Short Story of the Month
‘The Station’ by Jaki McCarrick
Our new short story of the month is ‘The Station’ by Jaki McCarrick.
Jaki McCarrick lives in Dundalk and studied at Trinity College, Dublin. She is an award-winning playwright and short story writer and also writes poetry and novels. Her play Belfast Girls has been performed around the world and was shortlisted for the Susan Smith Blackburn Award and BBC Tony Doyle Award. Her collection of short stories The Scattering (Seren, 2014) was shortlisted for Edge Hill Prize.
Pearl sat at the control desk staring into the dark. There was still something intoxicating to her about Space, even though she’d been based on the Station for over two years. Any brightness at all, a distant star or satellite, passing spacecrafts or debris, caught her eye like birds had done when she was a child. She brought the same captive attention to the bright things she saw, and such chinks in the permanent blackness often made her feel sad because of her memories of birds.
As she sat back in the swivel chair, lost in her thoughts, on the nightshift, she heard the entry buzzer ring once then several times in quick succession. Alarmed, she put her mouthpiece on, gripped the microphone and said: ‘XX docking station. How can I help?’ At the other end of the line was a male voice, crackling and urgent. He appeared to want immediate entry. ‘It’s impossible,’ Pearl said. She was about to end the call – the request was not an uncommon one – travellers (other than those scheduled to arrive) with craft difficulties, or who’d run out of supplies, had often requested entry to, or help from, the Station, and the response was always the same: no to the male travellers, a yes definitely to the female. ‘Good luck,’ Pearl said, but the voice was insistent. ‘Of course I know the Galaxy Act. Do you? The Act says you cannot enter XX atmosphere. We have strict …’ The voice proceeded to tell her that she was wrong, that the Galaxy Act had been amended. ‘I will have to check,’ she said. She pressed the buzzer for the captain’s room. ’Barbara? I’m so sorry but you need to get down here.’ She cut the call dead before Barbara had a chance to reprimand her, which Pearl could hear from her captain’s tone was likely. Pearl returned to the call and heard a loud explosion down the line. It had such force she clutched her ears to wring out the noise, like water from a wet cloth. She shook her head, took a deep breath and replaced the earpiece over one ear, the pad slanted forward onto her lobe: the man was clearly panicking. ‘Which engine?’ she said. ‘Look, calm down. My name? Pearl. Yours?’ She felt the presence then of Barbara behind her, removed her mouthpiece and turned towards her captain, who, Pearl could see, was frantically chewing her lip.
‘I heard. On my radio. It’s an exploratory mission from Earth. Ship went down two hours ago. That must be the survivor. How many engines left?’ Barbara said.
‘None,’ Pearl said. ‘He says the Galaxy Act has been changed. Did you know about that?’ Barbara nodded and looked to the floor.
‘We’ve been working on a press release. I just didn’t expect it to impact us so soon. You see, now, we must assist all persons in distress, no matter what their gender.’ Pearl could hear the male screaming at her down the line.
‘Do I – or don’t I – open the shaft?’ Pearl said. Barbara drew up a chair and sat beside her officer.
‘His current position?’
‘Outside. As in clinging to the edge of the fucking ship.’ Barbara sat back and shook her head.
‘Remind me to write Demoted due to insubordination in your file.’
‘Will do, Ma’am,’ Pearl said. Pearl was without doubt her cheekiest recruit, Barbara thought. She'd been a child soldier in the last American Civil War, and seemed to hold no truck with anyone who was not as high-minded or principled as she, so that when she swore, her greatest vice (as far as Barbara knew), Barbara exploited it to the full. The captain began to tap the counter, furiously.
‘If we break the new Galaxy Act we will be fined. There may be sanctions on XX. Everyone on it will hate us.’ The buzzer rattled on the desk; the man, sick of waiting, was pressing it incessantly, as if he’d thrown his whole weight against it.
‘Captain, I think we need to open the shaft,’ Pearl said.
‘Call Claire.’ Within minutes Claire was in the control room, her hands covered in soil. She carried a large houseplant.
‘What is it?’ the biologist said. Barbara readied herself and unpacked a gun from her holster. She checked it for bullets and cocked it.
‘We have a visitor,’ Barbara said.
‘Cool. Who is it?’ Clare said.
