2nd Place – October 2020

Space Is Boundless, and Unquiet Are its Graves

By Timothy Brumbaugh

    “So, while shoveling the snow I uncovered the garden hose,” Sammi said.
    Tomison frowned. Her toned sounded like a question, but he was too lost in his newsfeed to register the sharpness of it. The URS Ginsberg had announced a death—a real death—the first in nearly a decade.
    “The what?” he asked.
    “The hose. You never put it away before the snowstorm like I asked you. Dammit, Tom—Weather Control scheduled this blizzard weeks ago. I asked you to do one simple thing.”
    “I think I knew him, Sammi” Tom said, more to himself than to his wife. It wasn’t unusual on the Ginsberg to almost remember someone. Even though Tom was only living his third Persona, and he never elected for memory wipes, you meet too many people over the course of three lifetimes to recall them all clearly.
    Sammi sighed. “Knew who?” she asked.
    “The guy who died. Rickard Blake it says.” Tom pointed to the newsfeed he projected onto the wall. “He fell off the rafters in the Ag district. Working on the environmental controls there. Safety harness just…failed.”
    Sammi turned to the wall, her brows furrowed. “How? What about the velocity dampeners? Or the safety bots? Aren’t these things supposed to have multiple redundancies or somethi—Oh god—” The news feed cut to security footage of the fall, and they both turned away, but not before the image of Rickard Blake, falling from the rafters two hundred meters in the air, arms and legs spinning wildly as if he could outrun death, was seared into Tomison’s mind. Sammi clutched her arms tight about her shoulders and shivered.
    Tomison turned off the newsfeed. They stood in silence for a while, Sammi turned away from him. At length, Tom put his hand on her back, wanting for the first time in a long time to comfort her, to close the vast ocean between them. He felt her stiffen at his touch. Embarrassed, he patted her a few times, like a child, and turned to leave.
    “I’ll be staying late,” he said, putting on his coat. “We’re still trying to update some of the fish simulations from the old footage the Department found from—”
    Sammi raised her hand. “It’s fine. Just don’t think you’re off the hook about the garden hose.”
*****
“It’s a garden hose,” Tomison said, exaggerating his words and punctuating each one with fist on the table. Ione sat across from him, a cocktail in her hand and a smile on her lips. “A garden hose,” he repeated, incredulously.
Ione arched an eyebrow. “A garden hose?” she asked playfully. They sat at the far end of Club Ragnarok, the government-run nightclub for Ward 9, what were normally the Tranquil seats – far enough away from the floor that the music was a soft thump and conversations could be had in normal voices. Today, the club was packed and even the Tranquil seats were so full Tom and Ione couldn’t talk in their usual whispers. Tom couldn’t help but feel tonight’s crowd lacked the same joy it would have any other night and the DJ dedicated more than one song to the memory of Rickard Blake.
Ione sat across from him, her hair in rose colored spirals down her back and she smiled impishly. She sipped her margarita, the same color as her hair, and Tomison watched her dimples flash when she swallowed.
“I told you it was a bad idea to move to Ward 13. Who actually wants to live where it snows? No one does that on purpose. Except Sammi, I guess.”
“I thought I could make it work, you know? I thought it wouldn’t be so bad… we’d have each other and that’s all that should matter, right?”
“You’re such a romantic.” She rolled her eyes and laughed. “Sometimes you can’t make it work, no matter how hard you try. Take it from me. I’m on my seventh Persona and I don’t even hesitate to start over when things go wrong.”
Tom stirred his drink. “So, things must still be good between you and Dev?”
Ione flopped back in her seat, the tendrils of her hair bouncing together, a tightly coiled mass of springs. She tilted her head back and looked up, her eyes reflected the flashing lights of the nightclub. “I wouldn’t say ‘good,’” she said at length, “more like…tolerable. But I’m not satisfied with tolerable. Besides, things aren’t exactly going great for you, either.”
