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The Dues to the Unbound

by Pocholo Goitia

Page 1 | 2

Jupeznik buys me drinks because he likes talking to me about Earth. He says it is fortunate System Control did not limit hiring to just major colonies. He says he was the one who petitioned that the Odyssian needed diversity as much as excellence. He says, “You must have worked your ass off to get into the project.” He asks, “What did you do back on Earth?” I tell him we watercultured deep-rooted trees and planted them along the coastlines. I say we did it, among other reasons, to prevent the erosion of natural topsoil. The real kind, I say, the one with history. Jupeznik smiles a smile. “How quaint,” Jupeznik says. I tell him we are a sentimental people.

After two rounds of mead Diana steps into the bar. She greets no one and goes straight to the barkeep. She orders a vile of nanobot stimulants, the type that’s legal in three colonies and, apparently, in this bar. She settles on a barstool and shoos the barkeep away. Her back is turned on all of us and all our eyes are on her back. Her smell permeates the room–you’d think of things like flowing water and Saturn’s clouds, or supernovas in their prime, viewed safely from afar.

Diana injects herself and turns up the dial and immediately you know what she’s simming is intoxication. What kind of intoxicant you can’t be too sure, but you know it is strong and you know, therefore, that Shiva is still far from fine. People around her, you could tell what they want, to approach and offer smiles, give her pats on the back or maybe trite encouragement. They don’t, these people, they’ve seen so much before. Most have lived long enough to think the gesture to be pointless, old enough to think some things are not to be voiced out, and that stating hard truths is both redundant and unkind. You’d think you’d be wiser given a few centuries of shit.

Diana doesn’t stay long, she has many things to do, though in no way, I realize, is she in condition to do them. When she gets up to leave, you’d almost hear the whole place sigh a sigh of both relief and preparation for the loss her absence makes. Jupeznik follows her with his eyes the way you’d think a 300-year-old wouldn’t, the way you’d imagine a man in his youthful prime, on the swinging juvenile prowl, would. Jupeznik still is, in many ways, the latter. That he is so high up the ranks of System Control doesn’t say much for System Control.

Jupeznik says “Isn’t she something?” pointing to Diana, and asks if I know what he means. I pretend I don’t, but it’s futile, they’ve been on to me from the start. The Beta Division, the whole crew, they all think of me a bigot: They think I won’t fuck a willing woman just because, years and years ago, she was a man. That the said willing woman was also the man who, a lifetime ago, met and impregnated my mother and sired me is information I do not wish to advertise.

After three rounds of mead and one-way conversation about the exploits of Jupeznik, from his first wife to Diana, something deadlocked in my insides bursts out of my control: I blow up and tell Jupeznik, among other things, to shut his piehole. Confused and massively drunk, Jupeznik asks what the devil a piehole means. He says he doesn’t appreciate the tone of my voice. The bartender comes over and asks me to leave.

In the bartender’s hands are hangover pills–ingenious little things provided in most bars to costumers for free. He suggests I take one and leave the establishment sober, with dignity, and if I’m lucky, still in one piece. Behind him the Beta strongmen get up and approach us, most of them still reeling from the bruises Shiva gave. If I know most of them well, and I’m sure that I do, raising voice to Jupeznik is a criminal offense–enough reason for their broken egos to engage in a battle that this time they know without doubt they would win.

Jupeznik, once a statesman in his earlier years, tells the barkeep this is nothing but a misunderstanding. I tell Jupeznik to shut it, I point fingers at his face. I call him a megalomanic shit too full of himself to just die. I point at all of them and call them sheep to a cult that is leading Humanity into visions of grandeur too dangerous to handle. I don’t mean half I say; some of these men, they’re my friends, some are nice people, but in this case I can’t help it.

I tell the barkeep I’ve every right to be pissed. I take his pill and say he’d be the same if a legion of men were taking turns banging his father. Some of them don’t understand what I mean at first, but to Jupeznik, it is clear immediately. The look on his face gives me no satisfaction. I drink the pill and leave the bar to follow Diana.

*

My mother was a fearful woman. She trembled at night when thunderclouds clashed. She lit cigarettes with shaking fingers and kept her eyes open in bed up until the second she had to close them when sleep took her down. More frequently than not, she resorted to chemicals for rest. She said the fear was a force of habit, and sometimes she said it was God revealing things to her she was too brittle to comprehend without crumbling like dated bread.

With her eyes closed she would tell me there are things out there out of our control, things that could break us no matter how much we have managed to tame the world and our bodies to our bidding. She said long life has done nothing but open her eyes to the impending dreads that are to come, be us willing or not. After blowing smoke to the ceiling with a reverence that is ritual she used to ask me: How would you prevent the big quake from coming? Or the next solar storm’s Earthbound shockwave? How long will our ballistics keep rouge asteroids at bay? How long until the next hungry man you come across stops to pull a knife and gut you for drugmoney?