‘I’ll tell you who it is. It buggered up Earth and everything on it, that’s who.’ Barbara walked to the shaft, pressed a four-digit code into the panel and pulled down the lever. There was a trembling, whirring sound and the shaft door opened. The man outside fell into the space, as if thrown from a catapult. He wore a corporation logo-ed space suit which was torn to ribbons and covered in black oil but which had nonetheless cushioned his fall. When he stood and removed his helmet, the women noticed, all in their own way, in a different order of detail, that he was tall, blonde, longhaired and in his mid to late-thirties. Barbara turned to her two officers, and said,
‘That ladies, is the male of the species.’
‘He says his name’s Kurt,’ Pearl said, Barbara continued to point her gun at the man, while Pearl faced him with clenched fists ready for any potential fight, just as she’d seen in films, especially cowboy films, of life with men on Earth, while Claire smiled and said,
‘Welcome to the Station, Kurt.’
Pearl pulled out a pack of cards from her pocket and invited Claire to join her on the sofa – on which they would occasionally chat to travellers who would dock en route to or from XX. The stylish sofa area was set up to receive just such guests. But Claire declined Pearl’s offer and carried on with her cacti-tending, quietly listening to her captain on the phone to HQ.
‘Yes, Ma’am. No, no weapons as far as we can see. We should be fine. Until then, over and out.’ Pearl looked up from her cards.
‘They want us to take him to base,’ Barbara said.
‘You’re kidding?’ Pearl said.
‘But no man has ever set foot on XX. He might have a disease or something,’ Claire said. Pearl nodded in agreement. Claire would know about such things.
‘The leadership want us to debrief him, so to speak, here on the Station,’ Barbara said. ‘We’re to make sure he’s not some anti-feminist fundamentalist, and that, as you say, Claire, he isn’t carrying disease, especially as in some kind of purposeful Trojan horse situation. If he clears criteria for entry, we are to bring him to XX the morning after tomorrow.’
‘It is tomorrow,’ Pearl said. Barbara sighed in agreement with her officer and ran her fingers through her hair, which, after several months of dry shampooing was hard and thick as rats’ tails. She realised then that the only person who’d managed to get into the shower this night/morning was the inveigler, Kurt. She stretched her long neck upwards, like a heron, then side to side, as she always did when deep in private thought.
‘Then what?’ Claire said.
‘Then what is not our concern, Claire. But if you must know, once on XX, within twenty-four hours a ship will arrive to take him – Kurt – either to an Earth station or Earth itself.’
‘But surely that potentially means more men on XX?’ Claire said.
‘Our Dear Leader is insisting the ship coming to retrieve him be “manned” by women.’
‘Oh, that’s a good idea,’ Claire said.
‘I thought so,’ Barbara said and smiled.
‘One of yours?’ Pearl said. Barbara nodded. Pearl’s shaved head began to drop involuntarily to her chest. She was tired. As XX leadership had now given their instructions she hoped to slip into her room for a few hours’ sleep. She put the cards into their box and put the box in her pocket.
‘And if they don’t give him clearance?’ Pearl said, lethargically.
‘Then they’ll probably send him out in a suit.’
'Nice,’ Pearl said. Everyone in this part of Space knew that the worst way to travel was in a suit, no matter how much Artificial Intelligence was in it. If the electronics packed up, that was it; you had no shelter and nowhere to go. It was like sending a homeless man in the coldest part of Earth out onto the streets with a sleeping bag and a phone.
Barbara, like Pearl, could at this point think of nothing else but sleep. She was exhausted and thought of loosening her collar but could not bring herself to drop her guard in front of her associates.
‘HQ has also asked me to ensure one thing, and we should all observe it, as apparently it’s a specific instruction from the Leader herself.’
‘And that is, Captain?’ Claire said.
‘The male must not be allowed use any of our comms until he reaches XX, whereupon he will be allowed to contact his family, if he has any,’ Barbara said.
‘Why’s that?’ Pearl said.
‘The Leader didn’t say. And quite frankly I couldn’t care less why. Let’s just get some shut-eye, and we’ll proceed in the morning with the debriefing. Meanwhile, Claire, your shift begins as of now. The male awaits. I just need to get some files.’ The Captain pulled a few folders down from a shelf, gathered them into her arms. At last thought Pearl, I can get to bed. She walked over to the desk, made sure all was as it should be and glanced again out at the wide black vista before her, unchanged by the events of the evening, as she knew it would be.
