Memories of Hope City by Maggie Slater

12 10 2010

I

Father says Hope City is a utopia. He’s always high when he tells me this, lounging on the couch, tripping on moondust or cosmo or maybe just drunk. When I ask him what a utopia is, he stares at me through glazed eyes, smiles a bit—like he’s getting a blow job from a girl he finds ugly—and then he laughs in my face.

I don’t usually spend time around Father when he’s like that, and often I don’t have to because someone needs to be guarding the door to the house from K-2s and the pigs. On nights like this, when Father’s stoned, I sit by the door with the taser and my shiv until BJ comes home.

“Shove off, Rion,” BJ always says, taking the taser and slumping down onto the front step. If I don’t move fast enough, he’ll scowl at me and tell me to buzz off before he hits me.

BJ never hits me.

He’s threatened to lots of times, but I know and he knows that he never really would. We know it’s just a game we play, even though we’re both too old for games, him nineteen and me thirteen.

It was BJ who waited for me at the edge of our territory, right next to the stinking Hope Canal, after my first sex trade. The Agros had needed fresh water—a lot of fresh water, since they grow most of the plant stuff—and as a price, Father had worked it out for me to have sex with one of their daughters. That and the battery stash, two more tasers, and five kilos of the plant he makes moondust from made for a fair trade.

I was twelve at the time, and still a little scared of Ming. She was so pretty, and at least fifteen. Unlike my sister, Bee, she had breasts that wobbled when she walked. I never told anyone this, but once I had a dream about her long before I had sex with her, and when I woke up, the bed was sticky.

I was tired and a little embarrassed after that first sex trade, but I was glad to see BJ waiting for me.

“So what’d you think?”

“Ask me tomorrow,” I said, and he laughed and ruffled my hair.

But I know that tonight BJ isn’t coming home to take my place guarding the front door. I know this because I can see him floating in the trash cloud between the north and south poles of Hope City, where everything rotates so slowly there isn’t any gravity. It’s pretty far away, but I can make out the dark spot of him between me and the other hemisphere of the city.

I guess I shouldn’t say I can see him. I can see it.

The corpse, I mean.

I haven’t really paid attention to watching the door, so when Ariel says, “What are you looking at?” her voice makes me jump. Ariel is my other sister, the older one. She and BJ are twins.

She stands next to me, squinting up at the junk cloud. She has blood on her legs—splattered blood, not her own blood—and a dripping sack of raw pig meat in her hand. It’s because I’m looking at the blood on her legs that I see her knees shake a little when she says, “Holy shit,” really soft.

She drops the bag, and it hits the ground with a heavy, wet thump. “Holy fucking shit!”

Then she’s gone, running into the house, yelling for Father.

There isn’t any point in telling Father. He already knows. He knows because I’d run in, just like Ariel, screaming for him. It’s embarrassing, but I was so scared my eyes were watery and I was shaky all over.

Father hadn’t been high then. He’d been checking the battery supplies of our tasers. One by one, he popped them into the charger, making a note of the green or yellow or red bulb color. We can charge the batteries for about a year, but after that, they don’t hold a charge for very long.

When I came running in, he had just yanked out one of the batteries and thrown it against the wall with a curse. “What the fuck is it?” He glared at me, eyed me up and down.

“BJ! I think he’s–I think–”

Father just watched me, the glare fading to boredom. “Shit,” he said and turned his back on me, picking up another battery. “You scared me.”

I stood shivering in the room. The air was real thick, and I couldn’t catch my breath right. “But BJ–”

“He’s dead,” Father said, not looking up, not turning around. He paused, squinting at the battery in his hand to figure out which end went into the charger.

I didn’t know what to say, then. I just stood there—the shakes gone—dazed and lost on what to do next. Then I said, “Who killed him?”

Father scoffed and looked at me over his shoulder. He was smirking. For a long time he didn’t say anything, and then he pushed his chair back with a grunt and walked past me to the cabinet. He pulled open the drawer he kept his moondust and needles in and handed me a roll of dust and a syringe.

“Come on,” he said, motioning to the couch.

I followed and sat down next to him. He took the dust, took the syringe, and began mixing up a dose. I watched him, but I didn’t speak. On the coffee table, he dumped some of the dirty clothes on the floor and grabbed the rubber tube he used to find his vein. Only he didn’t tie it around his bicep like usual.

