Snapping out of the fog in his mind, Robert remembered he was running late for his meeting. Hand tightening around his steel suitcase, he began to power walk through the crowd, meandering around people on their way to somewhere else.
Running late is one of the worst things. You have to choose between lying and being honest and either option sucks because you’re still late. Robert hated lying, so he tried to think of why he was late. He was… Sitting in the park on a bench watching the people and the birds and the sun. Not a very good excuse at all. He was lucky to be an executive, or he would be fired. But what about before that? Why did he decide to sit? He normally was never late. Or, at least, he couldn’t remember being late before.
Why can’t I remember more?
It was past rush hour, but the crowd was unusually thick. Like cattle in the early 21st century. He rode an escalator that was so crowded he couldn’t continue walking, and he tried to think to pass the time. Tried. Peering into his memories was like staring into a fog with the sun shining into it. The past was an amorphous expanse of blinding light, and as he tried harder to remember he nearly fell off the escalator as the ride came to an end.
“Hey! Watch where you’re going!” An angry man he bumped into exclaimed. Robert further buried his irritation and began to apologize as he recognized a friend from his department who should have been at work already.
“Shit. Sorry, Omar. I’m in my own little world today…”
“Oh, its you! Happens to the best of us, obviously! I’m running late too. It was such a beautiful day outside I couldn’t help but daydream. The light was coming through the trees in such a way…” Omar trailed off for a moment, staring through Robert’s face.
“I still get amazed by how different and… Well… Idyllic the world is now! It used to just be my family who would get strip searched but now everyone does! Hah!” He smiled large through his beard with genuine happiness. One of the first stories Robert heard from him was about his grandfather, a Sikh who was attacked because he looked like a “Muslim”, a follower of one of the many religions that became swept under the rug over the past few generations. Muslims and Christians fought for centuries over strips of land and ideology. None of that mattered anymore. There were some sects that still operated in secret, but during Unification religions became blended. The strange discovery on the far side of Luna shattered most human preconceptions about being the center of the universe.
“Yes, the world does seem to be working together much better now, huh?” Robert clapped him on the back and they began to walk together toward the shuttle-pod doors.
“Speaking of work, lets get a move on!”
White tile covered everything, reflecting light ad infinitum through the hall. The ceilings were tall, and crystal chandeliers as big as freight trucks twinkled high above. A wide window at the end of the concourse showed the skyline, green and chrome mingling together in an awe-inspiring vista of civilization. People walked in and out of the pod doors that blended into the walls seamlessly. The ‘whoosh’ of the grand elevators arriving and leaving were subtle and could almost be mistaken for a breeze. Robert looked up at a skylight, and something about the way the light came through the trees on top of the building made him feel nostalgic. Out of place. Something wasn’t quite right, but he couldn’t put a finger on it.
“No more daydreaming, R.J.! This one’s about to leave!” Omar began to trot, and R.J. got up to speed quickly behind him. Omar swiped his card and doors whispered open and shut behind them as they found seats and sat down. These pods are normally pretty crowded, but Consortium employees had exclusivity to a few. The V.I. hologram’s blue face appeared on the screen, on cue:
“Pleaaase fasten your safety belts, and place all belongings underneath your chair or in the bins above you. We will be embarking shortly to Shangri-La. Pleaaase fasten your safety belts…”
“So who do you have a meeting with today, R.J.?” Omar asked as he stuffed his suitcase underneath the seat. It was too wide, and he was trying to angle it just right so that it could fit. Robert was already good to go, and he looked at his watch as he spoke:
“One of the contractors… I can’t remember the name of the fellow but the company we are using for this expedition is the deep space one… Shit I can’t remember the company name either. One secon–”
“Oh, you mean Zaeonic? They’ve been out in the asteroid belt for a while, from what I hear.”
“Yes! That’s it. Thanks. Yeah they’ve been developing bases out there, and a colony from what I hear. It’s been some time since they’ve been back here. Almost 20 years actually. The contact we have had with them has had some good info. They seem to have found a rather large asteroid with significant deposits on it, that they say is en route to our gravity well. I’m meeting with advance representatives to discuss compensation.”
“Wow, I can’t believe they’ve been able to keep it out of the news. If its as large as your expression gives away, then they might be able to build another whole colony out of it!”
The pod began its acceleration up, like a bullet from a gun. Robert never got used to it, and his hands tightened around the cushy arms of the seat. The vehicle shook like it was an old plane flying through a storm, and the gravity pushed down hard on Robert’s head, and he stiffened his neck against it. Omar was shouting over the sound of the vehicle and the classical music that was supposed to calm passengers:
“You look green!! It’ll be over soon enough, my friend!” Robert’s eyes were closed and he ignored his friend. He was too busy focusing on not dying / having a panic attack. He had made this trip dozens of times, and he hated it more each time. He wouldn’t mind a slower trip – even if it took a day or two – if he didn’t have to deal with this feeling every single time. An hour was a long while, but after they reached a certain point, the force became much more subtle as the gravity from Earth became weaker.
