Short story: Venus Unreached

(submitted to the 2010 Glen Eira short story awards)

Venus unreached

The stubborn roar of the rear thrusters sending me closer to my death have become so ordinary, that in the coldest of nights I feel surrounded by an eerie silence. I huddle alone by a thick glass window, peering into an endless night of magical stars and lost dreams. As I accelerate away, my little blue home, Earth, joins the night sky and I wonder how a place so small can be filled with so much life. A condemned man has no hopes I am told; a condemned man has no will to live. Guilt will haunt me they say, haunt me until I meet my inexorable fate. For I am the condemned man – a human experiment in the final frontier, patiently counting his numbered days on death row.

I can imagine her thick suffocating atmosphere. I will approach the first sulphurous clouds at 60 kilometres above the surface – beginning a slow process of asphyxiation down to the surface. Underneath her veil of poisonous clouds lies Hades’ unimaginable lair, coated by incendiary rivers of lava, melted molten and a garish orange sky. A rank, hostile heat, eats away at all life. The eternal ovens of a suffocating greenhouse burn me from within and smother me from without. I can wait inside the capsule for two minutes before the walls begin to decompose, or I can unlock the hatch and invite the scorching winds to hasten my demise. Whatever my choice, images of my imminent death remain prisoners of my psyche – embedded on every thought and every nightmare. I know what lies ahead yet I don’t know how to face my fears.

I’m sorry. You’ll have to forgive me. I just can’t take it anymore. The tension is killing me faster than my voyage into the unknown. Though I have never been considered a particularly serene person, during these past few days my anxiety level has reached new heights.

Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m innocent – as much as they try to convince me otherwise – that makes this whole process a lot harder. 15 months of solitary confinement prior to certain death is not as easy as it seems. “It’ll give you some time to think about it” the aggressive litigant pointed at me with the ferocity of a man hungry for blood, and revelling in sarcasm. The whole country was hungry for blood, really – and I don’t blame them. Whoever committed those atrocities certainly deserves the fate that awaits me now. Only that I don’t, and it was always futile to deny my involvement. Swabs of DNA, strong circumstantial evidence and sensationalist headlines landed me in police custody. A glib lawyer and the furious public, driven by a mob-mentality sent me to the fiery hellhole that awaits my vulnerable death cage.

In a blurred reverie of court hearings and flash photographs, my sentence was pronounced by the ‘sacrosanct Supreme Court’. As a demonized criminal, I sat in a trance behind bulletproof glass windows, wanting to cry out in indignation and proclaim my innocence. Yet I was swept by a malignant self-control that seemed to prevent me from comprehending my incredulous situation. It disgusts me that I didn’t do more to explain my innocence or request an appeal. Therein lays my fate, a perversion of justice; an unlucky providence from below. Perhaps if I were not as pessimistic my story might even seem puerile. Perhaps if I weren’t so willing to passively resign myself to the portentous sequence of events that I now regret so much, I might’ve been saved.

Due to the severity of my “crimes” they meted out a rather harsh and gratuitous sentence. They realized that I’ve no desire for suicide and the news of my capsule approaching Venus will come with much relief and celebration for the victims and their families. I remember reading my story on the front pages of the morning news – summaries of my life story, ‘profiles of a killer’, ‘Exclusive: inside the mind of a mass murderer’. It felt ironic yet poignant that I was viewing the movie of my life in third person, detached from the narrative, yet unshakably devoured by its consequences. I engender so much hatred back home, that my case seemed to unify people who would normally be polarized on such issues. I certainly won’t be missed. Not by my people, nor my family – and perhaps even by myself.

I feel cold in these tight confines in which I am mentally and physically imprisoned. However, the constant shiver and the unreliable chatter of my teeth are more a symptom of dread than temperature. The omnipresent sensation of Venus’ fiery heat gives me a ghostly warmth that frightens rather than kindles me. I am like a trapped animal surviving on my thoughts and a panorama of distant cosmos that spread themselves across the large icy window. Abandoned by humanity, I patiently tally my days left; no chance of an appeal or a retrial, no chance of a future or an escape.

