“Possibly it had occurred to him that the colossal significance of that light had now vanished forever. Compared to the great distance that had separated him from Daisy it had seemed very near to her, almost touching her. It had seemed as close as a star to the moon. Now it was again a green light on a dock. His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one.”
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
Most people can put their finger on a particular time or place where their life changed significantly. Some fundamental event of philosophically seismic proportions occurred, a day when they looked in the mirror twice, the first time they saw the familiar, the second time, the alien, the strange, the other. In the summer of my twenty-second year the mirror played this fateful trick on me. Perhaps it was the doubling up of my age, two two’s make for something more numerologically significant. Perhaps it was meeting Rommy, the son of one of the wealthiest families on the wheel, as we called it, or perhaps it was just the heated forge of a particularly sweltering season. It seemed at the time that everyone had something to say about how bloody hot it was that summer. And they were right.
Of course, my father had told me about conversations he had with his grandfather, who had grown up on the surface; great grandpa Vikram would have denied that I had ever seen a real summer at all. Geosynchronous orbit did mimic the seasons, but planetsiders like great grandpa Vik would tell you that summer was something that was only fully appreciated with the bulk of the globe beneath your heels. Gravity might feel the same on the station, but vid-simulations of sex felt the same too, and nobody, especially great grandpa Vik, gods bless him, would have said that they were real. He would have had a point there.
Still, wiping my forehead with my sleeve the first day of that summer, I regretted my decision to take on a work term on an agri-crew. The white jumpsuits were super-stylish, no doubt, with their exo-porous fabric and the lime-green starburst blaze on the chest. And there were even some half-decent perks with the job. I had access to remote areas of the wheel, I could operate some fairly impressive heavy equipment, I had late afternoons off, and when the summer was over I would have completed three-quarters of my labor duty obligations.
None of that mattered as I baked in the mid-morning heat. White was supposed to keep you cool, for heaven’s sake; images of bold sheiks swaddled in ivory-coloured sheets, charging through the desert, played in my head. It had worked for them; why not me? Yet another lie of the vid-histories, one I would have to exact revenge for in some way at some time.
“Ho, Nayan, Nayan Kannada”, someone shouted at me from the far side of the terraced trees I was hacking back with grim determination. One of the joys of electric equipment was its relative silence, so I couldn’t pretend I didn’t hear anything.
A young man, who appeared to be around my age, came bounding up to the trees. He was well-built, straining against his jumpsuit as he ran, and apparently undeterred by the humidity. His face was chiseled in much the same way as those old soapstone carvings that my father kept on the mantelpiece: fluid, smooth and without any edges, yet obviously made out of something hard and unyielding at the same time. It made him seem a contradiction without saying a word to suggest that this was the case. His close-cropped red hair only added to the impression that he would be causing some sort of trouble any time now.
“Hello, the name’s Rommy, Rommy Shire, I’m your grub partner for the summer.”
Rommy smiled broadly, and I had the immediate feeling, deep in my bones, that Rommy was incapable of anything other than an all-encompassing, totalizing smile, if he were to smile at all. Against all of my better instincts, I found myself taken in by that smile. Perhaps the red hair was a red herring after all. Rommy extended his hand and I took it.
“Salutations”, the formal first greeting of the wheel community seemed the most appropriate thing to say, and as I assessed his firm handshake, I smiled in return.
“Frigging hot today, you could boil water on my backside.”
It was Rommy’s custom to follow up any formalities with a crude remark. I was later to learn that this was his way of compensating for his wealth; it had the added benefit of being inappropriate enough to make me laugh, due in large part to my formal upbringing. This first time was no exception.
“Frigging right, Mr. Shire, we brown folks suffer this sort of indignity every day, you know, the sun loves a dark man.” I thought I would get that out of the way immediately; the sooner I joked about it the more likely my new friend would see that I wasn’t hung up on our colour differences.
“Take a break and we can have an early lunch, I want to find out how you ended up on grub duty.”
There was an undercurrent of insincerity to his words, as if he really wanted to talk about himself, but felt the need to express an interest in me to get the conversation going. I was curious enough at this point not to care, so I set down the trimmer and we broke to eat. Mr. Shire (Jr., as I later learned) had brought a small feast in his bag, delicate roasted-meat sandwiches on some sort of semi-hard flatbread, mango juice in a small container, oiled olives, sweet pickles, and a rich, sour dipping paste for use with an incredibly strong and pungent cheese that I couldn’t identify. It was my first sign that Rommy was wealthy; most grubbers brought less erudite lunches, and identifiable cheese for that matter.
“Alright, fellow grubber Kannada, what’s your excuse for dressing in white and working in the green?”
Rommy seemed immensely jovial and warm as he dipped his sandwich in the paste; he was clearly eager to make a new friend. It occurred to me that he might not have that many already in his possession, the wealthy were often alone by choice. Forced agri-duty would give him an opportunity to forge an uncomplicated friendship.
“Not much to say, really.” I tried to be matter of fact as I spoke; I was hoping I didn’t sound too enthusiastic.
“I’ve finished off my schooling; I will be starting as a hydroponics tech in the fall. I’m hoping to get into botanical pharmacy in a few years, maybe start up a greenhouse and set up a supply chain to some of the outriggers servicing the mines on Mars or the belt.”
“My father tells me that outriggers suffer from a lot of space-sickness, even good shielding lets through enough cosmic rays to cause problems. You could work on palliative strains, maybe some dormants too, I hear that insomnia is common.”
It was an unexpectedly sage piece of advice, and a sign that Rommy’s carefree exterior was at least a bit of a front. Every man is an onion, as my father would say.
“What about you? Did you piss someone off, or is this a self-imposed exile to the tropics?”
“Oh, definitely self-imposed, my good man.” Rommy dropped an olive on the grass and scooped it back up immediately.
“Rommy Shire senior tried to get me out of labor duty, but I wasn’t having any of that upper-crust garbage. If it’s good enough for my fellow wheeler, it’s good enough for me!”
Again I got the feeling that he was being insincere; nothing in his carriage or his tone suggested he felt particularly egalitarian, but I wasn’t going to press the matter this early in our relationship. The summer was going to be long, and I preferred to work with someone who made me laugh, no matter what he might actually think of me. Rommy leaned in closer and spoke in a near-whisper.
“Actually, I took this assignment to get away from my father; he was planning on spending this summer ‘grooming’ me for work in the family business, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to get into mining, frigging dog’s work that is.”
“Your father’s a miner?” I decided to be coy and pretend I hadn’t noticed the expensive cheese.
“He was.” Rommy paused and looked directly at me. I think he was assessing whether or not letting out his ugly family secret would ruin our budding relationship. “Now he runs the mining conglomerate for the wheels.” Evidently, his searching stare turned up nothing of note.
“The tax man must be your best friend, eh?” I tried to look a bit surprised.
“Screw the tax man; he can take what he wants, as long as I don’t have to follow in papa’s footsteps.” I noted that Rommy had not given me any indication of what he actually wanted to do, and the more I got to know him, the more I realized that he would have been the last to know anyway.
We spent the next hour or so filling in the details of what young men cared about: music, sport, and the fairer sex. I revealed my working preferences for rhythmic beats without lyrics, cycling and charger, and ranga girls. Rommy countered with harmonica blues, swimming and boxing, and of all things, dark-haired, dark-skinned beauties, preferably those with long hair and short morals. I feared for my relatives.
As the afternoon wore on we worked, swapped stories, laughed frequently, and subtly reshaped the topiary of the upper east rounding to give it the sheen of respectability that the quadrant demanded. All of the clippings were collected for recycling; nothing on the wheel was ever thrown out. I learned on that afternoon that Rommy and I shared a tendency to swear using words that referred to sex, with me leaning towards the classic “frigging”, and Rommy towards the slightly more upper-crust “screw.” It is within the interstices of language that understanding grows; so these details matter to a friendship, and a friendship was borne that day.
* * *
The Shire’s residence, or should I say estate, was located in a prestigious section of the wheel, far from the noisy rumblings of the circulators, the indignities of the public pools, and the quiet chaos of the central squares. The house proper was located away from the edges of the wheel, where the outer roads ran their lengths. As was the case with most units, large or small, a significant portion of the house was located underground. Rommy had a separate unit on the grounds of the estate, a bachelor pad that would have made most men titter with glee. After our first week of work Rommy gave me the threepenny tour.
He had opted for a combination of wheeler and planetsider architecture, something that spoke to either his bifurcated tastes or his refinement, depending on who was asked. The unit was round, with a yin/yang division separating the open and closed portions of the unit. Since the gentle touch of rain was never to be felt in this false heaven, many wheeler homes had rooms open to the sky. Each of the teardrops of his unit had two rooms, one round and the other curved. Rommy had made the bold decision to place his bedroom on the open side, “for lovemaking under the stars” as he explained to me with a sly smile. There was a games room in the other open section, a small kitchen in the triangular closed portion, and a study of sorts in the round closed room. Rommy and I settled in his study for drinks that afternoon.
“My father is a dreadful alcoholic, you know, so I hope you don’t mind if I skip anything heavy.” I could not have cared less what Rommy drank, but it still struck me as an odd comment, considering the spread of liquor bottles I had seen in his games room earlier.
“No problem, Rom,” I replied. “Why dry yourself out with liquor after a hot day of work? Grab me a water, treat yourself to one too.” Gentleman that he was, Rommy complied, even throwing in some plump ice cubes and angular lemon slices.
