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Happy New Year! As of January 1, I have two more short stories published and freely available to read online. The first, West Gate, can be found in Allegory. The second, Cottesloe Beach, is in The Waterhouse Review.
These two stories are the first I’ve ever been paid for, even if it is a small amount, and I’m very grateful to editors Ty Drago and Gavin Broom for finding my work good enough to compensate with legal tender. It’s a nice way to begin 2013, and hopefully by the end of the year I’ll find myself higher in the Google rankings than the South Carolina sex offender who shares my name.
Removed for publication – you can read the story, now renamed “Flight,” in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #43.
Hello, faithful reader! My short story “The City” is being published in the Autumn 2011 edition of online fiction magazine The Battered Suitcase. You can read it here for free online, or shell out a few dollars to download it to Kindle or iPad or whatever the kids are doing these days, or spend a few dollars more to order a print copy. Naturally this volume contains not just my own tale of amazement and delight, but those of many other writers.
This is the first short story I’ve had published in any kind of official capacity, which is a significant milestone for any writer. Unfortunately it’s also the last issue of the magazine, which can be traced directly back to you for not supporting the independent arts scene in the past. Shame, shame, shame.
I first started writing “The City” when I was living in Seoul, which was more than two years ago. It was accepted for publication in November 2010, which was nearly a year ago. I think I need to either start writing more stories, or ignore simultaneous submission prohibitions.
(Removed for publication)
“Homecoming” can be read for free online in Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction #40.
My final creative writing assignment, a short story of about nine thousand words. It’s an indirect sequel/prequel to The Planet’s Corpse, so if you haven’t read that already I suggest you do. Then report back here. Aren’t we having fun!
* * *
I was born on the 9th of Libra, 248. I am one hundred and eighteen years old and, at last count, the seventeenth oldest person in the system and the sixth oldest person born on Earth.
With every passing year my birthplace becomes more fascinating to people. It was very different when I first arrived here, when I was just a single soul among millions displaced by the Exodus. Back then, more than half the Martian population had been born on Earth, though most were immigrants from the mineral boom. Very few of them were Exodus refugees, and an even smaller amount were like me: traumatised, bewildered and incredibly lucky people who had been on Earth right up until the outbreak of the war and only managed to scramble to safety at the last second.
The trigger for the war was most certainly the eruption. Many modern historians argue that Earth was spiralling towards disaster one way or another, that it was already a world in crisis when the eruption occurred, but take it from somebody who was there: absolutely nothing changed the course of history quite like that. I simply woke up one morning to find that what the media dubbed a “supervolcano,” lurking beneath the Himalayas, had blown apart and killed tens of millions of people in India and Tibet.
It happened on August 6, 2094. I was fifteen years old. I skipped school that day, sitting at home with my family, all of us entranced by the minute-by-minute coverage. We watched footage of pyroclastic flows sweeping down into the Ganges river valley with frightening speed, wiping away trees and bridges and buildings. We saw satellite imagery of a swelling dark blotch over the subcontinent, twisting and expanding like an evil cyclone. Dehli and Islamabad and Kathmandu had been wiped off the map. In Beijing, in Singapore, in Dubai, ugly yellow sulphur and grey fumes blotted out the sun. My brother and I watched it as though it was just another exciting movie, while our parents exchanged grave looks behind us. “Don’t worry,” I remember my mother saying soothingly to my five-year old sister when she crawled into her lap, frightened and upset. “It’s on the other side of the world. Far away. It can’t hurt us.” But when the sun rose over our town the next day, it was with a dirty brown tinge. Krakatoa was nothing compared to the supervolcano.
The death toll from the eruption itself is impossible to calculate, as it is so overlapped with the events of the next few years, but modern estimates put it at nearly a billion. The Himalayan plateau was all but obliterated, and the surrounding nations suffered greatly from poisonous fumes, from agricultural failure in the unnatural darkness, from economic and social collapse. Asia was not a good place to be. China invaded and occupied Siberia in October. (I recall grainy footage of soldiers in gas masks pillaging rural villages, flecks of ash constantly wiped away from the camera lens by a gloved hand). Europe, inundated with refugees, soon closed her borders and guarded them with unrestrained military force. (I am sure you have seen the famous photograph of the MV Salaam, an Egyptian ferry torpedoed by the Hellenic Navy, children floundering and drowning in the wreckage). The United States, which for decades had been held together with red tape, propaganda and compulsory military service, began to fragment as California seceded, Canada reclaimed the North-West, and the government suspended elections indefinitely. (That immortal day in November: the Patriot Guard dispersing protesters in the National Mall, clouds of tear gas rising above the Capitol Dome, bodies lying in the streets among the abandoned placards and broken bottles, half-finished slogans spraypainted across Lincoln’s statue).
Against this backdrop of death, war and disorder, the Exodus had begun. Over the next five years and four months, more than one hundred million human beings would flee the Earth.
You may be surprised to know that leaving Earth was not on everybody’s mind. It is easy to look back with perfect hindsight, to assume that the last few years of the 21st century became a panicked rush to escape. But we had no idea what was coming. We assumed the atmosphere would clear itself of the ash and dust eventually (every day I rode my bike to school with a cloth wrapped around my mouth, the sun veiled and cold), that the wars and conflicts would sort themselves out, that life would go on as before. Leaving the planet was a popular option, but was by no means considered essential to survival. It was merely an adventurous investment into a better life, just as the pioneers of the eighteenth century had crossed the Atlantic to start over again in the virgin wilderness of North America. Nobody could look at the images from Mars, of the happy domed biomes, of the flourishing cities with their parks and rivers, and not feel a twinge of jealousy. They were also building such habitats on Earth, of course, underground sanctuaries that recreated not only pre-eruption conditions but pre-Industrial Revolution conditions: clean air, sparkling rivers, a happy hologram of a flawless blue sky. But Earth’s biomes were the exclusive domain of the upper tax bracket. Mars, on the other hand, was an exciting frontier where everybody lived in these beautifully modelled environments, where there was plenty of work, where a terraformed surface was just around the corner, ushering in a glorious future for all.
At least, that was the view that government and corporate propaganda encouraged, with happy Martian families waving out at us poor dying Terrans from every billboard, flash ad and bus flank we walked past. But it was common knowledge that conditions on Mars weren’t quite so rosy: refugee workers living in terrible conditions, UN security police clamping down on human rights, an increasingly violent resistance movement setting off bombs outside public offices. My mother was vehemently against our family emigrating off-world, no doubt because her friend’s son had been working in the uranium mines of Tharsis for five years and sent regular messages home gloomily describing how bad things were. My father dismissed these arguments, pointing out the disturbing turn our own government had taken, scapegoating minority groups and introducing conscription into the military police for all men turning eighteen, shipped off to the civil conflicts in the South Pacific. I spent many late nights with my ear pressed against the door of my father’s study, listening to their arguments slinging back and forth, ready to duck for cover into the stairwell at any minute lest one of them become so angry they should stalk right out of the room. I don’t think I was ever caught eavesdropping. I might be wrong. It was a long time ago.
In any case, my father eventually prevailed, with my mother begrudgingly conceding that I would soon be of military age, and that she had no wish for her eldest son to die in the half-flooded streets of Port Moresby or Suva. I was perfectly happy about this, and not just from my own desire not to be killed by a firebomb hurled by a rioting crowd. I had always been fascinated by space, growing up watching American science fiction shows on Saturday mornings, and as I’d grown older, my interest in shooting aliens in some distant nebula gradually transformed into a passion for engineering and aeronautics. In 2096 I dodged the draft by being accepted into a Commonwealth scholarship at Oxford University, one of the most prestigious on Old Earth, comparable today to Reeve or Marshall. I stood at the international airport with only a single suitcase, nervous and excited, listening to the departure calls for distant and exotic cities. I hugged each member of my family goodbye in turn before walking through the entry gate for the European terminal, my mother’s perfume still lingering in my nostrils, my little sister sitting atop my father’s shoulders and waving farewell with the furious energy of a child. It was the last time I ever saw them in person.
For the first time I flew in a plane. We grazed the upper edges of the atmosphere somewhere over the Indian Ocean, just south of the Maldives elevator. It had been dormant for two years, since the volcanic ejecta had fouled it beyond repair, the cars clinging to it silently like cicada husks on a tree trunk. The cable extended below us through the blurry grey air, and above us into the star-speckled darkness. The Australian businessman sitting next to me snorted at my wide-eyed amazement and ordered another scotch, but I ignored him, pressing my face up against the window and drinking it in. Despite everything that I’ve witnessed in the century between now and then, that motionless elevator cable remains one of the most spectacular things I have ever seen. If you went to that spot today, I don’t suppose it would look any different.
We landed at Stansted Airport on September 25, 2096, the same day Sacramento was nuked and the dreams of the Bear State secessionists drifted away on the jetstreams over the Sierra Nevada. England was a different world. There was more ash than I was used to, constantly building up in the street corners like snow, car headlights on at all hours of the day, people with masks on their faces when they stepped outside. Socially, politically, it felt more important. More central. My hometown had been a tiny nook of the planet where nothing but the ash could reach us. In London, however, there were refugees on every street corner, trash piling up in the alleyways, shanty towns in the parks and squares. I saw African children playing in the fountains of Trafalgar Square beneath the granite gaze of Lord Nelson, black-clad riot police pushing protestors away from Downing Street, strange religious cults holding prayer masses in Piccadilly Circus. A few days later I was riding the western maglev, following the muddy grey Thames upriver.
Semester began in October. Oxford was an oasis of calm, with the comforting solidity of age imbued in her gargoyles and echoing halls and antique bookshelves. They were celebrating the university’s thousandth anniversary when I arrived, and the reassurance I had felt when witnessing London’s venerable landmarks was further encouraged. Surely nothing could destroy this great legacy humanity had created, millennia of culture and art and science? Impossible. The Renaissance paintings in the Ashmoleon Museum, the Gutenberg Bible in the library, the stained glass of the Exeter College Chapel… these were unimaginably ancient, and had been through so much before this. I suddenly felt egotistical to assume that it would be my generation that would destroy the world. We had survived worse catastrophes. History was full of crises. The human race would recover.
In the Botanic Gardens, ash swirled and eddied in the wind, mixing with dead leaves around the skeletal trees.
I studied hard. Although I was generally more optimistic than I had been at home, having convinced myself that the human race would pull through yet again, I never relinquished my fundamental desire to fly through space. The more cynical part of me also argued that, perhaps, it might be prudent to watch the human race pull through from an extra-terrestrial vantage point. So I stayed committed to the family plan, speaking with my father at least once a week, organising funds and visas and paperwork. He was employed by Sumitomo, a Japanese transnational with major stakes in the mining industry on Mars. Ever since the eruption he had been using this position to apply for an off-world transfer. But waiting lists were long, and the space elevators could only take so many people per day. “At this point, we’ll be lucky to get there by 2100,” he said grimly on one frigid February morning in my first year, when I was holed up in my dormitory while a dirty grey blizzard screamed at the windowpanes.
“That’s not so far away,” I said, shivering in the cold, pulling my blankets further up around my shoulders. “It’ll be here before we know it.”
How true that turned out to be.
December 2099. The final month of the century. The final month of Earth. I was midway through the third year of my degree at that point, scoring excellent marks, one of the top students in my class. An opportunity arose for accredited field work over the Christmas holidays, on the American space elevator in Ecuador. I signed up immediately, along with a handful of other students who were more eager to gain field experience than to go home for turkey dinners. We boarded a plane on the 18th of December, the day after term ended, streaking south-west across the Atlantic.