What mother didn’t know didn’t hurt her, and there was nothing she didn’t know. In her little hole in the ground, every newsfeed in the System found a holographic outlet via one of her walls or ceilings. I crept through her house an intruder among beings of light heralding the myriad little dooms that plague Humanity still. In this illuminated age, electrical storms kill millions, populations are evacuated and displaced as stellar nomads; in the fringe colonies children are raped, women are beaten, and the elderly are thrown into airlocks and flushed into the freezing vacuum. Corsairs still raid, wars are still fought, people still hate other people out of an instinct for survival. I walked into mother’s house and came out never the same. Always, I left my mother’s house with the feeling there is blood on my hands, and blood in the old soil I walk on. The steps I took were through a darkened red stain that was constantly fed and could never be washed away: It has soaked our continents as efficiently as have our oceans. And somehow, we–because Humanity’s guilt is mine and my guilt is Humanity’s–have spread this stain; our evolution of knives, it has managed to stow away in our frigates to contaminate our proud rock and alloyed settlements that satellite our sun.

Those visits to my mother were days the glories and the pampering of System Control were lost to me. I trembled as result of the doings of my mother and her sentiments for me to stay behind and help salvage a world submerged in its own scar tissue.

But her arguments were as ineffective as her cigarettes were at killing her. Fresh with the images of mother’s world of mounting corpses in my head, I did what innumerable of my ancestors did before me. I looked up at the stars and hoped they would provide me with answers. Up there, in one of those hopeful shards of shattered darkness was where we could start anew, without the curses our histories have brought upon us. Only later did this thought occur to me: That our system, smothered in our grime, would look just as beautiful when viewed from those same distances.

*

From the Red Planet, where the last leg of our training was conducted, Earth did look like a star. It looked hopeful. Those were days my Diana was new, and I pointed to her the light that was Earth to tell her it was where I came from. That light is my deeproot, I told her. She giggled and blushed like the girl I thought she was. Our hands were linked and our bodies drew themselves to each other the way planetary bodies shouldn’t: we collided with magnificent abandon. On days the Martian storms abated, we stood under the docked Oddyssian’s shadow. Those days it was my Odyssian, because its halls were Diana’s exclusively to survey and examine before it was inaugurated. And Diana, at that time, was mine. Its curves and sleekness resembled those of the Bradbury and the Hawkins: great ships that came before our time, the prize horses of Humanity. It was then Diana told me the Odyssian was her design, the product of a life so long she tells people it didn’t need a beginning. It was a half-truth when

I told her this: I fell in love with Diana because her creation was the most beautiful thing I have ever seen. She told me, while we made love for the first time in her quarters, in a ship sanitary of biological life, that it was the same reason we loved God once upon a time. Because he created us, and in our eyes we represent everything that is beautiful. And the time we stopped loving God, she said, was the time we started talking up maintenance of ourselves.

Diana, she loved mixing the old pleasures of men: to the Odyssian she brought aged wines and finely distilled spirits. We sipped them between strokes and exchanges of our fluids. She kissed me after cabernet, I licked her neck after tastings of limed martini; she said the experiences were different, the subtle possibilities to feel alive with me boundless, and expressed deep grief at the thought of never reaching them all even when riding an inexhaustible lifeline. She said the best tobacco was still Earth-made, and she rolled cigar smoke in her mouth and blew it into the air between us on the moments before we sank into each other’s skin. Diana, with her fine-tuned synesthesia, played the romances of Beethoven from the walls, read old verses from paper stacks on the floor, and said my hands and smells were the final ingredients: The rooms we filled became sweet hazes of sepia in her mind.

When I was inside her, her mismatched eyes were closed, and a betraying moistness slipped from under their lids. Under lust-induced trances she spoke to me, with her voice that was so real I have yet to believe it too was the product of an expensive surgical frenzy. She told me things about the ages I might never experience: watching the Earthmoon being carved slowly into the face of Liberty, living in the cybernetic world of the Hedons for decades, inciting the revolutions of Pluto and being part of their failings, swimming under the healing waterfalls of Venus, chilled to the lukewarm, and staying there for years, away from all concern. She said our world is growing vaster and colder by the minute, and the people in it are following suit. She said there are still pockets of warmth, and I must attempt to be one of them. She said I must be diligent to age in spite of my adherence not to, she said I mustn’t fall into the dangers that centuries taken with youth pose. She said the old only wizened because

they had to, because their bodies dictated that they do, and a fear of the end was a proper incentive to follow. She said the lack of a horizon is a dangerous thing, and that I must make care to not keep my mind in the youthful ineptitude my body will impose upon it. She told me these things with her eyes closed, and her voice in a bedridden whisper. Her manner disarmed me. Once, in bed, I made a joke: I told her she sounded like my mother. And Diana, in turn, with her whisper, asked me to tell her about mother.

