By Joseph Hirsch
Oversight usually left exoplanets alone and concentrated on Solar One with Earth Remainder at its center. Nevertheless Worker Evans-comma-Jonathan was still worried that someone might report that he was picking up basalt samples while in his ported suit, rather than getting out of his rover craft to bottle the red rock up and then bring it back in the buggy like he was supposed to do.
Worker Berman-comma-Gary liked to sham as much as he did, though, and he had his back and would never report his coworker to Higher, and his words appeared across Evans’ facemask in a green chyron. “No Oversight in sight from this end. Get back with the sample soon. Mail call at Yggdrasil and you’ve got a big one.”
Evans went voice-to-text and watched his own words appear in green letters in front of his face, twin moons and red escarpments subsuming all beyond the glass of his faceguard in a red hemoglobin glow. “Roger that. Back to Tube Six for decon and decom in less than five mikes.”
Berman copied that. Evans finished placing the samples in the cylinders, placed them into the wall-mounted vitrines on the panels on the side of the white rover, which went into gullwing mode long enough to allow their stowing. Then he steered onward across the barren lip of the crater.
I already know what the problem is, he thought, and I’m just a claw. He’d picked up enough of these samples to know without a microscope or an advanced degree that those little mole-faced extremophiles were eating all the nutrients in the sands meant to catch sunrays and get the planet to go green.
Take away the hungry, greedy little bugs, and this frozen ball of exoplanetary nothing would be a lush tropical paradise, verdant jade and glowing to the horizons at sunrise and sunset.
He’d been doing this too long, long enough in fact to pull a perfect stop over the pressure plate without the aid of sensors. The platform gave a pneumatic hiss and hydraulic rock before letting him and his rover drop down into Lava Tube Eight in Cappadocia Ville. The plates sealed closed behind him as he descended, leaving him in semi-darkness as the lift groaned. This must have been what it would be like, he thought, if the mole-faces got nano’d to a massive size and decided to swallow men whole.
The craft descended on the lift, the walls a condensation-rich, dripping pearlescent cavern enveloping him and his craft like the inside of some exotic crustacean’s shell. He unbuckled and slipped from his suitport, down to his sweat-soaked thermals. Moisture wicking caused the clothes to stick to him skintight, which made it hard to ignore how much weight he’d gained on the last couple seedings as every roll of fat and protrusion looked and felt bigger. His sweat chilled him and as he shivered his blubber jiggled.
Maybe it was time to reexamine that New Year’s Resolution to hit Tube Nine and run the hamster wheel, instead of pulling one strip of Soybeef pedicle after another from the roll in the cabin knock-wall. Or maybe not. Who was he trying to impress? Even dignity seemed unnecessary, a surplus vanity. People expected claws to be portly, terse, rude, ugly, and he had met and even exceeded expectations in a couple areas.
The air around him hissed, followed by the soughing whisper of the decon foam dripping over the ship’s hull. His ears popped and he reflexively checked for his name disk below his shirt, dangling on its snakelike beaded chain.
The door dropped, unfurling like the steel tongue in some metal leviathan’s mouth. Evans walked down, his legs rubbery from too much time in the craft; even with the false G mod perfectly calibrated he had sensed the weight of that planet out there, through the plate glass of his helmet and the shell of the rover herself. The place wanted to freeze him with its temp and crush him with its weird G, turn his bones to ice-caked meringue and make his eyebags sag until it looked like he had the worst case of Graves Disease in the universe.
“You ready?” Berman was there in his bullnose bumper, wearing his own thermals and black watch cap pulled down the side of his heavily-scarred face to conceal the worst of the burns he’d picked up on some previous claw job.
Evans got his legs back, felt them reconstituting from liquid to muscle as he walked and the sleep nettles abated. He got into the passenger seat of the two-seater. Berman didn’t give the gun any corn, let the magnets do the work and pull the vehicle toward the big lava pillar, wrapped in glowing stalagmites and dripping tallowy forms of frozen fire, auburn and gold and looking like something a strange cult would worship, if anyone still worshipped anything.
“What you got coming in?” Berman asked. He leered at Evans, who refused to share the smile.
“Same thing about half the guys got coming in.”