I smiled and looked along the long curved wall of the study. There was a continuous line of artwork stretching the entire circumference of the room, each print depicted a piece of planetsider architecture, in all cases some sort of tall building, the kind that cannot be found on the wheel. I stared more closely at a few of the prints and saw that there were tiny depictions of people, but they were tall and thin, like the tiny pedestrians had been pinched by giant art lovers and stretched out of proportion.
“You are a knowledgeable fellow, Rom – were planetsiders particularly tall, or has life on the wheel shortened us?”
“What a ghastly thought, maybe we’re spinning too fast, and gravity will soon make dwarves of us all!” Rommy found this idea far too amusing to consider without a great, booming laugh, one that jumped me out of my seat. He regained his composure and recanted the idea.
“I’m fairly sure it was just an artistic convention at the time, ‘Yan. The focus is the buildings, not the people.” There he went again, dropping a nugget of useful knowledge into the absurdity of his presence.
“Why collect pictures of ancient buildings, if you are yearning for impossible things; why not get your father to put you on a planetside mining team?”
“And fry my brain with radiation; get eaten by some mutant aberration when I let down my guard? Not a chance, my dark friend.”
“Aren’t you ever curious about the planet surface, Rom? It’s been years since the wars, surely there must be places where the rad levels are low enough to repopulate. Vladimir was saying just the other day that one of his cousins had spent a month planetside on an illegal collecting expedition; brought back a fortune in artifacts.”
Vladimir was our shift supervisor on the grub team; he was a red-faced, gregarious man who claimed direct descent from the Tsars of pre-war Russia. He ran the team like an old-style, pre-war soviet military division, in other words from the greatest distance possible and with the least effort he could muster.
“Vladimir is full of grub juice, take it from me, planetside miners move around everywhere in full enviro-suits; exposures are limited to hours, sometimes minutes. Even the low rad areas are tolerable for about a day maximum, and they’re filled with the largest goddamn insects you could imagine.”
Insect life on the wheel was restricted to a few choice strains that were used to maintain the soils and keep the artificial food chain going. Most wheelers had little to no experience of insects, creating the odd psychological consequence that their nightmares lacked insects too, something that troubled contemplative psychologists, as insects were an established archetype, and depopulated nightmares were bad for the psyche. I had seen vids of planetside insects, mutated by years of rad exposure. I was confident that these monstrosities had crawled directly out of our nightmares and on to the planet surface, and I was eminently happy to leave them there, whatever the cognitive consequences were.
I took Rommy at his word on this one, and I changed the subject.
“So when do I get to meet your father, Rommy Sr. I don’t get to meet wheeler royalty very often, and there have to be some perks to putting up with you.”
Rommy chuckled and smiled that winning smile of his.
“Sorry chum, Mr. Shire Sr. is rarely at home. Security concerns and all that, he moves around the wheels, staying in different places most nights. With the secessionist riots and attacks over the last few months, his security team doesn’t take many chances.”
“That’s sad; do you miss him?
“Not a tiny bit, ‘Yan, he’s a little man and an even smaller father; I couldn’t care less what he does or where he is.”
Rommy promptly walked towards the comm-blister and waved his hand over it, opening the line.
“Central sphere bookings”, he spoke with a clear, slightly pretentious tone, something I had never heard from him when talking to me.
“Name and ID code, please”, the canned voice clearly came from an AI, this one was old enough that it sounded like the tarty old vid-stars that were popular at the time its original programming was set.
“Shire Jr., six, seven, two, five, five, epsilon.” There was a brief pause as the AI sorted Rommy’s information.
“ID confirmed, Mr. Shire Jr., what booking do you desire?”
“Charger, two-player team, matchup random, late-afternoon session today.”
Another brief pause, and the AI replied in a softer tone. “Booking confirmed Mr. Shire, salutations.”
“Ram it up your information core, my good artificial woman.” Rommy smiled as the comm-blister went dark.
This was one of many occasions when I saw Rommy’s wealth in action. Most charger bookings were made weeks in advance, and small team games were rarely approved considering the crushing demand and busy schedule of public sporting events at the facility. Rommy had booked a small matchup on the spot for an hour later. I was stunned.
“Come on Nayan, let’s go and have some fun.”
I had clearly set him off with the mention of his father, and I entertained the thought of apologizing, but then thought better of it. Sometimes saying things out loud just makes them far more real and far worse than they need to be. Rommy had given us a way out of an awkward situation, and I was too much of a coward to ignore it. And in any case, I was also feeling uncomfortable; moving in Rommy’s circle of wealth and influence never sat well with me, it made me feel like a pretender. A good session of charger would cleanse my uptight soul. We quickly gathered ourselves together and grabbed the first unirail to the center of the wheel and the great sphere.
* * *
‘They’, whoever ‘they’ are, say that sport is the great leveler. Rich or poor, powerful or insignificant, when you compete in a fair contest the best man wins, period. This of course was just the sort of tired, pseudo-intellectual garbage that sports philosophers spouted all the time, and it was patently false. Wealth and power gave you access to the kind of training and facilities that bred superior ability. No amount of money could buy natural talent, but it could definitely augment meager skills.
As I suited up in the pre-session room, I wondered whether Rommy was a natural athlete or a manufactured one. He was certainly fit, and pulled his weight grubbing with the rest of us on shift. Still, I had been a regular at the sphere since I was old enough to drift beside my parents, and I had a knack for charger. As we pulled ourselves up the corridor I could barely recognize Rommy; he had chosen dark blue, almost purple uniforms with silver trim for us, and his face cage kept his signature red locks locked safely away. Didn’t want to scare off the competition, I suppose.
As we entered the sphere, I felt the same giddiness that marked the first time my father had brought me there for zero-G free play many years ago. The sphere measured slightly larger than an old-style planetside football field in diameter, and that first day hundreds of families in padded uniforms pinwheeled through the immense space inside the sphere, motes of dust in the sunshine eye of the wheel. My father was a remarkably uptight man, given to few signs of affection and even fewer outward manifestations of joy. Careening through the sphere that day, and every other day he went for that matter, he laughed a huge, cyclopean laugh the entire time. Freed from the physical bonds of gravity, his reaction was pure unfettered joy. I liked to think that this was his true nature, even if it was only manifested there.
The viewing decks were about half full as Rommy and I entered, a respectable turnout for a late-afternoon small team match-up. Most games of charger were played with a full complement of eight players on each team, so smaller games often brought out curious onlookers who expected a higher caliber of play. I had played a lot of “open rules” charger over the years, so I reviewed the official rules on the way over.
* * *
Charger was a variation on different planetside sports, notably football and soccer. The huge sphere had two targets opposite each other, approximately five feet in diameter and split into three nested rings. There were also two posts, each halfway along the spheres on the same plane as the targets, extending a quarter of the diameter of the sphere towards the centre. Opposing team members stood around their targets to start. The goal was to get from your side to the other side with a small metal ball, and to throw or touch the ball on the target. Keep in mind that the sphere turns slowly during play as well, making things slightly more complicated. Scores were higher for touching than throwing and higher the closer to the centre of the target. A coin toss decided the attackers and the defenders.
The attacking team sent out a “blazer”, who would kick off from their wall with the ball, or if they were sneaky, faking possession of the ball. The blazer would either aim for one of the poles and use it to redirect their movement or kick off for more speed, or they would aim between the poles and head directly for the target. Small turbofans in players’ gloves allowed some redirection, as did tucking into a ball or spreading out one’s arms.
Members of the opposing team, known as “blockers”, are allowed to kick off to intercept the blazer only after he reaches the halfway point where the poles divide the sphere, as indicated by a buzzer. The blazer’s teammates, known as “backers”, can join the fray after the blazer has covered half of the distance to the poles (also indicated by a buzzer), running interference or taking a pass. Passing is only allowed in the direction of the target or to the side, never backwards, and interceptions stop play and restart the round with the attackers becoming defenders. Grabbing is a foul, but collisions are legal and raucously encouraged by the crowd. It is also illegal for blockers to hang or hover near their target. As there are many collisions, and blockers often interpose themselves between the metal ball and the target, padding and face cages are required equipment.
The goal of the defenders is to knock the blazer or the ball off target. The blazer is only allowed to throw at the target from 20 feet away or less (proximity again indicated by a buzzer), and colliding with the wall of the sphere on the opposite team’s side ends the charge and transfers possession of the ball. Team members are allowed to push off of each other, and they can also wait on the poles and spring forward when it is advantageous.
The blazer or one of his team members must touch the target with the ball, the closer to the centre, the better the score. Throwing the ball gets the lowest score – one, two, or three points, depending on proximity to the center; touching gets two, four, or six points by proximity. Player’s boots have magnets in them, gloves have magnets in the palms, and there are magnets on the belts. The ball could be carried in the glove or on the belt. In order to throw the ball it is necessary to force it off the palm and hold it in your fingertips, a subtle skill that took some time to develop; even pros occasionally lose grip on the ball at a crucial moment. The late great Donminder Korr lost the tri-wheel championships in his final game by dropping a ball; my father never forgave him for that.
Full complement games go to sixty points, last about two hours, and fouls transfer the ball to the opposing team; anything smaller than a full complement game goes to thirty points. A direct charge to the opposing target without being touched that ends in a six-point score is called a blaze. I had only ever seen one blaze in official play, by the aforementioned Donminder, oddly enough.
