Mon 1 Oct 2012
by Ben Burgis
I live at the top of the world, and sell happiness for thirteen credits a pill. The product is worth every micro-credit, too, you can be sure of that. Take your chances buying from the gangsters and lowlifes on Gagarin Street or Sally Ride Boulevard, you’d best be prepared for some quality time rolling around in the cigarette butts and broken glass of an abandoned alleyway, repeating the same word ten thousand times while blood leaks out of your eyes. Here at the top of the world, we believe in quality control.
I rent a room on the five hundredth floor of one of the tallest buildings in the Sphere. Most mornings, I take my breakfast onto the roof. No seasons in our little artificial world, so I can eat outside all year long, smoking and brewing coffee and watching the sun rise from a perch so close to the glass, you can damn near see your reflection. Every seventh or eighth day, always right around eleven hundred hours, my re-supply guy floats down to join me.
Re-supply girl, if you want to get all technical about it. With long, curly red hair, pouting lips, bright, intelligent eyes, and the kind of curves that make you want to stand up and sing the praises of all-mighty God for having created them. She fucking hates me.
Something halfway between a parachute and a jet pack is strapped to her back as she floats down to the rooftop. It’s small enough to sneak onto the industrial supply ships she rides in as they make their stop-offs in the Sphere on their way from Earth to places like Mars and Jupiter and the Outer Planets, and powerful enough to make her runs once she gets here. After she un-straps herself, I hand her the cup of coffee I just finished percolating, and start up a fresh one for myself.
“Thanks.” She grunts the word with all the sincerity of a roomful of school kids reciting the Pledge first thing in the morning, all droning on in that lifeless sing-song way. We pledge allegiance to the Protector and his Generals. In all things, great and small, we honor and obey the Protector…
“Oh, think nothing of it.” I make a show of sniffing the air. “Do tell me, though, what lovely conveyance you came in on this morning. It wasn’t a…perfume merchant…by any chance?”
She looks at me and there’s this crazy moment where I actually think she’s going to start crying or maybe punch me in the face. Then she laughs. “Fish. They scoop them out of the ocean just before they leave the planet, cut ‘em up and can them right there on the ship.”
“Grand choice, that.”
I give her a toothy smile. She starts scooping cloth bags out of her side pack, all business. I clear what’s left of breakfast off my little plastic table. “Arsehole though I may be, it does occur to me that you’re always giving me a hard time about my choice of profession.”
She looks up from the table, where she’s bent down lining her pills into neat little rows. “Aye…?”
“Well, it seems to me that, with a security clearance as impressively low as mine, if I was to abandon my fine and noble business, I might be a fish canner myself.”
“You might, at that.”
I gulp down the rest of my coffee. “I’m trying not to be too hurt by your indifference to that possibility.”
She reaches out an unpainted fingernail and punctures the top of a pill so I can sample the product.
I dig around in my jacket pocket until I find a loose cigarette. I sprinkle the tiniest dash of powder from the pill onto one end and spread it around with my fingers. Then I blink five times in succession to activate the computer in my contact lenses. I can’t afford more than a couple hours of Net time a month, so I usually keep the damn thing off. Still, this is an indispensible part of the process.
I bring the cigarette level with my eyes. My computer runs its clever little microscopic-view analysis, cross-referencing what it sees with whatever database of dangerous additives it’s hooked into. The pill gets a clean bill of health.
All that’s left is the subjective check. Now, don’t get the wrong idea here. I don’t use the stuff. People in my line of work tend not to live very long after they start using. I do, however, believe in quality control.
I stick the cigarette between my teeth, take a book of matches out of my pocket and light one up. I hold the lit match in the air for a dramatic pause.
Re-supply girl coughs and shifts in place, bored.
I make fire.
One day back on Earth, when I was seven years old, my Dad drove me five hours to see the ocean. We sang Party songs and played games on the way, counting the red cars and the blue cars and guessing how many of each we’d see before we got there. I never wanted that drive to end.
