The day finally came when I gave up and decided to suicide. Not that I hadn’t considered offing myself before, but heck, I’m an optimist, or at least I’ve always tried to be—as foolish as that can sound even to me.
What is it to be an optimist, anyway? In the face of the ugly realities of this life, I guess it’s the ability to come up with something, anything that might convince you that the day to day deadening drone is just the veneer of the world. That maybe, just maybe, being alive can have meaning beyond the Corp’s bottom line.
I know; that’s stupid.
Do your job, they tell you, get it right, and the rewards will be yours. What rewards? Better food? Longer rec time? More access to VR escape? And if you’re very lucky and last long enough, when this asteroid is played out, you might—just might—get a chance to be relocated to one of the in-system planets they’re terraforming with all this stuff we’re mining.
Didn’t sound worth it to me. Not when I knew I was and would always be an empty shell, alone within myself.
Even so, I tried really hard to believe there might be something more. So I told myself tales to try to fill the hollowness, like my childhood memory of my spacer.
It was back on Earth, when I was pretty young, probably no more than five years old. My mom’s hand slipped from mine, and I was swallowed up by the pathway crowd. All I could see were lots of legs pushing me here and there and everywhere, so I couldn’t get back to the safety of mom’s hand. I should have been terrified, but it turned out to be my first real adventure, all by myself.
That’s when I met her, an honest to goodness spacer, who rescued me and told me about the stars. I’d never seen stars or bare sky or anything outside the warren of buildings that was my entire world.
My space hero had a metal hand, a lopsided beat-up face and a faraway look in her eyes, like all she could see were the stars that were hidden to everyone else on Earth. She lifted me high onto her shoulders so I could see over the crowds that swarmed around me, far above all those legs and feet pushing me around. And while she carried me to the nearest safestop, she told me stories about her stars. Yeah, I liked that, and I never stopped thinking about her, but I never learned her name or anything else about her.
Mom didn’t believe me, that I’d met an authentic spacer. But that didn’t matter, because I knew she was real, and I could hold that memory inside me.
So that’s what I mean. Being an optimist is like finding a treasure invisible to everyone else—like my space hero, like her stars—hidden because the world is so crowded with big, ugly things, and life keeps kicking you around. An optimist can find that treasure when everyone else has given up—even when it seems impossible that anything like it could exist.
I never saw anyone like my spacer again. Not on old crowded Earth where the food riots and water bounties pitted even mothers and daughters against each other—well, at least my mom and me. And not on Zoras 7734 where our tunnels in the seismic ground are more the maw of a coffin than living space.
I’d been on 7734 for about three years cognitive, give or take a Zoras month. Long enough to rate a private room, even though it meant giving back a slew of credits every month. That morning when the lights came on for my shift, I couldn’t drag myself out of bed. I lay there on that hard shelf, in the itchy sack that they give us for bedsheets, and I couldn’t move. My arms, legs, and torso felt like separate, disconnected lead weights, as though 7734 were three times Earth gravity, rather than 0.67 EG. My head was swathed in the fog of lights that were too bright, dull walls that were too grey, and yet another drab day that wouldn’t be any different from the hundreds before it and the many thousands to come.
I was already late. Jim Thomas, my supe, was sure to dock me a bunch of credits and give me an extra bit of shitty code revision that would tangle up my day—unless the bastard was feeling particularly “friendly.” But I was in no mood for his shenanigans. Hell, the Corp already owned my body; what right did Thomas have to consider it one of his job perks?
So I lay there in my bedsack, not wanting to move, knowing that every second I delayed the worse it would be when I logged in late for my shift. And that’s when it finally got through my thick noggin: mom had probably been right all along. There are no hidden treasures, nothing beyond the struggle to stay alive for one more day, then another, then another. Why bother?
The only answer was to drag myself out of bed, get dressed, and, instead of slumping off to work, grab the lift up to the surface and go for a long walk.
I’d heard it isn’t such a bad death. A stroll under the stars until my air supply dwindles and my body starts shutting down. It’d be like falling asleep, but with no more nightmares and the promise of never again having to get up.
Sounded good to me.
When I first got to 7734, I’d save my credits to fill a couple of air tanks, and I would go up to the surface every off-shift I could. I’d gaze at the swirling stars, so bright against the black sky, and I’d make up stories about constellations that hadn’t been named yet. After all, I figured, somebody had to do it. Right? Like those ancient Greeks or Egyptians or whoever it was who first used the stars to navigate the human heart. So I’d figured we need those kinds of stories now, to become our myths, our guides to the future.
My first constellation—and I guess my favorite—was a group of 10 stars that I called My Space Hero, because I thought they looked like a woman pointing to some faraway unknown. The Wanderer’s Eyes were two unusually bright stars surrounded by faint glimmers. Baby’s Breath was a shimmering nebula. I found so many stories in the sky swirling around me; all I had to do was listen carefully.