“Yeah, I’m just not sure I’m ready to give up on it.”
“Why not? Now’s the time. The DSS is tracking a record number of Persona retirements today, the whole system almost crashed. Rickard has everyone messed in the head. We’ve been talking about this long enough, let’s just do it.” Ione sat up, eager. Tom knew that in his next Persona he would be with her, but he had hoped that wouldn’t be for a while longer.
“I even made up our new Personas. I just have to get your vitals sent.” She held up her mobile and Tom swiped through images of what could be their new life together. She really did have it all set up, apartment, jobs, childrenalready bought and paid for.
“This is insane.” He breathed heavily.
Ione downed her drink. “No, what’s insane is you’re a hundred and fifty years old and you’ve only had 3 Personas. We need a thumbprint, retina scan, and saliva. Everything’s taken care of. With the system so overloaded they’re fast-tracking retirements. No counseling, no exit processing, nothing.”
“Bud Thackery? What kind of name is that?”
“This is going to be so much fun,” Ione squealed, her smile more radiant than he had ever seen and her eyes wide, two golden suns, full of promise and eventually, he knew, pain.
She took his hands in hers. “No more winters.”
“No more winters,” he repeated.
A server arrived with two shots, Kuiper Blues, Ione’s favorite. She held hers up. “To our new life,” she said.
Tom lifted his with an unsteady hand.
“To our new life,” he repeated. They drank and then, together, threw their glasses on the floor, the sound of broken glass interrupting the conversations around them. The revelers at the nearest tables raised their glasses and erupted in the customary “Hoorah!”—a tradition on the Ginsberg whenever someone announced the start of a new Persona.
Tom laughed. “I don’t even know what I’m going to be doing.”
“Who cares? Engineering or something. But, get this, we’ll be living in Ward 23! Palm trees, Club Europa, starboard windows, you’ll love it!”
Tom took out his mobile and pressed his thumb at the prompt, scanned his retina, and licked the saliva sensor.
“Sammi’s going to be hurt, I think.” He winced.
“Doesn’t matter. You don’t have to deal with it. Once you OK the transfer, Tomison will be retired and we’ll walk out of here Bud and Belinda Thackery.” She was on her mobile, submitting her own thumb print, retina scan, and DNA.
Tom’s mobile beeped. Application complete and accepted. The screen flashed.
“You have 1 (one) unread message from this Persona. If you click NEXT now, this message will be permanently deleted. Would you like to read it before continuing?”
“Read message,” Tom said. Ione looked up from under her eyelashes.
FROM: Department of Social Services
TO: Tomison Mallory
SUBJECT: Notification of Persona Retirement
BODY: This message is being sent on behalf of the Persona Sammi Mallory. Pursuant to Colonial Ship Regulation G55.6, this Persona has been declared retired and is no longer active. Attempts to contact the individual formerly known as “Sammi Mallory” is a violation of maritime law and punishable by civil forfeiture and revocation of civilian license. Joint property has been seized and will be redistributed by civil court order. Asset management can be accessed through your Ship Profile. Grief counseling is available by request.
Tom blinked. Ione reached out and grabbed his arm. “You OK?” she asked.
“Sammi retired,” he said.
“Oh,” she said. Ione rubbed his arm and gave him a wry smile. “Ward 23,” she whispered. Tom wasn’t quite sure why he felt like he had been stabbed in the heart. He secretly plotted his retirement with Ione for weeks, yet somehow this still felt like betrayal. He thought again about the garden hose.
He looked down at his mobile. “Process retirement,” he said, his thick voice nearly caught in his throat.
“Process retirement,” he heard Ione command her own mobile.
*****
Bud and Belinda Thackery left Club Ragnarok hand in hand and boarded a shuttle to Ward 23. Inside, the electrical hum of the ship’s machinery rose to a crescendo, like an ancient chorus, the drive core, the oxygen scrubbers, the air ducts all singing in harmony, while outside, the Ginsberg soundlessly sailed through the boundless ocean of space.

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