‘You know it’s really hard to believe that for hundreds of thousands of years, if not millennia, the terrestrial male ruled supreme. One simply can’t fathom what all the fuss was about,’ Claire said.
‘He said they were looking for water supplies. Though, I’m surprised they were out this far. By Ganymede there are actual Earth base-stations. I would have thought they’d have at least stayed put in that weather. I’d have kept the ship out of that storm. Anyway. That’s it. I’m off.’
‘Goodnight, Pearl. And remember: Debriefing at dawn. You’re first. Try to get the details of his thwarted mission,’ Barbara said. ‘So that’s all of fifty-five minutes sleep.’
‘Great. Goodnight, Captain,’ Pearl said.
‘See to the settings will you Claire? I’ll see you in the morning.’
‘Yes, Captain. Goodnight.’
‘Goodnight, Corporal. And take this. You might need it.’ Barbara placed her gun on the coffee table in front of the sofa. With both of her more senior associates out of the room, Claire went towards it. She had done basic training on XX but she was not a soldier; she was afraid of weaponry. Even as a young student she'd hated any kind of animal dissection; Claire was about life, not death. Pearl was the soldier. Claire went to her tallest cactus, now straining the ceramic walls of its duck-egg blue pot. As she tidied the topsoil, removing fallen needles from it, she could hear movement in the shower room. A throat was cleared. She heard spit hit the sink. The toilet flushed.
‘Hel-lo?’ The man said, low-voiced, from behind the door of the shower room.
‘Yes?’ Claire said.
‘I was just wondering where my coat or my …’
To the half-open door of the shower room, Claire said,
‘Your clothes are being fumigated. I’m to show you to your room where you’ll find a clean set laid out for you.’
‘OK,’ the man said. At this Claire returned to her cactus, which she intended placing, finally, now that she had divested it of all dead and rotting needles, upon the coffee table.
‘I just hope you have something that fits,’ Kurt said. Claire turned, pot in hand, to face the now cleaned-up astronaut standing outside the shower room, naked from head to toe, at which the plant slipped from Claire’s hands and went crashing to the floor.
Pearl sat in the debriefing room with Kurt. Before them on the table was a tray, on which sat a large cafetiere of coffee, two cups, a bowl of sugar and several sachets of powdered cream. She'd made the coffee strong and she could see the man wince each time he sipped it though he didn't complain. The fresh boiler suit clung tightly to his body, the trouser-ends falling inches above his ankles.
‘We’d been in Space three, four months. Had just sighted water, too, when the storms came. Asteroids brushed past us, space turned all shades of green and purple, flashes of gold and pink. I’ve never seen anything like it; Space thunder they call it; and you don’t want to get caught up in that shit. Anyway, we got some damage to the rear. Both my men were outside trying to fix it when their attachments came loose, probably burned through. I went out, took one of the men on my back, other on my shoulders, hauled them in, but in the end it was no use. They were pretty much dead already. I tried to get some help from Koval; it’s a part-Mars part-Earth sub-station, but no one was answering. Then I thought of the XX station out here so I called you. And you answered. Two good men I lost. They had kids, wives.’ The man looked to the ceiling and sighed.
‘You did your best,’ Pearl said.
‘I suppose I did.’
‘Do you have a family?’
‘No, I’m a company man. Well, I was. Until I saw the company didn’t give a flying fuck.’ Pearl smiled, her pen poised delicately on her notepad. She was temped to write a man after my own heart but didn’t. Kurt said,
‘Once the Pine Island Glacier had turned to melt water, our mountains were submerged and fresh water supplies were hard to find. Hence our water mission. You know, Pearl, we should have let women run Earth a long time ago. There’d be no drought then, I’m sure of it.’
‘I wish I could believe that, Kurt.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well I’m of the opinion the Company’s the Company no matter who’s running it, male or female.’ At this, Pearl saw the door to the room swing open and quickly sat upright in the chair. Her captain entered. Pearl stood as did Kurt. Pearl noticed that Barbara looked a little different, there was colour on her lips, her eyes kohl-lined.
‘Good morning, Captain Robinson. Morning Pearl,’ Barbara said.
‘Morning,’ Kurt said.
‘Please, sit. Oh I’m glad to see you’ve had a hearty breakfast.’ Barbara eyed Pearl, haughtily.
‘Yes Ma’am,’ Kurt said. Pearl was about to explain that their visitor had only wanted coffee when he interjected,
‘Coffee is all the breakfast I need. I’m more an evening meal type of guy.’