* * *
I had only played charger with full complement teams, so I pulled Rommy aside while our opponents, clad in bright orange with blue trim, tossed the burnished brass-plated and steel-cored game ball back and forth, evidencing a casual disrespect for our witness of their prowess. Throwing and catching a metal ball in zero-G was more than a little difficult, and they were doing a splendid job of it, one going so far as to catch the ball, spin around, and redirect it to his partner with a Zen-like fluidity. I developed an immediate dislike for Zen-boy, and decided to make him the direct target of the most aggressive tackle I could manage with my mid-sized frame.
“So ‘Yan old chum, we won the toss, are you a blazer or a backer this round?”
I was surprised that Rommy gave me the choice; I had figured him for a blazer by default, so I decided to try and impress him directly by taking up the charge. Still, I wasn’t an idiot, and I needed some advice on small team game tactics.
“I’ll blaze this round. Look Rom, I’ve only played with full teams, eight on eight, I’m not sure whether I should stop on the poles or not.”
“Depends on their formation, and what you want me to do, for my money, I would go for a slower charge, when you get to the quarter point. I will spring off as hard as I can, and we should pass the poles at roughly the same time. Play it by ear from there.”
It was reasonable advice, although a bit conservative, at least as far as I could tell. Still, I was confident, and it was time to see if Zen-boy was a match for the old rounder.
Our opponents stood to either side of their target, waiting for me to charge forwards. I crouched down as far as I could, degaussed my boot magnets, and sprang forward with moderate speed. I saw Zen-boy move out from their target slightly to my right – he was clearly going for a steeper angle of interception – I glanced back in my helmet mirror and saw Rommy moving over to compensate.
It must be recalled when watching zero-G sports that fair old sir Isaac may have been crushed by the straggly-haired Swiss patent clerk and his relativistic hocus-pocus, but the Trinitarian’s instincts were still the gospel for charger tactics. Every action did bring on its dreadfully inevitable and opposite reaction, even turning your head around too suddenly could cause a drift in direction, and sharp movements often left players spinning out of control. Thus the need for helmet mirrors. Charger is a game of subtle motions and gentle deceptions; it is not for the brutish, the nervous or the obvious.
The quarter point buzzer sounded, and Rommy, true to his word, sprang off with a vigor that would have done his fiery-haired barbarian ancestors proud. As predicted, we reached the poles at roughly the same time, met by the jarring blast of the halfway buzzer, and I made my first move. I had aimed slightly below the plane of the poles, and grabbing the pole to my left I swung my feet forwards and up with all my strength, doing a complete circuit around the pole, releasing my grip and shooting feet forward a bit to left of the target. As I had hoped, both Zen-boy and his partner were eager, and had jumped off immediately after the buzzer sounded; this gave them no time to react to my move, and they both kicked in their glove fans in an attempt to intercept me.
Rommy had been watching me carefully, as any good backer should, and used the half-second or so delay in his approach to grab the right hand pole and pull hard, shooting into Zen boy’s path. Timing was everything in charger, and as far as I could tell Rommy was moving into position right on the money. Zen-boy’s partner was closing in on me, and I played my second gambit, snapping the ball on to my belt magnet, and putting my hands out in a T-formation. Whenever I did this blockers assumed I was trying to direct my trajectory, but in actuality I was luring them to try and grab the sphere from my belt. There was something irresistible about a belt mounted ball; it appeared unguarded, like an open clam with a shimmering pearl of great price, ripe for the plucking.
True to form, Zen-boy’s partner attempted a grab when our paths crossed, and I made my third move, I pulled my legs up, blocking the ball and spinning me upside down. As I passed under my opponent, I pushed off his midsection and moved towards their target. As I spun around I saw Rommy successfully block Zen-boy. I was slightly off centre, but there was no one to stop me at this point. I glided in to the target, and with a mighty stretch of the arm, I slammed the ball into the middle for a six point score. I also collided with the wall in a most ungainly fashion, knocking the wind out of me.
“Six points, no blaze” droned the referee.
I caught my breath and kicked off back to my side. Those were to be the easiest points of the game; the next hour was considerably more challenging. Our opponents evidenced tricky moves of their own – on at least two occasions their charger led without the ball – and they also tried a luring move, where both of them waited on the intervening poles and sprung forwards only at the last possible moment.
Throughout the game Rommy and I worked hard and well as a team. There is not a lot of room to communicate in a two-person game, and you simply have to trust your partner. Oddly enough, I found myself trusting Rommy completely, and he reciprocated this trust when he led the charge. It was only a week into the summer and already Rommy felt like an old toy or a treasured favorite book, familiar, endlessly entertaining and dear.
We won the game by a 2 point spread, not respectable, but still a win. As it was a random matchup we took the time after leaving the main sphere to go to the pre-session room and shake hands with our competitors. I had developed a grudging respect for Zen-boy and his partner, and I was looking forward to the opportunity to play the gracious winner for a change.
As we removed our face-cages I could almost see my well-planned words of conciliation clatter to the floor in disbelief. Zen boy was a girl, and a lovely one at that, she had long, dark hair, magnetic, almost brassy coloured eyes, and a small tattoo on her left cheek of what appeared to be a script symbol of some sort, maybe Japanese. The tattoo, just below her eye, gave her face the appearance of an ancient statue of some long-lost and forgotten goddess. Her partner was a nondescript and rather pale fellow who nervously eyed the both of us; it seemed clear he was uncomfortable meeting us, but she seemed perfectly relaxed.
Rommy, on the other hand, looked positively drunk with delight. I’m not sure if it was the fierce charger play, the exotic tattoo, the hair, or the athleticism in her stance, but Rommy was clearly worshipping at her altar from the moment her face-cage was smoothly pulled aside. As all of the men in the room were smitten, nervous or speechless, our former adversary spoke first.
“Gentlemen, that was a rewarding game”, she turned and looked at me directly, producing the saddest look on Rommy’s face.
“You play a lot of open rules charger, yes?”
That was another nail in Rommy’s coffin right there, she was perceptive too.
“And you don’t miss an opportunity to plant your shoulder in a poor fellow’s stomach; I won’t be eating for a few hours, I think.” I smiled as I said this, just in case my overly friendly tone wasn’t obvious enough. This girl was playing with all of us, and none of us were fighting it.
“Nonsense, we can all go to dinner and relive the glory of our afternoon”, she then turned to Rommy as she had turned to me, “as the winners, it is only appropriate that you treat us to a meal.”
She could have suggested that Rommy go for a walk on the outside of the wheel and he would have dutifully left at the next opportunity. This was probably the longest stretch he had gone without talking since I met him. Rommy slowly moved forwards and extended his hand, and as he clasped hers his smile finally returned to the room, almost crowding out the rest of us.
“Rommy Shire Jr., pleased to meet you.” He nodded in my direction, not taking his eyes off the object of his affection for even a second. “This is my good friend and grub-mate Nayan Kannada.”
“Shar Misa, pleased to meet you”. She pointed to her companion: “This is Ronald Trine, he’s a charger instructor here at the sphere.”
That answer evidently pleased Rommy, as his smile, unbelievably, increased in size and general dazzlement. It was like a crescent shaped sun splitting his face in two.
We all departed to the showers and met together outside the sphere to go to dinner. Ronald had to bow out, to universal disappointment, and we left on the next unirail for the entertainment district.
* * *
Rommy had regained some of his sharpness and all of his commanding voice, and was putting it to good use on the unirail ride. Shar held court with the two of us quite comfortably, discussing sports, politics, and current events with equal aplomb, and all the while gently flirting with downward looks, soft touches to the arm, and periodic giggles that would send a soft chill down my back. She was a lovely creature, and I envied Rommy’s decision to pursue her.
We walked through the early evening crowds towards a small family restaurant that I had recommended. Rommy and I were dressed in evening wear; we had planned a night of drinking after the game. Rommy was wearing a dark blue double-vested shirt with shining sliver buttons in a “V” formation on the front, matching dark blue pants, and a fine pair of black leather shoes with gold tips. Rommy always dressed well. I was wearing a dark gold sherwani, brown boots and trousers, and my usual pair of silver thumb rings. Shar wore a light, gauzy piece in black that tied at the waist, ending just below her knees. It was patterned in such a way that you couldn’t make out what was underneath, but it also suggested that there wasn’t anything there. Her hair was braided back and she wore no jewelry at all.
The streets were busy that night, and I stared up at the musician’s tower on the corner to see what instruments were producing the sonorous, low tones that gave the shuffling feet around me such an even, easy rhythm. Two women were playing tonight, one was wringing a sad yet hopeful wail from an elegant silver erhu, the other played timpani, providing a regular dark punctuation to the gentler wandering notes.
We ordered drinks and sat on the patio, exchanging stories about our lives on the wheel.
“I arrived here several months ago to discover that life on one wheel is pretty much the same as life on the next; it was a huge disappointment.” Shar’s disappointment was keenly felt by the both of us; we put down our drinks almost in unison, and looked very grave.
“But now that I have met the both of you, I’m sure great excitement is just around the corner.” Shar smiled wickedly; it was too much for poor Rommy, he almost knocked over his drink. I decided to save him.
“What do you do when you are not out fraternizing with young grubbers like us, Shar?”
“I’m a mathematician with the engineer’s guild, I help construct computer models, mostly stuff to predict changes in wheel alignment when new construction is done.” She drew back in her chair and took in a deep breath, challenging the both of us to avoid looking at her chest, then continued in a soft voice: “it’s old-fashioned Newtonian science; I’m sure you would find my work dreadfully boring.”
