Charlie showered late like always. During the process his dick came off in his hands. He sighed and wrapped the withered stump in folds of toilet paper before tossing it into the wastebasket for the maid to throw out later.
"Fnaurgh! Kah! Pluah," came a choked up, phlegmy sequence of consonants from next door. It sounded like Charlie’s talkbox, Becker, was clearing his throat. Except, of course, that Becker didn’t have a throat. Or vocal cords, or anything like that.
Just my luck to be paired with a 'box that’s a hypochondriac, thought Charlie. He mouthed the word. Five syllables. The warm water ran down his face and streamed off of his lips.
Charlie knew he shouldn’t, but he peed in the shower. There was a brief stinging sensation and then a yellow stream sprayed out of the stump in his crotch and ricocheted down the plug.
"I hope you ain’t peein’ in the shower, you little fuck," came Becker’s voice from next door.
"Good morning to you," Charlie shouted back.
He ran the tip of his index finger around his lips. They felt a bit fuller, maybe.
"Ah, c’mon Charlie," said Becker, "are you wackin’ off in there? Let’s go already."
"Okee-doo, Okee-doo, just worrying about my personals."
"Ha," retorted Becker, “more like you’re saying bye-byes to 'em.”
Charlie thought that for an artificial intelligence in a box Becker didn’t do a bad job of spitting the words out.
Becker’s case was a reinforced wooden cube that housed a mixture of wetstuff and wires. It was thin and oiled so that his interior LEDs played ruddy patterns on its translucent surface. Charlie had baulked at the notion of having Becker encased in common-or-garden reinforced cardboard, and a plastic casing from the landfills was out of his price range. Besides which, he liked the way that his fingers wore into its grain.
And now Becker was chewing him out 'cos he’d decided to flip and didn’t know why.
Charlie thought of Syd. Syd never bugged him about his decisions, bad or otherwise. Syd had a button nose that twitched a lot and nestled in the middle of his symmetrically freckled cheeks. When he was excited, like when he talked about Dvořák or Pessard from the wayback, a brocade of sweat stippled the gap between his inked-in eyebrows. He looked good, but as he said, that was just a function of his progen’s taste.
Syd was a heshe just like Charlie, mostly male and his family was from Pondside. He even had one of those cute peninsular accents that made everything he said sound either kind of educated or like an old porno clip. Plus he was funny. Not funny in the way that the muscle jocks at school were. He just had a way of coming out with things that made Charlie crack up.
He figured he'd surprise Syd with his flip once it had kicked in more. For some reason he felt nervous when he imagined that moment. He knew he'd catch hell from Uncle Wallis, his progen, for going to the chromastore, but that wasn't the reason for his nerves.
If the process went to plan, the rest of his male sex organs would slough off within a week or two, his voice would rise a little and he would develop into a mostly female shezee. He looked at the flat, pink oval where his penis had attached to his body and ran his fingers around the fleshy ridge.
It reminded Charlie of when he had walked to school early last fall. A bunch of utility workers were up amongst the top branches of the oak trees, sawing them off with old hand-saws and dropping them into a pile at the foot of the road. Another workman had daubed the amputated stumps with black creosote. The smell was with him even now. The shape of the scars where the branches had attached to the trunks was exactly like the tingling mark on his groin.
He caressed it with his index finger. The other thing he remembered about that day was he had come running down before breakfast to find his uncle and their neighbour, Manuela Torres, sitting at the dining table. They were deep in conversation and looked uncomfortable. Ernesto, Manuela’s husband, had not been there.
Like Wallis, Manuela was a lifer, having been one sex throughout her life. She had moved to Nuevo Palermo when Charlie was a kid and he had pretty much grown up with her daughter Florita. These days though, neither Manuela nor Florita visited much. That said, her kid Florita was a fuck up and a royal pain in the ass. She was pure girl through and through as well and spent all her time cracking books and singing songs about driving. I mean, who drove anything anymore?
"About fuckin’ time," said Becker as Charlie emerged from the shower. "You need to move it, capeesh?"
Charlie pulled on a scarlet body stocking and his favourite ski-boots and admired himself in the mirror. He was in a hurry and so just set his face for regular daytime. A subtle line of blue eyeliner brought out the quartz flash in his pupils. He admired himself. He looked real 'drogy. He picked up Becker from beside his bed and ran out. His eyes flicked across to Florita’s white stucco house.
“She’s not in, bucko,” said Becker. “Don’t waste your time.”
“Oh, really?” said Charlie.
