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Space Beach

by Frank Roger

The fluorescent alien on the dark-skinned girl’s minuscule bathing suit seemed to dance to the rhythm of her movements, as she and her boyfriend cavorted along the beach. Perhaps, James Gregory thought, the alien was trying to attract the attention of the authorities of the spaceport, displayed on the boy’s T-shirt. The couple disappeared into the crowd walking or dancing on the sand. He turned his gaze towards the gigantic object ahead, dominating the view of the Torremolinos beachscape.

He walked towards it in the gathering dusk, halted when he was a few hundred metres away from it. Each day, around nightfall, he made his stroll along the beach, and was attracted as if by a magnet to the vast but empty hulk stranded on the shoreline. It was hard to imagine this had once been an area of scientific research, off-limits to “outsiders,” a place where scientists had been doing important work. But that was all a long time ago.

As usual at this time of day, the area was the focus of the town’s nightlife activities. An exuberant crowd was dancing to the pounding rhythm of music, coming from speakers everywhere. The empty structure itself sat like a dazzling jewel against the darkening sky, a perfect backdrop for the daily sound and light show.

He could see two dancers in the hulk’s entrance, although it was “strictly forbidden” to set foot there, but the police didn’t interfere as long as “nothing serious” happened. It was considered “cool” to have pictures taken of yourself and your girlfriend inside the structure. In a sense, this way it was no longer “unmanned” after its extended voyage through the interstellar void. So maybe the Torremolinos beach was its very own “manifest destiny.”

His reverie was interrupted by a beep of his cell-phone. He checked the tiny screen, and noted there was a message. Someone wanted to interview him, tomorrow morning, if that was all right with him. James raised his eyebrows. It had been a while since the media had asked him to do an interview. He sent a message back, saying he agreed to see the interviewer at nine o’ clock on the terrace of Hotel Nostromo, where he usually had a coffee in the morning.

James continued his stroll, wondering why they had got in touch with him. And what a bizarre coincidence that this should happen while he was on holiday, right here in Torremolinos. Or perhaps that was how they had discovered him? He had thought the flagging space industry held no more interest for the media, and its retired employees even less. Or maybe there was something he didn’t know? No doubt he would find out tomorrow.

Before he returned to his modest guesthouse, he cast a final glance at the object on the beach. He still remembered the day this very structure was discovered, adrift in the outer reaches of the solar system. It had been heralded as a grand moment of science, a milestone in humanity’s history, final proof of the existence of intelligent life in the universe.

The enthusiasm of SETI and UFO buffs rose to unprecedented heights. Science and the space programme were front-page news. Man was not alone. Wild speculation abounded: Who had sent this ship? Were they aware of our existence? Were their intentions peaceful? Would their visit lead to the dawn of a new age, or to the apocalypse?

James walked on. None of this mattered anymore. Science had taken a step back, the front-pages were devoted to other news, and man was still very much alone. Public interest had started to wane when it was discovered the spaceship was unmanned, drifting apparently aimlessly through space, basically nothing but an empty hulk, a derelict, perhaps cast away by its makers because of a malfunctioning, who knows how long ago.

The wreck had been attracted by the sun’s gravitational field, and then by the earth’s one. It had made its descent through the planet’s atmosphere, without burning up as some had predicted, and had landed gracefully (and inexplicably so) on the beach of Torremolinos. The rest, as they said, was history, and James had been part of that history. On top of that, James was now history himself. No doubt the journalist would want to talk about that history tomorrow. That might prove to be interesting. As a matter of fact, he was looking forward to it, and was determined to get a good night’s sleep.

* * *

After breakfast, James went straight to Hotel Nostromo, took a seat on the terrace and ordered “the usual.” The waiter greeted him, brought his coffee, and left. James tried not to see the typical “space” illustration on the man’s T-shirt. He took a sip of his piping hot coffee, and put the cup back down. On the cup an alien face was painted, and it seemed to be grimacing at him. Has it recognised me? he thought. Is this creature mocking me? Does it know scientists have fallen into disregard, and is it making fun of me?

“Mr. Gregory?”

A red-haired woman in her early thirties approached him, smiling, extending her hand. “Good morning,” he said. “Yes, I’m James Gregory. Nice to meet you.” He shook the woman’s hand, and she took a seat beside him.

She put a tiny webcam on the table in front of them, and said: “I’m Sylvie Cabaraux. Thanks for granting me this interview. Did I mention I work for Sky Channel? We’re doing an important feature on the space programme, and we’ve been hunting down people who were connected to it. So far we had little chance in tracing your former colleagues, and even less in finding anyone willing to be interviewed. So we’re very glad to have you.”

“Does this mean you’re still interested in the space programme?”

“In a way, yes. And we’re also interested in the men and women who worked for it. People like you. We discovered most of your former colleagues have gone downhill. There have been suicides, there’s been a lot of alcohol and drugs. Some of them now work in bars, others have taken odd jobs, perhaps a few guys are now shepherds, who knows. Most of them prefer not to be reminded of their past, and won’t give interviews. But strangely enough, you still spend your holidays here at Space Beach. Why?”

“Please stick to its old name, Torremolinos,” James remarked. “I can’t stand this Space Beach nonsense.”

“You still seem drawn to it, despite everything. Why?”

James was lost in thought for a moment. Space Beach, yes, that’s how they had rechristened the place. The new name was appropriate enough, unambiguously confirming what had happened here: an area of scientific research had been transformed into a beach resort linked to a “space” theme park.

