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The shuttle, shaped like a Ferris wheel and operated like a zip line, came to rest in the satellite bay as it did every day-interval. Guy Heller got off with the rest, the same workers he had commuted with for years. They traded the same remarks, made the same observations on their way up the terminal: yes, it was still considered Monday on the anachronistic calendar; everyone was still addicted to caffeine and some to alcohol; outer space was still remarkably big.
As usual, Guy never caught a glimpse of hard vacuum. No windows, viewports anywhere. Might as well be underground. They formed a queue, merging with workers from other shuttles, filing through security on their way to workstations. Guy had some trouble with the new guard who didn’t know about his arm, but he stepped aside and saw the manager, who recognised him, and they nodded him through.
As if in apology, they hadn’t bothered to check his pockets, one of which contained a Red Label lottery ticket that flashed with a holographic explosion of cash, and which formed the words, ‘Redeem Me.’ He hadn’t yet. It had been two days and he wasn’t sure now that he wanted to know.
By then, he had to clock in a few minutes late. His manager, Tim Dougal, had already left a note on Guy’s job board that read, ‘Internal Ductwork’: hairline fractures detected in the cooling vents. Guy packed the tools he needed and headed for the chute.
‘Looks like it’s just you and me again today,’ he said aloud to the empty room. He made a point to say all his thoughts aloud when on a one-man job. Liked to direct them to his daughter, though she wasn’t there, and it was something of a jest to him to carry on like this for the omnipresent safety/security (SS) cameras. As if they were there on his behest, to annotate his life instead of simply watching him.
For an hour, Guy kept his mind successfully blank except for the nuts-and-bolts business of his hands. Being sent down to ID was not such a bad deal. He was good at fixing leaks, and a man as old as he could do worse in life than be set on jobs he knew his way around. Used his good left hand to pass tools to his replacement right, which he had needed after a gravitational accident had crushed his arm. Had it down to a science by now. Assembly line of one. Didn’t whistle or tap his foot, but there was a rhythm, and occasionally he’d conduct an extra little rap of drill or welder to the surface in question just to fill a baseline gap. Didn’t think too much about it; it just seemed necessary in the oppressive stillness of the station, the rhythm.
At which thought he started thinking—about the mechanisphere, mostly. The man-made endless thing that surrounded Sun and Earth. If not a de facto Dyson sphere, it was undoubtedly an impressive megastructure. A Massive Gossamer Configuration (MGC); it powered the Type I civilization that Earth-humanity had become in 3177. Millions of photovoltaic satellites on nanofilaments, like globules of oil running down harp strings, tuned to either end of the solar system. Intermingled with habitats and antenna swarms, and all of this clicking away in the pursuit of energy consumption so that they could communicate with the stellar ships, grapple with the lengthening distance between. All of this so that the human race could continue to make a little more din in the night.
So that’s where he was. Old Man Guy in a cosmos of expanding pieces, tapping out a little haiku-beat because his brain hurt. Somewhere in the midst of it, he’d lost his wonder, and he didn’t want it back. He’d realised this while wedged one day between a back-up oxygen purifier and a service ladder.
Tera, however, had not lost her wonder, though Guy sometimes wished she had. His daughter was on one of the exploratory ships, now some calculation of light weeks away, and Guy often pretended she wasn’t. Imagining, he asked her if he should enter his lottery ticket.
If you weren’t planning on entering to win, why did you buy it? he pretended she said.
‘Because it seemed like a good idea at the time. Do you think I’ll win?’ He carried on these one-sided conversations aloud. So long as he was working.
I don’t know, Dad. Why don’t you just enter it and find out?
‘You’re always so practical, you know that, Tera? I need you because you’re so practical. I’d be so screwed up without you.’ He said this guilelessly, as only a father could.
He pretended she smiled at him without answering. Any answer to his words posed a problem here to his memory of her. She might have said: You’re the practical one, Dad. I’m the dreamer. Which might have been true, but she never would have actually said that, and from a certain point of view (her’s, for instance), it might not have been true. From Tera’s perspective, she was the practical one for leaving; he, the impractical for remaining in this used-up system.
The imagined conversation agitated him. The central problem of his infinitesimal life, as he saw it, was that—through distance—he didn’t know her anymore. In his mind, she hadn’t aged—was still 25 and impatient with the universe. There wasn’t enough space in space for Tera Heller.
And so she’d boarded one of the ships, confined herself to an even smaller space in order to escape her claustrophobia in the solar system.
‘You know what I’d do with the money if I won the lottery?’ Guy said to the metal and bioplastic.
What would you do? she’d say. He always imagined his daughter talking to him in full sentences.
‘I’d spend it all to send you a broadcast. My own message wrapped in the usual information they send the interstellar fleet.’