When we did get there, though? I felt like my eyes would pop out of my head from staring too hard. So much water, more than I’d ever imagined, stretching out forever and ever and sparkling in the sunshine. The warm ocean breeze, slapping against my face. Dad, laughing and pointing things out, spending more time with me than I can ever remember him doing before or since.
The next year, he was deported to the Sphere with me in tow. I never saw the ocean again, never saw any body of water that wasn’t man-made. That afternoon on the beach was and is my single best memory of Earth.
I’m twenty-five years old now. I was kicked out of school six years ago this spring. The last time I so much as spoke to my dad was before that.
But. Still. Sometimes, late at night, as I drift in and out of sleep, some fragment of that afternoon will slide up to the front of my mind. I’ll be in my sweaty cocoon of sheets and blankets, too exhausted to think, and that memory will sneak in and fill me with recollected warmth and happiness.
Take that feeling. Next, add in the way I felt the first time I got a blowjob. (Alexandra Q., the girl I’d been fantasizing about for a year, sucked me off under the downtown boardwalk the same afternoon I got expelled from school for selling product. In retrospect, her technique was a little on the toothy side, but at the time, when I blew my load, I thought my head would shatter into twenty thousand pieces from the pleasure of it all.) Now, double the combined feeling of those two experiences.
Double it again.
That is how I feel after I take my puff. For about ten seconds. Then I’m down.
“Yeh,” I manage. “Izz pretty good.”
My eyes focus back in on re-supply girl. She’s giving me this look I can’t read. I pay her. She straps herself back into her contraption and starts warming it up.
I’ve almost got the pills scooped off the table and into my bag when she speaks again. “Truly, though, you’d be better off canning fish.”
“I would, would I?”
“Aye. You’d be doing useful work. Maybe you could be active in the fish-canner’s union or some such thing. Be part of the struggle that way.” She shrugs, as much as her shoulder straps allow. “Better that than helping addicts destroy themselves with garbage like this.”
“…says the woman who peddles said garbage to me. How exactly do you reconcile that one, I wonder?”
“You’re a drug dealer. I’m a fundraiser for the revolution.” Her contraption sparks to life, half-muffling her last words. “There is a difference.”
Later that morning, I recount the conversation to my business associate Crush. I add in some fake dialogue to make it a better story, and he starts laughing so hard he almost drops his gun.
It’s a big gun. It fires big bullets, precision-guided by a very small computer. Just being close to the thing makes me jumpy, but doing what I do and not having someone like Crush standing next to me on my rooftop would be a truly special kind of stupid. That, and he’s my friend.
“…and still smelling of fish. Grand.”
I nod. “Hardly even wanted to defile her, she smelled so bad.”
I grin. He swats me on the shoulder. I wobble a bit, and re-gain my balance.
My first customer of the day shambles up to me. Then another, and another still. Business is good at the top of the world.
When the morning rush dies down, Crush and I have a cigarette. He likes to blow smoke rings. He does it so well, in fact, creating all manner of elaborate shapes and structures, that I’ve long suspected him of wasting precious Net time downloading training videos on his contacts.
For a time, we smoke in companionable silence. Then Crush blows three rings in a row, all in the form of exclamation points. When he gets his breath back, he says, “I have a thought.”
I nod. “I had surmised as much, yes.”
“Our supplier doesn’t like what we do.”
I wave my cigarette to indicate that this is indeed the case.
“And you want to get in her pants.”
“I’ve admitted that I wouldn’t be entirely adverse to that possibility, yes.”
Crush grins like he just made the winning move in a long and complicated game of chess. “Well, I bet she’d let you have a go if we joined up.”
I take a long drag before responding. “This again?”
“Aye.” The playfulness goes out of Crush’s eyes. “This. Again.”
“You truly think that instead of minding our own business and making a fine living doing exactly what we have been doing, which by the way benefits the resistance anyway, we should join up? Risk getting our heads burnt off for the sake of there being a Republic again and not a Protector? You think with a Republic, the sun would shine brighter in the day, the moons glimmer more beautifully at night? Perhaps the food would taste better?”
Crush lets out a ragged breath. “You know it’s the right thing. I know it’s the right thing. I just can’t work out why neither one of us is doing shit all about it.”
