Randall G. Arnold
Blond, bronzed children dashed through the gathering throng with the abandon that only imagined immortality could grant. Their laughter was tinkling melody to the rhythmic bass thrum of approaching spacecraft. Families and whorewives clustered around each of the massive landing pads by the dozens, closer than allowed, which just emboldened the running youngsters. Periodically some listless launch proctor would interrupt festivities with a stern reminder of his one power, hoarse voice booming tired warnings over crackling speakers, and the crowd would meekly retreat.
Except the children, who raced in and toward oblivion.
The whorewives stood distinct for the most part, tolerated for their service but shunned for its necessity. Their number included a small percentage of young men: lithe, preening boys whose glib gossip curled the lips of straight men and tugged the ears of their women.
Many of the fliers returned Earthward to empty dwellings, most having left or lost family long ago. They would be out for months sometimes, and family came and went. There would always be whorewives.
Leen craned her neck to spy around shifting souls, constantly batting long hanks of thick black tresses from her sun burnt face. The gritty wind pressed embattled natives to keep their own hair cropped or covered, and the prostituting males nearby snickered at this gawky stranger’s ignorance.
The mission controllers deliberately randomized touchdowns, and kept that information guarded and priced higher than most could or would pay. So the crowd naturally distributed itself fairly evenly, rearranging in mad adaptations almost every time a landed ship hatch discharged a shaky occupant. Long ago, children had made a game of this, incorporating rules that parents now had largely forgotten. Some smiled nostalgically at the laughter alone. Few adults could afford that, either.
Young women like Leen found themselves at that awkward crossroads between child and adult, accepted by neither and damaged by personal trauma far more deleterious than the relentless communal toil against desertification. Emotionally stunted, they found occasional acceptance in the transient arms of fliers… who tended to leave before the corrosive residue of any whorewife’s troubled past encrusted them, as well.
Leen bore the additional burden of Roma heritage, something the peninsula’s insular natives refused to let her forget. This was the richest livelihood allowed someone like her here, and one she understood could be killed on any civic whim. She could die, too, and none would know or care. Her body would fertilize some local lord’s fortunate garden. Another discarded girl would be sucked into her life’s vacuum.
Worthless, worthless, a voice from her past taunted. Leen clenched delicate fists and fought it off.
Those crowded around the landing pads were made peers for a brief time. They each awaited the same thing, Summer heat beating down on them all with a blistering, democratic brutality.
Just Leen and a handful of effeminate men waited at a safe distance from this particular pad. The cracked and pitted concrete disk was larger than most, built to serve a rare class of carrier, and ringed by a mostly-useless metal rail. Men with families favored the smaller, bell-shaped craft for their shorter jaunts. The serious loners landed here.
Many meters away, a tow-headed little boy scratched something into the dust with his sandal. Leen noticed it was a copy of a symbol at the entry gate just before his mother quickly wiped it clean and scolded him in hushed but frantic tones.
The launch proctors had not seen the transgression. Arrival announcements proceeded uneventfully.
The ribbon shade of a leveled hand was not near enough to protect against the insistent sun. Squinting into the glare, Leen could not spy the silver ship she knew to be approaching but she could tell by the rising excitement of nearby boys and the change in air pressure that patience was about to pay off for someone.
Squeals of laughter turned to shrieks as children rushed up and dared each other to jab dirty toes onto a pad’s sunbaked edge. Crowd-reinforced jeers, cowardly shoves and stumbles, the barking of the proctors. Leen heard only the furious roar of protesting retrofire.
A new man stepped up near her right shoulder. She pivoted to size him up: much larger in every way than the boys, who shrank back from his sky-blue stare and begrudgingly ambled off to other pads. Even as a newcomer Leen understood there had to be a certain history here, and the hulking stranger showed no interest in pretty males. The girl’s dark eyes made contact with his, and she smiled shyly. There was no response; his true focus was over her head. Still, she could not tear herself away. There was something about this dismissive man, a regal bearing that defied his commoner’s clothing. As he drew back with the pad’s small crowd, she followed reflexively.
So wrapped up was she in scrutiny that Leen barely registered the pressure of hot lowering thrust pushing against her back. She did not even notice the actual touchdown until her knees unwittingly flexed with the thud.
The usual landing measures proceeded with practiced care. First cooling, then disembarking, then inspection. After the first two were satisfied, a couple of auditors would approach each landed craft, wind-tussled clipboards in hand, to check more for contraband than the pilot’s condition. Often pilots went completely ignored during the process, unless an auditor felt something suspicious or they were short on some quota. They were paired to ensure accuracy and objectivity, and reduce the opportunity for graft. Bribes were said to happen nonetheless; bureaucracy just doubled a flier’s cost.
