'Earthbound' by Sinead O'Hart
Out of hundreds of thousands, they’d selected him for trials. Once there, he’d passed every test. His coordination, balance and physical condition were top notch, and his IQ was passable, if not brilliant. Most importantly, he was among the few who took to the Untethering process - in fact, he’d been a perfect test case. For him, Earth would soon be a fading, painless memory.
When they broke the news, he tried to act surprised.
‘Congratulations, Shane. You’re going into space, son. You’ve made it.’
‘Sir, I…’ he gasped, jumping to his feet to shake the Commander’s hand. ‘I mean…’
‘I know, son. I know.’ The older man smiled as he watched the eager waves swell and crest in the eyes of his newest recruit. ‘The honour is too huge to put into words, right?’
‘I can’t tell you how grateful I am, Commander…’ Shane began.
‘Grateful’s got nothing to do with it, son! We’re not doing you a favour. We’re not sending you on the first manned mission to Mars because we think you’re a nice guy. You’ve got what we want. That’s all down to your hard work. Understood?’
‘Sir,’ replied Shane, blinking away a tear. ‘Yes, sir.’
‘Now. We have just one final test for you, Shane. It’s nothing, to a man like you.’
‘Anything, sir,’ said Shane, trying to dampen his enthusiasm beneath a serious, professional frown.
‘Follow me,’ said the Commander.
He was led to a room, featureless and bright, with a metal table and chair at its heart. The light came from nowhere, and the temperature was comfortable. Shane sat, and the chair moulded itself to his body. He relaxed.
A door opened like an eyelid folding, and a woman entered. Her every step made pressure grow behind Shane’s forehead, until he felt his eyes were going to burst. He didn’t know what part of her to look at for fear of missing something.
‘Extend your arm, please,’ she said, her voice like a warm bath. She took his blood pressure, and attached monitors to his brain and heart, leaving trails of electric fire on his skin where she touched him. She made some notes, but told him nothing. Her eyes went on forever.
By the time she left, his mind was already beginning to curl at the edges. Long-dormant synapses began to fire as his brain began to retether, and his thoughts started to cycle through fantasies of a life he’d been trained to do without; soft flesh, long evenings, gentle conversation. He burned with a sole urge: he had to tell her, had to touch her, find out her name… He stirred, jerking out his monitor wires.
Then the door opened again, and he looked up. The words ‘Thank God’ were on his lips, but they never made it out; the bullet passed through his head before he could speak.
In another room, the Commander watched Shane’s readouts go flat, his brainwaves stop.
‘Damn shame,’ he muttered. ‘Damn, damn shame.’