I take a short drag and let the smoke out real slow. “Have I ever told you about my father?”
That stops him short. “No…?”
“He was political. More political, in some ways, than the beauty who sells us our product. Near as I can tell, she’s just a normal republican. Dad, now, he was part of some splinter resistance faction, far far left-wing. So deep into it that he knew the difference between Stalinists and Trotskyists and actually gave a shit.”
“Aye?” Crush looks impressed.
“Aye. And it got us deported here.”
I toss my cigarette onto the ground, and stomp on it.
“You never know.”
That’s what my dad told me when I asked him if we were going to have to stay up in the Sphere forever. You never know.
I’d put off that question again and again in the first days after we were deported. I was terrified that the answer might be ‘yes.’ I just needed to know that it wasn’t so. I needed some kind of reassurance. “Are we going to stay here forever?”
“You never know.” Then some crap about how in 1916, Lenin said he didn’t think he’d live to see the revolution, but the Tsar was overthrown in February of the very next year and Lenin came back and led a second, communist revolution in October or November or some such shit. “You know, in a lot of ways our situation with the Protector and the mainline resistance groups is a lot like what the Bolsheviks were facing with the Tsar and the Mensheviks. There are, as I see it, three big differences…”
That’s seriously the way the man talked. All historical references and six resistance tactics and three big differences between two strategic situations and how to build up the revolutionary vanguard and on like that, even though I was a kid, just a fucking kid asking if we had to stay in the Sphere forever, because I missed my friends and I wanted to see the ocean again, and Dad couldn’t spent two minutes just being a father and by the time I was a teenager, I was selling product and getting kicked out of school and Dad barely even noticed and then he was shot by a soldier at some demonstration, years after I stopped talking to him, and I didn’t even hear about it until a month after it happened and now I can’t say any of this to him, can’t yell at him or take a swing at him or try to make things right because he’s dead and fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.
The next time I see my re-supply girl, her cheeks are flushed. She can barely stay in one place, so delighted she is. She bounces up and down on the balls of her feet. “It’s happening,” she tells me, so happy and excited she slips up and starts dropping her g’s, a thing she usually stops herself from doing. She’s so ecstatic she even forgets to insult me. “It’s happenin’ soon.”
Then she’s babbling away about military strategy and the Protector’s forces being all tied up with a rebellion in the Outer Planets and the need to strike when the iron is hot, whatever the fuck that means, and I’m sampling the product and I get too lost in my own private reverie to banter with her about politics.
Here’s what I know.
Doing what I do means having the long-term job security of a ball positioned at the top of a pyramid. It’s not that you might roll down or that there’s a risk of rolling. Sooner or later, you will roll down one side or the other.
For one thing, not all cops are corrupt. For another, when you make your living selling substances as seriously mind-altering as our little happiness pills, your core customers tend towards the erratic and unpredictable end of the spectrum.
Then there’s the competition. Most of the big organized gangs couldn’t care less about me and Crush and the little apartment rooftop where we sell expensive off-brand merchandise, any more than interplanetary fast food chains worry about competition from a guy with a corner bakery. On the other hand, if a misunderstanding were to occur, if stray fire were to be exchanged between Crush and one of their guys, they’d come down on us like the holy and unstoppable vengeance of the Lord.
And, of course, there are our fellow independents. About once every three or four weeks, some young idiot shows up on our rooftop, some wet-behind-the-ears motherfucker who doesn’t know his limits and figures we’ve got a pretty good spot and it’s easier to take it from us than find a rooftop of his very own. Nine times out of ten, all it takes is for Crush to turn around, bare his teeth and growl. The kid’ll turn tail and run. One time a few weeks ago, this happened and Crush had to fill me in about it later. I’d been too preoccupied talking to a customer to realize that anything was wrong. Crush is a really big guy.
Sometimes, though, the sight of my heavily-armed and caveman-large business associate doesn’t get it done. Sometimes the dealer who’s trying to move in on us will be one of God’s most special little retards, some stupid fuck who’s addled himself so silly with his own product that he sees Crush staring down at him, seven feet tall and growling and pointing that ridiculous gun in his direction, he sees this Viking berserker of a man and he thinks, “hey, maybe I can take him.” That’s when things get tricky.