I hadn’t gone up to the surface for...oh, I don’t know how long. Initially, I told myself it was just good to know it’s up there, and that I could see such wondrous sights any time I wanted. But that wasn’t it. I no longer knew why I’d want to gaze at the stars or create myths or whatever it was I thought I was doing up there. Besides, I was always too tired after my shift to do anything but eat, sometimes have a quick screw and then sleep. Sleep got to be the best part of the day—if I didn’t dream.
So I decided that morning I’d go back up to the surface and see my stars one last time. A stroll until I slept forever under my private constellations whose names would die with me.
I reached into the cubbyhole under my bed and grabbed the first clothes my hand touched. Not that there was much to choose from. All the same regulation gear: tough sensible underwear, faded blue shirts and pants. Mine varied only in the patterns of stains or wear.
As luck would have it, the top shirt was one that used to belong to Jonesy’s old live-in before he croaked. I didn’t remember his name or what he looked like, but he was a real loser. Still, Jonesy liked him for a while. The night he didn’t come back inside, she bawled her head off, right there in the rec hall, not caring who saw her. Then she got over him, and a new guy moved in with her. She put out the dead man’s stuff at last week’s swap meet, and I traded a stupid old food transport bottle I’d carved up for his shirt. Didn’t know if she really wanted the trade. My guess was she was just tired of seeing me dressed in stains and rips.
Anyway, I put on that shirt for the first time that morning. That’s when I found it, when it knocked against my left breast with a sharp thump. An honest-to-goodness photo in a genuine Earth-grown wood frame, about the size of my palm.
The picture was of a woman. I guessed she was about my age, in her thirties; something about her made me feel that it was an honest picture, no rejuve or retouch. Just her, for real. Her head filled the frame so I couldn’t see any hints about where she was or when. And it was a flat picture, not a holo, like hobby antique buffs make. I fooled around with a guy like that in school for a couple of weeks. He once showed me a print he’d made from an old-fashioned computer he’d cobbled together from junk parts, the way they used to be built centuries ago. This was that kind of flat print.
Can you believe it? This dead guy brought something like that in his pack. Geez, when I’d weighed in at the spaceport on Earth, I had to toss my hairbrush to come within regulation mass for liftoff. So what did Jonesy’s dead guy throw away at the spaceport when it was either that or this picture? And set in real wood, too, to protect it, I guess. That wood must’ve cost him more credits than I’ve ever had to spend.
The woman in the wood frame smiled at me, and somehow it made me feel the way I did when I was a kid and my spacer lifted me high above the crushing crowd. Not that she looked anything like my spacer. This woman had a smooth, unscarred face and thick, dark, unruly curls. But it was her eyes; they held me, as though she could see me clear across the years and space that separated us. No one except my spacer had ever looked at me like that. I mean really looked right at me, into me. Not mom, not any of my so-called lovers and certainly no one here on 7734. We’re all taught young to let our eyes slide over people, to avert our gaze rather than encroach. But my spacer, and now the smiling woman in this picture—they looked, they saw me.
I put the picture back into the skirt pocket where it belonged and headed for the nearest air lock. She’d be good company for my walk.
Funny, but once I decided that it was my last morning, that I was ready to die, I was really okay with it. More than okay; I was looking forward to it. Every nerve in my body seemed to be firing at once, making me feel more alive than I ever remembered being. I even had a sort of bounce in my step that made the photo in my pocket thump pleasantly against my breast.
That was it! I realized with each thump. I wasn’t alone anymore.
I’d go up to the surface and tell this smiling woman about my constellations. It would be a good death; far better than any life I’d ever known.
At the air lock vestibule, I squirmed into a suit, listened as each seam confirmed auto-seal, then swiped my ID to fill the air tanks. All I needed was a half tank, but the airlock wouldn’t open unless both were topped up.
“Insufficient credits,” the suit’s comm blared at me in that high-pitched tinny tone that could scrape the hairs off your neck.
What the blazes?! I was never very good at watching my accounts, but hell, I earned 12,500 a year baseline plus overtime, and it wasn’t like I was a spendthrift. Now this stupid machine was claiming I didn’t have 275 to buy some extra air.
I’d be damned if I was going to let a ’bot tell me I couldn’t kill myself. I yanked the suit’s gloves off and tore open the wall panel, so I could get at the controls. Hell, changing the cost of two tanks of air would be child’s play compared to the routine reprogramming I handled daily.
Funny, but once I decided that it was my last morning, that I was ready to die, I was really okay with it. More than okay; I was looking forward to it. Every nerve in my body seemed to be firing at once, making me feel more alive than I ever remembered being.
“960 credits charged to your account for unauthorized access. 2,500 credits for attempted embezzlement. Report to your supervisor at once.”
