by Derrick Boden
First time I saw her, she was bleeding from her left nostril with a nightstick jammed under her chin. Officer Vang was twisting her arm all kinds of unnatural behind her gene-hacked body, pressing her face to the exterior window with four thousand miles of freefall and filth and societal decay on the flip side. The lights in the cramped hallway–alpha quadrant, fourteenth floor of this godforsaken space elevator–painted her face a rusty orange. She was just another dirtside ghoul from the Rot, weaponized by another shadow corporation that had repurposed Earth’s battlegrounds into one big biotech testbed. Officer Vang–an over-muscled knot of a woman that never missed a chance to make example of one of us refugees–had the ghoul jammed against the hull so hard her boots were dangling like the guerrilla corpses in the town squares back home. She should’ve been howling in pain.
She was laughing.
I’m a shrewd woman, a survivor. Should’ve shuffled right past along with the seventy-some other scrag refugees, all beleaguered and shock-eyed with horror. We weren’t twenty hours from Processing–another week before we’d reach Distribution at the lift’s orbital counterweight–and the illusion of freedom had already bled dry. We’d won the lottery, escaped the Bloc, only to be stamped and sorted and packed into this long vertical handoff from one indenture to the next.
Maybe that’s why I stopped. Something in her laugh said nice try. Sure, we’d spent our respective lives on opposite sides of the war–ghoul against scrag, Rot versus Bloc. Sure, defiance is a cheap substitute for hope. But goddamn did that laugh sound just right, just then.
Besides, I had a plan. I’d been tracking Officer Vang since her immigration crew had subdermaled KUIPER INC down my forearm and tossed me onto this lift. I had a better shot at seeing my twenty-second birthday back in the dirtside scrabble than mining the Kuiper belt. Fucking sponsors.
Only hope now was to carve my own fate.
The ghoul craned her neck hard against Vang’s grip, harder than any baseline could. Halfway around, her gaze found mine. Vang cracked her once with the stick, leaned close and licked the blood trail from her scaly temple.
The ghoul held my gaze through it all. Winked at me, even.
I was hooked.
“Patrol. Ma’am.” I wasn’t one for talking, least of all to the likes of any sir or ma’am. Don’t know what came over me. “Maybe I can help.”
My plan on approach had been casual larceny of Officer Vang’s badge, here in alpha quadrant’s surveillance blind spot. No eye contact, no words.
So much for the plan.
Officer Vang wound back, fuming at the intrusion. Caught sight of me, second-guessed. As they do.
I’m soft on the outside.
In those leering eyes, Vang was gauging my worth. Finding none. “Mind your own, burner girl.”
The ghoul spat a trail of pidgin–foreign words, universal meaning. Vang’s mother, other parties. Vang wound back tight as a power-coil, nightstick cleaving an arc that would leave a mark no amount of contempt could laugh away.
I touched Vang’s elbow. The arc rerouted. Accelerated.
Stopped, a finger’s width from my skull. Vang’s eyes said, this better be good.
I dug my fingernails into my nape, pried the slender memory-thread from under my skin with a trailing clot of blood. The thread–a tightly coiled filigree–scattered light like sparks from a fuse. Its fractals charted my ancestry back to the pre-war. It was a bullet-sized work of art. I’d seen how these off-worlders coveted our relics–seen our lineages dangling from the necks of their officers and priests like hunting trophies.
Questions flooded Vang’s eyes. Questions about how I got the relic through customs, how much cash it would turn on the gray market, why the hell I’d trade it for this gene-fucked ghoul. Questions about the state of the cameras in alpha quadrant.
I answered them with the ghost of a smile.
Across the hallway a priest lingered in shadow, his eyes a-glitter with greed.
Then my hand was empty, the ghoul was a heap at my feet, and Officer Vang was disappearing through the hatch into beta quadrant with a parting glare for warning.
“I’m Jena.” The ghoul held out a hand.
I didn’t take it. “You owe me.”
A short, sharp laugh.
I pretended it was something else, something trite and crude and unwelcome, not the most flawless sound I could remember. I pretended Vang’s badge–now tucked deep into my pocket–was the whole reason for this sideshow.
