A Washington Post Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Selection of 2017
“Charming, sexy.” —The Washington Post
John Kessel, one of the most visionary writers in the field, has created a rich matriarchal utopia, set in the near future on the moon, a society that is flawed by love and sex, and on the brink of a destructive civil war.
In the middle of the twenty-second century, over three million people live in underground cities below the moon’s surface. One city-state, the Society of Cousins, is a matriarchy, where men are supported in any career choice, but no right to vote—and tensions are beginning to flare as outside political intrigues increase.
After participating in a rebellion that caused his mother’s death, Erno has been exiled from the Society of Cousins. Now, he is living in the Society’s rival colony, Persepolis, when he meets Amestris, the defiant daughter of the richest man on the moon.
Mira, a rebellious loner in the Society, creates graffiti videos that challenge the Society’s political domination. She is hopelessly in love with Carey, the exemplar of male privilege. An Olympic champion in low-gravity martial arts and known as the most popular bedmate in the Society, Carey’s more suited to being a boyfriend than a parent, even as he tries to gain custody of his teenage son.
When the Organization of Lunar States sends a team to investigate the condition of men in the Society, Erno sees an opportunity to get rich, Amestris senses an opportunity to escape from her family, Mira has a chance for social change, and Carey can finally become independent of the matriarchy that considers him a perpetual adolescent. But when Society secrets are revealed, the first moon war erupts, and everyone must decide what is truly worth fighting for.
|Publisher:||Gallery / Saga Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.70(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.90(d)|
About the Author
John Kessel lives in Raleigh, North Carolina with his wife, novelist Therese Anne Fowler. He is a professor and the director of creative writing at North Carolina State University. He is the author of The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories, Corrupting Dr. Nice, The Moon and the Other, and Pride and Prometheus.
Read an Excerpt
The Moon and the Other
AS ERNO WORKED, HIS AIDE whispered Persian phrases into his ear.
Can you direct me to the immigration center?
He would repeat the words after the cultured voice, intent on his accent, while he did the mindless labor that, back in the Society of Cousins, would be managed by an AI. He’d been studying doggedly since he’d come to Persepolis. Each shift enlarged his hoard of workplace idioms, of terms necessary to carry on a political conversation, of pickup lines—even of ways to express his feelings.
His body lay elsewhere, strapped to a frame in a control cubicle, but he perceived himself to be deep in the cold of Faustini crater, linked to a Remote Operating Device that gave him the strength and reach of a giant. There, in perpetual night, he loaded carriers with heaps of billion-year-old ice. There he cut and scooped and carried, under the glare of the lights, in service of Persepolis Water and Cyrus Eskander, the Shah of Ice.
Would you speak more slowly, please? I can’t understand you.
He watched the other RODs spread across the floor of the crater. The flare of a plasma cutter dazzled his plugged-in eyes. When the ice-laden regolith calved and avalanched, tremors made him shift on his plugged-in legs. If he looked up and adjusted the gain on his eyes, he could see a brilliant star-strewn sky. He didn’t look up very often.
Sometimes he would take a break from language lessons and ask his Aide to read him Persian poetry. He still had that—he still, sometimes, could be swept away by words. When he was high, like the seventeen-year-old he had once been, he even fantasized writing some ghazals. Such verse was hard to master, hiding knotty psychology beneath a zigzag surface. The Persians were all about wit, ingenuity in concealing motives, and complex status games. He liked the old poems best, the works of Sa’di and Hafêz.
If that Shirazi Turk would take my heart in her hand
For the mole on her cheek I’d give Bukhara and Samarkand.
This metaphorical Turkish lover with a mole: Was Hafêz proclaiming the depth of his love for her, or his self-disgust at feeling desire for someone so low on the social ladder? Both at once? The story went that when Hafêz was hauled before the Emperor Tamerlane for failing to pay his taxes, Tamerlane upbraided him for saying he would give these great cities, the jewels of the empire, for the blemish on his lover’s cheek. Hafêz replied that such poor judgment was the reason he was indigent.
