The JRB presents a new short story by Eckard Smuts.
There it was, suspended like a giant Tinkertoy assemblage in the blackness of space: Home™. Robert opened his mouth, stretched his jaw. He could hardly believe his eyes. Was he still dreaming? It felt like he’d been drugged, which was in fact precisely the case.
‘I trust you slept well, sir?’ said a hostess beside him, removing the tube that had been feeding sedative into his arm. Her uniform was the electric blue of the MegaCorp Space Enterprise. A single blonde strand had escaped from the knot keeping her hair in check: it stood up like an antenna at the top of her head. From a container clipped to her belt she took out a napkin and set it adrift before him. ‘We’ll be docking in fifteen minutes. Please remain seated until the lights come on. Welcome Home™!’ She smiled warmly and, with a few prods and kicks against the cabin wall, propelled herself to the next booth in the row.
The napkin bobbed like a jellyfish in front of Robert’s face. He plucked it from the air, wiped his neck and forehead. He had read all the flight guides he could lay his hands on before they’d blasted off from the MegaCorp launch site on Tenerife, but even so he’d been unprepared for the potent aftereffects of the sleep medicine. It felt like he’d been out for a hundred hours, instead of the twenty-two or so the journey had in fact lasted. His head felt thick, his throat parched. From a straw in his headrest he sucked a mouthful of flavoured water. His stomach rumbled.
Home™—the fantastical, lit-up conglomerate of spheres and spindles now steadily growing larger in the porthole beside him—crowded out the darkness of space. The jewel in the MegaCorp crown. Home to 30,000 privileged souls. He thought of Rebecca, waiting for him with their son in her arms. Reuben. Tiny Reuben, with his father’s frizzy hair, front teeth just appearing, whom he’d only ever seen on a screen. His heart leaped; a sigh left his lips.
‘So it’s your first time in space?’ someone asked behind him.
Robert started. He hadn’t realised he was being watched. He turned around as far as the sash keeping him in his seat permitted. A young man with a tanned, narrow face, maybe twenty years old, sat in the booth behind him. The jumpsuit he had on was made from some kind of pinkish reflective material. On his feet were branded velcro sneakers. His head, in a style Robert had noticed earthside among the few people he’d met who travelled frequently in space, was shaved clean. He was looking at Robert with the kind of naked curiosity usually only tolerated in small children.
‘Yup, first time,’ Robert said, a bit sheepishly.
‘I thought so. I could smell it on you.’
Rebecca had warned him, in one of their last video calls, that the locals had some strange manners. Was this level of bluntness what she’d had in mind? He’d better get used to it, he supposed, if he wanted to fit in with their new neighbours. He forced himself to smile.
‘What about you?’ he asked. ‘Have you made the trip before?’
‘Three times a year, since I was ten.’ The young man’s slim, bare arms extended along the armrests of his seat. An ornately curled ring, inlaid with a jet black stone, sat on his middle finger. Robert wondered if it was some kind of moon rock, or something mined from a passing asteroid. He was vaguely aware, in the dim light of the cabin, of other passengers shifting and coughing as they came to.
‘That’s incredible,’ he said. Like most earthsiders, he couldn’t help but think of space travel as a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime extravagance. He knew, as everyone else did, about the fabled wealth of the Home™ residents—they were supposedly even richer than the people living on other, smaller habitations dotting the high orbital zone—but even Rebecca’s father, who sat on the MegaCorp board and thanks to whom they were about to start their new life up here among the stars (or halfway between the moon and earth, to be precise) rarely made the trip more than once a year.
‘And does the view ever get old?’ he asked, casting about for small talk. Through the porthole he could see the oblong shape of the docking station rotating into view. It protruded like a silver tongue from the superstructure’s colossal web of nodes. Above it, catching a glint of white sunlight, were the vast windows of the observation deck. Was that where Rebecca and Reuben would be waiting for him? Or would they meet him in the grand central concourse, with its lawns and apple trees? For the past eighteen months, down at the Okavango base camp, he’d spent almost all his free time in the MegaCorp virtual library, exploring the space habitation’s immense network of service chutes, life support systems, and residence clusters. The plans and design were firmly stored in his engineer’s brain—he liked to think he knew it as well as, if not better than, most of the residents.
