DOWN TO EARTH
I’m trying to go home. As the poet said, if you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are. Home is where you go to get all that sorted out.
Hoofing it outside Skybase Lewis-McChord, I’m pretty sure this is Washington State, I’m pretty sure I’m walking along Pacific Highway, and this is the twenty-first century and not some fidging movie—
But then a whining roar grinds the air and a broad shadow sweeps the road, eclipsing cafés and pawnshops and loan joints—followed seconds later by an eye-stinging haze of rocket fuel. I swivel on aching feet and look up to see a double-egg-and-hawksbill burn down from the sky, leaving a rainbow trail over McChord field…
And I have to wonder.
I just flew in on one of those after eight months in the vac, four going out, three back. Seven blissful months in timeout, stuffed in a dark tube and soaked in Cosmoline.
All for three weeks in the shit. Rough, confusing weeks.
I feel dizzy. I look down, blink out the sting, and keep walking. Cosmoline still fidges with my senses.
Here on Earth, we don’t say fuck anymore, the Gurus don’t like it, so we say fidge instead. Part of the price of freedom. Out on the Red, we say fuck as much as we like. The angels edit our words so the Gurus won’t have to hear.
Joe has a funny story about fuck. I’ll tell you later, but right now, I’m not too happy with Joe. We came back in separate ships, he did not show up at the mob center, and my Cougar is still parked outside Skyport Virginia. I could grab a shuttle into town, but Joe told me to lie low. Besides, I badly want time alone—time to stretch my legs, put down one foot after another. There’s the joy of blue sky, if I can look up without keeling over, and open air without a helm—and minus the rocket smell—is a newness in the nose and a beauty in the lungs. In a couple of klicks, though, my insteps pinch and my calves knot. Earth tugs harsh after so long away. I want to heave. I straighten and look real serious, clamp my jaws, shake my head—barely manage to keep it down.
Suddenly, I don’t feel the need to walk all the way to Seattle. I have my thumb and a decently goofy smile, but after half an hour and no joy, I’m making up my mind whether to try my luck at a minimall Starbucks when a little blue electric job creeps up behind me, quiet as a bad fart. Quiet is not good.
I spin and try to stop shivering as the window rolls down. The driver is in her fifties, reddish hair rooted gray. For a queasy moment, I think she might be MHAT sent from Madigan. Joe warned me, “For Christ’s sake, after all that’s happened, stay away from the doctors.” MHAT is short for Military Health Advisory Team. But the driver is not from Madigan. She asks where I’m going. I say downtown Seattle. Climb in, she says. She’s a colonel’s secretary at Lewis, a pretty ordinary grandma, but she has these strange gray eyes that let me see all the way back to when her scorn shaped men’s lives.
I ask if she can take me to Pike Place Market. She’s good with that. I climb in. After a while, she tells me she had a son just like me. He became a hero on Titan, she says—but she can’t really know that, because we aren’t on Titan yet, are we?
I say to her, “Sorry for your loss.” I don’t say, Glad it wasn’t me.
“How’s the war out there?” she asks.
“Can’t tell, ma’am. Just back and still groggy.”
They don’t let us know all we want to know, barely tell us all we need to know, because we might start speculating and lose focus.
She and I don’t talk much after that. Fidging Titan. Sounds old and cold. What kind of suits would we wear? Would everything freeze solid? Mars is bad enough. We’re almost used to the Red. Stay sharp on the dust and rocks. That’s where our shit is at. Leave the rest to the generals and the Gurus.
All part of the deal. A really big deal.
Grandma in the too-quiet electric drives me north to Spring Street, then west to Pike and First, where she drops me off with a crinkle-eyed smile and a warm, sad finger-squeeze. The instant I turn and see the market, she pips from my thoughts. Nothing has changed since vac training at SBLM, when we tired of the local bars and drove north, looking for trouble but ending up right here. We liked the market. The big neon sign. The big round clock. Tourists and merchants and more tourists, and that ageless bronze pig out in front.
A little girl in a pink frock sits astride the pig, grinning and slapping its polished flank. What we fight for.
I’m in civvies but Cosmoline gives your skin a tinge that lasts for days, until you piss it out, so most everyone can tell I’ve been in timeout. Civilians are not supposed to ask probing questions, but they still smile like knowing sheep. Hey, spaceman, welcome back! Tell me true, how’s the vac?
I get it.
A nice Laotian lady and her sons and daughter sell fruit and veggies and flowers. Their booth is a cascade of big and little peppers and hot and sweet peppers and yellow and green and red peppers, Walla Walla sweets and good strong brown and fresh green onions, red and gold and blue and russet potatoes, yams and sweet potatoes, pole beans green and yellow and purple and speckled, beets baby and adult, turnips open boxed in bulk and attached to sprays of crisp green leaf. Around the corner of the booth I see every kind of mushroom but the screwy kind. All that roughage dazzles. I’m accustomed to browns and pinks, dark blue, star-powdered black.
