I wasn’t interested in earth-bound men. They bored me. I worked as an administration co-ordinator for Space Transporter Decontamination PLC, an occupation that provided me with ample opportunity for social interaction with the intergalactic pilots, who were more to my taste. These men and women who ventured beyond their planetary comfort zone were, of course, reputed to have a girl or a guy in every galaxy, but I was looking for fun, not commitment, so no problem.
The current object of my affections, Jake Jeffers, was being decontaminated following a jaunt in the Andromeda galaxy collecting soil samples from possibly inhabitable planets. I don’t work weekends so we'd arranged to meet on Saturday afternoon, after his clean-up. Our assignation point was the local garden centre, “Bulbs and Blooms”. Their cafe serves decent coffee and an assortment of cakes to die for.
I waited in the foyer. There were no seats and my new five-inch heels were torturing me, so I perched on the edge of a low plinth that housed an array of potted plants, kicked off my shoes and wiggled my tormented toes. The foyer walls were glass from floor-to-ceiling, and the sun filtered through. I closed my eyes and basked in its warmth.
“Found a good spot to get a tan?” The deep, masculine voice broke my reverie.
I opened my eyes to confront a bronze-skinned, six-foot hunk. “No,” I said. “I'm sitting on the Naughty Step.”
His booming laugh bounced off the glass walls. “How naughty were you?”
“That would be telling.”
A sour-faced woman called from the entrance to the conservatory furniture department, “Come on, Wallace. We haven’t got all day.”
Wallace. Good name, I thought. Echoes of Braveheart.
He winked at me and sauntered towards her. I closed my eyes again, and revised my opinion of earth-bound men.
Jake turned up wearing his intergalactic pilot uniform. He was a poseur but I didn’t mind. His space pallor detracted from the image of the dashing, off-world adventurer, but a few hours sunbathing in my back garden would put that right.
“You're looking good, Alice," He said.
“You look like death without the grin,” I said. “Let's get coffee and cake, then we'll set about putting the roses back in your cheeks.”
We ordered two cappuccinos, strawberry gateau for him, and banoffee pie with cream for me. My grandfather would have described our waitress as a buxom wench. The cafe employees are known to be fond of sampling the confectionery on display. It plays havoc with their waistlines but it puts a smile on their faces.
After Jake had devoured his gateau I asked, “How was Andromeda?”
“Okay, but there’s no place like the Milky Way.”
“True. Stay at my house for a few days. Get the sun on your face and start to look human again.”
“Thanks, but I have a better idea. I'm taking another trip tomorrow. Come with me.”
“I thought you were glad to be back.”
“I am, but there's something I want to show you, and we have to go outside the galaxy to see it.”
I’d been in space a few times before, but I wouldn't miss the chance to go again. The views were spectacular. “Okay, why not?”
“Good, now eat up and let's go back to yours and sunbathe, or whatever.”
I licked a remnant of cream off my fork, we passed our dishes to the smiling banoffee babe who came to clear our table, and we headed for the car park.
I spotted Wallace and Sour-Face loading flat-pack furniture into a Land Rover. She was supervising. “Not like that, Wallace. Shove it further down. Turn that one round the other way and put this one on top…”
We walked past them and I glanced back. He was watching me. I winked.
Next morning Jake and I arrived at the transporter station and signed a disclaimer absolving STD of any responsibility if we died before returning to Earth.
We were then allowed to enter a transporter. Jake sealed the sparsely furnished metal cell's safety doors, entered the destination co-ordinates into the control panel, and activated the transporter beam. The molecules that made up everything behind the sealed doors dispersed, and reassembled at a point somewhere beyond the outer arms of the Milky Way. After the normal bout of nausea passed, I looked at the viewer and saw the spiral spread across the heavens. I’d seen it before but it never failed to make my mascara run.
Jake pointed to a dark blot at the galaxy’s centre. “I suppose you know what that is, Alice.”
“It’s a black hole,” I said.
“What do you know about it?”
I had an uneasy feeling, and sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. “I know that anything in its orbit gets sucked in and shredded atom from atom.”
He stared at me through glazed eyes. I'd heard that space madness is an occupational hazard. Too much galaxy hopping can cause loss of perspective and a tendency to go bonkers. The pilots of my acquaintance were all young and fit, so I’d not given the problem much thought, but Jake was scaring me. He said, “What you’re describing is an observer's perception of reality, but anyone approaching the black hole would perceive a different reality, in which they remain whole and unhurt.”
I tried to keep my voice steady. “Who said that?”
“I see. Well, I'd rather not test the theory, if you don't mind.” With due respect to the late great Professor Hawking, my perception of reality included a bronze-skinned, six foot hunk and a hefty slice of banoffee pie. There was no room on the menu for a black hole.
Jake took a step towards the control panel. “Where’s your sense of adventure? I’ve worked out the co-ordinates and I'm taking us in.”
My head spun, my throat felt dry, and I looked around for a weapon. A Hostile Extra-terrestrial Neutraliser, HEN for short, was hanging on the wall. It resembled a black metal air-freshener spray can. I grabbed it, and not wishing to neutralise Jake, I bashed him over the head with it. He crumbled at my feet, out cold. Stepping over his body I entered the co-ordinates for home into the panel, and activated the beam.
After the nausea passed I unsealed the doors and yelled for a paramedic. The medic on duty was Wei Yen, my accomplice on many a riotous girls’ night out. “What happened?” she said, wheeling a trolley into the transporter. “Did he flip?”
“Yeah. Wanted to fling us into a black hole.”
“Often happens. That’s why the pilots are all insured to the hilt. The company can claim the cost of replacing missing transporters.”
“What about the missing pilots?”
She shrugged, “Who knows? I hope they find what they’re looking for.”
We lifted Jake onto the trolley. I said, “Do you think he’ll be okay?”
“Depends what you did to him.”
“I cracked his skull with a HEN.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll give him a brain scan and repair any physical damage. After therapy and a few months in rehab he’ll be serviceable again. What about you, Alice? You look frazzled.”
“I’ve had a weird couple of days that have changed my perception of reality.”
“Take a week’s sick leave. Now, get out of this madhouse and go home.”
I stepped outside, onto my sunlit native planet. The twentieth-century astronaut, Jim Lovell, had called her The Good Earth. He was right. She’s the pearl of the Milky Way and she’s where I belong.
I spent a relaxing few days at home, and the following Saturday afternoon I drove to “Bulbs and Blooms”. Some primitive instinct told me that Wallace would be hovering around the naughty step.
He was. “Hi,” he said, “You been naughty again?”
“Perish the thought.”
He held out his hand. “I’m Wallace.”
I shook it. “I’m Alice. We rhyme.”
“So we do. Where's Luke Skywalker?”
“Oh, I'm sorry. Is he your boyfriend?”
“No, he’s a colleague. I work for STD.”
“Space Transmitted Diseases, right?”
“Close enough. Is the bossy lady your girlfriend?”
He shook his head. “My sister. She’s in her conservatory, assembling flat pack furniture.”
“I thought she'd order you to do that.”
“So did she, but I escaped. Fancy a coffee?”
“I thought you'd never ask.”
“I hear the cakes are pretty good,”
“They are. I can recommend the banoffee pie.”
Maureen Bowden is a Liverpudlian living with her musician husband in Wales. She has had 135 stories and poems accepted for paying markets, she was nominated for the 2015 Pushcart Prize, and in 2019 Alban Lake published an anthology of her stories, 'Whispers of Magic'. She loves her family and friends, rock 'n' roll, Shakespeare and cats.