That’s expensive, Dad. You should use the money to retire from your hazardous job and go live on Earth Surface when it reopens.
No, she wouldn’t say that. But might she say something similar? He tried to phrase it her way, the way Tera would have said it.
That’s expensive, Dad.
(Guy was pretty sure about that part.)
You should retire. You’re going to hurt yourself if you don’t soon.
That was better. And he pretended to be insulted. ‘Are you telling your Pa he’s old?’
Of course not. If you have the money, you should retire instead of sending me messages.
‘But don’t you want to hear from me?’
Stop, Guy. No telling where that would lead, and he didn’t want to imagine that he could find out. But she wouldn’t have answered the question anyway. That was the problem. Tera would have changed the subject. And Guy would have been left with the gripping need to prompt her to tell him that she did want to hear from him, which meant that he wanted Tera to want him to use his lottery money to buy dataspace for a message to the interstellar fleet she was on board. Which meant, ultimately, that he, Guy, wanted to spend the money that way. The money he didn’t have and likely wouldn’t win.
All this fretting over a lottery ticket, Dad!
Tera could, of course, read his thoughts. She was his thoughts. But only when he wanted her to be. Oh, the irrationality of the lonely parent!
Guy wiped the grease on the seat of his cargo pants and produced the crumpled ticket. Still smeared a stain on it. These baroque mechanical fixtures of his working world seemed to express themselves in grease.
He turned the ticket over, trying to see it as the object it was and not as the possibility it expressed.
All this fretting over a lottery ticket. How Tera would have laughed if she’d actually been here. The circles she ran around him, even though absent. All he wanted was to tell her he was thinking of her. For four long years he had been thinking of her, and thinking was finally unbearable, both too much to bear and not enough at once.
A sudden defecation of stale air from one of the vents caught him in the face and tore the ticket from his hand. He grabbed for it, but his proxy-arm was holding the drill and he was off-balance. He missed and chased after it, but it dropped defiantly down a dust grate.
Chest heaving with profanity, Guy put the drill in reverse and stripped the screws off the grate, tearing it aside and sticking his headlamp into the chasm, a well of gloom and distance. He knew this portion of the station. Down the base of the rib-shaped vault was a deep storage bay meant for human access only during a zero-gravity period. The lottery ticket was gone.
Guy pulled out of the pipe, shedding heat. The monitor on his replica arm was flashing about his heart rate. Work too hard in conditions such as this and a man of 54 could bust the old chest muscle, hyperventilate in the ventilation chutes. Guy was getting fatalistic amongst the overcomplicated copper flora of his profession. He had to negotiate with fear. Had to negotiate with his own damn heart.
In the break room, he took a seat with a plastic polyp of water while the others smoked, exhaling into gerbil-tubes. Guy’s good hand was shaking. The lottery ticket. He tried to imagine what Tera would say about that, but there was too much background noise. Tera didn’t like crowds. She had left the system to escape crowds.
The lottery ticket was a bad habit from which bad luck had just now cured him, he supposed. There wasn’t any money in it. He was sure of that, and wondering otherwise was the statistically-daft idea that made him buy it in the first place. To buy another would have been a form of insanity. He tried to decide if maybe he had let go of it on purpose.
Tim Dougal emerged part way from his office, like a hermit crab, striking the Earth-calibrated time-piece on his wrist and scattering the mechanics. To Guy, he said, ‘My office. A word.’ He retreated again.
Guy reached the threshold of the office, and Tim was already frowning single-browed at him from behind the black carapace of his desk. Guy set his eyes on the potted plant beside Tim and waited. The plant was real, and workers would sometimes find excuses for a Dougal Conversation just to look at it;
Tim, talking: ‘Gambling is illegal, Guy.’ Tapping the display to which all the cameras fed their spying. ‘I saw you.’
There was a brown leaf on the plant. A brown leaf. Tim wasn’t watering it enough.
‘It’s not illegal,’ Guy said. ‘I bought one this morning on my habitat.’
‘But you had it with you at work.’
‘Nothing I could do with it here.’
‘Didn’t stop you from wasting my time with it—Guy, are you listening to me?’
‘I think your plant wants water,’ he said, pointing. ‘There’s a brown spot.’
Tim sighed elaborately. ‘We’ve all been away from Earth too long.’ He pressed a button on his desk, and the wall behind him depolarised so they could see the little brownish planet, the birthplace of humanity. ‘This satellite plays an essential role in the ReTerraforming project on good old Earth.’
‘Yes,’ said Guy.
