mesh constituted the panels and allowed atmospheric moisture and precipitation to pass through unchallenged but kept the lethal radiation of space at bay; from space the world now resembled an unfinished jigsaw puzzle, gargantuan sheaves layering vast expanses of populated areas.
Making such a cause a global priority, these monstrous and improbable structures were completed within twenty years, with the labour they required to build creating millions of jobs and swelling economies beyond all previous levels. As a result, the superpowers finally reached the conclusion to the journey they had been set upon for many decades and fell into a defacto socialist state; the government creating – either directly or through sub-contracts – some ninety-five percent of all employment World-wide.
In the aftermath of these great ventures, the governments of the economic giants were faced with the prospect of sudden unemployment – mass unemployment of millions. With no more great communal projects to devote their collective efforts towards, governments tried desperately to stimulate private industry in order to reduce the dependency of their populations upon them alone. The stagnant state of world trade though did not facilitate new business. Multinational corporations had taken an unshakable grasp over what remained of the major free markets, leaving no new space for fresh ideas or opportunists. People had grown placid and inert, generations now growing up with centralised state salaries and subsidies to fatten them. Now these governmental jobs were waning rapidly as the final remnants of the ‘bio-domes’ projects ground to a close; the last alloy trusses manufactured and the final screws locked into place. Automated businesses and robotic production lines; labour exclusively residing in what eventually were labelled ‘inventory’ nations by economists; unemployment rose and rose. National economies were drained and drained beyond breaking point and an unprecedented financial crisis lurked closely in the shadows.
The taciturn, privately funded and secret Mars exploration project of the IIR was to unexpectedly offer timely relief to these extraordinary problems.
The tiny pod containing three crew drawn from military personnel – who clamoured at the chance to return to active duty after many years of peacetime and inertia – was conceived as a direct replication of the now historic Apollo and Soyuz missions. With no space travel to draw upon for many decades, the engineers and scientists of the program returned to a tested (if archaic) model for their experimental journey; only the outdated and inefficient engine designs of the Russian R-7 and the gargantuan Saturn V rocket were replaced in this new design.
Touching down in the sweltering heat the United Arab Emirates desert on a dusty runway – their two-year mission at an end – the tired, gaunt crew of expedition and their cargo were to find themselves the saviours of the economic superpowers.