“Here,” he said, motioning for me to give him my arm. I did, and he tied the tube around it. “You’re old enough to have some fun.” He smacked the inside of my elbow until a vein stuck out.

I didn’t want to get high like he did. Moondust makes you sleepy and boring, and once you’ve had some, you’ll always want more. BJ used moondust a lot, and he always ignored me when he was high. Later, when he crashed, he’d curl up in a ball in his bed and cry like a girl, sobbing softly to himself. It scared me when he did that.

The only time he really almost hit me was when I asked him about why he cried; he made a fist and swung at me, but at the last minute he turned and punched the wall instead. It broke his hand and he cursed a lot while Song bandaged his bleeding knuckles. The hand never really healed.

And he told me, looking me dead in the eye, “You shouldn’t ask about some things.”

But I couldn’t tell Father any of that, and BJ was dead. So I just watched as Father slid the needle into the vein and pushed the plunger down, sending all the foggy grey-red stuff into my blood. Then the world went slow and blurry and I didn’t care much that BJ was dead. I only remember Father saying, “Feeling better?” and hearing him laugh as he got up and left me on the couch.

I’m coming down off it now, and the shakes are coming back. My head aches, and my stomach feels greasy and filled with dirt. Inside the house, I hear Ariel screaming at Father. Their voices ring in my ears until I hear a thud, and then another thud, and Father cursing her. Then everything goes quiet, and a few minutes after that I hear someone climb the stairs and slam a door.

It’s really cold, or it feels like it. I know it can’t be lower than sixty-seven degrees, because it’s always sixty-seven, so the cold must just be in my head, coming off the moondust.

I look back up at the trash cloud, trying to find the corpse, but it’s drifted over a dark patch of the opposite city, so I can’t see it. But in the twilight, I do see the Commandant’s lights at the south pole switch on. I check my watch: nine o’clock. Right on time.

And somehow, that makes me feel a little better.

The door beside me opens and Father steps out. He stares up at the junk cloud, too, but he doesn’t say anything. I figure now is as good a time as any to mention what’s been bugging me for the last hour.

“Father?”

He grunts to let me know he’s listening.

“I think we should go up there and get BJ’s body down. It’s just going to rot up there and then eventually it’ll rain back down on the streets, and even later, the rest of it will fall, and then the pigs’ll eat what’s left.”

Father looks down at me. He isn’t smirking, and he isn’t scowling. “I want you to listen to me very carefully, Rion,” he says. His voice is soft, and he says my name, so I know he’s saying something important. “I don’t want you to talk about BJ anymore. I don’t want you to go anywhere near that body. Fuck him. You hear me?”

But that doesn’t make any sense to me. We never display our dead, and Father told me only the K-2s let the pigs eat their dead, but they fuck the pigs too, because they aren’t any better than pigs themselves. But we—the Quids—we aren’t savages like them.

When I don’t answer right away, Father kicks me. He doesn’t kick me very hard, just hard enough to knock me to the ground. “Are you fucking deaf? Answer, you little shit!”

“I heard you,” I say, and he looks like he’s really going to hit me, but when I flinch, he smirks and heads back inside.

No one relieves me tonight, but that’s okay. I don’t want to go inside where I can’t see the speck of BJ floating over my head. Besides, I know I won’t be able to sleep, knowing he might fall back down to the city. The one time I doze by accident, I dream the pigs are eating me, and I wake up. I must have cried out, because I hear footsteps on the stairs and a second later, Bee stands there, taser in hand.

“What’s going on?” she asks, glaring into the darkness.

Bee’s fifteen, like Ming, but smaller. Her stomach bulges because she’s pregnant from the last sex trade. She’s still a little mad at Father about that. The pregnant part, not the trade part. Father’s traded her lots of times; she just hates the morning sickness.

“Nothing,” I say. “Just a bad dream.”

Bee turns her dead-eye look on me. “You fucking scared me, you know that? I thought it was the K-2s again.”

I apologize and she shrugs, glancing at her watch. “I was going to come down and take your place in an hour anyway. Go in and get some sleep. You’re useless when you’re tired.”

