The paint was peeling off the curved metal walls while the queue for meds snaked through the corridor, moving like a glacier, almost imperceptible to the eye. My gaze couldn’t help being drawn to the flakes of off-orange, lifting away from the gun-gray composite underneath. First you ignore blistering paint during an inspection, then a hairline crack; eventually we’re all pulled towards God and holding our breath ‘til we burst as we do so.
The line shuffles forward.
New bodies ahead of me. Hotsteppers, in politer circles. Fleeing Earth’s stagnation and hungry for purpose. Not yet used to Ganymede’s low gravity so each footfall is ginger, like the metal tiles’ll bite ‘em or burn ‘em. You can recog a hotstepper even when they’re standing still: so earnest. Double-check their forms, wait patiently, then look surprised when they are turned away.
The kids are the worst: there’s two. Still having fun; it’s all so new. One waves to God or maybe she sees a ship.
My hands shake. I take a deep breath and stare at the broken paint.
Two mamas from ‘stepping, that’s me. Line-readers and plant movers, mostly. My parents’ parents must have looked like this family, wide-eyed, bundled against the low temp, dizzy from the slightly low O2, afraid but hopeful all the same.
I hook a live fingernail under one of the flakes of paint and give it a twist, pulling it away.
The line shuffles forward.
An automaton rolls along-side, urging people to be more orderly and closer to the wall; in the slowness and boredom we’ve spread like mech grease into all available volume. Humanity in diorama.
The opposite wall is a bank of windows. Jupiter rises over Ganymede’s small horizon, the brown-banded bulk filling our view, though God’s eye not yet watching us. The hotsteppers ignore the automaton to lean towards the windows, entranced by the swirling clouds. Us Ganis, we stay near the wall, eyes darting to the nearest handhold each time we assume a new location.
Those of us that survived the riots, I mean.
Someone throws a meal can at the automaton. It doesn’t slow or stop but part of its carapace rotates, scanning. A person might have narrowed eyes as they pick up the debris; it calmly extends a cleaning tube to disappear the can, its neutral voice requesting consideration.
Hunching my shoulders deeper into my coat gently pulls my dead hand inside the sleeve. I just want to fill my prescription and go back to my cube and my bed.
Ahead of me raised voices break the line as everyone else stops talking to stare. The two men shove each other, and the automaton reappears, blinking red, urging cessation.
This is all I goddamn need.
The deckherder’s objecting to his prescription being denied. Either he hasn’t paid the bribe or his gang’s blacklisted but here we are. He’s old enough to know how the moon spins but he’s going to make it someone else’s fault today: maybe the automata, maybe that newcomer family.
Maybe me, the half-and-halfer, dead fingertips still visible out of their coat sleeves, dead heart as close to hammering as its program ever lets it.
Just wanted to get my painkillers.
Two more automata, summoned like bad luck on a good day, roll up. But the deckherder’s buddies are here too. Lifers pull back; hotsteppers crane.
I grasp the sleeve of the father, he’s the closest to me, and shake him out of his snake-necking. “Go home,” I urge. “Get your kids out of here. Come back tomorrow.”
He looks me up and down, confused—I’m a head shorter, and a dozen kilos less massive—then realizes why my grip is so cold, too tight, and unyielding.
“You’re one of them!” he says. And the asshole is beaming like a spotlamp, straight Earth teeth bright against his dark cheeks. “You’re a motley!”
Heads turning. Watching me.
To lifers I’m an embarrassment, a symbol of how backward Ganymede still is. To new arrivals I’m personification of the ‘33 riots. To gangs like the one those deckherders cut themselves for, I’m an example of how the robot-loving government doesn’t do enough to protect real people.
I break my grip and wipe my face with my live hand. “Go home, man, get your kids out of here.”
But his eyes narrow. He turns to the automata while stepping away from me, shielding his kids from me, pointing. “She just threatened me!”
Three automata, four deckherders bloated on steroids and stupidity, and one scrawny half-dead enby with a single painkiller left at home.
Both hands up. Heart thumping; so glad it decided to join the party.
The automaton, the one closest to me and the idiot tree-climber, whirrs its way over. It asks what happened and then one of the deckherder’s chunkhead buddies throws a full meal.
The can misses by a meter to bounce off a pipe over my head.
The pipe is old; this quarter hasn’t been inspected recently; the can hits with enough force to crack the aged and fragile plastic sealant. The noise of escaping gas prompts screams and shoves: a clever distraction, born of hisses signalling the worst kind of danger for generations.
And then one of the other deckherders pulls a taser. The automaton manages a squawk of errored-out surprise before it shuts down, sagging on its casing.
The other automata are on the deckherders in an artificial instant—tasers are illegal—but two of the bleeders manage to heave up the bulk of the fallen bot, arms straining from steroids meant to prevent muscle loss in the low G and abused in the name of chest-thumping masculinity.
Gravity is low but mass is constant.
On Earth, I’ve heard, an automaton wouldn’t be liftable by four men, let alone two. But lift it they do, and he and his tattooed buddy hurl it like the primates they are.
All I can see is the smaller kid’s face. He was fascinated by Jupiter rising. It was all so new. Delightful.
My dead hand reaches out to grab the kid by the front of his coat. My good hand grabs at his sister. I can lift things too, steroids or no steroids; I throw them to the closest handhold and hope they have the sense to grip.
The crack in the broken window spreads, jagged finger by jagged finger, epochally slow and yet as fast as the winds I’ll fall up into.
The window breaks and the screams drown in the rush of air.
I open my eyes. Everything is raw and screaming but far away; it’s a different person who hurts. I inhale: bad idea. Necessary but bad. My world is wrong somehow, flatter. I reach with dead fingers to my face and touch gauze instead of cheekbone or eyelid.
The white-robed doctor comes in, their assistant automaton in gleaming silver. Seen that kindly look on doctor’s faces before; the price of that expression was an arm, heart, and lung.
“How many lost?” I croak, my voice transmitted from somewhere outside the Oort, distorted and bundled in pharmaceutical swaddling.
“None,” the automaton replied, sounding female to me. Or maybe it just sounded kind. “By blocking the breach with your body you saved the others.”
I don’t remember doing that. I do remember my ears popping and both sets of fingers clutching shards of glass.
“Unfortunately,” the doctor continued, head tilted, hands crossed over the chart in their hands, “There were some complications from the decompression…”
I turn my head away from them. No windows here; good. I wouldn’t want God to look down on me like this. To my right is a small locker. There’s a bottle of pills with my name and number on it, my prescription filled after all.
I close my live eye. I can feel the phantom sliver of paint under my fingernail. Even in my drug-sogged haze the sensation is vivid and encompassing.
These are the little moments that I’ll remember, as Ganymede takes me apart piece by bloody piece.