All that energy that had surged through my nerves now balled up into a tight nail-gouging fist. I punched and kicked those damned controls, each blow reverberating in my bones.
That lousy piercing disembodied voice screeched, “1,300 credits for vandalism. Cease at once and report to your supervisor.”
One last futile kick, that had little heart in it, generated a parting, “875 additional credits charged to your account for vandalism. Report immediately to your supervisor.” I peeled off the suit, left it on the ground where it crumpled at my feet, and clumped away.
What can you do when you’re determined to die, but you live anyway despite your best efforts? On the one hand, nothing changes, yet everything does. I had all this pent-up energy and nowhere to take it. So it just looped through me, drilling holes until I felt emptied, vacant.
I walked numbly for some unmeasured time, shuffling one foot in front of the other, moving autonomically through the same old corridors, sidestepping other meat bodies and mechanical ’bots without seeing them.
Eventually I found my way to my monitoring station for the simple reason there isn’t much of a choice of places to go on this claustrophobic asteroid. Thomas sneered then leered at me, but I let my eyes slide away from him. When I tried to walk past him, he clenched my upper arm and hissed in my ear, “Just got a report on you, Smith. Shit, woman! Never took you for a saboteur. Vandalism? Embezzlement?” He liked the sound of those two words and drew them out so his stinking hot breath sprayed my neck and cheek. “Your ass is going to be glued to that seat for a dead man’s age if you ever hope to clear your credit deficit. Add 97 credits for being late and 134 for making my team look bad.” Before he let go, he shoved me toward my station, then smirked when I stumbled.
The first day I had arrived on 7734, I had been assigned to monitor Extractor J23-987, and that’s what I’ve been stuck doing every day since. To my left sits the schlump who keeps an eye on Tunneler J23-986. On my other side is the handler for Sorter J23-988. That how it is up and down our row of stations—the crew for our particular bore sitting in the order that our mining machines follow into 7734’s dark underworld. All surrounded by dozens of rows of other crews, in a low-ceilinged room too large to fill with anything but grunts and curses.
Like everyone else, I stare at readouts hour after hour. If they vary more than 5% from the acceptable efficiency range, I punch in the code for a troubleshooting routine. It’s sort of a relief when that fails, when the ’bot can’t deal with an unexpected incident, like an earthquake or tunnel collapse. That’s when I get to justify my existence on this damned rock by creating the kind of oblique code only our irrational human minds can concoct. If I’m lucky, it’s a real crisis that paralyzes the ’bot, and I get to redefine its primary instructions to teach it how to handle the new situation. But that causes problems all down the bore, and I get blamed for reducing the whole crew’s productivity and the resulting lost credits.
You quickly learned that the way to survive was by not caring, by not noticing when the guy to the left or right screamed holy murder at his or her machine, by sinking deep into a grey fog where nothing could touch you.
The day I failed to kill myself was no different from any other. I fell back into the same old routine like the organic ’bot the Corp demanded I be. No immediate mishaps required attention, so my mind wandered, adding up the hours I would need to clear my debt.
If I signed up for lots of overtime, and if I were very careful, avoided getting fines, didn’t spend any credits on extra food or rec time, and gave up my private room, maybe, just maybe I could get back up to zero in about a year and a half. Probably more. If I put up with Thomas’ friendly moods, I might cut it by a month or two. Then, if I worked and saved at the same pace, I just might have enough credits for my long walk in another half year. Realistically, it would be at least two years, maybe even three before I could shuck this life.
That really burned me—that the Corp owned me so solidly that I had to work just for the right to die. And to make matters worse, Thomas was leering at me again with that lopsided grin that meant he was about to make a move.
I guess I could’ve figured out some other way to off myself, but I really wanted to see my stars just one more time before the end. Stupid, right? I mean, what difference could that make? But once I got the idea in my noggin, I couldn’t stop picturing sitting on some rock on the surface and telling my stories to the woman in the picture, just like my space hero once told me.
During a piss break, I hid in a toilet cubicle so I could take the picture out and look at it. Her smile broke something inside me, like a foot kicking in a door in my gut. But instead of wanting to puke, I felt a warmth that bubbled through those holes that my failed death had drilled into me.
It was those eyes of hers, looking right out of the picture at me. Somehow, they changed things, because she saw me. Yeah, I know, she never knew me, not to look at. And if she could’ve ever seen me, probably wouldn’t have noticed me, not for real. Still, I couldn’t help wondering what she might have said, what she would have seen if she were truly looking at me.
Then I realized I had things turned upside down. I was the one who was seeing her. Or at least, her picture. Seeing her made me notice other things too. Like when I got back to my station from the toilet, for some crazy reason, I saw the operators on either side of me. I mean, really saw them for the first time, as more than meat bods handling the machines closest to mine.
The Tunneler was hunched over, shaped like a question mark. Her long straggly brown hair curtained her pale sallow face, so she could see only straight ahead, and no one could pry into her private world. Were her eyes as glassy as mine usually felt?
