I stepped onto the platform at Saturday Station and into my new life.
As the train lumbered away behind me,
it began to rain. The people, most in black slick coats, hunched
their shoulders or opened umbrellas against it. I did what I could,
hunching and ducking my head. The rain hurt. It stung the skin, something
I’d heard about on the news once or twice but never experienced.
Something with the chemical content.
I’d never been on a train before, and I hadn’t enjoyed the experience. It’d been bumpier than I expected. And loud. I couldn’t get over how loud they were, trains. I’d stood most of the way here, clinging to a leather loop attached to a metal rod running the length of the car. All around me the dregs of society, the people I’d once only seen on viewer screens and holobands, crowded and writhed. A few talked with each other, but most kept to themselves. It smelled on the train. The acrid scent of sweat and something else, something I’d never known. Behind me a straight couple groped and kissed. It sickened me. I’d seen the boy, a too-thin, dirty street-bum, run his hand up the woman’s leg and nearly gagged. It was filthy, disgusting. No one above would have been so bold—not
that anyone up there would have been hetero. We would have known,
and we would have disposed of them.
But now I would have to play along, become
part of this world, fulfill this identity, and doing that would mean
acting hetero for the foreseeable future. I wished I’d have thought of that before making the switch. It turned my stomach to think about it, so I put it out of my mind, though I’d
have to deal with it later.
The rain clung to neon signs and dripped
from windowsills and metallic awnings. I looked up, protecting my
eyes from the rain—if it stung my hand I didn’t want to find out what it’d do to my eyes—and saw, in the distance, the pale glow of the Cloud City, where I’d once lived, where I’d spent my entire life…until
now. It hovered above this, above Earth, free of the pollution, above
the rains, beyond the disease, poverty, beyond everything.
Someone to my left shouted something,
and I stopped. He had an unshaven face and a crooked nose. A thick,
white scar balanced between his eyes on the bridge of that nose.
A tattered hat slunk down his forehead. The man pointed and stepped
toward me. I looked around, wondering what I’d done, if there was some unwritten rule I’d
broken. He continued my way, kicking up puddles of acidic water.
I took a tentative step away and ducked my head.
“Move,” he said.
I turned just in time to be shoved out
of the way. My knees hit the pavement, and the sting of the rain
soaked its way through my jeans. The man reached into his jacket
and pulled out a revolver. It was an old model, from the last century.
The metal looked rusted and dull. I remembered seeing one like it
in the Skyscape Museum when I was a kid. With my father. But that
was before I’d joined the Bureau, and before it had all gone wrong.
There was a loud report, and I instinctively slid inside a nearby storefront for cover.
“Damn fool,” the shop keep said. His round head reflected the lights clinging to his pocked ceiling. Blood stained his apron. “You trying to bring that mess in here?” He
looked at me.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Should be. Now either buy something or get out. I don’t need any of that in my store,” he pointed outside, “or bums who ain’t gonna buy nothing.” The shop keep eyed me. “So, what’s
it gonna be?”
“You ain’t, huh? Of course, you ain’t.
No one is.”
“Sir, I don’t—”
“The police will be here any minute. You might want to be gone when they arrive.” He looked through his large front window. “There
goes your friend.”
“Him? I’m not with him.”
“Then buy something or get out. I don’t have the time.” He grabbed a slab of brownish, bloody meat from the table behind him and drove a large, flat knife through it. He smiled at me. “So, what’ll
“Does this happen often?” I asked.
Sirens sounded in the distance.
“This.” I pointed at the scene outside.
A small crowd had gathered around the fallen man.
“Happens more than it should. You from
out of town?”
Russell must not have shopped here, I
thought, though that seemed strange since the store was so close
to Saturday Station. “You haven’t seen me before?”
“Not good with faces. You come here often?” The
old man eyed me again.
“No, but I work at the station.”
He shook his head and went back to his
meat. “Still might want to be gone when the police get here.” The
sirens had grown louder and the crowd outside had dispersed. The
man on the ground held his stomach. He kicked at the air, and covered
his face with his other arm.
“Any idea who—?”
The shop keep didn’t look up. “I don’t care, and you shouldn’t either. It’s
best to keep to yourself. Now, go! Before they come.”
A bell mutedly jangled as I shut the door.
I hurried away, repeating my new address to myself, “3515 Brownstone Lane, 3515 Brownstone Lane,” and wondering what I’d
gotten myself into.