The ghoul–Jena–dragged herself standing, her muscles bunched at the joints like a predatory cat. She had the body of a scout, wiry and small–like me, only rougher at the edges. Through the glass behind her, lights latticed the Pacific Coast. An ever-rising tide gnawed at the old arcologies. Cascadia burned. Farther south, where the elevator’s trunk obscured the view: an approximation of home. Perpetual drought and ritual slaughter and mercy murder and counting ribs and hiding seeds and cultivating that one last vein of hope that jutted skyward some sixty-thousand miles, pumping all these refugees up, up, up toward salvation.
The view was a reminder: last thing I needed was a friend.
A commotion broke out behind me. Ghouls and scrags, fighting over rations or lineage or breathing room. I took advantage of the racket, turned my back on Jena and slipped into the surge.
I had work to do, and I’d already short-changed myself on time. Vang would notice her missing badge as soon as her shift ran dry. I hadn’t walked over a riverbed of corpses to bleed out in some corporate methane mine. I was maneuvering for better things, and there was no room in my schemes for some dissenting ghoul with a predilection for trouble.
The lift pumped higher. Gravity slackened. For the poor saps with stock organs, nausea ratcheted. Didn’t faze my modded biome–by the time we decelerated into Purgatory, altitude had me practically floating down the vestibule into the elevator’s lower eight. My palms left a snail’s trail of sweat on the rungs–down, down into the vacant hall that curved around the elevator’s core shaft.
Three lines run the stretch of the elevator: Cash Line and Trash Line. Cash Line is for transporting salvage off-world–gold, art, rare earths. The other line is for us. The lifts are built the same, like big-ass caterpillars–twenty-some stacked cylinders linked by semirigid vestibules, sliding up carbon nanotube cables at two-hundred miles an hour. This close to the core, away from the windows, it was easy to forget all that. Where we’d come from, where we were going.
Down here on the eighth floor, the ruddy lights said off limits. But this was the Trash Line, understaffed and poorly maintained. Surveillance was on the fritz. Officer Vang’s patrol was making rounds in the upper twenty, keeping some twelve hundred refugees in line with equal parts prejudice and pain, and for a scant twenty minutes the security closet loomed unguarded. Didn’t matter much to them, considering you needed double-auth to get in, along with passable subdermal expertise to fire up the deck inside and shave the words KUIPER INC off your flesh in exchange for a more survivable assignment–ACADEMY, say–before we reached our destination where the distribution officers would sort us by arm-brand and scatter us across the solar system.
I had both.
The silence amplified even my scout-savvy steps into a carom of echoes. Halfway to the closet, something clanged from the vestibule. I pressed my sweat-slicked back to the bulkhead.
Officer Vang would make an example, catching me here with her stolen badge. Send me right back down to the war, bloody and blacklisted.
The vestibule was silent. I waited another thirty-count, then hustled to the closet and got to work. Hacked the pre-auth, scanned the stolen badge with six minutes to spare, and behold, motherfuckers–
The lock read INVALID.
I tried again.
Another clang from the vestibule. I crammed the badge into my pocket, whirled.
A dozen excuses died on my tongue.
“Savvy.” It was Jena, hanging one-handed from the vestibule’s bottom rung, feet dangling. Shoddy stitches half-mooned her temple. “And stupid.”
I showed her my back, tried the badge again–
I heard Jena drop to the ground behind me. My fingers hovered over the console.
“Third time alerts patrol.”
“Stale.” Her closeness surprised me. “They cycled the codes. Found contraband in the galley. Tetramet, dioxides, bleach. Raw fixings for an elevator-shaped fire in the sky. Seems there’s a saboteur in the ranks.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I’m a good listener.”
I rolled my eyes.
Then a shout–raw and authoritative–carried down the vestibule, and Jena was dragging me down the radial hall, cramming me into a crawlspace between the bulkhead and the lift’s outer hull. The view through the glass–out, down–was dizzying. She squeezed into the crawlspace next to me. Her sweat-scent flooded my nostrils.
