The Way Up, The Way Down by Dennis Mombauer

Unlike most people, Charlie had a job. He lived on Earth and worked in space, and for his daily commute, he took the elevator. It went right up to Icarus Station on the orbital ring, 132 minutes for one trip, only a few hundred kilometers above the planet. Whenever one cage left from the Beehive on the ground, another descended at the same speed–and that one moment in the middle, when the two cages passed each other, was everything that Charlie was interested in anymore.

On each journey there was always a brief period of time when things aligned perfectly, when Charlie could see through transparent plastic, thin atmosphere and another plastic window right inside the other cage. For years, this hadn’t been remarkable: But then, on one day, he started seeing the woman.

Her face was pale, but her eyes glittered like sunshine on a quiet lake of metal. The moment was so short that she must have waited for it, just as he did. She always looked right at him, but never smiled, and her expression seemed sad, maybe even frightened, as if his imminent disappearance would always fill her with horror.

Since that first day, Charlie always woke up very early to get the one window seat on the right side, the one place that made their rendezvous possible. He knew that he had no way of ever really meeting her: She was on the night shift, and when she returned to Earth, he had always just left it. There was no name to her face, no background, no address or number; and even if there had been, they would’ve still lived in separate worlds.

He thought about staying on Earth one day and looking for her amidst all the arrivals, but he couldn’t afford to miss work, and the Beehive was far too huge for him to find her. In some nights, he dreamt about her, although it was mostly her mouth and eyes, and only a vague mist in between. She seemed to say something to him, but all sound was dampened and swallowed by layers of glass, so nothing reached his ears.

•••

Their moments passed, one after another like a chain of raindrops, until one evening, on his way down and her way up, something was different. Over every passenger seat, there was a small light, and the one above Charlie flickered. He was so concentrated on her face that he almost missed it, but somehow, in the corner of his eye, he noticed the flickering. The cages passed each other, the woman gone for today, but Charlie was certain: Two short flickerings.

The next day, he observed the light, and when the cages met, it flickered again, only once, shorter. On his way back down in the evening, after he had finished his workday, Charlie saw another short flickering. Was this Morse code? Every new day brought a new letter, and soon, he could see the words and anticipate the sentence. “Meet me at dawn at Termin–”

The message was clear, but Charlie hesitated. Should he really go? Could he? As soon as she would have spelled out the complete location, she would expect him to be there the next day.

“Termina.” Every letter brought him closer to the moment of decision. “Terminal.” If he went, he would probably lose his job and die somewhere in the lower levels of the Beehive, poor and starving. “Terminal 9.” There were terminals with two-digit numbers, but not above 50 or 60, so this was definitely it. The message was complete, their elevator moments had come to an end.

•••

 It was the first day since his 16th birthday that Charlie missed work, and it was the day of the big crash. He waited for hours at terminal 9, looking for a familiar face on an unfamiliar body, his eyes constantly shifting between his watch, the display boards and the waves of people passing through. At first, he thought she might have gone by without noticing him; then, he began to doubt that she would ever come; and finally, when all the news screens came alive, he realized the truth. History was made that day: An explosion on Icarus Station that nearly brought the whole orbital ring crashing down, the elevator cable breaking, and the cages burning, consuming every last passenger.

After a long search, Charlie managed to find the woman’s face in one of the reports. It was a camera image, from the exact moment of the crash, her face the way he always knew it, the same expression, down to the last detail –and he wondered what she had been seeing the whole time.

•••

BIO: Dennis Mombauer, born 1984, grew up along the Rhine and today lives and works in Cologne. He writes short stories and novels in German and English and is co-publisher and editor of a German magazine for experimental fiction, “Die Novelle – Zeitschrift für Experimentelles” (http://dienovelle.blogspot.de/). Current or upcoming English publications in Plasma Frequency, Geminid Press’ Night Lights anthology, Third Flatiron’s Ain’t Superstitious and Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.

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