In the morning, he calls a cab for Ivy. It’s a day of low, racing clouds that run dark shadows across the fields. The two of them watch the car as it turns into the drive and scrapes against the hedgerows. The cab driver curses behind the windscreen, then lowers the window, scowling.
“It’s for this one, here,” Thomas says, clapping his hand on Ivy’s shoulder like she’s his teammate on the football pitch, not the woman with whom he’s just cheated on his wife.
“Oh, don’t mope,” she says, her hand on the car door. “It wasn’t all that bad, was it?”
He doesn’t answer. She puts a hand behind his neck and stretches up to kiss him. He aims for her cheek but she pulls him to her lips and lingers there. When the moment gets too long, he pulls away.
“Listen, I—“ he begins.
“I’m not going to tell Terra if you’re not. I mean, it’s not like I could. But I don’t think she’d mind, anyway. Someone’s got to take care of you while she’s a million miles away,” she purrs.
“Three-hundred-and-seventy million miles.”
“Well, exactly,” she says, climbing into the car. As it pulls out, she sits grinning as if in on a private joke, and the car side scrapes against the hedges again. Thomas gives a half-arsed wave and goes back inside the cottage.
He drains what’s left of his lukewarm tea and goes into the guest-bedroom to clean up. As a child, it was his own, but after he'd left for uni his parents converted it into a guest-room. He felt strangely hurt by this, though he could never say exactly why. The posters and child-sized furniture are gone, now, and nothing familiar remains from those days. When his parents both passed on, the house became his, even though he and Terra were already living in Cologne for her training at the European Astronauts Centre. Then it was Darmstadt, and then Florida because interest in the Asare Object finally exploded into an international bid to send a manned mission.
They rented out the cottage when they weren’t in the U.K. It was rustic, but remote. The nearest town worth visiting was Swindon, and that wasn’t saying much, really. But it was close enough to the Cotswolds and Oxford that they could label the house a “jumping off point” for tourist sites. And when he and Terra returned home, it was where they stayed. But now, Terra was on the other side of Jupiter and he was here, in his childhood home, making up the guest bed. At least, as drunk as he’d been, he'd still had the presence of mind not to bring Ivy into the bed he shared with Terra.
At the foot of the mattress, between the sheets, he finds Ivy’s bra. He stands there looking at it for a moment. It feels like an accusation. Like a tell-tale heart planted there to be discovered. An object that could become the turning point in some romantic melodrama. But then, even if nothing happens out there behind Jupiter — even if the alien object hanging in the L2 Lagrange point turns out to be as benign and empty as they expect — it will still be three years before Terra returns. And she’s already been gone almost two.
There will be no surprise visits. No early return flight. No sudden bursting in the door at the worst possible moment. Her adventure is carefully scripted. His life just tags along.
He likes to believe that after these next few weeks, the public interest will fade. That the international fear and glee of this quasi first-contact will wear off. And he wonders if he’ll be able to go into the pub again without being asked about his astronaut wife, about whether she’s the lady-pilot or the lady-exobiologist or the lady-engineer. Without being asked which of the hundreds of alien-object theories he believes in. Without being asked what it's like to be left behind. He wonders if eventually men will stop suggestively raising their eyebrows over the fact that she’s one of three women on the flight of eight, then slapping him on the back with Aw, mate, I’m just fucking with ya. Right now, he wonders if Terra will find out about Ivy when she gets back, and then leave him. He wonders if that will end up in the tabloids.
This is what it is to be the spouse of a celebrity: your life forever eclipsed by their life — its greatness, its importance, its urgency, its luridness.
Ivy was right, though. She and Terra have been friends for years. And Terra even spoke to him about the topic openly before she left — about the possibility of sex with others. It went like this: Terra, ever the pragmatist, climbing into bed for the evening, lying across his soft belly with her all her mission-trained muscle and sinew, her angular elbows, all hardened to the task ahead.
“Just don’t fall in love with anyone,” she’d said. “That’s all I ask.”
