Work Out What They Want, Fast As You Can
I stood beside my sister the day the Capsule launched, front and centre. But only under dire threat of never hearing the end of forsaking her to wade alone, knee deep in the idealists and freaks.
Perhaps that's how everyone finds themselves washed up on the shores of historic events, bedraggled and spitting out seaweed. The solemn witnesses elected by a mash of obligation, familial guilt and simple rote chance. It wouldn't blow my tiny mind one bit.
Although that said, there were an awful lot of people that day. Around Angela and I a huge crowd had assembled out in the warm morning light. Recklessly grouped into an identifiable public package, might as well slap a ribbon on it. You wouldn't catch the like of it these days!
All of us to a man squinting hopefully up at the coral dawn, as it blushed its slow way across the Shell overhead. All of us looking like jerks. Threshold Station was, of course, far too high up to see with the naked eye. Clamped firmly to the surface of the Shell itself.
We were there because the Capsule, that tiny engineered bubble of safety, would be the first manned vehicle to ever venture Outside the Shell that encircled our world. Who wouldn't want to say they'd waved it on its way?
For the first time as a scrabbling, bickering species we stood united. Every sodding person on the planet looked up today and whispered the same question, whether it be in awe, greed, or terror. What's Out there? Answers were sure to be forthcoming, ready or not.
The mixed crowd made an odd enough collective, from all walks of life; but social humanity delights in kicking down, so we counted our fortune that the real crazies stayed a long way off. It would only take one to really arse-up the mood. But you wouldn't catch sight of them within bare kilometres of the dirt beneath Threshold. Couldn't drag 'em near with chains.
Only last year, a show went belly-up on a concept I'm sure they thought was pure shiny awesome at the time. They went ferreting out nutters and tempting them with such basic human rights as, say, housing. Food. Top of the line healthcare, let's fix those rotting teeth of yours. And all they had to do to earn these wonders was spend a single night on camera, cowering in Threshold's ominous shadow.
Other than a presenter needing stitches to patch his pretty face, as you can imagine the debacle went nowhere. Funny how miserable fear was like that. I'm sure the phobics wouldn't be rooting through garbage and stewing in their own piss if they could stand to do anything about it.
So at least the weird unease of knowing Threshold lurked overhead kept the neighbourhood neat. An improvement you didn't appreciate unless you flipped on the news to flinch from what anti-Capsule chaos and placard waving engulfed the rest of the world.
I appreciated the ever-loving crap out of it. A peace and quiet girl from way back. It was the only good reason to live here.
I hadn't planned on attending, which Angela sodding well knew when she phoned me out of the blue. Not a peep on it, but with the ease of practice I'd been able to hear my dear sister's brains bubbling so hot the accusation scorched down the line. Just whose side are you on, anyhow, Cathy?
Ha. Like that warranted an answer. There was only one side. And if there's no merciless pressuring of your own flesh and blood to back your stupendously worst call, well, then there weren't any sodding sides left at all, were there? Just a great mass of cold, lonely folk. All bumping around together in the dark.
Besides, pending the Capsule's return and my sister's hasty nuptials, Angela and I would remain the entirety of each others' worlds. So little time. Over our lifetime I'd never imagined there'd suddenly be so little of it. But it could have been worse, I suppose.
Imagine my breathless relief when every reputable officiator, and all the less dubious ones had been apologetically booked solid right up to the launch. Angela's, it seemed, was far from the only ill-considered union spurred to fruition by the prospect of the future.
Married or not, circulating awkwardly amongst the crowd's rabid enthusiasts like a leavening effect were a handful of folk just like Angela and I. The half-proud, half-embarrassed significant others of those thirty on board the Capsule. Those at the heart of all the fuss.
Some of these other odd ducks had dressed to the nines, but with our nondescript clothes and expressive smirks we identified like a secret society: Hey, it's ok, we're legit too. But look at these groupies! Can you believe all this? It was by far the warmest simpatico I'd ever embraced.
Somebody's kid impacted my knees, bumping my thoughts loose. Shrieking preschoolers flocked about the gathering's lower strata, in funny little home-concocted helmets that'd clearly started life as cereal boxes. Without peripheral vision they knocked awkwardly into strangers and each other.
I sure hoped their parents could tell which from which, when it came time to haul them off home. The driveway was far too late to exasperatedly yank the helmet off and discover you'd got it horribly wrong.