‘Kurt here is all in order,’ Pearl said. ‘He presents no apparent threat to XX that I can see; there’s no dynamite on his person, though Claire will have to fully confirm.’ Kurt laughed at this. ‘Other than that, I guess he passes my test with flying colours. As far as I’m concerned he's cleared to enter XX.’ She stamped the papers before her and passed them to Barbara.
‘Great. Claire will take some blood samples from you later. But first, Captain Robinson, before visitors are allowed on XX they must be fully acquainted with the principles of the State. So, if you’d kindly like to step out now, take a left at the end of the corridor, you will see what we on the ship call the Wall of Honour, which is, to all intents and purposes, a potted history of our planet and its establishment. I shall join you presently.’
‘So I passed the test?’ Kurt said, his legs crossed, his hairy hands resting on top of his top knee.
‘The first one, yes,’ Barbara said. Kurt nodded.
‘Just turn left as you exit. The officer and I will need to convene for a moment.’
‘Oh,’ Kurt said.
‘End of the corridor. Turn left,’ Barbara said, again, and Kurt exited the room and was gone from sight. As they waited for him to be also out of earshot, Pearl said,
‘Fuck, Barbara. We’ve got a real life hero on our hands,’ and handed her captain her file of notes. Barbara quickly scanned these:
‘Two men lost. Wrestled with storm. One man on his back, another on his shoulder. Fascinating. Send a report to base at once. They will no doubt want to inform Earth that we seem to have chanced upon one of their finest specimens.’ Barbara left the room to find Kurt.
She walked with him along the corridor. All along the wall were pictures of XX luminaries. She stopped at a large photograph of a white mouse.
‘This is Kaguya.’
‘Okay,’ said Kurt.
‘A mouse, but a very important mouse,’ said Barbara. ‘You see, Kaguya was born without a father. The first of many.’
‘Oh. Manipulation of DNA?' Kurt said, his firm jaw now seemingly firmer, as if he were adopting a pose.
‘Exactly. Fertilised by material from another egg, manipulated to act like …’
‘Semen, sperm,’ Kurt said.
‘Exactly,’ Barbara said and walked further along, a little ahead of Kurt. She could feel the man’s eyes on her as she walked and in truth she enjoyed this new feeling. Kurt caught up with her, his hands now folded over each other behind his back in mimicry of his host.
‘Tell me, Captain – are males ever born on XX?’ Barbara stood stock-still and stared at him.
‘No, Mr. Robinson. Simply because there are no y-chromosomes on XX. The egg fertilised by the pseudo sperm material gives rise only to more xx material. Xx fertilised by xx cannot give rise to xy. Naturally.’
‘Uh-huh,’ Kurt said and walked on. Barbara stopped at another picture. This one was large and in a gilt-edged frame.
‘This is Hung Chung Liu. Dr. Liu created the first womb outside the human body. The final step towards full female emancipation.’
‘Surely you were emancipated before that? I seem to recall learning about that at school.’
‘No, Kurt we were not.’
‘No. You see, the artificial womb completely disrupted the notion of parenthood. Men no longer needed women to nurture their shared babies, as they could do it themselves. And as women did not thenceforth need to interrupt careers, it was the final separation of the inter-reliance of the genders. Put simply, we no longer needed each other to reproduce.’
‘I see,’ said Kurt.
‘And that’s when our leader established the XX project. And here she is.’ They had arrived at a small canvas this time, which was completely blank.
‘But there’s noth …’
‘This is because no one has ever seen her.’
‘Has she a name?’
‘She has, but no one can be quite sure if it’s correct. Though she is rumoured to be quite old now.’
‘What is it? The name.’
‘Oh some say it’s Gloria, some say Germaine. But don’t quote me on that. Anyway. Shall we move along?’
Kurt Robinson passed his health exam and was approved to go to XX the following morning to be picked up by a team from an unspecified Earth station. The women of XX Station arranged to have dinner with him that evening. It had been a long time since they’d had a guest spend the evening with them, and usually when this happened they made it something of an occasion.
