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The Dues to the Unbound

by Pocholo Goitia

We’ve been watching snot leak from Shiva’s 170-year old nose for half an hour, and after a while you start wondering: Do synthesized mucus glands secrete real mucus? People like me know everything about people like Shiva, things like his boot size and blood type. We know his right nostril flares bigger than the left and that he specifically ordered them that way three decades ago. Shiva cries like a two-year-old, but could pin a dozen peak-level athletes without breaking sweat. You hear cartilage break and you flinch, but then realize most of what’s breaking are bio-mech prosthetics with artificial nerve endings that could be switched off.

The situation isn’t funny, really, so I don’t say anything to Diana, the female body standing beside me, sultry with arms crossed over breastplate bearing the red insignia of the Oddyssian Colonial Expedition’s Beta division. Hers is a custom uniform of course, perfect body fit for the perfect body, breastplate modified for firm D-cups that cap a tailor-made 24-inch waistline. I look at her for a second but then check myself.

The Odyssian, on the day it was launched, was called mankind’s spearhead and last hope. It is the chariot of the first colonial mission tagged for interstellar travel to a habitable planet along the galaxy’s inner ring. We were twelve hours from entering an anomalous region of compacted spacetime when this little squabble erupted, a short million miles past the System’s comet belt. The anomaly was a wormhole, and it drew asteroids into it. It would shorten our voyage to four hundred years, as opposed to the four hundred centuries it would take if we tried the direct route with our engines capable of still subluminous speeds. These were our last twelve hours in the Solar System–Humanity’s only home so far. Fleeting as wormholes are, as soon as we enter this one, it would collapse. We’d be stranded in frontier space for ages. Shiva, the lummox, just had to act up at take a good last look.

Diana and I don’t think it, but we are witness to what could be the no-holds-barred match of the millennium. Half the expedition’s security force are bruised and bloodied on the floor, the other half are circling Shiva like hyenas around a 600-pound wounded silverback. These men, they worship Shiva like royalty, to them he was the Sultan of Slam. But we caught him programming an escape pod to rocket back to Earth and crash into the Indian Ocean. He wanted to be in it. None of us would have that.

I was the one who caught him and I’m not happy for it. On a shortcut to Communications to mail my will and testament to Earth kin, I come across seven feet and an inch of insane threatening to break my legs if I stepped any closer. Eyes red and running, he issued me mostly with the inchoate mumblings of one given in to lunacy. Shiva’s sweat stank of animal, and his heaving made me think of beached whale sharks and genocide. Even with the penknife I keep in my jockstrap, I doubted I could take him, so I yellowbellied myself to the first intercom I could find.

Shiva works the Beta Division strongmen like a whirlwind. He was declared most dangerous man on Earth and Mars, and the Jupiter colonies, for three, sixteen, and sixty-five years, respectively. It is clear that now he is on the edge of somewhere dark, whirling out of mind in some far off shadowland. We’ve seen this happen to people before, and few of us understand it. When this happens, it’s a nine out of ten chance you’re not coming back from stark raving madness and having nothing to lose. Shiva was the best of us, immortal human in his prime. To everyone’s incomprehension, he now wants nothing of it. I’d call it a case of the space crazies, but this is too serious, even for comedy. This was Shiva for Humanity’s sake.

I’m half-enjoying the sounds of carnage and forecasting the cleanup to be run later on when my ears catch a repressed female snivel. Any other time, this would have been a surprise, because Diana had never once cried. When these things happen, these things break your heart.

It was an open secret that we all loved Diana, and Diana, she loved all of us, Shiva most of all. She practically lived in his quarters half the cycle. The rest of the crew had to share her during the other half.

Diana’s eyes don’t match. When I see her cry, I realize I’ve almost forgotten how one eye is black and the other one blue. She says they’re the only body parts she was born with, hundreds of years ago. Back then, she used to say, when she had a penis.