The costumes were a sweet way to laud the thirty … Well, I guess you could say those strapped into the Capsule were a type of explorer. Just like in the good old days of undiscovered shorelines. Idealists in pantaloons, casting off rashly in their dinky little tubs, with no worldly idea of what to be ready for. Imagine their sour disappointment; setting foot to a new frontier's soil, only to discover the same stultifying minds everywhere. Stuffing every corner of the globe: folk who no more wished their horizons broadened than those left back home.
Although sometimes with a more brusque way of showing it. Injury to insult. The most frequent accolade those early entrepreneurs garnered was to be lashed to a stake and char-grilled. The agonising flame set with their own incriminating, lovingly inked maps. Their last vision being of that incandescent line creeping through cerulean seas, the ochre contours of deserts and high flinty mountains, leaving the world nothing but ash. Problem solved.
Setting off in an arguably more hopeful clime, our modern conquistadors had been dubbed “The Outermen.” So far as I could see, it was mainly to give this celebratory crowd something to print on their t-shirts.
But they needed a name. After all, Outermen stood way above boring, snoring grunts such as you or I. Outermen were heroes. Thirty bright, shining heroes that the media beamed relentlessly into every second of our day until folk lost their bearings in the sea of celebration and plum forgot to go to work, tricked into thinking life a holiday.
There were the interviews, a slew of endorsements (and what were sneakers to do with Outside, anyhow? Did you even need shoes beyond the Shell?). Even the time-honoured medium of an Outerman jingle, popular in the crippling tedium of the school band circuit.
I wondered when “Outerman” was likely to pop up on the income tax form's immense scrolling list of occupations. It was an annual treat, that list. Trolling through, and realising anew just how hideously boring one's life was. Up until recently there'd been no such word as Outerman. It certainly didn't exist when I was born.
But now they; “they” being the public en mass, which tended to blunt any pricks of intellect, were marching about trumpeting how mankind stood poised to become a brave new name. To rule a bold new era. In short, it was nigh-impossible for the most disinterested or even overwhelmed party to block the glittering spectacle out.
Or a fearful one.
And while Outside used to be merely another country, humanity's fearful paranoia had never really grown up. It was something you could particularly feel in big groups. The urge to burn the evidence and make it all go away had merely thickened and deepened.
Until under this new pressure of the Capsule program bursting onto the scene, some poor sods'd snapped so badly they could no longer keep pace with life. Sometimes they scrabbled for purchase for a while but always, eventually, they fled. Accumulating miserably where the dregs of society have always washed up, a sort of scum around the drain.
Our world was poised for change. Ready to bloom Outward. Those who couldn't manage would have to content themselves with being left behind. The hard truth was, nobody cared two short cuts for anyone unable to hack it. Those lacking sympathetic support from family or friends slipped gently through the cracks. They were going off the grid, where you were rarely troubled to look at them.
The Screws were the only ones who stood resolutely by those who didn't feel so brave. They'd pegged this whole venture as foolish, right from the beginning. They shook their collected heads sorrowfully at such dangerous romanticism. But in all honesty nobody wanted the Screws on their side.
Oh, people feared Outside, they had that right. Deeply, viscerally so. Part of the Outermen's mystique was the way they had been rigidly fortified against such terror. When the time came, when they actually arrived Outside they'd need to accomplish better than simple hysterical screaming. They'd need to buck up and prove what humanity could do.
The Screws maintained this was all folly. Mankind would never be ready for Outside because it wasn't a natural thing to strive to overcome normal, healthy fear. Fear was what made us who we are.
In fact, while they were at it why should humanity long to “overcome” anything? What was wrong with being human? Humanity was marvellous—something we'd realise with a foolish grin, once we got over worrying what we should and shouldn't be.
So, the Screws' argument was that we ought to aim to be as human as possible. And then, with that on board, why would you even bother with Outside? After all, there ain't nothing beyond the Shell. We don't have to impress anyone. Trying to be better than we were could only lead to failure, despair, and neurosis.
The Screws' pessimism aside everybody (and in this context, “everybody” stood on par with “they”) knew that the clever, almost autonomous Capsule reeled Out there on its thick cable was only the first.
In a few years we'd see thousands of such habitats played Out into the dark like lures, far beyond the Shell's embrace. Lines of them exploding from our world like puffballs. If there was anything to be found Out there, we'd find it. And if not, well, then we'd fill it, wouldn't we?
Faces in the crowd grinned goofily at one another, or to nobody in particular, proud and patriotic almost despite themselves. There was something intoxicating about being swept up in the moment. A part of something greater and sure.
