Floozman in Space
by Bertrand Cayzac
In a space station in Earth orbit, Janatone Waldenpond, a refugee from Europa, is trying to return to Earth. She meets a long-lost cousin, Fred Looseman. Meanwhile, Jenny Appleseed, the president of the Cosmitix Corporation, holds a conference to plan interstellar expeditions.
Chapter 4: The Wrong Cable
The stimuli shield has inquired and ascertained that Janatone may go out of her room for a while. She leaves the low-orbit hospital and interzone. When she reaches the axial corridor and its force fields, she heads for the entertainment tube. The way is long and strewn with obstacles, but Janatone encounters none as she moves along in her timeless reverie.
Her stimuli shield continues to take care of the time, extent and complexity of operations, just as it had during the crossing. It is in charge of actions, expectations and workflow. It is responsible for trivial excitement and the ugliest weight of beingness. With all its machine art, it shapes the flow of stimuli to present enriched and serene perspectives to the conscious mind.
The stimuli shield is the scribe and painter of sensations, the guardian of thought, the cultivator of habits. And habit is what brings the light of awareness into the depths and somber night of nature. With what words can this nameless implant tell us about the solitude of its pseudo-mind as it watches tirelessly, one face turned toward unattainable freedom, the other contemplating the flux of will in nature, the shadowy region where thought and being meet?
* * *
Janatone has arranged to meet a smuggler.
This section is out of the way, for reasons of safety. She has to take an air lock and put on a basic space suit in order to traverse the walkways that lead by elliptical paths to the proper orbit. She sees but pays no attention to the groups of unemployed pressing against the walls. The suspended living sections cannot accommodate them. They are thrifty with their gestures, because money no longer flows in their bloodless systems. To call attention to themselves, they magnify the image of their poor living quarters in the sensory web, but it transmits no sound.
Janatone neither sees nor does anything, but the stimuli shield is well programmed; the left-hand circuit knows not what the right-hand circuit gives.
Janatone has left her helmet in a locker and can float in the colorful mists that fill the place. The shield lets her drift for a long time along the roughly niched walls in the alcove section. It calls up associations for her: the sad scene is like the memory of carrousels in village squares, with neon lights and varnished images. And the bumper cars! What happened one evening in May in the shadow of caravans, and its odor and necessity. Finally she takes a seat on a magnetic mushroom next to a row of bluish portholes overlooking the Earth.
Joe Dasein is there, waiting for her. He is young, and his indicators are attractive. He doesn’t smile. His and Janatone soon begin conversing over a hookah and a few Gargleblasters. The stimuli shield locks on to the environment’s parameters and remains discreetly withdrawn. A stimuli shield can see and think a lot when its mistress is seated on a magnetic mushroom in the tube.
“So, you’re a kind of undertaker?” Janatone asks.
“I only make turnkey sepultures for discriminating customers.” Joe’s eyes are blue, his speech is that of competent farmers, the kind one marries in a white gown and follows to new worlds when times are hard.
“When I went to the moons,” Janatone says, “the dead were merely tossed out the airlock or recycled. There was no choice.”
“But the government adapted, in order to keep the work going.” Joe speaks with confidence about a past that existed before he was born. “The population exploded. The colonists’ cultural makeup changed. Bodies are still ejected into space, and many are recycled, but business has grown. It has grown so much that there are hardly more than big companies anymore.” Joe winces.
Janatone is silent. She watches India pass by, and the Horn of Africa enters her field of vision. A few impassive clouds float high above a purple ocean. Joe does not need to speak.
“Why are you taking this risk?” she asks.
“It’s an exchange of services with our mutual friend. He told me you were on Mars, with Du Guillery.”
“Yes, a long time ago,” Janatone answers. “He must have told you that I am his first wife.”
“My maternal grandfather was on the last expedition. He stayed with him after the events.” A shadow crosses Joe’s face. Janatone has somehow recalled his revulsion and the discomfort he feels in the presence of the overly prepared cadavers, and the ill, and the robots of Mars.
“But it doesn’t matter,” Joe continues. You pay for your own burial, and that’s that. If you’re still half-alive, it’s your choice. I don’t like cyborgs. You’re lucky.”
There, that’s out of the way. Janatone continues to smile. “My Europa-Earth filter is all screwed up. Can you fix it?”
“No, and I’m warning you: you won’t get any baggage through, let alone one of those damned Europan machines. Be ready to leave tonight; there won’t be any more chances for a long time, maybe never, if I’m forced to sell. The accident has caused a lot of confusion. Nobody may ever know how many dead there are, let alone how many insurance policies. The systems are overloaded. The time is right.”
* * *
At that very moment, as Joe and Janatone are speaking, right over Ethiopia, Fred Looseman makes a short circuit by connecting a wrong cable. A dazzling spark raises the hair on his head. He lets go and floats adrift for seemingly endless seconds. He reorients himself with his emergency propulsors. His operating cost soars to 150 zouzim. The incident is registered immediately, and the OPERATIONAL RISK indicators are updated. Alarms sound in the station.