“Shiva is East African, from Earth, like you,” Diana says, fighting one tear, which was falling from Blue. “His reformat is White, but he used to say he descended from a family of fishermen living off the Red Sea coastline. He said that’s what he wanted to be–a fisherman, even if it’s totally primitive. I thought he was being stupid, sentimental. He always said he wanted to return before the end.”

In the fray, Shiva head-butts Iraya Omatar, Earthmoon’s fastest runner for twenty-two years, cracking a cheekbone, spilling some more blood I’d have to clean up later. Shiva knees Omatar in the groin and shouts for us to leave him be. He snaps a collarbone with a chop and tosses aside Pluto’s fastest swimmer ever, Elisar Eudal, like a raggedy ann. Whoever ruled for no handheld weapons to be brought aboard the Oddyssian didn’t anticipate this. Shiva the Destroyer, actually destroying.

Shiva says he couldn’t take it anymore. Two hundred years is enough life as it is. He says it should be enough for any of us. He says anything over a century is too much of a bad thing.

Diana says, “I should have listened to him,” wiping a tear from Black this time. “I should have seen this coming. I could have helped him.” The way she talks it’s like she’s sharing a secret meant for your ears only, and not for anyone else’s.

Shiva’s tears are relentless. He screams we’ll never learn until it’s too late. He says we’re all going down in the end. Eventually, all of us would understand, he says. Then he breaks Jupeznik’s nose with an open-palm jab. Jupeznik was Jupiter’s highest gravitational jumper of the century. Like many aboard the Oddyssian, he represents the pinnacle of humankind’s tampered evolution. As System Control would have it, deep space deserved nothing but the best Humanity has: an ambassador party of virtual supermen, of which Shiva was the physical prime.

Manchurian Amidago, Neptune’s favorite footballer for three centuries, reeling from a dislocated knee, tries to give Shiva the sales pitch of the generation. He says there is no end because there doesn’t have to be. He says people like them could live forever. With conviction and a square jaw, Amidago tells Shiva: We will never go down. Shiva, should we want it, we are no longer men. Should we want it, my dear friend, we are nothing less than gods. The man deserves an award. Shiva breaks his jaw with a left hook. You’d hear the wham and think of sledgehammers and coconuts. Even amok, Shiva hits with a precision that is scientific. He says he’ll have all our blood before we stop him. He says he wants to die and we should let him. Then he bites off Jupeznik’s ear.

Diana, unable to take any more, turns to me and asks for a big one: if it were possible to–and if I could, please–block the signal from the ship’s gravity engine, at least for this hallway. She looks straight at me and takes my hand and there’s nothing manly about her touch. It is feminine the way it sometimes means moist the right way and soft the right way. I say I could, but it’s against rules and she knows this.

Diana insists. What could they do? Send me back last minute? Spend eight months training a hack replacement? It’s the only way. She sounds the way a person ought to sound when stabbing a lover. I think about it and figure that what they could do is sentence me to latrine duty for 400 years. But it doesn’t matter. I’m the only person in the room that keeps my hands off Diana, but her charm would work even on androids.

I start to work on a switchboard on the wall behind Diana. The process is simple enough. The ship’s automated system itself is difficult to override without proper equipment; but with a penknife and an obsolete palmtop, local power to the gravity diodes could be rerouted manually to another system like the lights. Done properly the transition would be smooth enough for the ship to take five minutes before detecting things amiss, plenty of time for Black and Blue’s little plan.

Diana discards her breastplate, revealing a shirt two sizes too tight. She waves her hair, she strikes a pose, the way she does when people flash cameras at her. The fighters sniff her out, they hesitate, and even Shiva’s bloody cheeks twitch a little.

I give Diana the signal and she makes a run then a jump. When she’s midair, I kill the gravity. The sudden rerouting of power makes the lights flicker: Diana in action appears and disappears in front of me in a hundred flashes before they go stable.

