|Back to Index||Written March, 2000|
He lay down, stretching out his arms until he was lying, spread out, on the sickly yellow grass, staring at the sky. The soothing click of the Geiger counter provided a continuous backdrop to his thoughts. He allowed the sound to fold around him like a blanket; It was strange that something which was an indicator of death could be so soothing. He closed his eyes and in the darkness and flashes of light he caught sight of through his eyelids it was as if he could almost see the sound as he heard it, that soothing click which meant his life was draining away.
Slowly, of course. Bringing a quick death to someone was as illegal as it had ever been, but a slow death? That was a different matter. There would be no criminal charges brought against the massive corporation responsible for those clicks, there would never be any charges at all. Those ticks were just one of the waste products of bringing twelve billion people into the information age, a regrettable necessity.
Each tick meant that the chances of his death increased by a little. Little upon little it would build up, and eventually instead of being faced with the smiling face of the doctor following the routine six-monthly check-up he would be ushered into a side room, asked to sit down, and told what had happened to him.
But that would not be today, today his suit would protect him as it always had, and his glasses would keep out the glare of the distant sun, pumping rays of death into the atmosphere.
It wasn't so bad actually, once you got used to it. It became natural to put on the suit. People's routines adapted - get up, wash, get dressed, protect yourself from ionising radiation and ultra-violet light. It was the first thing that children were taught, the one thing that was drummed into them time after time - don't go outside without a suit on. Nursery rhymes and songs glossed over the danger, made it a game. Over the years some children had decided not to play, their deaths had not been pleasant.
Still, Earth survived - a little hotter and with a few extra clicks from the Geiger counter, but it survived. He grasped a clump of grass in his gloved hand. It felt rough and dry to his touch and when he rubbed two blades together they made a peculiar rasping sound. That was another effect of the pollution, only the hardier plants had even stood a chance - and grass was no exception.
He stared at the sky, allowing it to fill his vision. It was a clear night, the first there had been in weeks, and he could dimly make out a few of the constellations he had troubled himself to learn to recognise in his youth. Even staring into the cloudless sky his sight was still obscured by the oily vapours above. Power generation had long ago switched to virtually non-polluting methods (it was a lot cheaper in the long run) but all over the world industries continued to burn fossil fuels at a fantastic rate. The reserves wouldn't last forever, of course, how could they? Still, people preferred to live in the present and hope that someone else was taking care of the future so nothing was ever actually done.
They had tried - some had tried anyway. Political movements advocating the conservation of natural resources sprung up every decade or so but each time they were practically laughed out of existence. People cared, there was no doubt about that, but the truth of the matter was that people would rather only be able to leave their houses in suits than have to pay extra taxes.
Equally often a different type of movement would spring up, advocating the complete abandonment of Earth and a move of the entire world's population into space where they could live in vast tented cities on the moon or Mars. That was the kind of idea which caught people's attention, but once again when it came to it they would rather someone else paid for it - anyone but them.
So it was that in over a century of spaceflight less than a thousand people had ever "set foot" outside the atmosphere. And that led to what he was here to see. He had walked over a kilometre from his house, into the middle of this field, so he could witness this event. Even through the thin smog he should have no problem seeing it.
It would be the final scene of the final act of a play that had been in progress for the last thirty years. Had it really only been that long? It was strange to think that he himself had known different times. He was hardly an old man now, but in his heart he felt it. For thirty years he had watched and feared but had done nothing. What could he have done? Most likely - nothing.
Democracy had brought power to the people and as it had spread so for the first time had ordinary people all over the world had a say in their affairs. How they used this new-found voice was up to them. So most of them had voted according to their hearts, they wanted a better way of life for themselves and their children, they wanted to be richer and wanted to own more and they wanted to be able to watch hundreds of channels of mindless broadcasting every evening. Those were their desires, and they were catered for. It took time, as all things take time, but it had finally been achieved.
At a cost. The vast industries of Earth were dedicated to providing happiness in packages that could preferably be picked up in boxes of ten over the global computer network. Science poured its interest into producing new and more exotic perfumes and hair gels, new fabrics for clothes and shoes. Progress in that area was immense, for it was well motivated - with a population of six billion people waiting to buy what you produced.
Progress in other areas ground to a halt. Was their life on Mars? After the initial flurry of interest a few decades ago people had begun to realise how much the search for life on a planet so far away was costing them. The planned manned mission had been cancelled, the funds diverted to build a couple more schools and the space program had been left without a direction.
There were hundreds of commercial satellites orbiting the Earth, but only one manned installation, one manned space station which was humanity's furthest outpost. It had cost billions to put in place and hundreds of millions for each year it remained operational. In these times of forever dropping tax rates, it could not be tolerated.
It was not tolerated. At first it had been little more of a suggestion, then a proposal and finally a plan. Powerful computers which spent their time analysing the world financial markets had diverted a few seconds of their time to working out the correct orbital manoeuvres which would need to be executed before returning to their normal task of making huge amounts of money for their owners.
He could see it in the sky, a bright dot, brighter than the brightest star. Normally it seemed to wander lazily across the heavens, carrying its human cargo around the Earth at hundreds of kilometres an hour; but today it was as if its motion was slightly slower, slighter surer, slightly sadder - and it carried no human cargo.
It was a process that was barely noticeable but he could swear that he could see the dot growing gradually brighter as if someone had found the light switch and was gently turning up the intensity. This was what he had come to watch; this was what he had been waiting for. Thousands of people were gathering to watch this sight all over the world, from the top of the tallest skyscrapers to the ruins of the flooded cities which lay scattered a few hundred metres from the new coastline. He would not be amoung them, he had come here to be alone.
Those people were celebrating, the end of the drain on their pockets which seemed to give them no tangible benefits, and a new era of "cost-effective" scientific research. The word itself didn't convey the menace it should have. "No science for science's sake" as one politician had phrased it.
The dot continued to grow brighter and the man thougth he could see the slightest hint of an orange tail forming behind it. He breathed in deeply and gently blinked to clear his eyes which had been strained painfully by being forced to focus on such a small spot, so far away.
Not everyone had been in favour of this move, of course. The motion had passed not because it was better argued or won over more hearts and minds but because of apathy on the part of the opposition, a mistake that could now never be corrected.
As if a critical point had passed the dot grew suddenly brighter and even from this distance he could make out bright licks of flame trailing behind the glowing lump of semi-molten metal which was all which remained of the most complicated orbiting structure ever assembled. Suddenly the trail disappeared and the glowing remains fell slowly downwards to exactly hit their designated crash point; a tiny electronic square carved upon the ocean.
Exactly on target. The tiniest cloud of water vapour shot up into the atmosphere was the only sign of its passing.
The man stood up and slowly walked away into the night.