by James Wolanyk
When the sex finished, he’d slide to the edge of the bed and watch the carpet shifting, eyes hijacked by the amphetamines and their blurred veil of lapis lazuli. Her cardamom perfume would appear behind him, and he’d feel her hands running across his shoulders and into the dip of his collarbone, whispering sweet and generic nothings into his ear: I love you; don’t go. When she spoke, he almost believed it. He’d stand up and wander to the window, letting the city’s ruby neon glow stain his face and flash across dilated pupils.
No different than any other morning, but that day, he felt sick.
He pressed a hand to the glass. Breaths came in short, shallow jerks, the aftermath of a crying fit or anaphylactic shock. Man up, he told himself. It’s not worth it.
“What’s wrong?” she asked from the edge of the bed.
Cromwell glanced at her over his shoulder, staving off empathy, fixed on the way the sunrise painted her blonde hair with streaks of tangerine and violet. Then daylight glinted in her eyes, and he knew he shouldn’t have been there – not then, not ever.
“Nothing,” he said presently.
“No, really, tell me.”
“It’s nothing you need to worry about. It’s my fault.”
He heard the rustling of blankets behind him, smelled cardamom again. A pair of arms wrapped around his stomach. Her skin, warm and soft, pressed against him.
“Tell me,” she said. “I want to know.”
Cromwell’s lips fell open as though to speak, but he stopped, looking into his reflection and wondering how he’d look if his insides matched the outside. Bile churned in his gut.
“Please,” she whispered.
“I can’t,” he said, prying her hands loose. He turned to face her. “Sharla, I need to head out for work again. Will you be alright for a few hours?”
She nodded, smiling. “I’ll be fine.”
“Good. I mean, I’m sorry to leave, but –”
“Work is work.”
“Attagirl. I’ll be back. Hold down for the fort.”
Sharla stood by the window, a slender silhouette, hands clasped behind her back. Cromwell glanced up as he finished buttoning his shirt, struggling to define the emptiness in her eyes. No time to think, however.
He gave a smile, and then he was gone.
The world faded once he stepped out of the chamber. Polygons morphed back to rough edges and virtual grids, and vivid colors became dissected mutations of RBG projectors. Walls of tarnished alloy and wire bundles surrounded Cromwell.
“How was it?” asked the Engineer, lighting a cigarette.
The kid couldn’t have been older than twenty, but he’d worked the chamber since before Cromwell arrived on-station. Wide, eager eyes, a shaved head and slender body, resembling a weasel more than a computer operator. He took a drag from the cigarette.
“Well?” he asked.
Cromwell shrugged. “Same as always.”
“She’s a real looker, you know. How much did that program run you?”
“I made it myself.”
“Based off who?”
Cromwell glanced at the Engineer’s station, with a series of revolving display panels and respective keypads, all displaying hexagonal images within the rendering phases. He deactivated Cromwell’s program, termed Sharla in the top tab. With that, some of Cromwell’s anxieties left him, but the rest remained to fester in the pit of amphetamine-cravings and sleep deprivation.
“They say you can feel everything in a program that you feel in the real-world,” said the Engineer, giving a toothy smile. “You gotta tell me what she’s like.”
In the beginning, the Engineer had asked how he could afford to keep using the program at the station, especially as the prices of virtual immersion started to skyrocket. The other tethers didn’t get it, either. But after so long, the station had come to an austere state of understanding, coming to know Cromwell as the guy who paid his month’s salary to fuck a simulation. What did they know?
He didn’t want to tally up how many credits it would take to see her every day, so instead he did the work required to see her without having to check funds. Dangerous dives, suicidal descents into munitions-carrying freighters – it was all the same to Cromwell.
In the bar, he sat by himself, nursing a highball glass of something strange and brown. It smelled like indelible marker. There might have been a party for the tethers that night, but he wouldn’t have known. He stayed in the booth and watched the incoming pilots through cigarette haze and pool-table-lights, illuminating the darkness like fireflies at dusk. When he had time to think, he wondered how he’d break it to Sharla – the truth, that is.
Something clapped the leather seat beside him. His head snapped up, staring at the silhouette of a man in a flight-suit with his hair tied back. Sweat glistened across his forehead.
“Mind if I sit?” the man asked.
“Jackson,” said Cromwell, his lips tugging for a smile. He nodded to the booth. “Sit down. You need a drink?”
“Nah. And I don’t think you do, either. I’m going to tether-up in a few hours, man. And you’re going out in minutes.”
Cromwell looked down at his glass. “One won’t hurt.”
“Crazy son-of-a-bitch. Remember when you scavenged that mining vessel high on ‘shrooms? I swear, man, you’ve got a death wish.”