Erno knew something of indigence, and poor judgment. The back of his head still throbbed from last night’s brawl, and he had trouble focusing. They were working a notch in the depths of the basin. The RODs operated by Taher Neeley and Devi Singh were down the line from him. The cart that followed Erno was almost full, shy only a few hundred kilos of capacity. Here the percentage of frozen water was the highest in the basin, blocks and sheets, at depth, which was why they had followed this notch so far. Dark walls towered over them, a canyon where the only light came from the blue arcs and the cutters. When he touched the beam of his cutter to the rock and ice, steam rose immediately. Dark blue glints among the powder and stone. He had to widen the beam to a millimeter so the vapor would not refreeze as soon as he cut it.
The external temperatures here were among the coldest in the solar system, as low as forty degrees Kelvin. If you weren’t careful you could create a pocket of vapor and cause an explosion. Machines regularly malfunctioned in such cold. Metal crumbled, ceramics became conductors, and even the most hardened processors were prone to soft upsets: Some stray cosmic ray sets off a circuit in a CPU and there you are with a flaring jet, a dead communicator. In the days when people instead of RODs did this work, the fatality rate among ice miners was the highest on the moon.
That is lovely, but it costs too much. Do you have a less expensive one?
It was hard to concentrate. Lately Erno’s thoughts had been drifting back to his home in the Society. He wondered what his sister Celeste was doing. Or Alicia—the last time they had slept together, they had fought. He could hardly remember the details. More than ten years had gone by, and it seemed like it had happened to another person. He imagined himself sitting on the soccer field below the Men’s House, looking down on the floor of the domed crater. Now he worked in a society where men held the highest status, yet he had never felt more powerless.
In the years of his exile Erno had learned a lot about what his mother had called “the patriarchal world.” Places that Tyler had described as utopias. And Tyler was right: This outside world manufactured utopia, but it was only available if you could pay for it. There were many ingenious, lovely things to be found in Persepolis. Most of these things Erno would never have.
May I escort you home? Are you doing anything tomorrow?
Erno was twenty meters deep in the notch. The glare of his cutter threw broken reflections through the surface, flares of light that shot back at odd angles when it struck fracture planes deep within the walls. He moved the cutter a meter to his right.
A flash and concussion.
Slowly, the entire wall of ice-laden regolith towering above him collapsed. He heard Devi’s cry, doubled, in both his phones and from somewhere in the background of the control center where his body lay. He backed his ROD off a step, but already the ice was sliding around it in a slurry of black chunks, glinting with reflected light. It was at the ROD’s ankles, its knees. He struggled to wade through. Ahead of him, Devi’s ROD was riding the cart; Taher’s hesitated and came back for Erno. The avalanche knocked Erno down. Taher was ten meters away, three meters; he was standing over Erno, trying to pull aside the heaps of rubble. It was useless; in seconds Erno was buried completely, and his eyes went dark.
Then pearl gray nothingness as the system pulled him back. He blinked hard once, twice, and reoriented himself to the sweat and disinfectant stink of the operators’ cubicle. He released his wrist restraints, reached up and rolled the thinking cap to the back of his scalp. He started to disentangle himself from the rack.
Beside him, Taher was peeling off his own cap. “Avazi ashghale bishoore kesafat!” he said, and Erno knew exactly what he meant.
• • • • •
The population of the moon came to about 3.2 million people, most on the nearside, in twenty-seven self-contained colonies scattered over thirty-seven million square kilometers. The largest was Persepolis, at five hundred thousand people, and the smallest Linne, in the Mare Serentatis, at fifteen hundred. In addition there were scientific stations, industrial facilities, and exploratory outposts. There were even hermits, extended families of antisocial loners dug into holes in the sides of rilles, or living in metal huts buried under three meters of regolith on desolate maria. The colonies were constructed in lava tubes, in networks of manmade structures buried in canyons, in multilevel underground cities carved out of billion-year-old rock, in vaults and corridors, in ancient volcanic bubbles, and in a few domed craters like the one that housed the Society of Cousins.
The earliest colonies were scientific research outposts established by nation states from Earth. Later came industrial and military facilities, investment opportunities, and get-rich-quick schemes. Then came the political and social experiments. Separatist groups, ethnic minorities. Political refugees. Religious factions seeking private utopias. Mixes of all of these.