The Sorter’s thick lips were scabby with nervous bite marks. His dark skin had a cloudy ash overtone. His grunts came out squeaky, as though he was trying to swallow his frustration, but it forced its way out anyway.
The strange thing was that seeing them for real didn’t depress me further. Not when I felt the small rectangle in my breast pocket.
A week later, when my clothes were too dirty even for me, I moved the picture to a cleaner shirt. I carried it everywhere I went. I’d take her out and look at her when I was alone. It made things feel...I don’t know what...just not as bad as before. It’s really something, how heavy a real treasure can be, even one as small as that picture, when you’re weighing out your life and trying to tip the balance away from everything and everyone that wants to drag you down. Yeah, a smile can be like that.
I ached to know more about her. Not only because her smile was so alive but realizing how much she’d meant to someone. A man had loved her so much that he couldn’t live without her picture. Why did he leave her behind? Was she dead? Or was she with someone else, and all this guy could do was dream of her? Maybe it got so painful, he finally left Earth, and he brought this picture, so he could imagine her smile was for him alone.
Okay, I’m not a kid. I know I’m making up fairy tales about her and him. But I had to somehow fill the not knowing. How else could I imagine someone ever loving me like that? And, yeah, the more I looked at the picture, the more I wanted whatever it was that she’d had that had made her smile like that.
Now, to look at me, you wouldn’t believe I had no luck with men. I mean, I’m not bad looking, right? At 39, I’ve still got curves in the right places. Sure, I’ve lost lots of weight; mass loss is unavoidable out here. But my breasts still perk up instead of fall. The lesser gravity’s got to help with that. My face might not be pretty by Earth standards, with eyes that are too big, too brown, and too sure. I never learned to flutter my eyelashes and talk softly like the popular girls back home. But heck, I’m one of the more attractive ones here. Or so the guys told me when they were putting the move on me.
It didn’t help that the scums out here were real losers. Sure, I tried a few, but only for a tumble, not for a live-in. What I didn’t get was no one here wanted to move in with me. They talked a good tale until we had our sex. Then they moved on.
Maybe that was my fault. I never knew that dead guy was anything but a loser. But looking at my smiler, I realized he must have had something. I’d hold the picture and wish I could remember his face, so I could understand what I’d missed when I had looked at him.
I needed to know about that guy, and the only person I could ask was Jonesy.
I’d known Jonesy since the spaceport. We’d arrived on 7734 in the same shipment, and we were thrown together a lot during our orientation. We even bunked in the same dorm for a while, and sometimes we’d chat. About nothing. Just the kind of noise you share when you’re tired of talking to yourself, and the person in front of you is a familiar sort. I suppose you’d say she was my friend, as much as you could be friends with anyone on 7734. The Corp found ways to keep us too busy for anything like a real friendship. Still, I guess I’d have stuck my neck out for Jonesy, if she needed me to. And, yeah, I suppose I knew she might’ve done the same for me, if I really, really needed it. But that would’ve meant I’d have had to ask her, and I had a hard time asking anyone for anything.
Anyway, soon after I found the picture in the dead guy’s shirt, I steeled myself to ask Jonesy about the man who’d owned it. Often as not, I’d sit with Jonesy in the cafeteria, if our shifts coincided, and if she wasn’t in the honeymoon phase of a new guy. But we were on different work cycles that meshed only every few days. The first time after our trade that I saw her, she was arguing with some fellow from her shift. So I sat at the opposite side of the cafeteria. She ended up punching him in the nose and stomping away. Never did find out why.
Thing is, it wasn’t like Jonesy to punch anyone. She’d always preferred dark corners, like a mouse or a beaten dog. But she hadn’t been acting like herself for some time. Not since the dead guy took his long walk on the surface. Or maybe a little before then. It wasn’t anything I could put my finger on, except that she didn’t seem to avoid anything or anyone anymore.
Whatever it was, she was somehow different. So were the people around her. I mean, men now always hovered around her. Not that she hadn’t had guys before. Heck, the men outnumber the women 10:1 here. It’s tough for a woman—or a man if he leans that way—to not have a man, unless you’re not interested, and you let them know it. Sometimes you gotta let them know it pretty firmly. But for some reason, all of a sudden, men couldn’t leave Jonesy alone. Like she was the queen bee with the only honey.
I didn’t get it. I know I sound catty, but Jonesy’s so skinny that she’s scrawny, with a nose too big for her head, and a body that quit long ago.
I couldn’t understand what it was about Jonesy, about how she’d changed, that is. Then, I saw her smile. It was like I imagined my smiler, the woman in the picture, if it had been a vid instead of flat. I mean, Jonesy’s smile didn’t start at her lips. Instead, it came from somewhere deep inside and spread out from her. Damned if she didn’t sparkle like holos I’d seen of sunlight on the Pacific Ocean, from back before it had turned brown and died.
