By Kai Hudson
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
His mother gets punched out an airlock on Saturday.
Lew2 attends the jetting. He watches the white-wrapped corpse explode out the ship and shrink into a speck in the black. Then he yawns--5.5 hours of sleep last night, insufficient--and goes to get something to eat.
Sarah4 follows him into the wide central passageway, metal and plastic on all sides. Lew2 glances sideways as they pass into West Hive. Her hair looks bad today.
"Your hair looks bad today."
They duck under an archway with the number 19 stenciled onto it. Immediately the crowd thickens; Lew2 brushes shoulders with engineers and technicians, secretaries and laborers. Most wear gray from head to foot. No one smiles or meets his gaze.
"The jetting was quiet," Sarah4 remarks. "I thought it would be louder."
"There's no sound in space," Lew2 answers. His left arm itches. The scars concealed beneath the thin gray sleeve look fresh: two jagged pink lines from wrist halfway down forearm. He does not remember acquiring them.
"Okay," Sarah4 says.
They round a corner: less steel, more white. Outside the thick windows, stars speckle the blanket of space, snuffed momentarily by the bulk of passing ships.
There are other people here. A young couple, maybe Lew2's age, stand in each other's arms before one of the windows. The woman leans into the man, lips curved upward. "Isn't it beautiful," she whispers. Her partner murmurs something back, low and sweet.
Lew2 slows. Feelers, by their dress: the woman's scarf splashes blue across her white blouse; the man wears bright green beneath his black blazer, and there are blond streaks in his hair.
Lew2 thinks about it. He gets as far as reaching for the node, hidden as always in his pocket, before the man draws the woman closer, voice dropping low and cautious as he glances around. "We should go," he whispers. "There are too many grays around here."
"They're people too, darling," the woman answers with a sigh, but the man shakes his head.
"Better check your firewall anyway. Adrian says West Hive's swarming with pickpockets."
"You and your paranoia," the woman huffs. Nevertheless, her fingers creep up to the back of her neck to adjust something. She follows as he steps back from the window and, hand-in-hand, they vanish down a side hatch.
Sarah4 comes to stand beside him. "You didn't charge the node."
"But you want to."
Lew2 considers that. He is no longer used to wanting things, but he had thought about it, right before the feeler couple departed. So perhaps.
Sarah4 nods. "There will be other opportunities," she says, as they continue down the corridor. "Station 19 is the main docking zone for West Hive. Many feelers come through here, and--oh."
She stops and looks down at her hand. She has cut it on an exposed panel, perhaps left unattended by a distracted technician. A thin line of red wells up along the edge of her palm.
Lew2's arm itches again. He ignores it and asks, "Does it hurt?"
"Should a sealant be applied?"
"No." Sarah4 wipes her hand on her pants, smearing red across the gray fabric. "It will heal. Let's proceed."
Lew2 nods and they continue on. Station 19 hums around them, an endless procession of white hallways, round hatches, and long observation windows. People pass by on a variety of tasks, a sea of gray penetrated here and there by islands of color, red and purple and other forms of caring.
Three feelers stand near the end of the next hallway, a mother and two young children. The woman holds a red purse in one hand and a tiny wrist in the other. Her eyelids droop. The children, twin girls, wear matching flowery dresses of pink and yellow, eyes big as they stare up at the holocon poster shifting on the wall above.
The display twists and flashes a ribbon of colored text. Welcome to West Hive, the Colonies' center of manufacturing excellence. All residents here Sanitized for maximum efficiency. Please enjoy your stay!
"Mama, what's san-it-ized?" one of the girls asks.
Her mother blinks away fatigue and straightens up. "Watch this," she says, and takes one step forward, right into the path of a passing technician. As the man comes to a stop, she looks him in the eyes and says, "I'm gonna punch you in the face."
The technician watches her for two seconds. "Okay," he answers, and continues on.
"That wasn't nice, Mama," her daughter says.
"It's fine. People like him, wearing all gray? The government took away their feelings so they do more work. They don't care about stuff like this."
"So they don't have feelings at all?" the other twin asks.
The mother considers it. "That's probably not quite right," she says at last. "I don't think the emotions are completely turned off. Just...sucked out, I suppose."
"Please charge if you still want to," Sarah4 says, next to his shoulder. "Otherwise, let's go get something to eat."