When the lights are back on, time is still. A thousand blood beads are taken to the air with the bodies of beaten meta-human combatants; their broken legs are up and relieved by the cradling zero gravity. Diana leans rested in Shiva’s pacified arms, five feet above the floor. Together they begin to radiate a calm almost luminous in the middle of this grand mess. From where I am I imagine whispers of sweet and sad things into Shiva’s ear. I close my eyes and listen well and I could almost hear them–little things that are precious and very fragile, secrets to everyone but them.

And because I am weak, because I don’t think, because in some strange, sick way I am a selfish selfish man, I make a grab for the wall, and switch the gravity back on.

*

I remember mother when I think of Earth. Sometimes ancient things catch up with you in your head, they make you close your eyes and breathe deep–when that happens to me, my mother comes to mind. Mother doesn’t care every System rock and gas cloud and chunk of ice worth the while has been explored and colonized. She says we’re spread too much like thin paper already. She says she doesn’t want me to leave.

Coming from her, this is easily expected–she spent her whole life a small-town Manila girl, in this place it takes decades for ideas to catch on. These days, thinking forward’s what we do. There are too many things happening, and the nine-digit population is growing with the lowest death rate in history abound–sentiment for old, rusting things are a waste of time.

As System Control would say: We must keep moving forward, we must never stop or hesitate; Mankind now knows no exhaust, and is finally unbound by the shackles of space and time.

Mother said I have my father’s loony White blood in me, that’s why I believe in this crap. I tell her to not to be racist.

I look at mother and flinch. I cross myself out of instinct. She is 452 years old, and she has the biological age equivalent to 99: a terrible ratio. Even for her generation, 99:452 is out of the question. I’d say if you want to look like a corpse, you might as well be one. Then I cross myself for thinking it, and knock on the block of wood I carry around in my pocket. I keep forgetting Mother’s house still has wooden walls and furniture. Even for her generation, that’s pretty impressive, not to all, but to my standards at least.

Mother wants to know why I signed up for Project Odyssian. She is of course against it, the way mothers like her ought to be. She says my work on Earth is too important. I tell her the Earth would live on fine without me. She says I take after my father. I say I wouldn’t know would I?

I tell mother that for S$200,000 a cycle, you could maintain having a healthy 28-year old body for fifteen years. For 500,000 a cycle, you could extend 28 for thirty years more. If, in those thirty years, you get a promotion, or your shit job offers a meaty assignment, you might be able to bring in nine digits annually if lucky. By then, with proper upkeep, an operation or two, 28 could be brought down to 25 or younger.

It’s a good deal, yes, but it’ll take too long. You’ll have a good ratio–and a good ratio is nice. In any bar, it would serve better than any pickup line, and that’s good–but it will never be good enough. What I do on Earth would never pay, not in a million years, for what I want. And I want to outlive galaxies.

What mother doesn’t understand is the ratios are everything, they determine how high up the ladder you could ever hope to be. People hunting spouses look now to the ratio, not DNA, because DNA, that one-shot wonder purchase, is affordable, even to plebeians. Imagine where you could go, who you could meet, what you could accomplish, with the staggering ratio of 25:?? This stuff of new order–evolution had its day–is Humanity revised or revamped, rethought at light speed. Mortal, after every year, is less and less an adjective for human.

Mother, she tries to be smart sometimes. She lights a cigarette and says human, after every year, is less and less an adjective for human.

*

Jupeznik thinks it is funny the Odyssian’s biggest bar is called Valhalla. He says it is so much like Earth to be origin of practices like taking toxic substances in as liquids. Nursing his patched-up ear with a coldgun, he says, “Isn’t it ironic that Valhalla was a palace for dead Vikings?” I sip what the bartender calls authentic mead, I think whoever invented these names should get a life. I don’t tell Jupeznik, for all I know, he could be one of them.

Jupeznik is 315-years old and has a body that is 21. He has fathered six generations of Jupiter’s finest citizens. He says he has been many things. Right now, he is an Earth-mythology enthusiast. He says Earth was the only place archaic enough to have had myths in that way. I think about the way people like Jupeznik always refer to Earth in the past tense. As if it isn’t there anymore.

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