1 To My First Love
I keep my hand at my nose to fight off the smell. It’s not my father’s fault; we don’t have any credits for water. Since it comes down to daily necessities, and there not being enough, that means the fault is mine.
My father still sells his water allotment to afford other things for me, even when I’m not around.
“How is the combat training coming along at Job’s gym? You finish your reps?”
“Yeah.” I nod without looking; my eyes stay transfixed to the vid screen on our old, tattered wall. It was a wonder a structure as shabby as ours even had the capacity for an interface with the computer. “I came back early to see this interview, remember?”
Our dinner in hand, my father shuffles his weary miner frame around the table and puts the tin plates down. Tin? Even Job’s gym uses ceramics. And it didn’t have such a rank smell.
When I live here daily, I never notice this sour stench. Only when I leave for long periods of time, that’s when I get it—I understand what everyone always whispers about.
I’m Colony-born, but my father has survived Topside to make it down here to the underground. I think he’s tough; other people think he smells.
I guess both are true.
Only…this smell’s strange, like a sickness. I won’t ask about it again, because it upsets him, but I worry.
He tells me something, but I don’t catch it.
“Philippe…” he says, finally, using my given name.
That’s also something so Topsider-ish that I’ve come to notice. Down here in the Colony everybody carries their family name in the back; Topsiders in the front.
He’s Philippe Raul and I’m Philippe Remy.
“Phil,” I insist, still watching that interface across from us. Lately, I feel uncomfortable with people knowing so much about me just from my name. Phil’s easy, Philip’s even better.
He sits down at our little table, his imposing figure reeking as he speaks through those dirty teeth.
“What’d Job say about the fee? Did he say we can square it later?”
I focus on my father, finally. I don’t like to ignore him, and he rarely gets angry when I do, but I wish he’d grow some balls about Job overcharging us because Topsiders don’t know any better. My pa knows better. We’ve paid twice the rate of everybody down here and it’s all for some stupid dream.
“Phil,” he corrects himself. “What’d he say?”
Luckily the interview on the screen isn’t the one I am waiting for so I glance at my father again.
“He cut the rep time, but we should just go somewhere else, somewhere cheaper.”
His eyes dim and I know that look. My father is nearly twice my size in bulk. I beat the hell out of him in height, though. But while my muscles come from training, his have come from fighting to stay alive on the surface—and maintained by working the mines down here. I used to think he was unstoppable but now that I have to start earning some credits, I can see that he’s maybe not as smart as he thinks he is.
“No. We should stick with Job. Nearly half his fighters turn ELETE. ELETE is safe.”
My breaths come shallower because he’s going into one of his rants, and I know them all by heart. Maybe if he’d put some power behind his words, I’d take them seriously, but he never speaks harshly; he just doesn’t have it in him.
“ELETEs are safe. No ELETE’s ever sent Topside for breaking a law. You get food, a nice place. You get everything. I’m too old and I don’t have the guts in me to make it, but you…you can do it. So….” His thick eyebrows knit together as he leans to the right, trying to meet my gaze. “So just humble yourself and go back and ask Job for an extension. We can borrow some credits for an extension on the training and pay it back after you make ELETE.”
I meet his blue eyes only for a second before I have to focus on the screen in the distance to avoid him.
He’s insane and beyond wishful. ELETE soldiers, the deadliest and most respected enforcer division of the Colony, could chew me up and spit me out. Yeah, I have height. I have some skill from fights. But I never win any of them. For Job, wasting space by letting me train is basically an embarrassment at this point. I nod, though, because it’s easier to just let my father think I am still training instead of telling him we owe Job too much and I am too embarrassed to go there and beg for a chance to train with his students.
I focus on the wall now with that other weak interview finished. Our dinky little screen widens—a perk for a celebrity interview this coveted. Two extra inches on either side is better than nothing, I guess.
“Are you sure it’s a noblewoman?” my father asks. “Because I’ve heard—”
“Shhh,” I say as politely as I can when the interview room lights dim. “It’s starting.”
Eyes fixed on the screen, I scoop up some of my dinner and try to ignore what mixture of cheap algae it might be tonight.