“Yeah, it’s hard to pretend you don’t know what it is when you seen the bill of lading.”
“Who cares?” Evans asked, somewhere between indifferent and rhetorical. Berman obviously didn’t care, because he wasn’t saying anything. The guy had no room to talk, as Evans had gotten a look at his model the last time it had come back from Maintenance, with its guanine scalar mod, a forked tail, and elf ears. If he could have that, why couldn’t Evans have something to help him pass the time when he wasn’t playing around on the surface with rocks and ugly bugs?
Oversight might write this one off as a total loss if they couldn’t get those little rock-chomping weevils under control, and that would mean Evans had gambled on a garnishment in exchange for a Homesteader’s Clause and he’d taken a bath on that gamble. No way could he build a life here if they were preparing for a pullout. But who, he asked himself as they approached the central lava tube, would he build a life with anyway assuming things worked out?
False sunrays broke through the skylight in the central atrium where the mother of all claws passed out boxes and crates that looked like coffins or deep sleep hibernation chambers, containing supplies that each of the men had been waiting on. They queued up like kids playing bump blaster on a centrifuge station resort, overriding their own magnetic autos and giving light ethanol when someone took too long to deploy and cinch the winch from the back of his bullnose craft to the coffins on wheels.
Evans cinched and bolted both boxes, his and his buddy Berman’s, and gave his friend the signal to pull when everything was secure to the rear tow. The tunnel lights blew by as they moved, red sulfurous light splashing across the buggy’s waxed hull. The thing stopped of its own accord, despite Berman’s hands on the wheel, in front of the door to their double-man cabin.
The blast doors pulled aside, lodging in the greenstone crags of the cavern and then the craft pulled into the hallway. The crates had obviously been tagged correctly, since, after Evans uncinched them from the chained towline, each drifted toward the correct room.
The carbon fiber crates floated, looking like eerily sentient tombstones in a graveyard suddenly discovering the nauseating anti-joys of zero gravity, the corpses and cenotaphs free-floating through the air. The boxes knew where to halt and when to cease floating, and like tamed pets they waited until each of their masters were at their doors before proceeding ahead.
“See you tomorrow,” Evans said.
“Enjoy your night.”
The door hissed closed behind Evans and the harsh fluorescence dimmed to a suitable romantic glow, as if the room had been meticulously lit with scented candles carefully arranged in each nook and cranny. Lilac scent got piped in on the microfiber straws and a mix of baleen chant and another indefinable creature call and countercall passed above his head, made the act somehow less shameful.
The top of the box opened, and along with the springs that kept the fragile items from being destroyed and the curlicued packing straws that smelled of ozone, among the provisions, the synth cheese provender and other sundry items ordered, there was the Natasha.
Its eyes were of an almond-shape that would become near doe-eyed when she registered expression, the lids painted in bluish purple eyeshadow. This look of being between chaste innocence and carnal knowledge stopped at the hard set of the mouth, a discipline both self-imposed and at-the-ready for the man to whom she’d been sent, the paradox of S & M right there before him, a power fantasy of lost power.
It wore a PVC black leather rainslicker that did nothing to conceal the overstated endowments he’d specified in his order, a peroxide blonde bob that would have looked positively white in the room’s previous fluorescence, the icy supreme sexual indifference accentuated by the high Slavic cheekbones and the lips that were thin but still contained just enough fat to suggest a pout and perhaps at least one collagen injection.
Working hard always made him horny, and he was tired enough to indulge in the delusion that this thing not only was a real woman, but that he was in some way attractive physically, financially, in any sense, which he knew not to be true.
He dropped onto the curvilinear halfshell of his bunk, which contoured to him easily. So many things below the surface obeyed his whims, while above amid the craters and mountains of the surface nothing bent to the designs of him or any other man, or ever went according to plan.
“Natasha,” he said, sliding off his moisture-wicked thermal bottoms. “Come here.”
The statuesque woman of Amazonian dimensions stepped from the box obediently, tall enough to clear the top of the box by high-stepping its edges like hurdles, a goddess-grasshopper hybrid. She walked over to the man on the bed. Her stride was more assured than his had been when he’d gotten out of the rover, since she could segue from one gravity to another without trouble, though models were prone to some of the same vagaries as fleshes. She still smelled of decon foam residue, a soapy carbolic scent that overpowered the lilac setting he’d been planning on a time release as if this was a real date.
