WHNWC The Reapers of the Universe
He came off the motorway about an hour after leaving the city. The narrow country roads drew him deeper into the landscape as he negotiated their
labyrinthine route. Trees crowded the steep banks on either side, arching their branches across the road to bind and spin a sylvan cloistered tunnel.
Flashes of sunlight stroked the windscreen as he passed beneath, deepening the frown on his face, his mind full of Maddie. Si had been so thrilled
for her. It had been the first competition she’d ever won in her life but as all her friends were quick to point out ‘what a one to win!’
It would have been perfect if Si could have accompanied her but the astro tourists, as the press had dubbed them, were as yet a rare breed and she’d
won and he hadn’t. A fortnight before the launch he’d waved her off at the airport as she left for the
Kennedy Space Centre
to undergo her pre flight training, contenting himself with the
thought of her nightly phone calls instead.
Going over to Maddies’ parents on the day of the departure, he sat, wide eyed gazing at the TV along with assorted friends and family as the huge,
unwieldy looking craft had defied all his nail biting doubts and soared into the sky trailing flame and glory before shrinking to a small piercing
shard and melting into the upper reaches of the atmosphere. The following days were spent by Si being besieged by the worlds press and media; even
being interviewed by the BBC. People at home, at work and in bars hovered around TV sets and watched live feeds and interviews. Maddie had her turn
waving at the camera and telling them she would see them all soon.
It all ended in reassuringly unspectacular fashion. Friends and relatives of the British winners were hustled into a hospitality room and filmed
watching the successful live landing. Within forty eight hours she was walking out of arrivals at Heathrow with the others, her smile warm if a little
weary. Si hugged her tightly amidst a mass of embracing bodies and flashing cameras.
It was only once they were back home in their Docklands
apartment that Maddie told him about
Si’s mind wandered aimlessly from the shady road before him, his anxiety reigned in just enough to reflect back on that conversation. Odd that
amidst all the flurry of media interest and post flight interviews, the articles and photo shoots that erupted then died out as quickly as they’d
begun that this mundane exchange between them in the privacy of the apartment should stick in his mind like an apple pip between the teeth, troubling
and evasive but impossible to dislodge.
‘It was no big deal Si.’ Maddie had finally asserted with fond exasperation. ‘One of the waste disposal units suffered a malfunction, a little
bit of oxygen leaked out a little bit of space leaked in.’ she shrugged. ‘That was it, no one was affected, the onboard computer automatically
shut down and sealed off the unit within 30 seconds.’
‘It’s just….’ Si struggled to verbalize the horrific pictures on a permanent slide reel going through his mind. One hundred variations on the
theme of the girl you love dying in space. ‘How things might’ve turned out!’ He finished lamely.
‘Even the ground crew thought it was a minor glitch, barely worth a mention.’ Maddie laughed and threw a cushion at his morose face. ‘You
really are making a mountain out of this!’
He supposed she was right, but he just couldn’t shake that rolling heaviness sloshing in his gut like cement. He didn’t recognize it at the time
Then Maddie began to get sick.
The road unfurled suddenly into a sharp curve. He wrenched his mind back to the here and now and concentrated on negotiating the bend, slowing and
trying to get a grip on the road and his thoughts. But once safely back on the straight, his mind once more began to skip and leap like a gadfly.
Glancing quickly through the side window he spied the sun picking its way carefully through glowing green branches as it lowered to the west. His
anxiety flared once more.
It wasn’t that she had become physically ill there was no fever, no rash, no nausea or sweats. She just changed…completely and utterly from the
enthusiastic, sunny natured and active girl he had first fallen in love with into someone he barely recognized...
Two weeks on from her arrival home she was lethargic, irritable and moody, hardly finding the energy or inclination to drag herself from bed some
days, drifting around the flat like a pale leaden ghost on others. Si would walk into a room to find her staring unseeing at the wall before her,
silently mouthing secret words like a catchecism. There were still glimpses of the old Maddie, a weak smile, an affectionate touch here and there but
these became more and more infrequent. She made glib excuses to avoid seeing family and friends, she wouldn’t go to work. If he tried to bring up
his concerns she reacted with varying degrees of anger ranging from tetchiness to sharp spiteful diatribes.
‘I didn’t realise what a whining little control freak you are Si,’ She sneered one evening. ‘I might have thought twice about living with you
He turned and walked into the bedroom, slamming the door, his patience and concern finally dissolving into anger and frustration. He lay on the bed
staring at the ceiling, feeling like a man who’d been enjoying a luxury ocean cruise now hi-jacked by evil pirates. An hour later she opened the
‘Si,’ she whispered apologetically.
He looked around, she stood framed in the doorway, eyes pleading wordlessly. He suddenly realised he was seeing the old Maddie reflected there once
more, how quickly he’d become duped into accepting the stranger that had lurked in her place these past two weeks.
‘What can I do to help you if you won’t let me in,’ he shrugged helplessly. ‘You’re sick Madds!’
She sighed heavily but nodded. ‘I know! Call the doctor!’
As he walked into the bedroom doctor Maddox, a garrulous, cheerful type, had been unable to fully suppress his dismayed gasp. Si felt an answering
shock of empathy realising how she must appear to him, a wan, emaciated wraith, swamped in a housecoat too big for her skeletal frame, her normally
lustrous hair hanging down in dark, scurfy strips, sunken eyes, scorched black like those of a refugee from some traumatic conflict, peering beadily
The usurper was back. A small, knowing smile played at the edges of her mouth as the doctor visibly pulled himself together and began an easy jovial
banter. ‘Swinging the lead again?’ he proclaimed lightly going to the bed and opening his case. ‘Not quite the appropriate thing for a Starship
trooper is it. You do realise I had a really hot date tonight that your malingering’s totally screwed up for me.’
Maddie just continued smiling that strange little smile.
As he began a series of routine tests Si left the room . Sitting on the sofa he gazed out through the big glass wall onto the towers of Canary Wharf
hanging like giant lanterns in the night sky, caught and copied imperfectly in the glistening, curve of the Thames. In the corner the ansa-phone
winked accusingly, full of messages from family and friends which grew in tones of concern and bemusement.
They probably think I’m beating her and keeping her prisoner he thought wryly, rendered weary and helpless, trapped between her duplicity and there