Robert McGinty works and writes in Edinburgh, where he lives with his wife and son. He was a recipient of a 2016 Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in the Children’s and Young Adult fiction category. He is currently working on a Young Adult novel called The Dead Men of Pendragon House, as well as occasional articles and stories for his blog-site.
Voyager is a short story about a journey of escape for a space obsessed boy who feels a million miles distant from everything in his world, and his journey out into the universe through the stargate of his imagination.
How could he make them understand that his signal took seventeen hours to travel from where he was to where they were?
‘You said you had one yesterday. Show us.’
Giles found himself backed into a corner of the school bike shelter by a crowd of boys from his class. Big Archie, the tallest boy in the year, stood at their head.
‘You haven’t got one, have you?’
Archie held his own mobile phone in front of Giles’s face—a sleek, black rectangle of technology.
‘Everyone else has got one. Are you a freak or something? Are your parents too poor to buy you one?’
They all laughed. They did not understand that their laughter would not reach him for a further seventeen hours.
‘What’s in the bag?’
Giles clutched a white plastic bag with something rather awkward and bulky inside that stuck out of the opening at the top.
‘Voyager 1,’ he said.
He held the bag open for the boys to see and Archie reached in and pulled out the delicate model by the long, latticed arm pointing upwards at him.
‘What the hell is Voyager 1?’ said Archie, turning it over in his hands.
‘A spacecraft,’ said Giles.
There was a sudden crack and the long arm snapped off from the main body of the model.
‘Aw, broke it. Sorry, Spaceman.’
Archie shoved the separate pieces back at Giles. The boys laughed and walked away, leaving him standing alone with the broken model cradled in his arms.
Giles did not hear Miss Teather calling at first because his mind was full of space, as it always was.
Sputnik encircled his thoughts, beeping simple messages. Mercury, Gemini and Apollo spacecraft streaked across the blue sky of his imagination, and the Eagle landed in the rocky terrain of his fantasies.
Miss Teather’s voice jerked him back to Earth, where he discovered that his class was laughing at him.
Miss Teather, with grey bags under her eyes, barely kept the exasperation out of her voice. ‘Are you ready to give your presentation? Come up to the front of the class.’
Giles picked up the plastic bag containing the broken model and made his way between the desks towards the whiteboard, just avoiding the wicked foot Archie stuck out in his path.
‘Do you have something with you to illustrate your subject, Giles?’ asked Miss Teather.
He fumbled awkwardly with the bag and removed the two parts of Voyager 1.
‘What a shame! How did your model get broken?’
Giles could feel Archie staring very hard at him.
‘Dropped it, Miss.’
He held up the long latticework section of plastic struts that had been snapped off.
‘It’s the magnetometer, Miss. I can mend it when I get home.’
Miss Teather nodded patiently.
‘Well, on you go Giles, when you’re ready.’
Giles turned to face the class and twenty-four bored, hostile faces stared back at him.
‘This is Voyager 1,’ he said, holding up the model.
As soon as he started speaking on his subject, he forgot all about those faces, as if they were no longer there. The spacecraft filled his entire field of vision and all he had to do was broadcast the voice that was always talking in his head, set his controls to autopilot and cruise.
The voice told his class about the launch of the space probe Voyager 1 on September 5th, 1977, sent by NASA on a grand tour of the outer planets. It described the main components of the model: the High Gain Antenna Reflector Dish and Sun Sensor; the boom arm that housed the Ultraviolet and Infrared Spectrometer and Radiometer; the Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generator; the Micrometeorite Shielding; the Hydrazine Thrusters and the Optical Calibration Target.
It explained how the once-in-two-centuries alignment of the planets had enabled the spacecraft to reach Jupiter; how Voyager had used Jupiter’s gravity to slingshot out to Saturn; and of its numerous discoveries among those far away worlds and moons.
The voice described the golden disc attached to the side of Voyager, with its engraved depictions of two humans, a man and a woman, and set of logical directions to Earth that would provide any curious aliens with a route map to find its makers.
The voice told of the Pale Blue Dot, which was the furthest away picture ever taken of the planet Earth–a tiny living speck engulfed in the blackness of space–and of the vast distances the spacecraft had traveled, and how it had crossed the heliopause in 2012, which is the point where the Sun’s solar winds die away and interstellar space begins, and how in 40,272 AD Voyager 1 would pass within 1.7 light years of AC+793888 in the constellation of Ursa Minor.
Finally, the voice explained that from its current position in space, a message from Voyager 1 took seventeen hours to reach Earth traveling at the speed of light, and that its broadcasts would become fainter and more distant until 2025, when the spacecraft would finally run out of power and stop sending messages home.