‘By providing a global connection to the hard-toiling scientists on the ground, we’ll be pushing the clock forward for rehabitation by nearly a decade—’
Guy weathered this, hating to be idle, thinking that he’d lost all his luck by the mismanagement of the grip in his good hand. He wanted to tell his daughter that he was having a sort of tired and unfortunate day, and have her laugh at him lightly, but Tera was light weeks away. An absurd measurement of space, Guy thought. Out on this new frontier, they measured space by time because space didn’t compute as such.
‘How expensive is it to send a message to one of the stellar ships?’ Guy blurted.
Tim shrugged, thrown off. ‘They’re sending out a constant stream of information…Diagnostics. It all takes ages to reach them—you can compute the time later. Is this about your daughter? Any message you send, even if you get clearance, will take years to reach her. They expand the signal power pretty often, but it still takes time.’
‘I just wondered how expensive it would be.’
Tim laughed. ‘You’d probably have to win the lottery.’
‘Even if it’s just a single line of text?’ Guy didn’t like the pleading in his voice.
‘Guy, you need to talk to someone. That’s why I called you in here. Let’s forget the lottery ticket.’
‘I talk to plenty of people.’
‘Who?’ Tim stood. ‘You talk to your daughter down in those chutes, Guy—don’t think I haven’t seen you. You think she’s actually there?’
Guy suppressed a shudder. He knew what was coming. ‘I don’t need a psych.’ A worker could lose a lot of pay if someone decided he needed a mental tune-up. The psychs attributed everything nowadays to an oversaturation of the infinite.
Tim spritzed the potted plant with an unmarked spray bottle he’d taken from a desk drawer. ‘All I’m saying is that you seem sort of spooked…maybe disturbed. Do you understand what I’m saying?’
‘I’m not a kid that you should talk to me like that, Tim.’
Tim Dougal looked up. ‘You’re right. We’ve known each other for a long time. You’ve been a good mechanic, and I’ll respect that, but consider this a warning.’
Over an appallingly short span, the Massive Gossamer Configuration grew so large and so complex a network that it defied most people’s ability to comprehend. All of that matter. Matter taken from the solar system’s moons and planets and prehistoric ejecta, 90 percent of which was used in filament wires and information spokes and data hubs and energy manipulators, while the other 10 percent consisted of a close cluster of habitats around Luna, as well as Earth-ground science bases.
Only officials and a few technicians were even allowed on Earth’s surface as it was in its recovery period, having been nearly abolished of non-human life during the era of forced overpopulation that built the MGC. Those old governments had discovered that they didn’t need to invent self-replicating robots to build a robust mechanisphere; they already had them.
A man like Guy Heller, with one daughter and no current mate, would have been unheard of an Earth-century ago, during the age of space elevators and cosmic tyranny. And lately, with Earth on the mend and companies taking a serious interest in stars, humanity had grown in strength and diminished in number. Underpopulation was, for some, an irrepressible reaction to the past that got them here.
But Tera Heller had felt claustrophobic by even the history of so many oppressed people. She couldn’t have stood another moment in the same star system as the one that birthed the humans capable of termite expansion and genocide. She wanted a clean slate. Guy only felt lost and lonely. He’d always felt inadequate beside her ideals, and now he didn’t even have her ideals beside which he could feel anything. He had but the make-believe conversations of an old man.
Daddy. You’re eating those synthetic noodles again. That stuff will kill you.
With increasing frequency, he imagined her talking to him like that: as if she were getting younger and he, too old to take care of himself.
‘I had carrots and humus for lunch,’ he said.
Would those have been synthetic carrots?
He was sitting on his overstuffed recliner, zoning through an ancient Western. All that dry, dusty ground and watery sunlight on his wall screen.
‘You ever watch things like this? About Earth?’
We don’t watch movies, Dad; we work.
She always had worked hard. So hard, she seemed angry. Guy never knew what to make of her anger. Even here in his head, he was afraid to ask.
On the wall: the cantankerous, cigarillo-chewing face of an old actor called Eastwood. Guy had ruminated his way through the movie 40 or 50 times over the years, enjoying mostly the way the orange light saturated his apartment. Enjoying the quality of hugeness they had managed to give that tiny speck of desert. The hero riding dust-bound into a featureless chasm of light, thinking he knew what distance was.
He imagined Tera in the ink-black spire of the stellar shuttle into which he had watched her vanish. He could close his eyes and know for a fact what she was seeing when looking out of her own viewport. Weatherless turning through the void. Not even the turquoise bubbles of gaseous collections of matter in that un-compassed black. Could it be that she hadn’t known how rare life was, that the voyage would not, for her, have an end?
He couldn’t ask her those questions, not even in his dreams. And anyway, he was crying now, and Guy never allowed her around when he cried. He was so ashamed of himself sometimes that even the space between them was acceptable. He covered his face with his good hand to hide the tears from the orange ball of fire on the wall-recording, his mechanical fingers forgotten with the empty bowl of noodles.