A few days later, Jonesy was alone having dinner when I came into the cafeteria for mine. Well, she wasn’t really alone. The guys were hovering as usual, but she was sitting at a small table for two, and a bunch of them were fighting over who’d get the other chair. I filled up a tray and slipped into the seat opposite her before any of the men could.
“Hey, Smith, looking good,” she said, as she checked out my garb and saw nothing really out of place or too dirty.
“Yeah, well, I’m trying, Jonesy.”
“Sure can tell.” She nodded while she speared a piece of indistinguishable preformed protein that was supposed to look like a slab of meat. “Why? Got a new lover or something?”
“No, nobody special. But you never can tell. I mean, maybe I haven’t given these guys a chance.” I gestured to the room full of losers, including the ones who were still fighting over her even though I had taken the seat. “Like that fella you had. What was his name?”
“You know, the guy who suicided a while back.”
I played with the lumpy goo that was supposed to remind me of macaroni and cheese. At least, it was something to do, while pretending I didn’t care what she said.
“Yeah, Al.” Her voice actually cracked saying his name.
“Hey, you’re still broken up about him?”
“Well, yeah. Al was special.”
“Why? I mean what was so special about him?” All I’d seen, when I’d bothered to look at him, was a loser. That is, if I had looked at him at all. I still couldn’t remember his face or anything about him.
“Can’t really explain it.” Her head was turned toward me, but her eyes focused on something not there in the room. “Al was a bit of a mystery,” she said in a soft, dreamy voice. “Much smarter than the average asshole around here. Smart enough to get posted anywhere he wanted. So, why’d he choose this hellhole? And, why wasn’t he running it?”
“If he was so smart, why’d he suicide?” I asked her.
She shook her head and speared another piece of processed leather. “Why’re you asking anyway?” she said with a half-chewed mouthful.
That’s what shut me up. How could I tell her how important the dead guy—Al, she said his name was—had become to me? I dreamed about him at night, fantasized about him during the day, pictured him and her, his smiler, being reunited back on Earth, or her coming here, giving up everything just to be with him. In my most recent fantasies, the smiler had morphed into me—a me I had never before imagined I could be—alive, warm and whole. How could I go on without knowing, without understanding the things that haunted me? I played with the yellow lump muck on my plate, anything to avoid Jonesy’s questions. I guess she didn’t buy it.
I turned to her and was surprised at what I saw: a soft patience, like maybe she’d guessed and didn’t mind.
“Why d’you care?” she asked.
I thought about denying that it mattered to me—just conversation. But her damn blue eyes were so soft and kind. And she probably had my answers. My heart was pounding against my shirt pocket, as I fumbled with the flap and reached in to get the picture. I cupped my hands over it when I took it out, so no one but the two of us could see it.
“D’you remember when I traded you for this shirt?” I asked her.
“Well, this was in one of the pockets.”
She reached for it, but I couldn’t let go, couldn’t chance she wouldn’t give it back. Hell, it hadn’t really been part of the trade; she might’ve been in her rights to take it. Both of us held onto it, with our hands not touching each other, but careful to be gentle with the rough, rare wood frame.
“Do you know who she was, Jonesy? What was it between Al and her? Do you know?” I really didn’t mean to let her hear how important it was to me. But I didn’t have control over my voice. Damn it, my hand on the tiny frame even shook with fear and excitement. Fear she might take the picture back, that she might not tell me what she knew, that she might laugh at me. And excitement that I might be near the truth.
She let go of the frame to put her hand over mine for a brief moment. It was a warming touch that calmed my shakes, especially ’cause she didn’t stop me when I squirreled the picture back into my pocket.
“Smith, you know the rules; 7734’s a clean slate for all of us. The only person who could’ve told you Al’s history is Al, and he’s dead.” Her voice was gentle, in a way I’d never heard it before. “The only story I have the right to tell you is my own, and it starts with Al. If you want to hear that one, you’ll have to come with me to my room. Only there can I tell it.”
Mostly trees and meadows, with blue skies, but also a house with a face looking out through a window at birds flying on the ceiling. That face was my smiler, the woman in the photo. But the birds were wild, fantastical creatures, like I’d never imagined, except maybe in dreams. I’d forgotten that so many colors could exist, could really be seen by the human eye, certainly not in my gray life.
“Al did it,” she said without me asking. “He used almost-dry surplus pigments from maintenance with other stuff he got in trade. He even blended in leftover food and other trash to make the colors.”
She pointed at the ceiling where she’d hung my carved bottle from the luminant panel. When she touched the bottle to make it swing, the dancing light made the flowers seem to move as though there was a breeze, and I could swear that a couple of the birds flapped their wings. Geez! Did I create that?