Perhaps this was why people felt drawn to historic events. This chance to feel more than what life allowed. It likely also explained why irresistible forces of nature like my sister were so adored. She stood beside me like a bright figurehead, shading her eyes. The gleam in her long, extraordinary strawberry blond hair transformed her into a pale icon of dazzling light.
When it came to any attention, let alone such rabid public adoration, Angela's fiancé Michael was the man to come scrambling shamelessly to lap it up. Like a big dumb retriever knocking clumsily through the room, overturning furniture, and all for a pat on the head. No modest bowing to the whimsies of fate for him, which was how all twenty-nine of the other sodding Outermen graciously handled it.
Oh no. Michael Formir fully expected other diners to be bundled from the restaurant still clutching their forks, to furnish him with an instant table. And the cheque gratis to boot! He'd explode with outrage if they dared ask payment—I nearly died of shame to witness it. In the swollen cocksure world-according-to-Michael, all this hysteria was no more than his due, finally coming home to roost.
Angela stubbornly propped up his case through a stinging haze of oxytocin. Well why not? Surely those brave enough to shoulder the risk for everybody deserve a little fucking kudos. The warm biochemical deluge made her clutch at any straw to justify her fiancé's outlandish ego, which could fill a stadium on its own. Anything to avoid toppling the idol. The larger-than-life effigy she'd erected inside her head.
Which was pretty much how my sister dealt with everyone. Either you were like the rest of the herd, a snore to be dismissed out of hand, or she built you into something bigger and brighter than anyone had business being. And if you knew what was good for you, you'd perform. Michael sure took to it like a pig in shit. For myself, I couldn't help feeling there was a lot to be said for the safe anonymity of snoredom.
Among the blizzard of flags I made it my business to clap and wave along with the rest. Even when Angela shot me a scathing look like I was a big fat dork, and she was sorry she'd ever brought me. I was more worried about the chance of Screws scattered throughout the crowd. I tried to keep an eye out for anyone scribbling notes. Keen whiskered weasels, on the sniff for anybody not throwing themselves wildly into the moment. For people suppressing things. They'd want to have a very serious chat to you about that. Someplace private and searingly bright. Where every layer could be stripped free.
But then again, perhaps not. I've been paranoid from way back, and the shade of fear often distorts simple memory into something monstrous. Screws weren't such a big thing back in the day. If they did pounce on someone in the crowd, the worst you'd face was a lecture and a pamphlet.
Still, to my credit, following the Disaster I was the only one not wearing my shocked face when the Screws came out on top. It couldn't have been better orchestrated for their rise. And once entrenched in power, they could do as they liked, couldn't they? It's only low status that corrals one within the bounds of decency.
With a stifled bellow the Capsule shuddered. As one we all flinched back, and then coherency broke apart in nervous titters and whispers. The mighty engines needed to reach the Shell were raring to throw off the constraints that protected the frail Outermen inside. Keen, in the way of combustion, to throw off all bounds of functionality, to become a glorious freed explosion.
Far more could have been achieved in half the time, of course, using automated probes and the like. But sitting on the sidelines watching a screen would never satisfy humanity. Sod our drive to get in there and stir the guts with our own hands before we'd concede that anything might dare be real.
Beautiful in the dawn, Angela only had eyes for the roaring Capsule. But I watched her. There were tears welling, which was getting to be quite the tradition where her relationship was concerned. They broke and spilled down her cheeks, emphasising the purity of her face to such a degree that people either side gazed at her in awe.
I really couldn't blame anyone for coveting my sister. She was Angela, anyone would love her. Fierce. Bold. Sharp enough to slice a straight razor in two. But I recognised Michael's sort, and would've vastly preferred he'd kept his sodding urges to himself. At least to the extent the useless git was capable of feelings, beyond making kissy-face to himself in a mirror. Wishful thinking, I know. Such jerks could never keep anything to themselves. They had to spread it around, foul up the water for everyone.
Respecting my sister's adult decisions was one thing. But how on earth could I wish Michael on anyone?
Unfortunately, the one time I sat Angela down and tried to lay it all out over lunch wasn't one of my prouder moments. In slow motion things rapidly degenerated into a farce of the grandest scale, I couldn't have done worse if I'd tried.
Angela merely waited, silent and stony-faced, so I could appreciate the melodic sound of hanging myself. All the incriminating fragments that'd meshed so seamlessly in my brain tumbled out piecemeal. What did I hear? Neurotic chunks of baseless resentment. Whining. And we got together so seldom these days. Why was I ruining a perfectly good meal?
