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Stuart Atkinson

Articles
- Better Red Than... Green?
- A Deep Breath
- Waiting...
- The Lost Dawn

Short Stories
- Halley - The Next Time
- Fairy Graffiti
- Message Home
- Merry Christmas From Mars

Halley - The Next Time (16 ratings)
         by Stuart Atkinson
Page 1 of 2
When the Sun finally set on the wind-whipped mid-January day, it left behind a cloudless twilight sky of deep, glacier-blue, the first clear sky for over a week, and as you peered at it through your bedroom window all thoughts of your homework assignment were banished, replaced by one desire, one need - get out! Now you are standing beneath it in silence, and you feel dwarfed by it, like an ant staring up at the vast, far-away ceiling of an ancient cathedral. A sudden gust of wind bites into you, razor sharp, and you shiver inside your thick school jacket which suddenly seems as thin as paper. Your face is numb with the cold, your eyes stinging with the bitter cold, but the view is worth the discomfort and pain.

What you see as you look towards the south takes your breath away: the fingernail-thin crescent Moon hanging above the skeletal trees looks like a sickle blade, forged from the purest, finest silver. Above and slightly to the fragile young Moon's left shines a bright, orange-hued star - Mars, as hypnotisingly beautiful and enigmatic as always. And there, to the upper right of this spectacular pairing, hangs a thinbladed sword of silvery light, shining as if lit from within. You allow yourself a smile. There it is, exactly where your computer predicted it would be: Halley's Comet, back in Earth's sky for the first time in 76 years.

You're still not sure your teacher isn't joking when she says that the last time the comet graced Earth's sky, back in 1986, there were no footprints on Mars, never mind Europa...

In 2062 the world is as fascinated by the comet as ever, and it has taken over your life. You have been learning in school history lessons that when the comet was last visible, many years before you were born, The World was very different. Back then, as Halley's Comet shone in the pre-dawn sky, the optimism and promise of the so-called "Space Age" had both faded away. There had been plans for missions to Mars, but Man had still travelled no further than the Moon - just half a dozen times to plant a flag, collect a few rocks and hurry home again - and by 1986 the Moon felt as far away as ever, the glory of Apollo was already fading, and no fresh footprints had been left on its dusty surface since Apollo 17 blasted off and returned to Earth, competing with repeats of sitcoms for TV ratings.

The last time Comet Halley's glowing tail was smeared across the night sky, only a few crude space stations had yet been built and sent into Earth orbit. The manned spacecraft flying in 1986 could still only carry crews in single figures, even the Space Shuttle, so only a hundred people or so had yet been into space. The destined-to-befamous Russian space station, MIR, had only been in space a matter of months, and with the arrival of its first expansion module still many months away it was merely a forlorn-looking cylinder circling the Earth, like an outsize Sputnik. The only other things permanently orbiting the Earth in that year were flocks of artificial satellites, relaying phone conversations and TV pictures for the people of a blue and white world still numb with shock and disbelief after seeing seven of its invincible space heroes die before their eyes. Several of those satellites actually saw the spacecraft explode, but said nothing, did nothing, could only watch and mourh for What Might Have Been in silence.

The tragic and very public loss of the Challenger had been symbolic of the fate of space exploration itself. The last time periodic Comet Halley passed Earth it shone in the eyes of a civilisation whose expansion into space had stalled. The Space Age had sputtered to a halt.

Now, as it shines in your eyes, you are glad you weren't alive then. Because by 2062 things have changed. The Second Space Age has begun.

As Halley's Comet hangs above your neighbourhood trees in 2062, its dusty debris drifts past a planet with a dozen permanently manned space stations in orbit around it. You can see them crossing the sky on clear nights, silvery-blue fireflies arcing across the heavens. The main International Space Station, which barely survived its difficult birth seven decades earlier, is now the largest object in Earth orbit by far, and blazes like a second Moon as it crosses the sky, casting shadows behind you as you gaze up at it. At its brightest it looks like a supernova sprinting across the sky...

And on that magically-clear night the proof that Earth's gravity well is a prison no longer is there, right before your eyes: those lights twinkling in the darkness on the unlit part of the Moon like stars are artificial, generated by solar and nuclear power, providing light and warmth for the personnel on the many manned bases which have been built on Luna. Pressurised domes huddle inside craters or stand on their raised rims, on the summits of the lunar mountains or on the frozen shores of their immense lava oceans. Telescopes on the hidden farside study the universe in unprecedented detail, solving - and creating - new mysteries every day.
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Copyright © 1999, 2000, 2001 Stuart Atkinson, sffworld.com. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the author. The author has submitted the work in accordance with and in agreement with the following Submission Guidelines.

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