Today is one of those days. The guy shoots round after round in the air, his hands so jittery that not a single bullet comes anywhere near Crush or myself. Customers curl up on the roof. They rock back and forth, muttering and trying to calm themselves down before their chemically-assisted happiness sours into something terrifying. Crush screams and rushes at our attacker. He just runs straight at him, not worried about getting shot. Crush barrels into the guy’s chest. They both go down. Crush gets up. He smashes his beast of a gun over the little fucker’s head.
No question, this guy should have lost consciousness after all that. He hasn’t. Whatever grotesque cocktail of his own product might be bubbling away in his bloodstream, he’s still writhing around, still screaming about how he’s gonna come back with his buddies and eat us for breakfast. Crush stares down at him, confused. He rubs his chin. You can all but see the gears turning in poor Crush’s head as he tries to work out what to do with the stupid fuck.
I clear my throat. Crush barely registers it with a wave of his hand. “Eh?”
I look at nowhere in particular. “You know what we have to do here.”
When the realization dawns, Crush shakes his head, decisive. “No. Way.”
I sigh. I want to point out that Crush has killed at least nine people I know about, probably a lot more. I want to point out that this is no different in principle, that this guy’s too far gone to smarten up and decide to leave us alone when he comes to. I don’t. There’s no point.
Of the two of us, one is intimidating and one is not. There’s a reason that Crush is in security and I handle sales. There’s a reason he gets the big gun. Me, I just have a little pocket thing, an officer’s side arm from a couple wars ago, sold on the black market with the identifying numbers filed off the side.
I take it out. Crush shakes his head again. I don’t argue.
The thing is, I can see all this from Crush’s point of view. The man on the ground might be the worst kind of live wire crazy fuck there is, and Crush knows that. This guy will try to muscle us out of our rooftop again if we let him go, and Crush knows that too. He just doesn’t care.
I cock the gun. It warms to life in my hand. Crush calls me a name. I ignore him. He turns heel and stalks away.
Bottom line, for Crush, a disarmed person on the ground is a disarmed person on the ground and there’s the end of it. Give him credit. The man has a code.
After I execute the dealer on the ground, Crush doesn’t speak to me for three long days. Then history lurches forward, and everything else stops mattering for a while.
The resistance takes the Sphere. The pitifully small “battalion” of Protectorate Forces that was left in charge of defending the place when everyone else rushed off to squash the rebellion in the Outer Planets is defeated and disarmed in a matter of hours. The officers are executed, the men given the choice between changing allegiances and going free.
If the Protector has any loyalists left after that, they must be awfully damn thin on the ground. From my rooftop perch, I watch the parades filling the streets. There are maybe a few hundred real outside resistance fighters in the mix. Everyone else is local. They chant and sing, hoisting flags and signs and handmade banners through the air.
Most of the flags are the usual republican tricolor, but the plain red flags of the extreme elements are out there too. Looking through a pair of viewing lenses on the first afternoon, I notice that a few of those red ones even bear the mark of Dad’s lot, the number four superimposed on a hammer & sickle emblem. Ancient, ancient history that. Can’t quite remember what it’s supposed to mean. When I try to call up the information, I just get a vague jumble of Dad going on about Trotsky and all the usual buzzwords. “Permanent revolution.” “The need for real workers’ democracy, in the cities and on the factory floor.” “A Fourth International.” Could be abstract poetry for all any of that means to me.
The sight of those red flags warms me, though, never mind that I can’t think of a single damn reason why it should. Then the feeling turns into something else at the pit of my stomach. I don’t realize at first that Crush is talking to me.
He gestures at the crowds below us. “You don’t suppose all this is going to be bad for business, do you? Everyone being all distracted?”
That brings me out of my funk. I laugh, long and deep. “Crush, my good friend, our line of work has many disadvantages, but we do command the kind of customer loyalty that other sorts of businessmen can only dream of. I would most definitely not worry about it.”
