“Really?” Stella asks, lifting her head briefly to see Joe bend his head back down to his book, sprawled on the blanket next to her. “Don’t you find that incredibly depressing?”
“Why would I?” he asked, distracted. “Is this you having an existential crisis again?”
“No, what? No. I just--” Stella tries, frustrated, looking out into the blinding white sky again.
She just hadn’t expected the world to be so small.
It had seemed like the exact opposite, at first. Endless. There was always something new beyond the next hill, someone coming out on a new terrace on the tower, some unexplored new tunnel to dig, an hot-air balloon to build and go search the sky for a sight of the whales.
It seemed so big, just as long as you could only see a few dozen square meters of it at the time.
But Stella wasn’t the patient type. She hadn’t cared for all this dragging around, having to climb all the way up the Tower and down again just to find out what was on the other side.
So she’d cheated.
It hadn’t even been that hard. Instead of thinking forward, or up, or down, she’d just had to think out. Out. OUT.
Out. Until she’d zoomed herself far enough to hit all the the edges.
It had taken depressingly little time before she could take it all in: one looping tunnel to nowhere, a blacked out tower no one could get into, a fishbowl-sized atmosphere, displaced sea creatures included. And then, nothing.
Talk about putting things in perspective.
“I just,” she tried again, “don’t you wish there was just more of it? The world, I mean.”
“Not particularly,” Joe replies, still not looking up from his book. “What else would you add, anyway?” He’s playing with a few pebbles, Stella can hear them bounce around on his palm. “Except maybe a proper bar,” he adds after a beat. “I’m tired of having to zip up the tower every time I want a drink, to steal a glass of cheap champagne.”
“I still cannot believe that you of all people ever had enough imagination to zoom yourself out of ignorance,” she muses, darkly. “You’re the original idiot-savant, it’s amazing.”
Joe snorts, lifting one hand in a sloppy salute.
They’re not the only ones who ever thought of taking a shortcut, of course. There are others, and when they caught her zipping from playing Donkey Kong with the squid to chatting with the sandcastle enthusiasts in a few quick zooms in and out, they didn’t waste any time in recruiting her.
“What would you add to it, then, if you’re so clever?” Joe asks, like he’s indulging her.
“Well, a few clouds would be nice, for one.” Stella says, rolling to her stomach, looking away from all the white. She picks idly at a blade of grass at the edge of the blanket.
“A few what?” Joe says. And then adds quickly, like he doesn’t want to hear an answer: ”Shouldn’t you be checking up on the sensors about now, anyway?”
Stella doesn’t push it. Discussing neologisms with him never gets anywhere. She gives Joe an exasperated look he ignores, and gets up clumsily, stretching. She looks down at the jumble of antennas and satellite dishes poking out of Outpost One. With one final sigh in Joe’s direction, she makes her way down the hillside.
It’s not a bad job, really, working for the MIB. It’s just incredibly boring.
They don’t keep anyone from discovering the truth, not really. They just make sure most people don’t start asking themselves too many questions.
There’s a forcefield at each end of the world, something about as subtle as a mosquito, but annoying enough to make people turn back on their own.
There’s a blanket signal that makes everyone just nearsighted enough not to wonder at the closer-than-it-should-be horizon.
Then there’s the Space Redirection Program, a more recent addition to their operations, instigated right after Houston built its first prototype. It’s not a small feat to keep a speeding rocket from disappearing into the Blue, but it’s doable.
She doesn’t know what the Blue is. No one in the Program does, really. All they know is, it’s what you hit when you run out of white, or black.
All they know is, you don’t come back from the Blue, and nothing new has ever come out from it either.
Stella reaches the Outpost’s small outdoor console and looks over at the readings. Nothing out of the ordinary. Three people fell down the hatch earlier this morning. Two people walked all the way Left, but seemed to have stopped a few meters from the Edge. Today is a launch day, but even that fails to cheer Stella up. The rocket is just going to harmlessly bounce off the sky, again.
She’s staring at the SRP monitor, accusingly, when suddenly, there’s a new dot on the screen.