He laughed it off and agreed.
“Same goes for you. No falling for some hot, young astronaut.”
“Er, you’ve seen the crew. Which ones are young and hot? Sign me up with that crew instead,” she laughed.
“Well, you’re hot, at least. Not so sure about young.”
She punched him, and he felt a flood of embarrassment at the bounce of his flab.
“And you watch out for that Ivy,” said Terra. “You know she’s been trying to get in your kecks for years now. She probably thinks this is her big opportunity.”
Thinking about it now, Thomas looks at the guest bed. For a moment, he wonders if Terra and Ivy planned it. If Terra made Ivy promise to look after him when he was at his lowest. And he does feel at his lowest. Last night, when it was clear what was about to happen with Ivy, he’d felt rebellious. He’d felt as though he had taken of control of his life, and damn the consequences. It felt like he was finally the protagonist of his own story again.
Today he feels like the butt of everyone’s joke.
Thomas opts for leaving the bed unmade and hangs Ivy's bra from the headboard. Because why does it even matter?
At the kitchen table, he sets up his workstation and checks his devvy. There is no message from Terra. He is relieved and crestfallen at the same time. There is no timetable for the video messages they can send to spouses and family. But it takes upward of forty-five minutes for a message to go from Earth to the Unison. At first, when the ship was only a few months out, they could carry on some semblance of conversation — sending a short video message, then grabbing a bite to eat while waiting for the reply. Now, just beyond Jupiter — with NASA/ESA screening messages before sending them on, making copies, writing reports, and forty-five minutes each way — they had to pack more into each video in less time. These were letters, not texts, and as such, they came less often. Sometimes, only one per week. Still, today was contact-day. The day Terra would do the first EVA — piloting a one-person craft to within metres of the Asare Object. No one even knew what the object was. It was two kilometres long, roughly ovoid, with a single spike that pointed forward from the large end, like the sharpened branch of a tree. Or a fishing hook. It was a shape that made no sense. Most believed it was a ship, but there was no visible form of propulsion, no sign of energy. Some said it was a machine. A weapon. A trap. Some said it was nothing but a huge monument. A way to advertise, We were here. Thomas hopes those people are right. That the object is nothing but a monument. Nothing but showing off.
The kitchen smells of wet toast in the sink, tea, and Ivy’s cloying perfume. He stands again, opens a window, then goes to the back door. It’s a warm enough day that he can prop it open to let some air flow through.
They’re approaching the equinox, but the days are still short. The sun sits low even this close to noon. He watches the clouds scud across the sky above Arthur’s Tower — a faux-medieval ruin built on a hilltop by some minor aristocrat in the 1800’s. A folly for his guests to marvel and gawp at. Now, it's the ruin of a ruin. Real masonry occasionally crashing down among the artfully placed rockfalls. Real cracks further dividing the engineered ones. The tower is all but abandoned, the original owner having lost his fortune, the land sold to a farmer who’d only spared the tower because the hilltop couldn’t be tilled. Now, it is a place where sheep graze and kids go to smoke pot.
Thomas has no idea if the original builder actually called it Arthur’s Tower, or it the name was some kind of joke made up by the town. But when he was a kid, he’d believed it — believed he lived near a holy relic of King Arthur. He couldn’t understand how it had ended up so neglected, and imagined he might be able to buy it one day, repair its walls, fill in its cracks. Put glass in its windows. Return it to glory. In the process, he would evict the terrifying barn owls who had haunted its rotting rafters for generations.
As a child, when his bedroom window was open, he could hear that hunting cry — its sound like a woman screaming in terror, over and over.
He remembers the first time he saw them, too. The owls. He’d had some argument with his father and run off across the fields and up the hill to sulk in the tower. It felt like his own personal fortress back then. His palace. The inside of his palace smelled like earth and urine. But he was used to it, and doggedly climbed the partial stone steps to sit there brooding, his face hot with anger.