Lew2 nods, reaches into his pocket, and curls fingers around the node. He sees it in his mind's eye: a small black cube, roughly the size of an old-world pager, faceless and featureless save for a dewdrop-sized red light in one corner and a single button in the center. He presses it twice, waiting for the quiet three-tone vibration response indicating STATUS: READY.
"Go," he says.
Sarah4 walks past him and approaches the mother. At the last moment, she turns and smacks her shoulder into the other woman's arm. The mother jumps, turns away from her children--Lew2 strides past the first twin, lifts the node, dips it within range of the tiny square chip embedded at the base of her skull, and presses the button again.
Another vibration, two tones this time. CHARGED.
"Pardon me," Sarah4 says, nodding at the mother, and continues walking. Lew2 tucks the node back into his pocket and follows a few paces behind, catching up once they have turned the corner.
"Is it enough?" Sarah4 asks.
Lew2 nods. "Children always have more."
"Let's go home."
Behind them, the mother's voice: "...Filia? Filia? Why're you--don't just stand there, say something!"
Back through more tunnels, more hatches. The white falls away, fading back into dull gunmetal grays. The people thin out. Their bootsteps ping off empty walls.
Hall 67, Sector 4, Row 15, Unit 3. They climb up the ladder and into the box. Twenty by twenty feet, one large bunk, a sustenance stall in one corner. Everywhere gray except for one burst of color: a green plastic fork on the metal nightstand, wide-handled and chubby like a child might use. A sudden flash of memory: Sarah4 placing it there the last time, fingers shaking, but the reason is a blank.
The door slides shut with a sharp clang. Lew2 sits on the edge of the bunk and Sarah4 joins him there, their combined weight sagging the mattress beneath. He takes the node out and peers at it in the harsh overhead light. It still looks much the same as before, except now the little red light has turned green.
"I'll go first," Sarah4 says, and Lew2 nods. When she leans forward and bows her head, brown hair sliding away to reveal the chip, he hovers the node over it and presses the button.
The green light blinks. Sarah4 sighs as the node dumps charge into her neural interface, sending sparks zinging through networks and synapses put to sleep in a corporate factory months ago.
Then Lew2 does himself. Button press. Three-tone vibration: EMPTY.
Children always have more.
He takes a deep breath and--
It fucking stinks in here.
The smell clogs his nostrils, burrows straight up to choke his brain: musk, sweat, dust, rotting shit from the backed-up stall next door. He gasps, twists away on the bed. "Sarah, you have to--"
"I know!" She's already booking it for the door, throwing it open through gagging noises. "Oh my god, what the hell, when was the last time we--oww."
Lew blinks and looks up. Sarah stands by the door, clutching her hand. He remembers a calm exclamation, a flash of red, and hurries to his wife. "Oh, honey, we should've got you a sealant. Here, let me see."
Her skin is warm and soft beneath his, and he forgets the wound as the touch lights a spark: a bolt of heat up his spine as something bright and beautiful swells in his chest. He stares into Sarah's eyes: blue, so blue, like the sky on old-world mornings. Like robin's eggs, like turquoise jewels, like the shimmering ocean neither of them has ever touched. He groans--it might be a sob--and grasps her by the shoulders.
"You," he whispers, and Sarah nods, tears tracking down her cheeks.
"Yes," she answers, like a promise.
They kiss, warm and passionate and hungry. Lew growls and hurries Sarah toward the bed, and atop the thin scratchy sheets he relearns his wife, the softness of her skin, the ticklish spot over her hip, the way she gasps his name, ragged, and tightens her thighs to urge him deeper as they rock together, tugging each other toward that final, explosive end.
After, he lies catching his breath with Sarah in his arms, thin fingers tracing soothing patterns on his chest. His hand brushes something hard and cold: the plastic fork. Against the gray its bright green shines almost enough to hurt, and one of the tines is...broken? There's also something dark speckled along the points, like rust. How did that get there?
Sarah's fingers join his, tracing the plastic. "Some feeler baby dropped it at their table at the lodge," she says. "Parents didn't even bother picking it up. 'The grays'll take care of it.' Snobs." Her fingers tremble slightly where they touch the fork. He doesn't know why.
"What broke it?" he asks.
Sarah's fingers pause their movement. His wife sighs. "I don't remember," she says, and before he can ask about the lie, she kisses him again. He drops the fork and wraps his arms around her, marvels at her taste, the supple warmth of her body against his. A balloon expands in his chest, pressing against his ribs. He loves her so much. If his mother hadn't had that cough that day, if he hadn't taken her to the hospital and been met by the most gorgeous blue-eyed nurse he'd ever...