“Yep, I heard her leave for the metro while you were doing the water marinade,” he continued, “and by the way, your pulse is up and there are hormones raging around the sad-ass stump between your legs.”
Charlie bit his bottom lip. If Florita had already left then she'd be with Syd at the Kibblemart before him. The two of them would have time to chat. He ran out of his front yard with its blanket of bright artificial grass and headed towards the metro stop. He looked up at the sky, like always. He knew that it was there, somewhere, invisible and silent.
He'd learned about the TAF, along with his classmates at the Nuevo Palermo school, though when he thought about it, it was Florita's explanation that always came to mind. They'd been out on the back porch a few years back. The sun was low and blood red fingers of light had played across the fake grass. Florita drew a circle in the dust of the yard.
“This is the Sun,” she'd said.
She leant forward and drew a concentric circle at arms length from the first.
“This is the orbit of the Earth.”
She patted Charlie’s hand and then got up and walked a few steps away from him. She bent down and drew another circle as big as the second. She stood inside it and kicked to reveal damp, inky loam.
“This is NEO-2053. A black hole. A singularity,” her tongue enunciated the syllables, “it’s big and moves fast and we are in its way.”
She looked at Charlie and pointed towards the Earth and Sun outlined in the soil. She jumped onto the Earth’s orbit and erased it with a sandalled foot.
“So you see. Everything has its time,” she said. “That’s All Folks. T.A.F.”
Charlie caught sight of himself in the glass shell of the metro as he climbed aboard. He knew what he had been told, but something about the way the sun bled through the cloud made him feel indestructible. He was young, thin and he had good hair. He was invulnerable. TAF or no TAF.
Twenty minutes later he skidded down the transit ramp. In the distance he saw the white roofs and greenery of Buenos Aires. The empty cluster of steel and glass skyscrapers around the docks glistened in the morning. They had been abandoned when the upshunt had been located in the northern part of town.
Across from the Metro, he saw Syd and Florita facing the large, cracked window of the kibblemart. The metro stop was out of town but Syd had insisted that they meet there so he could look in the 'mart. He was the taller of the two, his willowy frame dressed in tartan bondage trousers and a brocade cavalry jacket. His lush mutton-chop side-burns were crafted into the vertical sculpture of his hair. Anxiety flowered at the pit of Charlie’s stomach. He watched as Florita stood on tiptoes, leaned towards Syd and whispered. Syd threw his head back and laughed.
"Como 'sta meegos," Charlie called.
Florita's straw hair was styled into a bob that nestled beneath a bright red beret. She sported a large pair of sun-glasses with only one lens and a black cotton tee-shirt embossed with an acrylic white bow-tie. Her naked legs were a cosmetic, electric blue. Over the beret were a pair of headphones so large they looked like the frying pans that Wallis hung in the breakfast nook. Fuck it, they probably were. Typical Florita, in other words, a complete freak. It was hard to reconcile this creature with the little girl that used to tell Charlie that her favourite thing was playing ‘elefantes’ with her father. Ernesto would carry her around on his back, apparently, one brawny arm raised as he trumpeted like a mythological animal.
“So how-goes-it, oh-lame-ass pretender?” Florita called without looking round. Syd eyed him and nodded.
“So-so,” Charlie replied.
“...and Wallis?” she asked. Charlie squinted at her. He licked his lips and tried to figure out if this was some sort of verbal trap.
“Uh, fine-eeo,” he replied.
They looked in the shop window. The glass was covered with yellow cellophane to protect the treasures within. Laid out before them on the peeling wood was the accumulated detritus of centuries. Reliquaries of a time in the wayback when tides of money had washed around the planet. Dead objects lay there inert and unknowable. A set of ceramic teeth. Yellowed piles of books. They were pieces of a civilisation that had drifted over the semantic horizon.
Charlie stood next to Syd. On his other side, Florita swung her hips as if dancing to the languid beat of kabuki-punk then span around and slid between Syd and Charlie. She danced for a few moments more, elbowing Charlie in the ribs as she did so.
Something in the window caught Syd's eye. He grinned at them both and then strode into the 'mart.
“I always liked Wallis. You know that, don’t you?” Florita said. Charlie looked sidelong at her and then looked at his feet.
Moments later, Syd emerged with the ceramic teeth. He held them in front of his own perfect mouth.
"Okay, let’s get-get," said Syd, miming the words with the dental plates. "One noot bar coming up."
"Yeah," said Charlie, licking his lips. "What exactly we doin' when we get there?"
Syd slipped his hand into his bondage trouser pocket.
