Aaron Dick

This Quiet Orpheus

It is my job to bring them back.

 

I curl into the corner of our small couch while Hadley plays her family’s recordings from distant Earth. She sits with me and I put my arms around her, thinking of the first time she played them for me. Hadley had explained that her family brought the stories as a way to remember the lands that they left behind and the past that would always come with them.

The stories are ancient and I find them hard to understand. They describe endless expanses of water called oceans which I cannot imagine and over them, the man Odysseus travels in a vehicle called a boat. I do not know what the boat looks like, as these recordings have no images. I was born in Monopolis, just like my wife; raised to do my duty, not imagine a different world.

I do enjoy listening to these old stories with her though. I like to hear about the one-eyed giant who tried to trap Odysseus and how cleverly the man escaped the Sirens’ luring song. Although he is seduced by a witch and a goddess, the story is about him trying to return to his wife. Each recording ends with a song, entreating anyone watching over us to protect us. I snuggle beside my wife on our couch and squeeze her hand in my own as we listen.

It took me a long time to find value in these stories. At first I could not see why she found them important. But over our years together, leaning closer in the evenings, I have discovered the reason. They have brought us together.

After the recording finishes, Hadley leans her head on my shoulder and, as usual, tells me her favourite stories, the other stories, the ones not in the recordings. She says that her grandmother whispered these Earth stories to her while she lay in her cot as a baby. When I ask how her grandmother knew the stories, Hadley says that they are passed from woman to woman in her family. I hear them for the first time from her.

She tells me that she wishes she could see a forest. She wants to see the trees and grass, flowers in all the colours from the stories. She wants to race through the homes of nymphs and dryads, calling them to dance and run with her. She wants to sing odes to the gods beneath a wide blue sky at the top of her voice.

I am not surprised. Hadley spends all her time in the gardens and complains often that they are not the bright and overwhelming places that she imagines in her stories. In these gardens, she must take time to dress in pressurised anti-contamination gear before she can enter. She cannot dance there.

Hadley describes the tedious daily walk along rows of clumped leaves that grow in trays of liquified organics, recycled into fertiliser. She tells me that she once looked around carefully, side to side and behind her, even craning her head towards the high ceiling where heat lamps stare blindly. Seeing no one to stop her, she unfastened one glove and then brushed a leaf with her bare skin. She smiles as she tells me of her indiscretion, shivering in delight at her bravado.

“It is truly something to raise a new life, Alex!”

I nod. I do not understand but I can see the light in her eyes.

“I tend it every day, just like the others. But that one plant I seek out during my shifts. I check its nutrient levels most often. It is the one I watch to see if it is wilting.”

My wife’s eyes lose their focus. She is imagining a life with real children, instead of the plants that she gives her nurturing to instead. For me, it is enough to take care of the citizens of Monopolis. Each of us is responsible for the livelihood of the colony and the same can be said for every citizen. We must all support each other, in order for the colony to survive.

  

It is my job to bring them back.

 

I reach over and place a hand on her knee.

“I’m sorry,” I say, but she shakes her head and then focuses on my face. She smiles and places a hand on my cheek.

Then she tells me that we are all Odysseus, all of us here in Monopolis. She whispers in my ear that we have been captured and must find our way out, find our way home. I tell her that there is no cyclops here, no great eye watching us. She closes her eyes and places a finger on my lips. I shake my head and try to explain to her that it is too dangerous to leave the colony but I can see by the way she turns her head that she is not really listening. She looks through the walls of our apartment as though the ocean she must travel upon surrounds us. She has never left the walls, like I have, to bring back those who try to leave. She just says that people shouldn’t be held this way.

I take her hands between my own, hold them close to my chest. I rub them with my thumbs, willing my thoughts into her. She has to understand why we all undertake our assigned roles, supporting one another against the danger that presses down from outside. She frowns. She hasn’t seen the uncaring vastness. She doesn’t realise how fragile Monopolis is. After eating dinner in silence, we retreat to bed and sleep with our backs to one another beneath a thin sheet.

In the morning, a high-pitched beeping cycles from beside our bed. The sound slips into my brain while I sleep and I am already pulling on heavy work pants before I am fully awake. I am trained to respond to the alarm with speed and without question. The colony lights are still dim so I murmur a farewell towards our bed before tip-toeing out of the room. There has been a runaway. I will have to go outside the walls and retrieve them.

