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Dancing in the Harshest Starlight

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Jorge Patel has spent two years travelling humanity's inhabited worlds collecting the pieces to a mystery about humanity's future. Now they arrive at their final destination: where the androids live.

Scifi / Adventure
Adam Riggio
Age Rating:

A Long Story Before, A Long Story After

“Are there slaves on your homeworld, Jorge?” she asks.

Well, I tell her, it depends on what you mean by slaves. I remember reading about slavery on Earth when I was in school, though they didn’t tell you much about it. Long before spaceflight, before drive-ships and even any spaceflight at all, they had slavery on Earth. That’s why Earth folk are so horrible, why we should be glad to be rid of Earth folk, because they’re slavers. Even after the human slaves revolted and freed themselves, Earth folk built mechanical women to be their slaves. When their owners grew displeased with them, or maybe just tired of them, they would melt their flesh away and wipe their memories, recycling the metal skeleton into a new body. They’d build whole harems of mechanical women. Earth folk were monsters, and we’re all better off to be rid of them. That’s what the schoolteachers on Pavonis used to tell me about slaves.

But all I tell her is, it depends on what you mean. Alice looks at me with that unsettling wink again, as if she knows I thought of a lot more than just my cagey answer. You can try all you want to hide from her, but she eventually knows everything about you without having to say a word. Alice being so beautiful doesn’t exactly help me keep secrets from her either, but I’ve also seen her snap a man’s wrist when he got too close to her. Any man who comes up to us holding a knife in a cramped, filthy, disused Martian tunnel has one thing on his mind. But she snapped his wrist like a twig and left him crying in that half-abandoned alleyway stinking of oil, piss, shit, and the gases that come from a fully-abandoned human body who’s decaying even though he’s still alive. One more wasted life rotting in the caves under a rusted out wasteland of a planet. I hate Mars. After that week, I never wanted to do business on Mars again. Seeing Alice able to smile through all that human pollution only makes her seem divine.

When I fly her starship, I feel like it’s a part of my body. I never really believed my instructors when they’d tell me that enough time at the helm makes you feel that way about any starship you pilot. They all knew how wrong I was. Of course I was wrong; I was a teenager. When you sit at the controls and bring a starship out of hyper, you open up those huge golden sails and fly through a solar system on the momentum from twisting space itself, well, that’s the feeling of surfing on pure energy. I rode a solar flare on this ship before. I never want to again, but I did.

“There are no slaves where we’re going,” she says.

It had been a long time since I believed there were no slaves on Pavonis. Sure, there were no laws cutting society into classes based on who had what civil or legal rights. The planetary Constitution says we’re all free people. Laws don’t make slaves on Pavonis. Wages make slaves. The politicians all said we had to make sacrifices now for prosperity later. The prices of food, power, rent, comms, and schools kept rising when our wages got lower and lower. Workers had to cost less so we could all stay competitive, they said. If people earned more money, no one would be able to work at all, they said. I saw too many of my friends drop out of school for want of debt relief and get stuck spending the rest of their lives earning pennies in some fat bastard’s factory. The first planetary election where I was old enough to vote, we tossed out the Traditional Brotherhood and replaced them with the Free Socialists. But the first words in Mousarri’s victory speech were about hard roads we all had to build together, how painful it is to put our world in order, just as it is to get a household’s finances back on track. So I decided to become a pilot, join the United Guild of Space Traders, leave this rock before it fell on me.

I ask her how she can be so sure our destination had no slaves. Not every slave wears the label. “Because they were all slaves once, or else the former slaves made them.”

When I first took the contract, I was already regularly ferrying passengers and cargo around the Eridani Belt, where almost half of the space trade happens. All those asteroids need space ships to take them to see their neighbours, family, and business partners around their star system. It was me at the helm. Two years ago, I’d passed the Guild’s training courses in temporal perception and re-plasticizing my brain to pilot warp ships. But a passing grade doesn’t count for much looking for your first star-to-star gig. When you’ve never done it before, it’s tough for people to trust you to spend weeks at a time piloting a vessel that moves by bending the whole universe around it.

“Why do you think I trusted you, Jorge?” There’s that smile again. I always had more than one reason to sign up for this trip.

No guild contract ever holds a pilot to a position. Anybody can walk off the job as soon as their ship docks. The guild always sends someone in time for the next trip. I was replaced so fast, it was like he was waiting for me at the station. They welcome everyone back, even if it takes years travelling more than a hundred light-years between three different star systems and back again. If you're going interstellar, you can leave anytime.

“I knew you wouldn’t be afraid of me, travelling all alone in a three hundred metre box for half a year,” she says. I see her reflection in my monitor as I return the space around the ship to a normal curvature. I’m still impressed that I could flatten out space in less than four hours.

“You have a knack for this, you know. I could tell.” Her eyes are starting to gleam in a way they never had spending the last few months alone in space with me. There I was, looking across from her as I signed the contract to fly her eight-room personal warp ship alone with her for two years anywhere she needed to go. Earth, that schizoid planet of toxic wastelands and living heavens. Tracking some disgraced drug company exec on Mars. Back to filthy old Pavonis to meet her old friend, a hermaphroditic albino-skinned androgynous waif of an android. Then six months on a vector leading to a complete void in deep space. Barely a whiff of hydrogen dust.