A scratching sound from above made him jump. As he looked into the rafters and his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could see the creatures staring down at him. Barn owls, with their concave white faces, their black and staring eyes. In the half-light, they’d looked so entirely alien that he found himself backing out of the tower and scurrying home, his sulk forgotten. That was when he’d added evicting the owls to his tower renovation dreams.
Thomas sits at the table again and sets to work. Or tries. Half of the messages he opens are just to ask him about the Unison, or the Asare Object, or Terra. Most are from low-rent news sites looking for a comment. Some are acquaintances wanting to know where he’s watching the live event tonight. He knows something that many of them don’t — the mission is too sensitive to really broadcast live. There is, aside from the unavoidable forty-five minute delay, a further hour-long delay before broadcast. Crisis control. More than enough time for NASA/ESA to edit out sections or cut the broadcast if anything goes horribly wrong. The event begins at eight o’clock tonight, but Terra will make her vehicular-assisted space-walk at a quarter after six.
He pushes all these messages aside, unanswered. Mutes all accounts that aren’t in his address-book. Then he opens up the Renoira project numbers on the work-link, and starts going through data. His company manufactures suitcases, something he enjoys telling people, because they simply don’t know how to react. For the most part, they pretend to be fascinated, but still want to ferret out whether or not he finds it boring.
But Thomas’s job is to oversee stress-test results — design new tests, figure out how to make them as true to real-world use as possible. So, the story he spins is that he gets to break things then make them stronger. He’s told it enough times that he almost believes it himself. Still, Thomas started with the company when it was small, and it has become a major brand over the last decade or so. So, yes. He’s proud of his involvement.
The devvy chimes with a video call. it’s Nalin, in New York. Thomas declines the video, but goes on speaker. Nalin isn’t phased. He comes in like an American dad at a baseball game.
“Hey, bud! You all ready for the big event? What time is it on for you guys? Like, seven? You must be freaking out.”
“Coverage starts at eight. And you know…bit nervous, yeah,” he says, “I don’t know, though. I’m ready for it to be over.”
“Ah, yeah. I suppose you’re not exactly cheering for any aliens to come popping out.”
“Hey, listen!” says Nalin. “I’ve got some news here. Kind of a good-news bad-news situation.”
“Fuck,” says Thomas, then, “Sorry.”
“Ha-ha! Whoa! Not that bad, I think. But basically, uLAP is suddenly all about this new space-age we’ve got going here, and they want us to start focusing on, and I quote, ‘Long-haul, radiation resistant, high-impact cargo containers.’”
“We’re making luggage for space, baby. I’m going to send you all the details. This is crazy big.”
For a moment, Thomas hovers over the video button, just to see if Nalin is taking the piss. He does not press it.
“What the hell, Nalin? Was that the good news or the bad news?”
“Good, naturally! The bad news is all the new designs get tabled until we work this out. Including that Renoira line you’re testing.”
“Not a bit.”
As Thomas ends the call, he sees Nalin’s message arrive with a flotilla of attached documents, and a reminder that, as of today, all Renoira work is on hold. Thomas stares at the message, as though it might change. He liked the Renoira design. It was one of the smoothest projects they’d ever worked on. It was going to be one of greatest suitcases they’d ever made. You could drop a wrecking ball on the thing and it would come out unscathed. Then he realises that it was probably the success of his tests that convinced some number-cruncher at uLAP that they should be pitching to NASA, or Galactic, or Giga — whoever was paying for this. It’s the Object again. It’s always the Object.
He can’t face the documents. He closes the work-link and plods through some short videos online. At two o’clock, he takes a sausage roll out of the freezer and heats it for lunch. He opens his first beer. He’s been drinking more, he can’t deny it. He might even have a problem. He chuckles when he says this to himself, but he’s ended five out of seven days this week with drinks. It hasn’t been going on for long, and he knows it maps to his anxiety over Terra, over loneliness, over everything. But still, it's a concern. He pictures himself on a home dialysis machine as Terra walks in the front door three years from now, and as he’s thinking this, there is a soft chime. His heart leaps. It could be her. It must be her. A message from the other side of Jupiter.