The subliminal ringtone caused him to glance at his mechanical wrist to see an incoming signal. Someone whose ID was veiled. He wiped his nose on his sleeve, considered ignoring the call, but he was turning the volume down as he did so. He answered, his prosthesis model too outdated for video, so there was only the voice.
‘Hello?’ he asked.
‘Hi. Is this Guy Heller?’
‘Yes. Who’s this, please?’
‘My name is Katja. I’m calling because of a referral.’
Cursing Tim Dougal, Guy said, ‘You’re a psych.’
Her voice was warm and alert. ‘Not even remotely.’
The coquettish tone tipped him off, and he realised that his boss had sent a prostitute his way. The strangeness of that—well, at least Tim hadn’t sent him to a psych. Guy asked,
‘Did Tim put you up to this? Tim Dougal?’
‘Tim told me about your situation, and I’m interested in meeting you.’
‘Well,’ said Guy, blankly. ‘Good to meet you.’
‘Yes, about that—you like coffee?’
‘I drink it.’ He was getting in deep here, and he knew it.
‘Excellent. I’m sitting in the Andromeda Express café, floor five, cube nine. You live in this habitat, correct? Or did I make a mistake?’
He wanted to ask her, ‘What habitat was that?’ but Tim had either told her, or else she had looked him up. ‘How long are you going to be there? I just sat down for dinner.’
‘Dinner sounds pleasant. Would you like company?’
Guy stared at the arm he was speaking into. There was a buzzing like tinnitus in his ears, and he thought, If only Tera could contact me. ‘No, that’s fine,’ he said to the woman.
‘Just noodles. I’ll meet you in—’
She suggested an hour, which was longer than he’d expected her to offer.
‘Ok, but I haven’t shaved,’ he said for no reason and broke the link.
Though he tried, he couldn’t stall for time because he had nothing to do, and he was at the café in half the time offered, even counting the delay he caused by avoiding the moving walkways. He had tried to convince himself not to go, but almost without his own knowing, he arrived in his usual way of arrival—hand stuffed deep in the pocket of his jacket and his prosthesis hanging at his side.
Katja was younger than her voice had suggested to him. Couldn’t have been older than his daughter, and the thought made him sick, however tacitly so. He came toward her in a nausea of loneliness and self-deceit. She wore thick eye makeup to go with her dark hair, but otherwise nothing extravagant. Her clothes were new and, he assumed, stylish, but not flashy. She greeted him with a smile and shook his hand like a business partner.
‘Now you can say it’s good to meet me,’ she laughed.
‘Good to meet you.’ Her sweater top, he noticed (though he tried not to), was surprisingly modest. ‘So. Tim put you up to this?’ he asked because he had nothing else and Katja was looking at him. Guy ordered the first coffee on the screen, and a little door opened in the table, his drink rising up on a tray pedestal. He took it and held it to his chest.
‘Have you been after his job?’ she asked.
‘Huh? No, why?’
‘Has your work been shoddy lately? Have you made mistakes?’
‘I—don’t think so.’
‘I see,’ said Katja, watching Guy’s eyes. ‘I believe Mr. Tim Dougal wanted me to get in touch with you so he could fire you under the Zero Tolerance Toward Sexual Aberrance Act.’
Guy’s mind did a blank. ‘That’s not right. He was concerned for my health.’
‘Is there cause for concern?’ She sipped from a straw, lips pursed.
‘What? No, of course not. I’m as fit as ever. Physically and…and all of the above.’ He stood to leave, but her hand shot out and grasped his metal wrist.
‘If this were a set-up, would I have told you about his intentions?’
He could have pulled free, but didn’t. ‘You realise we’re just talking, right? No conduct codes broken.’
Katja waved him seated again. ‘Let me tell you something, sweetheart. I’m not a prostitute, if that’s what you’re referring to; my job is completely non-aberrant, officially speaking. I’m in what’s called Restorative Arts.’
‘Haven’t heard of it.’
‘We try to understand our past and our future through intimacy and language. It’ll take decades to disassociate intimacy from the procreation tyranny our ancestors lived under, and it’ll be longer than that to recover from the worker genocide they committed when Earth was wasted, and habitable space limited. Did you know that pregnancy wasn’t even called procreation back then? It was called replication.’
‘I know.’ He cringed under her sudden fury.
‘Can you begin to comprehend how evil that is?’
‘I have a daughter, and I love her,’ said Guy with sudden conviction. ‘Her name is Tera, and she volunteered on one of the frontier ships because of that evil. Couldn’t stand to stay in the system.’