She could have told Rommy that she was a pin manufacturer and he would have been enchanted. He probably would have opened a pin factory come to think of it. I would have done the same.
“Sounds like you have a solid job, and a useful one too, unlike some of us.” Rommy smiled and looked at me, oblivious to the fact that his self-deprecating humor would be wasted on Shar.
“Useful, frig useful, everyone does something useful up here, don’t they; we have perfectly planned and hermetically sealed lives.” Shar looked wistfully up at the sky above the wheel. “Don’t you feel trapped?”
“Only since I met you, Shar.” Rommy’s comment was spoken affectionately enough that she understood exactly what he meant. Their gazes lingered for a few more seconds, leaving the table in silence as I sipped my drink.
“I could leave you two to dinner, you know; I have other fabulous friends I can spend time with.”
“Oh no, Nayan, we both owe this lovely lady a dinner. Let’s order some food.”
I was fairly sure that Rommy wanted me around just to have a witness in all this. From his perspective, Shar might have been a figment of his imagination; I made her a bit more real. The waiter came by and we ordered a number of dishes to share. Shar started up the conversation again.
“Rommy Shire, Jr., your father runs the mining conglomerate, doesn’t he?” Shar sounded casually interested, but Rommy’s face paled slightly. He later confided to me that for a second he was terrified that Shar was a plant, sent to spy on his father or get some sort of access to the powerful man through his son. Shar sensed the change in energy and perhaps even guessed what Rommy was thinking. She was frighteningly perceptive that way, and she added, “I work with the engineer’s guild, I’ve met your father a few times at meetings.”
Today’s matchup was random. Shar couldn’t have arranged it, but Rommy found it reassuring to know why he was recognized. The blood returned to Rommy’s face; good thing too, as he was already pale enough as it was, something I pointed out to him whenever I had the opportunity. I decided to change the subject again, wondering if Rommy appreciated how many conversational gymnastics I was performing to keep him in the game. I made a mental note to remind him to ask Shar if she had a sister or a friend that could join us the next time out.
“I’m going tomorrow to see our family advocate,” I said. “My great-grandfather left some things behind in his will to be given to the first great-grandchild of the family. Seems I lucked out.”
Shar’s eyes lit up. “How wonderful, do you have any idea what he left you?”
“Probably some old family silver and a cigar case.” I had swapped some stories about great grandfather Vikram with Rommy earlier that week, and one of those stories featured a cigar, a steak knife, and an unfortunate misunderstanding between Vik and an unnamed government official. Vikram had a legendary intolerance of bureaucracy.
“I have no idea what he would have left to me. We never met, of course, but I’m eager to find out.” I paused for a bite. “Great-grandpa Vik was a planetsider before the evacuations; I’m sure there are some interesting artifacts, maybe some of his personal papers.” I was genuinely eager to see what he had left for me, a little piece of the world we had left behind.
Rommy spoke up, in a surprisingly serious voice. “Can you imagine the evacuation, warheads flying, thousands of refugees fleeing to escape rockets, people like your great-grandfather were heroes, survivors.” Rommy took a drink before adding, “Nobility like that is hard to find these days.”
“No nobility? What about the men and women who run the wheels, the doctors who keep us healthy, the justices that punish those who break our laws – don’t they count?” There was a hint of sarcasm in my voice. I wasn’t even sure I believed what I was saying, but I couldn’t let this insult to modern society pass unchallenged.
“Rommy’s right, Nayan.” Now they were ganging up on me; this was not a good sign. “Nobility doesn’t come from playing some pre-constructed role in society; nobility comes from sacrifice in the face of adversity.”
Great, she was a knockout, an ace charger player, a genius, and a philosopher. This girl was upping the ante for every female on the wheel. I’m sure there were posters somewhere warning about her presence in the dating pool.
“Survival isn’t sacrifice, with all due respect to dear old Vik, its evolution,” I replied.
“Giving up your entire world, literally, that’s got to be a sacrifice. And I think its noble,” she said.
That was good enough for Rommy, and I was too much of a gentleman to push the point, or perhaps I just wanted to see Shar smile over her conversational victory.
The rest of the evening rolled along under the weight of much less philosophical conversation: We discussed the upcoming elections, which Shar was convinced were rigged; the ongoing debate over mining taxes, which Rommy had no views on whatsoever; and my favorite stretch of the wheel road near the outer-rim parks, where I had spent last summer cycling. We all agreed to take a few days and go for an extended ride some time before the summer was over. Shar was nothing less than enchanting, and all through dinner the darting notes of the distant erhu filled the air around our table, bumping up against the conversations at nearby tables and the clank and crash of dishes.
When it was all over, Rommy offered to walk Shar home, and I politely excused myself. She ended my time with her by kissing me on the cheek and whispering in my ear. “Good luck tomorrow, mysubhaga.”
For a moment, I looked at Shar as if she might collapse under the weight of her collective accomplishments; she knew some Hindii as well. Perhaps she was a plant, after all. Rommy and Shar disappeared into the swirl of the crowd, still vibrant and active at this late hour. I watched them walking away up the street, twin lights in the swirling clouds of humankind’s survivors, bumping and jostling along as the wheel spun on.
* * *
The Kannada family had retained advocates for seven generations, the sort of prudent but otherwise excessive sort of thing that characterized our over-cautious clan. My grandfather had even managed to bring along his advocate with him in the evacuations. There was a brief scandal associated with this: When the bombs hit first thing in the morning, the two of them emerged from the bedroom of my grandfather’s guest house together. Grandfather had a habit of early morning meetings, but no one, including his wife and children, were entirely convinced of this explanation.
Par Rammanan was much older now, but his face still held the energy of a younger, more vital man. I had good memories of playing with Par as a boy growing up on the wheel; he had always taken the time to kick a soccer ball around or help me with my homework while waiting for grandfather to make himself available. I had a warm affection towards Par, and trusted him with family affairs.
Par worked in a building located at the far edge of a residential settlement, an hour or so by unirail from my unit. His office was a large glass dome, a silver shard arising from a field of soft emerald grass. He allowed the temperature inside to approach punishing levels during the summer; perhaps he wanted a reminder of what life was like back in India when he was a boy. Even at this early hour today was no exception, and I accepted his offer of a glass of water when I sat down before his expansive desk.
“Nayan, you look well; living on the wheel hasn’t softened you up much, has it?” He smiled and sipped at his tea.
“I was born on the wheel, Par. If I’m to be soft I have no one to blame but myself.”
“Hmmm, perhaps so.” Par reached over and grabbed a small metal box, unlocking it in front of me.
“Your great-grandfather left instructions for the first-born great-grandchild to be given this container and its contents. They are yours to do with as you wish, with the only caveat that you cannot give them away to anyone; if you want to dispose of them, they are to be destroyed.”
“What would have happened if the family line ended before me?”
“Then the materials were to be destroyed.”
“And why now?”
“My instructions were to wait until the recipient had finished his or her education, and was ready to embark upon their career. I decided to contact you in the summer to give you some time to reflect upon the contents before moving on to the… next stage of your life.”
I was frankly a bit startled at this comment; did Par know what was in the box? He knew me well enough to guess that there was something behind my pause, and to guess the question I was rolling around in my head. He drew in his eyes and mouth, compressing his face to a birdlike point in a look of mock displeasure.
“Nayan, you know me better than that. I have not seen the contents of the box.” This was just the sort of cagey, sidestepping answer characteristic of a good advocate; he had not ruled out the possibility that he had been told the contents of the box, or found out in some other way.
“All right, then, may I look at it now?”
“Yes, of course. I am going out for the morning, my office is at your disposal until then. I will have someone from the main building come out to retrieve you and close things up in an hour.” Par rose from his chair and hit a button on the desk, and the glass dome slowly darkened from the bottom up, keeping out any prying eyes that might pass by. “It was nice to see you again, Nayan.” Par stopped on his way past my chair. “Please come by again when you do not have business to attend to, and I will tell you more stories about your grandfather.” He patted my shoulder and departed.
I opened the box as soon as Par closed the door behind him. It had a small diary filled with great-grandfather’s exotic handwriting, a bundle of planetside money held together with a silver clip (equivalent to the value of a nice dinner), two pens, a silver cigar trimmer, a few of great-grandfather’s military medals, an envelope marked simply “Read”, and a small vid-disc. I hadn’t seen a vid-disc for ages, and I wasn’t entirely sure if I could find something that would read it properly. I opened the envelope first.
To my sweet great-grandchild,
I suppose it would be too optimistic to hope you were named Vikram! Forgive the over-dramatic nature of this communication. As we have never met, and never will, you might be wondering why I have left you these baubles from an earlier, more chaotic time. I had toyed with the idea of destroying what I have left to you, but I am convinced that this was the right decision.
Time erases the most painful of memories, and if my understanding of human nature is correct, I suspect that what I have left here for you will represent a challenge to the picture of the past that has been given to you. Please don’t run from this responsibility, no matter how it terrifies you. The burden of the past must be borne by someone, and as some trace of my blood runs through your veins, I know you have the strength to carry it.
As someone who was born off-planet, you will be fully a part of the new world that we fled to when we lost our reason and incinerated the old one. You have been given the gift of a clear conscious; you are not stained by the actions of a mad people. May it serve you well as you wrestle with what I have given you on this disc.
Oh, and please enjoy a good cigar for me too, if they are still making them.
The note had a strange cadence to it. Great-grandfather Vikram was clearly a jovial character, I had heard so many stories detailing his outrageous exploits, yet this note hinted at something sinister. I toyed with the idea of stashing it for later; I didn’t want to ruin an otherwise enjoyable summer.
