We soar through the stars, boldly going forward; the glamor and glory of galactic travel. Yeah, for those up front, maybe. Floating around in zero gravity, singing songs and smiling for the cameras. The handsome hunky golden boys from the recruitment films, who will return home to a hero’s welcome, and the chat show circuit, and the superabundant astronaut groupies. That’s the lifestyle I thought I was signing up for. Not this. Encased in a metal tube. It’s a narrow prison. It’s a long tomb. It’s the most obviously phallic symbol anybody could have designed.
There is a clear and palpable hierarchy, or a fronterarchy more like. The officers, the ‘real’ astronauts, are based at the head of the rocket, the more experienced crewmen in the middle, and a collection of green rookies, reviled renegades and tired has-beens after them, the men getting more pathetic and less respected the closer they are to the back. And finally, last of all, the laughing stock of the entire vessel, come me and Jon Rose. The rear dwellers. We have zero gravity too, but because there’s a barely an inch of spare space in any direction, we’re pretty much held fast where we are. The few possessions we’re allowed are held magnetically against the walls. It’s a cliché I know, but I have a poster of that Marilyn Monroe picture from a hundred years ago. You know the one.
Neither of us have seen the officers since embarkation. Orders drift down to us like Chinese whispers, filtered along the chained of command, simplified at every stage because we fucktards at the back need it dumbing down. Our tasks never change anyway; we’re not here to think, only to graft, and sweat, and wait. Mostly the latter, but often we can achieve two of these at once. Yes, we work that hard.
We haven’t seen the officers since embarkation. Did I already say that? Things tend to get a bit repetitive back here. And it’s not just the officers; we hardly ever see anyone, except for meal times when we get to drag ourselves towards the middle and sit at the filthy table. Presumably it isn’t always filthy, but it is by the time we sit down, because we get served last and the table is full of smears and stains and pools of gravy – if we’re lucky. If we’re not, the crumbs, leftovers and spit backs of our superiors float around our faces, splatting into our eyes, noses and mouths, or settling on our heads and knotting into our hair.
Reconstituted who knows what is on the menu today. That’s the forgotten leftovers of the lowliest Earth dweller, mulched into a quasi-pig swill, freeze dried and desiccated, then sealed into airtight foil so some dude can call himself a chef for adding hot water to it. No better or worse than yesterday, or the day before that. There’s probably proper food for the officers, all hot and fresh instead of the tepid, congealing mess that we are given. But meal time is still the most bearable time of the day, because after that it’s back to the cramped quarters and the photon torpedo which sits directly above us. It’s a good job that it’s not primed to detonate on impact, because I bang my head on the bastard every time I sit up too quickly.
I bang my head on pretty much everything back here, to be honest. On Earth, I never thought five foot eight was too tall for anything, but now I have to duck everywhere I go or I’d have a lumpier cranium than the Elephant Man, and I sleep in two pairs of socks because my feet stick out beyond the end of the bunk.
THUNK! Ungghh …
That was a bad one. My head throbs and the world seems to spin around me. I’m dimly aware of the taste of blood, and I think I might have bitten my tongue. What shocked me so much that I should sit up so suddenly?
Rose’s face comes into view, one finger to his lips, “Shh.”
Where’s his other hand? … What’s it doing there?
I don’t want this, at least I’m not sure if I do, but I’m too dazed to stop it and my body reacts as if it’s the most right and natural thing in the world. So I let it happen.
I briefly meet Rose’s gaze. He shakes his head and whispers, “Don’t look at me; look at Marilyn.”
Ah, Marilyn, the gust of the vent sending her white dress billowing, lifting high, showing so much that I’m not allowed to see. But she wants me to see it all. I can tell by the way she looks at me, that coquettish smile, that gleam of invitation in her eyes. This was no accident: she wanted me to see; to provoke me, to entice me. Oh, naughty Marilyn! Naughty! Naughty! Naughty!
As if reading my mind, Rose’s motion quickens with the intensity of my fantasy, bubbling me up until the sweet moment of release. I clamp my eyes shut then, not wanting to see what happens to it all. I can feel it cascading like a fountain, into an enclosed area with no gravity, but in my blissed out semi-conscious state, how and where he gets rid of it all is of no concern to me. I just drift back off into my most peaceful and contented sleep of the voyage.
I wake to wonder if we might get into trouble for doing this, but soon put it out of my head. No one gives a fuck what we get up to; I doubt many of them even know that we’re here. As far as they’re concerned, the only relevance of the hindmost section is that it contains the boat’s supply of alcohol; all of the beer and bourbon housed in an empty torpedo chute, which I know the crew would rescue before us if there is ever a fire here.