This seemed to convince Katja of something. ‘The Sexual Aberrance Act is another kind of reaction to the forced-insemination of the stellar-industrial days. Perhaps reasonable beside a nightmare, but it’s the wrong reaction. Humanity discovered its limitations in the pre-Dyson age, and now we need to understand them. There’s a reason I say intimacy and not sex. There can be intimacy without the physical. People are not machines. We don’t replicate. We grow and we multiply, passing along a part of ourselves. We lost our humanity when there was no longer room to be fruitful.’
‘So, intimacy is an art?’
‘As much as language is.’ She watched him, daring him to disagree that they were participating in cooperative art just then.
He thought that this woman had a similar fury to his own daughter’s. Why did all these young women still seem so angry? After all this time. Guy had either never been able to understand, or else he simply refused to think hard enough to understand. He was a simple man, spoiled by his simplicity.
Slurping her drink, Katja said, ‘Well, and I can’t expect you to care. Care too much, and you risk loneliness. That’s always what’s at stake.’
‘I care,’ he growled, not knowing why he didn’t just walk away, why he was letting her get to him. ‘I can care all right, and, trust me, I’ve nothing left at stake.’ He didn’t even know what he meant by that, but she sat up, moved her drink to one side as if positioning a chess piece. This level of the café was completely empty but for them. Their barista was the same program that ran table, seats, and menu.
But now that she was listening to him, Guy hadn’t anything more to say. He couldn’t tell this girl that she reminded him of Tera, and he was afraid to ask about her job. But he did care. At least, there was something in him that wanted to, regardless of logic, and maybe it was that his own loneliness—which also extended out from him—was part of the entire Lunar habitat, the whole system, and maybe the whole point too. It was a tide attempting to follow the silent starships where Tera was. Tera, whose species had so dismayed her that she had eschewed even language with all but a select few other technical wizards who were devoted to the singular problem of finding some place to escape to.
‘You going to explain that look?’ Katja asked.
She held up her hands and made a box with her fingers and thumbs in front of his face.
‘I was just trying to decide if you reminded me of Tera.’ He hadn’t been going to say that.
Guy shrugged and said the meanest thing he could think of, though it wasn’t entirely true. ‘Not really, thank God.’
Katja laughed. ‘Men are completely helpless to begin with, and then some get to be fathers and are made more so.’
And at the suggestion of helplessness, Guy said, ‘I just wish I could tell her about my days and then listen to her tell about hers.’
‘What do you think she’d say about her days?’ Katja asked. ‘No, I’m really interested. Everyone wonders how those frontier ships are faring. Even the transmission experts.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t know.’
‘But you love someone who does. You’ve more reason than anyone to wonder, and you know your little girl, which means your guesses are educated.’
It struck him as odd that Katja would refer to a woman roughly her age as ‘his little girl.’ For a minute, he didn’t have an answer, could only tremble anew at the space between Tera and him. Her catastrophic desire to be at the end of distances. He’d never imagined that, when humanity headed for the stars, it would be not so much out of need but out of a desire to isolate, to set apart. Maybe she didn’t miss him at all. Maybe she’d forgotten him.
Sensing he wouldn’t answer, Katja said, ‘Can I see your arm? The mechanical one.’
He held it up to her, meaning to rest it on the table like a lobster dish, but he spilled the remainder of his drink with it instead. ‘Oh, damn.’
They watched the table clean itself up, and Katja took his arm in her hands and touched it here and there. It looked mechanical. No hiding that. The colour didn’t match his own skin tone, and there was a series of hydraulics inside the elbow joint. It was thicker too, unwieldy at times, filled with sensors along the forearm. The fingers with Swiss army knife accoutrements. He had a bottle opener in his thumb.
‘It’s perfect,’ she said.
That struck him as funny, but he said, ‘Thank you for…talking to me. When I walked over here, I don’t think I knew what I—’
‘No need,’ she said.
And he thought he saw her own loneliness then, too. Wanted to ask what Katja had meant about his arm when she said it was perfect, but felt it was time to go. ‘Can I at least buy your drink?’
Tera contacted him a week later, and it took him a moment to realise it was Katja instead. He was still glad she connected. She took him to a rusty old bar lounge a little farther out of his usual territory, and it was crowded with young men and woman, each of whom astounded him. Everything they did—speaking, eating, kissing—looked, to Guy, over-emphatic and yet vital, necessary. He was amazed by this façade, wanted to know how it was done.
‘This place has wonderful noodles,’ Katja said. ‘I seem to remember you like noodles.’
‘You been talking to Tera somehow?’ Guy laughed.
‘You told me that yourself, remember?’ They found seats by a window crowded with gloves and gauntlets, ancient anachronisms from Earth life. The ceiling was lined with graffiti-colourful contraptions that Katja claimed where snowboards.
