‘I love these suburban sunsets,’ Tom said.
His friends murmured their agreement; they sat on a patch of grass near the pool, in a park bordered by rustling lines of poplars. Little children played on the peddle boats on the pool or flew kites; traffic surged up and down the streets bordering the suburban oasis. Tom curled an arm around Laura and drew her close and planted a kiss on her cheek. This was a good day. It was the kind of day Tom would have remembered, under the right circumstances, with a warm glow: always the smell of freshly cut grass and the soft hum of traffic would bring him back here.
‘I love you even more than them,’ Laura said. ‘So, um…can I ask you something, Tommy?’
‘Of course you can,’ Tom smiled back.
‘It’ll sound kind of stupid.’
‘Well, I like stupid.’
‘Oh shut up, you,’ Laura said, giving him a gentle shove. ‘Okay. Here goes…’
Tom waited while she took a breath.
‘Do you think we’ll be together…um, like, forever…?’
‘Of course I do,’ Tom said, but Laura’s look was more questioning than jubilant. Her smile was fading, her pupils refocusing, her eyes searching.
‘Tom,’ she said. ‘I…I don’t think you do, do you?’
‘Laura, please…I do. I really do. Don’t be like this.’
Tom went to give her another kiss, but she shrank back, looking him up and down. ‘Tom, I want us to be serious…’
‘Oh, Laura,’ Tom said. ‘If only we had time.’
He thought of reaching for his radio to request an update on the situation from the Lieutenant, then left it. Laura’s hand was on his, but her eyes were cast down: as she squeezed his hand, it was as if she searched for meaning there. Then she sighed and settled down against him.
A couple of Tom’s friends were setting off to the ice cream van, asking Tom if he wanted a ninety-nine. He was about to nod when there was a faraway noise; it was like thunder, or the sound of several huge things crashing together a way off. The light of the day dimmed and then returned, and there was a shiver in the ground.
At that moment, everyone in sight stopped and stared into space as if they had forgotten what they were doing—his friends halfway to the ice cream van, the kids on the peddle-boats still moving across the water, his friends sitting around him. Even Laura’s gentle hand on his became still. A couple of seconds later anyone standing keeled over, some falling flat on their fronts with sickening sounds. Those sitting slumped. There was a series of crashes—glass broke and tyres screeched. A long line of cars crashed into one another near an intersection.
Then Tom no longer felt Laura’s weight at his side: there was a momentary chill, like a cloud of drizzle maybe, then nothing. Everyone else had disappeared too. The only sound came from still running car engines, before automatic mechanisms kicked in and that sound stopped too. Only the breeze in the trees. The radio hissed and buzzed from Tom’s pocket and he retrieved it in time to hear the Lieutenant’s update.
‘Sorry, Tom,’ she said, through static. ‘We just lost the power plant controlling the constructs.’
‘Never mind,’ Tom said. ‘I’ll go to my house to sit out this last bit. How is the integrity holding up?’
‘Good for a little while longer. Get inside as soon as you can, though. Under solid cover.’
‘Did you enjoy your afternoon on here, at least?’
‘I did, thanks. I can see why people paid to come here.’
The sun hung low in the sky, a haze burning a golden orange that bled into the cool, deep blue. Scattered clouds here and there. The last light of the sun catching rooftops and trees; further afield, the hills and farmland around the frontiers were illuminated. After a quiet walk he was on his own street again; moments later, he was in his own house. Home. A solidly built semi-detached home, with bay windows which allowed one to look up and down the street. From the window, across the orange-tinged world, he could see the other houses of the neighbourhood, the streets broken by gardens and poplars swaying in the gentle breeze. The neighbourhood stretched almost as far as he could see, right to the rural frontier areas. The winding, identical roads of semi-detached homes were broken at intervals by large, empty snaking highways and parks. He could see the nearest park to his home, where he had been just before, defined by that large artificial pool with peddle boats bobbing on the water. He could see the golden shimmers as the water moved in the breeze.
‘How you hanging down there, Tom?’ the Lieutenant asked over the radio.
Tom paused a moment and spoke back into the piece, pacing the bare floorboards of the empty bedroom. ‘Fine thanks, Lieutenant. The integers you programmed into the sun are perfect, and it’s still holding up. How long have I got?’
‘You’re getting dangerously close to Neptune,’ the voice said through a hiss of static. ‘You’ll begin feeling the effects of the gravity well at some point fairly soon. You’re just a tiny bit too heavy for orbit.’
‘Thanks, Lieutenant…take care, then. It’s been good.’
‘Goodbye for now, Tom. Just hold tight.’
Tom looked out over the world. The artificial sky dome was seamless. That would be the first thing to go. Beyond the sky lay a deep dark void and a huge blue sphere. Hard to comprehend, really. But it wouldn’t be once the artificial gravity field on this thing went.
There was a deep rumble in the world, so deep that it was belied by the sounds of the windows and the house shivering. These thirties-built houses had always seemed so solid. The rumble passed, but then it returned. Tremors made the house sway a little, and Tom thought he heard something fall over somewhere in the city. Over on the park, the peddle boats were bouncing crazily over the churning pool.
There was a sound, quiet and deep but definite, like two great metal objects hitting each other deep in the bowels of the ship. The sound, almost like that of a giant bell, travelled up through the ground. There was another tremor. The streetlamps swayed. Tom briefly lost control, but took deep breaths and closed his eyes. He was home. Home. Home. A groaning noise, travelling through every inch of the world like a kind of music to herald the end, made him open his eyes again. Great gusts slapped the house, and the trees swung about crazily. The change in atmospheric pressure meant that the dome was contorting. There was now a constant rumbling and vibrations pulsed through the walls of the house. The glass in the windows shivered with a low buzz.