My curiosity won over and I picked up the disc. It was small and silver and looked quite delicate, but it was unscratched and looked serviceable. I looked around Par’s office and found what appeared to be a disc reader. It made sense he would have one; advocates were responsible for the hellish task of sorting out pre-evacuation legal matters, and they would need to be able to read old documents in many varieties of media.
The disc whirred and whined. For a moment I worried that it might not work at all, but the vid-screen popped on and I saw great-grandfather Vikram’s face staring out at me from the past. He looked to be in his late 50’s, but I couldn’t be sure; his eyes were a stunning bright brown color, if brown could be said to be bright. His hair was a tangled mess of black, and he looked terrified.
“Someone… has to see this, vid-cameras are being destroyed and confiscated, but someone has to know.”
The image swirled around and I saw what looked to be a rocket pad, with a fuelled-up ship waiting to lift off. It was surrounded by security forces, fully armed with automatic weapons and armored with collapsible shields. From the vantage point of the shot it appeared that Vikram was hiding in a building in the facility near the launchpad, crouched down near a window. The image zoomed in closely to the area outside the gate.
It was pure chaos; thousands of people were crushing in towards the facility, surging up from the street that led up to it. From the looks of it this was not a regular rocket base, it looked instead like a factory with a launchpad. The camera panned and showed the streets in the distance, also choked with people desperately pushing towards the facility. There were whole families, individuals, couples, grandfathers and grandmothers, small children and animals, all moving with the pulsing terror of animals running from predators. It was a savage, primal scene, and I found my stomach knotting up just looking at it.
What came next staggered the imagination, waves of people threw themselves up against the fencing, trying to crush it down and gain entry. At first the fences held, but the more people forced against them, the more they began to cave inwards. Finally, the security forces opened fire, shredding the first waves of people with bullets, literally mowing them down. I lost track of how long this lasted, but there were additional security forces that brought fresh rounds to the front line as they exhausted their ammunition. At some point the bodies outside the fence were piled so high that people could run up and jump the fence. They were met with a wall of sizzling bullets, shattering their bodies in seconds.
I was having trouble holding my breakfast in my stomach, I gripped the table and breathed deeply. I could hear Vikram sobbing in the background, the camera bobbed slightly as he steadied himself.
“All of them, they’re killing all of them,” his faint voice whispered.
The camera panned back for a moment, showing the wider industrial park that this one facility was only a part of. There were several other shining silver rockets preparing for launch. I counted seven others in the distance. Seething crowds could be seen in all of the streets, and explosions and screams drifted in and out of the vid-recording’s range.
I sat and watched this carnage for what seemed an eternity, my head spinning with disbelief. Thousands of people were slaughtered before my eyes, not by falling missiles or deadly radiation, but from shining metal bullets that tore them apart with a cold calculation. Vikram’s camera panned out to show one of the rockets roaring away into the sky. Shortly thereafter, I heard a voice screaming out:
“Vikram, you must come now, the rocket launches soon.”
The video abruptly ended, snapped off in apparent haste.
The human mind works at different speeds for different reasons, one of our lasting evolutionary gifts. When we are threatened, our minds speed up, allowing us to process information to help us survive. I couldn’t recall a time when my mind was racing more quickly than right now. It was like the time between seconds had become my own personal refuge, elongating to allow me to take in something that simply couldn’t be.
I had learned, along with all other schoolchildren, how the great war to end all wars had been fought with nuclear weapons. How the shining missiles had flown through the air, landing and shattering cities with thundering finality. Radiation spread quickly, wildfires consumed people and buildings, millions died in days. I had also learned that space travel had become common by the time this war occurred, and that three great wheels had been built in space, meant to house Earth’s expanding populations.
It was not uncommon at the time for companies and communities to have their own rockets, for commercial and tourism purposes, and, so the story went, when the missiles landed the survivors fled to these rockets and were spirited away to the wheels above, allowing the human race to survive. It was a courageous, inspirational story, with clearly defined but anonymous heroes and victims. It was told and retold to each of us as we grew up, reminding us of the value of charity, sacrifice, and love for your fellow man, even in a time of extreme crisis. Selfless civic and corporate leaders had risked their own lives to stay behind and ferry innocent civilians to heavenly sanctuaries, guaranteeing the survival of the human race. Thousands of Noahs in thousands of Arks.
It was a lie. The truth was much colder: There had been a nuclear war, the Earth had been scorched, and the rich and powerful had left anyone who survived behind to die.
There was a knock at the door, and I quickly took out the disc and placed it, along with the other items from the box, into my bag. I don’t remember exactly how, but I made it home to my bed and spent the rest of the day curled in a ball, staring at the floor. I ignored calls from Rommy and my father, and eventually fell into a deep, tumultuous sleep, where the haunted eyes of those left behind stared accusingly at me.
* * *
I awoke the next morning with the distinct impression that yesterday hadn’t happened at all. I was almost ready to believe this when the comm-blister interrupted me. I passed my hand over the top of the device and I heard Rommy’s expectant voice.
“’Yan, you skipped out on me yesterday, are you even coming in today? They have partnered me up with Colin while you’re gone; you have to get back before he accidentally hacks off one of my limbs.”
I almost smiled at that one, but it was difficult to hear Rommy’s words against the background screams of the abandoned that filled my head.
“I’m not feeling up to it today, Rom, I’ll see you tomorrow and we can go out afterwards and talk.” I snapped off the connection without waiting for a reply, I didn’t want to explain myself yet.
I was finally getting my head around what I had seen. Thousands of questions bubbled forth into my brain. Did my father know about this? He was very young when the evacuation happened, so it was unlikely he would remember it even if he had seen it. Still, it seemed to be a cover-up of staggering proportions. There was a whole generation of people who knew – were they silenced or was there a conspiracy?
Then there was the question of whether or not this had been a planned evacuation: Did the wealthy and the powerful know about what was going to happen beforehand? How else could they have been ready to leave when it happened? Even back in the days of ready spaceflight, a trip took time to prepare. How had great-grandfather Vikram smuggled out video evidence of the atrocities? Did the same thing happen in other places in the world?
I found myself thinking of Rommy, and I laughed out loud. We were all Rommys, all of us, children of the privileged, the wealthy, the fortunate. Suddenly our lives on the wheel made so much more sense. This was the reason there was so little manual labor for us to do, why we had to volunteer to do labor as a form of public service at some time in our lives. Who else but the rich would think of labor as a public service to build character? The wheels had been built as refuges for the wealthy and the powerful, designed so most of the hard work could be done by machines. I felt dirty and deeply corrupt. I had no part in the decisions that were made, I had no say in the carnage, but my life of ease and comfort had been bought at the cost of thousands of innocent lives. And no one spoke for them, no one knew.
No, that was not right, some people must have known. There were people on the wheels old enough to have known what was happening during the evacuation. Perhaps time had dulled their consciousness, robbed them of their memories? How could anyone forget something so horrible, so wrong? I resolved to lose myself in sleep again, but this time I took enough medication that my sleep was dreamless, hiding from the souls of the departed behind a wall of chemicals.
The next day I reported to work and put my new knowledge aside for a while. There was clearly no urgency to reveal what I knew; it had stayed a secret for so long already. Rommy asked about the meeting with my advocate, but I told him to leave it for another time, claiming it was a sad family matter that I wasn’t ready to discuss.
He respected my wishes, in part I’m sure as he was enjoying his time with Shar and did not want to mar it with sadness. Rommy proved to be the tonic my soul needed that summer, his happiness grew every day with Shar, and I fed off of it shamelessly as a way of forgetting, even for a time, the horrors I had seen.
For the remaining weeks of the summer the three of us were inseparable, except of course when we parted for the night. I made sure to be drunk or drugged enough by the ends of the evenings that I fell into a more or less dreamless sleep. Rommy asked once or twice about this. I had not partaken of these excesses very often in the early days of our friendship, but I convinced him that it was just my attempt to live up the last summer I would have before starting a serious job.
We fell into a pattern of work, play, sleep. Grub work allowed us four days on, three days off, and we organized our schedules so that Shar could share many of our days off with us. We traveled the extremes of the wheel, visiting places as a threesome. We swam in the wake of the Great Waterfalls at the schism, the bracing mists and thundering noise drowning out the world around us for a time. We rode bicycles around the inner road for three days, racing against each other, pedaling languorously for periods, and camping in the surrounding parks under the clear night sky. We visited the Mighty Spirit, a 100-foot-tall steel sculpture of a horse and rider that emerged out of the ground and appeared to be charging towards the sky; it had been built at the command of Cornelius Creighton, the designer of the wheels and one of the founding fathers of our community. To my new eyes it symbolized something outrageous and excessive; how many lost lives had been forgotten due to the distraction provided by overblown symbols like this?
We took a shuttle to Shar’s old home, and played there for several days, doing our best to ruin her reputation amongst her old friends. Shar periodically teased me about my lack of female companionship; on one night when she was particularly drunk and Rommy had passed out, she offered herself to me “for the night.” I seriously thought about it at the time, with the aching images of destruction in my mind, the petty morality of the bedroom seemed not worth my consideration. Still, Rommy was my friend, and I couldn’t bear the look he would give me if he found out. I spent that night with my head nestled on Shar’s bare stomach, my tousled hair tracing lines across the bottom of her breasts, staring up at the sky from Rommy’s bed while singing songs and drinking.