"Lew?" Sarah sits up, eyes wide. "Baby?"
"Mom died today," Lew whispers, and the tears take over.
"Oh, honey." Soft arms encircle him, press him to bare breast. "Shh, don't, it's okay, shh..."
"They jetted her," Lew chokes out, through mucus and salt. "They shot her out into empty space like trash, like nothing, and I just stood there and watched, and I didn't care..."
"You couldn't." Her embrace tightens. "Baby, it's not your fault, they turned you off--"
He rears back. "I let them turn me off!" he cries. "I let them turn us both off so we'd have money for those experimental treatments, but then she died anyway and I felt nothing!"
And just like that, the anger flips. The other face is cold and cruel, and achingly, seethingly familiar. You did this, it hisses, sharp with accusation. Worthless, helpless. Nothing but a burden.
Yes. Now he remembers: the familiarity of it, this self-loathing he can't recall not having. All the fancy multisyllabic diagnoses from all those shrinks at all those different hospitals and clinics, none of them right, none of them understanding the way it makes him feel. What it makes him do, because it hurts, and he hates it.
And he's missed it.
"I'm sorry." He grasps Sarah's hands, ignoring her hiss of pain. "This...This is my fault. You're only this way because of me." It feels right to say this, something deep inside him clicking neatly into place. Guilt and self-blame are his old, grinning friends.
Something tortured and fearful enters her eyes that has nothing to do with her injured hand. Sarah swallows. "No, honey, please don't..."
But the thoughts already whirl away: old, familiar, comforting. It's all on him: his selfishness, his stupidity. Sarah wouldn't be this way if it wasn't for him: she only agreed to be Sanitized for him, and what did he give her in return?
Nothing. This piece-of-shit box they live in, smelling like weeks-old sewage. A mind-numbing job cleaning up after tourists at Station 19's single, tiny hotel. A husband who doesn't care about anything, who can watch his own mother get tossed into space to explode into tiny frozen bits and then go eat lunch like nothing matters.
She'd be so much better off without him. They all would.
"Lew," Sarah pleads, but he shakes his head, pushes her away, already planning, already gone.
How will he do it? So many previous attempts, all flawed, all unsuccessful. But he's ready this time. Only a question of method. There are no weapons in West Hive, and their unit isn't high enough to jump from. Maybe if he had some sort of sharp object, like a knife or...a fork...
The memory crashes through him: biting agony in his left arm, the rivulets of blood, the numbing pleasure of Yes, finally. Sarah screaming, yanking it from his hand, eyes nothing but white ringing terrified blue. Her trembling fingers setting the fork down on the nightstand as he sobbed and burbled apologies. The weight of the node lifting from his palm, then his wife's soft fingers in his hair, followed by...
Two-tone vibration. MODE: ERASURE. One button press.
"I'm sorry," Sarah4 says.
Lew2 lifts his head. His face is strangely wet. "For what?"
She shakes her head. It looks as if she has been crying. "We tried everything--meds, implants, electroshocks, nothing worked. I only agreed to Sanitization because they said it would help, but the thoughts just get worse with every recharge. And then the last time, when I almost wasn't fast enough..."
She looks down and takes a deep, shuddering breath. Lew2 blinks. "What thoughts are you referring to?"
Sarah4 sighs. "It's me, isn't it," she murmurs. "I'm the one who keeps...I'm the one who can't let go. I want a husband who laughs and cries and lives with his whole heart, but who also loves himself as much as I do. But we can't all have what we want."
"I don't understand."
"It's all right." Sarah4's bottom lip trembles. She bites it. "I think...I think I've finally learned."
She rises from the bunk. She is naked. Lew2 watches her walk across their box to the open door. She holds the node in her hand; he does not remember giving it to her.
She takes a breath, draws back, and hurls the node into the vast empty chamber beyond. They never hear the echo of its impact.
Lew2 blinks as she returns and settles back down next to him. "When you lose the rest of your charge, we will never feel again," he says.
"I know." Sarah4 sighs and turns to look at him. Her eyes shine. They are...very blue.
"I love you," she whispers, taking his hand in hers. "So much. I just...no matter what happens, I just want you to know that."
Lew2 looks down at their fingers, so tightly intertwined. Then he lifts his gaze back up to Sarah4.
"Okay," he says.