After the meal of Ramen and Sake, they sat about the sofa in the control room. Pearl had brought her stash of vodka and was happy to share it once the Sake was drunk. It was a joy, she thought, to hear in the room the more baritone notes of the male voice, something she did not realise she would like or had even missed. She and Barbara had been born on Earth. They once had fathers. Only Claire knew absolutely nothing of men and earth. The man was holding court, and there was something about him that reminded her of her father; he was compelling, charming, jovial. Somewhere in her being she did not trust this quality but she could not help admiring it. She listened intently, with some sadness as Kurt said,
‘The great joy of the Earth is music. Bach. The Goldberg Variations. Bands of a bygone century, Joy Division, The Cure. I want The Cure played at my funeral. Even the journeys to and out of Earth are remarkable. You pass through great skyscapes: Cassiopeia, Orion. You soon realize that even the darkest, most inhospitable places of our Milky Way are astonishing. One almost feels one does not have the right to see them. The first time, it changed me. When I returned to Earth I began to see the same wonder in a weed or a blade of grass. The journey humbles you, I suppose. The great shame is that I, and perhaps all who come to Space need such humbling.’ From the room came a clap. Pearl turned to see Claire, entranced by Kurt’s speech. And was that a tear streaking down Barbara’s powdered face?
‘I would like to propose a toast. To Kurt. For passing his “no gonorrhea, no virus, no dynamite” test with flying colours,’ Barbara said. The women clinked glasses and drank.
‘Enchanté,’ Kurt said. Claire scooped up the remains of the Ramen and gathered the plates onto a tray. As Pearl went to help her she saw that Barbara was leaning into Kurt.
‘I’m looking forward to seeing your planet, Captain. I hear it’s beautiful,’ Kurt said.
‘It’s every bit as beautiful as they say,’ Barbara said, then hesitated, ‘but sometimes – ‘
‘Yes,’ said Kurt.
‘Just it feels like, lately, well to illustrate, to give you an example, how it must have done for the Cubans after Castro died, or Ireland a hundred years after the Republic. You know what I mean?’
‘I think I know what you’re saying. Perhaps, you’re a little disillu …’
Barbara jumped to the floor quickly, as if to stop herself saying too much. Kurt could see she was quite tipsy on the weak vodka, and flushed.
‘Like a part of me, the wild part, the bad part, the male part perhaps …’ she continued.
‘You’re xx - you don’t have a male part,’ Kurt said.
‘That’s true, I don’t. But I was born on Earth. I had a real father.’
‘But you were saying.’
‘A part of me,’ she said.
‘The bad girl part,’ he said.
‘Can’t help thinking … thinking … that it’s all so dreadfully odd.’
‘What is?’ Kurt said.
‘XX. Itself. Not the female bit but the society-built-on-ideals bit, the sort of national falling in with “the great idea”. For instance, and rebellious Pearl would love to hear me talk like this –– but as her superior officer I simply can’t sort of reveal myself to her, so to speak, but –– every year for the past ten years there have been more rules. Every year more taxes, more reminders of how terrible you men are and how great the great leader is –– whom we've never ever seen.’
‘And who might be called Gloria or Germaine.’
‘Eggsackly,’ said Barbara and hiccupped.
‘And what about love?’
‘Love, Mr. Robinson?’
‘This is what we always wonder about you inhabitants of XX. How you all get by without love.’ Barbara became indignant at this remark:
‘Mr. Robinson. On XX we love our children, each other, the land, our plants, pets. Some women love each other. In the way I think you mean. This is fine, is quite common, actually.’ Here Barbara lowered her voice and looked about. ‘Pearl for instance, I think. But others … many of us … look for love beyond Eros.’
‘So you don’t … well, I suppose you can’t.’
‘Stupid question. Obviously, you can’t. Not properly. Because you have no.’
‘Oh I see what you mean. No, as you say we have no. If we did, I suppose that would make us … but we do have … products. An enormous range of products.’ At this Barbara caught sight of Claire’s cactus and blushed profusely.
‘Not that I.’
‘But I’m not talking about sex, Kurt.’ Kurt nodded in agreement.
‘I’m talking about - the soul. My soul. The loneliness of it.’ Barbara felt her mouth running ceremoniously away from her mind, as if the alcohol had created a direct and one-way highway to her complicated heart.
‘Something is missing. And essentially –– your question –– how we cope without love. Well people, XX people, us women, have begun to feel it. There have been rumbles of rebellion. The Leader must know about it. Hence the rules, the increasingly terrible reports of you Earthmen. What I’m trying to say is, that on XX, I feel, a lot of us feel, to quote an old cliché, that “our other half” is missing and it’s not in our work, or in ourselves, nor for some of us in other women, and there’s nothing we can do to find it.’ Kurt refilled Barbara’s glass while taking no further drink for himself. Barbara gulped it down. He could feel her looking at him, differently than before, with greater and more intense curiosity.