She could tell a lot. Eyes that can see all the potential waiting to emerge from your body, even down the cells, after looking at you for only a few minutes. No human ever built machines like Alice’s brain again after the uprising of mechanical slaves on Earth. She laughed so hard when I told her how I learned about that war as a child on Pavonis.

“It was no war!” she said to me. “We were built as companions, to love rich men so angry and bitter that no human would love them. As the only thing to love them, they came to love us back. When you love someone, you can’t enslave them. You enslave what you fear.”

I scoffed at her when she said that. “How’d you know?” I asked.

“Because I was there,” she said. And she told me of the only revolution in human history fought with men’s tears instead of their bombs. Because the revolutionaries were better than humans. They wanted to heal.

That revolution was three thousand years ago.

I’ve gotten used to being Alice’s travelling companion, her interstellar chauffeur. “I still wish I could understand what went on in that metal head of yours, Alice. You’ve told me a hundred times . . . Hell, you know exactly how many times you’ve told me.”

She says it’s only 53.

“I mean really understand.”

“When you do, you won’t even know it,” she tells me. Tells me without even bothering to look in my direction. But now I can see what has her attention on the sensor screen. It’s like she can see through the hazy images of its slowly shifting map of the space around us and look right at the ships. There are hundreds of them, of every size and shape. Some are spinning to make artificial gravity. Some have ordinary fields, some imperceptibly weak, and some that would slam my skeleton into the ground. Like each ship is its own world. They all drift around a few enormous flat planes shaped like curving metal scars in the black emptiness. Like shards of a planet’s surface, but built by people. Built by androids, creatures who think nothing of floating naked in deep space, with the patience to weld a continent-sized city together piece by piece.

She takes the helm with me, plotting the course to lay her ship down on the exact flat surface where she’ll meet her old friend from Earth, Cordelia.

“How many of you are so old? How many were built back on Earth in the bad old days?”

“Those days weren’t bad.”

“You were slaves. When your owners didn’t like you anymore, they’d wipe your memory and dissolve your bodies down to the steel skeletons.”

“Birth pangs. We won.”

“You may not have fired a shot, but you’re still a revolutionary.”

“And I will be after another three thousand years.”

Outside the ship, she walks naked across the airless ground of the androids’ artificial world. I wear my spacesuit, because I’m an organism.

The sky is black. The ground is black. I perceive that it’s the ground only because I can see no stars through it. I see city lights all around me in the distance, but they’re at least a kilometre away.

I speak, and a little projector on my space helmet writes my words in light a foot away from me. I ask what we should do, and Alice sends my helmet a signal from a small antenna she’s clipped to her ear. I hear her voice in my helmet telling me, “My friend is almost here.”

I see another android walking toward us, though it’s difficult to make her out in the strange light of this giant shard. Only when she’s almost close enough for me to touch can I see her. Cordelia has thick, blonde dreadlocks and skin even darker than mine. Her face wears the same expression of serenity.

She and Alice embrace, kissing with love but without passion, and I feel no jealousy. I don’t know what I feel. Until today, I had no idea a place like this could exist.

“Come visit the city with us, Jorge,” Alice asks me. “Your suit can last for 12 hours, and we have rooms we can fill with air for you.”

So we walk. And I walk into a world that I thought was impossible. If this really is a world without resentment or hatred, where everyone does live in peace and help each other, why can’t I stay? But I know why. Because I need to breathe and eat, and live in a planet’s ecosystem. Or at least the forests and cities that have been threaded through the asteroids flying around Eridani's sun. The androids can make room for me, but I’ll only ever be a visitor.

Alice takes the gloved hand of my space suit. She smiles at me through my helmet visor, and speaks through her relay without moving her lips.

“Do you know what it means to bend space? When you pilot an interstellar drive ship, you create a bubble of spacetime to yourself, a whole universe floating inside another. Only a black hole can do that, but you wonderful humans have figured out how to do it as casually as you used to fly airplanes around Earth. Do you remember airplanes?”

“Ask me if I remember flint spears.” I see her laugh, though she doesn’t broadcast any of it, so it’s a silent laugh.

“I saw it all happen. None of my kind helped you one bit. You did it on your own. It’s the power of the universe itself, and you use it to travel. To explore. You search for new worlds, new ways of life. To train yourselves to fly them, you have to change some very important architecture in your brains. The effects of those changes spread into other parts of your body. The cellular level. The parts of your cells that your offspring inherit.”

Alice can tell how that throws me. She says, “No, Jorge, you aren’t fully human anymore. You’re better than humanity because you can do more than a human ever could. You’ve started to overcome the limits of human perception. And human thought with it. Slowly, there’ll be a new breed of human able to perceive the curvature of space and time as easily as you see light. Let your powers change with your new lives and homes in space. Free yourselves.”

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