Excerpt: The Best of Both Worlds
The Hand’s iron grip extends to the outer reaches of space. Even here, in a tiny space-faring exploration vessel, their orders are absolute and inescapable. Only my thoughts are my own, and only barely so. It won’t be long before we’re all wearing the Mind-Scanner 3000 by decree.
I’m sorry, I mean the Glasses. The Glasses were supposed to let you watch Net feed on the go, but they stopped being mandatory equipment years ago. Rumor had it that they were just a tool by which the Hand could watch us. Our innermost thoughts. Our feelings. Our fears. Our private revolutions. Thank fuck they considered all that information too unwieldy to collect on a daily basis. Or they just ran out of working pairs. Who knows?
I hear the buzzer, loud and clear, a long sound designed to be just painful enough to the ears to get us out of bed. I stop feigning sleep, open my eyes, and jump down from my bunk. A red pair of overalls covers me inelegantly, like I’m some kind of prisoner instead of one of the Hand’s most privileged citizens. I get to see deep space. I’m lucky. Yeah.
The second buzzer goes off and I stand up straight. The gravity generator seems a little off-kilter this morning and I lurch forward before righting myself. I feel nauseous afterward, but that doesn’t stop me from saluting the vid-monitor set into the wall in front of me where our Glorious Leader’s image runs in the same looped footage, day after day. He steps forward and shakes hands with military commanders, children and families.
Even though my room is empty (besides myself, that is), I keep my face set in the correct expression: wonder that any human being could be so amazing. The Glorious Leader Jae-sung Valesko, Honorable Leader of the People, Commander in Chief of the World, and Savior of the Human Race. I’m not kidding about that last part. After the Hand annexed most of the world with the nukes they’d been stockpiling in North Korea, Jae-sung Valesko declared it to have been “saved” from the horrors of Western civilization. Mostly they just ditched gay marriage and replaced God with a tacky kind of leader-worship. It’s not like the governments of the world weren’t watching our every move by then anyway. They were just slightly less overt about imprisoning and killing people who didn’t agree with them.
Anyway, I’ll try to keep my rebellious thoughts to a minimum. You never do know when a camera is picking up on one of those tiny quirks in my facial expression when I come up with a fantastic idea to lampoon the Supreme Leader. Which is about seventeen times a day. It’s not like I really hate the guy, I’m just sick of seeing his face and the expressionless drones who follow him without question.
You’d think people would question Jae-sung Valesko and the Hand a little more, but nuclear weapons have a way of making people edgy in ways you wouldn’t believe. I suppose the thought of your hometown being irradiated for a thousand years is a tough proposition, but I can’t say there’s any place I would really call home. Certainly not the fleapit city of New York where I was born. That city killed my mother from the inside out until I eventually found what was left of her dead in our apartment. The needle was still in her arm.
Dad? What dad? The families in Jae-sung Valesko’s videos are just as much a fantasy as his numerous titles. People don’t even get married any more, much less divorced. Valesko fears the strength of the family unit as much as he tries to propagate its legend, and close-knit families often find their head-of-household torn away from them by mandatory military service or labor camp duty, in an attempt to prevent the kind of loyalty that might spark a revolution. I think the human race only manages to procreate because of drunken one-night stands. Few make the rational decision to start a family unless they’re Hand party loyalists, for resources and money are scarce enough among the proletariat that malnutrition is almost guaranteed for those bold or stupid enough to try feeding two people on one of the Hand’s ration cards, and they don’t hand out extras for unapproved children.
I can’t say I’ve ever been in love. I think it’s a myth. I always wished for a family like they showed in the propaganda videos, though. Two smiling parents who really cared about my well-being, a sense of safety instead of fear, the feeling that someone else was sharing my burdens to ease the load. I don’t know what that would be like, but I want it.
The ten-hour (okay, ten-minute) Adoration of the Supreme Leader ends, and I’m left wondering what glorious drone’s going to be moving into the bottom bunk today. Nobody ends up living with me for long. The last woman literally died in her sleep and I didn’t notice for two whole days. I thought it was weird she didn’t get up to salute our Supreme Leader, but that’s how they found out. The cameras sent a correction crew over and it turned out she’d died. Huh.
I make my way to the Turbo Shower, which is really just a way to say you get ten whole seconds of hot water. I’ve learned to wash quickly and tolerate the sudden change in body temperature as the freezing water kicks in. I step inside and close the door, counting to ten as the soapy hot water washes over me… and cold rinse. No, I take it back. That shock will never get easier. We have spaceships, omnipresent cameras and the Mind-Scanner 3000, but they still haven’t figured out how to make a decent space shower.