‘We’re at an interesting time in history,’ she told him, ‘when our access to information exceeds our memory by enough that our Earth-dwelling ancestors—their lives—might as well be a fantasy. Your grandparent’s generation was the last to live on Earth’s surface. My great-grandparents. We have all these artifacts,’ waving at the ceiling, the décor, ‘waiting for restoration.’
Katja articulated an eyebrow. ‘We’re being restored now. Look around; there’s no time like the present.’ She winked at someone over his shoulder who came up and put his hand out to Guy.
‘Name’s Cory,’ he said through his beard.
‘Cory, this is Uncle Guy,’ Katja announced.
Guy’s knees chose that moment to have a struggle, and, blaming the low bench, he reached up and took Cory’s hand for both assistance and shake.
Katja remained seated, her almost-black hair radiant under the light. ‘Cory runs this establishment for me.’
‘But she checks in often. Makes sure I’m up to no good,’ said Cory.
Guy’s pointer finger swiveled to Katja. ‘You own this place?’
‘It’s called The Black Diamond. Cory, I’ll have the usual. What’s for you, Guy? On the house.’
‘Um, I guess I’ll have a ginger beer.’
‘Don’t drink?’ Katja asked once Cory was gone.
‘I am drinking. Ginger beer. Good for the gut. You know, I think Tera would have liked this place.’
‘Wouldn’t have been too crowded for her?’
Guy shrugged, half-miserable, half-amiable. He was, in a sense, having a good time; though he felt an imposter here, and not only because of his age. He sensed a broader difference in objective. ‘Tera was—is—devoted to the future. Her star is still generations away. She’ll live and die on that ship and raise children that will do the same so that someday an ancestor can step out on some other soil. I guess I’m the same way, working on the satellite to help the teams restore Earth. That will take generations.’
‘Both are important, I believe,’ said Katja, clearly indulgent. She sat back, crossed her legs while Guy fought with his thoughts.
She seemed to want him to reach something, but he hadn’t had a real person to articulate himself to in so long. Tera’s responses were his own, and he didn’t know where to go when Katja listened to him.
He heard Tera interject. Words she had said to him so many times before: The great irony of our civilisation is that, to build the MGC, the world had to embrace the two problems that the megasphere was supposed to fix: overpopulation and energy consumption.
He recited this, and Katja nodded. ‘The two problems that, in the end, wrecked the Earth. And now we have only a group of habitats with maybe 10 million people, all told.’
‘It’s an age of restoration, I guess,’ said Guy. ‘Your kind of age.’
Katja smiled, but thinly. ‘It isn’t even that. It’s an age of preparing for restoration. Your daughter is headed somewhere she won’t reach, but she began the process. Same with you and Earth. And for me—sitting here, convinced that humanity has to relearn how to communicate, how to be intimate. I’m not trying to deepen your despair, Guy. I’m trying to make you understand how important I think this is.’
‘How important what is?’
‘That we don’t ever forget how to use those,’ she pointed at the ceiling where the snowboards waited.
Before he had time to process this, Katja had placed a pyramidal business chip on his napkin.
‘The encoded contact of a man called Anthony Small.’
Katja put a finger to her lips and spoke around it. ‘Small’s a transmission expert. I’ve worked with him for a long time. He has an interest in rare artifacts.’
Guy laughed. ‘Didn’t think I was that old.’
‘No, but that arm is. How long have you had it?’
‘Uh, cheapest I could find 10 years ago. Picked it off a man I knew at the metal shop, but that place has been shut down.’ The operation to attach it to him was by far the more expensive part.
‘Antiques are rare these days, but it wasn’t always so. Have you ever heard of a museum?’
Guy shook his head.
‘Earth thing. A collective interest in history. Small’s hobby is in artifacts, and I believe strongly in his efforts to set up a new museum.’ Smiling, ‘Another form of restoration.’
Guy’s good hand went to his robotic one. He wished he could cross his arms, but he never did because it felt lopsided. ‘What I’m getting out of this—’ he said. The lounge was abruptly much too loud, the snowboards on the ceiling reflecting the light into his eyes. ‘What I’m getting out of this is a message—?’
‘Anthony can get you as much dataspace as you want, basically,’ Katja said. ‘Whatever you can cobble together for your daughter is a drop in the sea to what they usually ram through their antenna swarms. Apparently, they don’t often send files smaller than a few zettabytes—the collective information of humanity, a constant stream through the ether. It takes a long time to reach them, but their signals are more powerful every day, and they travel faster than a ship.’