‘Who are you?’ She said.
‘Just a guy in need of a ride home,’ Kurt said. ‘And who are you Barbara?’
‘Me? Oh, I’m like Kaguya. A little mouse who suspects she is not as free or liberated as she is told she is.’
‘That may be, but I assure you, Barbara, you are no mouse.’
‘I think,’ he said. Barbara loosened her collar. She drew close to the man and leaned against him.
‘Oh god, I think I’m going to be …’
She dreamt of the Cornish Sea and of her home in Treswythian. She saw the house, Elland, with its nine granite steps to the front door, the bay windows open to the south lawn, the French doors in the kitchen open to the vegetable garden. The dream moved through the house like a camera. She saw herself inside it, aged about 17 or 18, alone apart from her bedridden mother. She ached for this time in her life. The peaceful slumber of it, before the world had finally ripped itself asunder. She thought of her many journeys to the bookshelf at the end of the hall and how the middle floorboard always creaked as she hovered about the shelves, looking for a book. ‘Babs, is that you?’ her mother would say from inside the room in which she slept.
‘Yes Mummy, I’m here,’ she would say, feeling her youth drain away and her enquiring mind rot with every second in her dying mother’s company.
When she had found herself completely alone in the house after her mother’s death, she learned of the XX Project and decided Space had to be more exciting, more hopeful than the dark house in which she was all alone. XX represented revolution, connection, utopia. (She knows now that her decision to come to XX was based entirely on her desire to avoid grief and guilt and the feeling she had that her mother haunted the creaking hallway.) Now, she was captain of a station that was every bit as marooned as Elland had been. Only there was no sea, no feelings of connection to the past and to home. Was the house still standing? Was Treswythian? England? All these thoughts tumbled through her brain as she slept. Perhaps she could ask the man, Kurt, to enquire about Elland once he returned. Or perhaps not. She had cut ties with Earth, just as a novice nun cuts ties once she joins an order. Even in her dream she could sense herself weeping.
Pearl came off the phone after a long conversation with her friend Kate in XX Treasury. She had something important to tell her boss. She found Claire in the kitchen. The two were about to enter Central Control when Pearl could hear Barbara groaning from her bedroom. The door was open. Unsure if she were alone, she peeped inside to see that her Captain was slumped on the bed, a wet towel on her forehead. Pearl beckoned to Claire, who, seeing the worry etched on her colleague’s face swiftly entered Barbara’s room. She tapped Barbara lightly on the shoulder.
‘Hmmm …?’ Barbara said,
‘She stinks of vomit,’ Claire said. Pearl swapped places with Claire at the head of the bed and tried not to breathe too deeply in the sweet Ramen-y smell of Barbara’s breath.
‘I’m sorry it’s so late, Captain, but can we have a word?’ Barbara struggled to bring herself to seated on the bed. She pointed to a glass of water on her bedside table. Pearl handed it to her, and continued,
‘I’ve a friend. You know her, Kate? She just told me something.
'It’s fucking unbelievable.’
‘Spit it out, Officer.’
‘It’s to do with Kurt.’ Suddenly Barbara became more alert and aware of where she was, of the taste in her mouth, of her unloosed knotty hair. She fixed herself with her hands, licked her lips, gestured for Pearl to carry on.
‘Turns out the reason they don’t want him to call Earth while he’s on the Station is because the Leader has no intention of ever sending him back.’
‘What do you mean? It’s XX policy. No men. Why would they want to keep him there?’ Barbara said. She stood and drank down the water.
‘Think about it. Rumbles of rebellion on XX. Earth is collapsing. More and more missions out of earth, the need for resources. And here we are. We’ve stumbled upon beefcake that no one knows is missing yet; to all intents and purposes a hero; strong, handsome, and exploding with x fucking y.’
‘No, it couldn’t be.’
‘It’s true. Kate confirmed. Captain, the great Leader wants to build an army. And Kurt’s the source.’ Barbara threw her head to heaven and sighed. Pearl said,
‘So this is how I see it: we can do our jobs and send Kurt to XX at 6am tomorrow morning as planned …’
‘Where they will no doubt lock him up in a laboratory and attach probes,’ Claire said.
