Saturday, August 17, 2013

Story: Six Seven Nine

I forget exactly where this idea came from, but I clearly remember the process. I had an idea for the world, but I struggled with the means to display that world. Portray the debateable morality?  I didn't want to write a debate between two sock puppets about facts that I had made up. Political drama? The scale just led to a lot of exposition rather than a more natural introduction. I think that of all my options, this was the best I could have chosen. I hope you think so, too.


Six Seven Nine

Douglas blinked against the hardness of the air - the slight tang that gripped at a man’s throat, and in the corners of his eyes. He did his best to wipe at the tears with his sleeves; it was only to be expected. The quality had been reduced incrementally over the last few years, in preparation for the launch, and though the technicians had assured the population that the difference would barely be noticeable, people were always complaining about it. It was worst of all in the tunnels, where commuters on the great inter-outpost trains had to suck down oxygen wrung from pressurized canisters. Douglas shook his head and glanced around at the other passengers, all numbly lit by the ancient, greenish fluorescent light strips.
“N678 Boston Station - Residential” came the buzzing intercom. Hurriedly, the representative snatched up his briefcase and replaced his hat, rushing out onto the platform. If he hurried, maybe he’d be back to N678 Paris before dinner this time. He made his way through the pressing, rolling train station crowd as best he could, towards the trans-pods where he fumbled briefly with the keypad. A blinking readout informed him that the estimated wait for an available pod was “Three point two six eight four hours.”
Douglas swore under his breath, groping for the datapad in his pocket. Though he was jostled every which way by the tide of people moving inexorably trainward, the Rep managed to bring up his map for this assignment. Douglas considered it carefully as he leaned into the current. It wasn’t so bad, now that he looked at it - the Gleeson residence was only four shafts over, and he could probably make it in two hours, tops, if he hurried.  Cramming the datapad back into his pocket, he pressed ahead with that diligence that had practically become a genetic trait of outpost citizens. In just a few minutes, Douglas had made it far enough from the train station that the throng had settled to a more comfortable level, and he was given a little breathing room, such as it was. Heck he mused, at least it gives me a little more time to see the sights before the launch. Haven’t been to N678 Boston in a while.
It was almost a joke. There was practically no difference between N678 Boston and N678 Paris - about as little difference as there was between it and N678 Seattle or N678 Berlin, or N678 Sydney. He liked imagining little differences, though - the air was nicest in N678 Paris, he felt, especially in the park pods, where some traditional restauranteurs served bangers and mash and snails, Old Earth recipes, they claimed, though it made no difference; Texturized Vegetable Protein was Texturized Vegetable Protein, no matter how you cooked it up.