“Welcome to Shangri-La. Please find your luggage and exit the pod in an orderly fashion. Thank you for taking the Great Elevator, made possible by Anaheim Electronics!” The V.I.’s face flickered a bit before clicking off. Robert always thought the face was creepy. Shadowed eyes with the forced smile of its programming.
The pod doors opened to the gray, steel promenade of Shangri-La. A variety of shops were doing business with the crowds of people. A ramen shop was next to a Texas BBQ stand, and a gift shop flanked both. Everyone walked about in their uniformed gray suits, some with red ties, some with the blue of the United Earth Republic. Even fewer had green ties, which were either business owners somewhere or workers of one of the contractors for the U.E.M.C.
With a name like Shangri-La, Robert felt a bit surprised by how non-descript the station was. Without the shops on the promenade, there was nothing of note on the station. Sure, some back-deals were discussed over a latte or some Thai food once in a while, but other than that there was no windows or anything that allowed one to see the view. The station was more functional than feng-shui. Robert was confused by his surprise. He froze. He had been here dozens of times. Was his memory already beginning to go? As he searched his thoughts he remembered bits and pieces of former travels here. Glimpses into the past. Flashes of the faulty camera in his mind.
“Let’s get to the shuttle.” Omar said as they began to weave through the crowds. It was more crowded here than the last time he was here, Robert noticed. It wasn’t even rush hour.
“Yeah.” Robert said, somewhat annoyed. Of course they had to get to the shuttle. Running late, no less.
“I hope that Zaeonic rep is running late too. He has a wealth of excuses that could be true, and I haven’t even thought of a good lie yet.”
“Well, lying isn’t your thing Robert! That’s why we love you. You don’t sugar-coat shit.”
“I was sitting on a bench watching people and the birds, man. I have to think of something else.” Robert chuckled a bit, embarrassed. Omar laughed openly.
“Yeah, you should find a better excuse. And don’t turn red when you say it. Like you are now!” Omar laughed and Robert sighed as they both began to walk faster. They turned the corner around a cupcake shop to get to the docking ring. Luckily they had a private shuttle waiting for them, so no one was being kept waiting by their daydreaming from before. The military personnel surrounded the check-in kiosk for their shuttle, and pointed their weapons at them both until their ID cards checked out.
“Sorry for the inconvenience, sir. Move along.” Robert wondered how many times he had heard that in his life. Always the same phrase. He and Omar ducked in unison as they entered the craft. Luxury didn’t always mean larger. The seats that they had on there, however, were the best Robert had ever sat in. His rear tingled with anticipation as he set his suitcase in the overhead compartment. It was more relaxing than he anticipated, and he felt if he closed his eyes he could fall asleep instantly. But the view was too good to miss.
Persephone was off to his right outside, a giant wheel-and-spoke colony that rotated to create artificial gravity, identical to Shangri-La but much larger, and with great windows to look out of. The shuttle released its docking clamps and gently pulled away from the station. The view changed to be that of the Earth’s sphere, a grand orb beneath them. A giant marble of blue and green and sparkling white. The other colonies could be seen now, giant cylinders that had great mechanic arms that opened and closed to simulate night and day.
“O’ Neill Colonies… I’ve always wanted to visit one, Omar. They look awesome from afar, though.”
“Yeah, I have some family on that one over there — New Sydney. They’ve sent me some really amazing pictures. I’ve never been myself though, too –”
“Too busy.” The two of them said in unison, and chuckled a bit.
“Hey, we have to work to eat, right?” Robert quietly said as he rested his head back and stared out the window.
Outside of Persephone, a man paused in his work. His shuttle was docked illegally, but none of that really mattered. His mag-boots clung hungrily to the outside of the station, hanging in the black. He stood on one of the spokes that connected the two main rings of Persephone and looked up, taking in the view. It was beautiful, but the man’s face was unmoved beneath his helmet. He stretched, and reached into his pack to pull out the final charges. He set the big block of explosive onto one of the cross-joints, and carefully stabbed the detonator into the pliable bomb. The last one.
“I wonder if anyone ever made this stuff into a figurine or something. It’s tougher than Play-Doh, but…” Tears welled up in his eyes. His son was on his mind. Little Jason Gathers Jr. He would never see him again. The companies put him to work as soon as he could hold a hammer. He resisted as many in their early teens do, and the company security threw him against a bulkhead and shot him before the man could react. The man remembered simply falling to the ground and staring at his dead son’s open eyes. One of the officers spat something about how that hammer was a weapon. The eyes. Pleading eyes. Eyes that used to shine with such hope. Thinking of this memory his soul felt weighed down by invisible gravity.
“This is for Jason.” The man muttered to no one but himself. Plans were in motion already. Everyone would finally know of their plight, the struggle that the rugged pioneers of space faced at the hands of the suits from the Consortium. Everyone. He climbed back into his personal craft and detached the cable from the station, coasting away on inertia. Silent running. He would drift for a couple hours. He took his helmet off, blew his nose, and opened a nearly empty bottle of whiskey. The last bottle he had. But this last bit would be more refreshing.
Hard work always made whiskey taste better.