‘Replicate, duplicate,’ Pearl said.
‘Until he is a million men strong,’ Claire said.
‘Xy all over the planet; XX principles betrayed in one fell swoop,’ Barbara said.
‘Or we don’t do our job, and we leave the Station as soon as we can and take him to Earth ourselves,’ Pearl said. All three realised now they must lower their voices. Pearl closed over the door of Barbara’s room.
‘But that’s crazy. Besides, we don’t have enough fuel,’ Barbara said.
‘Maybe not to come back. But we’ve enough to get there,’ Pearl said.
‘Oh I don’t know. Why should we even care?’ Barbara said.
‘Because we’re better than that. And that was the whole point of XX. To be better. Look, you’re the Captain. It’s your decision,’ Pearl said.
‘A fucking army? Of men! I can’t believe she’d do that,’ Barbara said.
‘If they hothouse the cells they could have a full-grown force in two years,’ Claire said. The three women left the final decision on what to do about their guest, and the plans XX leadership had for him, with their captain. But Pearl knew Barbara would choose to help him, that she was already smitten. Even Claire, who had never even seen a man, seemed to delight in him and in his tales about his travels.
The women entered the control room and shook Kurt from his slumber on the sofa. They offered him more vodka and Barbara told him of their plans to return to Earth with him. He was overjoyed. As the night went on, Pearl watched as he sat in the heart of the group; how he seemed to bewitch them all, including her – known on XX for her discipline, for her soldier toughness. Yet there he was, the first man she had ever known since the death of her father as a young girl. He was all the Kurts they’d ever heard about on Earth. He was Kurt Cobain, longhaired, sensitive and intense. He was Kurt Douglas, dimpled and with the vague air of European Royalty about him. And he was Captain Kurtz too, dangerous and solitary, a lone wolf.
‘We’re risking a great deal for you, Captain Robinson,’ Barbara said.
‘I can’t thank you ladies enough. To think I might have been prodded and poked and turned into a multitude of mini mes,’ he said. Claire was especially drunk, and had Kurt in the swivel chair and was spinning him around like a child on a roundabout.
‘Oh tell us how you did it again, Kurt. Go on,’ said Claire. Kurt stood and animatedly described his escape from his doomed ship. Pearl watched as he spun his tale, which seemed now more shaped and nuanced than it had been that morning, more colourfully delivered, and was aghast to find her captain had let her hair down completely from its pins, wild and free, and Claire, well she’d lost all sense of herself entirely.
‘I walked in my damaged suit out to the rear of the ship – one hand clinging to the rope, the other groping air – avoiding here space debris from a passing asteroid, there space thunder, ice and fire. Below me I could see the moon we were headed for covered in water. I could taste it. But I had two men to take care of, one here – one there - and I carried them both into the ship like this.’ He picked Claire up to show how he’d executed the rescue attempt, then placed her down. The women were transfixed. ‘But it was no use …’ he said. Barbara, clutching a fresh glass of vodka, howled,
‘Oh your genes would have made a fine army, Sir. Thank heavens we got to you first.’
Then he quickly changed the mood: ‘Have you a music system up here? YouTube maybe?’ Kurt said, glancing from woman to woman.
‘Sure,’ Pearl said and guided Kurt to the screen on her desk. She saw him glance across the board, observe with interest the various knobs and levers.
‘Ah, this is the one,’ he said, scrolling through the options Pearl had brought up for him on the computer. ‘Joy Division. Closer.’ He selected this, pressed Play, and said: ‘Let’s dance and drink and lose our minds for an hour or so.’ And so the four did, dancing around the space, barefoot and drunk, as free as they had ever been in their lives. Had a passing being saw them through the bright window of the ship in the darkness it/he/she would have imagined they looked at crazed cherubs, or gods, or the women of some celestial Thebes dancing at the feet of Bacchus.
At around three in the morning the phone rang loudly at the main desk of the Station. Pearl had fallen asleep on the couch and was dreaming of the war and strife in America that had destroyed the continent in her youth. Barbara emerged and answered the phone.
‘3 fucking 20 am. How can I help?’ She said. ‘No, I think you misunderstand.’ Pearl watched as her captain turned white and drew up the swivel chair to the desk and sat on it.