‘Guy—’ she leaned forward and placed an arm on his shoulder. ‘There’s nothing wrong with your mind. As I see it, you talk to your daughter because you wish she were with you, and I want to give you the chance to tell her that.’ She stood and left him with both her own card and Small’s contact chip.
Guy picked up the card, looked at it, and placed it in his pocket. He left the bar two minutes later, heading home. Her card read:
Restorative Psychotherapy & Intimacy Arts
On the back of the card, she had written the operating signal for The Black Diamond Lounge. He smiled, understanding her role. It felt like a joke he had always been in on: his own therapy. So, she’d been a psych after all, in a way. Who knew if she was sanctioned by the government to do what she did? It was hard to believe that Tim understood her real profession. But, as tense a figure as she was with her bizarre, self-made mixture of cerebral savviness and scandal, he admired in Katja her wisdom for when to talk and let that be enough. It had been therapeutic to him, even without his having—perhaps because he hadn’t—ever sensed the therapy.
And there was still the trade to consider. He called Anthony Small the moment his own door slid closed behind him.
‘Hello?’ asked a man’s voice, high-pitched and impeccable.
Guy told him who he was and explained his situation.
Small provided the details and the place of the trade. ‘I presume the arm is attached to you,’ he said.
‘Uh, well, yes.’
‘I will have a fully-functioning lab ready. My personal physician will oversee the detachment.’
Guy’s heartbeat quickened. ‘And the message? Any format you need?’
‘I’m glad you asked about that,’ said Small. ‘When we transmit a datapack, each file and sub-file is tagged with metadata. I can get you a sub-sub-file all to yourself, and that’s a pretty good tier. We can nest it within the root files that Tera is most likely to pay attention to. It will be a little surprise for her when she finds it. Unfortunate that we have to be this discreet, but what we’re doing is entirely illegal.’
Guy felt dizzy. Humanity’s databases went as far in as space went out. All of these ethereal zones were upsetting his sense of reality. He was just a mechanic and couldn’t cope with the knowledge of so much vastness. Molecules and lines of code. Infinity in every direction, and Tera was out in it somewhere, in black chasms star-ripe with gaseous light, so far removed from his own place in the galaxy that she might have been humming through another dimension.
‘One thing more,’ came the prim voice.
‘If your file is too small, it might be mistaken for a virus or some useless additive, like an icon, and it would be dismissed by their ship’s filters.’
‘Oh,’ said Guy. ‘What’s too small?’
‘You’d need to fill at least a terabyte of data for it to pass the initial filters.’ Anthony Small said.
In his apartment, Guy staggered. It was true, coincidences had lined up along a very human sense of the poetic. A terabyte for Tera. Oracles in a unit of measurement. But it was too big. Guy didn’t know much about digital language or memory, but he did know that to fill a terabyte, he would have to pack in more than he had to say. More than he had to say. It was impossible. He had always thought that, if allowed, he could fill the expanse with all the words he wanted to send to Tera, but now, he was forced to fill what amounted to a large hard drive, when he knew that the only thing he needed to say was, ‘I love you’. This seemed a damnation as creative as any custom-made circle of hell. It was a tiny example of the problem humanity had with the void itself; to be heard at all, he had first to make so much noise.
‘If you need some time—’
‘No, it’s just that—I’ll be in touch shortly.’ He broke contact. Sat down on the edge of his grey couch in the grey light of his apartment inside of the grey habitat that orbited a grey moon. He couldn’t see Earth from his view window, and he didn’t often want to, but he wished he could now. He wished he could see mountains. Snow-capped mountains and deserts and—it went on. He had never before missed a place that he had never before been.
‘This is how you felt,’ he said to her. ‘Isn’t it? You missed your star. You have never been there, and you never will be, but you miss it.’
But he didn’t know how she would answer that, so she didn’t.
The next morning, at work, he hung back in the break room and cornered Tim Dougal in his office.
‘Those security feeds,’ Guy said. ‘Can I have a copy of the ones recording my normal routine?’
Tim looked baffled. ‘Sorry?’
‘You’ve had me in Internal Ductwork for weeks. Before that, the closed hangars. Can I have a copy of all the feeds that have me in them? All of that security/safety recording of me talking to…to Tera.’
‘What’s this about, Guy?’
‘I found a way to send her a message, but the problem is not what I thought it was. There’s too much space to fill. I figure you’ve got a couple terabytes of video with me in it over the last handful of years. In the employee manual, it says that a worker is allowed to request that data upon termination of his job.’
His manager stared at him.