Boots pounded around the bend–two, four, six. I held my breath, tried to ignore the smell of my fear muddling with hers. The footsteps approached, a low-g arrhythmia at odds with the anvil in my chest.
Then someone yelled all clear! and the footsteps faded. I breathed.
When I glanced up, Jena was glowering–but not at me. I followed her gaze through the glass.
The lift had stopped. Across a girded expanse of space, a semi-permanent low-orbital habitat extended around the elevator’s lift cables like a wedding ring. Or a shock collar. A continuous sheet of glass comprised the habitat’s inward-facing surface, baring its contents for public display.
“Purgatory,” Jena said.
A hundred comatose bodies stood crammed into a hundred coffin pods, visors riveted to their faces. Tubes ran up their nostrils, down their throats. Their expressions were serene.
Jena worked her jaw. “You know why they’re facing us.”
I had some guesses. Offered none.
“They’re a warning.”
Dirtside, the warmongers called it gibbeting, though down there they detached the heads first. “They’re alive.”
“Broadly speaking.” Her words came low and heavy, settling onto my clavicle. “They’re kept in an indefinite feedback loop. Reliving their crimes until they repent.”
“How do they know when…?”
She tapped a finger to her temple. “They go digging.”
I suppressed a shiver. “That’s it? Then they go free?”
“Long as they’ve survived enough cycles to match their sentence. Still.” She blinked rapidly, so close my modded senses could smell the tears welling, drying. “Some never repent.”
“Why the hell not?”
Jena’s expression was unreadable. “Some things are more important than freedom.”
The thought gave me the chills. I changed the subject. “Lot of trouble for a warning.”
She laughed. “Worth every penny. Look at all these burners–all this cheap labor. Sure, we’re a PR scam–sponsors playing hero to boost their stock prices–but that ain’t the half of it. We’re also a cash scam. A tax write-off and a twenty-year labor contract rolled together. But the scam don’t work if they can’t keep us in line. So, this.” She tapped her stitched-up temple. Then she nodded toward Purgatory. “And that.”
She watched me for a long second. Something in her expression softened. The change took me by surprise. I looked away, flustered.
I was never much liked back home. My mods–the printless fingers and the jacked senses–said scout, which said sneak and thief and spy. Nobody trusts a spy. Earned me a solo bunk in the trenches, though, so I played it like a bonus. I can convince myself of anything.
But Jena, she was something different. When she looked at me, smiling or scowling, she was sharing a secret. A risky secret, sure. But a secret just for me.
I almost glanced at her forearm, where the subdermal might trace a bas relief against her hardened skin. I almost wanted to know. I almost thought: mining the Kuiper belt might not be so bad, with someone to share a beer with at the end of a double shift.
I skulked into the dorms just as inspections got underway. Officers turned out pockets already purged during immigration, acted surprised at all those empty hands. Officer Vang–flaunting my lineage on her neck chain–singled out three men, made a show of them, left with scrag relics in her pocket and scrag blood on her nightstick. Jena had been right about the saboteur. They were still at large, and we would all suffer for it. Officers halved our rations, tightened our curfew. Sick bay was glutted and unstaffed, save for the priests who traded blessings for smuggled relics. The wails that carried through the halls grew persistent. Regulatory.
The lift rose. Gravity bled from our bodies, hope from our eyes. Patrol had the lower eight on lockdown, scuttling any chance for another run at the security closet. My subdermal itched–a reminder, ever-present. I’d have carved fresh letters with a scalpel if it would’ve done the job, sent me to flight academy. Five cush years in school and I’d be piloting some spray-tanned VIP’s private rig, feet propped on the dash, whole goddamn solar system at my mercy.
But a scalpel wouldn’t cut it. I needed that subdermal deck, and quick.
Next day in the galley, Jena passed me by without a glance. I was fixing to put her out of my mind when I found a double-pack of rations in my pocket. I thought, dirty thief, and couldn’t hide my grin.
Not two hours later I found myself peeling her off the floor after a scrag twice her size had used her as a punchball. She wiped the blood from her jaw and bared her teeth like a sand shark, but she let me patch her up without protest. When I asked what happened, all she said was, “I deserved it.”
