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It’s 3:00 AM. I’ve technically finished my exegesis for creative writing, but it’s the shittiest shit that was ever shat. I’m also over the maximum allowed word limit for my actual creative piece by about 300 words and I can’t bring myself to delete any of them, already having whittled the story down to a bare minimum.
I hate it when there are two three o’clocks in one day.
For any End Times readers who check this place more often than they do End Times itself (which wouldn’t be too surprising, given the imbalance), I’ve started updating again, and will try to do so more frequently in the future.
I recently heard that James Joyce used every single word in the English language when he was writing Ulysses. Hoping that the sheer, four hundred thousand word bulk of my own sprawling saga might make this statistically possible, I did a quick check with Ctr+F. In the event that I found my epic novel did indeed contain most words in the English language, I would of course be on par with one of the great writers of the 20th century. Because trivial achievements like “every single word” are all that matters.
Of the 28 base words listed on the first page of my dictionary, I had used 12 in End Times: a, aback, abandon, abate, abduct, ability, abject, able, abnormal, aboard, aborigine, abort.
Still, I have a good three months left…
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.
I have to give a 10 minute presentation in less than forty-eight hours about “story structure, and what some long fiction writers think about when planning a work and making of decisions about form, plot and structure.”
I’ve managed to get about 30 seconds of material out of Stephen King’s ubiquitous seed metaphor that he tells to every passerby, but tracking down the opinions of other published authors on the specific matter of “story structure” is proving difficult. If you happen to know what any other authors think about the subject, be a dear and leave me a comment.
I was re-reading parts of End Times and noticed this glaring problem with the entry on April 17:
I want to end this ordeal. So does Aaron, Geoff, Jonas Barclay, Paul Campbell and Scott Edwards (the guards who were on the roof last night when Len took off; apparently they’re brothers).
Really, Mitch? Brothers with different surnames? Do tell.
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.
I’ve updated End Times. I will continue to do so at least once a week for the rest of summer, until I start uni again in March. It’ll be just like the glory days of 2005!
I might even be able to make it all the way through September (in story time). That would be nice.
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.
I got 11.5 out of 20 for the creative writing assignment I posted a while back. I have no problem with constructive criticism, but it really shits me when my teacher focuses entirely on things like cliches, hackneyed phrases, and constant urging for our writing (word choice, not story/plot) to be “fresh and original.” Just because a word is original doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good and just because something is cliche doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. He’s too obsessed with the aesthetics of writing; he doesn’t teach us anything about how to make a good plot work. It’s style over substance, and I hate it.
Example: there are two ways for a gun to fall to the ground. It either “clatters” or, if it’s being propelled with force, it “skitters.” If that’s cliche, it’s because that’s the best way to describe it. God forbid I should use those words instead of coming up with some awkward metaphor.
In conclusion, I’m gonna go eat a big bucket of ice cream to make myself feel better.