I always call the product we sell “happiness,” because calling it that cuts to the chase. That’s not to say, though, that happiness is the only thing those pills can deliver. You manipulate the chemical compound a bit, tamper with the molecular structure to shift things around just a touch in one direction or another, and you can produce all manner of effects beyond the usual euphoria. It can mess with your sense of location or produce a feeling of tremendous power. It can give you days and nights of vivid and beautiful hallucinations. It can help you forget the faces of dead people you used to love. There are chemists in the trade who daily play with new variations of the stuff, extracting a dash of this and beefing up the proportion of that with the open-hearted joy of jazzmen improvising together in a smoky club.
I can appreciate the allure of all that, I can, and I certainly admire anyone who’s that good at what they do, but me? I’ll stick with happiness.
That’s good enough, isn’t it? To make people happy? God knows it’s not as if that’s such a small thing. It’s not like someone else has devised a path to happiness that’s even half so reliable as the chemical shortcut we supply, half as straightforward as the pure and unadulterated happiness, the carefully quality-controlled happiness, that we sell for thirteen credits a pill.
Crush doesn’t abandon me. With the resistance so close, with uniformed resistance fighters walking around down on the streets below us, I’ve been sure he’d abandon me. He must know there’s a uniform of his very own waiting for him down there, any time he feels like taking the damn elevator to the bottom of our building. A cleanly-pressed uniform and slaps on the back and “welcome, comrade” and celebratory shots of off-world whiskey, any time he chooses to claim it all, and he’s been wanting those things since long before the resistance took the Sphere.
Still. He doesn’t go. He sticks by me. He stands guard while I sell product and he scares away our competitors, same as ever. Give him credit. The man’s loyal. He’s got a code.
It just doesn’t matter.
“One more time.” I glare at re-supply girl and light up another cigarette. Liza S., I should call her, since she’s my re-supply girl no more. She’s up on my rooftop with half a dozen heavily-armed resistance fighters. They all look tense. She just looks tired, and maybe a little sorry for me.
“Absolutely no exceptions,” she tells me for the third time in this conversation. “There’s no wiggle room in the directive.”
Everyone is getting shut down. No more corrupt, easily bribable Protectorate cops. The bright-eyed revolutionaries who rule the roost now understand that the drug trade Objectively Serves the Interests of the Enemy by keeping the masses too doped up and distracted to rebel. Never mind that the resistance itself had been supplying some of us with our product for years. That was then, this is now, and they intend to shut down all us “exploitive parasites” for the good of the people.
“You’ve been seeing what’s been going on, haven’t you?” Liza S. gestures vaguely at the street below her. “We have people out there shooting it out with the gangs, dragging dealers through the streets to face the justice of republican courts. You, we’re notifying peacefully. We’ve even been authorized to award you each a pretty grand credit transfer to tide you over until you find more productive work.”
“Touching, that.” I toss my cigarette and light up a new one. “What, I wonder, could account for that odd difference in approach?”
She looks pained as she mutters something about “past services to the Republic.” I give her my toothiest smile. “Quite. So nice to hear at least some acknowledgment of the fact that our vile, exploitive and, ah, parasitical trade paid for the weapons you’re currently waving in our faces.”
Even Crush, who’s been taking all of this far too well, rewards this last point with an appreciative snort. Liza S. spares him an irritated glance. He blows a huge round smoke ring and shrugs.
Liza S. puts her hands on her hips and looks me square in the eyes. “Take the money, gentlemen. Find somethin’ better to do with your lives.”
“History, in the end, gets down to economics no less than weather patterns get down to physics.” That’s one of the few full sentences I can remember from any of my father’s political rants. What he meant by it was all about how the Protectorate and the bosses and all didn’t do what they did because they’re evil or they have bad intentions. They did it because it was in their economic interests, helping the people at the top of society get richer and the people at the bottom stay in their place.
Dad could get frighteningly angry sometimes, debating grand questions of resistance strategy or talking about the “Russian question” or waxing all lyrical about the plight of the sentient AIs enslaved in the Outer Planets and how furious it made him that “some people who call themselves ‘revolutionaries’” were indifferent to that plight just because the victims weren’t human. That line about economics and weather patterns, though, he delivered that the way I’d tend to imagine a college professor might talk.
