THE STARS LOOK DIFFERENT TODAY
by Michael McGlade
Cillian Byrne glances through the porthole at Saturn, its rings high like the belt on an old man’s trousers, and knows today is the day he will die. He hasn’t planned it this way, his wife and child back on Earth; but he has always been terrified of flying.
He’s thirty-six, reasonably tall, and thin as a dart. Blue eyes, brown hair, doesn’t tan easily.
This Explorer Class space shuttle orbits the smoky marble that is Saturn, having detached from the docking station where five passengers awoke from cryostasis after a half-year journey from Earth. The rich and the lucky. Cillian is one of the lucky — a lottery winner.
He is seated rear middle of the cabin with unobstructed views through head-sized portholes and directly in front of him is a digital display above the locked flight deck door. There are two seats in single rows on the left and the right. Closest to him is Zoe, a blonde-haired woman in her thirties, and her six-year-old pigtailed daughter. They’re part of the lucky set too; a charity paid their way because the girl’s father was murdered intervening in a mugging. Such a senseless tragic waste, Zoe had said to him back in the docking station. But he knew the truth of it all: quick deaths were preferable. He’d seen how death eats your insides like rust through metal. Quick is better. That’s how he wanted it to happen.
The metal canister on his lap is the size of a loaf of bread. He’s been given special permission to eject the canister and its contents toward the planet. He will have a short ceremony, say some fitting words, then place the canister of his mother’s ashes in the airlock. The airlock can’t activate with a living human inside; but even though he has studied the computer protocols, and knows it’s impossible to override the system, he still can’t shake the fact that he’s floating in a tin can in space, a thin sheet of titanium the only thing keeping him alive. But he has to do this because of the promise he made to his mother. Still, he can feel the inky black vacuum of space dragging at him, pulling him toward Saturn’s core where the pressure is so intense even the hydrogen gas is crushed into metal.
Saturn’s rings are close enough to reach out and touch and Cillian stretches out like he could grab the whole planet in his hand and hold it like a marble, like he used to do when he was a child, those nights he’d spend with his mother scanning the speckled blanket of space with a telescope, searching for that prize jewel Saturn.
Space travel tourism made possible by the very nature of Saturn itself: such an abundant source of helium 3, used in fusion engines, like harnessing the heart of a star.
The rings are in clear bands and there — he sees it now, a moon near the middle sculpts the chunks of ice and dust and boulders big as houses — wide but thin, razorlike; and this moon provokes them into a turbulent wake like wind-tunnel smoke. He has always dreamed of seeing this, but what gets him most is how wide the bands are, yet so uniformly flat. Discs. Like halos.
He marvels at the giant hexagon above Saturn’s north pole, each side 12,850 kilometres, perfectly straight and equal — big enough to swallow four Earths. Thermal images on the shuttle’s monitor show that it dips a hundred kilometres into the planet’s atmosphere. Nobody knows what caused it. Here for three hundred years, manifesting over a single week. Some people believe it is supernatural.
Today there’s a storm near the equator, generated by an upwelling of hot gas, just like a terrestrial thunderhead. Cillian calculates the storm extends 20,000 kilometres, with supersonic winds bullying the condensed primordial mist. Those white clouds are actually ammonia ice crystals formed in the icy upper atmosphere.
The shuttle shudders and lurches like a train carriage crossing tracks, and the mother glances at her daughter who’s gripping the armrests tight enough her knuckles look like freshwater pearls. The remain seated sign blinks on. Across the humming intercom the pilot says, “Just a slight gravitational anomaly, folks. Nothing to be concerned about. We’re just a few moments out from the Enceladus Geyser Park.”
Everybody stares through the right-side portholes — mother and daughter, elderly married couple, and Cillian. He’s fixated on the swirling dark spot on Saturn caused by the storm. Cyclonic. Like a plughole he’s draining down into deeper and faster into the dark dead core.
He clutches the cold urn to his chest and the little girl turns with a shish of pigtails, stares over and smiles crookedly — just like his daughter Siobhan. Thinking about Siobhan now, he regrets missing this last year of her life. But he promised his mother, swearing he’d one day take her to Saturn, the planet she loved so much.
Truth told, lately, at home he had been little more than a spectre, some useless thing inhabiting a shared space, incapable of even the most basic human interaction. He had died inside during his mother’s attenuated illness. Right now, his chest hitches, like a metal band there restricting him, unable to breathe, and there’s a dull throb deep in his gut.
Up on screen:
Saturn orbits a billion miles from the sun. Its reflected light reaches earth in an hour. Are you ready for the trip of a lifetime?