She gestured for me to sit on a chair that was covered with patched-together pieces of old clothing, so it looked much more comfortable than its hard frame was ever meant to be. When I sat down, I realized that under the cloth it was just like my regulation chair. All the wrong angles for a human body, designed instead to come apart easily and stack neatly. Still, it felt good to sit on it and know someone had found a way to make it different, make it her own.
Jonesy sat on her oversized bed; I guess her series of live-ins had helped with extra credits to pay for it. She reached for a sack, pulled pieces of different materials from it, and began to sew them together, while she talked to me.
“Smith, I was as dead inside as they tell us we are when I met Al, dead as you were before you got that picture. But you’re not anymore, are you?”
I stared at her. I didn’t know how to answer.
At the end of the meal, I followed Jonesy through the rock-blast corridors to her cubicle. When she opened the door and let me walk in ahead of her, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It didn’t look anything like the bare, boring cells we all have. The walls were painted with panoramas of an Earth I’d never seen.
“Al did that to people...made them feel alive,” she explained while she sewed. “That’s why I’ll never believe he did it on purpose...suicided. He wasn’t that stupid, that deadened, the way the guys are who take that walk.” She pointed at the wall opposite her where a child played with a small furry animal in a field of tall green and gold grasses. “I mean, look at all this. How could the man who painted these things want to die? He was too full of life, too excited about finding out what might happen next.”
“Wha? ...Why?” I stammered, not knowing how to form the questions that swarmed in my head. I looked around, but I couldn’t take it all in. It was like trying to see the stars when you’re a small kid surrounded by legs.
“Like I said before, Smith, I can’t tell you about Al, except that he was my beginning. After meeting him, I knew that I didn’t really leave everything behind on Earth, because I brought myself here, the heart that is me. As long as I know that, the Corp has no power over me to make me less than I am.” She put down her sewing and looked me in the eye...I mean really deep, so I couldn’t turn away. Like she held me in her grip and wouldn’t let go ’til she was finished with me.
“Look around us, at Al’s painting...and your jug, too. What ’bot could do that? Al told me that they used to try to program robots to make art, but it came out dull, repetitive, and predictable. They were missing the juice, the ‘creative chaos’ is what Al called it.”
“Yeah. It’s that stuff in us that they try to drive out or dry up, to make us good reliable meat ’bots. The part of us that can’t be programmed, because you never really know what you’re going to think of next, or want to do, or how you’ll react. It’s why we make mistakes, because we’re only human. But it’s also how we make art, or jokes, or love. That’s what Al taught me...he reminded me how to be human again. And what that picture in your pocket taught you.”
I didn’t realize I was crying until I tasted tears on my lips. But I was smiling too. I felt like screaming at the top of my lungs. Instead, I laughed and laughed and laughed, until my stomach ached and my head buzzed.
We talked late into the off-shift, until eventually we fell asleep curled into each other on that oversized bed. I didn’t learn anything more about Al or my smiler. But when I woke up the next morning in that room, surrounded by the life that had poured out of him onto Jonesy’s walls and into both our hearts, I knew she was right about Al. Nah, he couldn’t have suicided. Maybe, it had to do with his creative chaos, with the fact that he was so fully, truly human. Maybe, he just made a mistake.
Or, did someone make that mistake for him?
Things didn’t turn around right away after that evening with Jonesy. Heck, how could it? I was still stuck on the treadmill of 7734, following the same deadening routines as always, and now buried under a mountain of debt that made me even more a slave to the Corp.
But deep inside, I could feel a kernel of something pushing at me, making me think about things that I’d never considered before. And it grew little by little.
I couldn’t avoid the hard realities; I had to give up my private room. I dreaded returning to the dorm where you’re nothing more than one of the many processed bods slotted into Corp peg holes even when you sleep. But I had no choice if I ever planned to get out from under my debt.
Then Jonesy came up with the suggestion that I move in with her.
A part of me loved the idea. Imagine living in Al’s painted room! But I was worried about what the cost would be. I mean, she had to have something she wanted to get out of it. And that oversized bed wasn’t very subtle.
But would that be so bad?
I couldn’t stop thinking about what it had been like sharing that bed with Jonesy, how she held me until my tears dried up and how the sleep we shared was deeper, softer than any I had ever known.
In the end, I moved in with Jonesy, because it was that or the dorm. And I could always walk away if it got too weird. Besides, we were on different shift schedules which meant I’d have to deal with her only every few days.
The sex was pretty good. Heck, she understood a woman’s body better than any man could, or at least any man I’ve ever known. But it was our talks that made the real difference. That and when she sat quietly sewing her pieced together cloths, giving me the space to think. At one point, she traded a patchwork shirt she’d made for another food transport bottle. After that, I carved while she sewed. I was a really slow carver, because I preferred losing myself in Al’s painting, and making up stories about what I saw.
