I was sitting with the remains of my last beer, long since gone warm and flat, in the flickering light of vintage neon tubes made by bleeding-edge autofabricators. There’s something about this place that longs for a kind of invented history, echoes of some millenia old anti-authoritarian pop-culture ethos percolating through into the modern psyche. Distantly I could hear the pulsing rhythm of Olympian neo-synth streaming from some spectrum dark-node.
It had been two hours since Jerek was supposed to be here with the goods. The job was simple enough, a few specific crates, identified by serial numbers pulled from a stolen manifest, that needed to be collected from a wrecked Starfarer on Daymar. The location of the wreck had been sold to me by a pair of individuals who had very likely been responsible for that unfortunate vessel’s newfound state of distress. I knew this, but I tried not to think about it, in the same way that I knew Jerek was green behind the ears and liable to screw the whole thing up somehow. You work with what you’re given.
Behind me one of the ponderous service elevators thudded to a halt, disgorging a couple of spacers with their helmets clipped to their belts, one combing gloved fingers through a long beard as they grumbled about WiDoW prices. I considered heading down to the bar for another drink. I could have just waited down there, but I like the observation deck. Overhead, through the grime on the diamondfilm glass, I watched as a Constellation gently pivoted on small jets of blue flame, descending quite quickly towards an open pad. As the ship fell out of sight I gently rocked my glass back and forth, watching the amber dregs slosh against the sides. The scarred metal of the table was a patchwork of graffiti, most of it long faded. A four letter gerund stood out clear over everything else. It was about the level of imagination I’d come to expect from most of the ‘Hex’s budding artists.
It’s funny to think that humans once used to be surprised if they lived to see sixty. I’m almost twice that age now, something that would have astonished people even as we were firing drones past Pluto. I think about this from time to time, remind myself in the hopes of feeling younger. Sometimes it even works.
It was this thought that came back to me as the two spacers waited for the airlock to cycle. The doors slid open with a ponderous groan, as yet another part of the ‘Hex threatened a breakdown. Failures were like weather here, something that just happened. As the taller of the two shouldered his way inside, a figure slipped out past them, clad in a bulky suit and mirror finish helmet.
I already knew it wasn’t Jerek. The figure was too tall, too confident, and too female. When she pulled the helmet off I almost expected to see long hair flying loose in a wave like some commercial, but the real spacers always kept their hair short or tied up. Hers was in a tight knot, and it was a deep crimson red. This was the kind that came in a bottle, of course. Not the real red that you could only get from expensive retrovirals or a million to one genetic lottery, and besides her skin was much too dark. Much too dark to be Kayla.
But still, there was something about the shape of her face maybe, something in the eyes that made me think of her. Or maybe it was just my mood that day. Maybe that particular memory had been waiting just beneath the calm surface of my thoughts, like a plastic trapped in seaweed, ready to drift up into the light as soon as something knocked it loose.
The thought of that red hair, fanning out in a sunburst spray, just like in the commercials. The way it shone out through the crowd as she fell, her face twisting in agony, the silvery barbs of the tazer dart standing out clear against the soft skin of her arm.
I drained the last of my beer. It was warm and flat, but I don’t think I even noticed.
“…what I’m saying is that for six centuries humanity has been trapped in a socio-economic stasis. We’ve spent all this time digging ourselves out of the holes we keep digging ourselves into without ever stopping to examine the underlying causes. The entire Messer era was just one small symptom of a much larger problem.”
She’d barely even touched her cappuccino, even as we’d been talking for the last half hour. She liked to gesture when she spoke, hands moving in agitation or excitement. I think that was one of the things I found so captivating about her.
“I hardly think we can call three centuries of fascism a ‘small symptom,’” I said, with perhaps a bit more smugness than necessary.
“But we never even stop to think about all the factors that got us there. We’re so pleased with ourselves for finally having the wherewithal to get rid our dictatorial overlords after three hundred years of quietly not giving a shit, but the truth is that we let it happen. We keep repeating these same nonsensical neo-liberal experiments over and over, pretending that this time it’ll work out totally differently.”
“But how is any of this the fault of MISC? You’re talking about a company that’s adding trillions of credits to the Empire’s economy, and you think they’re the problem.”
“Yes,” she exclaimed, slapping a hand down so hard that her drink spilled. “All those gleaming, expensive high tech factories they build, all entirely automated, or as close as makes no difference. Who the hell is actually getting any of that money they’re ‘creating’? Where’s the blue collar worker that’s getting a better paycheck because MISC came into his town? You think someone out in Ferron or Magnus has a better life because MISC bought up a bunch of infrastructure that could have been used by local businesses and decided to slap down another automated manufacturing plant there?”
