Message on a Timeline


Selena hadn’t seen her brother for ten years. When he first moved to the other side of the universe, he kept in touch via the Universal Space Organisation, who forwarded correspondence daily, then weekly – until contact fizzled out altogether. So when a message appeared on her Facebook timeline, she had to read it more than once. It was hard to ignore her heart knocking against her rib cage.

The message was short: ‘Have been following you. Can’t wait to see you. Al 🙂

Her parents insisted on using his full name, Alan, but she called him Al. She was only six years old when he left.  It had to be him. No one else called him Al.

The next message followed a few minutes later: ‘Are you alone?’ This time there was a picture attached, of Al looking exactly the same as when he stepped aboard the shuttle. It could be an old photograph, she thought, as she typed the word ‘Yes’ and pressed ENTER.

A further message pinged, asking if her laptop was hooked up to a larger screen.

‘No laptop,’ she replied, ‘only your old PC with a largish monitor. Will that do?’

A smiley face confirmed that he was happy. She didn’t have to wait long for the next message. It wasn’t a message; Al had posted a soundless video clip of himself on board what appeared to be a space station. She could see various equipment racks, switches and consoles. Al sat in the middle of them, without any kind of special clothing or personal equipment, facing her straight on and grinning. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt with the standard USO logo.

‘Can you see me OK?’ said the comment below the video clip. She ‘liked’ it, typed ‘Yes’ in the comment box and pressed ENTER.

Selena watched the video of Al giving a tour of the space station. She tried to be interested, feeling that somehow he could see her reactions. She smiled and nodded and typed questions.

Where was the toilet?

Al drifted across the habitable volume to a zero gravity toilet and demonstrated how it worked. Selena wasn’t impressed.

How did he cook and where was the food stored?

Al showed her another area that looked similar to the toilet, but had what appeared to be a fridge, microwave and supplies storage. Earth was much more civilised, she thought.

Where were the other astronauts?

The video ended. So did Al’s comments. Selena waited a few minutes before typing in: ‘Al, are you still there?’ She turned to pick up a cup of lukewarm coffee beside the computer and, out of the corner of her eye, she was sure she saw the cursor moving around the screen. When she turned back there was a question waiting for her:  ‘Are all of your female friends on Facebook the same age as you?’

A bubble of queasy unease fizzed up in her gut and then sank again. It was Al, her brother. He was just interested. ‘Well, yes,’ she typed, ‘they’re mostly friends from school and college.’

A link appeared together with a comment: ‘Click on this.’ Selena’s finger hovered over the mouse – and then clicked. A live feed appeared on screen of Al on the space station, this time with three members of the team, all smiling and waving.

‘Hi, Selena! Pleased to see you at last. We’ve heard so much about you.’

‘Hi,’ she replied. They could have been there in the room with her; they were so clear and tangible.

Al introduced his colleagues as Steve, Günter and Max.

‘I’m the odd one out here,’ Al said. ‘I’m the only one with a sister.’

Selena touched the image of her brother on the screen. She still missed him.

Five minutes later, there was a tap on Selena’s bedroom door and a woman looked in. She had a snowstorm of hair and a crowd of lines deeply etched in her face.

‘Sweetheart, your father’s home and we’re about to…’

The room was empty. The desk chair lay on its side on the floor. Maybe Selena had knocked it over in a hurry to wash her hands before dinner. Facebook was still open on the computer. Selena’s profile picture looked different – as if an old photograph of Al had been Photo-shopped onto it. On the right-hand side of the screen was a newsfeed: Outdated social network brings USO a step closer to colonisation of Earth Mark 2.

© Kim M. Russell, 2015