I obey and she takes my place. The house is dark and quiet; only Leo and Thom are still up, playing cards on the back step leading to our garden. On my way up the stairs to my room, I hear soft female voices coming from behind Ariel’s closed door. One’s crying—I hear her voice crack when she speaks—and the other murmurs gently. I pause on the landing to listen, but I can’t make out the words.

Then the door opens and Song steps out. I see Ariel curled up on her bed inside, but only for a second before the door closes. Song has two used needles and her eyelids droop.

“Why aren’t you in bed?” Song asks.

Song is Father’s whore. She was originally one of the Agros, but that was before Kam killed Patya. They gave Song to Father to keep him from killing Kam to make up the difference.

“Rion. Did you hear me?”

I don’t like Song much. She’s always high, and when she’s mad she slaps me and screams at me until her face turns red. She curses at me, and sometimes I don’t even know what she’s saying because she doesn’t always speak English when she’s that mad.

Song takes a step toward me, and I back down the top stairs. “I was on post,” I say.

“This late?”

“No one took my place.”

I don’t want to talk to her about BJ, and she doesn’t ask. Instead, she nods slowly and then drifts down the hall to Father’s room. I wait until she closes the door behind her and I don’t hear her moving anymore. Then I go to my room to sleep.

II

The Hope Canal smells like shit. The moment you touch the greasy, thick water, you can just imagine some nasty worm parasite burrowing into your skin, making you sick. You can’t drink the stuff, and you can’t swim in it. There aren’t any signs that say so; everybody just knows.

Ming leans way over the railing of the Hua Dao bridge, her fingers scrabbling for the thin metal wire knotted loosely just under the edge of the road. I stand in the middle of the narrow bridge, trying to watch for anyone who might have followed us, though I’m getting distracted by Ming’s small, tight shorts and the strip of blue underwear I can see peeping out at the crotch.

“Come on, you fucker!” she mutters, and then her fingers snag the line. “Hey,” she says to me as she starts hauling it up. “You want it, you help.”

I hurry over, grasp the slick wire line, and start pulling. Below, the algae-slimed air tank rises to the surface.

It doesn’t take us too long, but raising the tank makes a lot of noise, which makes me nervous. Once or twice I lift my head to glance around at the canal-side streets, expecting to see someone standing there. I feel like we’re being watched.

The tank falls with a clang on the stone of the bridge, and Ming stoops to unwind the length of wire from its circular valve. “It’s not totally full or anything,” she says. “It’s just what I’ve siphoned off some of the others. Little bits, you know? Don’t want Baba asking questions.”

Baba is the head of the Agros. Father’s missing his left ring finger because of him.

“There.” Ming stands up, pulling the wire free. “One air tank. Payment please.” Ming flicks the fingers of her open palm at me.

I pass the small container of moondust to her, and she immediately holds it up to the light and sighs, a small smile spreading across her face. “My own private stash,” she whispers, and then, with a glance at me, she shoves the vial into her pocket.

“So, we done here? We good?”

I stoop down next to the air tank and check the gauge. Half full, at best. I’ll have to use it very carefully when I go up into z-g, but it’s better than nothing. If I wanted a full tank, I’d have had to get Father involved to negotiate. As it is, I don’t know what he’ll do to me if he finds out I’ve been bargaining with Ming behind his back.

But since he won’t help me get BJ down, this is the way it has to be.

Ming starts tapping her foot on the ground. “Kid, you deaf? We good or what?”

“Yeah, we’re good,” I say. I hate the way she calls me Kid, like I’m a five-year-old, or a stranger. I can still remember the smoothness of her skin, the curve of her uplifted chin, the squeak she made when I’d actually gotten her to orgasm that first time.

But Ming doesn’t leave.

“Why you going after BJ anyway? After all the trouble of putting him up there in the first place?”

“He’s my brother,” I say, hefting the tank. Her last words linger in my ears an extra few seconds, then, just as I start walking away, they sink in, and I stop. “What do you mean?”

“I mean, why are you going to pull him down when Father put him up there?”

I stare at her, the weight of the tank dragging my arms down. “Father didn’t put him up there.”

Ming glances around us, like she’s feeling the same skin-prickle that makes me think we’re being watched. “Look,” she says, moving close to me. She hunches, her black hair tickling my cheek as she whispers in my ear, “I don’t know what you’ve been told, but Father was the one who put BJ up there. I saw him do it. He asked Baba to help. They traded a tank of water for it.”