He said it in a conversation I heard him have with a new recruit to his resistance faction, one night around the dinner table when I when I was maybe sixteen. It was one of Dad’s usual “conversations” about politics, which is to say that he lectured and you nodded and maybe asked a question. Maybe.
I do remember that he had a great metaphor about cancer, about how if cancer cells were conscious and aware and intelligent, they’d do exactly what conscious and aware and intelligent beings always do and always have done since time immemorial. They’d come up with some line of bullshit to justify what were they going to do anyway, and make themselves out to be the heroes of the story. And they absolutely would find some way to convince themselves. It’s amazing. Hoping people won’t find a way to rationalize whats in their interests is like hoping the rain’s going to suddenly stop falling down and decide just for a lark to fall up for a while instead.
The Protector and his Generals no doubt think themselves great patriots, the bosses who squeeze every micro-credit out of their workers are surely convinced they simply do what they must to compete. None of that matters.
Dad’s argument was that under the surface, whatever any of those people told themselves, it was all about economics, and once he’d made that point, he’d start carrying on about workers’ control of factories and all that sort of nonsense, like he always did. Still, I’ve always thought that bit about cancer cells was one of the smartest things Dad ever said. People will always find a way to rationalize what they do, and a lot of that is about money.
Dad’s politics, though? That was like a pair of red-tinted contacts he never took off, making the whole world look red until he forgot he was wearing them. It limited his understanding.
Economics, money, it is important. No doubt about it. But at the end of the day, it’s incidental. We all want money because money buys things, and deep down, we think those things will save us from our darkest thoughts. History, human behavior, it isn’t about money. It’s about happiness.
“How are you doing, sir?”
I wiggle my fingers in front of my face. They leave ghostly white trails behind them in the air. I giggle.
I lie naked on silk sheets. I haven’t shaved in weeks. I’m not sure who’s talking to me.
“Sir? I said, how are…”
“Am-az-ing.” I look around. Try and fail to locate the source of the voice. Give up. “I’m doing am-azi-ng.”
The first time I holed up in one of these places, it was shut down by a resistance patrol a few weeks later. Crush and Liza S. paid me a visit while I was drying out. Tried to convince me to stop living like this. Such a smart fellow I was, and all those years seeing up-close and personal what this shit does to people. Why would I do this to myself?
When they came to visit me, Crush wore the same resistance uniform as Liza S., and they sat close enough together to make me certain they were fucking. I lay there and tried to decide whether that bothered me. The two of them took turns prattling on about my intelligence and my wasted potential and the like while I mulled.
“You seriously want to live like this?” Crush looked down at me with the kind of pity that would have infuriated me if I’d been sober. “You were always the brains of our…”
“S’OK.” I waved my hand in a dismissive little gesture. “I don’t mind. You can ‘ave ‘er.”
“You can ‘ave her.” I propped myself up on my elbows and looked at Crush. Then the strain on my vision got to be too much and I collapsed back onto the sheets. “You can ‘ave her in, y’know, the naked way. Go nuts.”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Crush give me one last look of unadulterated disgust before the two of them stalked off and left me to my squalor. Finding the next place I could hole up in to swallow happiness pills all day and all night? That took me almost twelve hours.
The resistance really is getting serious about its little war on the drug trade. It’s getting harder and harder to sell on the streets. That would be a problem, if they hadn’t given me quite such a generous payment on account of “past services to the Republic” when they shut me down. First time I saw it, after Liza S. gave us the bad news that day on the rooftop, I figured the computer in my contact lenses was malfunctioning. I thought it had to be some kind of mathematical error. Seems I’d underestimated the guilty generosity one can expect of revolutionaries who’ve found themselves involved in flagrant hypocrisy.
They are serious about the crack-down. No doubt about it. But expecting, even under the harshest enforcement regime, that people won’t find a way to get around it and experience the most efficient shortcut to happiness ever invented? Expecting that the happiness needs of those of us with credits to burn won’t be catered to by any means necessary? That’s not expecting rain to fall up. It’s expecting rain not to be rain.
