It was dark when James awoke, which wasn’t right. He breathed shallowly, noted that the air was still warm and felt a wave of relief. Somehow the life support was still functioning despite his assault. He began to mouth a silent entreaty of thanks and immediately felt the words escape him. He had been stationed in the heavens long enough to know that, normally, he was all alone up here.

How long had he slept? He didn’t know and realised that he didn’t have time to care. He was momentarily grateful for the blackness, the respite from his rabid thoughts. Then he was back up, out of his bunk and grasping for the heavy torch. A click of its switch and the sickening revelation of where he was, what he had done – what he was still doing – came swarming out of the shadows as they leapt up the walls.

His cot – previously so tidy, so ordered – was a dishevelled nest, a spiralling network of strewn and battered keepsakes, clothes, gadgets… He pulled his lilac sash out of the sink – he had no idea how it had ended up there – and guzzled at the slow flowing tap. Sated, he straightened and cast the torch’s beam on where the sash had fallen like a dead eel. Its colour was besmirched with stains from the hydraulic fluid that had splashed when he… When he… He couldn’t recall exactly what had happened. But the sash… the sash meant something. Something important, something special and yet, somehow, something hateful too.

He stamped upon the soggy remains with his single boot and looked at the scratched network of damage that covered the bare skin of the other. His naked foot resembled the scabbing knuckles on both hands. My body is a temple, he thought, to Kali the destroyer. He grinned at his own joke and began to examine the colours of the drying wounds on one hand – something almost like tree sap had begun to congeal around the edges of one of the deeper lacerations. His measured inspection suddenly triggered unwanted images of Miss Snow strapped to the bed in the station’s medical bay.

“Shit.” His own voice and curse surprised him, like someone creeping up and whispering ‘boo’ in your ear as a child. A child, yes. A child who…

He remembered standing on the crisp beach of Sahron island, the warm clasp of his flip-flops guarding against the heat of the sand. His skin was alive with the sun, his eyes squinting against the brightness of the azure sky, their gaze desperately trying to follow the spaceship’s vapour trail as it distanced itself from the heart of the island. The ship was their secret, the biggest secret of all, and he loved the fact that one day he would be a part of it, part of the Lightning Wing and Global Rescue. A call carried under the quietening roar of the ship’s afterburners. His mother’s voice cajoling him back to the picnic, to the blankets and her arms. He twisted in place and looked up the beach to see where she was but he couldn’t make her out. An indistinct blur, arm raised in salutation. A vague almost ethereal form that his eyes couldn’t quite settle upon.

The screech snatched him back to the dark of the station. It started as a gutral growl and rose in pitch to an ear splitting wail of anguish, hatred and frustration. Miss Snow was also awake.

He moved down the curving corridor, blocking out the daydream and the realisation of what his officer’s sash actually signified. Step by step he approached the growing pool of blue light that marked the medical bay, the torch bobbing erratically as he drew nearer to its open door. His mind was a static buzz of thoughts and emotions, all amplified now by the sounds of the young woman struggling against her restraints.

How did we get to this point, he wondered, with a growing sense of distaste. He paused by the side of the doorway, silent on the balls of his feet and still invisible to Miss Snow.

Two days ago she had been ‘Snowy’, the childhood nickname sticking with his family into adulthood. Now he could only think of her in the most formal manner he could muster. He had to do that, he had to distance himself from her, from…

She’d arrived on the Lightning Wing Five two days ago, entered the space station as a friend bearing gifts, arriving like a treat perched on top of the usual supply run which was delivered by his brother, Alex.

It was a surprising and a welcome reunion, regardless of the lack of time since he’d last been back on Earth. She’d made a selection of home grown specialities and they’d enjoyed the food and each others’ company. Then she had changed, just like that. Her voice slurring like she was drunk, her delicate eyelids drooping as if she were only half awake, her full lips spilling obscenities like a porn star. And he had changed too. The groin driven clench of desire that had come out of the blue was undercut by a growing loathing of how she was treating him, a repulsion towards the vileness of her words and the grating sexuality of her voice.

He shuddered at the memory and stepped forward, just enough to glimpse her dark, lithe legs pressing against the blue leatherette of the medical bed – a shapely but strong heel leaving passing dimples in the fabric. He quickly licked his lips and fractionally shifted his perspective following the line of her shins to her knees and beyond, upwards towards the hem of her twisted sarong – she had discarded her more customary trouser suit for their fateful dinner. He felt a desire stifled by anger and frustration, a powerful urge neutred by his chasm-like inexperience with women. But that had never really bothered him before, had it? He knew his limitations, he had liked his solitude and had learned how to fake sociability when needed. So what had changed, what…

“You’re there aren’t you?” Her voice angry but soft, in control for the moment.

“Yes,” He muttered and moved to where she could see him.

“What do you want?” Bitter emotions wrapped in a sweet tone.

“I want to get to the control deck and make sure that they’re not already on their way.”

“Well I need to go to the toilet and if you fucking taser me again on the way there, I swear I’ll let all the air out of this station and…”

“Shut the fuck up!”