N678 Boston, for its part, was a fine outpost. There really wasn’t much to recommend or condemn it, at least not that Douglas had seen on his few visits. Even this close to the launch, when, historically, the most outpost pride started cropping up, there wasn’t much going on to suggest a cohesive identity. Just the ever present crowds and a few faded Extinctionist posters. When was the last time he’d been here? Douglas squinted against the fog of memory. Something about promotion to engine crew? Or was it that seminar on cabin placement? He hardly ever got assignments like those anymore. It was to be expected. As the launch came closer, good news starts to run out.
The Representative shook his head, and kept pushing his way forward, into the poorer part of the outpost, so much as such sections existed.
At length, Douglas reached the Number 3267 Access Hatch, and managed to press himself up against the door, momentarily out of the way of the crowd. He waited patiently while the scanner checked the credentials on his datapad, and the hatch hissed back into its recesses, letting him through into the 3267 neighborhood.
It was certainly much less crowded than the pedestrian shafts, even for a residential section, and the entire block struck him as oddly silent. It seemed as if hardly anyone was walking the catwalks, and at this level, he could only see a half dozen or so people, milling around the sickly park-squares, like oases of artificial sunlight. High, high above, even the powerful daytime indicators seemed muted and greyed out. Douglas could tell that most everyone living here had come from refinery jobs. He wondered what they would do, now that the launch was nearly ready.
Following the directions on his datapad, Douglas walked carefully up the stairwells to level 34. It was an older block - maybe even dating back to the planetfall - and even though it was built to last, sometimes the old metalwork could give way. Even with repairs, a thousand years is a long time to be in use. Douglas hesitated for a moment when he reached the Gleeson residence. The Rep checked his datapad again, and sighed. It was still a hard thing to do.
He knocked. Almost immediately, the door was answered by a rather harried looking woman, dressed in a standard issue green worksuit removed to the waist and tied off, with a blue tanktop underneath. “Yeah?” she demanded, before she fully took in Douglas’ attire. Her eyes focused on his suit, the datapad in his hand, and the forlorn look on his face. Her breath caught. “Oh.”
Douglas cleared his throat. “Ma’am. Mrs. Erica Gleeson?” She nodded hesitantly, looking as if she were tempted to slam the door in his face. “I’m Douglas Purdel, from the Species Relocation Relation Committee. Can I come in? There’s something we need to discuss.” Mrs. Gleeson chewed her bottom lip, and wavered where she stood. “Ma’am?”
“Okay. Fine.” she held the door open a little wider, so Douglas removed his hat and stepped inside. There was a smell like hot glass in the air, and it was just a little too hot for comfort inside the steel-box apartment. Plastic blocks, toys for a child, were littered across the carpet, and Douglas could hear water boiling in the next room.
“Mom?” came a call from the next room. a male voice, probably in his mid teens. “Who was at the door?”
“Someone from the... Superintendent's office,” Erica called back. “Watch the pot, I’ll talk with him.” She flopped into one of the chairs, but didn’t offer Douglas a seat.
“Ma’am.” he ventured.
“You bastard,” the woman said, without looking at him. “Two months left to launch, and you have to come in with...” she gestured vaguely at his datapad. “This!”
Douglas cleared his throat. “Mrs. Gleeson, you know that I’m just a representative...”
She snorted. “Yeah. sure. The representative that just killed us.”
“Mrs. Gleeson...”
“Two months!” she hissed, her head snapping up to suddenly lock eyes with him. “Two months to go, out of, out of all these years, and you come in and - you come in and -” her head drooped down again, to stare at the floor. “We were going to see the ships...” she murmured. “Simon was really looking forward to it. Now we’re just a... just a dead end on a dying planet.”
“Mrs.... Look. Erica. can I call you Erica?” She made no response. “Erica. It’s... really not that bad. You know that it’s the responsibility of everyone to lessen the burden of the next planetfall. Resources will be tight enough as it is when the time comes...” he trailed off.. “Look, you know that it’s nothing... personal. The selection process is entirely random.”
“And that makes it better?” she said. “We were - My parents, my grandparents, all they ever wanted was for...” She trailed off again. “We were going to be the launch generation, god damn it. But you just killed us. And it’s okay, because it wasn’t personal.
“Leaving you behind is hardly killing you. You and your family will be able to live out the rest of your lives with far more wealth and resources at your disposal than would be available on any of the ships.”
“Oh, sure, we’ll be more comfortable...” Erica idly plucked at a crayon drawing that had been abandoned on the floor. “It’ll be nice, really. maybe we can expand into some of the other apartments. I could have a garden. I might...” she suddenly gripped the drawing tightly, her expression clenching into anguish.
All Douglas could do was watch helplessly. “I’m sorry,” he said at length. “It’s all that can be done, and I wish that... that there was more I could tell you.”
Erica stared at the picture in her hands for some time - a fleet of cartoonish rockets, each of them with the number “679” written on the side in a child’s scrawl. “Sure. You’re sorry. Me too. I’ve just got... My kids. They just have...” she paused, collecting her thoughts. “How long?” she asked quietly. “How long do they think, until everything gets used up?”
Douglas considered the woman for a moment, before gently sitting down in the chair opposite here. “Much longer, with most of the population going away on the launch. but... best estimates... three centuries.”
She shook her head. “Three centuries. that’s... what, four generations? five? and then what?”