For days, I float happily in a sea of green goo. I eat it. I swim in it. It jerks me off. The green goo of my fantasy is a full-service operation. Best of all, I don’t think about Crush. I don’t think about Liza S. I don’t even think about Dad.
The goo tastes like nicotine and mint chocolate and sunshine. It smells like the ocean. When you tease it with your finger, it moans. If someone were to swim up to me and ask my name, I’d be hard pressed to answer.
When I finally do come down, I lie in bed for hours without moving a muscle. I’m not still high, and I’m not sober either. I’m just sort of pleasantly washed out, and riding that.
When full-on sobriety does begin rear its ugly head, the kind of dangerous sobriety that, if left unchecked, will soon have me worrying about when I last ate or had a shower, I blink my computer to life and send a message to the always-obliging chemist who lives downstairs. I tell him I want something a bit different next time. I don’t care exactly what. ‘Surprise me.’ Meanwhile, I’d like a little bowl of standard-issue happiness pills to tide me over.
Right when I start worrying about whether I’d been clear enough in my message, whether I’d said what I’d meant to say at all or maybe I’d just rambled on about green goo tasting like mint chocolate and sunshine, the bowl of pills is delivered to my room. The man who brings it leaves the bowl right on my bedside table. He doesn’t look at me.
After careful consideration, I decide to snort the powder. The pills don’t last as long that way, but the rush is more immediate than the old ‘swallow and wait’ routine. I move the bowl to the edge of the bedside table, then break open a few pills and separate the powder into lines on top of it. After a few minutes of searching, I find a scrap of paper. I think it’s an old release form from one of my stints in jail. I roll it up and stick it in my nose.
“What about your mother?”
Crush asked me that a week after I’d told him about my father. “Was she political too?”
“Nah.” That’s all I told him. Truth is, I’d never understood how my parents stood each other’s company through a first coffee date, never mind having and raising a child. The Party was Dad’s life. He pulled no punches about anything, ever. Ask that man a child’s question about what happens after we die, and, depending on the time of day and his mood, he was liable to give you a lecture about how belief in an afterlife and supernatural entities Objectively Served the Interests of the Enemy by keeping people from demanding something better in this lifetime. That, or he’d sum it all up with a single derisive snort.
Mom got up at five in the morning, every chance she got. That way, she could go to go to Mass before breakfast. She had a simple and beautiful faith, a child’s faith, and I reveled in it. When I was six and seven years old, there were long and sunny afternoons when she’d take me to the park and we’d talk for hours about what Heaven must be like and about all the wonderful things I could expect to find when I got there. The question “what about Dad?” elicited a breezy “oh, your father doesn’t see things this way.” Something about her tone made me think Dad’s views were a sort of condition he suffered from, something it wasn’t quite polite to bring up.
As the years passed, if I’d had the chance, I’m sure I would have started arguing and baiting Mom about the holes in her theology, and generally giving her as hard a time as I ended up giving Dad about his politics. Mom got cancer and died when I was nine years old.
When I blink onto the Net, the invitation is waiting for me. I don’t know how Liza S. found my identity here, but she did, and she forwarded an official invitation to it.
I’m almost all-the-way sober when I read it. Even so, I have to re-read the words a few times. I can’t work out why the resistance is inviting me to a military funeral. It takes me what seems like an hour of concentration to put two and two together about the name of the deceased.
Herschel Levinson, better known for most of his adult life by the evocative nick-name “Crush,” is sent off by hundreds of grim-faced mourners. Whatever his past, these people consider him to have died a hero.
Crush’s body is badly burned. He was killed, Liza S. has informed me, after a Protectorate recognizance patrol infiltrated into the Sphere. It goes without saying that the patrol will soon be followed by an army, a flood of Protectorate troops freed up by their victory in the Outer Planets to rain down fire on our little resistance enclave. That much is as certain as night following day, rain falling down. No one here has any illusions.
When Liza S. and I leave the funeral parlor, oddly companionable for once, the air outside is chilly. That doesn’t make sense. There aren’t supposed to be any seasons in our strange artificial little world, and I can’t tell if the cold is some kind of early withdrawal symptom, or the Sphere’s weather control systems are on the fritz.