I run my fingers through the thick mat of dark hair. It’s softer than it looks, glossy and surprisingly pleasant to the touch. I still want it gone; there’s no way I’m doing this with all that there.
Every sensation is pleasurable now: the warmth of the water – which isn’t exactly in limitless supply around here – the soft creamy texture and light yet manly smell of the soapy foam, and most of all the firm, muscular shoulders of my bunkmate as I slather it on. And the bubbly globules of foam that drift up to float around, eddying and swirling all about us, make me think of the old Ibiza rave parties that my grandfather once told me about. I wonder if I will ever dance with Rose, in public, or if this is all we’ll ever have. If it is, I’ll make the most of it.
I use a brand new razor blade. Practically brand new at least, having shaved myself with it – my face – just a few moments ago. Rose voices no concern about me using the same one; that would be churlish given what we are about to do.
My hand is shaking, whether through excitement, anticipation or nerves I know not; probably a mixture of all these. My first stroke is therefore faltering and ineffectual, stopping and starting and jarring. As soon as a channel of foam is removed and I see some smooth bare skin, a cluster of little red dots appear in the area I’ve just gone over. They gently rise up in front of my face. Rose is wincing.
“Oh no, Rose, I’m sorry!”
“Shh…,” he says, “It’s okay, carry on.”
I kiss the wounded area better, and lick away the droplets of blood. Rose shudders. In pain? He moans, a happy moan. Not pain. I do it again. The excitement rises in both us; this could escalate right now. But no, not while he’s still so hirsute.
My insides are flip-flopping but my hands are steady. I relax and complete the job with confidence and composure, and a succession of sweeping yet gentle strokes leaves Rose’s back as smooth and hairless as that of any woman. Almost.
I take a moment to survey my handiwork with a strange little mixture of pride and lust, as I feel myself getting ready. I kiss again, I lick again, Rose shudders again, but this time I don’t stop or pull away. I nuzzle my smooth face into that smooth back, smooth like a woman. I embrace from behind, spooning in, my hairy chest becoming one with that hairless back, and I push. Gently at first, timidly, but then with ever greater vigour and reckless abandon, I push. I push.
Even way out here at the ass end of the ship, we feel the buzz of excitement, the muted jibber-jabber from up front carrying the length of this narrow metal tube. We have a sighting, more; a close encounter. We are engaging the cold enemy for the very first time.
We stalk up to them from behind an asteroid, and they have no idea. Our crew, all except me and Rose, are presented with a clear and unobstructed view of the flank and underside of the Alpha Centaurian ship. We shoot, repeatedly, a succession of direct hits, but the cold enemy vessel does not explode, nor show any damage whatsoever, other than the damage to their captain’s reputation. The only shots are with a camera, and our mission is accomplished. Our captain will get yet another medal for this victory; taking photographs of a spaceship that looks pretty much like every other one we’ve seen. This is it. This is the culmination of years of training, billions of dollars, and months in deep space. This is it. A look at a tube of metal not dissimilar to the one we reside in, and rear dwellers like Rose and myself are denied even that glory. This is it.
I feel cheated. Where is the chaos? Where is the fight? I signed up to fight. Oh, do not mistake me for an effeminate man because of what I’ve done; there is no gentleness in me! I am a creature of wrath and rage and I crave the chaos and the fight. You can’t train a man – I am a man! – you can’t train a man to stalk the enemy with a view to kill and then make him ask them to say ‘cheese!’ when he finds them. You can’t keep a fucking tiger – I’m a fucking tiger! – you can’t keep a fucking tiger in a metal cage for months, showing it pictures of a bison every day, and then let it out and expect it not to the rip that fucking bison to fucking shreds! I want to rip that alien ship to shreds, I want to punch a big fucking hole in it and watch it explode!
I imagine the chaos on the photon torpedoed craft as the damage overwhelms them. I see those little green men wounded by the blast, sucked out into cold space and waiting for death. I hear their sobs and them crying out for whatever creatures they call their mothers. I imagine that there is a primed weapon in the launching chute and not just the crew’s supply of booze. I crave the chaos. I have an uncontrollable compulsion to rebel. So I take two cans of beer out of the chute, one for me and one for Rose, a small act of defiance as pathetic and pitiable as anything I’ve ever done.
“Captain won’t be happy if he sees us with these,” says Rose.
I wink, and take a languid, luxurious swig. “Fuck him.”
“He wishes,” says Rose with that coquettish grin of his.
I down the rest of my can in one, a proper frat boy chug a lug, and after that macho gesture my craving for chaos is sated, my masculinity restored. I no longer feel any obligation to act in a manly way, so I lie down on my front on Rose’s bunk and pout as I look over my shoulder at him. “I’m ready to let you be the boy this time.”