“I guess we don’t know, exactly. We don’t have any information on planets, post-launch, or what happens after they run out. But... there’s  some speculation that maybe they could work something out. They might have found a way to survive.”
Erica shot Douglas a venomous glare. “Maybe they did,” she allowed “Maybe we will too. Maybe, maybe, maybe, I mean...” the woman glanced away for a moment, as if steadying herself.
“Look, Miss, there’s just no point in hurting yourself over -”
No point -” she checked her volume quickly, hurrying a glance at the kitchen door. “No point in thinking about it? For the love of god... it’s the death of my family. Then all that’s left is... is a few names in the capital register, and even then, just our names... my grandchildren... their children... they might as well never exist...” Erica angrily balled up the drawing in her fist, hurling it away from her. “Just... leftovers.”
The words hung in the air. “I’m sorry,” Douglas repeated again.
“I bet you are,” she spat. Getting to her feet, she kicked off her shoes and stalked over to one of the mirrors. “You’ve got the privilege to be sorry. Two months, and you’ll be watching us twinkle off into the distance, while you and... Hell, everyone else kick back in your cabins for the long flight, getting used to a new number on your goddamn signs. You’ll get to know that your kids’ll get to the next jump, and settle down in an outpost, and start building up the next batch of boats.” She wheeled on him, sparks burning in her eyes. “That’ll be around the time that we die out, isn’t it? No more N678 Boston, no more Gleeson family, no more goddamn World 678. just another husk planet.” She kicked at one of the blocks, but it was clear her heart wasn’t in it. it bounced limply across the floor.
They both stared at it for a moment, bound together in uncomfortable silence. “You know,” she said, uncertainly. “I think I would have been able to deal with this. I could live with this. I can see myself going on with more space... less people. Less of everyone pressing in. I can’t... I really can’t...” she gritted her teeth, forcing herself to go on. “My son. Simon.” she gestured limply at the door into the kitchen. “He’s... He was going to be different.” Erica nodded at the crumpled drawing. “That was my youngest, but, you know, everyone draws those. Simon...” she sighed, and bent down towards one of the orange stacking crates that doubled as furniture. Standard. “Here,” Erica said, “I need you to see this.” She dug into the contents for a moment, before impatiently gesturing for Douglas to sit.
“I should go...” Douglas ventured.
“Not yet.” She stared at him expectantly, until he gingerly sat beside her. “Look at this.” From inside the crate, she pulled a battered cardboard portfolio, held shut with frayed elastic bands. Almost reverently, she unsnapped them. “Here.” Erica handed Douglas one of the large sheets inside.
He stared at it for some moments, not quite making sense of the tangle of lines, all carefully drawn and measured in needle-fine pen. “It’s a ship...” he realized aloud.
Erica nodded with stiff, reserved motions. Out came another sheet. “This one’s a circulatory design from one of the smaller ones. Every saturday... He takes a pod to the N678 Boston Shipyards. He looks. he talks with the engineers and architects, and looks at as much of the records as they let him. He studies the ships, piece by piece.” Another sheet. “And that’s not all,” Erica’s words were tumbling, jostling over one another. “Look at this. It’s a copy of that circulation but he’s - look at the red ink. all these calculations.” She gripped Douglas’s wrist, and he had a sudden tremor of fear at the desperation in her touch. “He’s improving the design. At least - Even if he’s wrong, he’s so young, and he hasn’t even been to the University, what do you make of that? He’s - he could - can we really...” She finally trails off into silence.
“Miss...” said Douglas, gently removing her hand from his wrist. “Should I leave?”
She said nothing. He waited, then began to take his feet, but a touch at his arm stopped him once again. Douglas turned, and saw Erica proffering the revised circulation design. “Take this with you,” She said. “Please. I need you to remember this.”
The representative paused. “It’s his.”
Erica shook her head. “He deserves more than - than a piece of paper. show this to the engineers, if you can. When you’re away, ask them if it would work. Make them know what they left here.”
Douglas considered the paper, and the woman holding it, before sighing and taking it gingerly. Erica’s mouth twitched in the barest gesture towards a smile. It was gone immediately, and she swept to her feet, quickly packing the rest of the designs and blueprints away.
“You really should leave. Rick will be home soon. I think you’d rather I break the news.”
Douglas made his way over to the door, stepping in between the blocks. He replaced the hat on his head, and pulled the door open. Just as he was about to step over the threshold, he paused. “I really am sorry. I wish... I wish that there was enough. But there just isn’t.”
“Yeah. I know.”
They stood there in silence for a few seconds, before the sound of someone dropping a plate far below broke them out of their contemplation. Douglas tipped his hat, with a mumbled “Ma’am,” and gently closed the door behind him, starting to make his way back towards the train station. Back in N678 Paris, there was packing to do.
Inside the apartment, Erica hesitated for a moment. after a time, she stepped gingerly over to where she had thrown the drawing of the 679 colony ships, drawn by her daughter, Roxanne. She would be back from school soon. Erica sighed, and flattened out the drawing as best she could. She stood again.
On the inter-outpost train, Douglas had, for once, managed to find  seat. His briefcase was propped up on his knees, to spread out the circulatory design. It was practically a work of art, and even though he had never learned much about the processes that fueled the great ships, he could appreciate their beauty. Losing himself in the intricate web of blacks and corrective reds, it was a long ways into the train ride before he finally folded it up and placed it in his briefcase.

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