The police flew past me, as the rain picked up. I hunched higher and moved closer to the sides of the passing buildings for protection. Each had an awning or a neon, most had barred windows and doors. One store, a pawn shop, had a sign reading WE SHOOT FIRST! above the counter, and a man below it who made me believe the advertisement.
I wondered if it had always been this
way. If Earth had always been like this or if it was unique to Shale
Lake? In school we’d learned about the history of Cloud City and the other major floaters, Beijing Fu, New London, and North Capetown, but little about the world below. We’d see scenes of violence, wars, on the holobands from time to time, but they were scenes from a different world, a world we’d never see, a world I thought I’d never see. We’d learned that rising pollution levels had necessitated taking human life to higher altitudes, that the rain and water below was not only acidic but poisonous, but we’d never discussed the world below itself. Reaching into Russell’s memories, I knew that water treatment was the major employer down here, that fossil fuels were all but gone (though the trains still ran on what little remained), and that wars over both had been waged and raging for the last hundred or so years. Through his memories, I knew what street I was on, where I was headed. I knew who to smile at and who to ignore, but all of it was muddled, subconscious. I couldn’t
tell who any specific thought came from, him or me.
As late-day turned to dusk, the city became
brighter. The lights from windows and neons colored it. The crowds
roaming the streets thinned. More than one person crossed the street
as I approached, and strange noises came from behind doors, sounds
like broken motors or failed hard-drives. Dogs, Russell’s memories told me. We didn’t
have those in the sky.
“About time,” Cheryl said as I came through the door. She was in the kitchen cleaning a heavy, iron pot. “I put your dinner in the cooler. Where were you?” She
had reddish hair and a too-thin frame.
“There was a shooting by the station,” I
“It kept me. I—”
“How was work?” The change in her tone unnerved me. She stood up from the sink and smiled, then walked over and kissed me. The first time I’d
ever kissed a girl. The muddled thoughts battled in my mind.
“Work. You know.” But she didn’t. Today, Russell had walked to Saturday Station, driven the Five Train out to the edge of the city where a new driver took over, and then essentially died. For a lump-sum payment of forty thousand quartos, he’d sold himself. It was for her, the money. He loved her. I could feel that, but he’d never see her again. He’d sold his body, his memories, his personality, himself to me, and now I’d
come home as Russell Leaf, engineer, husband, soon-to-be-father.
His death had given me a new life, new hope.
“I heard on the radio that fighting in West Arabia has picked up. If the rebels take the oil fields again do you think you’ll be shut down?” A few years back, when they’d first married, Russell’d
been out of work for nearly a year because there was nothing to run
the trains on.
“Doubt it. We have reserves, and Nicaragua’s a colony now. There’s
a fair supply left there.”
“But it’s not like West Arabia.”
“Why did God place the oil under those barbarians?” Up top we thought of everyone down here as barbarians. I shook my head. “I made a pot roast. There was a bit of pork at the butcher’s that wasn’t too expensive.“ I wondered if she’d visited the same butcher shop I’d been in earlier. “Thought you’d
like some meat for a change.”
“You had some, right?” I eyed her.
“No. I was waiting for you.”
“You’ve got to eat,” I told her. She moved her hands to her flat belly. “Whether I’m
here or not.”
“I know, but I wanted to eat with you. As a family. I—”
“I know, but what if—”
“Please don’t say things like that,” she
seemed panicked, and I hugged her. She started to cry.
“You set the table,” I said. She smiled at my noticing, and I wiped a tear from her eye. “Shall
The roast was tough, burnt. It was easy
to tell she hadn’t had much experience with meat, but I was hungry and ate more than I wanted. Cheryl cleaned up afterward, and I watched the news on Russell’s viewer screen. Besides the fighting in West Arabia, wars raged in South America, Texas, most of Africa, Europe, and the subcontinent of India. The floaters weren’t mentioned. Locally, Shale Lake’s
miners union was on strike after the deaths of three-hundred the
previous week. They wanted better safety standards, and the city
council had decided to once again raise both sales and property taxes.
“The rich keep getting richer,” Cheryl said. “Look at them. Each of them living in a mansion up in The Hills.” Shale Lake, the city, squatted between the hardened remnants of what’d once been Mirror Lake—hence the name—and a voluptuous rise of mountain called The Hills, where the richest lived. “Could we watch something else? I’m
just not in the mood for this.”
I flipped the channel to a comedy the
Russell part of me knew she liked, and she curled up next to me.
Her body felt warm, but small. It was softer than the men I’d been with, but somehow that was okay. Russell’s
love for her made it okay, made me okay with it. I put my arm around
her, and she leaned closer.