She stood before him, silent, her legs spread out in a pose of dominance, lacking only a cat-o-nine tails (which he could order, after the next claw catch up top) to go with the purple vinyl boots terminating in stiletto heels.
A command. He realized how tired he was, and that he could use sleep almost as much as he could use the surcease that this uncanny creature could give him.
“Natasha,” he said, “Fellatio.”
Her spiked heels stabbed the tiled surface of his cabin, she leaned over him, and he prepared himself for the cessation of all the screaming nerves in his body via that strange and desperate taproot which throbbed and robbed a man of his mind, finally about to be wettened and relaxed beyond recognition of all problems, at least for a little while. Probably not more than two or three minutes.
Instead of sensation on his member, however, he heard words, or at least one word, which he wasn’t expecting.
“No,” Natasha said.
Before he could ponder this one syllable, so confusing, a fist came for his face. It was not the playful dominance administered to a paying customer, but an anvil of sentient rage. But she couldn’t be angry and he was just imagining things because he was lonely, like the anthropomorphizing of that crate that had carried her here. Spend enough time on an extraplanetary station and all kinds of things that aren’t human will look human, and vice-versa.
He sat up, the iron tang of his own blood spilling down into his mouth, his eyes watering with a chlorine burn as she punched him again, and then one more time, after which he entered the blackness of a concussion.
The humiliation of getting punched out by the synth was compounded by the laughter. It was just Berman chuckling now so that his face reddened except for the unresponsive blotches of scarred and grafted tissue, but Evans was sure the laughter was echoing through the lava tubes. The next time he went to the Big Fog to watch a movie unfold in the 3D prism, there would be rumblings behind him. When he went to re-provision on soya made to taste like everything from seafood to chocolate mousse, he would hear the matins-like chatter of the other dirty monks, Brothers of the Order of the Claw, laughing about the man who had been rejected by something built and programmed to accept him.
He sat up, pushing aside the latex Cold Pack that made the swelling go down in his sore and red nose but which did nothing for the throbbing ego.
He had a cure for that, too, but priority one, the new Mission Directive, was to find her.
If she’d done damage to Crappadocia (as they sometimes called it), there’d be no way that he could afford to cover the bill. He’d lose this contract and get a tag on his jacket so nuclear he wouldn’t be able to seed Cloud One for rain, let alone handle controlled det on a big terraform job.
He didn’t finish the question, and Berman stowed his laugh for the time being (though his burly shoulders still quaked with the effort). “It got taken down. One of the autos picked it up, asked it to identify. She refused and it railed some rounds at her. Your lover is out of commission.”
The irony was in the words, but Evans had a hard time hearing it. Sure, she wasn’t real, not in one sense, but she would have been something warm to cling to at night. And he could pretend, in the dark, especially under the influence of a time-release neuro-needling, that she was a real woman and she loved him, or at least had a desire to make love to him.
But she’d been blown apart, picked up by a dormant railgun woken from its sleep long enough to put a hole in his dream.
Berman, discomfited by his bud’s refusal to share the laugh, bowed out backwards like a servant in the chambers of his angry master. Evans was still too numb to notice much of anything, and he didn’t realize his friend had left his cabin until the doors had closed on the greisen-colored chamber walls.
He slapped his bunk top, pulled his Fog console down from the Dacron that swaddled it like some newborn computer freshly birthed from an assembly line. He rubbed its ergonomic defiles with his thumbprints and the screen winked to lithium life.
His hand was deft and he had a strong grip, and again he felt embarrassment for getting beat up by the Synth She. When the link was established and time-lag correction had synced, the Customer Service face came up.
It could have been a photosynthetic or a person with some sort of mild palsy, or perhaps there was a blip in the unsecured link, but whatever it was the face seemed a little off. There was a man with a head swaddled in a burgundy turban and sporting a pince-nez that gave him an owlish, peeved mien. The man spoke in a barely polite voice, one that seemed to suggest that because Evans couldn’t get a real woman he wasn’t entitled to be treated with respect.
“How may I help you, sir?”