That night Officer Vang took offense to Jena’s smirk, dragged her out of the vaccination line. Jena muttered something sharp, too quiet for me to hear. Vang put a knee in her gut, another to her half-healed temple. Ten minutes later she was coughing blood on my sleeve, laughing. I asked her what she’d said to Vang and she replied, “I would’ve killed me.” I laughed, despite the blood trickling from her busted stitch, and I almost glanced at her forearm again. Maybe–
I shook it off, told Jena she should be more careful.
Then, just like that, she was gone. A day past with no sign of her. Then another.
I scoped out the dorms. The galley, the clinic.
I got angry, then worried, then angry about being worried. All this in thirty seconds, staring at the grimy wrapper from a double-pack of rations. I found the nearest waste chute, put it out of my mind along with the whole ordeal. I didn’t have time for off-world sentiment. I had to get into that office, fix my trajectory.
But where would I go? Was Academy really any better? Didn’t matter if I wore a miner’s suit or a pilot’s stripes, I’d still be a scrag, a refugee–a burner. I’d always be company property, and I’d always have the side-eyed contempt of these off-worlders. And that beer at the end of that double-shift–if I ever scrounged enough to afford it–I’d be sharing with myself.
This is how they break you. Not when they take your freedom or your heritage or your pride. The last thing they come for is your hope. When they see your dead eyes on waking, they know they’ve won.
We crossed geosynchronous on day five. The know-bodies call it the Flip. The moment when the ceiling becomes the floor, when the star-ward centrifugal force finally out-muscles the dirtside gravity well. When the way down becomes more remote than the way up.
The moment when everything changes.
I woke with dead eyes. An eye-blink later, hope flickered.
Scratched into the underside of the upper–soon to be lower–bunk: a note. A surveillance gap, a window. A place, and a time.
Five minutes from now.
By the time I hit the observation deck I was bruised and out of breath from the low-g careening sprint. Vang had the lift on partial lockdown, but it was too damn crowded to keep every last straggler from slipping through the cracks. Especially a straggler modded for stealth. I lingered in a knot of shadows around the corner from the security checkpoint as patrol drifted down the hall and out of sight. Next patrol would sweep through in eight minutes, ceiling-walking. Observation was off-limits to everyone but the crew and the priests and the occasional officer burning off the middle-hours of their beat shifts. Trespassing was unwise.
Shadows cross-hatched the V-shaped room. Vacant. I skulked to the row of bent fiber chairs, glanced outside.
Through the wall-to-wall window: Earth at twenty-six thousand miles. A big-ass gumball dipped in shadow. From up here you could almost fool yourself into thinking it was a piece of candy, too, or some rich kid’s tetherball. Anything but the truth.
It was a corpse bled dry.
“Home sweet home.”
Jena was hanging upside down directly overhead, her legs hooked under a flip-side chair. Had a fresh cut on the side of her neck, the hints of a black eye.
I narrowed my eyes. “The fuck you been?”
A half-smile, with a touch of bitterness. “Miss me?”
I scoffed. She laughed, and I scoffed some more–now flush with anger.
Then she said one word–solitary–and my skin went cold.
By the rumors, solitary meant sensory deprivation. By the haunted look in her eyes, I believed it.
“Why?” I asked.
She shrugged. “They think I stole someone’s badge.”
I blinked away sudden, hot tears.
“Don’t worry.” She mimed the sealing of her lips. “Secret’s safe.”
My mouth was bone-dry. I tried to formulate an apology, failed. I had no experience to lean on.
“Forget it.” She glanced at the wall clock. “Ready?”
She straightened her legs, pushed off. Drifted down, head-first.
I flinched, too preoccupied with my own guilt to understand. Then I glanced at the clock, remembered.
Jena drifted downward in slow motion. “Let go, dumbass.”
A thrill traveled up from my toes. I let go. Kicked off a little, even. It wasn’t like me, but I did it and it was done and there was no way to reel myself back down.
We met at geosynchronous, somewhere between the ceiling and the floor. She grabbed my belt, redirected our inertia, let go. We drifted a slow circle, watched each other sidelong. Waiting for something to happen.