Eventually I gave up and meandered to a pointless halt, defeated, and dreadfully sorry I'd ever started. Ignored, our soup was cooling on the table between us, with a big plate of crusty bread neither of us had touched. But after spending all morning painstakingly roasting the sting out of garlic and sweating chunks of sweet potato into buttery melting goodness, I found dread left no room for appetite.
Angela made sure I was good and done. Which I was, shamefacedly. Well fatguts, you brought this on yourself.
Then she took a deep, measured breath and raked me with one of her matter-of-fact looks. With her jaded eyes that knew how the world was wired. Those eyes sneered: I've got your number, Cathy. You'd better fucking believe it. Better than anyone, I know what you're about. Which made my face burn, which I hated. She only brought it out when she was right on the sodding money and about to tell you all about it.
'Cathy, hon, I get that you have this “thing” against lying. And I'm sure it sounds all noble and pure within that thick skull of yours, but it shouldn't automatically translate into blurting out everything you see as the truth.
'Just for a second, try entertaining the idea that your truth isn't the be-all for the entire world. Otherwise you'll just keep making yourself look as foolish as you did then.'
Despite my best efforts my face was tightening into offended immobility. And Angela did know me better than anyone, no fibbing there. She softened a bit, reconfigured her approach.
'Look, seeing as you never have anything nice to say anyhow, I'm not implying you should make shit up or anything. But it wouldn't kill you to keep things a bit closer to your chest. You know. Just on the vague off chance someday you might be wrong.'
Her expressive lips quirked, daring me to join her in a smile. Ends of her long hair in her soup. It was a difficult invite to resist; by then, I just wanted out of the whole miserable topic.
'I guess I could give that a go,' I mumbled.
'Especially seeing as the only thing you fancy less than lying is arguing,' she added archly. 'Best keep yourself well clear of both. I won't always be around to do it for you, now, will I?'
Ah. So that's what this pep talk was really all about. I was getting my due warning that following her joyous nuptials, keeping me out of trouble would no longer be Angela's sisterly duty.
That's it, time to be a grownup, fatguts. Cough up those ideals you can't really afford.
Angela nodded briskly as though I'd come to agreement merely by sitting and staring sullenly at the table. Such conflict had never bothered her, she throve on it. Anything to keep the excitement flowing. Even now it pinkened her cheeks.
'Now hurry up and eat your lunch. It's getting cold.'
Out of options, I choked it down meekly like a good girl.
Slowly, a column of grade-A pollution pushed the Capsule on its way up to the Shell. To Threshold Station, where they had dared to cut a hole in our sky.
It was all so far above our heads that the naked eye couldn't pick anything out. Not even a speck on the beautiful morning that unfurled across the Shell's inner curve. Yet stop to ask anyone on the street, and they'd turn and point confidently to Threshold. Invariably incorrectly, but that didn't prevent every human being on earth being convinced of their native ability to just feel where the Shell had been violated.
I ought to have been swept up in the excitement, all of these people hollering and waving their arms in the air, dancing around, embracing strangers. Instead I couldn't help wondering if we'd all be stuck breathing the Capsule's filthy launch-exhaust forever, endlessly recycled around.
Or if, when Threshold opened its trapdoor to outside, the stink was likely to rise and leak away through the hole.
Memory being a traitorous beast, I was thrust for a moment back amongst the vivid fears that'd piled on when they first began cutting through the Shell. Doubtless I wasn't the only one to have endured bad dreams. But to awaken sweat-soaked and trembling is a special sort of nightmare when you live alone. You have to push it from your mind as fast as possible. Brighten up the place with clatter and noise. You absolutely can't afford your home to become infested by a creeping dread of the dark—you'd never be able to live there anymore.
I didn't dream of strange whispering voices, not like Angela. Things that get inside your skull and start gnawing. I recall when we were little she was particularly prone to vivid dreams and sleepwalking: the voices, always with the voices. At first they only exasperated her with their refusal to shut up, although fear followed quickly after. That would all be Michael's problem now.
I dreamt of suffocation.
During those exhausting months while they worked away at Threshold, my nights were all stifling nightmares. Dreams where they broke through the Shell, and all our air promptly leaked away. The whole world.
Like a low-flying aeroplane my dream eye would zoom everywhere and it was always the same thing. I saw everyone forced choking to their knees in a scrabbling panic. Clawing at their blue faces. And then face-down in the dust. A few managed to run, to seal themselves in buildings but their deaths only came slower. And all because of no greater malice than the curiosity and hubris of a few careless people.