Stepping out, I dry myself off with the cardboard they refer to as a towel and step into a new jumpsuit that pops out of the wall, crisp and fresh. At least Laundry does their job right. The overalls may not be stylish, what with the same blood red uniform each day and the Hand’s logo printed across the back, but they’re comfortable.
“Andrea Missanaugh, report to Section B2 for your assigned duty.” The tinny speaker recites my day’s assignment twice and I’m on my way, grabbing my protein packet and consuming it while I walk. It’s harder than it sounds, given that the ship lurches a lot and the gravity generator is getting more unstable by the day. I don’t think the Hand expects us to come back from this voyage, or they would have given us a ship that was actually space-worthy. Instead, what we have is a cobbled-together Frankenstein’s monster that looks like it was mostly constructed from obsolete Soviet-era parts. I doubt the escape pods actually work, but we’ve yet to test that theory. Hopefully we won’t have to. I don’t have a lot of faith that any of us would survive. I’m not sure where we’d go, anyway. So far it’s been lonely out here.
I take the elevator down to Section B2. I’m crammed in like a sardine with my other section mates, who all stare impassively ahead like a bunch of robots. You know, it’s not like the Hand really cares if you smile sometimes. In the right place, at the right time. Okay, so maybe it’s not a good idea, but I do it anyway. I’d go mad if I had to act like a drone all the time. I don’t know how they pull it off.
The elevator doors slide (well, creak) open, and we’re down in the basement level. Not that it’s really a basement, just that it’s even more grungy than the rest of the ship. Down in the B levels is where all the magic happens: turning piss back into water, draining carbon dioxide from the air, and turning water into wine. Well, except that. I haven’t had a drink in who-the-fuck-remembers how long. Alcohol is banned onboard, which just means I’m not popular enough to have access to anybody’s contraband. Especially after all this time. Even the alcoholics must be dry by now. Yikes, hadn’t thought of that.
Maybe my new bunkmate will have some… Yeah, right. More than likely I’ll wind up with a washed-up laundry engineer who’s outlived her usefulness. The Hand doesn’t throw the useless out into space… yet. Give them time and they’ll realize that some of these old folks consume more resources than they make.
I don’t think they really understood the repercussions of sending fifty-somethings on a twenty-year space voyage. I was sixteen when I left. Now I’m thirty-six, and fuck-knows (no, I won’t say “Leader knows”) how long we have left to go. Probably until the ship gives up the ghost and we starve to death. Or a hull breach results in rapid decompression. Or the gravity generator gives out and we all suffer massive head injuries from cracking our heads on the ceiling. I spend a lot of time thinking about how I could die. I have to break up the boredom somehow.
“Missanaugh, you’re on P-Station Four,” the Overlord says.
Great. Piss Station Four. Can you guess what that does? I’ll give you a tip: I’m working with water, but I won’t be turning it into wine. I always find it hard to stomach the water after a day at the Piss Station. The stench of urine (and some of these people must have figured out how to brew moonshine) is overpowering. I’d rather be anywhere than here. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, but human waste is beyond the pale. Still, it could be worse. It could be human excrement.
It’s hot down in B2 as well. It’s not long before I’m unclipping my overalls and pulling them down to my waist, revealing my sweaty undershirt. It looks like a wet T-shirt contest in here, my white bra showing through the thin material, but I really couldn’t care less. Let the damn camera operators look, if they’re really that desperate. I can just imagine them jacking off, and it’s not a pleasant thought. I turn my mind back to my violent daydreams and think about what it would be like if the gravity generators died right now. All that piss would float upwards in droplets, and there’d be nothing we could do to avoid breathing it in, since most of the vacuum-powered air filters stopped functioning long ago. Ugh.
The ship lurches. The lights flicker. We look around, confused, but our Overlord gives us a dagger-like stare that says “get back to work.” I turn back to the tubes, turning a valve to reject some yellow-colored water that’s definitely not pure enough. It redirects through a series of tubes, coming to rest in a beaker-like portion that’s exposed to the air, where some of the nastiness is boiled off.
That’s when the lights go out completely and the sound of the hull tearing open is deafening and unmistakable. The screeching is unbearable, like monster-sized nails on a blackboard. The Overlord is shouting something, but I can’t hear what he’s saying. The bubbling of water falls silent.
The gravity generator fails suddenly, and I find myself swimming in air. Feeling a droplet of slightly warm liquid hit my cheek, I discover that my daydream was right about one thing: there wasn’t really a lot we could do when it came to avoiding zero-G droplets of urine.