Was there a sense of dread in those final days of Earth? Did people speak in sombre tones? Had there been so few applicants for the field trip because other students were desperate to get home to their families? Or do I apply that grave mood retrospectively, after a hundred years of historical dissection, of documentaries and movies and sims and novels? It was so long ago. I may have been there in person, but in the years that followed I was shaped and moulded by the zeitgeist just as easily as anyone else. For many years I was certain that sometime during my first year, I had been watching news of the riots in London sparked by the King’s house arrest, and had heard a fellow student remark: “Wanker never leaves the bloody palace anyway.” It was only recently that I happened to see a screening of the 2145 film Dance Of The Sugar Plums, and was startled to see one of the characters say the exact same line, in exactly the messy student dormitory I supposedly “remembered.” It was a sobering experience – especially since I don’t recall ever having seen the film when it was first released. How many of my memories are real? How many are imposters, absorbed subconsciously over the course of 97 years?
What I do remember, beyond a doubt, is intense media saturation. There were updates every few minutes on whichever hotspot was deemed the most interesting. Russian and Chinese troops clashing in the Ob river basin, burning towns and laying waste to industrial cities. American and European forces squabbling in the orbital realm above our heads, infringing on each other’s defence nets, warning shots, gunboat diplomacy. The perennial clashes between South Asian refugees and locals in Africa and Australia, governments in exile pleading for calm, displaced figureheads of nations that were buried under metres of ash. Even Mars received coverage as an interesting sideshow, where the massive five-year influx of people fleeing the dying Earth was causing trouble with the locals, where incompatible cultures had been thrown together by necessity, where the excessive infringement of freedoms was resulting in riots and curfews and assassinations. I spent the entire four-hour flight to South America scanning the net, reading reports from the BBC and Euronews and GDR. Until the captain announced that we were approaching Simon Bolivar International, I didn’t even realise we were over the continent.
Quito. The capital of Ecuador. Six million people crowded into an Andean valley, spilling out across the peaks and mountainsides, the smog and pollution mixing with the ever-present global ash cover. Only six years ago, on a clear day, I would have been able to see the space elevator as soon as I stepped off the plane: a shining silver cable, stretching down out of the blue sky to the anchoring citadel on Cayambe’s bare and rocky summit, its shadow cast over the city. Now, I could barely see twenty metres ahead of me.
Our field studies were being sponsored by BHX, the American engineering conglomerate that had built the elevator and had representatives in every major university in the English-speaking world, eager to snap up any fresh-faced young graduates. They put us up in a nice hotel in El Panecillo, an old city neighbourhood where a handful of Spanish colonial buildings stood like islands in an ocean of shopping malls, apartment buildings and multi-level freeways. It wasn’t a pleasant city; even in the two decades since the elevator had been completed, it was still struggling to cope with runaway population growth. Watanabe used to be like that, under that idiot mayor they had during the Calm. Millions of people clinging to a mountainside, inadequate housing, rampant poverty…
But it wasn’t Quito we were there to see. Every day our BHX representatives would take us up the winding service highway that spiralled around Cayambe, to the frigid and impregnable perch of the Citadel. With visitor passes clipped to our shirts, we were led through the departure terminals, down hallways and elevator shafts, out onto the catwalks suspended above the subterranean cargo bays. Below us were ranks of loading robots as big as Ferris wheels, transferring vacuum crates into elevator cars with their spidery legs, the roar of activity so loud that our guides had to shout to be heard. Every day they took us there to dispense facts and figures about the globe’s largest engineering project. It was managed by a trifecta of AIs developed by Caltech, BHX and the U.S. Department of Defence. It was nicknamed the “Stairway to Heaven” after some old song from the 20th century. It generated 67% of Ecuador’s GDP. Those three facts have stuck in my mind. One of the quirks of the human brain, I suppose. I may not be able to remember my mother’s face, but I can certainly tell you pointless trivia about an old aerospace megastructure.
What I was looking forward to most was our scheduled trip up the elevator itself to Liberty Station, that marvelous, gargantuan space terminal that had been immortalised in so many films and serials. Squeezing that into the program of our visit had been no mean feat, and was only accomplished after a lot of pressure from Exeter College’s engineering faculty. The elevator was packed every day, with rich or influential or just plain lucky refugees arriving from every corner of the world, hurling nearly a hundred people off the planet with every passing hour. It had been operating around the clock for the last five years, along with the European elevator in Kenya and the Chinese elevator in Sumatra. The Indian elevator had suffered from ash failure very early on, while the other three space powers raced to find a solution to protect their own vital links to the other worlds from the volcanic miasma creeping across the atmosphere. They had succeeded, all finding different solutions, the details of which I won’t go into. Suffice to say that their success resulted in the preservation of a hundred million human lives who would never have otherwise escaped Earth – including, of course, my own.
Our trip was scheduled for the 24th of December. On that day, at about seven o’ clock in the morning, I spoke with my father for the last time. Back home it was just past midnight, and he was sitting at the coffee table in the dark living room, speaking quietly so as not to wake the rest of the house. Half a dozen screens were open before him, filled with application forms and employment grants and all the other bureaucratic red tape necessary to transport a human family off-world.
I remember that image well. The lights of the Christmas tree were blinking in the corner, the family cat was curled up asleep on the armchair, and there were three stockings hung from the mantelpiece above the empty fireplace. One for my brother, one for my sister, and one for me. It was family tradition, even though I had been away from home for three years.
My father was stressed and tired. The Sumitomo grant had fallen through, erasing any chance we had of leaving Earth in the next five years. Our next best option would be a UN application, but most of those were going to the displaced South Asians whom Australia and South Africa and Kenya were trying to get rid of. I tried to remain cheerful, told him about the BHX reps I’d been talking to, who were watching the Oxford team closely for potential employees. If I could get a foot in the door, maybe end up working on the American elevator… vague hopes, naive speculation, but it lifted his spirits a little. I told him to go to bed, wished him Merry Christmas, closed the window and never saw him again.
Two hours later I was walking through the departure terminal of the Citadel, bypassing long queues of refugee families, having my passport scanned with the rest of my group, and being ushered into an elevator car with the BHX reps. It was one of the company’s new private models, designed to transport business executives up to Liberty in comfort and style. There was a small restaurant, an observation lounge and even a bar. By comparison, the regular models were ten-storey towers designed to carry upwards of three hundred people, produced shortly after the eruption to accommodate the skyrocketing emigration numbers. It was like comparing a private yacht with a container ship, and we were ecstatic to be provided with such luxury. We took quick advantage of the free drinks and were soon gathered on the observation deck, clapping each other drunkenly on the back and excitedly shouting, “I can’t believe we’re going to Liberty!”
There were seven other students on the trip, and one professor. I can’t remember any names or faces. I was the only person on that car who would be alive by the end of the week.
We were treated to spectacular views: the snowy spine of the Andes range, the tropical blues and greens of the Amazon, the azure-fringed Brazilian coast, the plains and deserts of Argentina. As the elevator cable dragged us higher, our view expanded ever further, across the dark Atlantic, up past the Caribbean islands to the grey urban sprawl of the American east coast. It was completely fake, a hologram based on pre-eruption recordings. What we really would have seen, had the hologram been removed, was nothing but grey. Just the same as if we were staring out of our hotel room in Quito. Nonetheless, we enjoyed it immensely for the first three hours of the ride.
During the fourth hour, the war broke out.
The causes of the 72-Hour War, or the Christmas War, or the Apocalypse, or whatever you want to call it, are a perpetual guessing game. Talk to a different historian and they will give you a different catalyst. The Chinese use of chemical weapons in Novosibirsk is a popular one. So is the seizure of Turkish civilian vessels by a Russian Navy frigate in the Black Sea. Fernando Loubet, a Gannish writer with some interesting theories, argues for a glitch in the American defence network that made it appear as though a thousand nuclear missiles were spearing down across the Midwest from orbital weapons platforms. Of course, it all dated back to the supervolcano. Or to the first Sino-Russian conflict. Or to the Cold War. Or to the first caveman who used a bone to hit another caveman. Whatever the cause, what I know is this: I was happily drunk, climbing up the space elevator into orbit, my childhood dream finally realised, when the first reports came in over the net and my world collapsed.
As I remember it, it was the BHX reps who first informed us, rushing up to the observation deck in a panic. The gravity of the situation didn’t connect with me, at first, until I tried to check the net to verify their story and found that I couldn’t, and a sick, nauseous feeling of horror descended on me. For my entire life, I had taken the net for granted. Everybody did, and still does. We are raised in a media-saturated culture, and even three or four seconds of down-time from any major outlet will result in tens of thousands of complaints. To have the entire net simply stop working was disturbing in itself. What it implied was greater still.
As all of us frantically tried to bring up news feeds, or open a transmission, or contact our families, we found that some connections still worked. They were tenuous and flimsy, prone to cut out suddenly, but they were there. Evacuation alerts. Religious broadcasts. Die hard newsreaders. A glimpse of a world plunged into chaos. Smart bombs tumbling down through the atmosphere. Orbital troops clashing, corpses spilling out of breaches in battleships, robotic drones gunning down refugees. Europe swathed in nuclear detonations. Entire cities and provinces set alight. I imagined the ancient stonework of Oxford, incinerated in a searing blast of white heat.
The hologram was turned off. The wall-to-wall windows of the observation deck, a roomy bubble atop the elevator, showed the truth for the first time in five years. We were leaving the atmosphere now, the ash thinning out, and through the gloomy murk below us we could see the dimly flickering trails of inter-continental missiles, dispatched from the American heartland to murder a few million people in the crowded cities of the Brazilian Federation. Higher still, and we could see the four-way orbital war that was being fought on the border between grey and blue: the munitions released from weapons platforms, the phosphorous gleam of military stations on high alert, the silent orange blossoms as warships broke open into the vacuum and vomited out sprays of furniture and paper and bodies.
Soon everyone onboard the car was standing on the observation deck, watching the carnage being played out all around us. Cooks, security guards, bartenders. Most people were working feverishly with their computers, trying to get through to their families. Some people were weeping, or shouting in rage, or lying there in blank shock. I was sitting quietly, overwhelmed with sheer disbelief. The more I stared out through the windows, the less I could accept what my eyes showed me.
We were only two hours away from Liberty Station when Galileo Point was hit, either by a Russian surface missile or an American sabotage team, depending on who was telling the story. We didn’t actually see the explosion, since Galileo Point was at the end of the Kenyan elevator and thus on the other side of the globe. But it was one of the few tidbits of news that leaked through the crippled net, and sent everybody into hysterics. It suddenly felt as though we were being hauled up our own elevator into a ticking time bomb.
With its counterweight gone, hurtling off through the void (where it would eventually take up solar orbit just inside the vulcanoid belt, and eventually be reclaimed by a Mercurian tourism company as a stopover for passing cruise liners) the European elevator cable came crashing down through the atmosphere. It laid waste to western Africa, dropped huge chunks of platinum alloy into the Atlantic Ocean, and unleashed tidal waves to devastate every coastal city that hadn’t already been rendered a smoking, glass-rimmed crater. The upper reaches burned away to nothing as they plunged through the atmosphere, along with the thousands of falling cars and their occupants. A good thing, too, or it might have hit our own elevator cable.
We arrived at Liberty Station and quickly left the car in a dazed, disorderly mess. Some people had developed the idea that we were incredibly lucky to have been outward bound when the war started, and should leave the neighbourhood as soon as we made it to the station. I went along with them, confused and disoriented. Had I been thinking clearly I probably would have wanted to stay on Liberty, refusing to leave Earth without my family; as it was, I clung to any leadership that presented itself.
I had no idea what to expect upon our arrival. Grinning American troops directing everybody to evacuation ships, a Red Cross worker handing me a care package and cup of warm soup. Or maybe Chinese and Indian soldiers, waging a battle for control of the station, refugees ripped apart in the crossfire. Neither was true. Liberty Station was like everything else on or around Earth during those monumental three days: a chaotic, violent mess. Nearly all the vessels docked at the station had fled as soon as the war had broken out; lifeboats leaving half-empty, in accordance with human tradition. Thousands of refugees were now stranded at the tip of ten thousand kilometres of elevator cable, the ultimate dead-end, with nowhere to go except back down to Earth. More were arriving every hour.