However much I disagreed with what she was saying, it was hard to deny how beautiful she looked like that, a few strands of that flame-red hair falling loose from her pony-tail as she turned to look out over the boulevard. Central Fujin was a web of broad pedestrian boulevards lined with shops, cafes and bars in a style that was meant to feel oh-so-continental modern. Expensive clothes and expensive haircuts passed us by in a steady stream of foot-traffic, all of it carefully made up in styles that were supposed to look like as little effort as possible had gone into them. A thousand faces ready to be in front of a camera at a moment’s notice. It was all so gaudy and pretentious, but the truth is that I still liked living here. It wasn’t cheap, owning a condo in the middle of Fujin, but I’d done well enough for myself over the years to be able to afford it. My tenure at the university didn’t exactly pay the most money, but like all the professors there I’d supplemented it with a few well chosen corporate R&D contracts. Authoring a few reports, running some evaluations, mostly just double checking their own internal results for the sake of appearances. Easy money really.
Still, I would never shake the feeling that I didn’t quite belong. But, then, neither did she. You could see it in the way she’d never tried to remove the subtle lines around her lips and eyes, and in the way her “I don’t give a fuck” style had none of the carefully manicured presence of the usual SnapShare ready looks you saw everywhere in the city. She taught environmental studies, but before that she’d spent years working with the Saisei government to develop new techniques for preserving the planet’s natural beauty, of which it was so very proud.
“Don’t tell me you’re actually thinking of going to that stupid demonstration tomorrow?” I said, with an incredulity that was, if I was being honest, just a touch insincere. But her expression quietened, and she seemed to turn inwards a little.
“I can’t really see it making any difference,” she said, quietly. Then her face brightened, and she got that teasing look about her. “But I might, just to piss you off,” she said, smiling as she reached for her coffee.
Down at the bar, a little rat’s nest tucked in behind the elevators, Litvenko poured me another beer with the silence and a sour look that were his trademark. I found my eyes roaming across the small huddle of tables, hoping for another glimpse of the red-haired spacer. I couldn’t say why. I wasn’t exactly about to try chatting her up. God, why did I even want to see someone who reminded me of her, of that day in Fujin and what came after?
I checked my mobi as I was walking back to the elevator, on the off-chance that I’d missed a message from Jerek somewhere along the way. It was a half-hearted hope, the vague notion that perhaps he could at least display a modicum of professionalism. I honestly couldn’t tell if he’d been snatched up by Crusader Security for the goods I’d sent him to fetch – goods of rather ‘uncertain’ legality – or if he was just running late. Perhaps I was the idiot here for complaining about the quality of the help I was getting in a place like this.
Above me, the words “Green Imperial” were faintly visible on a flickering screen. Really, the company had been doomed from the start, that unfortunate choice of name irrevocably pinning them to an era that we were all so eager to forget, as Kayla had said. I thumbed the button, and the elevator rumbled into life as the pounding music shifted in tone slightly.
Her parents lived on Terra. That’s why I was listed as her emergency contact.
“We can do this remotely, or in person, Mr Samawar. It’s your choice,” the man in the white coat said. He had sad eyes, the kind that were good at showing sympathy. Maybe that’s why he’d been given the job.
“No, I… I’ll come in,” I said. I wasn’t really sure why. Wouldn’t it have been better to say remote? To be done with it, to keep some distance, to not have to take in the whole grisly reality in person?
But then that felt like cheating I suppose. Or perhaps it was just that I knew I wouldn’t believe it. It wouldn’t be real until I saw her for myself. Her body, I mean. All the time that I was making my way down to the morgue, I turned those thoughts over in my head, as my stomach churned. At every station that train pulled up, those hermetic doors sliding open to expose access to the pneumatic tube that we were flying through, I wanted desperately to jump off. To turn away, go home, or get lost in some part of the city I’d never been to. To pretend it had happened. If I never went to see her, I could just pretend it was someone else. That they had made a mistake.
But I knew that wasn’t true. Identifications were a formality, a ritual held over from centuries past. They already knew it was her, by genetic sampling that was far more accurate than anything I could say to them. It was a just a ritual we went through. I suppose really, it was about the idea that someone should be told. Someone should know, should affirm that it had happened. There should be someone, somewhere, with a hole left in their life by the passing. Someone had to be torn apart, so that we could prove we had existed at all.
I’d attended conferences about those identification techniques, among other things. Professor McNamara, from my own department, had given one such talk. I knew all about them, or at least I knew more than most people did.
But every time the doors slid shut with the hiss of escaping air, I felt a pang of longing. Another missed opportunity, a chance to run away, to embrace ignorance.
At the morgue the doctor explained that it hadn’t just been the taser or the fall, but an adverse reaction to a chemical agent. Riot suppression gas deployed by the Fujin police when the demonstration turned violent. A compound known as Zyotcin D-11. It was supposed to be safe, according to the experts, but supposedly in a handful of cases, especially in the presence of head trauma, the effects could be very dangerous.