Right above the whales and Icarus, there’s an unaccounted for, unidentified, additional something.
“Joe?” Stella calls, disbelieving, not taking her eyes off the monitor. “Joe, you need to see this!”
She hears him grumble distantly, as the dot starts moving around her screen in large loops.
“We’ve got incoming,” she says excitedly, as she feels Joe come up behind her. “You’ve got to contact Central.”
“We’ve got what?” Joe says, incredulous, looking over her shoulder at the screen. But before he can continue, there’s a sudden burst of noise coming through the speakers.
It’s not Central.
--ED F-- --RED LEAD--
“The hell?” Joe says slowly, frowning at the console. “That... can’t be right. There shouldn’t be anything on this frequency.”
Stella turns a couple of dials, spinning the main satellite dish a few degrees to the right until some of the static fades out. The voice comes in again, still garbled.
Stella beams at Joe, who doesn’t seem to share her excitement. He flips open the console’s mike, but just as he’s about to speak, someone else beats him to it: “Outpost Three to All Stations! Guys, guys, are you seeing this?” comes Audrey’s voice, shrieking.
“We see it, Outpost Three!” Stella replies, hurrying to straighten a headset over her head. Joe’s hand squeezes her shoulder. She glances over at him, then up in the direction he seems to be looking. There’s a tiny speck zooming around at breakneck speed high above their heads, the high-pitched scream of unfamiliar engines growing louder.
“We see it,” she says again, grinning.
“Did someone record where it came from?” Audrey’s voice is half buried under the wind. She must have been up in the antenna again.
“It didn’t!” Stella exclaims. “It didn’t come from anywhere, it just appeared!”
“That’s absurd, Stella--” Audrey starts, just as a new voice booms out of the speakers:
“Attention all Outposts, this is Central. Somebody tell me what the fuck is going on.”
Stella jumps in urgently, clutching the mike of her headset: “This is Outpost One,” she says, barely containing her excitement, “an unidentified aircraft has just appeared in the sky. We intercepted a radio transmission from its pilot. Ma'am, I think we should try to open communications.”
“One thing at the time, Outpost One,” Central replies in an unimpressed tone. “We don’t know anything about this aircraft. Are we sure this isn’t just Huston’s latest pet project? And more importantly, are we positive the forcefields are holding?”
“Who cares if anyone sees--” Stella starts impatiently, as yet another new voice cuts through:
“That’s not the same--” Stella mutters. On her screen, another unidentified dot has just appeared over Cliffhanger Island. She takes a closer look and corrects herself: another unidentified dot has just blasted its way through Cliffhanger Island.
“It was in the tunnels!” She exclaims over the mike, talking fast, “but I don’t see any new ones leading to the Edges. Guys, there’s no way this one came from the Blue. There has to be another way in!”
They’re moving around almost faster than she can track them. The second dot is flying over the Tower to joint the first.
“Right, that’s it,” says Central. “Outpost Four, I want these two in your crosshairs at all time from now on, wait for my signal.”
“What?” yells Stella, outraged. “No! Don’t you all get this? This is First Contact, this is the proof that we’re not al--”
GOLD THREE, THIS IS RED FIVE. I SEE YOU. WATCH OUT FOR THOSE FLYING BEASTS.
“Are they talking about--”
GOT IT, RED FIVE.
“They’re closing in on--”
There’s a rapidfire flash of red just over the Tower, and then something big is sinking towards the parking lot below. Fast.
“Hello, ground,” says Stella faintly, just as Henry the Blue Whale meets the pavement in a very explosive manner.
“I think that was my car,” says Joe, after a beat.
RED FIVE, I DON’T REMEMBER BEING BRIEFED ABOUT KILLER SPACE WHALES. ARE YOU ACTUALLY SURE THIS IS THE DEATH STAR?
“So, this is what you meant by wishing there was something else out there, then?” Joe asks, a little crazily.
POSITIVE GOLD THR-- FUCK ME SIDEWAYS ON A BANTHA’S BACK! I’VE HIT SOME KIND OF FEATHERED MYNOCK. MY ARTOO UNIT IS HIT!