What occurred next was one of those great, courageous strokes of humanitarian brilliance, as famous as the Dunkirk Evacuation or the Valigrad Rescue. It’s taught to every Martian schoolchild, and has been related to us over and over again in every imaginable medium – my personal favourite is Petra Thorpe’s 2126 film Final Flight of the Athena, on which I served as a technical advisor.
The situation facing us was bleak. The only ships left at Liberty were those unable to fly – crippled, mid-service or awaiting decommission. The largest of these was the Athena, one of about twelve heavy lifters built during the mineral boom to transport massive amounts of workers between Earth and Mars. The Athena was the last of her fleet, awaiting dismantling for parts and scrap metal, already deactivated and with some of her systems removed. She was attached to a docking cradle visible from the main concourse of the station. Her carrying capacity was five thousand.
Leadership emerged. It always does. A team of security personnel, station marines and members of the engineer corps moved into the Athena and began to repair her, working non-stop, gutting the other remaining ships for supplies and replacement parts. All the while, the war was still raging below us and around us. Distant explosions at the cusp of the Earth’s curve would momentarily bathe Liberty with light, while Indian and European fighter jets screamed past us locked in combat, swooping between the docking cradles and long arms of the construction cranes. While our saviours worked, the rest of us waited, terrified and exhausted and tense.
It was around this time that my memory fails me. The shock and trauma of what was happening was taking its toll. I was a sheltered upper-class youth, never having been exposed to so much as a fistfight, and suddenly I had been swept along on the tide of the largest war in history.
I have a single memory from Liberty Station that I remember well, like a spot of clarity in a foggy window. It was early on, while I was still with some of my fellow students. We were on an observation deck, crowded up against the window with lots of other people, watching the distant flashes and flickers of the orbital battles.
Suddenly there were screams, a sense of aggression. It was a brawl between two groups – American security personnel and Brazilian workers – but the fear and hysteria spread like a contagion until the whole crowd was dangerous. Amidst the crackle of tasers, the makeshift weapons smashed against security visors, the screams for help in dozens of languages, I was knocked to the floor. Something hit me in the head and my vision instantly blurred. Through the trampling feet and falling bodies, I caught a glimpse of one of my classmates, a girl with red hair, being stepped on, a security guard with heavy boots crushing her neck as he swung his baton at an assailant. I reached out for her before something slammed into my head again, and I collapsed.
When I woke up, the observation deck was deserted. The carpet around me was littered with broken glass and splashed with blood. There were a few other prone bodies. Somebody had taken my wallet and computer. All of my classmates were gone.
That was Liberty, for me. That was the anarchy that raged in the main body of the station, even as a few plucky heroes were crawling across the hull of the Athena with spacesuits and multitools. Worse things happened than that – rape, murder, violence of all kinds. Liberty Statio was the largest space station ever constructed, with casinos and restaurants and bars and hotels, but with half the population of Ecuador flooding up the elevator it was becoming crowded very quickly. The fact that many of these people came from Quito’s multicultural melting pot, representatives of all the nations across the world that were now ripping each other apart, didn’t help the situation.
After the fight on the observation deck, I never saw any of my classmates again. I wandered through the malls and esplanades of the station, hungry and alone and miserable. I would flee from the smallest sign of tension, take shelter from fights in the looted stores and obscure utility rooms with other quiet groups of survivors. I wasn’t involved in the repair of the Athena, or any leadership role at all. Because I’m famous now, people assume I was, but at the time I was a twenty-one year-old nobody with red eyes and a fractured skull, shuffling feebly amongst the crowds, weeping for the girl with the red hair, whose face I can no longer remember.
But all the squabbling and fighting and violence came to a halt on Christmas morning, when the Citadel was vapourised by a fusion warhead, along with the summit of Cayambe and the entire Quito metropolitan area. We didn’t even realise that, until we noticed that the station was drifting away from Earth, trailing the cable behind it.
I don’t remember it happening, or what I felt, or how everyone else reacted. Benjamin Urrutia wrote in his memoirs that people reacted with a collective sigh of relief, glad to have been cut free of the conflict, unaware that being adrift in outer space was hardly a better scenario. Jorge Jamarillo, on the other hand, claims that the terror and panic intensified as people saw the grey circle of Earth slowly grow smaller, likening the feeling to being dragged below the ocean’s surface, losing sight of the light and the air. Take your pick as to who’s right, because I certainly can’t remember. I was beyond gone, then, my mind shutting down from sheer grief and terror.
There were roughly 7600 people on Liberty Station when it was cut loose. Eight hours later the Athena was finally declared spaceworthy and every single one of us was hustled aboard, abandoning the drifting space station to achieve escape velocity and leave the solar system. It’s headed for the star 70 Virginis, and by now it’s travelled about four and a half light years, or one twelfth of the way. By the year 3300 it should either crash into it, swing past it, or fall into orbit and become a new satellite. Like I said, I don’t remember much of it, but I’ve walked through it plenty of times in the sims since the war, and it’s a hell of a place. The sims don’t cover the devastation, of course – they don’t have the dead bodies or the smashed shopfronts or the view of mass homicide out the windows – but if there’s any aliens living in the Virgo constellation, it should still be pretty astounding for them.
So we bade farewell to Liberty Station and set off on the glorious Flight of the Athena, seven thousand people crammed onto a leaky ship with jury-rigged life support systems, untrained crew, barely suppressed ethnic tension and a seething atmosphere of terror. Our self-elected leader was a Canadian security captain named Stephen Abatzi, who took charge with a natural air of authority. He later emigrated to Europa and became a high-ranking general, which got him killed during the Jovian War. He was a brilliant man – although I never met him, I was always very much in awe of him. It was his decision to press on to Mars rather than turn back to Luna, which was only about two days away. It turned out to be a wise decision indeed, for the war was already spilling over onto Luna, and less than half the moonbound refugees made it off that bare and desolate rock alive. Abatzi was of the opinion that it would be safer to resupply at an asteroid enroute to Mars rather than turn back towards the war zone, and he was absolutely right.
Through a stroke of sheer luck, Mars and Earth were virtually in conjunction at the time of the war, reducing a journey that would otherwise have taken half a year to only six weeks. With the vessel overloaded by twenty per cent, we were burning through water and oxygen fast, and Abatzi immediately charted a course for the nearest settled asteroid. My memory of that time melts together into an endless stream of lying in crowded corridors, listening to my fellow refugees talking in Spanish, babies crying, the stink of sweat and unwashed bodies. I knew that my family was dead, but that minor grief was swallowed whole by the terrible certainty that Earth was too. After Boxing Day, we heard no broadcasts from Earth, only cries for help from the overwhelmed lunar stations, and talk of revolution and independence from Mars.
Earth was gone.
I didn’t cope very well. As I mentioned earlier, I have trouble remembering the events clearly because I was simply no longer functioning. I slept, lying in a corridor or storeroom with dozens of other people. I ate, whenever the security guards would distribute our carefully rationed food. I went to the bathroom, which was about as fun as you might imagine in an overcrowded spaceship that had no time for luxuries like hygiene. But my mental state was completely blank.
There are limits to what the human mind can take. I had reached mine. I was, like so many of the people around me, sinking into a catatonic condition.
Meanwhile, many storeys above my head, Abatzi and his people were on the flight deck working around the clock. They were monitoring communications, watching the sensor trails of other vessels, guarding the ship’s supplies from the ravenous hordes of refugees below who had no concept of rationing. They were stressed and scared and exhausted, but they were doing everything in their power to get us to Mars. Abatzi addressed us over the PA every twenty-four hours. “We are still alive,” he said. “We have come through the most terrible chapter in human history. We have had to face the unthinkable. We have had to accept that Earth, the cradle of civilisation, the mother world, has died. But humanity has not. Humanity lives on, in the asteroid belt, on Mars, on the moons of Jupiter. Even as the bombs were coming down from orbit, there were humans in scientific vessels enroute to Uranus and Neptune. Humanity will recover. Humanity is still alive. We are standing at the next great step of human achievement. And I swear that I will get you to Mars, and that we will survive – all of us – to see it happen.”
He wasn’t the best orator, but he had more important things to worry about than keeping our morale up. Like keeping our oxygen levels and water supplies up.
The asteroid he eventually picked to accomplish this was Adonis. It was being used as a labour camp, like hundreds of other asteroids in those days, mostly for political prisoners and enemies of the state. There were about six hundred convicts there, mostly Americans, and when we arrived on the 6th of January they were engaged in a power struggle against the fifty or so well-armed guards. The same scenes were being played out all over the asteroid prisons in the days following the 72-Hour War: guards vs. convicts, the victors earning a long, lonely wait to die out on the border of nowhere.
We cut a deal with the convicts as soon as we came into the asteroid’s orbit, agreed to take the prison guards to Mars in exchange for the supplies we needed to get there. The prisoners were free to remain on the asteroid, to create whatever new society they wanted, and we were free to travel to a world that actually had a future. Everyone was happy. There were problems, naturally, mostly relating to the fact that we needed far more supplies than the prisoners were willing to give us. After haggling for several days Abatzi decided that we were running out of time and sanctioned the use of force. A lot of them were killed, and the asteroid’s main nuclear reactor was damaged in the fighting, triggering a meltdown. The fight was immediately forgotten as convicts, guards and Abatzi’s makeshift militia all fled the tunnels of Adonis and crammed onto the Athena, which was now blasting off from its second radioactive wasteland in two weeks. The prisoners were understandably upset about the fact that they were now heading for a planet which looked like it might end up being controlled by the same powers who’d had them imprisoned in the first place, so there was an attempted coup, and they managed to seize control of the flight deck for a few hours. It might as well have been happening on another ship as far as I was concerned; the Athena was huge, and I was lost somewhere in the bleak mass of fragile souls scattered about the lower decks. Abatzi’s people soon regained control and executed the ring-leaders. Then it was only a month to Mars.
When we came into orbit around our new home, the Second Revolution was still in full swing. The UN holdouts, stubborn representatives of nations that no longer existed, controlled several major cities. Resistance fighters and government troops were openly clashing in the streets and the outback. Martan Pearse was broadcasting passionate speeches to the people from his hideout in the caldera of Elysium Mons. There was nobody to greet us or help us, nobody to intercept us and provide us with a safe landing and medical treatment. Quite the contrary: after we set our own approach vector and cautiously descended through the pink Martian atmosphere, intending to land at Manakh Interplanetary, an orbital weapons platform shot us out of the sky.
It was a UN station, but it had been commandeered by the resistance. I don’t look kindly on that, obviously, but there were worse atrocities in that war, and I can understand their motives. The Martians were in the midst of a tsunami of refugees from Earth, swamping their delicate infrastructure, at the same time that they were clashing with old Terran power-brokers in a fight for their emerging national identity and ultimate freedom. Jingoism and anti-Terran sentiment, always popular themes among native Martians, were now running at an all-time high. Especially after the majority of refugee vessels, dropping out of the sky in the last six weeks like so many raindrops, had included equipment and weapons and soldiers that automatically supported the UN.
So our entry into our new home was appropriately dramatic: searing down through the florid dawn sky over the cratered plains of Terra Cimmeria, the ship’s hull burning up, the thousands of refugees inside pinned to the walls by the g-forces. Now that, I do remember – trapped inside a labyrinth of human limbs in whatever dark sub-corridor I’d happened to be in at the time, straining for breath, my vision greying out as the blood was drawn away from my eyeballs.
And then the impact.
I’d lived through one apocalypse. This was my second. Cracking a sonic boom across the thin Martian air, the Athena ploughed through nearly twelve kilometres of rusty desert before finally coming to rest at the end of a smouldering tail of debris that stretched beyond the horizon. My legs and my spine were broken. Many of those around me were dead. My last memory, before blacking out, was the remarkable silence around me – after the agonising roar of the ship’s hull being scrubbed across the landscape at hundreds of kilometres an hour, the occasional distant scream or the muffled whimpering of my fellow refugees sounded very quiet indeed.