The new setting of the interview room makes me smile. Each chair is taken away and replaced with oversized bags of beads. A slender, well-dressed figure flops down into one of them, saying, “These lights are still a little too bright for me, darling. Don’t suppose we can lose them entirely?” Light blue. She’s able to afford such color. It stands out compared to the announcer’s pricey navy ceremonial suit.
A rustle sounds as the interviewer shifts in his beanbag seat. “I’m sorry, ma’am. For the camera’s sake, we need some lighting.”
The video zooms in to settle on a haggard face.
My body warms at the sight of her. Lydia Garran shot to fame five years ago and blazed a destructive trail ever since. The most memorable thing about her is her hairstyles. Today she’s shaved the right side down to the scalp leaving a curtain of onyx to hang down past her chin. She’s not in stage garb and she’s probably high if the lights bother her. That’s no surprise, but even that doesn’t matter, she looks larger than life—all five foot four inches of her.
“What are your plans for this year?” the announcer asks.
“Plans?” Gara yawns, her hands guarding her eyes. “Plans are like all others. Eat, sleep, and fuck. Make it through another year with all my bits intact. You?”
Gara lumbers to her feet, hikes up her dress, and practically falls into the announcer’s lap.
She’s pretty close, nearly face to face with the man. I bet she smells nice. I think.
The announcer must have thought so because he pulls out a handkerchief and starts to wipe sweat from his brow.
“How about you, darling?” Gara drawls. “What plans do you have? You’ve got a nice little frame on you. What are your plans?”
Taking great interest in the five-by-seven data tablet in his hands, the announcer swallows hard.
“You…you have two shows coming up which are quite popular. Plays you wrote by yourself. Could you tell us what inspired them?”
Gara stops squirming against the poor guy. I can’t help but chuckle at the way she always gets to people. Most get nervous, but I wouldn’t be much of a fan if I didn’t know that the biggest kick Gara gets out of rubbing up on others, is seeing them fumble around. She does it a lot, especially when someone hates it.
She stops now, though. Looking more serious as she says, “Of course, they’re good. I wrote them for Blue. He deserves the best.”
Blue. I know about Blue. Nearly all her good songs talk about Blue. Rumors say it’s her nickname for her husband, but I know better. Blue is…was some long-lost friend that Gara pines for. Maybe a long-forgotten lover.
It’s no surprise when she gets uncooperative pretty fast.
Gara takes her previous seat, her hand guarding her mouth; she’s hiding her expression.
“What about them?”
The announcer’s brown eyes bulge. “What?”
“What about my plays? Are you going somewhere with this or just being a dick?”
After that, things get quiet. Gara doesn’t last long before she heaves a sigh. “By the Colony, this is tedious. Listen. Just announce that we’re accepting fresh talent and security for the show and cut to a different interview. I’m getting kinda sick and tired of staring at your cheap suit.”
The screen goes black.
I fight back a chuckle. Sure, I want to see a longer interview, but she never lasts long. This is one of the shorter ones though.
Pa says something to me again and I meet eyes with him, finally. “What?”
“Job? The training? You will go today, yes? Let him give you room for a few days. It’ll look nice on your files when you go to test in.”
I’m not paying much attention to the nonsense, but I nod anyway, just to get him to stop talking. I’m never getting ELETE. ELETE soldiers are the baddest, most vicious fighters in the Colony. I’m lucky just to make it out of a ring alive. Yeah, Job trains the best, young fighters especially, but that’s not what I want. I should tell my pa that to his face. Be upfront. But I’m just like him, I guess, a coward. He’s worked so hard for me already; I can’t break his heart. Not before the holidays.
“Hmm’m,” I mutter, standing.
Pa stands, too. “You still haven’t said what you wanted for a present.”
“I don’t want anything. And I’ve told you already. Use the credits for your medical checkup,” I insist.
He ignores me. “It’s getting late. Let me walk you.”
But how can I? His teeth are falling outta his head; his clothes are so dirty they’re about to spring to life and walk off him. And that smell….
“It’s okay. I’ll message you when I get there,” I promise.
He looks proud though, his scruffy brown hair sticking in all directions. I stare at him for a second, wondering if this is gonna be me at fifty.
But he looks proud and that’s enough. Better he thinks that I’m going to train; he wouldn’t want to know where I really go.