Guy was sweating now, his arm console blinking his heart rate up at him. ‘I talk to her, Tim. All day. Off and on, but for the most part consistently enough, and if the recordings pick up audio as keenly as I think they do, Tera could strip the machine sounds out of the way and listen to these, uh, make-believe conversations I have with her, and she could…hear all of the things I’ve said in my time here that I wish I could say or could’ve said before she left.’ He had begun pacing about the office. ‘It struck me this morning—I’ve been composing a letter to her all my life, and especially so in the last four years. And she’ll see that. I thought it might have been selfish of me at first, to want to send her a video feed of my, frankly, boring work life, as if I’m all that interesting to watch.
‘But I think Tera will see some of this and realise that she was the only thing keeping me going, and she wasn’t even there with me. She didn’t have to be. She’s kept me alive, and I want to show her that—not just that I love and miss her, but that she loves me. And that would be enough, I think.’ He stopped, and the room’s intricate mechanical sounds swooped back in to fill the gap. Guy panted.
‘Enough for what?’ Tim asked, curious, despite himself.
‘Enough to show her that distance…in the end distance doesn’t mean what I thought it did.’
He went home that night without a job and, unwilling to wait, signalled Mr. Small, who told him again where to meet. To all appearances, it was a squat apartment building. Clean and well-lit inside, the lobby was garnered with faux-opulence, but it created a pleasant atmosphere that he didn’t really notice.
A side door opened, and an extremely short man in a suit and bowtie extended his hand toward Guy as he approached. ‘That is a beautiful arm, Mr. Heller. Katja has as good an eye for these things as ever.’
Guy silently followed him down a series of hallways and through a second door where he saw a man dressed in physician’s garb, as well as Katja herself, who smiled at him.
‘You two have met,’ asserted Anthony Small. ‘This man is Dr. Augsberg. If you will please have a seat.’
Guy collapsed into what looked like a dentist’s operating chair, and crossed and then uncrossed his ankles. He felt like he was going on a journey and wished he had a suitcase or some sort of carry-on item, but all he had was his ersatz arm, which he wouldn’t be walking out with. In a way, he thought, he would be going on a journey; four years of his working life packed down into an unedited terabyte—much of it banal, but all of it truly him—stuffed into a data chip and prepared to beam toward the stars…Not toward the stars. Toward Tera! In a manner of speaking, he could pretend that he—Guy Heller—was about to be blasted through space toward the stellar ship that contained his daughter.
Katja came and took his good arm and sat on a stool next to him.
‘I should have listened to Tera,’ he said to her. ‘Before she left, I didn’t listen to her. I never tried to understand her anger. Or her wonder. That was there too, and I never even saw it.’
‘Is that what you wrote to her?’ asked Katja.
‘I’ve told her that a hundred times.’
At her look, Guy explained the videos and his conversation with Tim Dougal. ‘The message is on the data chip in the arm’s console,’ he told Small. ‘I had it edit the video down to exactly one terabyte. I’m hoping that she’ll see something like that. One file among a million others, but this one’s exactly a terabyte.’
‘You quit your job?’ Katja didn’t look upset, only curious.
Guy shrugged as Dr. Augsberg placed his prosthesis in a strap.
‘There’s a catch-release about where the shoulder blade ends,’ Guy told him. He thought it would be funny if he were to walk the doctor through the process of his own amputation, but Augsberg nodded that he’d already found it. He began to unplug shunts very carefully, with gloves. Guy felt a sensation of tingling where he hadn’t any flesh.
‘You’ll need to find work if you’re to buy a replacement,’ Katja said, leaning forward, her leather pants creaking as they bent at the knees.
Mr. Small shrugged to tell her not to look at him; his part was done.
‘I’ll find work,’ Guy said. He had a notion he’d call Katja’s barman, Cory to ask about a custodian job, anything. It wouldn’t matter, really. He had learned something by watching Katja, and he wanted to see more of her and her crowd: those people who appeared to live day-to-day. Wanted to know how they did it, because, after this one message, Guy knew he was going to have to let go of Tera. He could hope it would reach her, but there would be no time for a return message. Waiting would only kill him faster.
He felt himself dangerously close to tears, and he wanted to say something funny but couldn’t think of any joke at all, except, of course, for the humour of a man’s—a father’s—pride and unwillingness to be seen weeping.
‘Does that hurt?’ the doctor asked, concerned.
‘No—’ gulping air, ‘No, it doesn’t hurt.’
Katja pressed her thumb against his palm, holding his one hand. It felt clean and intimate; all at once, it acknowledged the loss of Guy’s arm and of his heart, it qualified Tera’s anger with the world she’d left, and it soothed his fear of distance. Perhaps he would come to make sense of this woman. And, through Katja, could he make sense of Tera?
‘When you called the other day,’ he said to her. ‘For a moment I thought you were Tera when I heard your voice.’
Katja smiled. ‘It would all be so much easier in that case, wouldn’t it?’
‘I guess it would.’