When I woke up, five months had passed. The Second Revolution had ended while I was in a coma. The resistance had stamped out the infighting in its own ranks, gutted the Mangala Tong, and seized firm control of the planet. Martan Pearse had been sworn in as the provisional President of Mars, and given his famous speech signalling the beginning of the Humanity Project. Thousands of people – statesmen, soldiers, refugees, politicians, scientists, journalists – had congregated in Agassiz to draft the Martian Constitution. All while I had been fighting for my life in the reconstruction ward of a hospital in Manakh.
After the Athena had crash-landed, it had taken three hours for the local UN forces – Manakh was still under their control at that point – to scramble a recovery team out for the survivors. There were very few. Out of more than 8000 people onboard the Athena, only 425 survived the crash. Nearly all of us were grievously injured, destined to spend months, years or even entire lifetimes in that hospital. I was there for 22 months, having my new spine spawned and calibrated, going through mental trauma counselling, learning to walk again. The hospital was at the edge of what would one day become Crescent Bay. I could look out my window and see the terraforming works in Hellas Basin, the city-sized gas platforms crawling across the encroaching sea of ice, throwing up huge plumes of steam and boiling water as they dragged the moisture out of the earth, growing an ocean from scratch. It was a view I needed, at that point in my life.
I was eventually judged fit to leave, although they were wrong about that. I may have been able to walk but I certainly wasn’t capable of entering normal society, healthy and whole. I suffered from nightmares, nervous breakdowns, and flashbacks for years to come. I spent more than a decade wandering around Mars, working here and there, sometimes for the resettlement programs and sometimes off the books. People say the Calm was a noble time, an optimistic period of history when people realised what they could accomplish by working together. That’s what children are taught in school. Perhaps it was like that, for some people. Not for me. Not for any refugee. We were treated as second-class citizens in those days – don’t ever let them whitewash that one out of the history books – and we had our own trauma to deal with. I did foolish things in my grief. I got into fights. I became involved with some bad people. I ended up addicted to wire, a homeless dreg sleeping underneath bridges. It was a long, long time before I could feel good about life again.
The Athena is still there. Her wreck has been lying out in western Cimmeria for nearly a hundred years now. It’s a pretty remote spot, so it’s not as tourist-infested as it might be otherwise. The forest grew up through it during the terraforming, right through the breached hulls and empty rooms. The rest of the ship is covered with grasses and flowers and vines, and there are entire flocks of birds and troops of monkeys living in it. Unless you saw it from afar you wouldn’t even recognise it as a spaceship.
I’ve been there a few times, most recently in the eighties. I didn’t like it the first few times. It triggered bad memories. But after a while bad memories just become… memories. It seems odd to say that I miss that time. It was a terrible, traumatic, dangerous, horrifying time in my life. But as the decades slip past, as I become one of the only people who still remembers it, as it become less and less important… it just seems sad. It may have been horrifying, but it was also incredible and amazing. I was no participant; just a passive observer. And yet I observed the most massive and unbelievable events in human history, on such a grand scale…
I live in a dull world now. I have for far too long – a world of meetings and minutes, of suits and ties, of paperwork and government regulation and funding reports. I moved out here to get away from all of that, but it leaves me far too alone with my memories. I moved on from those days, spiritually and emotionally, a long time ago. But lately… lately I’ve been missing them.
Lately I’ve been missing Earth.
* * *
Short story, first draft. Not demanded by any creative writing unit; personal choice. Experiment of sorts. Slightly different from what I usually write – taking miniscule steps towards more serious fiction. Ambitious, for me, and potentially an embarassing failure.
It was oh so beautiful when he arrived. Jupiter swelled slowly in the bow windows of the ship like a slowly ripening fruit ringed by tiny moons and faintly visible rings. He would spend days staring at it, sitting on the couches of the observation deck and playing his guitar, looking through his own pale reflection in the glass. Then one morning they had suddenly arrived, and the beige and crimson bands were painting half the sky as the ship ran a cat’s cradle through the Galilean moons to decelerate, eventually slowing to a halt in an enormous cradle at Jupiter Junction as the thousands of passengers spilled out in an excited frenzy after a two week voyage.
Jerome filed down the connecting tube with his guitar case strapped to his back, into the aggressive whirlpool of humanity in the system’s largest spaceport. It was a miniature city, with thousands of permanent inhabitants and ten times that many travellers: tourists, backpackers, spacers, liner captains, pilgrims, migrant workers, thespians and more, streaming in and out of the glitzy stores and cafes, beneath arrival and departure boards, past floor-to-ceiling glastic windows that gave a view of the titanic interplanetary freighters being gently pulled into cradles by tugs, tiny little things flicking around them like flies on a cow. In one short stroll down the main concourse, Jerome passed an antique bookstore, a holo model of the Jovian system, a nightclub called the Cabaret Voltaire and a newsagent with dozens of colourful headline tickers scrolling through the air above the counter. He brushed shoulders with a drunken crew of Ionic spacers chatting noisily to each other in Bengali, a slick Venusian businessman trailed by a broad-shouldered bodyguard, a troupe of Japanese Buddhists from the lonely monastery on Carpo, and dozens of others, each face distinctively ethnic, each set of clothes marking a territory, each person with a story and desire and destination. All this activity, this clamour, encapsulated inside a blossom of steel and glastic rotating around Jupiter just inside the orbit of Io – a mouldy, sulphiric circle just visible through the windows, cresting past the father planet. Beyond the long docking arms, the busy cradles, the bulk of the liners and freighters, all one could see was Jupiter. Red and white and brown and beige, the darkness of space a memory, the constellations blotted out. It felt as though they were in the atmosphere itself.
He bought a ticket for a shuttle to Ganymede, after some fumbling with passports and visas at the outbound service desk, a problem that cost him an extra forty dollars to fix and held up an increasingly impatient crowd behind him, muttering under their breath in French and Spanish. The shuttle was a budget service, but the windows still provided an unforgettable view. Jetting out of the station, swinging past the frozen surface of Europa, dotted with landing pads and throbbing beacons marking the position of elevators that plunged through the ice and subsurface oceans, into the magnificent undersea metropolises that thrived a hundred kilometres below. Cruising for hours across the star-splattered gulf between moons, Saturn a distant point of light like a storm of pure energy squeezing through a pinhole from another world. Then approaching Ganymede – a ring of solar panels and gigantic equatorial mirrors, some hundreds of kilometres across, amplifying distant sunlight and projecting it onto the watery surface. Ganymede had been covered in ice, once, much like Europa – but while the Europans had maintained their ice layer to live beneath, a welcome shelter from Jupiter’s radiation, Ganymede had the luxury of distance. It was far enough from the gas giant that its people could live free on the surface. They had melted the ice, a century-long terraforming project, drawing on the expertise and technology developed by the great Martian dream, metamorphasising Ganymede into a world of pure ocean. There were cities down there, sprawling collections of millions of people, with supporting pylons of carbon nanotubes that plummeted hundreds of kilometres down to the ocean’s bedrock, built and maintained by swarms of tiny robot drones with spotlights and soldering tools and infra-red vision, safely exploring depths that would crush a human to the size of a guinea pig. There were smaller cities that roamed free, enormous ships in a way, riding across the planet’s overwhelmingly huge waves and travelling wherever they pleased, from the balmy equatorial tropics with their resort cities and artificial archipelagos, to the frigid polar ice caps populated by whaling ships and fishing trawlers, stopping sometimes at the larger cities for festivals and special occasions. A stately minuet, hundreds of moving cities, ringing around their immobile elder brothers. The shuttle dropped down through the atmosphere (blue sky, and clouds!) towards the capital city, a glorious tiered island of glittering white buildings, flashes of greenery from parks and gardens, a halo of colourful airships, a thousand flags and pennants snapping in the wind. New Rheims, the pride of Ganymede.
The city looked less pleasant at ground level. The spaceport squatted in an outrigger district, an industrial zone where smog was thick in the air and the buildings were heavy steel, oozing mould and caked with salt and rust. Leaving the air-conditioned, sterilised bubble of the spaceport and walking into a gloomy district populated by construction workers and factory hands was uncomfortably jarring. Jerome took a walk along a deserted seaside street, watching rubbish floating on the slick of grime that coated the waves and slopped up against the rocks. Out in the distance, about fifty kilometres from where he stood, was the city’s seawall. It was a barrier of sheeting a few molecules thick, strong enough to withstand anything. A translucent globe encasing the entire city. It would have been invisible except for the waves slamming into it, some of them hundreds of metres tall. Ganymede’s gravity was about half a g, much stronger than it used to be thanks to the dozens of miniature black holes that had been dropped down into the moon’s core, and even slightly unpleasant for his Martian bones, but still light enough to allow gargantuan waves to build up, especially when the entire world was covered in ocean. Past the barrier he could make out the shapes of enormous ships, megatankers and cargo bulkers and mobile fisheries, so huge that at first he mistook them for landforms. He watched them for a long time, feeling the wind in his hair, listening to the seagulls screech and scream and pick apart old food packets. Then he opened a map of New Rheims on his computer, and walked to the nearest train station. In the distance, a tail of black smoke was wafting up from somewhere deep in the city.
Jerome sat by a window seat on a crowded train, winding and spiralling through the hemispheric bulk of the city, one of a thousand snakes gliding between the innumerable levels and streets and arrondissements. There was a thick hubbub of conversation, agitated, some people looking worried or frightened, but he ignored it. He did not speak French and his computer had difficulty translating intelligible sentences when too many people were talking, so he switched it off. Instead, he stared out the window with childlike amazement, watching patches of New Rheims flash past. It was a very, very different place from Elysium City, which was all dizzying towers and neon lights and transparent skybridges, impossible to tell night from day for the shadow of the caldera walls and the ever-present glow of the city lights. New Rheims was old – or, at least, it pretended to be old and Jerome accepted the fantasy, for deep down he knew that most things on Ganymede had less than half a century in them. But the planners and architects and artisans had known what beauty was, and made sure their city indulged in them with typical French pleasure and pride, so that for every titanic skyscraper and shimmering holoboard and glitzy shopping mall there was a shady park, or a leafy cemetary, or the ivy-covered stonework of a university.
The train eventually slid into the long grooves and platforms of the central station, located just underneath the apex of the city, where the whole enormous metropolitan dome rose up to the zoos and ponds and gardens of the Parc Roux, with the great bronze statue of Charlemagne rising above the stands of willow trees like a glimmering topaz set in Ganymede’s crown. In the brightly lit cavern of the train station, Jerome emerged blinking and disoriented with thousands of other people, businessmen and homeless junkies, attractive young school students and distinguished looking elderly couples, construction workers with fluerescant vests, transit guards with jolt batons dangling at their waists. Everybody had a purpose, streaming like bees towards their exit gates or next train. Jerome wandered, listening and watching, exploring the station. He stopped at an ATM to exchange his Martian dollars for Gannish francs, and bought a small pizza from a trackside vendor. After a while he had to use the toilet. He found one underneath an escalator leading up to a newsagent, and stepped inside.
Yellow tiles, gentle lighting, the pine needle smell of disinfectant. Jerome took his guitar case off, leaned it against the wall and unbuttoned his fly, standing over the urinal. Before he was finished the door swung open again and two men entered, both of them his age, yelling and arguing with each other. They had wild tattoos of red and green across their faces, and hair with glittering silver threads, braided with beads and trinkets. Jerome’s translator was still switched off, but in this case he could tell more from body language and tone than he ever could have from words. He finished, picked up his guitar case, and started walking towards the door. One of the men was pouring something into a hand basin, as he passed the other looked up at him and growled something. Jerome quickened his pace, but the man stepped towards him and made to push him. Jerome was ready for it and swung his guitar case like a weapon – that had worked once before, against thugs in EC – but the man pushed it aside and shoved an open-palmed fist into Jerome’s face. He fell back, teeth chipped, mouth bleeding. The man swung another fist, and kicked him as he sank backwards against the wall and collapsed into the urinal trench, clutching at his ribs. His guitar case fell to the floor with a dull thud. The man leant down, his red-coated face leering at Jerome, and tried to pry the backpack from around his shoulders, but Jerome clung tight. Even with his blood seeping onto the toilet floor and his ribs broken, he wouldn’t let go of the backpack. The other man yelled something, a noise warped and fractured to Jerome’s ears. The first gave up on the backpack, and instead pilfered some loose cash from Jerome’s pockets. Then he grabbed the guitar case and slammed a booted heel down into Jerome’s temple.