“Maybe.” He shrugged. “What’ve you been up to?”
“We just got back from picking apart this escape pod near Centauri Beta. Shit exploded when a solar flare went off about a hundred kilo’s out. Man, you should’ve seen the floaters in there. They weren’t just dead – they were wrecked. Skin was all torn and bubbling, shrapnel in their spines, lungs burst. Goddamn.”
“You know I don’t like to hear about that stuff.”
“Why do you think I tell you it?” Jackson grinned.
“You’re an asshole.”
“I’m also your only friend. On this station, anyway. Tell me – how’s Sharon? Sherry?”
“Yeah, her. What’s up in the virtual world?”
Cromwell stared into his drink. “Same old, same old. Last session, she told me all about her kid. They were from Queensland – you know, Australia. Back on Earth. She said she’d only had one boyfriend and it made me feel, well, I don’t know. Bad.”
Another roll of Jackson’s eyes. He rubbed at his temples, nearly laughing, probably thinking the same things Cromwell had in his head. They both knew she was a simulation, but Jackson had been the only one with the balls to say it outright, to shove it down Cromwell’s throat. Just tell her the truth, he’d told Cromwell once, nursing his fifth beer. She isn’t real. She can take it.
“It’s not as simple as it seems.” He saw the retort begin in Jackson’s eyes, and he felt his fists clench, wishing he could say he didn’t understand the whole story, or that he didn’t know her like he did. But the truth was that he did. “It’s just not simple.”
“Nothing ever is. I’m just saying, you’re a fucking wreck. When was the last time you tethered-up sober?”
“When did I do my first mission?” Cromwell gave a sad, longing smile. “It was a joke.”
“It’d be funnier if it wasn’t true, you know.”
“I’m just going through some stuff. Station isn’t doing any favors. Dark every hour of the day, every goddamn minute. Maybe I’ll take a nice vacation.”
As if he could afford to get off the station.
Jackson finished off his drink. “Whatever you do, work your shit out. You can’t afford to be an alcoholic. Literally.”
Sirens shattered the air, and red lights began to flash as muted strobes in the gloom. The clank of boots stomping over metal grates dampened the alarm. Before Cromwell could move, Jackson extended a hand for a final shake.
“Don’t get fucked up out there.”
Space was perhaps the loneliest entity in existence. It drifted between creation and destruction, housing but never welcoming those who traversed its blackness, content to watch but never speak while vessels burned with the bright blue of thruster arrays. It had filled Cromwell’s fever dreams since his first run, personified as a man with no face but too much to say. If he touched the creature’s face, his fingers would grow numb and dead, and he’d wake to sweat-saturated pillows, his hair matted and damp.
Cromwell sat on the third row of the tether vessel with his back to the wall, leaning forward and embracing his helmet in gloved hands. Ship-created turbulence, fueled by the kick and uneven burning of antimatter in the engine blocks, seemed to rock him into a lullaby. Floor panels vibrated like the carpets within the simulation.
Deafening breaths filled his helmet. He chewed on ginger-flavored gum, a gift from the Japanese tethers, and each exhale fogged his viewport with the aftertaste of a Tokyo steakhouse.
“You ready?” asked the man beside him.
He glanced up in the darkness, watching the wall-mounted bulbs form a curve of light against the man’s helmet. His silhouette watched Cromwell, wordless.
Cromwell tabbed his radio switch. “Ready as I’ll be, man. Where you from?”
“Canis Beta, bro.” He smacked on his gum. “This run’s gonna be worth cash. Military shit, from what I hear. They’ve got enough unexploded ordnance to level a colony in that thing. Dangerous, but the pay, man, the pay.”
“Can’t beat it,” said Cromwell.
He didn’t talk to the other tethers much, because most times, they didn’t come back at all. That, or he couldn’t stand them. They were self-absorbed types – runaways, criminals, addicts – and they all had a sob story that required money at any cost. Friendly as hell on the way to the wreckage site, but once the doors opened and they drifted in the void, spinning and rolling toward those metal skeletons, it became a fight between rabid dogs. He’d seen the veterans shove the newbies into still-burning fuel pockets, or rip their oxygen tubing outright. The sociopaths were easy to spot, carrying knives so they could cut the tethers of their competition. Nobody jumped without a weapon strapped to their thigh.
In that regard, everyone was a sociopath.
Red lights streaked down the upper crest of the bulb panels, signaling the end of the transit phase, and then it was blackness. Total disorientation, with the feeling of gravity falling away and the suit’s automated heat system burning against skin, struggling to overcome the cold vacuum and prevent the exoskeleton’s collapse. Cromwell’s head jerked side to side, watching the others descend like marionettes on glimmering strings, divers in the great darkness with the light of a distant star across their visors.
