Glass Balloons (short story – SF)

‘Bring it in Stephen,’ the foreman shouted.

It was my first day on Dock One as a fully licensed valet. It’s still called the International Space Station but now it spans half the globe. Like a web of tubes. When the sun comes around this side of the Earth it casts a grid of shadows on the world.

I was in my first customer’s car. My dim reflection looked back at me like a ghost in the convex windscreen. It’s been bugging me for a while but I’ve just realised what my uniform reminds me of. I remember watching a film when I was young with a lift guy in it. In the old days they used to have people who worked in elevators that controlled the buttons. That’s what I look like. I wore a dark burgundy blazer type thing, with gold buttons down the front, and a flat cylindrical hat, black trousers with a severe line ironed down the front, and black shiny shoes. I have a slim shaven face, short hair, eyebrows, nose, mouth; all the usual stuff; ears, etc.

I pulled the microphone down from the rim of my hat.

‘I can’t find the gear stick.’

‘For Christ’s sake.’ I could see my foreman in the control tower pick up a pair of binoculars and look down at me. He picked up the microphone.

‘Stephen?’

‘Yes.’

‘Look in front of you. Do you see a steering wheel?’

I rolled my eyes, ‘Yes.’

‘Now, look down and to your left, you see that stick with the ball on the end, it’s called a gear stick, now-’

‘No gearstick,’ I repeated.

The foreman picked his binoculars back up and looked at my vehicle again.

Harrison pulled up from below me in a sporty little number with twin engines that cascaded from the roof and ended in two circular giant fans at the back. He performed a reverse U-turn and hooked up at Dock Two about thirty yards in front of me. He switched off the engine, stood up and bowed at me.

I politely showed him my middle finger.

‘Ok, it’s a Chord Galaxy Automatic. There’s a concealed gearstick used for docking, there should be a button by the hazard light button, do you see it?’

I looked across the dashboard and found it.

‘Got it,’ I said, pressing the button.

A square panel sank back into the dashboard and opened sideways. A small gearstick popped out with a button on top with a picture of a hook on it.

‘Yep, definitely got it,’ I said.

‘Bring it in.’

I pressed the button and listened for the hook to mechanically fold out from the side and click into place. A light on the dashboard flashed on to indicate that it had. I put the gear into park and lifted my foot off the clutch. The vehicle moved sideways and hooked on to the dock.

‘Ta Da!’ I said, with jazz hands.

Harrison clapped sarcastically.

I turned off the engine and got out of the vehicle. I closed the door behind me and the automated parking belt wound down another notch making the vehicle disappear below the space station. The belt stopped winding and another dock was left in its place, in position for the next car-hook.

‘Nice work Stephen,’ said the foreman putting his binoculars down.

‘It’s cold,’ I said.

The foreman, and everyone else, could hear me through the communication unit. It’s activated by pulling the mic down though I can hear the foreman at all times through the ear piece.

‘Not for long, we’ve got sun in twenty minutes. Do you think you can do another one in that time?’

I looked up at the tower and shrugged at him.

‘Can you please answer with your voice, Stephen?’

‘Sure, I don’t mind.’

‘Ok, I’m sending him to your platform, make sure it’s clear.’

I saluted up to him.

‘Words, Stephen.’

‘Yes, sir!’ I shouted into the mic.

I saw him pull his headphones off and curse away from the mic, ‘Why do we hire these idiots?’ he muttered.

I wandered over to the platform and looked at it. I surveyed it proudly. ‘The cleanest platform on this side of the station,’ I said.

‘That’s because it’s only been used once you twat,’ said a voice behind me.

‘Hey, Harrison.’

‘Hey, man, good day?’

‘Yeah, it’s easy.’

About three hundred yards out of the Docking Station the first airlock to the parking area opened and a small craft came in and switched from its vacuum engines to its flight engines. The first door closed and the inner door opened letting the hum of its engines din around the dome. I could see the driver squinting over his steering wheel for the right platform and I waved up at him. He gave me the thumbs up and headed over.

The inner airlock closed. It’s normally silent but this time there was a faint bang shortly after it closed. I looked up at the foreman but he seemed unconcerned. I turned my attentions back to the new vehicle.

The hum of the engine turned into a chattering clatter as the vehicle got closer and manoeuvred itself into position. It stopped about a foot above the platform and the driver opened his window.

‘Do you want me to turn the engine off, or are you taking it straight over?’

‘Leave it running.’

The driver turned in his seat to the back.

‘Alright kids, everyone out.’

The back door opened and three excited kids got out. The driver got out and grabbed a suitcase out of the boot.

‘Ok, all done,’ he said, with the awkward smile that comes with handing your pride and joy to a strange teenager. ‘Don’t scratch her.’

‘Not a mark,’ I said.

‘I think the sun is almost around,’ he said nodding toward the Earth.

I looked. A crescent of sunlight was expanding imperceptibly across the Earth. ‘I know, about fifteen minutes I think.’

The man nodded and smiled and ran off to catch up with his kids.

‘Sure you don’t want me to do this?’ said Harrison.

‘No, I’ve got it.’

‘Ok, catch you in a bit.’

Harrison slapped my shoulder and took off towards the staff entrance.