“A one in a million chance really. It was all those factors coming together,” the doctor said. He was younger than the one I’d spoken to before. He didn’t have those same sad eyes, though he tried to sound consoling.
The next day, the footage hit the news. A float-cam had caught it perfectly, that moment when she fell. She wasn’t the only one, of course. Somehow a dozen members of the crowd had suffered ‘one in a million’ reactions to the Zytocin compound. But she was the one they focused on. The face of the outrage. Perhaps that was how it would have gone anyway, that particular image alone enough to create a story. But in truth there were probably dozens of similar images that they could have used. The event had been blanketed in float-cams, most of them operated by the protesters themselves, perhaps having guessed that the Fujin security would be out in force. That any threat of ugliness on those carefully manicured streets would have to be brought to heel. Maybe I should have seen that coming. I supposed that Kayla would have lectured me on that. Kayla the cynic, who always found me too trusting. But then why, God why, had she gone down there at all? Had it been just to spite me, like she’d jokingly suggested?
On the upper deck, I found my seat still waiting. Only one other table was occupied, by a young man with a carry-all, nervously drumming a rhythm on the battered metal with his fingertips. He looked nervous, out of place. I found myself wondering just what he was running from. Nobody like that got to a place like this unless they were running from something. I’m sure that’s how I must have looked, the first day that I left Saisei. Older, but no wiser.
I’d left it too long to call her parents. Almost a week, trying and failing to screw up the courage. That’s why the news had already reached them. Not just her death, but the story that had sprung up around it. I could see it in their eyes, even through the screen. Her mother’s, disappointed. Her father’s, angry. The conversation was short and uncomfortable. They didn’t mention it, and neither did I. The uncomfortable truth they’d doubtless learned from the footage playing on a dozen news channels. I’d seen plenty enough of it myself. The video of Kayla falling, played over and over, as the newscasters discussed the leaked coroners reports, released all across the spectrum by some whistleblower at Fujin city hall. The video still playing as one newscaster after another read out the same words… My words…
“…and in conclusion our studies have shown that shown that the compound Zytocin D-11 represents only minimal health risks and is safe to use in all standard security applications.”
The report that I’d authored, five years before. I’d honestly forgotten about it. Even when the coroner had been telling me about the cause of death, that name had sounded only faintly familiar. It wasn’t until one of the networks had spotted the connection, my name attached to a five year old report used in the manufacturer’s Controlled Substances filing, our relationship divulged by some colleagues. A story. A story that could put a face to the growing backlash against the police and the city council.
Something about my name being attached to the story had been enough to pull me into the swirling vortex of class action suits and government inquiries. I’m sure that the city did their best to encourage this notion as well. Of course they had the resources to tie the case up in the courts for years. I never did find out what the result was. The university had to let me go within a week. Too many letters of protest at my involvement. Corporate contracts dried up just as quickly; my name on any report would be poison. Lawyers fees saw to the rest. I don’t know when exactly the thought clicked into my head, that I should just leave. Some late night or other, a few bottles deep. Clothes stuffed into a suitcase. A few credits left in my account, just enough to buy passage on a merchant Freelancer. I hadn’t even asked where they were headed.
I tipped back the last of my glass. Somewhere around beer number five I’d stopped counting. That was about two beers after I’d stopped bothering to check for messages from Jerek. I glanced at the time on my mobi, but the numbers didn’t really seem to mean anything.
The young man continued to drum his fingers on the table. The sound was beginning to wear at my nerves. The young man’s eyes darted about nervously, and suddenly they fixed on something behind me. Curious, I glanced back to the woman with the dark red hair, striding confidently towards the airlock.
The man half rose from his seat.
“Excuse me… Miss Kosont?”
She looked up and down before answering, perhaps trying to discern if he was armed. She had that look about her, the way she carried herself. She was the sort of person who had to wonder if people asking for her by name might not be friendly.
“Yes?” she said, the word sharp and tight in her lips. The man almost staggered.
“I, um… I’m… Uh… Victor. I was told there was a position… Might be a position open? On your ship?”
He was reaching down to pick up the carry-all, but her eyes had already whipped across him one more time. That was it. The interview was already over and he had failed.
“There is,” she said, “but not for you. You’re too green.”
Author’s Notes – This was just kind of an off-the-cuff writing exercise mostly. Its set in the universe of Star Citizen (complaints about lack of a finished game aside, the lore team have done an astonishing amount of work to create a very well fleshed out universe for the game they’re working to deliver), but is really more of a homage to William Gibson’s cyberpunk work, which for some reason is a style that just really seems to fit with the Star Citizen setting. I’ll probably do some more of these, I’ve got a few other ideas kicking around.