He held a thin rectangle of card towards them.
Soothsayer and exotic dancer
190 Avenida Borges
"Went to see her," said Syd.
Florita frowned. "So," she said without addressing anyone in particular, "dearest Syd went into old town, on his own, and, moreoverly, to a noot bar? Is this some new level of assholery we knew nothing of?"
"Was very simpatico, actually, chicos," said Syd unfazed.
"Well," retorted Florita, "noots are genderless, so surely she was an ‘it’."
"Well..." said Syd, grinning, "you call her an ‘it’ when you meet, see how you get on."
"So, what she sez?" said Florita. "Iz you goin' to be famous, iz you gonna crack the big light-speed?"
Syd winced. He looked up and breathed in.
"Keep that if you like," he said, pointing to the card. "I know the address." He tapped the side of his head with a long finger.
“We should walk,” he said. “From here the Metro only goes to the upshunt and we ain’t going there 'zactly.”
"Ahem," came Becker’s muffled voice, "far be it from me to be a wet blanket, but this is a new high-tide mark for your delinquent fuck-wittery."
"Yes, and that's the problem with you tin-machines," said Syd, striding towards the road, "you have no sense of adventure."
They spent the morning walking across fields, between cornstalks that shuddered in the breeze.
After a while the clouds cleared to reveal the thin grey ring of the orbital tractor belt high above them. They paused to check their position with their 'boxes. At this distance you couldn’t distinguish any markings on the belt's underside. However, Charlie knew that graffiti covered it all the way to where the nearest upshunt connected to the Earth like an umbilical cord.
He tried to imagine what it was like up there above the pale blue wrapper of air. It must be weird standing on a metal bridge that went all the way around the Earth without ever touching it. He closed his eyes and shivered.
They continued along the road. Florita rocked her head back and forth whispering to herself with each footfall. Charlie thought of the time years ago that he and Florita had huddled into the shed at the foot of their garden to play "medicos". He had shoved the swing door open and watched the dust from the hinges glitter in the late afternoon sunlight.
As ‘patient’, Florita had to lay in the concrete on an old woollen blanket. Charlie had examined the flat, pale rise of her abdomen and the alien ice-cream whirl of her belly button. Then she had pulled down her underwear. Charlie recalled the shock at her pre-pubescent vagina so different from his own undifferentiated crotch. As much as he had found her otherness frightening, it was fascinating too.
When it was his turn, he had lain on his back. Large lumps of gravel bit into him. He and Florita had giggled as she removed his underclothes. Then with a doctoral air she regarded the pale, hairless mound of his groin: "Soon you and your child will have to choose a sex, Citizen Wallis," she said, smirking.
Charlie snapped back out of his reverie, shuddered and ran past Florita to draw level with Syd.
"Why do we have to let her come with us?" he said out of the side of his mouth.
Syd looked at him and winked.
"She comes with 'coz... I like her," he said with a symmetrical leer.
The scar in Charlie’s pants ached. He felt disappointed.
Long after midday they emerged from a belt of jacaranda trees dusted with purple blossom. Florita saw the upshunt first. She looked up and gasped. It was a black wall a kilometre across that climbed into the sky, dwindling until it punctured a bank of cirrus cloud like a black thread. For a second they stood and watched the spidery carbon frame of a climber as it scuttled up the 'shunt, ferrying equipment and people towards the connecting clamp where it met the belt.
As he looked up, Charlie wondered what this would look like after TAF had rolled across them. The blossom gone. Blackness and rock open to space. The belt, twisted and torn, turning end over end like a discarded neck-tie. He felt Becker throb in his pocket as the talkbox followed his train of thought. Becker was readying himself to administer tranks, but there was no need. Charlie felt nothing.
They walked on, faster now. Soon they hit the outer edges of Buenos Aires, a winding mess of damp plaster houses and dark doorways. Here, the weather disturbances caused by the upshunt meant that it rained almost constantly. Every now and then they passed one of the old colonial buildings. These were ornate mixtures of rigid angles and eruptions of baroque plaster-work that seemed to grow out of the wet brick. Syd led them down a street lined with twisted and leafless trees. A few Kibblemarts piled a thousand life stories behind yellowed windows. The road was paved with a jumble of concrete slabs that looked like dirty, chipped teeth.
Uncle Wallis had teeth like that. Charlie thought of his last inception day celebration. He and his uncle had sat up on the roof of the house watching the sun come up as they did every year. His uncle had crouched on the tiles in the tentative sunlight grinning at him occasionally, exposing a mouthful of what looked like grey pebbles. He wore an old, greasy baseball cap back-to-front and dirty denim overalls. Charlie had no realistic idea of how old Wallis might be, but he looked fucking ancient.