And so I did tell Diana about my mother, and her eyes opened, but only for a second.

Diana closed her eyes again, and we continued to make love inside this beautiful vessel of her creation. She continued to tell me things. She told me about her long ago travels in Earth, the planet of all our origin. She told me about crossing oceans in boats, she told me about my mother.

*

We found the body in fetal position, hugging itself–it was mother the way she began in this world. Instead of a womb she had a room of her ghostly news anchors harboring grim circumstances from the eighty-five colonies populous enough to merit inter-system airtime. They crowded her like mourners, or a flock of the religious chanting mock hymns to the dead. I looked at these holograms and thought: They killed her, the bastards, and they don’t even know it. I thought: They’re murderers and villains all of them; without them, there would be no tragedy. Without them the world would be perfect.

The day she died was the day I came home from Mars, to bid my goodbyes. That day I was looking to kiss her on the cheek, because it was something I haven’t done in decades. I would have told her that I had met my father, and he was going to be with me on my long trip. I was going to make it sound like a funny thing. But I didn’t want to kiss a corpse, not in front of paramedics.

People insisted, as was the custom, to burn the body and rocket the ashes as stardust to the Sun. They called it bringing the dead home to ancient origins. They said there was no better physical act akin to the idea of stepping into paradise. But I had her buried instead, whole, on land that cost me everything I had then. I knew from the minute I saw her dead face that mother would have wanted soil, and she deserved it.

With my mother’s effects were printed images of Diana as a man. He was Nordic-White, definitely, with cheeks of blond stubble. With my mother beside him, I measured through scale and concluded he was no taller than Diana is today. One of his eyes was blue, and none of mine were, but you would say, if you looked hard, that he looked nothing like me except for the eyes. They made me think: Except for a rouge streak of pigmentation I wouldn’t have half my father’s eyes. They were his last remnants of a long lost evolution.

I have always wondered why it is we note distinct characteristics–that border at times in the fancifully sublime–in the eyes of people, especially people we love. I imagine that maybe we imagine things, maybe because in the grip of our passions we are desperate to find in eyes souls and deep pools of unearthliness–things that would explain much of what we fail to understand. But these globular organs, they are shoved into faces that are, after all, the foundations of their dissimilarities. A set of eyes without a face would look almost identical to another; the distinction of color beyond the tones of brown was always the natural privilege of but a portion of the human pool.

It was on the very hour we were to enter the wormhole that these thoughts first came to me. Through reinforced synthetic glass, I looked into Shiva’s eyes before I sent him out the airlock at the request of Diana. Shiva’s eyes were dark, like mine–the exact same shade. But my eyes didn’t have the strength of his because my eyebrows weren’t as strong. My eyes didn’t have his power because my cheekbones were never high, nor was the skin that covered them ever bronzed. But I imagined our eyes to be the same, born of the same earth, traceable through distant lineages that would have at one point been one.

Beside me Diana was crying again. She told me one day I will have to do the same to her, when this journey’s curse will have taken its toll. She told me she would leave me her eyes, not to wear if I didn’t want to, but to keep because it seemed right to do so. This time, I told her this out loud: that when these things happen, these things break your heart.

Then I agreed with Diana. I told her that yes, I will do as she asks, maybe, someday. And I will do it gently. But not today, I told her, and not for years. It would be, I told her, a very big waste.

I went back to the task at hand. I turned a dial, flipped a switch, and sent Shiva on his back hurdling into space. I closed the doors immediately after him. His body would not have been torn quickly by the vacuum, his lungs would not have collapsed with ease. His body was engineered to be strong, chiseled to outwear ages, hardened enough to withstand, to a limit, even forces at the very cosmos’ employ. There is little doubt in my mind that he’d have it a subtler way at this point. Shiva, I imagine, enjoyed a very painful death.

End
“The Dues to the Unbound” was first published in Dapitan volume 1 number 4, 2007 (May), edited by Ronald Allan Benusa, then months later, in the PEN-sponsored A Different Voice: Fiction by Young Filipino Writers, 2007 (December), edited by Vince Groyon. The story was first submitted to the latter, but Dapitan, a small, almost guerillaesque venture of (relatively) limited circulation, caught up in the months between the submission to PEN and the actual launch of the anthology. Had anybody cared, it would have almost been likened to a dramatic turnaround in favor of the underdog, parang sports movie. Both books were printed by the UST Publishing House. Pocholo Goitia studied Journalism in UST and currently works as an academic copyeditor. He has sparingly published stories and articles (both w/&w/o bylines) in various publications, and is working on a novel hopefully to be completed sometime before the decade ends or just right after the next one starts. Apparently, it’s harder than he thought.

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