Erno’s first stop after exile from the Society was Mayer colony in the Lunar Carpathians, dominated by hard money libertarian capitalists of the Austrian School. At eighteen he’d been fatally naive about the world outside of the Society. He’d made many mistakes, including taking a job with a fraudulent company that collapsed, leaving him on the street.
In the ten hard years that had taken Erno from Mayer to Persepolis, he had lived in eleven different colonies. His first stop after Mayer was Rupes Cauchy and eight months as a gardener. Then Aristarchus, where he wore out his days and his back as an aquaculture worker monitoring fish tanks, with a break now and then to shovel chicken shit. In Sabine, near the Apollo 11 landing site, he actually got to use a little of his biotech training, as an over-the-counter virus cook (Change your skin in three weeks!). That lasted nineteen months. In Tycho he worked in an environment plant. In Huygens he was a low level drone for a drug dealer.
Everywhere, everyone talked about Persepolis, the richest colony on the moon.
It was all about water. In Persepolis, they said, water was as cheap as titanium. In Persepolis, you could bathe in water. People in Persepolis learned to swim. One of the drug mules told Erno he knew of someone in Persepolis who had actually drowned at Tehran Beach.
Erno had never considered seeking his fortune there. Something about the prospect—maybe the fact that his mother had spoken of the colony as if it were the essence of patriarchal madness—kept him away. But when the network got busted and Erno had to flee with only the clothes on his back and a few possessions thrown into a satchel—ten years, ten years and he left Huygens no better off than when he’d left Mayer—the first cable train out of the colony was southbound, and the decision was made for him.
The evening before the accident, on his way to a night of heavy drinking, Erno had paused at the water sculpture in Anahita Square. The square rose, open, through the city’s many levels, a mammoth atrium with gleaming white balconies. High above, the faux sky of the clearest blue was now turning violet. Twilight fed shadows beneath the colonnade of the Zoroastrian temple, inside which the fire continually burned, and darkened the entry of the mosque where the muezzin would soon call the evening prayer. A hundred meters across the square stood the Majlis, the People’s Assembly.
The sculpture, a complex network of pools and waterfalls, filled the air with mist and white noise. Lights gleamed in the balconies above. Ticket scalpers hovered near the entrance of the Kazedi Concert Hall. Cafés were transitioning from afternoon tea drinkers to evening diners. At one of them, two waiters went among the tables shaking out wine-red tablecloths that billowed in the fragrant air and slowly settled over the tabletops. The men set places with white linen serviettes. Erno watched the beautiful women coming from the shopping district, a few lines of Yeats running through his head.
When my arms wrap you round I press
My heart upon the loveliness
That has long faded from the world . . .
Persepolis was a tribute to the human aspiration to bring the world under graceful rule. If you wanted to dress in style in Tycho or Aristarchus, then you dressed the way the rich in Anahita Square dressed. If you wanted to be an artist, you moved to Persepolis, drank coffee in the café of the New Museum, and sought to get your work hung in the Sikander Gallery. A young pop musician in Rima Asiadaeus aching to make it big knew that he had somehow to play the clubs in the Ahura-Mazda district. An actor seeking a career of any import schemed to appear on the stage of the Ajoudanieh Theater. Restaurants, museums, football clubs, and universities: Those of Persepolis might find rivals in other colonies, but never superiors.
None of these pursuits interested Erno. Erno lived in Pamenar, a neighborhood of immigrants and guest workers that lay just below the lunar surface in a city where status rose the deeper you went underground. He shared a room with Zdeno Bartoš from Rima Marius, who repaired construction bots, and Fabrizio Longo from Linne, who dreamed of becoming a great chef but meanwhile worked in the kitchen of the Hotel Manuchehr. Fabrizio was an ebullient dreamer, Zdeno a taciturn Christian Socialist who, between benders, volunteered at the shelter at the Orthodox church. Erno did little more in the apartment than sleep. Every night he prowled the restless concourses, listened to music in clubs, ate chelow kebab in cheap restaurants, dabbled in immigrant politics, and wondered when boredom or desperation would finally make him do something that he could not escape.