"What was it like up there?" Charlie said, pointing towards the belt. Wallis shrugged. It was a topic they had discussed many times, but Charlie never tired hearing about it.
“When I was there,” he said, “Fedgov had already collapsed building it. So it was everyone for themselves. Generational ships had already left for any rock they could. So that pretty much only left the poor, crazy and the stupid here.”
Charlie shifted to take the weight off one leg.
Wallis produced a dented flask from his jeans and swigged it.
"...but it's de-regged chaos up there. The belt's full of crazies. Everyone's testing c-drives, wormholes, ramjets, slingshots. Anything that might be fast enough to get us, or just them, away."
Wallis took another surreptitious swig. He looked at Charlie and squinted.
"But maybe we're all deniers. All of us, that are left here. At least those of us that aren't one hundred percent medicated."
Charlie nodded. He looked at the three red letters tattooed on his uncle’s stringy arm. CJM. The initials of the experimental ship that he had crewed on the belt: the C.J. Macintosh. To hear Wallis tell it, his craft had been not much more than a composite frame attached to an engine rig. Moreoverly, his tattoo didn’t look like the ones that some of the kids at school wore. It looked like it had hurt.
Wallis heard a sound. He leant forward on his haunches, balancing forward to look down on the small square of lawn below. Manuela’s door flew open and Florita ran out into the garden dressed only in her long cotton night-shirt. Her face puckered into a grimace. Steps behind, Manuela emerged. Her hair was looped in greasy whorls and her pink towelling dressing gown was belted tight with a clumsy knot. She lunged towards her daughter. Florita shrugged and twisted to pull away but the effort was half-hearted. Manuela pulled her close.
"It’s your fault... and him too!" sobbed Florita, her voice muffled against her mother’s dressing gown. Charlie felt that she was nodding towards his house.
"C’mon," said Wallis, creeping along the rim of the roof, trying to make as little noise as possible. Charlie looked back. It was then that Florita saw him. Her eyes flared with surprise, but then screwed together in grief and something more. He felt guilty, but didn’t know why.
Charlie and Florita had never talked about it but he knew that that was the day that Ernesto, Florita's father, had left for good. He often found himself going over that morning and the cold, empty feeling that worlds really came to an end every day.
"Oh, cuteness!" cried Florita and dropped to one knee. She extended a hand. A cat stood wet and shivering in one of the alleyways that ran perpendicular to the street. It was bony and its fur clumped together in damp knots. It let out a miserable mewl.
A group of townies drifted past them at the end of the alley. Florita bounced towards the cat on her haunches, her arm outstretched. Charlie felt a prickling sensation. On the periphery of his vision the townies came to a simultaneous stop. Syd stopped teasing his hair and sniffed. He leant towards Charlie and stroked his arm.
"Sweethearts," he whispered, "don’t sez anything. Count of three, make haste. One, two—"
Syd’s legs propelled him in a blur as he attempted to outflank the nearest townie. Charlie tasted adrenaline on his tongue and a cold, sickly sensation at the pit of his stomach. He wanted to follow Syd. Instead, he grabbed Florita. Her knuckles knitted beneath his palm. Ahead, another townie ran towards Syd and slid a booted foot his way. Syd leapt over the outstretched leg, but stumbled. A hand snagged his plaid bondage trousers. He span sideways, tripping on the rim of the pavement and skidded obliquely onto the muddy slabs face down. A townie jumped towards him, grabbed his shoulders and thumped a knee into Syd’s back. Syd squealed. Charlie gulped air into his lungs and ran. There were still spaces between the townies that he could run through. He yanked Florita behind him, but she struggled to keep up. A townie lunged at him. Charlie twisted to avoid the figure, but had to release Florita’s hand to escape.
Charlie ran past Syd’s prone form. He squinted and swallowed. He was blind from the rain that whipped into his face and the gloom of the black, vertical tongue of the upshunt. Behind him, he thought he heard footfalls. He felt weak and his calves burned. He wondered if the flip had messed with the muscles in his legs. His lips felt like they were swelling and his chest began to feel heavy.
"Slow-up, fuck-nut!" shouted Becker.
As the adrenaline ebbed from his body he realised that he had left the townies, Syd and Florita far behind. He dropped to his knees and laughed until he retched. He pushed his head into the cold dirt of the roadway. The mud felt good against his forehead. He stretched out his tongue and bit into it, tasting grit and earth. He shuddered and then didn’t hear anything.