The most horrible part was how for all their desperation, nobody was able to help or comfort a single person they loved. Not their partners, writhing beside them on the ground. Nor children convulsing and weeping just beyond arm's reach. Everybody died alone, within the closed-off ramparts of self.
I remember holding my breath and trying with what was left of my hoarded air to phone Angela. The very best I could manage was to collapse flat in the kitchen, like a flan dropped on tile. The sound of the dial tone went away with the air. My poor sister would be so scared, and I couldn't even tell her I loved her.
When I woke each morning I almost picked up the phone, before remembering that Angela wasn't waking alone. Eventually the construction up at Threshold stopped, and so did my dreams. I'd forgotten about them until now.
Suddenly I felt short of breath, and dizzy enough to miss my balance. I stared up, along with everyone else, through a forest of waving arms that seemed to stutter and strobe against the bright sky. Up, up the inside of the Shell. So terrifyingly huge and far away. What right did humanity have, to be messing with something so immense? So incredibly beyond us?
Was I having a panic attack? My fears certainly weren't rational. Everybody already knew there was air Outside. But then, why did the Outermen wear helmets? Why would the Shell exist at all unless we needed it?
A scientist would doubtless know, an expert. Me, I was merely a scared, ignorant person. Staring wide-eyed up at the sky with sweat rolling down my face while the crowd crashed and surged around me. Exactly the credulous everyday breed that politicians love, and the science-folk hate with a passion.
In her impatient way, Angela used to comfort me over shit like this when we were very small. Oh for goodness' sake, be brave Cathy! I was often too timid to try this or do that, to go on the adventures she craved. Now she stood right beside me and I couldn't even open my mouth.
My chest hurt. I pushed on it with both hands, trying to remind my lungs they had a sodding job to do. In my current state of dreamy panic, boobs came as an odd surprise. I'd recalled being a cowardly kid so vividly, it felt like only yesterday. The good old days, when my chest'd been flat as a pancake and I'd been free to toddle around wearing whatever I pleased. Fairy wings to dinner. A superhero cape. Even a cereal box on my head?
That brought a smile, and thankfully the band of constriction eased.
Once the Capsule had lifted beyond sight, there wasn't much left to celebrate. Talk about a comedown. A last few hurrahs shivered through the mass, before petering out awkwardly. There was no longer enough group identity to hold it all together. Even those most enthused to keep the rush going gradually dropped their waving hands, and reluctantly returned to being individuals.
A fresh breeze began sweeping away the launch's stink, stirring Angela's bright hair about her thin shoulders. This was why inspiring films always roll credits at the summit of triumph. Once the ordinary folk have enjoyed their three cheers, everyday life must come creeping back to fill the void. Nobody wants to find themselves watching that.
People glanced uncertainly to the milling strangers either side, restless for a cue as to what to do next. And finally, my sister looked away from the sky, wiping her eyes. The very last to do so. Angela hurried for nobody, and was never at a loss—in the unlikely event she ever might be, I'm sure she'd fake it so brilliantly nobody could claim to tell the difference.
When she turned to face me sadness was tucked away in whatever pocket she stashed it, and her game-face was cranked to maximum. All flawless confidence and smiles. 'So, what do you reckon, Cathy? Coffee next?'
'And bacon!' Neither of us had stopped for breakfast, the key difference being my sister could ill afford further weight loss. She'd eat, if I had to sit there and pipe it down her neck like a frail baby bird.
Women stack on weight when happy and confident in their relationship. They metamorphose into a sort of walking advertisement of content, all cuddly and curvy and smiley. What they don't do is whittle helplessly down to pallid skin and quick, angular movements. A grin so thin you can see through to the other side.
Angela, so brilliant in other matters, had quite simply picked the wrong man. And she was the only one who couldn't stand to admit it, which was a cruel shame. Even should you turn a wilfully blind eye to it, the truth remains true. It's stubborn like that.
Truth was, in fact, everything.
Your ability to accept what was true in the world dictated whether you grappled with reality on its own terms, or retreated to fanciful dreams like a child with hands over its face. Huddled on the floor with blocking, negating palms pressed against your ears, la la la, I can't hear you. A fist crammed down your throat.
I was dead right, and as impossible as it would have been, I ought to have insisted on it somehow. But instead, I kept my big trap shut on the matter, exactly as dear Angela commanded. She strode off in search of breakfast, and I trailed obediently along in her wake.