When the ship landed here, the authorities had wanted to evacuate the place, considering it might be dangerous for “outsiders.” They had forgotten that tourists were not quite outsiders in Torremolinos, and perhaps unsurprisingly they had quickly taken the upper hand.

The interests of the tourist industry had proven to outweigh those of science by a large measure. As soon as it had become clear that no radioactivity or radiation emanated from the ship and that it offered no useful alien technology worthy of examination, the tourists, arriving in ever greater numbers, had started to inch closer. Until they took over completely.

“Mr. Gregory?”

“I’m sorry, miss,” he said. “I was reminiscing. Of course I realise you would prefer it if I reminisced aloud. Why am I still drawn to this place? Well, I spent an important part of my life here, which I still have fond memories of.”

“You were assigned to the Project?”

“Yes, I was part of the team of scientists that were supposed to study this alien spaceship that had landed on earth, the first such event in the history of man. We were convinced we would write important pages in the history of science.”

“You were not the only ones attracted to the ship.”

“Torremolinos saw its tourist industry, formidable as it already was, booming beyond control. The Spanish authorities preferred not to cut off this huge supply of money by keeping the crowds back or even limiting their numbers. And when it became clear that the Project would not live up to expectations, that there was rather little for us to investigate and analyse, our funding was cut back repeatedly. Finally we were asked to leave altogether.

“And then a few guys had the brilliant idea to integrate this shipwreck from outer space into the resort’s pool of tourist attractions. Torremolinos became Space Beach, hotels and discos adopted new names and had renovations done accordingly, and countless lines of space-merchandise were produced.

“And it worked, sadly enough for us. Space had moved from the field of science to the field of tourism. But I suppose the people running the hotels and bars and shops are happy with the endless stream of money coming in.”

“How did the Project end for you personally?”

“Quite painfully. In a way I was lucky, as I was old enough for early retirement, whereas others ended up with odd jobs or unemployed. Then there was a divorce that made matters even more painful, especially the fact that my wife ended up remarrying one of the Torremolinos tourist industry tycoons. I had the feeling the damned spaceship had not only taken away my job, but also my wife. It had robbed me of my future, and ruined my marriage on top of that. I must say I was quite embittered.”

“But still you return here to spend your holidays?”

“Yes, this place means a lot to me. It used to be a beacon of hope, I had the prospect of making a career out of studying the most significant event in the history of the space programme. Then the hope dwindled and I was caught in a downward spiral, along with many others, but this negative experience is also very much part of my life. In a way I still feel anchored to that spaceship.”

“You thought this thing would make you, but it destroyed you.”

“Basically, yes, but that’s not how I would put it. I admit I cringe when I see all this space-related merchandise, the alien face on this cup here, the artwork on T-shirts and bathing suits, the names of the hotels and bars, down to the new name of the town itself. It hurts, but it doesn’t kill.”

“Thank you very much for this interview, Mr. Gregory.”

“You’re quite welcome.”

The woman left after promising she would send him a message when the interview would be broadcast. He spent the rest of the day in a good mood. This remarkable encounter had actually brought him a few moments of pleasure, despite the gloomy aspects of his recollections.

* * *

Two weeks later, when he was already back home in his small apartment, he received a message informing him of the exact day and hour the programme featuring the interview would be broadcast. He almost counted the seconds of the two days that separated him from this renewed “media attention.”

When the moment came, he was ensconced in his comfy chair in front of his TV, ready to record the programme so that he might watch it again whenever he felt the need. The feature started off with an aerial view of the Torremolinos beach, with the spaceship stranded on the shoreline like a gigantic whale of steel.

It quickly became clear to him that this was not a programme on the Space Project of bygone days, but rather a promotional campaign for upcoming space-related attractions in Torremolinos. Images were shown of the town’s most extravagant hotels, bars and discos, either built in a ‘spacey’ style or decorated with typical aliens and space hardware. Young tourists were interviewed as they were shopping and buying space-related merchandise, and flashy announcements were made for a major new theme-park to be opened shortly.

Only snippets of the interview with him were used, scattered throughout the programme, and he had the feeling they were intended as comic relief rather than anything of a documentary nature. Especially his final line, “It hurts, but it doesn’t kill,” was repeated several times, like a sort of running gag.

The very sight of himself, sitting on the terrace with the typically ‘extraterrestrial’ artwork on the facade of Hotel Nostromo right behind him (why hadn’t he been aware of that at the time?), made him uncomfortable. They had used him. They had no interest in space, the Project, or his personal history. They had merely thought it would be nice if an old space scientist added a little spice to their feature.

James stopped recording the “documentary” after barely twenty minutes. He would never watch it again. This thinly disguised advertising campaign for Space Beach, interspersed with “fitting” commercials and fragments of his interview, held no interest for him.

He didn’t even watch the entire programme. No wonder they found no one willing to be interviewed, he thought. I should have known better. I’ll never tell them one more word. And I’ll never set foot in Torremolinos again. From now on I’ll spend my holidays elsewhere. Maybe I’ll even become a shepherd. Now wouldn’t that be appropriate.

He switched off the TV, rose from his chair and walked over to the window. The link with his past had finally been severed. Space Beach had lost a regular visitor and an old friend. No doubt the hordes of tourists would neither care nor notice, and the tycoons would keep reaping rich rewards. But man was still alone in the universe, and James could now feel that loneliness more sharply than ever.

He stared out of the window until twilight darkened the sky.

Copyright © 2007 by Frank Roger

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