Rommy’s name and all-encompassing smile gave us access to the best parties and most exclusive places. We dined on the finest food the wheel had to offer, and danced with the most beautiful people that surgery could create. The summer passed in a haze of exotic colors, sounds, and tastes, like some kaleidoscopic orgy fit to shame the most extreme Roman senator.
Throughout the summer I wrestled with an intense resentment towards Rommy and Shar. For better or for worse they exemplified the shallowness of the wealthy and the powerful. Our pockets knew no bottom and we lived in a chemical haze of disinterested, drunken joy. Living without care was the provenance of the powerful, and Rommy’s single-minded lust for one thing, one woman, was just the sort of privilege denied to those left behind. In my darker moments it seemed so horribly hollow and false.
I knew it was wrong to direct my anger and sorrow over what I had learned at Rommy. I even considered telling him about it, sharing my burden. I also came to see that his feelings for Shar were deep and real; I had never known love like that. The way he touched her hair, drank in her scent, and attended to her gentle words. When we worked together Rommy was a gregarious fool, cavorting, laughing, and jostling with our fellow grubbers all day. When he was with Shar he was a study in reverent silence, only speaking out and taking command when he felt that someone else had too much of her attention.
So I whiled away the summer, as Rommy fell deeper and deeper in love with Shar, and I tried to forget the terrible truth I had learned. My relationship with my father became strained for the first time in our lives. I couldn’t bring myself to crush his spirit with the knowledge I had gained, and I couldn’t risk learning that he had known and not told me. My mind was twisted into knots, and the only thing that saved me from a deep depression was my proximity to two people so lost in themselves that they could ignore the world – through their example I lost the past for a time.
* * *
Rommy came calling to my unit on the first morning of our last week of summer work. I usually came by his home and had breakfast with him before shift; the estate chef made us impeccable meals and I had grown fond of their decadence. He was also the source of Rommy’s excessive lunches. Rommy arrived clad in casual clothing, a white shirt with thin vertical gold stripes, and plain black trousers. I was still in bed when he walked through my door.
“Nayan, you lazy bastard, get up and get moving, we have a mission today.”
Rommy had all the zip and vigor of a teenage boy sneaking in to see his first sex-vid show; it was overwhelming before breakfast.
“Rom, you aren’t dressed for work.”
“No, and neither are you. Screw work, we have better things to do.”
Rommy went over to my kitchen counter and prepared a coffee.
“I haven’t seen Shar for a week now, and she got in last night from her trip. We are going to go over to her unit and grab her for an early breakfast, out by the reservoir. I have the food packed and ready to go.”
This incurable romantic business was losing its charm, but even I had to admit that he hadn’t lost his touch. Shar had been away all week to visit old friends for some sort of birthday celebration. She had almost begged off the trip to her old stomping grounds, but Rommy had encouraged her to go. She had seemed a bit distracted since her last visit, and Rommy had decided that she was missing parts of her old life. Despite what Shar had said to them the first day they met, every wheel had its own community, its own rhythm.
I dressed and we left my unit; Rommy had decided we would walk to Shar’s unit. It was a beautiful morning and the trip would give me the opportunity to wake up. The gently curving horizon of the wheel drew us forward with a gentle, subliminal tug. One of the odd psychological consequences of the shift from the open skies of Earth to the sloping horizon of the wheel was a restlessness that came from the curve of the land under your feet. On Earth people were lost in the greatness of its expanse, the curve of the ground beneath them was too subtle to perceive. The arc of the wheel, although natural to those born there, still suggested the possibility of more to be found in the distance. Wheelers were often struck with wanderlust, leaving home for months at a time, some even felt compelled to walk the circumference of the wheel, only being satisfied when they stepped into the spot they left from.
“So ‘Yan, are you going to tell me what has been under your skin for the last few weeks?”
It was actually the last few months, but Rommy had been so lovestruck that he hadn’t noticed until a few weeks ago. Still, there was something redeeming in his concern, and it softened me up. I blurted out words before I even realized I was saying them.
“Rom, if you knew about something terrible, but you couldn’t do anything to change it, would you tell anyone, or would you just let it go?”
Rom looked at me with a suspicious glance, no doubt he thought I was obliquely referring to some indiscretion with Shar. Everything started and ended with Shar for him. Considering that we had both been out of sorts recently, I suppose it was inevitable he would assume I was referring to her in some way.
“Its nothing romantic, if that’s what you are thinking.”
“Of course it isn’t; you haven’t got a shred of romance in your body, Nayan old chum.”
Rommy looked off into the sky for a moment, and then looked back at me.
“I would forget about it. Seriously. Why waste a moment of your life worrying about something that you can’t change. Seize the day, Nayan, grab life by the stones while you can. Whatever it is, it won’t matter unless you let it matter.”
It was possibly the worst answer he could have given me, as it was exactly what I wanted to hear, but not from him. It made me angry; suddenly Rommy was unintentionally complicit in the conspiracy to hide the atrocities of the past. I had black feelings rush into my chest, and I had to remind myself that he hadn’t a clue as to what I was talking about.
Right there and then I decided that I had to tell people about what I knew. Not to address the injustices of the past, or to put wronged souls to rest, but to redeem my friend, whose life would be forever stained by the transgressions of our fathers, through the coincidence of his wealth and power.
“Rom, when the summer is over I’m going to need your help with something.”
Rommy smiled and I was temporarily reassured.
“No problem, man, anything you need.”
“Really? Anything?” I smiled devilishly.
“Actually, yes, anything.” Rommy paused and looked at me. “What exactly is it that you need, anyway?”
“Let’s just say that someone with your resources could help me get a hearing I would otherwise not be able to get.”
“All right, like I said, whatever I can do.” He clamped his hand down on my shoulder in a reassuring way. “Now forget this cryptic crap and let’s move.” Rommy ran off laughing, motioning me to follow. For that moment and that moment only, we were two young boys running away from school for the day, losing ourselves in the sleepy morning of a fading summer.
* * *
We arrived at Shar’s unit out of breath and smiling.
Shar lived in a small collective of artists and musicians on the edge of one of the larger public parks on the wheel. She was a mathematician and a musician, one of several in the collective to my surprise, and she treasured their open spaces and community lifestyle. The collective had a large garden in the centre of their space, surrounded by thirty units with solar plating on all surfaces; they looked like shiny green mushrooms. Up here the sunshine did a lot of the work, and many of the unit clusters were entirely self sufficient from the wheel grid.
Shar lived on the second floor of the third unit, and Rommy and I knew her neighbors from a summer of extensive socializing. We sprung up the stairs to her unit, and Rommy produced a beaten-up passcard to pop open the door.
“Wait here, mate, she may me indisposed.”
I considered coming in with him, anyway, as the prospect of seeing Shar “indisposed” was tempting, and no doubt she would have laughed it off if I arrived beside Rom.
Several seconds later I heard a woman’s scream, not one of terror, but of surprise, I decided that this was worth seeing in person, and I dashed into the unit.
Rommy stood at the edge of Shar’s bedroom. His eyes were unfocused and his mouth a thin line, which doesn’t even begin to adequately describe the expression on his face. Shar was indeed “indisposed” – in bed with a tall, blond man, who looked to be in his early 20’s, athletic, and handsome. His personal items were scattered about the room, and it was clear from what I could see that he had more than just overnight things there.
“Rom, oh crap, what are you doing here – were you checking up on me?”
It was a weak first move, and it almost immediately shattered any hope I had that this might be some sort of horrible misunderstanding.
“I came to take you on a picnic…” Rom’s voice trailed off, he was clearly losing his grip on the situation. I stepped closer to him in case he had to be restrained.
“Look, I was going to take you, both of you, to lunch today and explain this.” She turned to her companion: “Thomas, can you go for a walk or something.”
Thomas nodded meekly and grabbed his clothing, quickly moving in a wide arc towards the door, carefully avoiding proximity to both of us. He stopped at the door and looked at Shar for a second. “You said you told him already, Shar.” He turned towards us. “She told me that she had sorted this out already, I’m sorry.” Rommy was clenching and unclenching his fists, not a good sign, and fortunately for all of us Thomas left the room.
I gently touched Rommy’s arm and said one word: “Stay?” He replied in a whisper, “Yeah.” There really wasn’t any other answer for him to give; we had been a threesome from the beginning, and it looked like we were to end that way as well.
“Rom, look, I had left Thomas to come here a few months back. And I thought we were done, but it didn’t work out that way. I saw him briefly when we went on our trip, and I saw him again this past week. We’re going to try to make it work again. I was going to tell you today, I promise.”
There was a tone in her voice; this wasn’t a negotiation or a discussion, it was a pronouncement. Shar’s elegance and strength had always been in the finality of her words. She summed up people and events with an analytic precision that cut nature at her joints. Despite her soft tone and wide-open eyes, it was clear that Rommy was now on the outside of her world, orbiting slowly and painfully. I could only imagine what Rom was thinking. For some reason I thought he would be raging, but instead, he stood in front of Shar and I, looking lost.
In a strange way what I saw in that room didn’t surprise me at all; it was one of those moments when thousands of little things fell into place inside my head with a resounding crash. Sideways glances at other men, Shar’s choice of a wealthy boyfriend like Rommy, her complete lack of concern over Rommy’s inability to make long-term life plans, her insistence that we travel as a trio the majority of the time, her drunken offer to me, even her casual dismissal of her charger coach the first day we met her. In my mind these things suddenly went from being indications of a cool, sexy aloofness to signs that her heart was never really in the game. I could never have predicted what happened in that room, but in some ways it was like I was remembering it rather than seeing it for the first time.