“I’d prefer if he didn’t
“This is a two-way mirror, Mr. Anderson.” The
doctor looked at his watch.
“What will you do with
“It’ll be disposed of as planned. We replace body parts at this facility on a daily basis. I’d be surprised if anyone even noticed an extra arm or leg or heart lying around. But, Mr. Anderson—”
“You’re being paid. Generously,
I might add.”
“Yes, but still. This is a dangerous procedure. It’s never…to my knowledge, it’s
never been done before. I just want you to think about the risks.
And the ethicality.”
“You think about the risks and the ethicality. I’ve
got other worries right now.”
“Does he know?” The doctor
looked through the two-way.
“Does it matter?”
“Of course, it matters.”
“He knows enough. He knows that he’ll
never wake up. He knows that doing this will set his family up for
life. What more does he need?”
“He should know what’s going to be done with his body, his memories…him.
That is, if it works.”
“Don’t start. We’ve been through this.” I
reached into my pocket.
“But a full personality
transfer has never even been attempted. Even a memory transfer, as
routine as it seems, is fairly experimental. We did our first only
three years ago. Something of this scale might not even work. It
could leave both of you as vegetables or worse.”
“Then that’s one less thing for me to worry about.” I handed him half the bills in my wallet, about eighty quartos. “Will
this help calm your nerves?”
He took the money and
put it in his coat pocket. “No, and I don’t take bribes. This procedure is dangerous, and I think it’s
only right that you both know this.”
“You tell him nothing.
He knows all he needs to know.”
“What exactly does he
“Enough. He’s giving his
body to science.”
“But, he’s still alive.
He must know the law.”
“And that’s why this is secret.” I touched the silencer M5 dangling beneath my jacket. He noticed. “For
both of you.”
The doctor walked back toward the two-way. Russell Leaf, a medium-built man with brown corkscrew hair and a sloping nose sat behind it. His clothes were hung in the corner, and a hospital gown fell around his shoulders. He nervously pinched it shut in the back and stood up.
The doctor closed the door to my room. He left without looking back, and without a word.
I watched Russell begin
to pace, as I removed my clothes and weapon. I leaned back in the
padded chair, lowering my head into the ring. It was comfortable,
comforting. In another hour or two my life would be over. All of
it, everything I’d managed to ruin, would be gone. And I’d be free. It seemed easy, maybe too easy. No more sneaking around, no more watching my back. They’d
never find me. I closed my eyes and waited.
Russell smiled as the doctor entered his room, but worry waded in his hazel, swampy eyes. He kept hold of the back of his gown and offered his other hand for shaking. The doctor took it in his own and shook. They smiled at one another, but neither genuinely.
“How are you, Mr. Leaf?” the
doctor said, looking at his chart.
“Nervous. About as good as can be expected. I didn’t think it’d
be this hard, you know?”
“What do you mean?”
“Leaving. I mean…I know I’m doing the right thing. I’d never be able to support Cheryl and the baby, but…it’s hard. To leave. Do you think they’ll
“I’m sorry. I’m not a counselor.” The doctor stepped to the mirror. “If you need more time…”
“No. If I think about it I know I won’t do it. Forty-thousand quartos. I’d never make that. My family can have the life I’d
never be able to provide for them. They can be happy. Maybe even
move off Earth and onto one of the floaters. If I can give them that,
then I have to. Whatever the cost.”
The doctor turned around. “Are you sure you’ve
given this the proper thought? They might have money, safety, a better
material life, but that baby will never have a father. Your wife
will have lost her husband.”
“Please, doctor,” Russell wiped at his eyes. His throat pinched the sound as he said, “I know it’s
the right thing to do.”
The doctor injected Russell
with a general anesthetic. I listened to him count backward from
one-hundred, “One-hundred, ninety-nine, ninety-eight, ninety-seven…” The counting stopped. The doctor looked at the viewer screen showing Russell’s
pulse and blood pressure. His brain waves were being monitored on
another. He turned out the lights, and left the room.
“Mr. Anderson, I have to ask—”
“Save it,” I said. “We’re
He closed the door behind
him and connected monitoring bands to my wrists and forehead. As
he readied my anesthetic, he said, “You’re killing him, you know.
This is murder.”
I eyed my weapon. “He’s not the first,” I
The doctor began the injection. “Please count backward from one-hundred,” he
I smiled as the world floated away and the sweet, comforting black of oblivion closed in. For the first time I noticed the classical music playing softly in the background, and then it too faded into that sweet, endless black.
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