And then, as if it too had run out of motive power, the voice stopped talking and Giles saw once again the bored, indifferent faces staring at him.
‘Well,’ said Miss Teather, ‘that was a very…detailed…presentation. Thank you, Giles.’
As everyone was leaving the classroom for lunch Miss Teather asked Giles to stay behind.
It was strange being in the empty room with just his teacher and the smell of his classmates hanging in the air. Miss Teather sat behind her desk and looked with a kindly face on him.
‘Is everything quite alright, Giles?’ she asked.
‘I’ve noticed that you don’t play with any of the other boys. Has anything happened between you and them?’
How could he explain to her that he was now so incredibly remote from the other boys that anything they had to say to him took seventeen hours to reach him?
‘Nothing’s happened,’ he said.
Miss Teather was quiet for a moment, just looking at him, as if working out in her mind how to span those millions of miles between teacher and pupil.
‘Would you tell me if anyone was bullying you?’
‘Have you told me the truth of how your model got broken?’
‘Is everything quite alright at home?’
He thought fleetingly of his parents, Phobos and Deimos, circling cold and distant in his mind’s orbit.
Something about his answers seemed to make Miss Teather slowly crumple. She looked very tired again.
‘Go and eat your lunch, Giles.’
She called to him just as he was passing through the classroom door.
‘Thank you for the presentation this morning, Giles. It was very interesting.’
‘Thank you, Miss.’
He was orbiting Jupiter with his lunch, sitting under the leafless tree that grew on the patch of playing field furthest from the school. The voices of the other children floated to him on the air like distant messages from mission control.
His blue lunch box lay beside him as he ate a cheese sandwich. As well as sandwiches, it contained an apple, a packet of crisps, a chocolate bar and a carton of blackberry juice, all as artfully and economically packed as any astronaut’s provisions. It was important to be supplied with a carefully balanced nutritional package when so far away from home, circling a massive gas giant.
Giles thought of his home, millions of miles nearer the sun and so much warmer than these frigid wastes of space. He saw his busy bedroom walls with their posters of important satellites and spacecraft–from Sputnik to Mars Rover Curiosity–and the recreations of these machines which he had crafted from modeling sets and which stood on every available surface.
Would he ever return? Was there enough power in his engines to turn from his path and cross the distance back? He did not think so: he had traveled too far already. It was a one-way mission, after all. He wondered if his parents would be angry with him when they found out he had gone on such a journey without their leave, or if they would even notice.
Giles was so absorbed in these far away meditations that he was not aware of Archie until a foot kicked his lunchbox and sent his apple rolling off across the grass like an out of control moon.
A shadow fell over him: he looked up.
‘Did you tell?’ said Archie.
Giles shook his head. ‘No.’
‘What did she want?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Giles, shrugging his shoulders. ‘She just asked me some questions.’
‘What sort of questions, Spaceman?’
Archie suddenly dropped on Giles, shoved him into the dirt at the base of the leafless tree and pinned him under his enormous knees.
‘Did you tell on me?’
Archie’s knees were squeezing so much air from Giles’s lungs that he could barely find the breath to answer: ‘No!’
With a last vindictive shove at Giles’s head with his spade-like palm, Archie released him and jumped up.
‘Tell on me and you’re dead.’
‘I won’t,’ said Giles.
‘Shut up, Spaceman.’
Using Jupiter’s enormous gravitational field, Giles shot himself out on a new trajectory across the empty spaces of the playing fields and away from those distant laughing voices.
Soon he was beyond Saturn and still traveling, his lunchbox with his essential supplies gripped in his hand as he walked and walked. He was covered in dust and tears. His cheek throbbed where Archie’s hand had struck.
But Archie was seventeen hours from him and could not hurt him; he was so impossibly remote from all living things that none could touch him. Giles was on his way to places they could not even imagine, covering distances that seemed impossible to them: he was voyaging alone into an astonishing universe.
At last he reached the heliopause, the boundary of his solar system. The school walls stretched out on either side of him.
Pushing his lunch box to the top of the wall, he scrambled up beside it and sat looking at the distant school building, watching the scurrying dots that played inside its protective embrace—so far away that he could barely even hear their voices.
He turned and dangled his legs over the other side of the wall with his back to the school. Across the fields in front of him ran the main road out of the town, where cars passed continually on their journeys to unknown destinations.
He was at the limits of the solar system, his signal weak, all alone on the boundary of the Sun’s influence—so distant that he could no longer feel any of its warmth touching his heart.
The school bell was ringing and ringing, sending him a message which he had traveled too far to hear. He picked up his lunch box and looked out at the vast reaches of interstellar space stretching out in front of him.
He had a long way to go: he jumped off the wall.