“We have to leave.” Rom turned towards me and walked out the door without looking back or saying another word. I turned towards Shar and gave her the only look I could, one of sadness.
“Rom, hold up.” I ran down the stairs and Rommy was already at full steam, charging down the road as fast as he could go. It took me a while to catch up; Rommy wasn’t faster than me normally, but today he was running away from an ugly truth that he simply couldn’t tolerate.
“Rom, look, I’m sorry, man, I had no idea.”
“Of course you didn’t, you’re as stupid as I am.” He was smiling when he said this, a twisted, desperate smile that looked particularly unsettling on him. It was probably too soon to start slagging Shar in front of him, as I know that his heart hadn’t processed what his head had just realized.
“Rom, why don’t we go out and get hammered; forget about this for a while, OK?”
It wasn’t the most original, or for that matter the most useful advice one man can give another in these circumstances, but it had the virtue of being traditional.
“I need some time, Nayan. I’ll see you later.” I stopped and sat down. Rom disappeared into the distance, and I lay back on the grass, staring up at the sky as it curved away from me. Everything was curving away from me as the summer came to an end, so I resolved to stay on the grass for a while and watch the slow departure.
* * *
In retrospect, I should have expected that things were going to get worse with Rommy. I realized very early in the summer that he was a bit directionless in life; his father’s chosen career path for him had not captured his imagination, and he was tired of the empty conversations that his inner-circle parties and events brought along with them. Two weeks went by and I had heard nothing from him; he returned none of my calls and would not answer the door at his unit.
Finally, one morning before work I received a call from, of all people, Rom’s chef Teiron. Teiron was a decent enough fellow, he appeared to genuinely like Rommy, and didn’t resent the disparities in their incomes in any obvious way. I activated the comm-blister when the call came through.
“Mr. Kannada, forgive the intrusion, but I thought you might be able to sort out what has happened to Mr. Shire Jr. His behavior is worrying.”
“Have you contacted his father?”
“No, I wouldn’t know how to; he doesn’t leave contact details with the estate staff for security reasons, and frankly… I don’t think he would care that much one way or the other.”
Leave it to the hired help to say it like it is. “Where is Rommy now?”
“He’s still here. I called because he has just taken a set of activation cards with him for the company shuttle.” He paused for a moment and started again in a lower voice. “We have all been given instructions on how to activate the shuttle if there is some sort of emergency and Mr. Shire Jr. or Sr. needs to be evacuated, but normally the shuttle is reserved for company trips by Mr. Shire Sr. I’m fairly sure there is no good reason for Mr. Shire Jr. to have the shuttle out. I fear he may be planning something extreme.”
“I’ll be over there as soon as I can; if you can stall him, do it.”
I bolted out of my unit and hopped on my bike, at top spin I could be at the Shire estate fairly quickly. My mind spun in time with the wheels – what the hell could he be planning? As far as I could remember, Rommy couldn’t even pilot a shuttle.
The shuttle launch facility was located on the outer edge of the wheel, with an access tunnel that connected to the estate proper. Tieron gave me the appropriate access cards and I was whisked out to the staging room. I found myself an enviro-suit, which all wheelers are trained to use at an early age — “explosive decompression is a bitch,” as my former instructor told me. Putting that suit on was an exercise in terrified restraint; I didn’t want to miss any of the protocols in case there was trouble later, but the countdown clock didn’t give me much time. If I took too long I wouldn’t be able to access the shuttle before it was too close to launch to override the safeties. I decided to stall. I punched the intercom and called out to Rommy.
“Rom, what the hell are you up to; come out of there and let’s talk.” I had completed all but the helmet seal, and I waited on that as my voice would be filtered and he would know I was suiting up.
“Nayan, just leave me alone, all right? I appreciate you being here, you did your duty, now go back.”
The intercom went dead. I activated the seal lock on my helmet and punched the access button. I was still outside the two-minute safety window and it allowed me in. I quickly shut the door behind me and ran down the access corridor to the main shuttle door.
Fortunately the whole system was security coded to prevent unauthorized access, and I had all the appropriate code cards. I entered the shuttle and toyed with the idea of leaving the door open, but Rom would just come back and argue with me at the door until I let him go; for a shiftless rich boy, he was remarkably stubborn. Better to let him launch and talk to him once he had achieved his goal. There was a good chance he just wanted to get away from everything, and maybe that was a good thing. I wasn’t sure if he would send us careening into the wheel, but that was a chance I would have to take.
The launch came almost immediately after I closed and sealed the main shuttle door. I felt a disconnect as the shuttle left the wheel and spun off into space. Unlike launches from planetside, there was no need for a powerful blast-off, only a gentle push into space before the shuttle thrusters engaged. I quickly grabbed a handle on the wall as the shuttle approached sufficient distance to engage its engines.
Once we were moving, I made my way up to the cockpit, to find Rommy sitting in one of the forward chairs, staring off into space. His helmet was off, and I removed mine before entering.
“All right, Rom, once around Venus then back for dinner, OK?”
I expected him to jump out of his chair at the sound of my voice. I was fairly sure he hadn’t heard me come in. His eyes opened widely but he said nothing, just nodding at me to acknowledge my presence. It was hard for me to believe that this was the same jovial, vital man I had met a few months back. His face was ashen, his eyes were red and deep set, and he had clearly lost weight.
“Rom, man, c’mon, I know she hurt you, but your father is going to have your ass when he finds out you commandeered a company shuttle for this little joy ride.”
“He won’t even find out about this until I’m gone, so it doesn’t matter.”
“OK, where are you going?”
Rommy turned forwards again and pointed towards the Earth: “I’m going down there.”
“What the hell, are you going on a treasure hunt or something? Looking for a little danger to rekindle your spirits? Planetside missions are for professionals; if you don’t get cooked by the rads you will probably be swarmed by the mutant bugs. This is crazy – you’re just depressed, so let’s go home.”
Rommy pointed to the seat next to him and I took it.
“Look, Nayam, I don’t expect you to understand this, but Shar, she gave me something I never had before. She gave me a purpose, and made me feel whole while pursuing it.”
“And what would that purpose be anyway, to screw and party all summer?”
That was unnecessarily mean on my part, but I was feeling more and more anxious as the ship approached the planet below.
“You have your father, your family. I have nothing, I’ve had nothing for years. Shar was the first time I felt anything for anyone, other than you.”
“You still have me, I’m not as good in bed but I’m better at charger, and chess, and drinking for that matter.”
Rommy smiled weakly and pointed at me. “You know what I mean, ‘Yan; you’ve been a good friend, but I can’t survive on friendship. Shar was smarter than the both of us, you felt it too, I know you did.”
“Smarter? What the hell is that supposed to mean? What did she know that I didn’t?”
“She saw that I’m empty inside, Rom; there’s nothing there. There hasn’t been anything there for years. Most of the people I know are empty, you know; we’ve had a life of luxury given to us without having to work for it. I’ve been given everything I wanted for as long as I can remember. My relationship with Shar was the first thing I had to work for, and she saw that I had nothing to give.”
Rom was having some sort of existential crisis, and I contemplated telling him about mine. In his own way he had come to understand the terrible secret that was hidden from me all those years. The fact that our lives were hollow, we were the children of the privileged and the powerful, and everything that we had was given to us without a price. All this time I had a living clue to the lie that my great-grandfather exposed right under my nose and I hadn’t been able to see it.
The shuttle changed attitude to start the entry into Earth’s atmosphere; a jolt and a brief stream of turbulence almost knocked me out of my chair, but things settled down and we began the descent. I grabbed the arms of the chair firmly.
“You’re not going to find a purpose on the planet surface; it may seem like a place to find something you lost, something we all lost, but its not, its just dead, dead and ashen and crawling with scavengers.”
“Its real, Nayan, I need something real and tangible. I need the ground beneath my feet, the sky over my head, something hard and unyielding that we didn’t build, something that’s just there.”
I didn’t know what to say. I had felt the emptiness he was feeling before; I had dreams when I was a boy, dreams filled with red skies and giant bugs and the spires of dead cities stretching into the heavens like grasping hands. In the aftermath of Shar’s abandonment this vision had snared Rommy, and it was threatening to take over his reality. I had to snap him out of it.
“Look, Rom, there’s something you need to know. I was hoping we could talk about it after you had gotten past some of this, but maybe you should hear it now.”
He looked at me with his sad eyes; it was terribly hard to have him look at me that way.
“All right, but first, take one of these.” Rommy grabbed two small blue pills from a case in his suit. The suits will absorb the rads for about 3 or 4 hours, the pills will keep you safe for another 3 or 4 if there are any problems with the suit or we get stuck anywhere.”
I had absolutely no intention of stepping off the ship without professional guidance, but I decided that it couldn’t hurt to take one of them, just in case. If Rommy became belligerent I might have to go with him, and I’d be damned if I was going to get rad-sickness if I didn’t have to.
Rommy popped his pill and I popped mine. He turned around and grabbed a water bottle and passed it to me, and I drank down the little chemical solution to a problem created by mad men in the past.
“Nayan, don’t let the wheel make you empty like it did to me, OK? I don’t know what’s been bothering you this summer, but whatever it is, you can beat it.”
