Story-time. Every month, the quite exceptional and extraordinary gentleman Mr. John Steele invites writers to submit short stories for the Pictonaut challenge. The mission is this: simply spawn a tale based on a chosen image. Having promised to have a go I was psyched to find that July’s Pictonaut choice was Robert McCall’s “The Wheel in the Sky”. McCall was a master of space movie concept art and a superb sci-fi artist whose work I love so I eagerly seized the opportunity as someone who digs sci-fi literature.
Looking at “The Wheel in the Sky” and thinking about it a little deeper, ideas came to mind, a story started to emerge this, dear readers, is it. Enjoy, and I’d urge you check out the Mr. Steele’s Pictonaut challenge for visually-inspired short story goodness…
The Wheel in the Sky
By James Clayton
Suddenly, stop. For the first time in eight months, Officer Dean Delano felt an absolute absence of motion. Watching Pan-Globe flight PG4869 shoot away from the station and into the eternal stellar ocean stretching out ahead he remained rigid, resolutely stationary in an absolute all-consuming state of arrest. The motions of the Wheel in the Sky were no longer noticeable. Now, stop.
“We’re going nowhere,” she’d said. “I have to go somewhere, so that’s what I’m going to do, Dean.”
Was that her flight? Maybe he’d got it wrong and she was going to board another craft. He could always check by connecting up to the station network or by heading down to the docking bay. That would require movement though and for the moment Delano was rooted to the spot. The ruminations running through his mind were the only thing in the Universe that were not inert and immobile with the exception of the departing craft below. It was gradually growing smaller, its jet engine blaze dimming with distance and its ghostly jet trail dissipating into empty space.
Delano sighed and momentarily punctured the pregnant silence before finding himself once more trapped in freeze frame. His eyes focused on the rocket shape fleeing the Wheel and he thought of her. He tried to picture being on that craft, projecting himself away from his cuboid locker quarters and across the vacuum beyond the glass viewing window, right into the vehicle so he could be with her. Dean couldn’t do it. His imagination failed and all he could feel was ‘stuck’. Everything stuck. Total standstill.
Frozen in space, he realised. My existence has come to a complete stop. I’m going nowhere. An absolute absence of movement or progression and now even the perpetual revolutions of the Wheel in the Sky - ever-circling the Earth and rolling around in its slow orbit - had ceased as far as he was concerned. Everything had come to a stop and Dean, in a dread epiphany, discerned that ‘stop’ was his current whole mental, physical and spiritual state.
The woman he loved had left him. The space station he served seemed to be hanging lifeless in space. Time stood still with only the shrinking Pan-Globe ship cutting through the total torpor as it sped away to an unknown destination. In this placid place fragments of memory started to circle in the reaches of Dean’s mind and he began to recall things he’d forgotten or overlooked in the midst of the mundane routine of life on the Wheel in the Sky.
Eight months ago he’d acceded to her, filled in an application form and taken the leap to go on an extraterrestrial adventure. “We need to get away from the Academy,” she’d claimed. “We’ll just become living corpses here. Nothing changes. If you want to get somewhere, you’ve got to go up there.” He remembered her long fingers pointing skyward, reaching towards the infinite that existed somewhere above the winter clouds that were covering the Texas countryside.
“Imagine being in space, Dean. Being out there, rolling around the Earth on the Wheel in the Sky. Imagine that feeling and the knowledge that you’re cruising in cosmic wonder while everyone else is stuck on this rock, going nowhere.”
Her eyes flashed. “We’d feel so alive, Dean.” Something shifted inside at that point and Dean’s natural apprehension turned. He wanted to follow her. A fresh career move and relocation to a whole new world of opportunity beyond the world he knew. Everything was so small down here. Everything felt the same. Everything felt stuck. Only her with her free spirit stood out in the oppressive stagnation of the Academy out here in Nowheresville, Texas and he knew then that he loved her and would embrace change in order to be with her.
Romantic notions swirled and Dean got swept up in images of her body close to his, both of them together swaying to the rotations of the Wheel as it glided a path through space. They’d leave the stagnant, stiff world of Terra Firma behind, their relationship would blossom and their bond would strengthen. They’d both share in the spectacular experience of a lifetime as bold intrepid explorers breaking through the stratosphere, moving on into the great infinite beyond that seemed so bright in theory.
The reality was significantly less exhilarating. Life on board the Wheel in the Sky was claustrophobic and consisted of dull chores, constant checks and the same old protocol that characterised the working day at the Academy. They’d both come to realise they were doing the same thing they’d been doing at the ground base except that now they happened to be in space on a colossal rotating axis.
The satellite station circled its mother planet but in spite of its orbit and in spite of the giant structure’s perpetual motion, life had come to a standstill. All on board were in stasis. She became cold again, frustrated at being trapped. The adventure was not as advertised and resentment crept in.
“I’m leaving,” she’d announced between shifts one working day. “We’re in such a rut here. All these months on this thing, this giant wheel that goes nowhere. I’ve got to move on.”
“Move where, though?” Dean had asked her. “Where could we possibly go?”
“I don’t care,” she’d snapped back. “I need to go somewhere and I need to go somewhere now. I’ll get on a shuttle and ship out. Even if I don’t go back to Earth, anything would be better than this damn wheel. We’re going nowhere.” Angered anxiety flashed across her features. “I have to go somewhere, so that’s what I’m going to do, Dean.”
“Is it really so bad?” he’d queried before she’d burned him with those blazing, defiant eyes. Pretty pinprick lights going nova.
“Oh, it’s bad. Look at us, Dean. Do you not see the irony of our situation? Do you not see what our lives are? We are on a wheel that goes nowhere! This is exactly the same as Earth, exactly as things were at the Academy except now we have tighter corridors, vacu-packed food and even more safety checks and compliance surveys to deal with!”
As she blasted “Screw this organisation, screw the Academy and screw this Wheel in the Sky!” he felt a stab in his chest. He’d given so much in service and he’d given so much to her and now the things he knew and that he’d been comfortable with all these months were starting to come away. He’d began to shake his head and utter “No” but she’d stirred and quietly - with a bitter viciousness that Dean had never witnessed in all the time he’d been seeing her - she whispered “…and screw you as well Dean if you’re happy to have it and stay here.”
The next day she was gone, disappearing into outer space on Pan-Globe flight PG4869, gradually becoming another insignificant speck in the cosmic vastness beyond the glass viewing window. Crewman Dean Delano stayed rooted to the spot, stuck frozen watching the Earth below turn its resolutions as the distant craft decreased in size and travelled on to who knows where.
He just stayed there, held motionless and hopelessly halted in a stop on board the Wheel in the Sky - the Wheel in the Sky that, really, was going nowhere.