We soon learn that both Rose and I like it even better this way. For him that’s to be expected; he has a wife and two children that he’ll return to after we get back to Earth. It’s more of a surprise to me, and makes me re-evaluate just who and what I am. I am still a man. I am still a tiger. But I am so grateful to Rose for assuaging my anger, for chasing my hatred out of me. I l-. I l-. I like him very much for doing that. I like him very much indeed.
Rose is writing a letter. Such a quaint and endearingly old-fashioned form of communication, when everyone else contacts their loved ones by video link. Except me; I don’t have any.
I’m too nosey not to look over Rose’s shoulder when he writes. It’s a letter to his wife. I can’t expect him not to write it, but it still sends me into a jealous rage. I snatch it away and tear it up, and Rose is livid. He takes a swing to slap me – slap me! – but I’m bigger and stronger than he is. I grab his arm and twist it behind his back, then push him down on to the bunk, where I punish him with short-arm digs in the ribs. But he takes it without a whimper, and despite being the aggressor, it’s me who is crying. I step away and Rose sees that I’m in need of comforting, which he then provides, in the usual way.
It’s nearly over. No matter how big and strong you are, or how many times you’ve been into space, this part is always terrifying and deeply uncomfortable. The heat within our spaceship rises to unbearable levels as we scorch through into the Earth’s atmosphere. Rose and I have stripped down to our underwear, not for lustful reasons this time, but because we feel like we are melting, burning alive. The only physical contact between us is to hold one another’s hands for reassurance.
A little bit of light permeates the vessel. “Sky!” someone shouts, but can’t elaborate. All dialogue is quickly curtailed, G-force ramming any further speech back down his throat. My stomach lurches as the feeling of heat is superseded by the sense of incredible speed. The rocket is in free fall, hurtling towards the surface at terminal velocity, and despite all the calculations and promises, it feels like we must surely die.
I squeeze Rose’s hand, and he squeezes back. I turn to him and our eyes meet. There are tears in his, and I realize, mine too. And then the impact: massive, jarring, violent, but not fatal. The rocket plunges into the Pacific Ocean, the only target big enough to entrust our navigator to hit. Our space rocket turns into a submarine as we sink into the depths beneath the waves, and the disorientation of the sudden change is made tolerable only by the presence of my soul mate. And as my equilibrium gradually restores, I become more aware of my and his near nakedness, and the fact that these could be our last moments together. It will be hours before we arrive at the coast.
We rise to the surface, and I don’t know if it’s the motion that makes me feel sick, or the thought of this tour of duty coming to an end. Those at the front whoop with joy that they can see the sky, and the shore, and that big fucking tower, and endless crowds of thousands of people. I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to get off. I think I might be crying, but Rose says nothing. Ever the gent, he also tries not to look too happy and excited about our homecoming, but I can tell he is. He will go back to his Earthbound family and his Earthbound life, and if we are deployed on different star ships for our next tour, he will find another me. But I do not know if I will ever find another Rose.
Was my house always this big? How did it get so huge and imposing? It looms over me like a colossal brick behemoth, somehow furious and not in the least bit welcoming. I scuttle through the door, aware that it looks and feels like the edifice is an insatiable predator, and that I am being ingested through the creature’s mouth. Inside, all the fixtures and furnishing are in the same place but somehow different. There is no sense whatsoever that I own anything here, they are merely objects occupying space, much like myself, only everything else, even under a layer of dust, seems more at home than I do.
The night-time is okay, I never was afraid of the dark, but the ghosts and monsters haunt me with the rising of the sun, the daylight scorching my retinas and exposing vast swathes of emptiness all around me. I cannot face it. I will not face it.
Snug now. Comfortable. Safe and warm, down the stairs, losing myself in the inky blackness, finding solace in the pressure of walls, doors, and the underside of the stairs always touching me. They will never abandon me, they hold me tight, squeezed into this tiny little alcove where nothing bad can ever happen because there isn’t the space for it to do so. I think I’ll just stay here. Yes. I think I’ll just stay here. Down in my basement, like the back of the rocket. It’s the only way I can feel safe and secure.
I usually ignore the door, preferring to stay in my subterranean airtight haven, but something compels me to respond to the bell this time. Nevertheless, I prepare myself for a religious fanatic or an unscrupulous salesperson, trying to decide whether to greet them with veiled sarcasm or outright hostility. Instead, what I see when I open the door turns my world upside down. It’s the man I love, my Rose, with a single suitcase and that smile I could never resist. Before I know it, he is in my arms, my mouth meeting his, and all my isolation and agoraphobia lifted away. Finally, we are home.