Maybe something did.
Too soon, our orbits started to decay.
My gaze strayed to her forearm. I knew I shouldn’t look—was begging for a letdown. But I couldn’t help it–my curiosity was a ball of lead in my gut, a bezoar or maybe a sickness. I glanced away, but of course she noticed.
She took my hand, turned it palm-out, pressed my printless fingers to her wrist. Guided them along her callused skin, up up up to the crook of her elbow. There was no mistaking the letters branded underneath.
I pulled back as if burned. Our orbits decayed some more, as I now knew they would from this moment on. We were due at Distribution in three days’ time. The thing that would be distributed was us. Between Europa and the Kuiper belt stood some two billion miles. Our first dance would be our last.
We were already falling. Up had become down, too soon.
Shadows gouged her eyes. “There’s another a way.”
Impossible. Officer Vang wouldn’t let her guard down again, not with a saboteur on the loose. “They cycled the codes, you said it yourself–”
“Officer Vang isn’t the only authority on this lift.”
The silence hung thick. My nerves thrummed with something approaching hope. We were past geosynchronous, now.
No going back.
We met the priest in a windowless call box crammed behind sick bay on the sixteenth floor. His fingers were manicured and clean as they tapped against the plastic tabletop. His eyes were pale and still, his clergy collar a square puncture-wound at his throat. Ghoul relics dangled from his fleshy earlobes. He was smiling.
At the center of the table between us: a shiv. It was a murderer’s tool from butt to blade, complete with safety and shunt-switch. It would kill with a single thrust. Its nano-sealant would leave no trace of a cut.
It was our end of the bargain.
Jena had fed me intel as we threaded the crowds toward the call box. Her voice had been low, barely a whisper, laced with excitement.
Every turf’s got a feud, she’d said. On the Trash Line, it’s patrol versus priest. These motherfuckers loathe each other worse than scrags and ghouls. Always jockeying for power, for profit, for contraband.
What she meant, I knew, was relics. A savvy off-worlder could make a small fortune from a fist of dirtside bling. We might too, if they ever gave us access to the gray markets. Not like that would ever happen.
Met one of these priests, she’d continued. He’s got a subdermal deck stashed onboard. Says he’ll let us use it. Then, after a knowing look: Says he’s looking for a scout.
I glanced from the priest to the shiv, then back.
This was not a scout’s weapon.
“Nobody will miss her.” The priest’s grin broadened. “Least of all you.”
I suppressed a shiver. Good bet we’d seen equal shares of killing, Jena and I. But that was war. Eighty-thousand miles up, everything felt different. Officer Vang was cruel and cunning from any angle. But these weren’t marching orders. This was exploit, personal gain.
This was murder.
I tapped the tabletop with a printless finger. “This some kind of payback?”
“This is business.” His pale cheeks looked damn near ready to crack, he was grinning so hard. “I assume you’ve been appraised of the saboteur situation.”
I didn’t bother to answer.
He let out a perfunctory sigh. “There is no saboteur.”
“Bullshit,” Jena said.
He shrugged. “I’ve outlasted so many of Officer Vang’s schemes, they’ve become transparent. No refugee could have possible smuggled those chemicals onto the lift. Tetramet, bleach–what a joke. Officer Vang planted them to instigate chaos, tighten regulations, kick us all off the Line except the refugees and mandatory security personnel. Consolidate her control.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Won’t this make it worse?”
His grin vanished. The sudden contrast made his lips look disproportionately small, his cheeks skeletal. “Without Vang in charge, I will have a far easier time proving the need for clergy on the Line. We’re performing God’s work, after all.”
He must’ve spotted my discomfort, added, “That’s more than anyone can say for Officer Vang.”
That much was true. Every time I’d crossed paths with Vang, there’d been blood on her nightstick.
I narrowed my eyes. “Why me?”
The priest leaned forward an increment. “I thought you’d never ask.”
It was a simple plan. A distraction, a gap in surveillance coverage. A hardware shaft that fed into the comms center, too narrow for most bodies.
I didn’t have most bodies. I was small, lithe. My mods were tailored for stealth.