Dozens of them floated beside him with their arms outstretched like parachutists, though gravity’s pull had been overtaken by the thrusters on their backs. Cromwell’s legs kicked for solid ground. They knew the feel of approaching material, of the solid clap when boots struck metal panels and the magnetic gloves dug into the ship’s skin.
Inertia sucker-punched his ribcage. Velocity snapped to nothingness against the metal, rattling through his bones, dispersing shockwaves through kneecaps and vice-gripped lungs.
Then he was in his element, tumbling and falling in controlled chaos as he struggled to right himself within its ribcage. Ethereal afterglows of the ship’s emergency beacons filled the gas-clouded wreckage with the appearance of cigarette butts in fog, burning and beckoning him to wade further into the mess. Shadows moved through the darkness in silence. Soundtracks of heavy breathing and resonating clanks seized his helmet.
He spun to the side in time to watch a tether activate his spinal thrusters and force another into a wall, shattering the newbie’s helmet glass. Muted screams filled the void, and oxygen rushed in white jets from the crack before he went still.
Shit. He pushed further, through a scorched doorway and past floating bodies, scanning for the reflective chrome of data worth recovering. Personal tablets and classified files paid most, but anything would do. A vessel like that, having gone under just fifteen minutes ago, had a good chance of detonating from its own volatile fuel before anyone could make it out alive. So Cromwell stayed and searched.
Through breaks in the wreckage, Cromwell watched the suited spiders fly back toward the shuttle’s underbelly, yanking on their ripcords for the mechanical pull of the winches. Some of the newer tethers panicked inside the gaseous mess, one just behind Cromwell, and the winches ripped them toward walls and jagged metal. Droplets of blood caught his helmet’s front light.
His fingers worked faster to sort through crates and cabinets. A woman’s voice chimed through his helmet to remind him of his dwindling oxygen, and outside the vessel, more of the tethers pulled up and away. He had to move.
There. Shining, sparkling, dazzling with digital life, the tablet floated from the upturned box. Cromwell snatched the device and hooked it to his belt using a magnetic strip, and then shoved toward the chamber’s exit. He had to get outside before he could pull the ripcord – if not, he’d end up like the dismembered corpses Jackson always talked about.
A door, then another, a never-ending maze of metal and human remains in the fog.
He passed a viewport that looked like the civilian section of the ship, where stuffed animals and mattresses floated in a bizarre cluster. It had been left untouched by the initial disaster, and as a result, pristine bodies drifted beside the glass. Children who died from lack of oxygen looked as though they were asleep. Cromwell hated it.
But someone stood behind the viewport. She had green eyes, a slender face, blonde hair that fell across her shoulders and chest. Red emergency lights stained her hair scarlet for a moment, and in her eyes, he saw panic. He saw fear, and helplessness, and his hand reached out as though he could hold her and save her from the destruction around her. A child stood at her side with those same eyes. Help us, they whispered, please help.
And then he realized them, broken hallucinations flickering in pixels. Blinding white crashed against the viewport and absorbed them into oblivion’s consciousness, reduced to carbon matter and scattered molecules within the shadow.
He yanked his ripcord.
Racing back toward the ship, pulled by the hand of God and barreling through blackness, he felt his fingers shaking. His eyes watered, though it may have been from the amphetamines. He could feel his stomach turn and twist, sickened by their expressions, wondering if his employers knew the ship hadn’t gone under yet, wondering if they sent him to a still-living ship to get the freshest cut of meat rather than sending them to help.
A last glimpse of wreckage, and then back into the belly of the shuttle. Helmets nodded toward him as the return trip began.
Hours later, in the station’s bar, he worked his way through a fourth glass of gin. Empty pill bottles left their hallmark in twitching fingers, disorientation.
“How did it go?” asked Jackson, lighting a cigarette. He glanced around the bar. “How much you get for that tablet?”
“A few thousand,” said Cromwell. He drained the last of his drink. Even to himself, he sounded dead, plagued with robotic apathy. “Say, you ever think about the people on those ships?”
Jackson paused. “Oh, this again.”
“No, really. Do you ever think about the people?”
Jackson shook his head. “You’ve just been drinking. Sleep it off. We all get one bad job or another, but come on. It’s a job. We can’t all get paid to knock back gin.”
“Funny,” he said, and her cardamom perfume materialized for an instant, ghostlike. “She had a kid, man. She had a kid and I just watched. I mean, is that right? Am I the only one who would’ve done that?”