“Come on,” he tone immediately plaintive, “Undo these handcuffs and let me go to the toilet.”

“I can’t trust you.”

“Ha,” She spat, “You don’t know what you can and can’t do. You couldn’t fuck me when you wanted to, you couldn’t hit me even though I begged you to. You can’t do anything. No sign of life from deathly James Sharon. You…”

“Shut it I said.” James stepped forwards into the doorway, the muscles bunching along his jaw.

“Fuck you.” Miss Snow shot him a defiant stare.

There was a silence and in it James considered his options. His rising anger told him to flush out of the air-lock but that would take time, precious time that he realised he didn’t have. She was just a noise at the moment and he was letting her distract him from the more pressing matter of his immediate family. His parting glance was a cold, dead thing trawled up from the depths.

“You fucking child!” Miss Snow yelled after him, “I need to piss cocksucker! Come back here! Come back!”

Her voice began to fade as he moved between the bulkheads, her cries stating that his brothers were going to take turns fucking him once they arrived slowly fading back to her earlier, desperate sobs. He’d return shortly and come up with some kind of plan to deal with her. But for now…

The control desk was bathed in an eerie twilight caused by the remaining, undamaged panels and the albedo of the Earth’s reflected sunlight. Collectively they gave an almost night club ambience to the area. The room was silent, as was the dawn that was slowing sliding across the planet below – A sweeping line of luminescence that Lightning Wing Five was already bathed in. James moved over to the display window and gazed down upon a spectrum of waking clouds – a beautiful bluing sea and, off to the northwest, the warming russets of landmass.

So silent from up here, he thought, peaceful, resplendent… Usually he was too busy monitoring communications traffic to actually appreciate this biggest of big pictures. His average working day required the constant filtering of global reports and news feeds telling of yet another man-made or natural catastrophe. It was then his job to consider the current deployment of the Lightning Wing and evaluate which disaster required the most immediate attention. His decision, if truth be told, about who lived and who died down on the planet. Plane crash versus earthquake, industrial explosion versus hurricane. God-like he examined the statistics, looked at the projected loss of life and then ordered his brothers, his terrestrial emissaries, to intervene where they could.

But it hadn’t been these big events that had been disturbing him of late. It was more the smaller stories that he found himself dwelling upon in the downtime between the major incidents. The child beaten to death before it could even crawl, the daughter sentenced to imprisonment after stabbing her paedophilic father, the drug addicted mother who had taken both her children with her when she stepped in front of a train… Bleak, soulless and unrescuable. At least against the backdrop of disaster there was always a sense of humanity, stories of wonder and hope emerging through the smoke. But in-between, down at the level of the cracks in international reportage, that’s where the constant dip of loss occurred. A loss that – for all its technological adroitness – Lightning Wing could do absolutely nothing about.

James pressed his hands on the console and hung his head, a black fist of despair enveloping his heart. Why should he care? He was up here alone, detached from it all in orbit and far away from the media showboating of his brothers on the ground – headline hungry with all their talk about column inches and approaches by promotional agencies and letters from starlets wanting to date a Lightning Wing pilot. That was not what he was about. Not at all. His network was wider and yet, strangely, more intimate. Coders, bloggers, news hounds, conspiracy theorists… The fast moving zeitgeist down below the wires and the radio frequencies, those that hinted at a link between Lightning Wing technology and the military tech departments of several major governments. Those interesting individuals who didn’t have a clue who he actually was.

If he only had the courage to turn the surveillance power of this station, his station, in upon the organisation itself, what would he find? Emails from Smartz – his father’s research and development specialist – to a contact within a so called “terrorist nation”? A collection of downloaded pornography lurking in the twilight of the decency laws? Diaries filled with revelations about true feelings towards family members? The power was right here at his finger tips. All he had to do was…

Suddenly a massive shudder passed through the station accompanied but the terrifying shriek of metal grinding against metal. The readouts in front of James lit up with red warning symbols. Panic inducing diagrams all alerted him to the fact that the station had collided with something. He quickly moved to another panel and checked the long range scanners and early warning systems. All registered clear and were free of any reports of space debris or pre-emptive attack. Something had hit them though, no doubt about that. But what?

A huge clang like a manhole cover being dropped from height resounded through the station’s access corridor causing Miss Snow to start up a fresh cacophony.

“Shut up! Shut the fuck up!” James shouted back, trying to match her volume and trusting the torch in the direction the noise had come. He strode off back down the corridor, set upon finding the source of the ominous sound. His heart raced, his ears alert for any further indicators of where the damage was happening.

He moved quickly back to the medical bay, pausing only to pull the bulkhead door closed, thus partially muffling Miss Snow’s tirade. Strangely she became silent as soon as he appeared and the parting image he held with him as he moved on was of her glaring into the torch beam, her eyes filled with a mixture of fear and hatred. Onwards now, past his cabin and further around the superstructure towards the maintenance zone and life support systems. Life support? Perhaps this was an attack? Perhaps Lightning Wing’s arch nemesis, The Cowl, had devised some form of stealth rocket that has slipped beneath the station’s defences?