He was home. He was home. He was h—
Another long, drawn out groan. Metal giving under forces it was never designed to meet. The shaking grew more violent; Tom fell against the wall, but kept on watching through his bedroom window.
A great black fissure appeared in the sky, somewhere near the apex of the dome; the black curled outward along creeping tendrils, like watercolour paint on turgid paper. The blue gold vista seemed to warp as the black tentacles expanded. As he watched, the sound of the breach—of air torn into space—reached him as a sharp, painful crack. The air was moving that way now; outside the trees bent over and hedges were sheared into strange shapes. Great waves leapt across the pool in the park. He heard the gusts whistling around the house and he heard the house move with a kind of creak.
He was home. Home. Home.
Around a mile northwards there was a tremendous, drawn out roar and a small section of streets seemed to be lost to a geyser of debris. He saw a crack in the land three streets wide extend from the centre right out to the eastern frontier; as he followed the path of the split, he was aware of how much the finite world resembled a large coin under its protective blue bubble.
There were a series of other sharp rushes of noise and other cracks lanced out from the centre to the frontiers, dividing the world like a pie. There was a groan and briefly there was complete darkness. Tom took a deep breath. The light returned, the sunset flickering like a huge light bulb and plunging the world into fleeting frames of pitch black. The octopus in the sky grew and grew—some of the tentacles devouring the sky had to be a mile long, and a hundred metres wide near the initial breach. The pigments and gases in the sky were flowing away, lost in the obliterating outward advance of darkness.
There was a sound of metal groaning so thundering that Tom had to cover his ears. It heralded a litany of echoing cracks, and Tom saw a great pie slice of the world tip upwards from the centre. It looked like the bow of a sinking ship, while the part closest the frontiers collapsed downward. The piece broke free a little way before the frontiers and then rose out of the land, and then Tom realised he was no longer on the floor. Cars in the street were floating above the ground, and the water rose majestically from the pool like in an undulating crystal sculpture. Peddle-boats tumbled into the ether. The pie-section of earth rose toward the sky, houses sitting intact on top of it, and artificial earth tangled with all manner of machinery hanging from the bottom. Fragments hung in the air.
‘Lieutenant. Hurry. Artificial gravity’s gone and I’m already feeling the pull of the planet.’
Home. Home. Home.
The runaway section hit the sky with a booming, echoing concussion and another black octopus formed at the impact site. There was another crack as the world decompressed. Then Tom was pulled to the ceiling.
‘Neptune’s gravity is pulling everything upwards, Lieutenant. Hurry…’
He felt the house groan. The house across the street broke between the floors and the top half peeled off and fell skyward. He saw cars, in the distance, strike the sky with all manner of debris. Entire neighbourhoods fell free with the topsoil, disintegrating. Tom felt the house begin to give way. He saw great black cracks lance across the vestiges of blue sky in between flickers of black. The air was growing thinner and far off he saw houses explode due to the changes in pressure, before their internal parts fell towards the sky. He heard the foundations of the house begin to tear free, and the floorboards popping out of place. The window frame changed shape and the glass shattered, falling upward with roof tiles. He saw entire rows of houses peel off the land; he saw trees wrenched upwards as if weeded. The sound was incredible. The light went for the last time. The walls exploded and he fell, the bottom floors of the house lingering under him before breaking free and following. He was falling, falling into the void. So cold. So little air.
Then he saw a light above him—it could have been heaven, for all he knew in these mad moments. The light took form: a yellow oblong. There was a flash of blue and suddenly he was no longer falling, but suspended. There was a hiss, and the air became thicker again. In his peripheral vision he saw the dome burst free from the crumbling round base under it, all manner of objects spilling free into the void, all now shapeless in the soft blue light from the planet beneath. The debris spread out with the non-motion of the planet, becoming a tiny black peppering on a pale blue sea gilded with tendrils of white cloud.
‘Tom,’ the radio chirped. ‘Gotcha. We managed to get a fix and set up a retrieval field for you, there. Say something, buddy.’
‘I’m out,’ Tom said, and then closed his eyes. ‘It’s over.’
‘Haha. Nice one. Tell you what, I’m impressed. Saw the readouts. Most punters were never as inventive as you when they built their ideas of paradise. Usually lots of naked women and palaces. Suburbia as paradise…like it, Tom. Ironic that you were the one who helped pilot it into Neptune’s atmosphere. Who knew demolition technicians had such good taste in neighbourhoods?’
‘I drew from memory,’ Tom said. ‘Then twisted the memory, so it stopped being memory.’
‘Well, good for you. We should have you back aboard soon enough. We’ll reel you in from the gravity well. Just try not to look too hard at space. You know how it can affect people.’
‘It’s fine,’ Tom said. ‘I’ve already gone mad.’
‘Well, once again. Good for you.’
Sam Buckley is 20 and currently studying English Literature at Liverpool University. He developed a love of writing and drawing as a child, creating his own little worlds with scribbled stories and cartoons. After reading his stories to friends and winning a short story competition, the hobby developed into a way of life. He now writes whenever he can, taking inspiration from anything that might catch his eye; he also enjoys taking his work in any direction that looks interesting.