When Jerome woke up, he was still lying on the bathroom floor, blood congealed in his mouth, chest searing with every breath. A man with a wrinkled face was standing by a cart full of mops, buckets and cleaning agents; two transit guards were also there, one of them speaking into his computer and the other kneeling down beside Jerome. The kneeler snapped on a pair of plastic gloves and probed at his tmple wound, saying something in French. “I… I speak English,” Jerome said, and then unconsciously reached up to his neck and switched his translator back on. The guard talked again, the translator automatically speaking over him. “Stay still,” it announced in its tailored, Reeve-educated Martian accent. “A doctor is on the way. Just stay still.”
Jerome spent some time in the train station’s security offices, staring through the venetian blinds at the ebb and flow of passengers throughout the lunch hour. A doctor arrived and gave him some painkillers, but for legal reasons could not treat his minor injuries until the police arrived to document the mugging. They were taking a very long time. One of the transit guards who had helped him said that there had been a terrorist bombing in the city earlier that day, killing a government minister and many others, and that the police were very busy. He then went back to his paperwork. The doctor was also aloof, checking on him briefly and then returning to his medico. Jerome suspected the Gannish were irritated by his exclusive use of the computer to speak with them, and it irritated him in turn. Every Gannish student he’d ever met at the Institute had spoken solely through a translator. He watched the clock on the wall tick past one o’clock, two o’clock, and three o’clock. His injuries hurt, but he refused to get up and go to the desk, ask the transit guard to call the doctor back or at least give him some more painkillers. He wasn’t even sure why he was waiting for the police. The muggers were long gone, with his money and guitar. At least he still had his backpack, with some clothing, and the capsule. He had checked to make sure the capsule had not broken open, which of course it had not, and then replaced it, trying to quash the selfish voice which sullenly wished that they had taken the capsule and left the guitar.
The police finally arrived at four thirty, a man and a woman in navy blue uniforms golden badges on their sleeves and guns holstered at their belts. He made a statement, described what had happened, and they recorded it. The doctor was called back to fix his broken ribs, chipped tooth and bloody mouth, which took only a few minutes. The police asked him how long he had been on Ganymede, where he was from, checked his passport. They searched his backpack, and Jerome saw the female officer’s eyes light up when she saw the vacuum capsule. As though customs wouldn’t have noticed a kilogram of illegal drugs. As though the cross etched on the plastic didn’t make it obvious what it contained. She opened it anyway, and closed it again in disappointment. “Who?” she asked, and Jerome replied that it was none of her business. They left without making any promises about finding his attackers.
Jerome left the security office and took an escalator up into the sunlight of the Parc Roux. Although it was now well past six o’clock, the sun was still high in the sky, graced by a necklace of solar mirrors and magnifiers, without which life on Ganymede would be very dim indeed. They were too bright to look at anyway, and if it weren’t for Jupiter looming beside them, you could almost believe you were on Mars or Old Earth. For any given moment, at least, because any longer than twelve hours on the surface and you’d realise that Ganymede was a very different place indeed. For one thing, although the moon operated on a twenty-four hour Terran clock, the days and nights lasted for a week each. Jerome walked through the park, along the aisles of tulips, past the sunbathers and picknicking families, feeling a terrible pang of loss without the weight of the guitar case on his shoulders. He had spent the hours in the train station analysing his options without it, and they all left him staggering under misery. His long-term goal on Ganymede had been to find employment as a musician – a corner attraction in the salty breeze of a seaside restaurant, a bass player in a smoky jazz bar, something vague and optimistic like that – but without the guitar that was impossible, and he had no money to buy a new one. He sat on a lacquered bench overlooking a tranquil pond full of geese, and stared into the water.
Eventually he pulled himself out of his despair, and opened up a window in his eyepiece to look for somewhere to stay, at last temporarily. He still had money in his Martian account, which could be transferred to a Ganymede bank for a substantial fee, tiding him over until he could find a job. He scrolled the net for residential listings, boarding houses and rooms for rent and cheap motels, and eventually found a good candidate in the 12th arrondissement that would accept a patron at eight o’clock at night. A faux-night, for Jerome, with the noon sun still burning down on his neck, but it was night for the Gannish and he knew he would have to live as they did. He wandered back through the park, found a sweeping spiral staircase that led below, through a series of malls and arcades before opening up onto a taxi bureau, where he spent twenty minutes figuring out the traffic routes and eventually found a cab that would take him to the 12th arrondissement. The road led mostly through dark tunnels and beneath iron deckplates, a grim and rusty view, but would occasionally open up and run past a pretty suburb or an open, edge-clinging deck of grain farms and fruit orchards. Jerome ignored the view, sunk as he was into base despair and misery. Millions of kilometres across the void of space, thousands of dollars spent on making the trip, and on his first day he’d been beaten up like a coward, left for dead on a toilet floor, his most valuable possession stolen. An empty sadness was chewing away at his stomach, and he felt like screaming, just dropping down onto his knees and emptying his lungs at the sky until he was hoarse. But in a crowded city that was, of course, impossible.
The 12th arrondissement was in the mid-levels of the city, a low-income area too high for the beaches and too low for the views. The taxi dropped him off at the end of a cold and empty street of closely spaced apartment buildings, broken with the skeletal branches of dead sycamores and illuminated by a long row of streetlights hanging down from the deckplate of the tier above. It reminded Jerome of the lower levels of Elysium City, skulking in the darkness under the shadows of the volcano walls, at the bottom of the canyons carved by the streets and skyscrapers, dangerous ghettos of windswept litter and graffitti where he had occasionally ventured on weekends, seeking out life beyond the breezy studios and pleasant rooftop gardens of the Institute. He had never imagined that there could be a place like this on Ganymede, but of course there had to be, because there was only so much exterior city. Not a single glimmer of sunlight penetrated this far into the core of New Rheims. No, not the core, of course – that would be where the power plants and waste converters and high-security prisons where, in the claustrophobic heat and darkness, where land values were lowest. But this felt close. Very close.
The lobby of the apartment. Green carpet and chipped paint. A cat licking itself clean by the ventilation grate. An old, fat woman swathed in cardigans and smelling of must, sitting behind the counter. She was writing on a sheet of paper, which both amused and secretly worried Jerome. He went up and spoke to her, and realised with a shock that she had no computer. No glinting eyepiece over one pupil, no barely visible mettalic sheen on her right wrist. This meant he had to fumble around with his translator for a few moments to make it go both ways, for her benefit, while she waited, tapping her fingernails on the desk. He wondered idly how old she was – an Earth veteran, perhaps, though it would be rude to ask. Eventually he managed to ask her about the room, and she took a down payment of cash and gave him a keycard. The elevator was out of order, and he had to walk up eight flights of stairs. The room itself was cramped and small, with only a single bedroom, a mouldy couch, a small screen, a tiny kitchen with no utensils. He opened a window to let some air in. Half the view was blocked by a rusty support girder, the other take up by the loading dock of a factory or warehouse of some kind. The walls were thin, and he could hear a movie playing in the room above his, a couple talking in the next one over. He put his backpack down in the corner, washed his face in the bathroom, went over and sat down on the mattress in his bedroom and wept for a very long time.
It had been his father’s guitar. They had never been close, but his father had given it to him when he went to the Institute, which had touched Jerome, and always reminded him that no matter what, his father loved him. It had been a friend throughout his four years in the city, a solid companion when he had no others, which was often. None of the people he considered friends ever really had been. But he’d always had his guitar – a mournful lyre in his final exams, or a strumming mandolin in the student taverns, or a reliable bass line when he’d been playing on Friday afternoon sessions with complete strangers. It was an Earth relic with over fifty settings. Polished karri, Westralian grown. Worth thousands of dollars even without the tag of Terran heritage. His father had taken it through the hellish chaos of the Jovian War and out the other side, and yet Jerome couldn’t even manage three hours on the same moon before skinny street punks had taken it by force. He wondered where it was now.
He woke up with a Gannish cover of Tahsin Cibelicki’s Paradise Found playing in his ears; he had fallen asleep while browsing the music library, listening to everything from the top of the Martian pop charts to scratchy Mozart recordings from the early 20th century. Music was still there. His guitar might be gone, but music was still there, and while that was the case everything would be okay. He sat up and rummaged through his backpack, pulling out some fresh clothes and his toothbrush, and… and the capsule. The vacuum-sealed capsule that had been half his purpose for coming to Ganymede in the first place. Jerome gripped it in both hands and looked at it for a long time, before putting it back in his backpack. He wasn’t ready. He wouldn’t be ready until he’d accomplished the other half of his purpose. It might take years. So be it.
He left the apartment and walked outwards, down smoggy streets and grey warehouses, towards the edge of the city. He might have to live in a shithole, but he damn well wasn’t going to work in one. He came to brighter streets, shafts of sunlight creeping in between the often narrow spaces that separated the upper deckplate from the tiled roofs of the buildings. Warehouses and factories, and more long bleak lines of houses, but sometimes parks – dark and shaded, but green and leafy – and then patches of blue sky visible, and more parks and gardens, and schools, and shopping malls, and restaurants, and before he knew it Jerome was standing at the edge of the tier, a fenced off esplanade two hundred metres above the rippling waves, surrounded by the bustle and splendour of a bohemian shopping district with arcades, botiques, fountain plazas, and all the hundreds of schoolchildren and shoppers and street performers and mounted gendarmes that flowed among them.
Jerome spent the morning walking slowly through the district, which was called Le Bord, enjoying the feeling of being under the open sky, for each tier was slightly larger than the one above it and thus free of the overhanging menace of a steel ceiling. He scrolled through the local job listings as he went, a thin line of text superimposed over his view of the world, as he leaned against a railing sipping a coffee. It was difficult to look at them, to look past words like DISHWASHER or SALES ASSISTANT or JANITOR and think of the money he would earn, the new guitar he would buy, the dream he would pursue. Eventually he wrote out a resume and deposited it at nearly every business along the edge of the arrondissement, and then spent the rest of the day sitting at a small garden that overlooked the grand Ganymede Ocean, listening to old music from Earth and wondering what it must have been like to gaze over a sea that was made by nature, not by man, with only the tiny coin of Luna hanging in the sky rather than the overpowering bulk of Jupiter. Sometimes he would use his translator to eavesdrop on conversations, mothers waiting to pick their children up from school or part-time cafe workers chatting on their lunch break. Most talk was about the car bombing of the parliament yesterday; thirty-four people killed, including the Minister of the Interior, and the whole city abuzz with police and soldiers tightening security and hunting down the perpetrators. Most people seemed to think it was the CEL, whatever that was; from what he could gather it was a Spanish separatist group of some kind. But he soon grew tired of listening to people speaking in French, such vibrant and varied voices when they spoke in a language he did not understand, but boring and harsh when reduced to the same stiff voice of his translator. At eight o’clock, sun still high in the sky, he bought a takeaway dinner from a small Chinese restaurant and then traipsed back through the streets to his apartment, the area growing gradually darker and darker as the buildings blotted out the sun, until soon there was only streetlights and it may as well have been the dark side of Pluto.