James looked down at the torch still clutched in his hand and tested its weight as a potential bludgeon. A muted thud came from just around the curve of the corridor followed by another. Steeling himself, he crept further and further until he reached the opening to the maintenance bay and shone light into the room beyond.

Everything appeared normal. The space was partially filled with a collection of bulky machines, ventilation ducts and slowly rotating fans, all of which appeared to be exactly as he’d… What was that? There. The torch’s beam picked out a small vaporous wisp lifting up from the steel floor. James moved to investigate and saw that a large, roughly serrated plate of metal was the source of the smoke – its edges still ruddy with the afterglow of being freshly cut. Puzzled, he lifted the torch beam up to the ceiling and looked through a newly opened cavity into what appeared some kind of makeshift airlock.

Realisation came like a flash flood of ice water coursing through his bowels. He felt rather than heard or saw a presence behind him and spun on his heel. Nothing and no one there, and yet a squat shadow drew the torchlight back upwards towards the ceiling. A man crouched upside down, a man pointing a gun at him, a man who – in the instant before the suit’s faceplate polarised in the light – had the face of Steve Sharon.

“Brother?” James said but the only reply was a low level burst of compressed air and the startling realisation that something quick and heavy had stung him in the chest. With a confused frown he looked down at the sleek, hypodermic projectile protruding just to the right of his sternum, then he collapsed in an untidy pile on the floor. The sound of his head hitting the floor came to him like a depth charge detonating many miles away.

“Father, Smartz… Do you read me?” Steve had patched his helmet communicator through to the station’s main computer.

“Reading you loud and clear Stephen. What’s the situation up there now?” His father’s resonant voice filled his ears.

The suited man straightened slightly in front of the console and turned back towards the medical bay.

“Well they’re both sedated. I went to release Snowy but… Well, I think she’s been affected by the disturbance rays too. She said things… She wasn’t herself.”

“Steve, it’s Smartz here. S-s-so you encountered no problems getting Lightning Wing Four in under the station’s radar?”

”None at all Smartz. We followed the trajectory you calculated and kept the front end modifications pointed at the main dish array. Worked like a dream. Perhaps you’ll need to upgrade your own defence schematics now.”

“You’re right Steve. I was thinking along exactly the same lines. What about the mag-boots?”

“Yeah, coming through the roof was an excellent strategy. James had no idea where I was.”

“And the helmet, how is it operating out in the field, so to speak?”

“I’m feeling uneasy but that might just be the situation. No panic, no sense of euphoria, none of the warning signs you listed. Just on edge.”

“What about the source of the rays son?” His father’s voice again.

“I got the scanners all operational and recalibrated them to pick out the frequencies you suggested Smatrz. We found a satellite just above the Earth’s horizon off towards the east. Alex has gone to intercept it in Lightning Wing Three.”

There was a ponderous silence from the intercom, then his father asked, “What do you think Smartz? Is this the work of The Cowl?” Steve imagined the two men in the same room but this wasn’t necessarily the case.

“Er… N-n-no idea Mr Sharon. We had to put the rescue plan together without access to the station’s data files. I’d need more time to be able to say who was behind this and, even then… All I can say is that this does appear to be the work of an outside agency.”

There was a silence while everyone pondered what Smartz had just said.

“Stephen?”

“Yes father?”

“Get James and Snowy back to base ASAP. Oh and Stephen?”

“Yes father?”

“Good work.”

*****
      In his mobile communications centre the Cowl gazed at the radar display in front of him. The red blip that was Lightning Wing Three was closing rapidly upon his relay satellite. He sighed and rubbed a hand back and forth across his furrowed brow. He was still hacking the radio signals passing between the Sharon assault team but they had all fallen silent. Single-mindedly preoccupied with their orders, he thought.

Curse them, curse them and all their superiority, double standards and arrogance. That would be their downfall, though. Their belief that they could surmount any obstacle, that their manipulation of technology and science would always save the day. He had risked everything with this mission – even the welfare of his beloved niece Yuki, and for what? If his brother were ever to find out…

He reached out a hand and toyed with the idea of trying to use the satellite to ram the approaching spaceship, then changed his mind. Better to disappear, to slide back into the shadows and recoup ready for another strike. Tapping a few keys he reprogrammed the satellite’s positioning thrusters, ordering the vessel to turn back towards Earth and burn all its remaining fuel.

He sent the execute order. The thought of the fireball he was about to create, the fleeting brilliance writ large and yet all but lost in the brightening sky, but his imagination did little to lighten his already blackening mood. Leaning forward he held his bald head in his hands and murmured, “Every dog has his day.”

The words built armour around his conviction, and he felt anger pulse fresh energy into the goal of pulling all the Sharon family stood for down into the mire. And if he had to do that brick by brick, then so be it.

“Every dog has his day!” He leaned back in his chair and raised a defiant fist towards the uniform white panels above him.

“Every dog has his day!” He bellowed, hoping the feeling, if not the words, would carry further than his current confines, up through the stratosphere, past the Sharon’s space station and out into the universe beyond.

— THE END —
(Copyright © 2009 by J. E. Bryant. All Rights Reserved.)