“That’s bullshit.” I shake my head and try to walk away, but Ming follows.

“I just thought you should know. You know? Father’s going to be pissed if you get BJ down. He wanted him up there.”

“We don’t display our dead,” I mutter, shrugging off the hand she puts on my shoulder.

She doesn’t follow me anymore, and for the first time, I’m glad. She’s nothing but a dirty Agro. What do they know about us Quids? They’re really just one step up from K-2s. I wonder how I never realized that before.

Halfway down the street, I still feel her watching me. But when I glance back, there’s no one around. The skin on the back of my neck tingles. With a shiver, I heft the air tank and pick up the pace.

III

There are really only three kinds of people in Hope City: those who think the Commandant’s lights are automated; those who think they’re not; and those who swear they’ve seen Him walking around the city at night.

Those who think the lights are automated also think the real Commandant who lived in his sealed-off house either died a long time ago or left with the rest of the able-bodied Hope citizens. They point out that the lights go on and go off with perfect regularity at dawn and at dusk every day. People aren’t that regular. Plus, no one’s even seen so much as a shadow pass between the source of the light and the frosted windows. No one goes in, and no one ever comes out.

Those who think the lights are switched on by hand don’t have all that much proof, really, except that there are stories, old stories from people who died a long time ago, that when the sickness first arrived at the station and people started dying, the Commandant refused to abandon Hope City. He’d sealed himself off to keep from getting sick, but he stayed. The people who think he’s still there don’t like talking about specifics: How could he eat? What would he drink? How old would he be now? They just grunt and wave off the questions. I think people—even people like me—just like thinking there’s someone there.

Then there are those who swear they’ve seen the Commandant wandering around the city at night. Every clan has one or two people who say they’ve seen him cross the street ahead of them, or who’ve called out to a man they thought was a friend only to realize they didn’t recognize him. He doesn’t say anything, and he always disappears without a trace. They describe him wearing a dark uniform, but the details about his hair or face are always different. That’s how you know it’s just in their heads.

But there is something lurking in the city. About a year ago, BJ came home shaking all over, and when I asked him what was wrong, he shook his head and said he’d seen a thing. He told me it walked on four long, slender legs, and had one blue-green eye—like a lens—and that it was made of metal. He’d just turned a corner on his way home when he saw it standing over a pig corpse in the open street. He wasn’t sure at first if it was real, because he’d been on West Orchard Street, and all the streetlights are busted up except one at the far end by the canal.

BJ said he froze and it stood up, and the two of them just looked at each other. Then the thing stalked away, its legs clicking on the street until it turned down Paulson Road and disappeared.

IV

The tingling doesn’t go away, even after I stash the air tank in a safe place and go home. I get back in time to take Leo’s place watching the back door. Bee brings me food after a few hours and I eat on duty. It’s a quiet night, but I feel edgy. I jump when someone inside starts yelling and a fight breaks out. I almost zap Joc and Wend when they come back from patrol, slipping around the garden wall.

Even the steady blinking of my taser’s yellow-red battery light makes me nervous.

It’s late by the time my watch relief comes and takes the taser, letting me get to bed. I lie for almost an hour, itchy and twitchy. With every creak of a footstep on the stairs, my eyes fly open in the dark and my heart hammers against my ribs.

At last, almost near morning, I get up and creep downstairs to my father’s moondust cabinet. It’s almost totally black inside, but the floodlights out front and out back cast bold columns of light across the floor. My hands shake as I slide open the drawer with the needles and the containers of dust.

Just a little, I tell myself. I just need enough to sleep.

The rubber tube looped around my arm, I slink back up the stairs to my room. There, I prepare the dose just like Father does, and stick the needle into my vein. Within moments, the itching fades away and I sigh, lying back on the bed. The little crack in the corner of my boarded-up window shines bright white, catching the floodlight.

Somewhere far away, a door opens and I hear the shuffle of soft, sneaking footsteps. I close my eyes. I bet this is what it’d feel like to float in the canal. The thought makes me smile. Can’t remember what I was so worried about. I feel fine now.

When my bedroom door creaks open, I turn my head and open one eye to see who it is. Through the crack: a slender black eye, a coil of black hair, a pale crescent of cheek.