‘It’s far more spectacular going the other way. Earth is so beautiful …’ the young man said, gazing nonchalantly through the porthole at the approaching habitation. His eyes, Robert noticed in the dim light of the cabin, had a peculiar sort of gleam to them.
He thought of the site barracks where he’d been living for the past two years, working as a project engineer for the Hope of Africa Dam. MegaCorp Security had kept them safe from the sporadic protests flaring up all over the countryside. Half his time had been spent overseeing repairs to outlying sections of the project that had been blown to pieces by would-be insurgents. Sabotaged equipment was a daily headache. The politics around managing labour crews, he’d understood from his colleagues, were a nightmare. There had been one fateful day when a local man, a concrete mixer—Robert couldn’t recall his name—had hurled himself from the scaffolding when he’d found out his family had been killed by rebels in a retaliatory attack. The dam—the largest one on the continent, by an order of magnitude—would be a secure source of water for the entire drought-blasted swathe of sub-Saharan Africa, managed for the good of all by MegaCorp. But that didn’t seem to matter to the rebels.
The truth was that Robert was only too grateful to be getting away from it all. ‘Earth isn’t what it used to be,’ he said.
A flash passed over the young man’s face. ‘Yes,’ he said, seemingly fired up with contempt. ‘Because the MegaCorp fascists have been making life hell for everyone down there for decades, haven’t they?’
Momentarily, Robert was stunned into silence. He hadn’t been expecting a radical voice up here en route to what was in many respects the culmination of MegaCorp’s work—the home in the stars that would keep humanity safe, even after the earth had finished its transformation into a scorched rock. Even less so from someone who, by the looks of it, was the scion of one of the elite families who had booked their berth in this new future. Robert had his own reservations about MegaCorp, sure, but it hardly seemed fair to blame them for the collapse playing out in real-time below. In fact, looked at from a certain perspective, they were the last hope for order in those parts of the world where people were tearing at each other’s faces for whatever scraps of food and water remained. Robert had seen a food riot once, from a helicopter ferrying him to the MegaCorp Airport outside Luanda. He had felt the pulse of its chaos, the fingers of its desperation clawing at him, pulling him back down to earth. Shortly afterwards, he and Rebecca had decided that she would go on ahead of him, as soon as they were married, to the condominium her parents had secured for them on Home™. Robert would follow as soon as he’d completed his contract at the dam project.
He wondered if the youth sitting behind him—a student, maybe, whose high-minded tutor had exposed him to Marx, or Fanon, or Graeber, or some other flavour of classical anarcho-philosophy—had ever seen a food riot. He doubted it. But he should be careful about what he said. It wouldn’t do to alienate their future neighbours, no matter what ideologies they were trying on for size. Especially not the rich ones.
‘So you think MegaCorp is to blame for the way things are going on Earth?’ he said noncommittally. Let the young man have his strong opinions. Keep your notions to yourself. His thoughts went to Rebecca, and to Reuben. The ship was probably no more than a few minutes from linking up with Home™. They had rotated their aft side towards the docking station. All Robert could see through his porthole now was a field of white stars. The serenity of it, the calmness of the approach—it was so very different from the noise and rattle of an aeroplane landing in Earth’s atmosphere.
‘Oh, I don’t doubt it for a second,’ the young man said, eyeing his obsidian ring. His voice, Robert couldn’t help noticing, sounded preternaturally calm after his outburst moments ago. ‘They like to present themselves as the saviours of a ruined planet, meanwhile they hoard and control and create a vast subclass of people living on MegaCorp handouts—people no better off than beasts. Where’s the dignity in having your whole existence controlled by the pompous hand of the MegaCorp? What kind of humanity can there be at a feeding trough?’
This wasn’t classical anarcho-philosophy, Robert realised. This was something else. This had the whiff of the resistance they were facing at ground level. He had seen the hastily spray-painted slogans mocking the ‘pompous hand’ of MegaCorp on half-finished construction sites; he had winced at the viral images of laughing, heavily armed MegaCorp security forces dispensing maize meal into the cupped palms of people kneeling before them in the dirt. The young man, he realised, was parroting the slogans of the insurgency.
‘Those were anomalies, dealt with internally,’ Robert said carefully. It occurred to him that he wasn’t sure what he was dealing with here. He wished he’d ignored the young man, kept his eyes to the front. Was this kind of talk even tolerated on Home™?