Like the tale of the young girl in the tall grasses. I imagined that she was chasing a star that had fallen to earth. When she finally caught it, she held it to her heart, and it burrowed into her.
The stories grew until I couldn’t keep them inside anymore. Not even when we sat in the rec hall which we did more and more. I guess our honeymoon phase was over.
By then I knew the painting so well that I could see it in my mind wherever I was, just like my spacer who could see stars hidden to everyone else.
Jonesy and I had a favorite quiet corner in the rec hall where we would sit. While she sewed, I played at carving, and I told her my stories. I kept my voice low, because the tales were for us alone, creating a cocoon around us that was as warm as that deep sleep we had shared that first night.
I guess that’s why I didn’t really pay attention when folks moved some chairs closer to us, then more of them closer still. Not until the night I told Jonesy a story about My Space Hero constellation.
A palpable silence formed around us as I spoke, almost as though our cocoon had become a living, growing creature made of about eighteen people breathing in concert with my words.
“…and when I looked up one last time, I saw her stars. No longer hidden from view, they formed a gateway in the dark expanse. Then she was gone, beyond the stars where her dreams carried her. Maybe someday I’ll follow her.”
I paused, resting in the quiet of my finished tale as I usually did. But it was broken by a sigh behind me to my left. Then a soft sob further back, to my right. And a “yes!” whispered almost like a gasp from behind Jonesy.
The unexpected sounds pulled me outward to gaze around me. Mostly men, but some women too, sat looking at me, directly at me, like they were absorbing me into themselves. When our eyes met they didn’t turn away. Several wore patchwork shirts. I guess Jonesy had been busy trading away her put-together clothes. But I noticed that some of the crowd around us were sewing stuff, too; others were carving.
One was using a utility knife to scratch a small broken plex slab. I realized with a jolt that it was the scabby-lipped Sorter who sat next to me daily, but his lips were no longer raw and broken, and his dark skin shone with life. When did that happen? Why did it bother me that I hadn’t noticed the change in him? He was nobody to me.
When he saw me watching him, he held the plex up so I could see he was etching a face. At first, I thought it was my smiler he was drawing. Then I looked closer, and it was me! Not me as I had always been, but the me I would have liked to dream myself to be.
“I’ve never seen stars,” he said. “I never knew I wanted to see them.” I was surprised that his voice was mellow, wistful, nothing like the squeaky grunts that had been all I’d ever heard from him when he fought with his machine.
From the other side of the jumbled circle, another guy piped up. “I saw them once, on the surface, but I didn’t understand. All those points of light…they meant nothing.” He put down his sewing and closed his eyes for a moment. “I didn’t hear them, not the way you do Smith.” When he opened his eyes to look at me, they burned. I wasn’t sure if he was angry or sad. “How come they tell you stories like that, but not me, not any of us?”
What could I say? All I wanted right then was to hide, to bury my stories deep inside where no one would ever hear them again. But I was surrounded by that swarm of chairs pulled close around me, and all those people looking at me. Geez, I didn’t have any answers. I didn’t even know what the questions should be.
“It’s like Watkins said… we didn’t know to want it.” The man who said that pointed at the Sorter from my team.
Watkins and I had worked side by side for three years, and I had never known his name. Never asked anything about him. He grinned but said nothing more; he just bent down to work some more on his plex etching.
“Yeah. How’d they do that?” asked a woman with the shaved head of a reclamation worker. “How’d they make us stop wanting?”
“Because we let them.” Jonesy stared at me, almost as though it were a dare or maybe a promise. “But we want now.”
“What? What do you want?” I asked.
Suddenly, several people were talking back and forth, the way I never saw any group chatter, not since coming to 7734. So many voices that I could hear only snippets coming from all directions.
“How can we know what we want, if we’ve never had it?”
“Like Watkins not knowing to go look at the stars.”
“Or wanting to hear Smith’s stories.”
“Or make my own… stories and stars.”
“You know the Corp isn’t going to like this,” one guy warned, and it turned everything on its head, tearing our cocoon apart, letting in cold reality. “We’re gonna be branded troublemakers if we don’t watch out.”
“Why? For telling stories, sewing, carving? That’s stupid.”
“For talking, dreaming, thinking for ourselves.”
“People have disappeared for less.”
Jonesy shuddered when she heard that last one. I knew what she was thinking, because I was thinking the same thing… Al. If he didn’t suicide, what did happen?
One by one the same folks who were so animated and happy to be chattering together slunk away. Their eyes down, no longer looking at each other, their shoulders hunched. I didn’t blame them, I felt the same way.
For a few moments, I had thought maybe, just maybe we could get out from under the Corp’s fist, be something more than meat ’bots. But naw, I realized, that would never happen.
Jonesy and I gathered our stuff and shuffled back toward our room. Watkins caught up with us. Without a word, he handed me the plex portrait, then took off. Darn if he didn’t have a bounce in his step.