A salient of kale and cabbage stretches before me. I seriously consider kicking off and swimming up the counter, chewing through the thick leaves, inhaling the color, spouting purple and green. Instead, I buy a bunch of celery and move out of the tourist flow. Leaning against a corrugated metal door, I shift from foot to cramping foot, until finally I just hunker against the cool ribbed steel and rabbit down the celery leaves, dirt and all, down to the dense, crisp core. Love it. Good for timeout tummy.
Now that I’ve had my celery, I’m better. Time to move on. A mile to go before I sleep.
I doubt I’ll sleep much.
Skyrines share flophouses, safe houses—refuges—around the major spaceports. My favorite is a really nice apartment in Virginia Beach. I could be heading there now, driving my Cougar across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, top down, sucking in the warm sea breeze, but thanks to all that’s happened—and thanks to Joe—I’m not. Not this time. Maybe never again.
I rise and edge through the crowds, but my knees are still shaky, I might not make it, so I flag a cab. The cabby is white and middle-aged, from Texas. Most of the fellows who used to cab here, Lebanese and Ethiopians and Sikhs, the younger ones at least, are gone to war now. They do well in timeout, better than white Texans. Brown people rule the vac, some say. There’s a lot of brown and black and beige out there: east and west Indians, immigrant Kenyans and Nigerians and Somalis, Mexicans, Filipinos and Malaysians, Jamaicans and Puerto Ricans, all varieties of Asian—flung out in space frames, sticks clumped up in fasces—and then they all fly loose, shoot out puff, and drop to the Red. Maybe less dangerous than driving a hack, and certainly pays better.
I’m not the least bit brown. I don’t even tan. I’m a white boy from Moscow, Idaho, a blue-collar IT wizard who got tired of working in cubicles, tired of working around shitheads like myself. I enlisted in the Skyrines (that’s pronounced SKY-reen), went through all the tests and boot and desert training, survived first orbital, survived first drop on the Red—came home alive and relatively sane—and now I make good money. Flight pay and combat pay—they call it engagement bonus—and Cosmoline comp.
Some say the whole deal of cellular suspension we call timeout shortens your life, along with solar flares and gamma rays. Others say no. The military docs say no but scandal painted a lot of them before my last deployment. Whole bunch at Madigan got augured for neglecting our spacemen. Their docs tend to regard spacemen, especially Skyrines, as slackers and complainers. Another reason to avoid MHAT. We make more than they do and still we complain. They hate us. Give them ground pounders any day.
“How many drops?” the Texan cabby asks.
“Too many,” I say. I’ve been at it for six years.
He looks back at me in the mirror. The cab drives itself; he’s in the seat for show. “Ever wonder why?” he asks. “Ever wonder what you’re giving up to them? They ain’t even human.” Some think we shouldn’t be out there at all; maybe he’s one of them.
“Ever wonder?” he asks.
“All the time,” I say.
He looks miffed and faces forward.
The cab takes me into Belltown and lets me out on a semicircular drive, in the shadow of the high-rise called Sky Tower One. I pay in cash. The cabby rewards me with a sour look, even though I give him a decent tip. He, too, pips from my mind as soon as I get out. Bastard.
The tower’s elevator has a glass wall to show off the view before you arrive. The curved hall on my floor is lined with alcoves, quiet and deserted this time of day. I key in the number code, the door clicks open, and the apartment greets me with a cheery pluck of ascending chords. Extreme retro, traditional Seattle, none of it Guru tech; it’s from before I was born.
Lie low. Don’t attract attention.
Christ. No way am I used to being a spook.
The place is just as I remember it—nice and cool, walls gray, carpet and furniture gray and cloudy-day blue, stainless steel fixtures with touches of wood and white enamel. The couch and chairs and tables are mid-century modern. Last year’s Christmas tree is still up, the water down to scum and the branches naked, but Roomba has sucked up all the needles. Love Roomba. Also pre-Guru, it rolls out of its stair slot and checks me out, nuzzling my toes like a happy gray trilobite.
I finish my tour—checking every room twice, ingrained caution, nobody home—then pull an Eames chair up in front of the broad floor-to-ceiling window and flop back to stare out over the Sound. The big sky still makes me dizzy, so I try to focus lower down, on the green and white ferries coming and going, and then on the nearly continuous lines of tankers and big cargo ships. Good to know Hanjin and Maersk are still packing blue and orange and brown steel containers along with Hogmaw or Haugley or what the hell. Each container is about a seventh the size of your standard space frame. No doubt filled with clever goods made using Guru secrets, juicing our economy like a snuck of meth.
And for that, too—for them—we fight.