Only one place responded to his resume, a bistro wedged in between a florist and a parlour, where the train piste came down to Le Bord and overhung the tier edge. It wasn’t the classiest restaurant, or the most high-paying, but it was a job, and that was what Jerome needed. The manager was a fat woman with braided red hair and brown, weathered skin, who disapproved of Jerome’s foreign voice and use of a translator, but tolerated it as long as he worked hard. He was a dishwasher, loading and stacking the machines, sorting the cutlery, bussing tables, listening to the waitresses and cooks shout and chatter in French while his translator struggled to keep up with even the most basic instructions he was given. It was stressful work in the urgent environment of a restaurant, and at the end of his first shift he walked wearily down to the park by the train station and fell asleep in the shadow of a chestnut tree. Some police officers eventually prodded his body and told him to move along before they arrested him for vagrancy. He trudged home ruefully, the sun still hovering in the sky even though it was one o’clock in the morning.
After the Jovian War, when the Galilean moons had been piecing together their ruined economies and weeping over their millions of dead that still lay twisted in the wreckage of their frozen cities, Jerome’s father had left Ganymede and emigrated to Mars. Jerome had never bothered to question this, and it was only later in life that he wondered how his father had scraped together the money for such a voyage when so many others had enough difficulty finding enough to eat. He suspected less than scrupulous methods, but never said anything. His father had settled down in Aaru, spending time in several low-paying jobs: mechanic, lifeguard, bartender, train driver. He had met Jerome’s mother shortly after taking a more steady career as a data analyst. Drinks were bought, walks taken through parks, nights spent together, a house, a dog. Thirty five years after his father had come down the space elevator to the teeming throngs of Watanabe, Jerome had been born.
Five days after he had arrived on Ganymede, the sun set. Jerome was working a twelve-hour shift for the pressures of Bastille Day, and missed the sunset itself. It was just hovering over the horizon when he entered the bistro early in the morning. When he emerged that evening at seven o’clock, sweaty and red-faced and exhausted, it was into a cool nighttime world of black and blue, with only the last amber glimpses of twilight still visible on the western horizon. Jerome walked along the boulevard and stared at the lower tiers of the city strecthed out below, brightly lit up for the first time he’d ever seen, glowing like scattered embers, a beacon amidst a dark ocean. Children were running across his path, giggling and waving sparklers, while their parents sat on picnic blankets across the parks and gardens. Further up the street a parade of some kind was making a circuit through the district. Jerome traipsed home through tunnels and avenues darker than ever, while somewhere far above he could hear the crackling thunder of fireworks exploding over the Parc Roux, celebrating a violent and brutal battle fought across a gulf of more than four hundred years and six hundred and fifty million kilometres.
Nine days later, when daytime once again ruled the sky, Jerome witnessed his first Ganymede storm. Clouds rolled in from the north, blotting out the sun, and epic waves threw their weight against the city’s membrane, some of them hundreds of metres high, rivalling even the cold bronze face of Charlemagne at the city summit. Jerome stood at the railing of Le Bord in the gloom, watching enormous sheets of lightning dance through the veils of rain, thunder obliterating all other sounds. For the first time he realised that the city was really just a tiny ziggurat, encased in an invulnerable bubble, rising up hundreds of kilometres from the seabed to poke its head above the waves. A fragile lollipop. There were no tides on the ocean world – it did not rotate, and Jupiter’s gravity was so overwhelming that it rendered the force of the other moons negligible – but during a storm like this it would be quite easy for the waves to wash right over the city’s bubble, leaving it submerged for the briefest of seconds. Jerome watched the storm from safely on the other side of the barrier, and felt a sense of awe for the first time since he had arrived.
Jerome had been a quiet and passive child in the Elysian public school system. The state had been suffering budget cuts through the eighties, and the arts were the first to go. No music lessons. It had been his father who had taught him to play guitar, inviting him into his den on rainy winter nights and guiding his fingers across the seven strings, teaching him everything from rock and roll ballads of the twentieth century to the soothing lullabies of his Gannish youth. It became a routine for them, right into Jerome’s high school years. They had been playing in the den the night his mother drove out to the East Shore and drowned herself.
On his twenty-third day in New Rheims, as he was gradually digging himself into a steady routine, a new waitress started work at the bistro. She was a Martian expatriate like himself, a pretty young girl with green eyes and toffee-coloured hair, dark tanned skin and a weary way of moving in Ganymede’s heavier gravity. A little too thin for Jerome’s taste, and with an abrasive laugh, but he was salivating at the chance to speak English to someone. He introduced himself in the staff room the first chance he had. She seemed disdainful of his status as a dishwasher, but warmed when she learned he was a musician from the Institute. “My name is Elana,” she smiled. “Jerome,” he replied. “Jerome Besancon.” They talked for a while, before she was called back on shift. He leaned back in his chair and peered past the chipped doorframe, watching her chat with the other waitresses by the coffee machine. She spoke fluent French.
His mother’s death had occurred only a few weeks before his graduation from high school, and jeopardised his plans to attend the Institute. There was a memorial, attended mostly by relatives from her side of the family. His father had none. Jerome had fearfully expected his father to break down into tears, the stone shattering and revealing the emotions of the real person who dwelt within. It did not happen. If anything, his father became colder, and more distant. They spoke little in the weeks leading up to Jerome’s departure; his father took a leave of absence from work, and spent hours sitting in his den, playing the same wordless melody over and over on his guitar. Jerome knew it was an old French song; Le Printemps, he thought it was called. They had played it at his mother’s memorial service as well. On the night before he boarded the train that would take him up the gentle slopes of Elysium Mons, through the dark and echoing tunnels to the sheltered Martian capital that lay in the elevated caldera, his father left the guitar secured in its case, propped against the wall outside Jerome’s bedroom door. No note, no message. The next day he arrived at the Elysium Institute of Performing Arts with the guitar firmly slung over his back.
Jerome hoped to talk to Elana more, but her shifts fluctuated dramatically, and he rarely saw her. Once they shared a lunch break together, and he cherished it, speaking for a whole hour together in English together – real human English, not the clipped vernacular and dry tone of his computer translator, supplemented by dirty looks from the eyes of the true speaker for daring to have a mother tongue other than French. Elana was astonished that he had been on Ganymede nearly a month without picking up even the most basic of French words, but Jerome saw little point, if his computer could do it for him. He asked more about her, and learned that she was an actress, though she had gone to a private school somewhere in Bakhuysen rather than the prestigious public Institute. She was on Ganymede as part of a larger journey of the system: the rest of the Jovian satellites, the Trojan asteroids, the main belt, Venus and Mercury were all to come. She chatted incessantly. Jerome entertained a minor fantasy that she might ask him to come with her, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to. He couldn’t leave Ganymede without completing his original purpose. Not that it mattered. She was closer friends with all the waitresses, and waiters as well, handsome men with smooth accents, who would raise their eyebrows contemptuously whenever Jerome spoke English to her.
He could do it at any time, he told himself. The capsule sat in his rented room, sitting on the windowsill – the only free surface – and staring down at him while he slept. He felt uncomfortable about it, but the time didn’t seem right. Not until he got the guitar back. He knew, of course, that this meant he would never open the capsule and never leave Ganymede, because the street thugs who had mercilessly humiliated and broken him were gone. There were six million people in New Rheims, and in all likelihood his guitar had been stripped, repainted and sent off to be sold on the black market in some other city, or perhaps even on another world. He still thought about it, at night, imagining himself working through the squalid bars in the inner city slums, breaking people’s fingers and intimidating lowlifes until he could track down the hoodlums with the painted faces, and either retrieve his guitar or extract revenge. Childish. Stupid. He bought a bottle of scotch one night to help him sleep, and it was empty within the next three days.
Thirty-six days after his arrival in New Rheims, Elana finished a shift late with him and he offered to walk her home. Normally the wait staff finished hours earlier than the dishwashers, who were stretched over into janitorial duties as well, scrubbing toilets and wiping windows, but she had spent some time sorting out wages with the manager and was kept late. It was halfway through the Gannish night, and eleven o’clock in any case. Le Bord was not a dangerous neighbourhood, but he offered to walk her to the train station nonetheless, hoping that she hadn’t lost whatever vague interest in him she might have once had. He asked her where she lived, and after a description of arrondissements and streets and boulevards, had to admit that he had little working knowledge of the city. Indeed, apart from his first day, he had travelled only the bleak shadowed streets between Le Bord and his lodging house, tucked away in the dark interior.
“What’s the point?” Elana asked curiously. “Why did you come here if you weren’t going to explore?”
“I don’t get much time,” Jerome said.
“You only work nine hour shifts,” she pointed out. “What do you do in your spare time?”
Jerome shrugged. At the Institute, he had spent his free time composing music, sometimes producing a song every night, and still maintaining a loose circle of acquaintances he would go out drinking with. He hadn’t composed anything since arriving on Ganymede, hadn’t even tried, though he could easily do it on his computer even without the guitar. “You should get out more,” Elana said, though she didn’t invite him anywhere, and stepped onto her train without thanking him for the escort.
Sitting at home with some nameless Russian string ensemble from the 2070s filtering into his ears, he thought it over sullenly. His social life at the Institute had been one of convenience; talking to other musicians about group projects, socialising with people simply because they had classes together. He had rarely grown close to anyone, just as he had been aloof in school. When the final days of the last semester descended upon the Institute, the hallways and dormitories and studios were abuzz with planning, students discussing where they were going next and who they’d be playing for, which cities had the most vibrant musical scenes, which companies were the most flexible and creative. Jerome had no plans. He had gone to the Institute as a matter of choice, a three year course that he had used simply to putter around and work on music projects. He had no long term career plans, nor any desire for them. At most, his hopes extended to finding a job as a musician somewhere in a restaurant or pub in Elysium City. If work could not be found there he would go down the mountain and across the surface of Mars, circumnavigating the Elysian coast or exploring the Grand Canals, content to sleep under trees and eat wild fruit, as long as he had his guitar to play. Naive, in retrospect, but in the end it had come to nothing. News about his father had arrived in the week of graduation, and Jerome had understood that he would have to go to Ganymede.
The day before Elana left she held a party on a rented airship: an elegant cloud yacht with a complement of wait staff and a mediocre five piece band. It drifted up from the Parc Roux, pushed through the bubble of the seawall, navigated through the crowded airways around the city and then headed south, cruising a few hundred metres above the sparkling ocean. The yacht’s shadow drifted over a luxury resort, a long flat structure of fake beaches and shady palm trees and thatched cabanas, surrounded by a shallow lagoon fringed with the red and orange flare of coral reefs. There were a handful of dark shapes in the water; dolphins, probably, tame gengineered pets. Leaning against the railing of the belly observation deck, Jerome stared down at the resort and idly looked up its specs on his computer. They flickered across his eyepiece even as it drifted past below him: Ile de Felicite, constructed 2188, floated 2190, an upclass private island for rich Rheimsan socialites, Venusian princes and Martian tourists. There were arty photgraphs of them, tanning in recliners, sipping cocktails, sucking at the mangoes and papayas from buffet dishes on white tablecloths. Resort staff, cosmetted to look Polynesian, wearing loose sarongs and fanning guests with palm fronds. Jerome scanned over the prices and grimaced. It was an awful lot of money per night to pretend that you were back in Old Earth’s Pacific Ocean. Terraforming: an elaborate lie, costing somewhere in excess of a quintillion dollars.
Jerome watched the tiny resort disappear over the horizon as the airship made its lazy circuit back to New Rheims, and finished the rest of his scotch. He felt unhappy at the party, more so than usual. Most of the other guests were bistro staff, and he felt as though he had been invited simply as a matter of course, a fellow employee. Uncomfortable and outlandish in his rough Martian clothes, the same old jeans and shirt he’d worn at the Institute, while everyone else was wearing cutting edge fashions that looked utterly bizarre. He had barely seen anything of Elana; instead, he had hovered by the bar, refilling drinks, before tiring of the babble of French and wandering around the ship, eventually to find himself standing alone by the railing of the belly deck, feeling the wind ruffle in his hair and watching the sun set over the ocean. Had it been a film, he thought to himself, that would have been the perfect time for the woman of his dreams to sail into his life; a beautiful, intelligent person like himself, equally bored and dissatisfied with the crowd of Gannish yuppies on the main deck, looking for somebody interesting to talk to. But it had been half an hour and nobody had ventured down to the lower decks at all.