But it is not. It’s from Ivy.
Hey babes. Forgot to ask what you’re doing tonight! Up for watching the big space walk? You could come over.
He sneers at the “babes.” Downs his beer. Pours another. Another message arrives on the tail of the first:
Looks like loads of people are headed to The Butchers Arms. Big screen. Drinks. Everyone’s rooting for your wife. What do you say?
He types: Maybe. Then deletes it. Tells the devvy to play something aggressive and loud. It picks out some new keelstop sound, which is about the right mood. Noisy, disjointed, sliding into melody when the bass drops. He sits drinking, staring at the devvy. No message comes except from more friends and acquaintances asking if he’s going to be at the Arms to see the Asare Object. It’s like they all want to be part of his story. They all want to make it their own.
When he looks up from his fourth pint, it is after five thirty. The EVA happens in twenty minutes, and no one will see it — no one but Terra and her crew. Even NASA/ESA won’t know for forty-five minutes.
Still no message.
He knew this day was coming. Knew it. He knew, from the day they agreed to get married, that one day she might go — go to that object that’s been hanging there for their entire lives, maybe longer, maybe even thousands of years, somehow silently adjusting without engines in the unstable L2 point. And when that day came, he knew he was going to have to deal with her absence. But now? Now, it’s happening, and he’s drunk, and all he can feel is a rising panic.
He pulls on his coat, takes a head-torch from the hook by the door and puts it on. Outside he walks to the fence and hops the stile as he’s done a thousand times. He is heading toward the folly at the top of the hill. The sun is long gone, but the clouds have passed and the sky is utterly clear, shifting from navy to black. Constellations drawing their lines in his vision. The moon is a sliver, but bright enough that he can see the outline of the tower against the stars. There are no flashlights waggling. No vape glow that he can see. It is empty.
It’s only two stories tall and he’s seen kids climb it so they can stand at the top taking photos. With the irregular stones, you don’t need to be a rock climber to manage it. And that’s what he’s going to do. He wants to be closer to her. To create some kind of link between them in the moment that she is crossing the final gap between the Unison and the alien structure. He needs to get higher. He wants to be able to tell her this — that he was as close as he could get. Not at the top of Mount Everest, perhaps, but at least in his own small way, a few feet closer to the Unison. To her.
The air is cooler, but not cold. He feels utterly sober now. Purposeful. And the purpose calms the fear in him. Weeds catch at his legs as he trudges up the hill. He checks the devvy again. Still nothing. But she’s busy. He knows this. He puts the devvy in his jacket pocket and zips it up so he won’t lose the thing while climbing. At the base of the tower he stops. It is five minutes after six. For a moment, looking at the yawning dark of the doorway, he remembers the alien faces of the owls staring down, that grave-scent of dirt. He realises that his hands are cold, and the stones have become slightly damp with the temperature drop. He feels clumsy, shaky.
He claps his hands together to warm them up, wipes them on this jacket and begins — one hand, one foot. Other hand, other foot. He digs his toes in where he can. Keeps his body close to the stones. Doubt seeps in. Some stones are covered with a fine layer of slime — an algae or fungus. He is barely six feet up now and already feeling the vertigo. He begins to think about the night before, about Ivy. He isn’t prone to superstitious thinking, but in the dark, facing the unknown he can't seem to stop. What if he’s brought disaster to them all? What if justice on a universal scale isn’t eye for an eye. What if one night of sex is paid back by a disaster three-hundred and seventy million miles away? What if that is his fault?
In his pocket, the devvy chimes. It is like a gong in the silence.
He lurches with surprise at the sound, and his left foot slips out from beneath him. His fingers snap away from the slippery stone, and he pivots into nothingness on his right foot. Then ... then, he is in space — falling as if in orbit for those few seconds, connected to nothing and no one. And in the darkness he thinks he hears a woman scream.