The oxygen onboard my capsule feels strange and artificial. How I long to step inside my fantasy and return home, to feel the august rustle of a midnight breeze. The imperceptible movements of the wind, rushing past fern trees and dancing through blades of grass seem to carry me to freedom, like a young bird leaving its nest for the first time. My mind has become my solace; the depths of imagination are boundless, and I have become a different person – a madman tenaciously clutching onto the final guises of sanity, so perceptively aware of what he has become, yet so at peace with exploring his baser natural instincts. Not survival instincts – they have abandoned me as I lie trapped in this cage of doom. But rather an innate sense of apathy that quells my inner activist and only allows me to think and feel a range of docile emotions that hardly express what I ought to be feeling. The sacrificial lamb does not ultimately survive to witness how effectively it placates the people’s need for revenge – any revenge, even that of the guiltless will suffice.

Everybody seemed to comment on the unique heinousness of my iniquities, and the unrivalled extent of my malevolence. Through sinking into the absolute depths of moral depravity and turpitude I had lost my right to life and freedom, they all agreed. If I, the alleged murderer had no compassion for my victims, why should I be shown compassion or given a fair trial by the legal process? Surely that is a luxury ill afforded at such a time of national crisis. I sincerely replied that the usual punishment for supreme moral debasement was a life sentence in the public sector and a job for a political party. Shocked by my ability to respond, and the wry humour in my comments – which was simply a hapless, personal, attempt to feel human in the face of adversity – the airwaves went berserk, as callers on talkback radio and opinion pieces concocted all sorts of vile accusations. I had become their convenient scapegoat – the national embodiment of evil. My attempts to point out the widespread hypocrisy of my accusers were turned against me, in a malicious hate-fest of conspiracy theories and government resolutions. No purpose to live, just to die, for the ‘good of the people’, silently, and into the night without protest or whisper.

There is no cockpit on board, no steering wheel, and no joystick to swerve back. Nothing in my power to alter the course set for me. My spaceship is controlled from a command centre on Earth, my every step monitored by the numerous cameras that surround my abode. Yet I still feel so alone, even without privacy or comfort, as millions of people back home tune in to watch me consume myself – a cynical Big Brother experimentation gone awry.

O wayward people, do you see what I see, as I farewell the final stretches of Earth’s atmosphere? A hypnotic gift never to be experienced – now immortalized in my thoughts and feelings that will no doubt live on. The deep blue ocean is warm and inviting, stretching a divine aura across the Earth’s vast surface. Beyond the blackening void past the curvature, the first rays of sunlight cast a halo over sapphire blankets that flow past specks of dry land – a mystical sight that shields me from the incessant chimera of melted volcanoes and burnt deserts that gladly await me. The stretches of clouds form millions of fluffy pillows, reborn each time anew – so ever reminiscent of our enduring life cycle, destroying and rebuilding, blaming and then apologizing.

I see white lights in the distance nearing my insignificant space capsule. The artificial fluorescent lights on the walls flicker and then die out, together with the rest of the electronics on board. The low hum of the engine follows suit and then ceases completely – a sound so previously pervasive that its absence generates a deafening silence. As I peer out past my reflection in the window, blinding lights shroud an incoming object in obscurity. Having spent so long in solitary introspection, I seriously wonder whether this is real, or some cruel, beguiling illusion.

My capsule is now entirely dark – bar the beams of radiance streaming onto my pale, vapid face and casting a silhouette across the empty wall behind. Whatever that is beside my space pod, it seems to approach inquisitively and with purpose, as if on the verge of some great discovery. The intensity increases and I shut my eyes, only sensing the warm embrace of the white light saturating my body from head to toe. A deeper unexplainable sense of tranquillity has infused itself within me and I finally feel at peace. My eyes are shut, yet I see more than ever before. Enveloped by the warmth, I return the embrace and place my palms on the icy window.