Leen peered with sharp interest as fuel-celled cooling carts were rushed to this pad. Handlers moved like dancers in their deployment of the hoses, executing a well-rehearsed ballet of technical wizardry. Cooling was almost as much art as science, a function that, if poorly-performed, could cripple a ship with fatal cracks. Engine repair techs were rare and expensive; a cooler handler could lose several months’ pay covering their rescue work.
Once the steam had dissipated, a klaxon clamored for attention. The big ship’s hatch creaked open and disgorged a grey-suited figure… also taller than average, on the thin side and overly cautious based on his slow descent down the deployed ladder. Or maybe just in no real hurry to return to grave reality.
He stood for a moment, facing the girl and the silent giant shadowing her. Then the helmet came off and he was all yellow beard and tanned face and toothy smile. He shouted something rough in their language and the larger man laughed. Behind her, heavy boots crunched red gravel in impatience. Then the auditors arrived and the old game was on. But after he shed his suit the exchange seemed routine, and in minutes the pilot was allowed to sign off and leave. Leen caught the local word kiitos and then braced in anticipation as he clumsily strode her way, spongey space legs still protesting their abrupt return to gravity. And he took absolutely no notice of her or anyone else for that matter, clasping the other man in a huge familial hug and exclaiming something warm and relieved.
The two men ambled off toward town, leaving the Roma girl discouraged and embarrassed. More voices of desolate legacy flooded her skull.
“You have nothing that anyone wants!”
“Good for whoring once, and only as a last resort!”
Leen winced at the mental onslaught, breathed reflexively and rapidly for a tiny eternity. Chipped nails plunged again into calloused palms. Once the familiar panic had faded, she hoisted her worn canvas bag of scant, prized belongings, sighed and resolutely trudged toward town after the two long, receding shadows.
In years long past this inland town had enjoyed a curious mix of industries traditional and forward-looking. Paper milling competed with software development houses for prime real estate. Cool days of cloudy quiet were followed by cold nights enveloping pub crawlers, music seekers and disentranced students. Fortunes were made here, but not in the Pyrrhic-fashion typical of other advanced cities. Natives were prone to be as averse to risk as they were clever in innovation. This tension drove stretches of nanny-cultural status quo defense punctuated by bursts of creative advancement. The unhurried rhythm of economic rise and fall resonated in the pulse of every local entrepreneur.
That had all changed when the Earth fell.
Leen had never learned why the planet’s axis shifted, nor why the crust was then able to slip its moorings and slide freely across the mantle, transplanting some landmasses intact but leaving much destruction behind and even before them. There had been aftershocks in her parents’ time, smaller shudderings as the tortured world settled with protest into its new alignments. Each brought new but familiar horrors: earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanic releases that violently reconfigured the landscape and fouled the air. This landmass had already been slowly rising due to post-glacial rebound; the crust shift just exacerbated it, and callously drained freshwaters into an equally uncaring ocean.
Mankind had been bottlenecked to near-extinction levels. Only the most fortunate or resourceful had survived.
This largely-unscathed peninsula had enjoyed much cooler weather in the before times. Now it lurked closer to the equator, and had not seen any of its legendary snows in Leen’s lifetime. Indeed, as decades progressed a new desert had formed as flora unable to adjust to such heat died off in mass quantities. Some forest remained, but as more as scattered collections of stubborn scrub than the majestic fir colonies of old. Over time, other species not previously native had arrived, borne in by wind, water and fowl to create a curious floral mix.
There was an era when the founders here had built respectfully around Nature’s bounty, careful to preserve their tenuous connection to Eden. But precious little vegetation grew in the city proper now. Desalination was a costly business; personal gardens and green landscapes were a luxury reserved for the extremely wealthy. The once-full Tammerkoski channel had long since been strangled to a trickle, and used as a broad, gurgling footpath.
Along the bed’s dry edges, enterprising outcasts had erected flimsy storefronts against the cliff walls for the grey and black markets. And for every dozen or so scrappy retail merchants, a wayfarer could find a cheap hostel. Leen was dismayed to see ragged, flapping signs presenting forbidding prices, rates she had not anticipated. The man she had paid for passage to this place had not only insisted on a sickening sum, he had lied about what she would encounter. The price of information here had further depleted her life savings.
“You have nothing!”
Hunger and thirst demanded her attention much more than sleep. This disappointing trip had drained her emotionally and physically. No luck at the landing pads. Now perhaps no decent bed for this night, unless she used her talents.
Leen observed the pilot and his friend turn into a tavern ahead, and she hesitated. For this she had traveled… but was it really what she wanted? Giving her body over to paying strangers had become a mindless task, sure, but there was more commitment to the venture she now considered. Connecting to this pilot would be a life-altering event, and Leen now wholly knew fear of the unknown. Even the pawing johns of home had been familiar, one swarthy, leering face as good as another. She had come to no longer feel their greedy hands upon her.
The whorewife candidate blinked out sun and dust, suddenly aware of resident eyes hard on her.
How long have I been standing here, like an idiot?
Steeling herself, Leen continued pursuit of her quarry.