‘You’re just a regular MegaCorp gimp, aren’t you? Managed to wheedle your way into space through some careful footwork. And now you’re turning your back on all the misery and suffering below. Your people no more.’
Robert turned away from the young man, stared ahead of him. The hostess, he noticed, had secured herself to the cabin roof by means of a discrete, unfolding harness. She gave him a reassuring smile. Had she too, like him, escaped from some part of Earth where the future, for those who had no choice but to stay behind, was as bleak as the desiccated landscape? She knows how good it is to be up here rather than down there, he thought. The young man behind him, filthy rich and with no experience of the world, didn’t know what he was talking about.
The cabin darkened. Two thin blue strips of light illuminated the floor. They were moments away from docking. Robert closed his eyes. He thought of Rebecca, and of Reuben. He thought of the long nights in the Okavango he had lain gazing through his barrack window at the space habitation’s pinprick of light tracing an arc through the sky. Behind a curtain in the MegaCorp medical bay, he had deposited his seed in a plastic cup. His father-in-law had made some calls, and the unlikely cargo had found its way onto a shuttle ferrying luxury goods Home™. Alongside tanks of lobsters and crates of fine wine, his sperm had travelled halfway to the moon to impregnate his wife. He’d watched his baby son become a toddler in hour-long sessions on video call. The boy’s gurgles, his first tentative soundings of words, had come to him after seconds-long delays. He had done what he had to do for his family. They would be safe up here on Home™: that was what mattered.
The voice, when it spoke again, was no more than a whisper in the dim cabin. But he heard it as clearly as if it were speaking inside his head. ‘You made a mistake when you came on this flight, Robert. Yes, I know about you. Your marriage to Rebecca O’Rourke-Smythe, daughter of Duncan O’Rourke-Smythe. And your little son, Reuben. They’re waiting for you up here, aren’t they? Ready to welcome pops to his new Home™?’
A dry, choking fear took hold of Robert. Through the porthole he saw the stars rotating against the darkness.
‘You belong to the enemy now, Robert,’ the voice whispered. ‘And the enemy must pay for what they’ve done on Earth. That’s why there’s a bomb in my luggage, stored not far from the tanks carrying the liquid hydrogen for the jet thrusters. It will detonate as soon as I press this switch on my ring here. The docking station, the observation deck and quite a large chunk of the transit concourse will be folded open like tin. Everyone who does not die will be sucked out into the vacuum of space. May your soul find peace.’
Robert heard a soft, barely perceptible click. A light tremor ran through his seat. Around them, in the darkness of the cabin, silence reigned.
He could not move.
The hostess unclipped herself from her harness. Padding along the roof, she made her way to the front of the cabin, punched in a key to open the airlock. The cabin lights undimmed. Up ahead Robert saw people loosening their belts, bobbing up from their seats.
From behind him came a high-pitched sound, like some kind of signal, breaking up after a moment into a series of staccato yips. Unable to speak, Robert turned his head. The source of the unearthly sound was the young man. He was laughing.
‘Hooo,’ he said, breathless. ‘You should see your face.’
Robert could find no words. He was shaking, shaking with fear, with anger.
‘The bomb …’ he managed hoarsely.
‘Relax, relax, there is no bomb. Just a little joke.’ The young man wiped his hands over his shaved head, as if to smooth over non-existent hair. He unbuckled himself and, with a deft press of his hands, came to hover over Robert. His reflective jumpsuit shimmered in the cabin light.
‘But how …’
‘How do I know your name? I’m a good friend of Rebecca’s, actually. We’re in the same space-racket team. You should come join the league, we’re getting pretty good! And your son Reuben is a delight. You’re going to be such a chuffed papa when you meet him.’
Robert turned away from the young man, unwilling to let him see the rage contorting his face.
‘Come on. You can let yourself out of the seat, you know. Getting through customs is quick and easy. Rebecca and Reuben should be up in the observation deck. They’re dying to see you, I’m sure!’
Slowly, Robert moved his hand to the side of his headrest, pushed the button to release his belt buckle. It slithered back into the booth like a snake. His body rose into the air. He felt nauseous. The young man floated beside him, grinning.
These were his people now. He had arrived. He was Home™.
- Eckard Smuts is a postdoctoral researcher in the English Department at the University of the Western Cape. Follow him on Twitter.