The fact that the priest knew this put a knot in my gut.
The plan called for two. Jena was louder, stronger. She’d cause the distraction, then keep watch. I was unassuming. I’d finish the job.
I felt pressure against my shoulder, realized only then that Jena and I were sitting so close we were touching. Propping each other up. I nearly pulled away, but the very thought of doing so gave me a chill. So I leaned a little harder. Under the table, she squeezed my thigh.
I wasn’t used to being squeezed in a way that wouldn’t kill me. It felt good.
Through the call box porthole, the queue for sick bay snaked around the corner. Over their stooped heads, through the hull window: Vista Nine. Last stopover before Distribution. Vista Nine was laid out like to Purgatory, but catered to a different breed of villain. Tourists. Luxury cabins and low-g banquets with a prime view of Earth–and the steady stream of lifts fleeing its surface. Along the inner window, prim-suited guests lined up to live-blog their encounter with the Trash Line, as if we were wildebeests in some quaint migration pattern. As if all our collective hopes weren’t founded on the scraps from their tables.
All our hopes, but one.
I ran my thumb down my forearm, hard.
Then I pocketed the shiv.
For twenty-four hours, we were honeymooning. With the shiv stashed in the slit of my mattress, anything was possible. We’d have the priest’s subdermal deck in hand by Distribution day, and the whole solar system would be ours. We were conspiring kids, trading notes in the hall. Each one held a dream.
Study mates at academy.
Fuck school. Masseuses at the Ganymede resorts.
Screw those rich bastards. Cultural specialists at the Museum of Earth on Olympus Mons.
I got it. Quality assurance agents at the Callisto Chocolate Factory.
She caught my eye at that one, and we both had to stifle our laughs. Officer Vang took her nightstick to the back of Jena’s thigh on account of the disruption. A surprising fury gripped me. If I’d been holding the shiv, I’d have blown the plan and stuck Vang right then and there.
Instead, I blew a kiss to Vang’s backside. Catch you later.
Jena shrugged off the pain with a grimace, but couldn’t hide her limp on the way back to the dorms. She must’ve seen the fire in my eye, because when we were close enough to whisper again she said, “Stick to the plan.”
I forced a nod.
She cocked a half-grin. “Don’t tell me you don’t like chocolate.”
“Never tried it.”
She clucked her tongue. “Time to fix that.”
Then, on the eve of Distribution, everything went to hell.
Jena and I had been scheming at the time; the shiv sat deep in my pocket. By the time patrol banged their nightsticks against the bunk rails and called us to emergency inspection, there was no time to put it back–nowhere to hide it without drawing attention.
They lined us up in seven rows of twenty, all worn and waif and beaten down. I caught Jena’s eye from across the room, hoped to hell she’d keep her cool. But this time it was me that Officer Vang targeted, clamping her cold hand to my jaw and wrenching my gaze forward. As if she already knew.
The priest had rolled over on us. Why else had they dragged us out in the middle of the night, this close to Distribution? Why waste their own sweat running inspection twice in one day?
I squeezed my palms behind my back to keep them from inching toward my pockets, toward the shiv. Vang looked me up and down and up again, lip curled back over yellowed teeth. Recognition caught her eye, like glittering dollar signs.
“Empty your pockets.”
I slid my hands into my pockets. The cold metal against my palm craved action. This wasn’t the time nor the place–three hundred eyes on me and a half-dozen sticks in easy range, let alone surveillance–but what choice did I have? They were all gonna see it, one way or the other. Might as well make it count.
I eased the shiv from my pocket an inch. Two inches.
Then another officer shouted from down the hall and chaos ensued. Vang started barking orders–these lines over here, those over there–and in the surge of bodies I lost track of Jena.
Kept sight of Vang, though.
An alarm blared. Nightsticks cracked. Through the chatter, I caught fragments of what had happened.
Patrol had found another bomb, this time in Observation. Another scheme, if the priest was right. Bad news for us either way. If they were looking for a scapegoat, they’d be lifting prints in Observation. My fingertips are smooth as glass, but sooner or later they’d find one of Jena’s.