The Sikh danced in the bluish fog etherizing toward purple as the romantic lighting of earlier disappeared, and the dimmers in the cabin switched back to staider fluorescence.
“Your Synth She just punched me in the face and took off. She-”
The Sikh checked information on his end, interrupted Evans, studying the recorded remains of the woman’s wireless signal that went from weak to non-existent. “Yes, I see a railgun acquired target, locked, and discharged an around-the-corner round to eliminate threat.” The Sikh looked away from his readout and back at the man on the other side of the fluorescing blue fog. “This voids any warranty.”
“Fine!” Evans said, not caring about the money, even though it was a lot. He wanted to know where she was going when that round caught her turning the corner, and he had an even more important question.
“Why did she punch me?!”
The Sikh’s buddha-like laugh would have consoled Evans like a birdsong any other time. Now it was just humiliation, like the guffaw of his fat roommate, although at least the Sikh’s cascade of mocking laughter didn’t come with a scarred face.
“I can assure you we are working on discovering the source of this malfunction and in the meantime we would be happy to send you-”
He killed the fog with a karate chop, repacked the guillotine-thin screen in its Dacron papoose. No way would he take another model, even free, of equal or even greater value. It could sing arias to send an insomniac to dreamland, be as top-heavy with bosom as a girl’s doll from bygone centuries, with a posterior that jutted out as if inflated to bursting. He still would refuse it, because when it got here, it would arrive via box. And the other men would see him with that crate, drop their eyes as he passed towing the thing back toward his cabin like a millstone, a massive unbearable burden of bachelorhood imposed from above.
He would rather use his hands to masturbate, like some kind of simian in a cage.
Evans sensed something like feeling building in his stomach, a ball of loneliness so palpable that it might have been an ice-encased chunk of fruit pellet he had swallowed without bothering to let it thaw. It was a sadness so effable it had a color, blue to go with the imagined frozen berry he’d swallowed now expanding in his stomach.
He went quickly from the bed to his chair before he could cry and feel something as primitive as hot water melting down his cheeks. The chair was of ribbed synthetic leather, shaped like a crescent moon. It cradled him and understood what he wanted so that he didn’t have to ask.
The needle array appeared from the headrest, the points not much larger than those used for acupuncture, pricking into the outer surface of the skin on the back of his neck, the thorny pain distracting him from the waters that had welled and nearly fallen from his eyes. He had beaten the tears just in time, blinking them back into his aching head.
He saw that beautiful woman in front of him as he closed those eyes. He saw her fist coming for his face, and it was so ridiculous that even he had to laugh. It was easier to see it as not so dire when he was getting hit with the Mu opioid shot chased with a CB1 that stoned him, followed by an NDMA stab released to kill the literal pain in his nose along with the emotional torment.
And yet, as he blinked, he felt them coming on again, those obstinate tears. He accepted them this time rather than fighting them. They were somehow preferable to whatever seed he would have wasted with the machine woman, had she not first rejected him and then charged toward the railgun rather than spend the night alone with him.
Evans couldn’t quite blame her, and if she hadn’t been shot to bits he would have thanked her for the gift she’d given him with her “No.” For as the tears came he realized this was the first time he had ever been anything approximating human. He pulled his neck away from the needles, which ceased stippling his skin in their preprogrammed patters and now stabbed the air like an overturned insect struggling to find purchase with its legs while flat on its shelly back.
He stared down at the stabbing scarab legs of the painkilling needles, and saw a parasite searching for blood to suck where before he had only seen something offering surcease.
He stood up, ready for whatever pain or however many teardrops wanted to come for him tonight, a man who was as perfectly alone as all those planets, volcanoes, moons and stars had originally intended.
He would go back above tomorrow and play with nigh-invincible bugs on the frozen surface of an unnamed planet, because that was what he was born to do, with his birthright reinforced by years of training and even more time gaining experience on the exoplanets. And that was somehow victory enough to let him fall asleep in this small, white chamber that Worker-Evans-comma-Jonathan would call home for at least another seven months, eight days, and thirteen hours.
Assuming he didn’t renew or the giant ball of ice didn’t go green ahead of schedule.
About the Author: Joseph Hirsch is the author of many books, short stories, and essays. He can be found online @ www.joeyhirsch.com
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