The lit walls in the hallway rise from darkness to dull orange, dotted by black camera lenses in each corner. I walk quickly past smooth doors, stepping around fellow citizens as they head out on their own errands. Some meet my gaze and look away. They see what lies beyond the Panoply reflected in my eyes. I pass my wrist over the door-scanner and step out into the broader vehicle hallways. A pair of Irini watch me walk down the ramp and wait for the stream of haulers in the lane to pause.

Sometimes I try to see past the thick protective visors to the faces of the Irini, wondering if my ex-colleagues are hidden behind them. Eventually, we all retire behind those tinted surfaces, but I am not ready to leave my role yet. Someday when my mind has been filled by the void outside and I am no longer able to fulfil my purpose in the colony, perhaps. I detour towards the two figures in their heavy uniforms, holding my wrist out to theirs as I pass, to make sure they don’t stop me. I must hurry, there has been a runaway.

 

It is my job to bring them back.

 

At the Retrieval Depot, the walls now glow a white that drives away all shadows. I join my team in the locker room, preparing to leave the safety of Monopolis. I pull on my suit to protect my weak human form from the radiation and the cold. My boots have jagged soles, designed to let me walk across the surface, despite thick dust and slick ice. I finish by fastening my helmet in place, the visor polarised to protect my eyes.

Around me, the others are putting on the same uniform. We don’t speak as we fasten bindings and tighten straps. Fear of what waits outside makes my muscles tense. I assume it is the same for the others. We do not talk about this moment, not even in the mandatory debriefings that follow each mission. Despite our fear, this job is vital; everyone has to support one another in this fragile colony. If any shirk from their duty, the endless darkness outside is ready to crush us.

I climb onto the back of our six-wheeled retrieval vehicle, attach a carabiner to my perch and hook one heavy glove through a large metal loop. The glove is too thick to allow me to grip onto the loop. I watch the others do the same, features hidden by the heavy uniform we all wear.

Vibrations rumble where I touch the crawler, up the soles of my feet and through my arm. They let me know that the engine has started but I cannot hear it clearly. My suit fulfils its design, cutting me off from the world. My earpiece crackles as the others switch their transmitters on and we all check in.

“One.”

“Two.”

“Three.”

“Four,” I say.

“And Five in charge,” finishes Hanaa. “Alright everyone, a breach in the Panoply was recorded six hours ago, while the night cycle was in process.” We are so far from Sol and the world rotates so slowly that the first colonists decided to shield the city and run their own illumination cycles. They matched the human circadian rhythm as best they could, allowing the colonists to be more efficient.

“The breach was in the south wall, near the south gate,” she continues, using the first colonists’ traditional directions. “We will leave via that gate and try to pick up the trail.”

“Is this a rescue?” asks Taylor, in a flat voice.

“Unknown,” replies Hanaa. “It is unclear whether this runaway took anything with them.”

Taylor’s suited figure nods. It is the same answer that Hanaa gives to the same question before each mission. More often than not, we are Retrieval officers, locating the body and bringing it back into Monopolis for recycling. Every body’s contribution to the support of the colony is vital.

“Have you ever been part of a rescue?” asks Justin. This is only the young man’s second mission. Unease strains his voice.

With the comm open to everyone, it is unclear who he is asking. I stare at my glove, hooked around its metal loop. I know there are no medi-kits onboard.

“No,” replies Hanaa. “I don’t think any of us have.”

I remember when we found a live runaway once, not long after I was assigned to the unit. One by one that team had been replaced as phobia swelled in their minds. Now I am the last one from that mission. I am the only one who remembers the runaway who stole a suit, rations, even a mining rig. We pacified the runaway so we could get past the rig-lasers into their broken rock hideaway. Behind all that stone lay the rig, the rations and their body. All resources that the colony needed.

 

It is my job to bring them back.

 

The crawler rumbles out of the storage hanger and into the Agora. This massive hall is the largest space in Monopolis, lying beyond the labyrinth of halls, apartments and offices. It is even bigger than the Stadium, with its blue LED ceiling and carefully engineered faux-grasses. Citizens build strength and stamina in the Stadium but in the Agora they meet and gossip and trade, building their minds. Men sell rations, women repair machines, citizens mend clothes. Children run between them all, past citizens speaking and dealing in their assigned booths. The council rooms are an imposing wall to the left of our depot.

I see angry faces in the Agora this morning. Drone-ship deliveries are becoming even more irregular. The traders have begun to raise their prices for foodstuffs and Earth-media. People grow hungry as they trade rations for a glimpse of a place that may no longer exist.