He was supposed to meet Taher and the others, but the tea shops were not open until eight in the evening. He left the fountain and crossed to the Majlis. Over the entrance the Persian inscription read, “Were it not for Iran, I myself could not exist.”
This late in the day, the assembly had adjourned, and the wide and high rotunda held only a few tourists and a couple of security officers, uplifted apes. In the center, on a pedestal inside a crystal case, rested the Cyrus Cylinder—the genuine, millennia-old relic. The twenty-two-centimeter-long clay antiquity covered with Akkadian cuneiform, repatriated from the British Museum a century earlier, symbolized the colony’s devotion to the liberal policies that the legendary Cyrus had proclaimed for his subject states.
A young mother and two children were examining the exhibit. The boy read the description from the display.
“Is it real?” the little girl asked.
“Yes,” the mother said. “It is over two thousand five hundred years old.”
“It’s just clay,” said the boy. “Anybody could break it.”
Founded by Iranian utopians tired of decades of theocracy and centuries of incursions from East and West, seeking a Persian future equal to its past, Persepolis was one of three colonies begun by different groups at the lunar south pole. With access to continuous solar power in the highlands and stores of ice in the Aitkin basin, it had grown and absorbed its neighbors.
The colony’s founders brought with them a desire to recapture the glories of ancient cosmopolitan Persia. Though committed to the religious wellsprings of Iranian culture, they established a secular government. Muslims made up forty percent of the population, with the rest divided among Zoroastrians, Sufis, Christians, Jews, Sikhs, and Hindus, and a significant percentage professing no religion. Sunnis were welcomed; even Baha’i were welcomed, as long as all acknowledged the sovereignty of the civil state.
Iranians on Earth called Persepolis a fatally westernized faux-Persia, apostate from the living Iran. The founders countered that they harkened back to the true Iran that existed before the imposition of Islam. In Persepolis Shi’ia fundamentalists yet sought to establish the Twelver school as the state religion, but the memory of the troubles suffered by the Islamic Republic kept them in check. At the other end of the political spectrum, anticapitalists wished to break the power of the great families and broaden social equality, but the wealth of the ruling class, and the general prosperity built on a foundation of ice, militated against change.
There were internal conflicts. Policies toward uplifted dogs, for instance, were a matter of contention between Muslims, who considered them unclean, and Zoroastrians, who believed a dog’s gaze drove away evil spirits and employed them in their sagdid funerary rite.
Among all of this, the status of guest workers like Erno was not something the Majlis spent much time debating.
Erno stepped back out of the building just as the muezzin began his evening call to prayer. Men streamed toward the mosque. Erno waited until the voice died, then walked out of the square and down a concourse until he came to Mosaddeq Way, spiraling up from the base to the top of the city.
Three levels up he came to Dorud, the city’s oldest and roughest neighborhood. Shiraz Concourse had once been a showplace, sadly fallen in the past thirty years. An elevated tramway shadowed a long colonnade of shops and clubs. Men young and old idled in the street, playing Nard on a small table near the tram station, talking politics near a genetic surgery, drinking tea in the cafés.
Competing music spilled out of clubs: a woman singing a song in Persian, the throb of Chinese dance music. A tram hummed by overhead as Erno stepped under the archway of The Spirit of Wisdom, a tavern catering to expats, into a room of small metal tables and the smell of tobacco. Serious Muslims and believing Sikhs might decry such taverns, but the place was crowded.
On the pixwall played the public affairs program Here’s the Point! Its host, the canine investigative reporter Sirius, shared the screen with a human colleague. People were consigned to the freezers here for lack of work, yet they gave media jobs to dogs. The Society of Cousins considered it cruel to uplift animals and imposed strict limits on manipulating the human genome, but the rest of the solar system did not observe such niceties, and Here’s the Point! was very popular. Sirius was an outspoken advocate for the rights of uplifted animals. His personal assistant, Gracie, was a capuchin monkey.
The volume was low, but Erno caught a reference to an “upcoming election in the notorious Society of Cousins.” He stopped to watch, but at that moment Taher called, “Erno! Over here.”