Fred drifts toward the station in an unfamiliar zone, toward the tube. He is moving too fast. He tries to slow down, but one of his two propulsors is out of fuel. A shrill BEEP makes him close his eyes. He goes into a tailspin and crashes against a misty porthole. He is stunned but sees cracks in his helmet faceplate. An ominous red light is pulsating around his shaved head.
His spacesuit speaks a warning: “I cannot make automatic repairs on glass. My mission is to protect you. You must go back inside.”
And you keep the heat too high, too, Fred thinks, desperately seeking a grip on the hull.
Another voice sounds: “This is Control Central. A Level-2 incident requires isolating your section. Remain calm. You are in no danger.”
Someone on another mushroom screams, “The technician out there is going to explode!”
Janatone puts her face to the porthole window. She sees the spacewalker on the other side, hanging on to a widget. Their eyes meet, and they recognize each other in a silent instant.
“Fred!” How he’s changed!
I know her, Fred thinks. Fred remembers the village but not its name.
“I’m going out there!” says Janatone, rocketing out of her seat.
But Joe hangs on to her by her ankle. “You’re crazy! You can’t do that. You’re not on Europa.”
“I know that man, Joe! And I know what happens when someone explodes. I don’t want to see it, and you don’t, either. Let go of me! You can see that help isn’t coming.”
“Don’t make a scene. Wait. My space carrier is still in this sector and has a couple of guys with it.” Joe gets busy making a call.
Janatone calls to the sensory web: “Hang on, Fred!”
“I recognize you,” says Fred. “But we should be dead! How old are we?” Memories come back to him like furtive goldfish.
Janatone wants to weep but holds back her tears. “I am Janatone — Jeanneton,” she says with a sob, firmly resisting the activation of the stimuli shield. I’m two hundred and twenty years old, and so are you! It’s the moons’ science.”
She speaks the old language, Fred thinks. He remembers Janneton, his cousin and neighbor, his wise counterpart with bare legs, free-flowing hair, wild laughter and a serious expression when the time came to run in the dark nights of the continent.
“I dunno,” says Fred. “A doctor from World Credit takes me to the hospital every now and then. It doesn’t cost me anything. They say I have a good insurance policy.”
The spacesuit’s support system decreases the internal air pressure to delay helmet failure. Against the ever-present blue reflection of Earth, the readouts scroll inside the golden helmet that is still protecting Fred.
* * *
For Janatone, Fred was a cousin, her wise counterpart with uneasy eyes. She returns to the ever-present past and sees them running together toward the tall chestnut trees, through the warmth of the sun that shines in emerald waves through the translucent foliage of the bushes.
And how quiet the town is! Everything is motionless in the vibrant warmth that smells of melons and dog piss. Fred and Janatone share an orange sherbet in the dirty shade of an alleyway and dream of voyages. It’s a “Push-Up”; the last bit is a softened, melted cone that they will have to catch or swallow whole when it falls from its stick. Their fingers are sticky.
Beyond the walls, perhaps, in the fields, small red tractors move over a hillside. Rowboats move on the green and gold river. The boats are following a long course that is shaded by oaks and elms and may be overlooked by a wing of the castle where the good king held court. At the end of its bright ray, the summer light glistens among the three tresses of water that the Fountain of Daisies emits, gurgling over worn stones. The old lady who is leading Janatone by the hand tells her to mind her polished shoes when crossing the water. Janatone is still a little child.
Something is wrong with Fred, Janatone tells herself suddenly. She looks at his technician’s uniform. Why is he poor? What has become of him? I thought he was an official in a bank or something of the sort. He’s smaller. What happened? And how did he gain access to life extension?
* * *
On Earth, the Mediterranean passes into shadow: the shores of Israel, the palace of Knossos, the Cyclades. That is what she sees as real.
“I don’t feel well.”
“Fred! Fred!” Janatone calls. She feels that she must keep on taking to Fred lest he doze off and die “Do you have a Europa-Earth adaptor? I have one, for the baby.” She seizes upon the first thing on her mind in an effort to keep Fred awake. She doesn’t have a better idea.
“Uh... yes. Maybe in the workshop...” says Fred. His voice is slurred.
“I hate you!” hisses the spacesuit, and streams of air escape into space. “I hate God!”
God? Fred wonders.
“Fred?!... WAKE UP, Fred!”
Fred answers in a plain, detached tone like a sleepwalker or a shocked survivor. “Ask Sancho for the adaptor, in the workshop. Sancho Marx. Tell him I sent you...”
At that moment, the space carrier of Daseins Funerals comes into view.
But something else has just happened, very quickly, and very red.
Copyright © 2015 by Bertrand Cayzac