There is a commotion to my right and I turn my head. The helmet barely shifts and it is difficult to be sure what I see. The crowd in the Agora seems to have stepped away from a young man in dark clothes. A coiled snake is crudely sewn on the back of his jacket. Three of the Irini walk towards him, their hands raised in a calming gesture. Their protective suits are nearly as bulky as ours. I can’t hear his yells but I can see his red-faced anger.

The Irini reach him, grabbing his clothes in their fists. He twists and turns, and I can see that he must be shouting. He reaches out to pull at the uniform of the Irini who has him, but the protective suit is smooth. His fingers slip uselessly along the surface. Another Irini pulls out a metal rod and lifts it high. The crowd is already turning away, revulsion on their faces. Our crawler turns a corner and I lose sight of the man.

A wordless yell comes through the communicators, distorted and crackling in my earpiece. A figure has leapt onto our vehicle, wrapping arms around Hanaa at the front and trying to pull her aside. I hear Justin swear as another figure clambers up beside him.

A third person climbs up near me, his face so close that his breath fogs up my visor. His mouth is moving and his eyes drill into me, but I am sealed away from his fury in my uniform. I can pretend that he is no more than an irritation. I see the curled green snake embroidered by his collar as I push forward with my free hand, trusting the heavy bulk of my protective suit to help drive him away.

I can hear the muted grunts of the others as they do the same. The figures drop from the crawler, their already tattered clothing tearing further as they fall. A pair of dark Irini step forward. One grips a man by his loose shirt and heaves him up until his feet dangle over the pavement. The man’s face is turning pale. Were they hoping we would be distracted by the first man in the Agora? Did they think the Irini would be spread too thin to help us? The second Irini salutes us on the crawler and waves us forward.

“I think that was Ellis,” says Hanaa as the crawler rumbles into gear and moves forward, leaving the pile of people behind. “She always was a stickler for formalities like that salute. It’s been so long.” I remember how much time Hanaa used to spend with Ellis. The Irini keep to themselves. Their job is too important to allow fraternisation.

“I think there’s been more activists recently,” says Jess through my earpiece. “I heard one tried to break into the fertiliser plant. Claimed we shouldn’t be recycling all the organics into growing new food!”

“Typical idiotic claim from these protestors. How could the colony survive if we don’t grow food?” grumbles Taylor.

“At least the Irini didn’t have to take that one far once they caught them,” chuckles Jess.

“What do the protestors even want?” asks Justin. We ride silently through the Agora.

“That’s not important,” replies Hanaa eventually. I can’t see her face behind the domed helmet but I can imagine the way her face creases as she frowns. “They undermine the collective efforts we all undertake, unsettling Monopolis. Their actions are destructive towards the colony and that is all we need to know. They step beyond the bounds of duty.”

 

It is my job to bring them back.

 

“It’s not fair on the rest of us,” whines Taylor. “We follow the rules and make sure that the colony is functioning properly, and then they try to wreck it all. It’s like they have no idea what we are all being protected from.”

They probably don’t, I think. None of us knew what was outside until we came on our first mission. I wonder how Justin felt when he first saw it, on his last mission. Maybe I should ask him.

The crawler enters a long tunnel that hugs us so tightly I could reach out and run my hand along the concrete surface as it races by. A series of automatic doors slide open to let us through, then snap shut again. I find myself holding my breath as we pass through each.

We exit the final doors and I hear Justin gasp. We are outside.

The void surrounds us as the crawler carries us out across broad icy plains. Clouds of dust lift impossibly slowly and settle like feathers in our wake. Even now, after years and many missions, I feel the endlessness of it run fingers around my heart. Fear quickens my breath. A red alert flashes on my wrist before my helmet compensates.

As Hanaa drives us slowly away from the grey mountain that is Monopolis, I stare at the monochrome landscape of craters and cracked hills. They aren't as impressive as the massive features on Earth's moon that I was shown during training. No grey mountains claw at the black sky here, other than our colony. However, even that vast structure is shrunken and unimpressive when set into this broad world, flinching beneath a dark and endless sky.

The plain of dust stretches out to the bowed horizon, pocked by the evidence of meteors. Somehow the plainness of the landscape makes the darkness worse. This world doesn’t care enough to hate us. It will destroy us by accident, should we falter. The rubber wheels of the crawler leave a crisp trail across the ground as we begin our search.

The world our ancestors chose is cold and empty. I sometimes wonder why it was chosen. What possible reasons did they have to come to this cold place and decide to stay? Why would they ask their children and their children’s children to remain? But I cannot think this way. Questions like that create doubt and doubt is why there are runaways. The protestors are full of doubt, but all they bring is discord. They don’t understand what we must work together to shelter from: the long flat plains of ice, the thick piles of dust, the dim grey surface. I won’t weaken the colony.