Fabrizio, Zdeno, and Taher occupied a table in a corner. “Good evening,” Erno said.
“Greetings, Cousin,” said Zdeno, a big man with an impressive blond mustache.
“Wine!” Fabrizio said. He signaled toward the tavern owner, who came over with a glass. Erno thanked him.
They had a bottle in front of them, an inhaler, and the standard hookah that sat on every table. Smoking, so rare as to be remarkable back home, was common in the taverns. So they smoked, they inhaled, they drank mood teas. They slipped from Persian into their native languages. Fabrizio spoke English, and Taher’s parents had been refugees from England. Zdeno knew English well enough to carry on a conversation.
Fabrizio told about his working with a new chef who was so short that he could not reach the top shelves of the pantry. Taher eyed the next table over, where two young men sat watching, heads wreathed in smoke. “Watch your language,” he said. “Those guys are basiji.”
“They have no authority,” said Erno. “If they try anything we’ll get them arrested.”
Fabrizio studied them. “We’re guest workers. We take jobs meant for good Muslims, then spend our earnings on wine.”
“Yet here they are,” Erno said, “missing evening prayer. Fuck them.”
One of the men said a few words to his companion.
Zdeno, drunker than anyone, seized on the subject. “The purpose of society is to enable all of God’s people to prosper. But multiethnic societies are trouble.”
When Zdeno got going, the mix of high-flown political theory and personal resentment reminded Erno of the earnest debate among the masculinists back in the Society.
Taher took a hit from the inhaler, then passed it to Zdeno. “Difference means persecution. Always true, anywhere you go.”
“Some places are worse than others,” said Erno.
“You don’t like it here?” Zdeno said.
Erno already had a buzz on. “I’m tired of being on the bottom.”
Fabrizio said, “We could learn a lot from you Cousins.”
At one time Erno would have laughed at that. “Maybe,” he said grudgingly. “Fowler is no paradise.”
“You’re just pissed because they threw you out,” said Zdeno. “But trying to defuse violence through social practices suited to male and female biology—not police or drugs or neural engineering—it’s admirable.”
“Plus, I hear the sex is good,” Taher said.
“Are the women forced to say yes?” Fabrizio laughed. “Maybe Zdeno might stop talking.”
Erno needed to piss. He got up, knocking over his chair. Overcompensating, he tried to catch it and hit the knee of one of the two men at the nearby table. “My sincere apology,” he said.
“You are a drunkard,” the man said in English.
“You are correct,” Erno said, raising his index finger. “But I am a drunkard student of your great poets,” he added, practicing his Persian. The man looked at him stonily.
When he returned from the men’s room, Taher was telling Zdeno and Fabrizio, “The whole point of the hegira was not to escape our culture, but to recover it.”
“Cousins are the opposite,” Erno said. “The reason the Society moved to the moon was to create a new culture. New songs, new stories, new myths.” He took another hit on the inhaler.
“I have nothing against the Society of Cousins,” Zdeno said. “Except the idea of them causes trouble with women everywhere.”
Fabrizio groomed his mustache with his forefinger. “There’s that,” he said. “Plus, men there can’t vote.”
“Yes, I couldn’t vote there,” Erno said. He set down the inhaler. “And I can’t vote here. Most nearside men are just low-grade neural nets for rent. If they ever make an AI with common sense, they’ll turn people like us into fertilizer.”
Taher said, “I’m a citizen—”
Taher’s citizenship, which he never ceased talking about, was a joke. Taher’s real given name was George; his parents had escaped to the moon when the British Isles fought the Caliphate. He was no more Persian than Erno.
“Which shows what citizenship gets you,” Erno said. “Look over there.” At another table five men were smoking hashish. “They probably don’t make any more money than we do. That guy in the middle, doesn’t he work at the mine?”
Taher looked over, squinting. “That’s Kemal. He’s in the distillery. He makes twice what we make.”
“The thing is,” Fabrizio said, “is that we are all brothers and sisters. Everywhere. No matter what genetics, cultures, politics.”
Zdeno laughed. “When Fabrizio takes over the kitchen, everyone will eat for free.”