Eventually somebody did, but it was not the woman of Jerome’s dreams; rather, it was two men, waiters from the bistro who were interested only in each other, kissing drunkenly and fumbling with each other’s shirt buttons. Jerome slipped past without them noticing him, and headed back up the stairwell to the main deck, an open sweep of polished boards beneath the taut silver bubble of the gas envelope. Elana was with a group of other girls, dancing badly, laughing and spilling her drink everywhere. Lots of people were dancing, now, though a few were hanging off to the sides in groups and pairs. He refilled his drink at the bar, then slunk off to an empty table and watched Elana enjoy herself, feeling gradually more depressed with every gulp. When the tip of New Rheims appeared over the northern horizon, the city lights glowing in the gathering darkness, he felt a weary sense of relief. The airship touched down on the public fields of the Parc Roux, and the crew assembled at the exits, smiling and thanking the passengers for their patronage, holding out for tips. Jerome slunk past them sullenly, wondering how Elana had even afforded such a ritzy cruise, while his translator helpfully gave him snippets of the rest of the guests’ slurred plans to go to the nightclubs of Ronde de la Metro. While they waited for cabs at the fringes of the park, some of the drunker ones cavorting in the fountain or chasing each other through the trees, Jerome slipped away to the train station to begin the long ride home to his quiet room in the undertiers.
Jerome spent the rest of the night sitting in his room swearing at himself for not being more forward with Elana, for not reaching out to the one other person on the entire moon that he felt a slight connection with. Stupid, he told himself, drinking whiskey and working through the albums of Bob Dylan. He’d felt a connection with her only because she spoke English. There were six million people in New Rheims, twenty-one arrondissements worth of students, poets, lovers, teachers, thieves, writers, scanners, cooks, technicians, cosmets and beautiful, beautiful women. Some of them were bound to speak English, or at least tolerate his use of a translator. And if not, there was a whole aquatic world beyond that, a gorgeous blue and green moon of sandy islands and floating cities and cruise ships, tropical and freezing and calm and tempestuous, an entire globe waiting to be discovered. He had seen only a tiny corner of a tiny city, with another glimpse from the deck of an airship. That should have tempted him. He could quit his job and sign up to work on a whaling ship, or buy tickets to one of the paradise resorts, or work for passage on one of the cloud-sailing airships to Laguna or Osiris or the hundred other cities that dotted the ocean. Instead, he downed the rest of the bottle and curled up to sleep amongst his tangled sheets and blankets. The capsule sat patiently on his windowsill.
Some time after Elana’s departure, the manager hired a two piece band to play in the corner of the bistro in the afternoons. A short, straw-haired woman strumming a three-setting guitar, while an African man with milky blind eyes ran his fingers across the ivory keys of a small piano. They mostly played Gannish music, soft tunes that Jerome was unfamiliar with. Crowd pleasers by command. He heard them talking to each other between songs on the very first day, while he scraped unfinished meals from an empty table into his tub. Both had Martian accents, and he hated them for it.
Months passed. He was unsure how long he had been on Ganymede, but his bank balance seemed to be hovering above the red line. With bleary, hungover eyes he arrived at work early one day and sat alone in the cold staff room, tallying up pay dockets and expenses on his computer, numbers and figures flashing across his eyepiece. Food. Rent. Alcohol. Expatriate fees and taxes. On a dishwasher’s salary, he was in a holding pattern, with no way of landing.
One day, with the bistro in the early morning lull between the breakfast and lunch hours, he was stacking up a row of coffee cups by the dispenser when he glanced up and saw one of his muggers eating at the table by the door. Jerome paused, the final cup halfway to the rack, smooth blue porcelain glinting with sunlight. The man with the red-painted face, though that was gone now, washed away or digitally removed. Yes. Him. Curly black hair, sharp chin, dressed in a brown coat with knee high boots, the current fashion trend amongst edgy Rheimsan youth. He was eating alone, a fruit salad with orange juice. A late breakfast. Like any other civil citizen. Jerome acted on furious impulse, vaulting over the counter, smashing the edge of the coffee cup on another table, striding over to the man through islands of cutlery-covered tablecoth, and slashing the jagged stump of a cup across his face. As the man recoiled, cries of distress rang out across the bistro, babbled, foreign shouts from the other diners. Jerome grabbed the man by the collar of his coat and dragged him to his feet, blood trickling down onto his hand. “What did you do with it?” he screamed, his translator automatically recycling it, as it did with every word he had uttered since landing on Ganymede. “Where is it?”
Fury overcame astonishment, and the man swung his head forward, connecting it with Jerome’s nose and sending him reeling backwards. A fist slammed into his face. Another. Another. He dropped to the floor, but boots were raining down on him, breaking his ribs, fracturing a hip, crushing a testicle. Blood streamed from his nose and mouth. He peered upwards through swollen eyes. The thug was standing above him, the slash from the coffee cup running across his mouth and lips, dribbling blood freely. He was panting, sneering down at Jerome as if he had only just recognised him, and he barked something in French. “I sold it, you fucking idiot,” Jerome’s translator said dully, as his assailant turned and strode out the bistro door.
He was discharged from hospital a few hours later. As a foreign citizen, the medical bill was charged to him in full. Months worth of wages. Difficult to pay, since had lost his job for assaulting a customer, and was lucky not to be facing criminal charges. The bistro staff had watched him be loaded into an ambulance with the emergency signals reflected in their eyes, faces smeared with red and blue light, stricken with mixtures of pity and contempt.
Jerome walked home through the empty streets. It was nine o’clock at night, though whether it was true night he couldn’t tell, for the hospital had been undertier just as his boarding house was. Endless rows of wintry trees waving dead branches, and bleak brick houses with grey rooftops. Rooftops underneath a disc of steel kilometres across. Ridiculous. He was still feeling groggy from painkillers. Thoroughly defeated. Depressed. Empty. He hauled himself up the tenement steps, incense from the lobby reeking all the way up the stairwell, fumbled with his keys, pushed open the door to his apartment. Still as bare and characterless as the day he had arrived. Still a mess. Still perfect for him. There was half a bottle of vodka under his bed and he fished it out, kicking his shoes off and lying in a forlorn heap on the mattress. He had drunk most of it when the tears started flowing, for the first time since the night he’d arrived.
The dam burst. He flew into a rage, screaming and yelling, not caring if the neighbours heard, not caring if he was thrown out of his house as well as his job. He ripped his bedding apart, kicked his shoes in frustration, threw the empty bottle at the wall where it shattered and left a faint stain. With nothing else left, he went to the windowsill and seized the capsule, unscrewing the top madly, bitterly screaming and crying. He forced the window open and held the capsule upside down, shaking its contents out, sending a dusty cloud into the alleyway below. Across from him the lights of the warehouse were flooding across a yard full of forklifts and vaccum containers and workmen, just starting up for the night. A few heard his cries and glanced up at the spectacle, but soon went back to work, pulling on their protective gloves, snapping on safety goggles, loading containers into the awaiting ranks of trucks and trailers.
With the capsule empty, Jerome dropped to the carpet, sobbing uncontrollably. After a moment he whispered “No, no, no” to himself, the computer translating needlessly, and staggered to his feet. He twisted the door handle, flew out into the corridor, ran down the stairs, burst onto the street barefoot and red-faced. He turned the corner round the building into the alleyway and dropped to his hands and knees, desparately trying to scoop up the tiny particles from the damp pavement, scraping the edges of his hands in a futile attempt. Nothing achieved but palms stained with grey. He gave up, and collapsed in wretched misery, sobbing to himself in a dirty alley amidst his father’s ashes.
Today I received my mark on the short story I posted earlier: 29 out of 40. It’s better than I expected, especially since I have a particularly harsh and nitpicky teacher, but I’m still going to post some of the comments he wrote which I find amusing or ridiculous.
Note that I do so with no sense of bitterness or sulkiness, unlike last time. I’ve come to realise that writing is a considerably subjective medium. I’m happy with this story, and other people have read and enjoyed it, and that’s good enough for me. So…
Most puzzling of all was her appearance. At first glance she looked like the retro rockets from the space boom of the 21st century, amusingly primitive, no different from the wrecks Hopper explored nearly every day. But she was… irregular, with slight stylistic changes. As though somebody had built a fresh ship in the old fashion.
Response: “The language and phrasing doesn’t feel futuristic.”
He brought this up quite a lot in the earlier assignments, and I really don’t know what he expected from me. Science fiction writers are not clairvoyants. Just take Alien, a classic sci-fi movie, in which Ellen Ripley taps on the keyboard of a 1980s style computer with green writing. Compare it with the fancy holographic computers we see in Minority Report, a movie made 23 years later. What computers will actually be like in 200 years is utterly incomprehensible. Likewise language and phrasing. Anyone who has ever read Heinlein or Clarke can tell you that all science fiction stories become a dated product of the era they were written in, particularly in terms of dialogue. That doesn’t make them any less good.
The recording finished. “Wow,” Bly breathed.
Response: “Again… are people going to be saying “Wow” in 200 years?”
Probably not. But again, I’m not a psychic. What did you want me to write? “Kaschizzle-funkdog?”
“About 3 hours ago, you discovered a spacecraft in Terran orbit…”
Response: “Only three hours?”
Yes. Yes, 3 hours. I am the author and that is what I say. Does it even matter?
His accent was bizarre, with clipped vowels and slushy pronounciation.
Response: “Show, don’t tell.”
Short of waiting for technology to develop to the point where we can embed sound files into paper, how did you expect me to show you a sound?
“You see, Andrew Hopper, I know all about you.”
Response: “I hope in 200 or so years people have more interesting names than Andrew.”
Look, “Andrew” has been a name in Western society for approximately two thousand years. I think it’s a safe bet that it’ll hold out another two hundred.
There’s a few other minor things, like his objection over my use of the word “stranger” a mere four hundred words after my use of the word “strange” (unforgivable!), and his dislike of strange metaphors and similes even after he spent every single lesson urging us to be fresh and unpredictable. But the final comment worth spectacle is from his wrap-up, in which he said it was a readable sci-fi episode but too derivative of Star Wars.
Because… it was in space, I guess? I didn’t realise Lucas had a patent on that.
Another creative writing assignment, this time a complete short story. It’s been considerably pared down in order to limbo under the 2,500 word limit, so it’s one of the more sparse pieces I’ve written. Enjoy.
There was a ship in Earth’s orbit.
Hopper stared at her curiously from the flight deck of his own vessel, the Iron Lung. With active sensor camouflage, and her brown hue blending into the planet’s atmosphere, he’d almost collided with her.
Derelict vessels in geocentric orbit weren’t remarkable. Hopper’s entire profession depended on that. But this one was different. She was in perfect condition; no missile scarring or breached hull from a forgotten battle, no accumulated vacuum ice or meteor dents from a century of hanging in orbit. A system scan confirmed that her engines had been engaged only twenty-four hours ago.
Most puzzling of all was her appearance. At first glance she looked like the retro rockets from the space boom of the 21st century, amusingly primitive, no different from the wrecks Hopper explored nearly every day. But she was… irregular, with slight stylistic changes. As though somebody had built a fresh ship in the old fashion.
Where could she be from? Virtually nobody went near Earth. The only other people in the area were vultures like himself, and none of them were flying anything this weird.
As Hopper watched, the ship’s gradual rotary drift brought the starboard bow into sight, and he saw her name: the Forerunner.
Overflowing with curiosity, he set the Iron Lung in a holding position, and headed for the airlock. He suited up, kicked off and drifted towards the ghost ship.