P.S.

“In breaking and unexpected news, it appears that police have apprehended the real killers who perpetrated last year’s May Day atrocities that shocked and horrified the nation. In other news, no sighting has been made of the Venus capsule containing the previously accused killer, since it disappeared from the radar a year ago. Police headquarters have confirmed that the space pod did not reach Earth’s fiery twin planet. Investigations continue as calls are made to exonerate the missing prisoner in what appears to be a case of mistaken identity. More shortly. . “

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Short story: Tossing destiny

(Written for the Glen Eira Short story Award 2010)

A tender tear ran down the little girl’s cheek. Her angelic eyes staring deeply into his soul.

“Why did I have to die?” She asks naively, innocently, like a little girl asking her mother why the sky is blue, or the grass is green.

Lying in wait since midnight, the sniper breathed a sigh of relief and welcomed the first crack of dawn. A cloud of his warm breath effused like a silhouette against the pink sky and then disappeared into the heavens. Camouflaged with leaves, only the protrusion of a shiny, high-powered rifle betrayed his seemingly inconspicuous physique. Patience had been wearing thin over the arduous, solitary hours of silent nightfall and the sniper was eager to finish the job and disappear into the desert.

Gently centring the lens onto the window of a mud-brick house, the sniper brought himself to attention and focused every fibre of his body into a singular mantra-like awareness. A passing mosquito, the distant rustle of faraway apple orchards. Every tiny movement and every minute sound was detected in this impulsive state of absolute tension. Suddenly, his target appeared in the crosshairs through the lattices of his kitchen window in the mud-brick house. Having returned from morning prayers, the bearded figure clothed in desert attire served himself breakfast, completely unaware of his impending fate. Stealthily, the sniper retrieved a clear photograph of his target to ensure there would be no case of mistaken identity. There was indeed no doubt that the sought terrorist in the image was this bearded man eating his breakfast in the crosshairs of the rifle. Sufficiently pleased at the ease of identifying his objective, the sniper returned his gaze to the eyepiece, and wrapped his index figure around the enticing contour of the trigger.

Without warning, more figures suddenly appeared in the window. The entire family chanced up for breakfast at this untimely moment. But the sight of young children tugging at their mother, broke the sniper’s passive indifference to the impending execution, and transformed him into an active moral accomplice. No longer, in his mind, was he a neutral mercenary pulling the trigger at somebody else’s moral expense. The act of killing the father in full view of his children carried unforseen ramifications. With this sudden realization, the sniper jerked away from the eyepiece, as the first beads of sweat formed in his brow. He closed his eyes.

Her eternal stare burned him from within. The guilt was unbearable. Her lightly tanned face, her perfect smile. He didn’t know her name, but she accompanied him on every job, every mission, and every nightmare. He opened his eyes.

The dilemma erupted into a full-scale war in the sniper’s mind. The fundamentalist mass-murderer with no compunction would not have afforded him such hesitation had their roles been reversed. A powerhouse of terrorism erased from the earth. Countless lives saved. Planned suicide bombing aborted – all with the single thankless act of squeezing the trigger.

On the other hand, no child should witness the murder of their parent. The sight of their father’s lifeless body bleeding onto the kitchen floor would burn an indelible scar on their hearts, fuelling the seeds of revenge for generations to come.

The humanity and compassion pumped their way through the sniper’s veins, intensifying with each deafening heartbeat. Pulling the trigger was never a problem in other situations. No regrets. Yet this was somehow different. At all other times ethical concern seemed to evade him. Why did it bother him so much now?

He always fired the gun with the regret of stepping on an ant or killing a mosquito – perfect executions, a stream of pay-checks and no moral cost.

An uncanny feeling swept through his body – he wanted to wash his hands. For some reason, his inconvenient conscience parked itself in the driveway of duty and his fingers turned to stone. For all he cared the person in line with the barrel of the gun could be anybody, but the innocent children made him squirm.