“Icarus is going down,” Audrey says, her voice choked. “I repeat, Icarus is in freefall.”
“Yes well, that one we should have seen coming,” Stella mutters, a bit numb. This is not how she imagined things would go.
“Right, that’s it,” Central says after a beat. “Fire everything.”
FIREPOWER ALERT! RED FIVE, THERE’S A CANNON TOWER ON THAT SKYSCRAPER. SOME KIND OF CIRCULAR PROJECTILE WEAPON.
“Circular--” Joe yells. “You mean we don’t have anything more powerful than a CD-throwing slingshot?”
“We weren’t exactly expecting something like this to happen, Outpost One!” Central snaps, aggravated.
I SEE IT GOLD THREE. PROTON TORPEDOES ARMED AND READY
“We are NOT not giving these paranoid fuckers any excuse to gloat, goddammit.” Central spits, stubbornly.
Joe’s hand is gripping the console, white-knuckled, “Now’s not the time to hold a grud--”
But there’s another series of flashing lights, and Stella can see the Tower shaking, even from the distance. Black smoke rises from about halfway up.
“Somebody do something!” Central yells.
A deep voice, calm and melodious --with only the barest hint of strain underneath years of practiced experience-- comes in over the speakers:
“Oh my God we’re all so fucking doomed," Audrey moans, as the world explodes into chaos.
Red lasers crisscross the sky as the aircrafts zip around, targeting airplanes and hot-air balloons, medusae and windmills. The booming sound of heavy artillery comes distantly from beyond the Bridge. A cacophony of panicked voices is flooding Stella’s headset. She listens distractedly as she follows Apollo’s slow downwards course above her. Houston doesn’t seem to think there’s a problem, so the SRP must be holding up. Central must be overjoyed.
“Um, Stella?” Joe says in a scared, small voice, tapping her shoulder, “you might want to look at this.”
She pulls herself back from the spectacle above her and turns to him. He’s holding up his phone in front of her. She stares at the screen:
COPY THAT GOLD THREE, MOVE OUT! MOVE OUT!
The two aircrafts loop around as one, almost grazing the hill in a deafening roar before shooting up to the sky.
The rumbling beneath her feet increases. Cracks are appearing on the Outpost’s concrete walls. Tiny, spidery arms growing wider and wider. Antennas shaking out of their anchors.
Another low blast shakes the earth. “Get down!” Stella yells at Joe as the console’s screen explodes in a shower of sparks and flying glass. She barely manages to turn away in time, burning shards just missing her back.
Joe is crouched next to her, yelling into the mike, “Central, this is Outpost One, please respond! Central? Anyone? Audrey, are you there?”
Stella takes the mike out of his shaking hands, gently. The cord hangs loosely from it, wires bare and twisted, disconnected. “Joe, come on, we have to go,” she says, searching his eyes and grabbing his hand, tugging him away from the burning console. “We have to go now.”
She makes her way back up the hill, away from the station. The ground is giving out under her feet, rocks falling down the cliffside. Black smoke rises from behind the hill.
Joe is struggling to keep up. “Go where? All the way Right? And then what? Nothing survives in the Blue--”
She reaches the flat alcove where they’ve spent so many idle days gazing into the cloudless sky. The blanket and Joe’s book are getting buried under falling rubble.
“We’re not going Right,” she says, as she helps Joe up the hill. She’s gone all the way Right already, and all the way Left. Past the gun-happy maniacs at the bridge and the freedom fighters on the Good Ship Social Justice. She’d gone Up amongst the jellyfish and Down to the cavernous secrets of historically-improbable ancient Egypt.
But there’s one place she hasn’t gotten to yet. One way she hasn’t tried thinking herself out of this goddamn box. She takes one last look at the smoking Tower, the falling wildlife, the two small aircrafts making their way up and away, becoming smaller and smaller specks in the burning sky.
She clutches Joe’s hand more tightly, faces away from the collapsing world, stares into the white in front of her and thinks in. In. IN.