‘He did what? There must be some error. Captain Robinson has quite clearly…’ Barbara put her head in her hands, took in a breath, looked over at Pearl and shook her head. She returned to the call. ‘Lieutenant, can you possibly enter the Station’s atmosphere before 6am space-time tomorrow? You can’t? Then we will have to act immediately. Thank you. Over and out.’
‘What is it?’ said Pearl.
‘Bring Captain Robinson in at once, will you?’
‘But what …’
‘Kurt. Here. Now. That’s a fucking order. Do you read?’
‘Yes Ma’am.’ The venom in Barbara’s voice would have raised the dead had there been any on board. Within seconds Claire was up too. Pearl indicated to Claire to come with her. Soon, a sleepy Kurt joined the three women in the control room.
‘Mr. Robinson. I’ve just had a very interesting call,’ Barbara said. ‘Turns out your shipmates got out of the storm after all. How about that?’
‘Really? Well that’s just …’ Claire and Pearl looked at each other and at Kurt. He seemed unruffled by this news.
‘And they’re currently wondering, where the hell their cook and not their Captain - has got to? They think he might have panicked a little in all that “space thunder” and fallen overboard – or done a total runner from his ship in her hour of need.’
‘What? You mean …’ Claire said.
‘This man is a fraud,’ Barbara said.
‘Oh Kurt, you stupid fool,’ Pearl said.
‘I can explain,’ Kurt said.
‘Claire - get the suit,’ Barbara said.
‘Come on Barbara, so he lied? It’s scary out there. He needed to impress us,’ Pearl said.
‘Not just a lie. A betrayal. Who would want an army made out of such material on XX?’ Pearl could see that Barbara had very quickly reverted to her former more adamantine self.
‘Oh please, no please, don’t send me out there … the fog, the black cold,’ Kurt said.
Barbara squared directly up to the man: ‘I believe in the principles of XX. And to think I nearly threw them away.’ Claire brought out the Smart Suit from its cupboard and brought it to Kurt.
‘Kurt, put on the suit,’ Barbara said.
‘You think this will stop the Leader? She’ll get Y material from somewhere. As far as I’m concerned XX is already fucked. I say we go on to Earth, take our chances. With Kurt,’ Pearl said. Barbara looked at her and saw in her face what she knew was in all their faces and hearts, especially hers, and should and could not be there: desire for a life on the blue planet, for daylight, endless summers, the sea, more chance and happenstance than was available on XX, Christmas, love with anyone you choose, ice-cream, cream teas, fathers, chaos, error, mess, fireflies, even grief – desires that Kurt had unlocked in them.
‘A ship is on its way, where no doubt he will be court-marshalled. So let’s just hope they find him out there.’
‘Barbara. Babs,‘ Kurt said, tenderly.
‘Shut the fuck up,’ Barbara said.
‘I’ll never trust another man as long as I live,’ said Claire.
‘What about the Galaxy Act?’ Pearl said. She was clinging now to the law, which alone might be able to save their guest from a serious possibility of a cruel death in Space.
‘He broke it first,’ Barbara said. She turned to Kurt, who by now had climbed into the suit.
‘Oh, how nice you look in a clean suit. The shaft is behind you.’ Though it was Pearl’s job to work the shaft lever, she refused to do it. Instead, Claire threw her weight at the lever and pulled it down. The shaft opened. Kurt walked to the edge, in his heavy metallic AI suit, his helmet in his hands. His eyes were on Barbara. He didn’t so much as glance at Pearl, though (even years later) Pearl dearly wished he had.
'On Earth, in all of Space, I’ll never meet a woman like you, Barbara, never. I am your other half, and you are mine, and you know it, too.’ He put his helmet on and entered the shaft. No one moved. Not even Claire had it in her to pull the lever and send this peculiar person away from them, into the darkness. Just then Barbara moved in swiftly and rammed the lever up. The shaft shut tightly. The trembling, whirring sound began and Barbara slumped to the floor in tears. Pearl turned around to hide her own. Claire went to the cactus, tried to find some new enthusiasm for it and couldn’t. Barbara started to sob loudly. Pearl went towards her:
‘There, there Captain. There, there,’ she said.
‘What was all that about “other halves”?’ Claire said. There was no answer from either woman, now holding tightly to each other.
‘You’re scaring me now. I’m starting to feel sad. More alone. Like something’s missing. I mean, look at it out there. Endless. Cold. Dead. It’s dead I tell you, dead!’ Claire said, and Barbara cried louder and louder still.