I walk with Liza S. and trade stories about Crush. I’m unsettled by the casual way she calls him “Herschel.” I’d vaguely known that was his real name, but I’d never really internalized the information.
She tells me that the Provisional Council of the Republic, which is what the main resistance group calls its governing body, is “bitterly divided” about their drug policy. I can’t sort out whether she’s making conversation here, or apologizing in a strange, roundabout way for shutting me down. I tell her that, from what I can remember of the arguments my father and his comrades used to have every Thursday night around our kitchen table, it seems to me that lefties are “bitterly divided” about damn near everything, pretty much as a matter of course.
Liza S. smiles tightly and goes on. It seems that some factions on the Provisional Council argue that substance use is a matter of personal choice, and that the new Republic can’t be seen as being more invasive of personal autonomy than the Protectorate. There’s even a compromise proposal being bandied about to cut the legs out from under the criminal traffic by legalizing a relatively weak strain, less prone to side effects and addiction.
“Grand. D’you suppose we’re gonna have time for any of that to happen?”
“You mean do I think we’re going to win? Hold on to the Sphere? Fight off the Protectorate?”
“I believe we might.”
“It’s not rain falling up, I’ll give you that. But I’m asking if you think it’s going to rain.”
I wave my hand, dismissing the analogy. “Never mind. Grant, indeed, that it is possible for you to win. How would you rate your chances? Better than one in two? Worse?”
We stop walking. She gives me a level stare. “Considerably worse.”
I nod. “So why bother?”
“Because… True enough, I might not live to see the final victory. Perhaps there won’t even be one. But even so. You’re thinkin’ about it wrong. Other things matter.”
I squint at her. “Other than what?”
She reaches up a surprisingly soft hand to touch my upper lip. It occurs to me that the recent signs of my habit must be painfully obvious there. With an effort, I hold still.
“Other than personal happiness.” She gives me a sad smile. “Truly, do you grasp that, at all? That there are other things?”
We talk and walk through what I’m now convinced really is an unnaturally cold afternoon. I don’t agree with everything she says, even when she isn’t sounding entirely too much like my father. She often seems to me to be naively sure about her cause. I often seem to her to be hiding behind a wall of exaggerated cynicism. She tells me that in so many words, more than once in our conversation.
Through it all, one idea sticks with me. It’s the first thing, and the simplest thing, that she said. It burrows into me and it starts to bother me and in the end, it decides me. “Other things matter.”
I’m not wrong about the weather control. The weeks pass, and before long, the resistance issues us entirely new uniforms. These ones include multiple layers. Flannel and long underwear. Fur hats emblazoned with the republican tricolor.
By sheer bloody-minded happenstance, Liza S. and I end up being assigned to my old rooftop. We man sniper positions up there, along with half a dozen others. We all carry big guns, the kind with big bullets precision-guided by very small computers. Each of us has been issued view lenses powerful enough that we can target approaching soldiers from miles away. We’re ready.
I lie there, flat on my belly at the top of the world, and smoke a cigarette. I focus on that, enjoying the simple pleasure of the warm air circulating in and out of my mouth, as I peer through the view lens at the empty streets below us. I see the sun rising over the Sphere, and my spirit lifts. Someone starts shouting orders. I cock my gun.
Copyright 2012 Ben Burgis
Ben Burgis writes speculative fiction and realist fiction and sometimes even grocery lists and rent checks and Facebook status updates. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the Stonecoast program in Maine, where he spent his residencies sitting in workshops during the day and sneaking bottles of whisky into swimming pools at night with degenerates like Zachary Jernigan and the lady sometimes known as Caspian Gray. These days, he enjoys a respectably bourgeois life as an adjunct community college professor in Florida.
His story “Smokestacks Like the Arms of Gods” was the first piece of full-length original fiction to run at Podcastle, and his story “Dark Coffee, Bright Light and the Paradoxes of Omnipotence” appeared in Prime Books anthology People of the Book: A Decade of Jewish Science Fiction & Fantasy. He blogs at benburgis.livejournal.com.