“You got good money for her tablet.”
Cromwell raised his hand for another gin. He gave a shy nod as though he agreed, but he knew the nod was for himself, another acceptance of the lie he’d kept so well. He nodded because he wished he’d sold her tablet, wished he hadn’t read it, wished he hadn’t used her information to program a simulation. But he couldn’t change any of it. He could only nod.
“Maybe you’d better stop there,” said Jackson. He folded his arms. “You look tired. Burned out.”
“Tired as hell.”
He ran a shaking finger around the rim of the highball glass. It had a strange wail, a hollow echo with each pass. Cromwell could hear it now, her fingertips streaking over the viewport window, tasting the suit’s recycled air and wondering if he might’ve reached her in time, if he could’ve attached his tether to her and the little girl. If he hadn’t taken the tablet and run.
It’s not my fault. The words festered in his brain, but it didn’t make them true.
Cromwell looked toward Jackson, suddenly aware. “You know how you were telling me about the corpses you saw, back at the run near Beta?”
“Well,” said Cromwell, staring across the bar, “I mean, were they alive when you got there?”
With that phrase, Cromwell slipped into silence, his eyes focused to something a kilometer in the distance. He looked past Jackson rather than at him, as if he might find the answer to his questions off in the distance – why he’d been the fortunate tether to watch their final moments; why he’d been cursed to remember them; why he knew when Sharla lost her virginity, or how often she visited her parents, or the temperature at which she kept her personal quarters.
“I’ll be back later,” he said, fumbling to leave the booth.
It didn’t have to be done, but the gin told him to do it. Slurred words, a fuck you to the Engineer, and he found himself inside the sim.
Cromwell had imagined the moment for years, but he didn’t realize how fearful he’d be until he found himself in the situation. He stood beside the bed, watching Sharla brush her hair, his hands screaming to embrace her but his mind restraining them. She stared out at the window at another picture-perfect sunrise. For years, she deserved the truth.
“Sharla, can I talk to you?” he said at last, his voice broken, tasting fumes of gin.
She turned around. “Is something wrong?”
“No.” He looked at the carpet. Ketamine thumped through his brain. “You know what, yes, something is wrong. It’s my fault. It’s all me.”
“You can tell me anything,” she said, smiling.
“Maybe I can’t.”
“For better or worse, hon.”
“You don’t love me,” he said. He walked toward the window. “You don’t love me, and you never did, because I made you love me.”
A pause, and then she wandered toward him.
“Maybe you’d better sit down,” she said.
“No. Just listen to me.” Tears burned behind his eyelids. “You don’t love me. I programmed you to care. You’ll never see Kaylie, because I couldn’t replicate her without her tablet, and you’ll never leave this room because it’s not in the system.”
“You’re scaring me,” she whispered.
Cromwell looked over his shoulder. “Be afraid. I’m a monster, Sharla. I couldn’t handle it. You aren’t real, and neither is this room; not even this sunset. I made you self-aware enough to realize when I’m telling the truth, and I know your programming lets you acknowledge when you’re not a real being. Don’t deny it. You exist in pixels, and motion sensors, and you’ve been in love with the line of coding that I wrote to make you feel something. You make decisions in binary – zero, one, condition met or not – and right now the condition’s being met. You’re not real. You know you aren’t.”
She began to cry.
“Shut up,” he said, his fingers tracing the glass. “Please stop crying.”
But she couldn’t. He’d programmed her too well. She’d processed the truth, and now she remained on the edge of the bed, her hands pressed to her eyes and mascara running down her wrists. With each sob, Cromwell heard a mother who would never see her daughter, a woman who would never get the man she deserved.
When he couldn’t bear her sobs anymore, or the sight of her vibrant eyes so crestfallen and broken, he walked to the door. He wiped his eyes and stepped out, taking a last inhale of cardamom, recalling her heartbeat on top of his, her warmth and her embrace gone cold in his memories.
The Engineer set his car magazine down and raised an eyebrow. “The hell’s wrong with you?” he asked.
Cromwell stood on the metal grates, listening to the ventilation’s whines and the sobbing hydrogen engines, his lips trembling and his fingers digging into his palm. The amphetamine made everything brighter and more vivid, but now the world seemed dull, colorless. Cromwell glanced at the Engineer.
“There’s a thousand credits in my account. Can you do me a favor?”
“Erase the program’s last five minutes.” Cromwell shook his head. “Put me in for another session.”
James Wolanyk is a Senior at the University of Massachusetts, with a degree in English (creative writing, specifically). He has a novel being published through Permuted Press in 2015, and several short stories online.