Excerpt from The Falling Sky

Nothing is as certain as death.

At first, the image is just a blur in the darkness, so Jeanette refocuses her telescope and the blob becomes clear and sharp. A young girl, twelve years old, in a blue and white gingham dress. She’s immobile, fixed against the blank, dark background.

Now, and for ever more, she hovers just above the event horizon of the black hole. And when Jeanette tries to reach out to her, she’s not really there. All that’s left is this last photo of her, static on a summer’s day in the garden.

Jeanette wakes up in the late afternoon and hurries outside to check for clouds in the sky. The observatory is surrounded by mountains and she finds herself disliking them for their perfection and unreality. The rocks are too jagged, the sky too uniformly blue, everything is too precise here. There are no distractions, no bushes or grass to blur the lines of the earth. No animals or birds to break the relentless silence. She wants to scuttle away and burrow under imaginary damp leaves and into forgiving earth. She longs for Edinburgh, with its uneven pavements and grubby shop fronts. She misses the unpainted windows of her flat, even the stains on the carpets. Shortcomings go unnoticed there. Here, everything stands out in sharp relief against the mountains.

That night the sky clouds over and Jeanette and Maggie can’t do anything. The telescope is set up and calibrated and the list of objects to be observed is marked in different colours according to priority, but they just have to wait for the cloud to clear. It happens occasionally even at such high altitudes, but there’s still a sense of uselessness and fatigue in the control room.

At three in the morning she’s eaten her sandwiches and drunk a lot of coffee. They have to wait here all night, just in case the sky does clear. Now the wind is picking up, which may be a good sign; it may sweep the cloud off the mountains.

She gets up and walks around for a bit, but then Maggie sighs and puts down her pen. They look at each other but don’t speak. Jeanette decides to leave the room.

It’s not that dark outside, in fact the cloud diffuses the moonlight and smears it out across the sky. Jeanette stands just outside the door and listens to the wind. It has a curiously tinny sound as it bounces off the metal domes; someone might be rattling a baking sheet in the sky.

She sets off down the path that leads away from the telescope. She knows she shouldn’t be wandering around by herself at night without telling anyone where she is going. Those are the rules here. It’s supposed to be dangerous. But Jeanette has had enough of being stuck inside; out here is better.

But out here is too windy. She battles against the wind like a cartoon character but she can barely stand up, she’s forced to return to the telescope. She stumbles back up the narrow tarmac path, and by the time she reaches the telescope she is out of breath. She pushes at the door to the control room, but as it opens she can hear voices; Maggie and the telescope operator. She listens for a moment; the voices are hushed, as if they’re telling each other secrets. She doesn’t want to listen any more. She shuts the door and creeps around the side until she comes to another door. When she opens this one, it takes her straight into the dome.

Inside, she stands on the circumference of the room looking up at the rectangle of sky. When her eyes get used to the dark she sets out for the centre, where the telescope is. She has to resist an impulse to reach out and stroke it, as if it were an animal shackled to the concrete floor. The dome judders as the wind picks up and she wonders if it could be unpeeled from its base and made to sail into the sky.

The thin amount of light in here can only glint off small pieces of things. It hints at something else, something larger buried in the darkness. A nest of wires coils out of the back of the telescope and snakes away across the floor to the door on the far side. Beyond that is the control room. Here in this mysterious space, it seems impossible to go through that door and enter a world of other people, fluorescent light, and stained coffee cups. Perhaps she can shelter here, at least for the rest of tonight.

But suddenly there is a tearing, crashing sound above her, not safely in the sky, but right here in the dome. And as she stands, terrified, the light that she has grown used to diminishes and disappears. She is in darkness. And it’s not the velvet-soft darkness that she imagined, the darkness that would wrap itself around her and make friends with her and stroke her face. This darkness continues to be filled with a sharp noise, no longer from above her but right in front of her. She senses something fly past her face, cold air brushes her cheeks and she screams. She falls to the floor.

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