We follow the standard search pattern, crossing back and forth on the pale plain, each of us watching the ground for evidence of the runaway. Though none of us speaks, I know that we are avoiding looking up into the limitless darkness that wraps over us. It is the night that we must keep from overwhelming Monopolis. That boundless threat is why we must all take on our roles without complaint. That is why we each support one another. That is why they cannot leave, taking with them precious resources and skills that the colony needs. But I have to leave the safety of the Panoply.

 

It is my job to bring them back.

 

In the shelter of a large crater we find her body, reaching out for something we can't see. Her suit was never intended to be worn so long in these conditions and it has ruptured, freezing her solid. She lies half buried in the powdered memories of asteroids.

I get off the crawler and stare up into the thick blackness that crowds us. I can feel it sucking away memories of warmth and brightness. I remember Hadley’s recordings. This sky is the river Lethe, arched above us and it tugs at the memory of life.

The others form a semi-circle around Hanaa where she is crouched over the runaway. They wait for me to step forward. Hanaa puts a hand on my shoulder. I look down at the body of my wife and bow my head.

The universe hangs all around, broken only by the smallest pinpoints of white—other worlds, distant stars above us. They are the only hope that I see, the only relief from the black. I imagine Hadley is reaching out to one of those stars, trying for Earth one last time. There is no way to tell if any of the tiny white dots in the sky are a connection from Earth or not. I hope that she found it anyway.

We are so distant here; the refreshing spray of the ocean is outmatched by absolute zero. Here the stained glass colours of trees fade under the endless grey, black and white. We are too far for the nymphs and the dryads to welcome her soul and comfort her to their bosoms.

One of the others brings me the cadaver bag. Through the dull golden shine of their visor, it is impossible to know which of the team it is, and they don’t speak. White noise hisses in my ears like a theatre’s roaring crowd, watching our chorus dance another tragedy. I step towards the outstretched hands laying below me, push them aside. I zip the bag around my wife, avoid those empty eyes; I trap her in the black plastic.

Over the horizon Charon rises. Uninvited stories of the ancient ferryman fill my thoughts, the one who took the dead away. I wonder if that skeletal ferryman watches us through the glowing blind eye of the twin-planet that fills the sky. Sweat runs down my back as I work on the exposed surface, beneath that ponderous gaze.

There are no glorious fields of green, no rolling meadows around us. There is nowhere for heroes to relive the deeds that made them famous. Neither is there a Hades for them to moan in while they suffer. I have heard of other colonies that match those descriptions, floating around the titanic planets; Jupiter the king, Uranus the beginning. Colonies of beauty and wealth, where citizens take joy in every action. Still other colonies that must be wrought from the harsh world around them.

This is the third place, the nothing place, a grey place where the dead remain still and wait for us to come and take them away. This is Pluto; of the Underworld and the outer worlds.

I remember Hadley’s stories echoing in our apartment. Spoken memories of a place far distant. Fields and meadows and music and animals. A world that is brought out of death and decay thanks to six mere pomegranate seeds. A singer who tried to bring his dead wife home.

For a moment I hear a voice singing behind the buzz of my earpiece, singing one of the songs from my wife’s recordings. I stare across the plain, to the small dome of Monopolis, oh so far away. The voice is soft and low, guiding another soul back towards the living. I realise it is my lips that shape this prayer. I turn back to the others as we stand awkward around the black bag. My song dwindles into the static as we lift together, grunts of effort passing through our communicators. I try to recall the face hidden inside the bag but already she is fading.

It wasn’t the darkness we hide from that killed Hadley. It isn’t the dangers beyond our city that wore her down. With our restrictions we asked her to take hemlock.

 

It is my job to bring them back.

 

The others lift her into place on the crawler as I watch. I am standing above the shape of her that remains in the dust. I crouch down and press two fingers into the soft place where she sheltered, keeping her eyes on the pinpricks of respite in the sky. I leave two fresh craters, two obols, to pay her passage home.





Aaron Dick

Aaron Dick is a teacher living north of Auckland in New Zealand with his wife, their two daughters, and a small menagerie of household animals. They all love when his eldest daughter visits too. He grew up as a voracious reader of science-fiction and fantasy, often to the annoyance of his unheeded family. Becoming an author was a childhood dream, alongside being a palaeontologist, or a rock star. Find out more about his writing at fb.me/aarondicknz