“Rion?” The voice is soft, and for a second I think it might be Ming, but then the door pushes open and Song steps into the room. The latch clicks closed behind her. “Rion, are you awake?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

She stands in the darkness, completely shadowed. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

I sigh and close my eyes again, turning to the wall. “I’m tired.”

The side of the bed sinks a little and I feel something at my back. A cold hand touches my shoulder. Smooth. “Are you high?”

“Maybe.” I shrug off the hand and pull the blanket up to my chin. “Who cares? I couldn’t sleep.”

Song whispers something I can’t understand, and then she says, “Gavin told me what you wanted to do.”

Gavin is Father’s first name. No one calls him that, though. I don’t think even my own mother called him that. It’s weird to hear it aloud.

“Go away,” I say. My skin is starting to crawl again, though this time, from the spot where she touched me. Who gives a shit what I wanted to do, anyway? I just want to sleep.

“There’s something you need to know.”

“Go fuck yourself,” I mutter and pull the blanket over my head.

A second later, it’s torn away from me, and I’m slapped across the face. Hard. I lie shivering in the pale floodlight; Song stands, gripping the collar of my shirt, looming over me.

“I’m trying to help you, stupid!” she hisses. “You think your father is going to let you go up there and pull BJ back down? After what he did?”

“Leave me alone!” I gasp, trying to pull away from her. My shirt tears and I scramble back into the corner, the buzz gone.

Her hand snakes out at me and strikes me again before I can block it. I wince and she grabs my chin, forcing me to look at her. Her fingernails cut into my cheek. “Shut up! You want him to hear? You want him to come in here and find out that you traded with Ming behind his back?” She laughs bitterly, her black eyes glinting in the floodlight. “Oh, I know all about that. About the air tank, too. So you shut up and you listen. Got it?”

I can’t nod, can’t do more than squeak, “Okay.”

She releases my jaw and takes a step back, smoothing back her hair, soothing her expression with a huff. Again, she whispers to herself in another language, but I understand it because she’s used those words before to call me stupid when she’s mad. Then, in a softened voice, she says, “You wanted to know who killed BJ, right? Well, no one did. BJ did it all by himself. I was the one who found him.” I see the silhouette of her slight chest heaving in the light, hear her voice roughen. “I’d come up to bring him something to eat. There was blood everywhere. Puddles of it.”

She turns her face to the window and licks her lips. The bar of light from between the boards on the window frames her eyes, and there’s a wet shine to them. Her breathing wavers, and I realize she’s trying not to cry. “He was alive when I found him. Barely. He blinked. He smiled at me. So much blood… like he’d torn a pig to pieces with his bare hands.”

My throat starts closing up. “Bullshit. BJ wouldn’t–he didn’t–”

Song looks down as she slips something out of her pocket. “He told me to give this to you. He said, ‘Tell him: this is what a utopia is.’ I don’t know what’s on it. He died before he could tell me any more. I had it in my hand when Gavin came upstairs and found us.”

When she turns to me, hand outstretched, I swat it away. Something small flies out of her fingers and knocks against the wall, skitters under the bed. Her hand stays outstretched, and she gazes at it like she’s never seen it before in her life. Then she looks at me, and the blank gaze hardens.

“Get yourself killed, then,” she mutters, turning to the door. “Gavin will rip you apart if you take BJ down. BJ deserves to rot up there. Only cowards kill themselves.”

It’s like every muscle in my body was waiting for this moment, this trigger. In the split second between her turning her back to me and reaching for the door, I launch myself at her. Her teeth click as her back slams up against the wall. There’s so much white in her eyes. A gasp. I have her by the throat, and I squeeze as hard as I can. Her fingers claw at me, her mouth gapes, squeaking for air. But in that quiet moment, a cry from outside catches my attention and she breaks my grip. I fall back and she slides to the floor, her hands at her neck, glaring at me like she could kill me if I hadn’t almost just killed her.

Another cry from outside and the first twanging zap of a taser. I scramble to my feet and run to the window to look down through the boarded cracks at the street. Darting shadowed bodies—human bodies—race by.

K-2s. Shit.

I turn back to Song. She hasn’t moved, but she’s watching me carefully.