Erno bumped the table, rattling their cups, and the inhaler started to fall. Fabrizio caught it. “We’re the oppressed,” Erno said. “We’re like criminals. Half the people in the freezers are migrants like us.”
“They’re in the freezers because they broke the law.”
“Everyone breaks the law,” Erno said, “when they need to.”
“You too, Erno?”
They didn’t know that he’d gotten his mother killed; he wasn’t about to tell them. “In Mayer, ten years ago, I robbed a man that lived next door to me. I needed money, so I broke into his rooms. And I stole his hand.”
“You stole his hand?”
“It was artificial. It was stupid—I took it with me when I fled the colony. I still have it. Someday I will give it back.” Erno’s mood only got blacker. For all he knew, Alois was as dead as his mother.
“We all do bad things,” Fabrizio said. “Nobody is blaming you.”
Erno gestured at the next table. “You think those men wouldn’t like to put us out the nearest airlock?”
One of the men looked up.
“Keep your voice down,” Taher said.
Erno broke away from the man’s glare. “At least in the Society a man can do whatever he wants, and the polity supports him. He wants to be a poet, then he writes poetry. And people listen. They care about poetry. Not like here.”
“You hate it so much here,” Taher said, “then go back.”
Erno’s anger had run to its habitual dead end. He never spoke of home without longing—until faced with the prospect of return.
“I’ll never go back,” he said.
“Let me buy you something to eat,” said Fabrizio, touching Erno’s forearm. “The chelow-khoresh here is pretty good. And coffee—you have to admit Persepolis has the best coffee. Meanwhile, why don’t you recite us one of these poems you’re always talking about.”
“Yes,” Zdeno said. “Something in Persian. Make it sing.”
Erno looked at them bleary-eyed. Why not? He stood. “I’m sure our neighbors won’t mind. They’re no doubt poets themselves.” Turning his back on the other table, he declaimed, “Here is the wisdom of the great king Hushang, grandson of the very first king of all time, Kayumars—Persians do love their kings—and Hushang was a good one.
“In his time he struggled mightily
Planning and inventing innumerable schemes
But when his days were at an end,
For all his sagacity and dignity, he departed.
The world will not keep faith with you
Nor will she show you her true face.”
Erno found himself swept up in melancholy. Poetry was all he had.
“Shut up!” came a voice from behind him.
He turned. The man who had locked eyes with him was scowling.
“That’s right, I said quit your fool’s bumbling, you pallid eunuch. You have no right to those words. Go back to whatever godforsaken hole you came from.”
Erno touched his hand to his forehead, then to his breast, and made an elaborate bow. “I beg your pardon, brother. May I be your sacrifice?” The elegance of his gesture was marred when he had to catch his hand on the edge of the table to keep from falling.
He turned to Zdeno and Fabrizio and leaned in, shielding his mouth with the back of his hand. “There’s no music in that man’s soul.”
“Calm down, Erno,” Zdeno said.
He heard the men stir. “What did he say?”
“I am perfectly calm,” Erno told Zdeno, “because I do come from a godforsaken hole. Which reminds me of another poem”—he switched to English now—“by the great Celtic poet William Butler Yeats, spokesman for another abused minority. He said:
“The night can sweat with terror as before
We pieced out thoughts into philosophy,
And planned to bring the world under a rule,
Who are but weasels fighting in a hole—”
He had gotten only this far when they hit him in the back of the head with a chair.
• • • • •
Devi was the last out of the rack in the ROD control cubicle. She came over to Erno. “What happened out there?”
Erno rubbed the back of his head where the neural fibers on the inside of his cap had not wanted to let loose. He could still feel the knot where the guy had hit him with the chair, and when he looked at his fingertips, despite the dim light from the telltales, he saw a gleam of blood. “I got buried, Devi. I think that’s obvious.”
“You shouldn’t have been so deep in the crease! And you”—she turned to Taher—“should have known better than to try to pull him out. Now we’ve lost two RODs instead of one.”
Taher towered over them, so tall that when strapped to the rack, his feet hung over the end. “I thought I could pull him out. Then we wouldn’t have lost any.”
“Explain that to Mr. Buyid.”