First my great-grandfather, then my new best friend. I was finding this universal confidence in my better nature to be downright annoying. I didn’t appreciate being defined by others, and having to live up to their expectations, for that matter. And I was also finding it difficult to keep my eyes open. As the shuttle rocked in the re-entry journey my limbs felt heavy and slow.
It was the goddamn blue pill, it wasn’t a rad-pill, it was a sleep-inducer. Son of a bitch.
“You can come back on autopilot, Nayan; the shuttle is designed to land and re-commit without a pilot, all company ships are computer controlled.”
Rom picked up his helmet.
“I’m not coming back.”
Rommy stepped up, and my world skewed onto its side; as I fell to the floor I felt Rom catch me and place me back in my chair, strapping me in.
“Sleep well, Nayan,” were the last words I heard before blackness covered me.
* * *
When I awoke, the ship was sitting still; we had landed in what appeared to be a former city square. My vision was blurry at first, and I couldn’t tell what city we were in; all of the buildings were extremely tall, far taller than anything I had seen on the wheel. Most of them were missing huge chunks; some were missing tops, some sides, like a collection of children’s toys smashed up by the neighborhood bully. I recalled the sketches in Rom’s study; I guess he wanted to see some of these buildings from up close.
I unlatched my belt and stood up, still shaky from the sleep-inducer. The autopilot light was flashing but not engaged; Rommy had left it for me to activate when I was ready. I looked around the square and saw no sign of him. I rummaged around and found the rad-pills he had promised me and downed one. I put on my helmet and checked and re-checked all of the seals and environment markers to be sure that I would be safe upon exiting, and I left the ship, carefully resealing the door to prevent any rad-exposure to the interior.
The skies weren’t as red as I had envisioned, but the complete absence of any humans was more or less as I had dreamed it. Dust covered almost everything, and a fairly strong wind sent it whipping past my visor in great heaving gusts. It was not hard to find Rom’s footprints in the dust, they stood out like big exaggerated “X’s” in some child’s treasure hunt.
It had been many years since the evacuation, so any bodies that were left behind would have been weathered away or consumed by now. This thought gave me an almost instant clarity, as I looked around for signs of the legendary giant insects that were said to have repopulated the planet after our departure. At first I saw nothing, but gradually some of the shadows began to detach from the background and move forward with me. It was intensely unnerving. I couldn’t make out anything detailed, but I was sure that I saw mandibles of some sort, or perhaps antennae. I tried to block out the image and continued forwards.
The trail led out of the cluster of skyscrapers to a line of smaller buildings, still tall by wheel standards, some lacking windows, some walls, and some rooftops. There appeared to have been no scavenging done here; things looked like they had been left untouched for years. If this was an area avoided by the retrieval teams then it must be high rad. I picked up the pace immediately.
I was strangely energized while moving silently through this dead city; the whole experience was like an old vid-story. I felt like a chrononaut reconstructing a past holocaust, or perhaps an aquanaut walking on the ocean floor, miles of dark water above me, brimming with deadly creatures. Whenever Rom was around I felt young and full of imagination; I had never told him that – perhaps it would have made him feel less empty to know it.
I finally found Rom at an intersection of two streets; he was sitting on the top floor of a building with no roof, facing towards a broad river that snaked away into the distance. The river carried away plants, garbage, and an array of manufactured things, the furniture of a dead world. Even without stewards to watch over them, the arteries of the planet did their work.
The stairs were a hard climb, as I was not used to wearing an environment suit for this long, and I found it hot and uncomfortable. When I reached Rom he was still gazing out towards the river and the expanse of the city beyond it. I gently touched his shoulder and his body crumpled to the ground. I jumped back in instinctive shock. He was utterly unresponsive; had the radiation overwhelmed him already? I looked at my chronometer and a chill came into my belly. I had been asleep for eight hours; by the time I left the ship he had exceeded the time window for his suit and his pill, if he even took the pill at all.
I saw movement at the edge of my visor, and I turned and saw insects crawling up the sides of the building towards us. A primal urge to flee tugged at me; these things were horrific and exaggerated to the point of being almost unbelievable. The bugs were of various shapes and sizes, the smallest about a foot long, the largest about 3 to 4 feet. Some had 6 legs, some 10, and a few had more than I could count. They were a wild variety of colors, black, grey, crimson, azure, at least two were multichromatic and shimmering, and one was translucent but you could see its internal organs. The only thing that kept me from retching was the knowledge that I had a suit on.
I grabbed a large chunk of building material and prepared to lob it at one of the creatures, but then thought better of it. Rom had come here to die, to escape the emptiness that consumed him, to find purpose on a dead world. This planet had life, and with life came purpose, for better or worse these things were what was left of a once-vibrant world. They could have him, but they couldn’t have me.
I bolted towards the door before they decided to go after the moving target. I didn’t dare glance back for fear of being turned to stone and worn away by the silent winds. I ran back through the empty streets choked with a dust made of bodies, buildings, and broken dreams. I don’t remember triggering the autopilot sequence, but I do remember the weight lifting from my body as I left behind the world of my dreams and nightmares.
* * *
When I made it back to the wheel I was met by justices I had called on the way back to report Rommy’s death. They debriefed me for six hours, checking my story, looking at the shuttle’s logs, and even checking my system for traces of the sleep-inducer. When they were satisfied that I had given them a fair account of things, they discharged me, telling me to stay in the area for a few weeks. Its not like there were many places to go.
On the way out of the main building of the Shire estate, I ran into Rommy’s father. I recognized him immediately from the line of his jaw and his eyes, which had the same deep-set intensity of his son’s. One of his handlers stopped me while another whispered in his ear, and he turned his steely gaze towards me.
“I’m told you were with Rom at the end; why didn’t you stop him?”
“I tried, but when he made his mind up about something, he was difficult to stop.” I paused and looked over the man who Rom had so clearly despised. “But I guess you would know about that, wouldn’t you?”
“He was a fool, a directionless, empty little fool.” Rommy Shire Sr. spoke with an even, unbroken cadence. “Something like this was inevitable, it was only a matter of time.” His coldness and cruelty surprised me, despite what Rom had told me about him. Sometimes you need to see things for yourself to understand them.
“He was my friend.” I paused and chose my next words. “And he thought even less of you than I do.”
I started to walk away and Rommy’s father spoke again.
“I don’t want the details of this sordid little event to get out to anyone; how much do you want to keep quiet?”
I looked at him for a moment; then turned away in silence.
Several days later I received a comm-call from Teiron, asking to meet for a drink. I chose a small café by the opera house, and we ordered a fine aged scotch for a toast.
“To Rommy Shire Jr., a better man than most.” It seemed an appropriate thing to say.
“Mr. Shire was quite fond of you, Mr. Kannada. The last few months were some of his happiest in the time I have known him.”
“I suspect that had more to do with his girlfriend than with me, Teiron, but thanks for telling me anyway.”
“He was definitely enamored of young Ms. Misa, but he found a true friend in you, something he had rarely had over the years.” Tieron looked out at the people walking to and fro. “Wealth comes with great loneliness and a loss of the capacity for trust; I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
“To poverty.” I raised my glass.
“To life.” Tieron raised his.
I went home later that day, mildly drunk and sad. I had contemplated calling Shar and telling her what had happened, but I had the feeling she would have figured it out from reading the news. Rom’s death was attributed to an accident while on a planetside mining expedition, but Shar was smart enough to read between the lines. It was one of the things that made her so irresistible. In any case, I had nothing to say to her, I didn’t even hate her for what had happened, I just wanted to forget her entirely.
I went into my bedroom and took out the vid-disc that great-grandfather Vikram left me. I flipped it between my fingers like a coin, staring into its shiny surface at my distorted reflection, but there was no solace to be found in it. I tossed the disc back into the storage bin and put it away, along with the diary and other materials.
I had picked up some cigars in the weeks after going to see Par, and I took one out. I walked out to the small yard behind my unit and sat down on the grass, looking out at the small lake and trees in the distance. The trimmer was still in good shape; I clipped off the end of the cigar and lit it up.
The man at the store had told me that cigar smoke was to be held in the mouth, not inhaled. The sensation was chalky and unpleasant at first, but very slowly a warm taste rolled over my tongue. I could grow to like this. I resolved to add cigars to my list of vices, and perhaps in time I would find another friend like Rommy to share the vice with.
A small bug crawled up on to my pantleg from the grass.
I flicked it off and crushed it beneath my foot.
About the Author: Ian James is edging towards 40 and works as an office manager in Toronto, Ontario. He has been writing stories (at least in his head) since he was graced by language.
(c) 2009 Ian James IanJames44@gmail.com
About the Artist: Robert Sorensen was born in Summit, NJ, has lived in Paris, and now resides in Colorado. His education includes studying painting at L’Academie des Beux Arts de Chaville and studying acting at the Lee Strasberg Institute in NYC, followed by professional work in a theatrical touring company and later, work in TV, films, and documentaries. Robert wrote an SF screenplay about saving planet Earth from an alien invasion in the year 2059, with the title “QUANTEX-Z or ATOMIC VISIONS”. Robert is an avid international voyager whose passion is to visit, contact, and experience the cultures and peoples from all over Planet Earth and has visited most of Europe, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and Mexico. Robert has exhibited his artwork extensively in Paris, once in London, and several times in the United States. In his artwork, Robert most often takes dream images and bites out of his own life and puts them on canvas, paper, or the computer screen. His themes include the hidden aura-energy within all living and non-living subjects and their surrounding environments.
(c) 2009 Robert Sorensen http://home.earthlink.net/~robertmsorensen/