 

The craft was nothing special. It was a family car that looked like it had been on a lot of holidays. The back seat was littered with empty crisp packets and colouring pencils and puzzle books. An interstellar map was unfolded in the passenger foot-well and a bunch of CDs were strewn, out of boxes, on the passenger seat. Retro. I like it.

I put on the seatbelt and adjusted the rear-view mirror.

‘Ok,’ I said, into the mic.

‘Ok, Dock One is ready, proceed.’

I pulled up and glided forward and positioned myself to the left of the Dock.

‘In position.’

‘Ok, check Dock for obstruction.’

I leaned over to look out of the passenger window. Something wasn’t right. I couldn’t tell what. There was no obstruction, but, something. I lowered the car a few feet to get a better look.

‘Is there a problem?’

I twigged what it was.

‘The space bellow is vacant,” I said.

‘That’s impossible.’

‘I’m not lying, it’s vacant.’

‘Move out of the way,’ said the foreman.

The automated belt that housed the dock moved back a space and I shifted the car out of the way. The previous dock came into view. It was empty.

I saw the foreman pull off his headphones again and pick up the mic.

‘Harrison, get out there!’ he shouted, and then he ran out of the room and disappeared from view.

I changed gear and flew the craft away from the station to get a wider view.

‘Oh, fucking hell. Harry, are you there?’

His voice came through on my earpiece. ‘What’s happening?’

I put my hand to my brow and shook my head. ‘I’m going to get fired Harry.’

‘Just tell me what’s happened.’

Several hundred yards below me, the first car I had ever successfully parked, lay in a crumpled smoking heap at the bottom of the dome.

‘I guess the hook gave out or something.’

‘What are you saying? Did it drop?’

‘Yeh.’

‘Cracks?’

‘Not that I can see from here.’

‘Get back up here and get me!’

I flew the car up to Harry’s platform and he opened the passenger door and got in, absently brushing the CDs on to the floor.

The foreman came running out of the staff entrance and got to us just as Harry closed the passenger door.

‘If that car is on the bottom-’

‘We’re sorting it,’ said Harry.

‘Sun is ten minutes away!’ the foreman shouted.

I came off the platform and dived fast toward the bottom.

‘Oh shit,’ said Harrison, taking in the full scene of the accident.

‘Yep, shit indeed. Get out of the way.’

Harry took hold of the wheel and I climbed over me, while I squeezed under him, and we switched seats.

 

We slowed when we were twenty or so yards away. The scene seemed to magnify as we got closer. The glass around the wreck was latticed with fine cracks that spread silently and slowly outwards.

‘This is really fucking bad,’ said Harry, pulling his mic down, ‘Permanently seal the outer entrance. The inner balloon is cracked.’

‘How bad is it?’ said the foreman, with a weird sort of calm in his voice.

‘I think you’ll need to evacuate this section. The inner balloon is splitting.’

‘Are you fucking kidding me Harry?’

‘We’re going to grab the wreck and pull it up. If the inner seal bursts and the car falls through we could break the outer shell. It wouldn’t take much with the sudden vacuum.’

‘Evacuating now. Sun is in seven minutes. You need to move it now.’

Harrison had already dropped the hook.

‘What should I do?’ I said.

‘Just fucking pray.’

Harrison was a master. The way he positioned the car was like being inside a humming bird. He pulled the break when the hook was a few inches from the other vehicles docking hook.

Harry stopped for a moment. He closed his eyes and took a breath inwards. He let it out slowly. The cracks seemed to spread around the wreck at the same pace.

‘Hurry up Harry,’ said the foreman.

Harry opened his eyes and held the controls still. He pushed the stick forwards gently and the hook moved toward the other. They touched.

There was a faint sound, like two china cups touching, and then the entire inner balloon shattered at once. It was like a bubble popping. It happened everywhere. A thousand yards above us and a few metres below us. The whole thing became a net of cracks and then disintegrated. I looked up through the sunroof. It took a lifetime for that shattered glass to fall. I saw it begin to shower the roof of the Docking Station just as the wrecked car hit the outer balloon.

There was an enormous sound like a nuclear bomb exploding and then being immediately muted. The car we were in lurched and then floated. The falling glass stopped and then fled in all directions at a serenely measured speed.

The earpiece in the headset turned to a frantic and deafening static. I pulled it out chucked it into the passenger footwell. Harry did the same. Then he looked at me.

‘Sorry Harry,’ I said.

He frowned. ‘Sorry?’

‘It wasn’t my fault.’

Harrison looked out of the window at the wreckage of the fallen car floating away from us. I looked at it too.

‘I think it might be, mate.’

‘What do we do now?’

The sun began to breach the horizon and the car, floating further away, lit up momentarily and then became a silhouette. Harry reached down and pushed a button with a symbol of a sun printed on with a line through it. Visors covered the windscreen and side windows. Harry reached up and pulled the shutter closed on the sun roof.

‘What do you think we should do Stephen?’

‘I feel like I might lose my job over this.’

Harry looked at me. ‘Yeah, I think you might lose your job over this.’

‘I blame inadequate safety measures.’

‘I blame you, you twat.’

‘Can we reasonably get to the pub on Entrance 9 before anyone catches up to us? I think I’m going to need a drink before facing whatever the fuck we’re about to face.’

Harry shrugged.

‘You alright Harry?’ I said.

He looked at me. ‘I’m fine mate.’ He twitched a bit. ‘Let’s go to Entrance 9.’

 

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