Erno couldn’t let that happen. If he lost this job, he would be expelled from Persepolis. He couldn’t take another flight, or worse, ten years in a freezer. “Buyid would have to shut down the operation for a shift in order to use the other RODs to dig ours out,” he said. “We’d be fired. Please, Devi. You keep things quiet here, while Taher and I suit up and go retrieve the RODs.”
“Exo? In person? You can’t do that.”
“I’m not going out there,” Taher said.
“I’ve logged extensive hours on the surface,” Erno said. “We did it all the time back in the Society.”
“At forty degrees Kelvin?”
“Do you want to get fired?” Erno asked.
Devi’s brow furrowed. She glanced around the other alcoves, where other three-person teams lay in their racks, still plugged into their RODs, oblivious to what had happened. “The shift will be over in three hours. I can’t keep Buyid from finding out for long.”
“He doesn’t care what goes on here,” Erno said, “as long as the quotas are filled.”
“Maybe. But if Eskander ever hears about it, we’ll all be in trouble.”
“We’re already in trouble. Give us two hours. If we’re not done by then, you turn us in.”
“I must be crazy,” Devi said. She reached for her cap. “Just get back quick, and don’t get hurt.”
“Come on,” Erno said to Taher, and they headed out of control and down the corridors to the airlock complex. Taher started cursing the minute they were away from the center. “I haven’t been exo in three years. Do you know how cold it is out there?”
Erno didn’t know what he was supposed to do about it. “Yes.”
The seldom-used personnel airlock was down an ancient industrial tube whose walls had been sealed with cement thirty years ago and not cleaned since. The concrete path that ran down the center of the tube was crusty with the grit of decades; if you kicked up a pebble it would racket off the wall and bounce for meters before coming to rest. The air tasted of ozone from the cutters and electric carts.
Taher opened the chamber that held the heavy-duty surface suits. He powered one up and walked it out of the closet. Unlike the light, flexible skinsuits Erno was used to from back at Fowler, this was a massive lozenge with two pillarlike legs that ended in triangular intelligent feet like some ungainly waterfowl, and massively insulated power-assist sleeves with articulated artificial hands for delicate work. Erno opened the suit at the waist and climbed in, fitted his legs into the suit’s servo legs, then leaned forward and dove arms first into the top. The suit’s top swung up and sealed him inside. Erno took a tentative step. He had trained on such a suit when he came to work at the ice works, but had logged only the minimum time, and never out in Faustini. His boasted surface experience had come in completely different circumstances.
Taher sealed himself into his own suit. His voice sounded in Erno’s helmet. “So, let’s get this over with.”
They walked the awkward suits through the archway at the end of the chamber to the secondary personnel airlock. The corridor was empty. Had Devi somehow managed to clear the place of witnesses?
The secondary airlock was full of trash. The ice works had been one of the first industries built at Persepolis, and the least modernized over the years. As long as profits could be made selling water, there was little immediate market incentive to improve efficiency or prevent waste. In practice this meant that machinery got neglected unless it broke down. The secondary airlock had not been used for a long time, and workers had come to take breaks in it. The floor was covered with food wrappers. Fines from the lunar surface were everywhere, caked on walls, switches, and valves.
Taher pressed the exit sequence and the old valves began cycling air out of the lock. When the pressure fell below thirty-six millibars they opened the outer hatch and walked out into the maze. Some of the lights were out, which made the corners darker than sleep. Erno switched on his helmet and shoulder lights. The floor rose as they reached the end of the baffles and came out onto the surface.
For three months he had been working out here by remote, but this was the first time he had seen the surface in physical presence. The basin fell a thousand meters below the lunar surface and never saw sunlight. The rail system for the carts exited from the processing facility and ran across the surface, beneath area lights, to the mining sites a kilometer distant. Taher and Erno moved over to the track and mounted a small car. Erno hit the controls in his suit and the car started up; through the seat he felt the low rumble. He drew his hands up out of the gloves to keep his fingers warm.