“Stay here,” I mutter, grabbing my shiv from under my pillow before ducking out of the room and into the crowding hall.

Bee brushes past me with the others, two feet of rusted pipe in her hands. “Go out the back,” she says, and then she’s gone, rushing down the stairs with Leo and two others whose faces I don’t get a chance to see. I hurry in the opposite direction to the broken window at the end of the hall overlooking the garden. Sure enough, someone has smashed the floodlight, and in the darkness I see two hulking shapes pulling up whatever growing things they can lay their filthy hands on. I climb out onto the window ledge. It’s a relatively short jump, just one story, but the thump I make when I land makes the figures look up.

I jump on the nearest and smallest, driving my shiv right into the gut. It shrieks in a voice that sounds almost like a pig and falls back, writhing. I stab once, twice more, and it stops moving, its blood splattered on my hands and face.

The blood makes me slippery, so when the second figure catches me and wrestles me to the ground, I wriggle out of his grasp and knee him hard in what I hope is his face. I can’t get a good grip on the shiv, though; my swipes were weak. I must nick the guy, because hear him hiss and pull back for a moment before his fist slams me in the chest.

My vision spirals. I’m on the ground. The mud is warm. Just over the edge of the roof, on the other side of the city, the Commandant’s lights swirl. A big hand grabs my shirt, and there’s a flash of light on the blade of a knife.

“Don’t you touch him you sonofabitch!”

A taser crackles, and the hand immediately lets go of my shirt. The figure falls back. My sister Ariel stands over him, zapping him again and again, till his scream isn’t more than a squeak. The arching fingers of electricity leave tracer shadows in my eyes. Then she twists to me and fumbles for the shiv in my hand. “Give it to me, damn it!”

She makes sure the guy won’t stand again. From where I lie, I see only the flash of my little knife and hear the squitch, squitch, squitch of the blade in flesh as she stabs him to death.

There’s a far-off shout, followed by pattering, running footsteps, and then everything’s quiet.

A flash of light. Leo stands at the back door, his face bruised and bleeding. “They’re gone,” he says, helping me to my feet.

Ariel crouches by the body of the K-2 she killed. He’s a brawny guy, maybe a little older than she is. A few feet away from him is the one I killed. A girl. Maybe nine. My face burns, and I wipe the blood from my lips.

“How many?” Ariel’s voice is soft. Tired.

“Three,” Leo replies. “Bee, Thom, Joc.”

My heart takes a double, twitchy beat that makes me sick to my stomach. I hear Ariel curse, her voice breaking. I don’t stand around or watch when Leo stoops down beside her, his hand on her back. I go inside, where there’s light. Some of our people sit, nursing wounds and broken bones. Father’s slumped on the stairs, his jaw set, his eyes glaring forward, while Song, hands covered in blood, sews up the gushing cut on his brow. He catches my glance for a moment, but his blank expression doesn’t change. Song doesn’t look at me.

When he glances away, I turn and see Roger lift Bee from the floor by the sofa. Her eyes watch me with the same dull gaze as Father’s, but the long purple gash across her throat smiles at me.

V

The whole city spins slowly around me as I twist the nozzle on the air tank. With a hiss, it pushes me a little further out along the z-g column, a little further from the north pole of the city. The smoke and smog up here make my eyes sting and water. The taste of vomit sticks to my tongue. It’s hard to breathe and my head aches. My nose is stuffed up, though, so at least I can’t smell anything.

An empty food tin bounces off my head as I drift forward. At least it’s quiet up here, away from the streets and the fighting and home. I might even like it, if it weren’t so full of trash. The tin spirals away, falling faster and faster until it drops out of sight into the city below.

I have to be really, really careful. It wouldn’t take much to push myself too far to the outer edge and start falling.

BJ’s corpse is way out in the middle, and it takes me almost an hour to get near it, pushing through the garbage. Behind me, I stir up a little storm, and I watch things fall back down to the city where they came from, thinking about the lurch of the gravitational pull and the friction of condensed air.

I had hoped the corpse had stayed close to center where I could just grab it and head back, but it’s drifted toward the outer edge, the invisible, lurking line I don’t want to cross. To get close enough to grab it, I’ll have to boost out a few yards, deliberately getting close to that point of no return. Then, hopefully, I can just boost us both back to center.