The old man at the front leans back and stares at the ceiling, yawning. Sucks his teeth. Checks his manicure. “They said there’d be sights,” he says to no one in particular. “Said it’ll be exhilarating. What exactly we pay for, if they’re treating us just like them?” and he glances at each of the others, his grey eyes lingering on Cillian and his urn.
The old man’s wife plays with the string of pearls around her neck, ratcheting them against the metal neckline of her spacesuit. In case of emergency, helmets are stowed beneath the seats. “Not even a call button,” she says. “Not even a measly glass of bubbly.”
Cillian’s stomach roils. He clamps a sick bag to his mouth, voiding slime into it. A side effect of the long sleep. He seals the bag, glancing around unsure of what to do. The girl points at the button on his armrest. He depresses the button and a droid the size of an RC car exits a hatch, takes the bag with a spindly tentacle, and goes off.
Cillian clutches the canister of his mother’s ashes to his chest and peering out the porthole at Saturn says, “What do you think of it up close?”
Zoe says, “It’s magical,” and cranes her head around to better see him. There’s something in the movement that reminds him of his wife Aoife, so much so that he gasps believing it is actually his wife here with him on this space shuttle orbiting Saturn.
“Don’t be nervous,” Zoe says. “There’s only a half of one percent chance of rocket failure, and even then the recovery droids can reach us in seconds… Although,” and now she blinks rapidly, “I hate heights. Funny isn’t it?”
Her lips are glossy purple like plums. Just like his wife’s. Exact same colour lipstick.
“I knows how much this trip means to you, Cillian.” She glances at her child who’s straining against the seat harness, pugging her nose against the porthole. How many times had he seen Siobhan do that? “Taking her ashes to Saturn, I wish I’d thought to do that for my Jacob.”
They were each six months older because of the journey, but Cillian feels decades older. His insides hum like a tuning fork. The girl says, “My tummy’s all flutter-bys too.”
She means butterflies, he thinks.
The shuttle lurches toward the planet and Cillian travels in time. He’s no longer in orbit around Saturn: he’s sitting at the breakfast table in his family home, next to his eight-year-old daughter Siobhan. It’s a couple of weeks before he will go into space. Siobhan, brown-haired with a smattering of cheek freckles, is leaning over the table, tongue out of her mouth, concentrating on colouring inside the wing of the butterfly she has drawn. Although Cillian has appeared in this scene seated at the table, he recalls having come inside just moments before, his hands still cold and red raw.
“Daddy, why are you out in the back yard every night?”
“Looking at the sky,” he replies.
“Like you and Grannie used to do?”
His wife Aoife glares at him, like she does more and more these days, almost staring through him like he is disappearing incrementally, so slowly no one noticed. They have hardly spoken three sentences to each other since his mother’s death a week ago. The cremation was yesterday. Siobhan had not attended the ceremony, spending the day with her aunty in the city.
“Is Grannie still sleeping in the sky?”
“Grannie and me like sleeping,” she says. “Why don’t you, Daddy?”
He’d been awake all night. Again. Couldn’t sleep.
“Are you looking for Grannie in the sky?”
Cillian’s eyes are hot. He blinks and is back on the space shuttle, like he never left. The stressed hull creaks, the storm on the planet bigger now. The shuttle shunts violently and Cillian is back on earth.
It’s now night and he’s outside his home, alone in the dark yard. No other houses are nearby. This is rural Ireland, where Cillian grew up and he now lives with his family. His telescope is aimed in an easterly direction near the peak of the mountain opposite, awaiting the arrival of a specific star. And then he smells the bubble gum odour of Matey Bubble Bath and realises Siobhan is next to him.
She’s the same age he was when he first learned to find Saturn with his mother. Searching the distant universe, some of those photons travelling a billion light years. The marker stars appear — the Libra constellation — and he tracks across from it to locate Saturn. He lifts Siobhan to the eyepiece and she sees the planet and forgets to breathe. Then when she does, it puffs out like steam. It’s April and barely above zero. There’ll be frost tomorrow that will snip the pastel blue petals of the forget-me-nots.
“Why do you use this old telescope?”
He has newer ones, lots of them; but this one is better than all of them because the best telescope is the telescope that gets used. It was his mother’s. She gave it to him when he was eight, after he had setup the equipment on his own for the first time. It had cost her a whole month’s salary.
Siobhan reaches for the eyepiece and takes hold of it, gingerly, almost unsure if it’s real. “Will you show me how to find Saturn?”
The light in the bathroom comes on. It’s Aoife.
“You should go inside,” he says. “It’s too cold out here.”
“Daddy, will I see you when you’re floating around Saturn?”