They rode out to the mining cleft. As they approached, the size of the deposits was impressed on Erno in a way he had never experienced by remote presence. The ice, which had been gathering here for billions of years, rose in a dark mass from the rugged floor of the crater. Faint starlight revealed heaped and humped shoulders and blocks and cliffs, starting small but, ahead of them, rising thirty meters or more. The mining that had gone on for sixty years had eaten away maybe ten percent of the estimated mass, but the rate of use had accelerated in the last decade. Some estimated that, at the current rate, the basin’s deposits would be exhausted in thirty years.
“I’m already cold,” Taher said. “What are we doing out here?”
Erno had enough with his whining. “Shut up, Taher,” he said. “Nobody made you come.”
“You asked me.”
“And you said yes. Take some responsibility for yourself.”
“Excellent talk from a guest worker.”
“Yeah, I’m a guest worker, and you were raised here. And both of us are working in this frozen shithole. What does that tell you about yourself?”
“I should have let those men dismantle you last night,” Taher said.
Devi’s voice came over the comm. “I can hear all this.”
“Shut up, both of you,” Erno said.
It came to Erno then how angry he was, angrier than he had ever been since he had left Fowler. Enraged, out here in an antiquated suit trying to cover up an accident that wasn’t his fault, in a job he hated, in a place where he was and always would be a stranger. Furious at the way everything inevitably went, at his loneliness and powerlessness and at the dumb brutishness of reality.
But there was more to it than that. He’d been furious the night before, too. With those other drunken men he’d acted out of dick measuring, trying to win a stupid contest of intimidation. It wasn’t him, losing his sense of proportion like this—or at least not what he used to be. He had changed, been coarsened by living among men always looking down on him, asserting mastery, pushing him under so they could be up. He used to let this go, taking the properly detached Cousins’ attitude—most of his childhood had been about learning to avoid these testosterone-fueled games. But now it had come to matter to him. He was becoming the man that Tyler had wanted him to be. It had taken a decade.
So now I’m truly ruined, Erno thought. I’m one of them.
The cart ran down the long decline into the notch where they had been working. The sky retreated into the gap above them; the lights on their suits, and the area lights ahead, were the only illumination. He had to get out of here. He couldn’t live like this anymore. He hoped Taher would spread the story of his rage. He would rather be what Anadem had called him back in Mayer—The Deadly Señor P—than what he was: a refugee with no prospects, dependent on a culture he didn’t understand.
When they arrived at the notch, they spent the next hour cutting though the icy rubble to reach the RODs. Devi’s ROD was there with them, and she helped move what they cleared. They worked sloppily now, not worrying about wasting water through overheating and sublimation. When they cleared Taher’s ROD they found it functional and told it to return to the shed under its own power. But they couldn’t find Erno’s. Erno thought he knew where it should be, but the shape of the notch had been completely altered by the collapse. They wasted thirty minutes uncovering nothing.
It was ten minutes shy of the two hours Devi had granted them, and Taher was hinting they should go back and face Mr. Buyid, when Erno, balancing on a heap of jumbled avalanche ice, spotted a metal foot five meters below him. He clambered carefully down into the pit.
“Erno, we need to get back,” Taher insisted.
Devi’s voice chimed in. “There’s no time, Erno. The rest of the crews are coming out of link and already know something is up. Buyid is going to know regardless of whether you save the ROD.”
Erno ignored them. He tried to steady himself on the slurry of crushed fragments at the bottom, beside the partially exposed ROD. Eager to be done with it, he turned his plasma cutter on full and directed it at the surrounding ice.
A blast of steam flew into his faceplate, obscuring his vision. He lost his balance. The mountain of broken ice that towered above him began to slide, then fall, slowly, inevitably. Pieces drummed on the helmet, shoulders, and back of his clumsy suit. He dropped the cutter and tried to move but it was useless. For the second time that shift Erno was buried in ice.
But this time he would not wake up back in the control room. He tried to move. Even with the magnified strength of the suit’s servos, he could not budge. Everything was black. His left arm was twisted at an odd angle, and a shooting pain lanced his hand. He felt the cold creep up his arms. He withdrew his right one from the sleeve, but his left was trapped. His hand was going numb.
What was that verse he had read just the other day? Something about the thousand ill turns of fate. Hafêz had that one right.