I want to, I remind myself. This is what I want to do.

It takes a lot of effort to start pushing myself out to the corpse, but once I do, it’s only seconds until I can grab the arm. BJ’s rotting face is slack-jawed, and tiny liquid spheres ooze out of him when I touch him. I twist, feeling a spike of vertigo as I boost back to center. The corpse drags on me, grinning, leaking.

The arm’s already coming off, and when the body bumps on my foot, it pops loose, spraying pearls of corpse juice behind it. BJ’s head lolls back as his body spins away from me, falling, falling–

VI

He lands not far from the bridge where Ming and I made our trade. By the time I get there, the pigs have already moved in, greedily lapping up organs, shreds of muscle, and the overabundant puddles of rot juice and blood. They’re everywhere, these pigs. Most are bristled and tusked, like wild pigs. It only took a few years of being out of their pens and on their own to do that. Just a few years to revert to wild things, like the things they were on Earth.

A boar lifts his dripping snout at me when I step onto the street, his beady little eyes watching my every twitch of movement. His sows lounge around him, rooting in BJ’s shattered ribcage, tearing at the flesh left on the bones of his scattered legs. The boar grunts, letting me know that they’ve claimed this feast, and if I want any, I’ll have to fight him for it.

I don’t even have a taser.

The moment BJ’s arm returned to Earth gravity, the skin slipped off and it became too difficult to carry. I left it behind, with the spent air tank that ran out on me halfway back to the pole. I had to swim through the air, spraying fluid from the disembodied arm. It got in my mouth and in my eyes and up my nose.

It’s getting dark in this part of the city, save for the Commandant’s lights reflecting on the stinking canal water. Soon, it’ll be night, and I’ll return home to Song and to Father. BJ’s corpse will be gone by morning—a quick snack for hungry snouts.

I’ll never be able to eat pig again.

The boar, understanding that I’m no threat to him, returns to rooting, and I leave him to his meal. There’s nothing I can do here, anyway, and there never was.

The memory stick I’d picked up from my bedroom floor, the one Song had tried to give me, presses cold against my skin through a hole in my pocket.

I shouldn’t have watched the videos on it. Even telling myself it had to be fake or something doesn’t make the images of green trees, clean water, and smiling faces go away.

I walk without paying attention to where I go or whose territory I cross into. It doesn’t matter to me. I smell like blood and death, but that’s what home will smell like, too. Maybe it’s always smelled that way, and I just never noticed.

A streetlight snaps and buzzes, its sickly white-green light flickering on. It makes the rest of the street look dark and mean.

But when I turn the corner, I see it.

It stands near the end of the road, its legs fully straightened so that it’s taller than anyone I’ve ever known. The light from the streetlamp glints off its metal frame. Its eye swivels to look at me, and I freeze. It was exactly like BJ described it. For a long time, we just stare at each other, its lens dilating, trying to see me, focus on me.

How long has it been watching us? At least a year, but probably more. Maybe forever. It watched BJ when he was still alive, and it watched Father put him up in the trash cloud. It watched the K-2s attack us and kill my sister and my friends. It watched me trade with Ming, and it watched me fail to bring BJ back.

Maybe it made all those videos of the old Hope City, the ones that made BJ cry when he came down off moondust.

But I’m too tired to be afraid of it. It’s only a machine. An eye. A lens.

“What are you?” I ask.

It only watches me in reply.

“Did the Commandant send you?”

Still, it stands, listening.

Before I realize what I’m doing, I walk up to it and kick out one of its legs. The thing tilts, but it balances itself gracefully. Unfazed.

My face burns as it stares down at me. What do I look like to it? Am I just another video clip? Will someone watch me someday? What will they see?

I grit my teeth. “How can you just watch all this? Why don’t you help us?”

It does nothing. Says nothing. Then, without a sound, it turns and starts walking away.

My vision blurs and I clench my teeth so hard they squeak. “Why don’t you do something?” I snatch up a brick from the street, and before I even know what I’m doing, I throw it as hard as I can. It hits the thing in the corner of its giant eye, and it stumbles, trips, and falls to the ground with a crash. The lens shatters, sending fragments of glass skittering across the pavement.

It doesn’t get up. Doesn’t move. And after a while, shaking, I go home.

© 2010 Maggie Slater