Cillian reaches out to touch his daughter’s face but she’s gone. Earth is gone. He’s back on the space shuttle. The six-year-old girl is staring at him and he’s hyperventilating, tugging at the unyielding neck of his spacesuit. Nobody else has heard his ragged breathing, or maybe they’re all too inwardly terrified to call attention to what is happening. The shuttle shunts side to side, caught in the wake of something much larger. And the pigtailed girl, she looks exactly like Siobhan.
Cillian realises the groaning sound is him. The old man up front claps his hands together and grins. His wife hoots. “About time,” they both say together.
This is actually part of the ride. They have entered Enceladus Geyser Park. Enceladus, the sixth largest moon of Saturn, is a great icy maw. The shuttle trembles, gravitational forces stressing the fuselage. Cillian feels it in his chest like the rumbling bass speakers at a concert. Pure percussive waves.
Frost condensing on the surface of Enceladus makes it brilliant white. In a few years it will be developed as a resort because it has the finest powder snow for skiing in the solar system. An explosive plume shoots water into space. The shuttle chicanes through geyser valley, over a hundred of them spouting constantly. Most of this material creates Saturn’s rings, but the rest falls as snow.
An ice geyser erupts, catching the shuttle’s undercarriage. Cillian yells but the old man up front is grinning and says, “They do it on purpose. Makes it exciting, what.” His wife is gripping the armrest tightly. Cillian is holding on tight enough to hurt his fingers. The ship lurches. The old woman is walking down the aisle towards him. Extreme G-force has pinned him immobile and he cannot understand how this old woman is able to remain upright, reaching into his embrace, that familiar lavender perfume the same as his mother always wore, and now a sterile, bleach smell too.
And Cillian dips back out of her embrace and he is in a hospital room, his mother pillared on some stiff cushions on the bed. Her eyes are shrunken and glossy as raisins and her skin is yellow, like it’s an ill-made fabric she’s wearing. A sackcloth mask.
His mother has been dying in hospital for fifteen months now. Medicine has prolonged her existence. When her pain is at its worst, she asks him to help her die, but he’s too scared to do what she asks.
Instead he visits. Tries to be there for her. Treat her with dignity.
“You always were a bright one,” she says. “And so bloody stubborn too. Remember telling you you weren’t ready to setup the telescope and find Saturn … remember what you did?”
“I took it out without you knowing,” he replies. “Did it behind your back. And found it too, found Saturn.”
Eight years old. His Da had tanned his hide because of it. Whipped him raw to teach him a lesson. Until his Ma found out. The next morning when she found out what occurred, having been at work that night, she took a kitchen knife to her husband. Cut him a good deep gash. Divorced soon afterwards.
Now Cillian sits on his dying mother’s hospital bed and every Tuesday they play the lottery. One lucky person a month gets a free trip to Saturn. He had been saving for years, hoping to get her to Saturn, but each year the prices increased, and now he had to resort to potluck. She would never have let him pay for her to go to Saturn, not now that she was dying; and, though left unspoken, he knew they’d never win a ticket. Her love of computational physics led him to follow in her footsteps: Cillian studied astrobiology and impact-driven exchange of life between planetary bodies.
“The thing you fail at and want to try again,” she says, “that’s the thing you’re willing to chase forever.”
Cillian spends most of his spare time in hospital with his mother. She complains, urging him to not waste time, a finite resource. He keeps telling he won’t ever leave her side.
And then she’s gone. The hospital is gone. He’s in the dark yard outside their home. His mother is much younger, in her thirties, long back hair spilling down to her shoulders like printers ink. He’s seven years old. She’s talking about timing, how nothing is chance. It’s always about the right calculation. Balance and symmetry.
He’d been pestering her to let him help with setting up the telescope and she lets him think he’s helping, even though it’s way beyond his capabilities. They live high up the eastern slope of Slieve Gullion Mountain. Just a smattering of pale rectangular lighted windows down the valley. About as dark as the world could be. It is the first day of April.
“It’s really freezing.” He stomps his feet. Hugs his mittened hands to his chest. Steam puffing out of his nostrils like little geysers.
“We have it easy,” she replies. “Think how cold it is out there in space. 2.7 kelvin — that’s 2.7 degrees above absolute zero.”
“Negative 273.15 Celsius,” he blurts out.
The wind rips up from the valley floor, screaming over the black granite summit, past the caldera of that once volcano.
“Saturn’s cold,” she says. “Minus one hundred and sixty eight Celsius. The wind blows seventeen hundred kilometres per hour. A day is just 10 and a half hours.”
“Why is it you like it so much?”
“Because of the rings,” she replies. “Those beautiful rings.”
Howling wind buffets the telescope, an Orion Atlas with an eight-inch aperture. Five kilo counterweights on each of the three steel mount legs.
The light in the kitchen comes on, a tall spoke of a man staring out at them, at the boy in particular. Glaring, actually. He gulps a can of beer and crushes it. Switches off the light.