Half an hour later he was flying back to Luna, panicked and skittish, a thousand phantom nightmares chasing his ship through the void.
* * *
Daedalus was the largest city on Luna, which wasn’t saying much. It had a population of around sixty thousand people, most of whom were transient workers, young men from Mars or Jupiter who jetted into town, spent a few hellish months in the helium-3 mines, and jetted out again a few million richer. Railways and pistes stretched out from Daedalus in every direction like the tendrils of a jellyfish, coiling around the mining pits and refineries that encrusted the cratered landscape. Daedalus was the centre of lunar civilisation, not that there was much; Earth’s moon had been abandoned soon after Earth itself, its people moving on to better lives on Mars or the gas giants. Humanity had only returned to Luna’s dismal maria thirty years ago, beckoned by the moon’s rich veins of ore, and despite the mining boom the population remained scant.
Like every other lunar settlement, Daedalus was on the far side. Even after a hundred years nobody wanted to look up at the barren husk that was all that remained of mankind’s birthplace.
Hopper was sitting in the office of a fellow Martian named Bly, an old acquaintance who ran a ship architecture firm at Luna’s only spaceport. He’d recorded his experience onboard the Forerunner, and Bly was watching it, intrigued.
Hopper waited for him to finish, staring out the windows. Daedalus was an ugly place, a metal wart as grey as the lunar dust it sprouted from, existing solely to support the helium miners. There were no parks, or lakes, or fake holograms of blue skies and delicate clouds gliding across the glastic pressure bubble that arched over the town. No unnecessary expenditures. Just grim, utilitarian warehouses, dormitories and mineral silos, and an austere black sky of frozen stars. But it was familiar, and safe, and full of life. He needed that.
The recording finished. “Wow,” Bly breathed.
Hopper sat down, drumming his fingers on the lacquered desktop. “No membrane airlock, fission engines, stonewall security… who’d build a ship with tech that’s been out of date since the Jovian War?”
“I’m more interested in the crew,” Bly said. He played the recording again, scrolling and pivoting the hologram with his fingers. “Shame you didn’t get a closer look at the flags on their uniforms…”
Thinking about the crew made Hopper’s stomach lurch. The four men had been strapped into couches on the bridge, dead or unconscious, with beige jumpsuits and pallid skin. The experience had been eerie enough until then, but Hopper’s lustful curiosity had collapsed when one of the crew had stirred from his coma and murmured incomprehensibly. He’d fled back to the Iron Lung with his courage shattered.
“Nothing visibly wrong with them,” Bly continued, “so it must have been giloc. Internal injuries and bleeding.”
Gravity induced loss of consciousness. Hopper had assumed the same. But that could only occur during planetary takeoff with intense g-forces, which certainly wouldn’t happen on Luna…
The thought hovered, unspoken, in the light of the hologram. Both men realised the significance of what the ship could mean.
It was impossible. Ridiculous to contemplate. It contradicted one of the first things learnt growing up. The old nations of Earth, already languishing from the apocalyptic catastrophe of the Himalayan supervolcano, had reignited old rivalries and wiped themselves out in the 72-Hour War nearly a century ago. The space colonies had been swamped with refugees, and there had been a period of chaotic re-settlement, ethnic tension and several further wars, but eventually humanity had recovered, excising Earth from its collective mind. Those who had fled were the only survivors; the homeworld was a dead planet. The atmosphere was suffocated with ash and dust, a world-wrapping storm of bleak brown. The surface was a hellscape of toxic deserts, dry seabeds and skeletal city ruins, haunted by screeching banshee winds and illuminated only by cloud-damped pulses of lightning.
Yet… there were stories. Tales spun by drunk vagrants on backwater asteroids, or urban legends and conspiracy theories found in the dank corners of the net. Rumours of freighters that miscalculated while slingshotting around the planet on the Mars-Venus route, descended below the dust canopy, and returned to civilisation gasping deliriously about lush forests and glinting rivers before expiring from radiation poisoning. Comms technicians from the nearside radio telescopes, who claimed to have heard mysterious electronic signals coming from the planet’s surface – and would tell you more if you just bought them another drink. They were myths. Hopper didn’t even understand why they existed. Why would anyone yearn for Earth, when Mars was fully terraformed, sustaining oceans, mountains and glaciers more beautiful than any Earth had ever boasted?
“It’s a government project,” Hopper said. “That’s my best bet. Some kinda experimental ship to explore the surface. It must have found its way down there, and then fucked up while trying to get out. I’m gonna forget about it, and you should too.”
He left the office. After a few moments, Bly started scrolling through his contact list.
* * *
An hour later Hopper was sitting in the corner of a crowded bar near the spaceport. Travellers from all over the system were squashed into booths, from Venusian sheikhs to Galilean space crews, smoking and drinking while arguing loudly about helium prices or news from the outer worlds. A local band was playing awful calypso-jazz inside a hologram of a tropical beach in Chryse, wreathed in a nimbus of hashish smoke, and Hopper watched them sullenly as he tallied his options.
He meant what he’d said to Bly. The idea of a secret government project, as stupid as it sounded, was far more plausible than life on Earth. He clung to that theory with determination, trying to ignore the issue of the ship’s antique design and pale crew.
The problem, then, was his own involvement. While he’d been aboard he would have left trace nanyte signatures, and if the Forerunner was reclaimed by whatever government forces had dispatched it, it wouldn’t be hard for them to locate him. Maybe he should leave Luna for a while, head back to the asteroids, or even further out into the gas giants. There wasn’t much time left in the vulture game anyway. Too many newcomers muscling in, violent confrontations over scavenging claims growing more frequent, the interest of the corporate titans piqued… there were only so many derelicts out there.
He was gloomily considering this when a man slipped into the seat across from him. Hopper’s hand automatically darted for the gun tucked underneath his shoulder, but the stranger was smiling, hands flat on the table.
“Who are you?” Hopper asked suspiciously.
“That doesn’t matter,” the stranger grinned. He was wearing a spacer’s jumpsuit, common attire in Daedalus, and had a curiously bland and forgettable face. “What matters is who you are, and what you’ve found.”
Hopper suddenly felt sick with fear.
“About three hours ago you discovered a spacecraft in Terran orbit,” the stranger continued. “I want its co-ordinates.” His accent was bizarre, with clipped vowels and slushy pronunciation. Hopper, a veteran drifter, couldn’t place it anywhere – which frightened him more than anything else.
“Why?” he asked, keeping one hand on his holstered gun.
“Because,” the stranger replied simply.
His face was too generic. Hopper decided it must be plastic surgery. “That’s helpful,” he said. “Who are you?”
“Again: what matters is who you are,” the stranger whispered, leaning closer with his unsettling smile. “You see, Andrew Hopper, I know all about you. I know that you were born on Mars in 2160. I know that you served in the military, and saw combat on Pallas, but were arrested for battlefield looting and organ theft from dead soldiers. I know that you spent two years in a federal prison, and that when you were released, you stole a spacecraft and had it renamed and re-registered. It’s the Iron Lung now. I know that you smuggled drugs in the Trojan belt for a few years, but eventually grew wary of the authorities and came to Luna to become a vulture, pillaging abandoned Terran space stations. I know all that, Andrew, but thirty minutes ago I’d never even heard of you.”
The bubble of music and conversation suddenly seemed very distant. “Who are you?” Hopper demanded a third time, his voice cracking now.
“We’ve been through that.”
Hopper didn’t like being threatened, but neither did he want to be involved with the Forerunner for another second. He scribbled a few figures on a napkin and pushed it across the table. “If I ever see you again, I’ll kill you,” he warned emptily, then stood up and strode out of the bar.
Even the man’s laughter sounded strange.
* * *
Hopper forced his way through the crowded streets, mentally running over a list of destinations. It would have to be somewhere isolated; Neptune or Uranus, probably. He pushed past a gaggle of corporate executives squeezing into a limo on the steps of the spaceport and entered the cavernous terminal.
There was a police cordon around Bly’s office.
Hopper stopped, paralysed, staring at it across the entire length of the terminal, past potted plants and billboard holograms and security queues. A few uniformed constables stood guard, a plainclothes detective interviewed a puffy-eyed secretary, and a sterilised forensics droid trundled through the door.
He turned away, heart thrumming, and took the first elevator platform up to the concourse. Other passengers stood calmly around him, bored or tired, and Hopper tried to conceal the furious typhoon of panic clutching his mind.
He’d known Bly must have been involved somehow as soon as the stranger had sat down, but he’d assumed it was as a conspirator, passing a warning on to somebody. But no: the information the architect had possessed had been taken from him by force. How? What had happened while Hopper was squandering time in a bar?
The elevator floated to a halt, and vomited its passengers out onto the catwalks. Hopper headed for the Iron Lung as fast as he could without breaking into a run. Nothing else mattered now. Once he reached the ship, he’d be safe.
He arrived in the relative seclusion of his dock, fringed by chain-link fences and stacks of vacuum crates. The Iron Lung awaited him, a reassuring hulk of grimy steel, jointed landing struts splayed across the pad like a colossal beetle. Outside the airlock, he hesitated.
A few minutes later Hopper crawled into the ship’s hold, a gloomy, rust-stained cube. There was a decommissioned exhaust vent he used when he needed to enter the ship inconspicuously, and this was one of those times. Crouching in a corner, he twitched his eyes imperceptibly, activating the microscopic nanytes in his retinas. Instantly the world was displayed in a landscape of heat colour, from the cold blue of the ship’s hull to the warm oranges and reds of the fusion engines – or the human body waiting for him in the corridor above.
It was crouched in an attack position, waiting to ambush Hopper as he came through the airlock. He felt a strong sense of satisfaction as he crept silently up the stairwell to ambush the intruder himself. The oculars had cost two million dollars in an illegal backalley operation, but now it was hard to doubt their worth. For good measure, he switched on his various other nanyte systems: muscle enhancement, adrenaline harness, ballistic protection… he wouldn’t need them, as he intended to simply shoot the intruder in the back of the head, but they couldn’t hurt.
Hopper crept into the main corridor, and saw the orange human outline at the other end. He quietly unholstered his gun, took careful aim…
Somebody tackled him from behind and he was slammed against the bulkhead. Even as he tried to bring the gun around to bear, struggling against snarling blows, he realised what had gone wrong. There had been a second intruder, but his heat signature had blurred into the glow of the engine room behind him.
Now he had Hopper’s gun hand pinned to the wall. But Hopper had muscular nanytes, making him stronger, and so with a roar of fury he wrenched his hand free, pressed the gun barrel against the man’s head and fired. In thermal imagery, he saw an eruption of gold and orange cascade onto the cold floor.
Hopper whirled to face the original intruder too slowly; the man had already covered the distance between them, and thrust upwards with a knife before Hopper could react. He felt a burning in his ribcage, but the nanytes suppressed it, and in a vicious struggle he thrust his gun into the man’s stomach and squeezed the trigger three times. His attacker collapsed, and Hopper switched his oculars off, trembling.
The corridor sank back to dreary grey. Hopper knelt down, wheezing, to examine his attackers’ faces. Neither was the stranger from the bar, though both had the white skin he’d seen on the Forerunner‘s crew. The second one was still alive, windpipe rasping and face speckled with red, so Hopper seized his head and smashed it against the sticky floor. “Who are you?” he demanded, distorted voice echoing throughout the ship. “Where are you from?”
“Otago,” the man whispered, and died.
Hacking up ropes of blood, Hopper limped to the flight deck, and lifted off from Daedalus without waiting for clearance. He jettisoned the corpses as soon as he was in orbit. After taking one last glance at the stark brown circle of Earth, he set an autopilot course, stumbled to the sick bay with his vision greying, and filled his ruptured lung with medical gel.
A few weeks later, with his wound healed, his liquor supplies nearly depleted, and the Iron Lung halfway to Neptune, Hopper remembered what the dying man had gasped. He looked it up, and immediately regretted it.