There is a whump that leaves him wheezing for breath and a searing pain in his shoulder, and he is on the ground, lying on his side. The head-torch has flown off and shattered somewhere. He moves his arm, touches his head. He doesn't feel blood, although he can't be certain. He moves his fingers. Moves his toes. Everything responds. There is a rock beneath his thigh that has almost certainly bruised him, but it doesn’t seem to have cut through his jeans. The rest of the ground is miraculously flat, and he marvels at just how quickly everything can go wrong. How utterly helpless we are to chance.
He rolls onto his back and slowly reaches into his coat for the devvy, swearing. He knows it will be Ivy again. He’s sure of it. This is his payback. His hands shake.
But it is Terra.
He waits a moment. Scans the sky. It is a riot of stars, but he knows where to look. He finds Jupiter — that tiny beacon, that stormy giant — just above Canis Minor, and with that in sight, opens the video on his devvy.
She is there. She’s not wearing the standard white T-shirt she so often films her videos in from the relative privacy of her bunk. Instead, she is in the full navy-blue jumpsuit. Her eyes sparkle. She looks energised. She looks terrified. He wants to reach in and just hold her.
“Hi baby,” she says, “I don’t even know what to say. It’s out there. I mean, it’s impossible to film—”
The camera swings so that it faces out a tiny round porthole. But the object sits in the permanent shadow of the L2 point, so it is only a shape that blots out the stars. He thinks he can see it, but isn’t sure. Then the camera swings back to her face. Her beautiful face.
“You tried to talk me out of this. Why didn’t I listen? Why didn’t you try harder? Jesus, Tom, what am I doing here? This is just bonkers. It’s everything I wanted. And I do! But now I’m facing it, I just have this, this…existential dread! How stupid. Don’t tell anyone I said these things, please. I know you won’t. I feel like I’m not even living my dream anymore, but I’m some kind of conduit for everyone else. We can’t go spoiling their story by telling them I'm shitting myself.”
She huffs with a short laugh. Thomas squeezes the devvy as if he could will her to feel it.
“I guess I put this vid off. I wanted it to get to you when I’m already in the EVA. I wanted you to see me, because I know you’ll be out there looking up. And I want you to see me right then, no light-speed delay. No TV delay. Just see that I’m okay, even if I’m not, if that makes any sense. To see me even as I’m doing this completely mad thing. I wanted you to see me. And that’s all. God, I’m talking nonsense. But I’m counting the days now, baby. Counting the days before it’s just you and me, and neither one of us is interesting to anyone else. I love you. I'll see you in an hour.”
Jupiter shines like a tiny sun. And she is there, behind it, in its shadow. The Object, too, in its shadow. Something glides above him, obscuring the stars for a split second. And he hears it again — the scream. But it is not a woman. It is not an alien. It’s just an owl. A perfectly normal barn owl.
He needs to see it. The broadcast. He needs to see it along with everyone else. Because this isn’t about him, and it isn't about Ivy. It isn't even about Terra. It’s about all of them. Every single person on this tiny planet.
He stands, aching and limping slightly, and begins the long walk into town. By the time he gets there, Terra will be back on board the Unison recording her next message. By the time he gets there, history will already have been made and the moment gone. By the time he gets there, it will be eight o’clock, and the broadcast will begin. And he will join the others making their way down streets and alleys, walking with friends and lovers and families, gathering, pushing into pubs and halls and houses, sitting on sofas and taking tables around the TV, all of those TVs pulling in the same stream. All of those people so small and distant, all of them viewing a moment together a billion times over, as a woman touches the alien and makes it real. ◼︎
This story partially stems from my interest in the people who are left out of stories. When our heroes leave family and friends to go on an adventure, the ones who are left behind feel the loneliness most keenly. I was very pleased (and somewhat shocked) to find that this story was chosen as a runner-up in the Barn Owl Challenge. So thank you. And readers, if you enjoyed it, too, I always appreciate a click on the "Like" button (and tips are, naturally, also very welcome.) Thanks for reading!