The next day started out much like any other, except that Watkins was late signing in. I was busy with a breakdown, coaxing my Extractor with some new code to get it to ignore the cave-in that blocked it in all directions except backward. So I didn’t see how the trouble started. Not until I heard our supe Thomas hissing at Watkins.
“Docked 101 credits for being late. 132 credits for non-reg clothes.”
Thomas was tugging hard at Watkins’ patchwork shirt. What the hell did he think he was doing wearing that damn thing to work?
Even when Thomas ripped the shirt, Watkins just smiled, and that got Thomas more steamed.
“Insubordination, too, huh, Watkins? Another 187 credits.” He clenched Watkins’ arm and put his other fist in the man’s face. “I’d wipe that grin off your face if you know what’s good for you. The Corp don’t waste resources on troublemakers. All I gotta do is report you.”
Thomas must have been really riled. I’d never heard anyone say it out loud like that. I mean, was he really saying what it sounded like? Would he really arrange to “disappear” Watkins? Again, I thought of Al, and something in me just cracked.
I jumped up from my bench. But a bunch of other people got to Thomas before me, surrounding him, pulling him off Watkins. What had gotten into them? Everyone knows the only way to survive is to stay quiet, unnoticed, whatever happens. Instead, they swarmed around him, yammering all at once.
“Get your grubby hands off him, Thomas!”
“What’s it to you what he wears?”
“Big mouth, little man.”
“If you know what’s good for you, you won’t say a word about this to nobody, Thomas.”
“Yeah, Corp ass-wipers can disappear too, ya know.”
Freed from Thomas’s grip, Watkins strolled to his station, assessed the situation in our bore and coded his Sorter to help my Extractor dig out.
It was over as quickly as it had started. Everyone got down to work. Thomas didn’t bother anyone else all day, but I worried what he was inputting into his system. Was he reporting all of us? Or did he fear that as our supe, he’d be blamed for the lost productivity if too many of us were reported as unsuitable.
Heck, the loss of one bad egg—an Al or someone like him—might be discounted as suicide. But now that a group of us was asking questions, watching, seeing, talking—well, that’s got to make it harder for them, right?
The following morning, I decided to wear one of Jonesy’s patchwork shirts to work. I’m not sure why I did it. Maybe, I was just tired of Thomas’s jibes and demands, and I wanted to rub his nose in it. Yeah, I know, a stupid thing to do.
The minute I signed in, Thomas grabbed me.
“Smith, you’re cooked!”
But he didn’t get to say or do anything else to me, because Watkins came in next, wearing the same shirt as yesterday, with the rip fixed. Our bore’s Tunneler had on short cut-off pants. Someone from another team had a strange multi-colored woven pulldown.
Suddenly, everyone poured in, not one by one, but as a crowd. Almost all our bore and a bunch of bods from other bores, many wearing non-reg clothes of one sort or another. And they were noisy, talking and laughing at how silly we all looked.
“Shut up, shut up, shut…! Troublemakers! Saboteurs! You’re on report…!” Thomas yelled, but we were louder and could pretend to not hear him.
You should have seen him, all red-faced and sputtering curses, turning round and round trying to focus on individuals and seeing only the crazy, chattering crowd.
Watkins took Thomas gently by the shoulder and guided him to his station.
Watkins is one strange guy. I mean, he was smiling the whole time, but he wasn’t poking fun at Thomas. Just helping him get out of the way, settling him in to his work. Did Watkins care or was he just making sure Thomas didn’t cause problems?
Or was it his way of trying to force at least this little corner of the Corp to accept a new normal, whatever that might be?
No way I could believe it would be that easy. Thomas might be subdued for the moment by our derailing of his routine. That didn’t really mean we’d broken him or the Corp’s stranglehold over us. Just that, for this one day, folks around me were smiling at each other. Even the Tunneler to my left (her name’s Jensen) looked out from under her curtain of hair and sat just a bit taller. Whatever punishments the Corp would throw at us, we’d reclaimed something of our own. Damn the repercussions!
As I returned to work, I glanced over at Watkins who winked when he noticed me looking. Yeah, I liked that guy’s style. Who would have thought? Maybe someday I would show him Al’s painted room. I knew Jonesy would be okay with that.
Eventually, I did return to the surface, sometimes with Jonesy and Watkins by my side. Always with others, different others every time. Not that I got out from under that huge debt any time soon. The Corp made sure of that by fining me at every real or trumped-up infraction. But folks wanted to see what I saw, hear my stories about the stars and what might be beyond this existence. They even made up their own, not just stories, but ideas and plans for the future. So they got together to pay for my air tanks, and we gathered on the surface.
Of course, my smiler came too, hidden in my breast pocket where she belonged. Like a constellation snuggled against my heart.
So, yeah, I am an optimist, and damned proud of it. And you know what? It looks like it might be contagious.