And even if they didn’t, we were fucked. They were already barking threats about sending the whole goddamn lift dirtside to minimize the risk. By the way the priest had laid it out, they meant it. Twelve hundred refugees down the backwash to solidify their grip on the relic trade was a no-brainer for Officer Vang and Co. They’d ship me back to the Bloc, Jena to the Rot. Some smog-crusted morning not long from now, we’d meet again, in the gristly stink of battle, on opposite sides of the buzz saw.
What a fool I’d been, thinking the Flip was some moment of no return. Truth was, they could always send us back.
I kept my gaze locked on Officer Vang, even as she hauled herself into a nearby vestibule and shouted at one of her patrolmen to mop up while she alerted command. Then she hoisted herself up and out of sight.
Toward the comms center.
I glanced around. No eyes on me. I slipped through the heaving crowd, around a certain corner and into a maintenance alcove. The dividing wall blocked me from sight, dampened the sound. Just like we’d planned it.
Overhead, a shaft ascended into darkness. Too narrow for most bodies.
This wasn’t the distraction we’d planned, but it had done the job. Officer Vang was en route to comms, and this shaft would take me straight there.
I started to haul myself up.
A hand closed around my wrist, dragged me back. I reached for my shiv–
It was Jena. The haunt was back in her eyes when she said, quiet as death, “Don’t go.”
“The fuck do you mean, don’t go?”
She held my gaze. “It’s not worth it.”
“This was your idea.”
“I was wrong,” she said. “This is someone else’s war, just like down below. Different breed of warmonger is all. Ain’t our battle.”
I shrugged. “None of them are.”
“So why do we keep fighting? Why are we risking our lives for someone else’s pay dirt?”
Her eyes were searching for something in mine. A shiver overtook me; I almost caved.
Then I shook off the gut-wrench of doubt. “This isn’t for them. It’s for us. For freedom, for fucking chocolate. Or was that all bullshit?”
She flinched like I’d slapped her. “Chocolate ain’t worth dying for.”
Except it was.
So I twisted free and hauled myself up the shaft. The crawlspace was too narrow to glance back, and I didn’t want to see her expression in any case. So I shimmied deeper into darkness, around a bend and straight to a comms room all flickering with alerts.
Officer Vang manned the console, unaware of my presence. Main entrance was to my left, vacant. For now.
The shiv chilled my hand. Just one quick thrust, let the nano-sealant tidy up. She’d be dead of an electrical surge or cardiac arrest, pending autopsy. By then we’d be long gone. I targeted a fold in her pleats beneath her fifth rib, just left of the spine. I rushed, lunged, stabbed.
Missed. She must’ve heard me coming, spun and juked. She grabbed my outthrust arm. We scuffled. I took an elbow to the jaw, a jab to the gut. Hardly registered the pain, thanks to the adrenal rush–never mind that I’d be coughing blood in an hour. I ducked under her next punch, raked the shiv across her back.
Blood ribboned wildly in the low-g. The shiv was a clean tool, but only when wielded with grace. By the time I’d shunted its switch, it was too late for containment. Blood tattooed the console, my clothes, my face.
Officer Vang’s body drifted to the ground in slow motion.
I retreated through the crawlspace, down the shaft, into the maintenance alcove. Jena wiped the gore from my face with a steady hand, but couldn’t hide the fear in her eyes. Shouts carried from around the corner, others from the crawlspace overhead. By the edge in their voices, they’d found Vang’s body. The blood would lead them straight to me.
A deep calm overtook me. I felt no fear, but rather a sense of inevitability–and something more. As if this was all happening to someone else. As if it had already happened–once, twice, a hundred times. I knew how this would all end.
And I was glad.
I squeezed Jena’s hand, whispered an apology.
Then I hauled her around the corner and shoved her into the press of bodies. She was too shocked to fight the flow of the crowd. Within seconds, she was gone. Only then did I retreat into the alcove. With bloody shiv in hand, I waited for the guards to come.
Gravity tugs at my molars. My brain presses against my skull. It’s hot as hell, shockingly dark. The only sensation that roots me to reality is the blood between my fingers.
