The booster was strangely bright against the flat blue sky, a silver midday star fighting to be visible beside the sun. Alec watched it grow larger, closer, a gloved hand shielding his eyes. Perspiration beaded his forehead. Beside him Ramiro spat out a glob of phlegm into the sea.
“It’s coming in pretty slow,” Ramiro said.
Alec continued to stare at the bright point. “Not that slow,” he said. The landing pad was floating half a kilometre away, anchored to the ocean floor. When the booster hit, he and Ramiro would go in to retrieve it.
The two stood for a moment and then retreated to their stations. Alec dragged a bud into one ear and pulled his scratched plastic goggles down over his eyes.
“Wouldn’t catch me in space,” said Ramiro’s voice through the plug.
“You could never afford it,” he replied.
His co-worker’s nervous laugh crackled against a rising din.
“Funny, how we’re the ones out here every day, and yet we’ll never get up there.”
The booster-stage enlarged as it plummeted, and at the right moment parachutes blossomed from its silver top. A jet of fire streamed from the base; Alec thought the flames looked like the tail of a phoenix.
Far above, impossible to see, would be the rocket – three hundred high-society men and women enjoying the in-flight champagne and looking down at the big blue marble. Or maybe it didn’t go far out enough to see the Earth’s curvature; Alec wasn’t really sure. He dimly remembered learning about the atmosphere in school, diagrams showing the stratosphere, the troposphere, other names that hadn’t stuck. He turned to look at Ramiro, who grinned with leathered skin.
There was a roar and rising concentric waves.
“Our time to shine,” Ramiro said.
The bar was brightly lit, with fluorescent shafts sliding over steel tables. Alec walked in, found the others in the usual spot. There was something of a stain rising up the wall behind them; Alec fancied that it was lifting away from their bodies, the grime, oil and sunburnt skin polluting the institutionalised surfaces. He sat down next to Ramiro.
“Almost thought you weren’t going to make it,” said Ramiro, with an unfocused smile. His breath was hot and acidic.
Alec shrugged. “Every week I tell myself I’m not coming – and yet here I am.”
The other workers laughed. Ramiro nudged him in the ribs. “You’d miss us if you left.”
“He can’t afford to leave, economy the way it is,” said Myra.
Carl walked over from the bar balancing two pints, and dumped one in front of Alec. Alec drew it to his chest but felt suddenly queasy, as if he might pitch forward into it. “What’s the plan this week?” he asked.
There was a murmur, and the familiar spark in the whites of his co-workers eyes. They’d be dim by morning, Alec knew. But the routine was somehow comforting. It was worth sitting through their recycled politics for the illusion that fate was in their hands.
“We’re organising a protest, outside Hermes headquarters,” said Myra.
“Oh? How’s that all going.”
“Still laying the groundwork – we need support to get noticed. We’ve put up a page online so people can read about the atrocious safety conditions, the insulting pay, the unsanitary rooms.”
Myra shifted in her seat. “Ten. But we’re working on it.”
“I can’t wait to bash some heads,” said a man whose name Alec couldn’t remember.
Ramiro laughed; Myra frowned.
“It’s going to be a peaceful protest, remember. We want our cause to seem legitimate.”
“Only way to show we’re serious is to break some noses. And some windows.”
Alec stood up, chair scraping backwards on the metal floor. “Got to piss,” he said.
There was a puddle on the bathroom floor; Alec didn’t want to know whether it was urine or just a leaking cistern. He stood for a moment before anything came out.
“You okay?” said Ramiro, pushing through the door.
“Yeah. Just sick of it all.”
“All talk,” said Ramiro, gazing blankly at his reflection in the mirror.
“The thing is, none of them is right. Or all of them is. And I don’t know which to think.”
“You’ve had too much to drink, mate,” said Ramiro.
Alec shook his head. “Just exhausted.”
Alec remembered that the other man’s name was Stuart. He pictured the Hermes guards dragging Stuart into an armoured van.
“Why did we come out here?” he asked, to Ramiro or the mirror.
Ramiro shrugged. “Work is work.”
“You’re lucky you’re afraid of heights.”
Ramiro’s face scrunched in confusion, then loosened. “I get it. Spend all day servicing rockets, but you’ll never get into space.”
“Rich bastards, looking down on us. Literally.”
Ramiro patted him on the back. “I think you’ve been coming to a decision, and maybe tonight’s that night.”
Alec sighed. “I know. I think it’ll be my own protest, in a small way.”
Ramiro smiled, eyes glassy. “It’ll be hard, finding another job.”
“It’ll be worth it.”
Alec left through the back door. He didn’t want to face the others; he felt like he’d finally taken hold of his life, and yet at the same time that meant leaving them behind. Change wasn’t an amalgam of personal decisions. Or maybe it was. In the inky sky he saw a moving point of light – he watched its smooth trajectory, silently wishing for his future, not sure whether it was a shooting star or a canister full of millionaires.