The boy shares a thermos of tea with his mother and they sit on the two kitchen chairs they have placed to the side of the cement yard, beyond is a mudded area then heather and wetland. He glances at the mottled night blanket and thinks how wonderful it would be to escape the dirt and grim down here, escape into the heavens, back to where it all began, that majestic toy set, cosmic playthings, planets, solar system, galaxy.
Saturn, the most beautiful point of light in their celestial sphere. Difficult to locate; always worth the effort. Any amateur can find Mars: Saturn is the prize. They had to consult charts before setting the telescope because you needed to predict its path. Anticipate its orbit. Learn its behaviour.
“Like casting a net,” she says. “You wait for the catch.”
Saturn’s orbit is 29.5 years.
“It’s only visible when we pass between it and the sun,” she says. “Only visible–“
“Part of the year,” he interrupts and she laughs. Already he knew the only real way to truly understand something is to interrupt it and study the reaction.
Right now Saturn is in retrograde, moving east to west, closest to Libra. The God of Agriculture carrying his scythe.
Visible from April to July, this year; they know because of the star charts that Libra will appear low on the south-eastern horizon after midnight. He’s counting down the minutes while his mother hums The Foggy Dew.
“Will we go there some day?” he asks. “They’ve hotels already around the moon.”
“One day,” she says. “One day.”
“I’ll take you,” he says. “I promise.”
A crash from the bathroom as the toilet lid clatters to the porcelain. Light daggers out the window and the window cranks open and the boy’s father stares out. His lips move to speak but instead he snaps the window shut.
Just before departing Earth his father, this bearded broken wretch would pull him aside and ask for money, demanding it, so to have a drink with his lottery-winning son, but Cillian pushes him aside and walks on without a glance back. They hadn’t spoken in thirty years.
For now the harsh bathroom light remains on for a further five minutes, purposefully delaying their view of the planet.
Cillian doesn’t get to see Saturn through the telescope because he is back on the space shuttle, his mother’s ashes in the canister on his lap. The air now is iced enough to slush his breath. They’ve departed Enceladus to rendezvous with the docking station and are navigating the rings closest to Saturn. The shuttle jerks, then shunts toward the planet, losing altitude. Trapped in this gravitational snare, small rocks ping off the hull and a porthole window cracks into a spider web. Crashing and tumbling toward the planet now. Just like disappearing down a drain, spiralling toward this huge roiling planet with its dark gaping inescapable maw. Saturn, like the Roman with his scythe, has called time on Cillian’s life. Now the storm has covered most of the planet’s surface, and it’s reaching out for him, tugging the shuttle into oblivion.
He realises that the rest of the passengers had been walking freely around the cabin while he was on earth with his mother. Because they had been standing, they are now pinned against the cabin in separate parts as the shuttle hurtles toward the planet’s core. The girl is off on her own, crushed against the ceiling. Directions were meaningless now they were in a tight spiral. Cillian’s hands tremble, heart pulsing in his throat, but he forces himself to unbuckle his harness and edge toward her. He struggles inch by painful inch and takes her hand and holds her close like he should have done with his own daughter. Hurtling faster and faster to the core, acceleration pressing down like a boot on his chest.
The entire planet of Saturn is buoyant enough to float on water, but at the centre terrible forces crushed everything into nothingness.
The girl holds his hand and he holds hers.
Everything stops. Floating. His urn shatters and now ash winds away like smoke. The shuttle’s thrusters fight gravity, but the cracked porthole blows outwards, leaking his mother’s ashes into the atmosphere. The others are sucked toward the hole. Cillian grips a handhold chair, extends a leg and the old man and woman grab hold. Zoe, lurching like she’s doing a forward crawl, clasps her arms around the old man’s ankles. They’re all clinging onto Cillian, but he sees the faces of his wife and daughter, his mother and father. He won’t let them go. Can’t.
But the powerful forces weaken his grip and they spiral off toward the hole.
A safety shield snaps down sealing the hull. Now everybody’s pinned to the ceiling. In the darkness he swears he can see the stars, but this is impossible because he is still inside the shuttle, but he sees the stars anyway, the infinite cosmos, and he sees Saturn, the storm, having eaten his mother’s ashes, now abating, and the emergency droids from the docking station clamp onto the shuttle, several of them sucked down into the planet because of the gravitational anomaly, but the remaining droids thruster in unison and manoeuvre the shuttle backwards, to safety. And all the while Cillian thinks how different the stars look today because he is no longer seeing with his own eyes: he is looking through his daughter’s eyes from Earth in the telescope she has set up perfectly without his permission, searching not for the thing he is or had been but just him. Interrupted.