Children, child, her. Her faced seemed blurry and out of focus. Her fixed gaze carried no expectation, just a melancholy aura. No regrets. Oh how he regretted that day. If only to turn back time. Not to shoot. To pack up, leave, come back the next day. He could imagine her cheerful, smiling – a lingering fantasy that consoled him as he wondered about her life-cut-short. Maybe learning how to read today, giggling around a skipping rope, dreaming about her life tomorrow. Their paths never crossing.

The opening rays of sunshine bounced back and forth between his face and the makeshift costume of leaves. With every minute that the sun rose higher in the pristine Mediterranean sky, the sniper’s chances of escape decreased. Facing capture in these areas meant certain death – together with a little memento of your beheading posted on Al Jazeera for the world to see. Staring at the terrorist’s family, the sniper developed an eerie myopia, clouding his vision and returning him to another place and time. He imagined his own children back home – the grief they would face at discovering their father flanked by masked mujahedeen on the six o’clock news. It sent a shudder down his spine.

Why is one life better than the next? Will there be one grieving family by day’s end, or none? Who decides who lives and who dies? There were no easy answers, but the sniper knew that the outcome rested in his stony fingers. In another world, his target could’ve been waiting in line with him at a university canteen. His heavy beard but a point of conversation in a multicultural society. His children, attending the same kindergarten and both their wives together organizing a community theatrette. Life, unfortunately had other plans. Destiny had engaged them to cross at this pivotal moment: The sniper contemplating his life in a pastoral orchard, the distant smells of the souq beckoning him to return here on his real visa. The bearded man, eating breakfast with his family, before sending teenagers like his own, to their deaths in suicide attacks. With their inescapable fates, they were wed in unholy matrimony, the 18mm bullets determining whether death do them part. An innate, primal desire to escape and return to his family strangled the sniper’s every decision, but his duty obligated a complete and thorough execution. Shutting his eyes, he asked for a decision.

Just the girl, staring back at him again, and a light sheet of salty water skipping in her eyes.

Looking back on it, it was like every other assassination. Another mundane job. The wear of routine – set up, lie in wait, finish it off, and get out ASAP. He never countered on that little girl running in front of his target. How he longed to know her name, to meet her on the street and plead for forgiveness. . .

Having the life sucked out of his grey eyes, the sniper had made a resolution. Either he would abandon his profession, pack up and disappear into the sprawl of orchards, leaving his target to die another day – or he would go above and beyond his duty, killing the terrorist together with his entire family. Both these options seemed most humane – if there was in fact any humanity in his line of work. Either way, those children would not suffer as orphans – their souls slowly incinerating with the obsession for revenge. But either way the sniper’s integrity was forfeit. Every future death his target authorizes would stain his conscience, every time he would close his eyes, his target’s children will join the little girl to forever haunt his dreams.

Fate had presented him with a decision he was incapable of making. As fiery daggers fell from the sweltering morning sky, the sniper arrived at his unbearable decision. Retrieving a coin from his back pocket, he had resolved to leave the day’s bloody business to chance. With heads, the bearded figure finishing his breakfast would continue his day, completely unaware of how close he came to death. With tails, he and his entire family would be liquidated.

The sniper tossed the coin into the air for what seemed to last an eternity. Fate and destiny had no power over chance, and the coin seemed to absolve the sniper of his impending ‘sin’. Like the petals of a rose gracefully descending toward the ground, the coin silently returned to the muddy Earth and disappeared amongst the symphony of leaves and shrubbery that conveniently concealed the sniper’s ambush position.

Shedding a brief tear, a camouflaged figure covered in bushes whispered a brief prayer of atonement. If only for the high powered rifle aimed at a mud-brick house in the distance, he would be invisible.

Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath, and imagined the little girl with angelic eyes – now a young woman, smiling back at him