From the darkness, a disembodied voice raises a question. Although I cannot make sense of its context, I know this is not the first time it has been asked. I know it will not be the last.
I force my eyelids open.
Directly in front of me: a sheet of glass. An orbital station. A space elevator, parked.
Throngs of refugees huddle inside the lift. They stare slack-jawed through the window. I catch sight of a wiry pair sharing a sidelong glance. The shorter of the two tends to the other, who is bleeding from her neck. They are oblivious to the crowd. In their eyes: conspiracy, or love. If there’s a difference.
I want to scream–in triumph, or in warning–but I have no voice. Tubes run down my throat, my nostrils. Straps prevent me from turning my head to see the others at my side.
The lift surges star-ward, out of sight. My eyes flutter shut.
The metallic scent of blood on my hands serves as reminder of what I’ve done. What I’ll do again and again, until I repent. I’ve already survived enough cycles–my atrophied muscles can attest to it. All I need to do is answer the question.
And yet, some never repent. Some things are more important than freedom.
Now I believe it.
I’ve traded my freedom for a lie. A lie I’ve told myself enough times it has become true. A lie that would doubtless come to light under interrogation, but that–as long as I am here, living it over and over again–is never questioned.
Why would it be? All the details add up. The lift, the Flip, the priest. The condemning trail of blood. These are my memories, and the vast sum of them are verifiably true. No one would notice–would even suspect–a single, trivial revision. A hot-swap of who did what on that eve of Distribution. For example.
Which one of us navigated a certain crawlspace.
Which one of us said don’t go.
Which one of us went anyway.
Yes, I was once a scout. Yes, I am small and lithe.
But so is she.
And now she is on Europa, and I am here. Because I am here. Because every time they prod my brain, it’s me they see in that comms center instead of her. Killing for reasons they’ll never take the time to understand.
The questioning relents. The discomfort bleeds away—the gravity, the pressure the knowing. A new sound fills my ears. It is hoarse, strained. Flawless.
A ghoul, laughing.
There she is now, across the cramped hallway of alpha quadrant, a nightstick jammed under her chin. I know I should keep my head down, shuffle along, mind my own.
But goddamn does that laugh sound just right.
by Tina Connolly
About this story, Derrick says: “I wrote this story huddled in the corner of a Seattle coffeehouse midway through the 2019 Clarion West workshop, severely under-slept and over-caffeinated. I nicknamed it “Love in a (Space) Elevator.” The idea started out largely incoherent – a vague image in my mind from a song I’d recently heard called Koop Island Blues. I wanted to write a story about emigration and criminal injustice and love, but the first draft ended up largely incoherent. It was only through the insights of my Clarion West cohorts that I was able to rewrite it (and then rewrite it again) until I finally got it right. Yet another reminder to myself that writing is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent hard fucking work.”
And about this story, I say: I really like when you reach the end of a story and it recasts the whole beginning in a different light. So then you read back through, looking at the hints and misdirects that led you down the path you took, reading it for the other path to see where that might go. One of the things I particularly like is the innocent-sounding line near the beginning, after our ostensible protagonist sees Jena. The narration says: “Maybe that’s why I stopped.” And after that we slide more thoroughly into the protagonist’s POV; she reasons and chooses with authority. But I feel like the moment of that meeting, there were still unknowns. Why DID the girl who was walking stop to save the girl who was trapped? If Jena is the one telling the story, then maybe this is still one bit she will never know, but she will keep wiggling at it like a loose tooth.
Another thing I like is that whichever way you read the story, you can see character change for our two main characters. If our unnamed protagonist is truly the one who she says she is from the beginning, then, by the end, she has learned that “some things are more important than freedom.” But, if we revise that, if Jena is the one telling the story–then she, too, has learned something – because she has learned to add love to that list.
And our closing quotation this week is from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who said “There is nothing more deceptive than an obvious fact.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Compelling Science Fiction. He is a writer, a software developer, an adventurer, and a proud graduate of the Clarion West class of 2019. He currently calls Boston his home, although he’s lived in fourteen cities spanning four continents. He is owned by two cats and one iron-willed daughter.