"Hey, Dumbass... Dumbass-Mcfuckwit. Wakey. Wakey."
Becker’s voice flashed through Charlie’s head. The wooden cube lay on a stool next to him.
"Ya viene," said another voice. This one vibrated at two different frequencies, one high and another low.
"Calm yourself, cariño," said the voice.
A flat face hovered above Charlie's own. Two black eyes and rouged pontoon lips swam in a lake of wrinkles. Between them ran a long piece of flesh that Charlie figured must be a nose. He had to vomit.
"In the pan, cariño, in the pan," said the mouth.
"Nice," said Becker.
"Please be quiet," said the voice. Becker lit up in a pattern that Charlie recognised as a sulk.
Charlie sat upright and leant over. Cool hands guided him towards a rusty bucket next to his cot and passed him a damp cloth to wipe his mouth.
"There you go," said Charlie’s nurse. "Relax, cariño."
Charlie took a few deep breaths and focused on her. She wore a long red velvet dress that was patched in places. Beneath it protruded a pair of heavy leather boots that looked like they'd come from a kibblemart. Her arms were covered in black lace gloves that stopped just short of muscular biceps. Thickets of interwoven tattoos obscured their ridges and hollows. Her face was neither masculine nor feminine but somewhere between the two. Perfectly 'drogy, in other words. The hair that framed the face was short and tied with a tattered silk scarf.
"I’m Madame Luna. They brought you here after you collapsed in Avenida Guido. They found my card with you."
There was something compelling about the grey-brown eyes and the over-arching nose. Charlie thought that she was, wrinkles aside, the most attractive person he had ever seen. The bland, pretty shezees and heshes in class might be more angular but what Luna lacked in pure geometry she made up for in mischievous warmth.
"You’re the noot," he said.
"That’s not a term I appreciate, but you’re such a bizcocho, I’ll overlook it. Drink this, cariño," she said, waving towards a glass filled with misty liquid on the stool next to Charlie’s cot.
"It’s just water, dear," said Luna, reading his expression. She reached out to stroke his hair.
Charlie fed the rim of the glass between his lips and gulped the orange liquid. It reminded him of the dirt in the street. He retched a little, but carried on drinking.
"That’s better, no?
"Okay," she said, "breathe in and out, slowly. Now... close your eyes."
"Why?" he asked, feeling woozy.
"You came quite a way to have your fortune read, so, vamonos, let’s get on with it.
"Now," said Luna, "concentrate."
Charlie closed his eyes and sensed Luna’s face draw close to his. He felt the prickling sensation that he had felt earlier when the townies attacked. This time, though, it was warm and comforting. Something seemed to move in the air between them. Her breath played along his shoulders and neck. He sniffed. He smelt something spicy and exotic. Luna hummed a tune. It sounded familiar but he couldn’t place it.
"Bueno... And we’re done," said Luna.
"So, what did you see?" said Charlie.
"Well, that depends," said Luna, "do you want to know the truth or do you want to hear pretty lies?"
"What’s the difference?" said Charlie.
"Pues, hijo..." said Luna. She sat upright, placed both hands on her brow and rolled her eyes back in her head. She spoke in a way that rattled the twin registers of her voice like bees in a jar.
"You will have many lovers," she said. "I see you flying faster than anyone has before. You have a great destiny. You will have many, many offspring."
Luna coughed and reached down into the worn lip of one boot to retrieve a crumpled cigarette. From the other boot she produced a book of matches. She struck one and transferred the pallid flame to the cigarette.
"So, shall I tell you the truth now?"
She drew on the cigarette.
"You are pretty, but ordinary. You will have a very quiet life. You'll probably find love, if you learn to recognise it and stop distracting yourself."
She exhaled a smoke ring.
"And if you're really, really lucky," she waved towards him with the smouldering tip, "you’ll get to spend some time with whoever it is, before TAF."
Her eyes caught the gloom. Charlie swayed back and forth. Luna’s cigarette laced the air with smoke.
"Is that it?" he said.
"What do you mean? ‘Is that it?’" said Luna.
She dropped the match into the bucket. An acrid tendril of smoke rose into the air. There was a finality about her words. Even though Charlie figured they might be as much of an act as her earlier prophecy, he felt some part of him had been tossed away along with the spent match.
Charlie thought of Florita and the sensation of her knuckles slipping beneath his fingers. He felt sick again. Something flowered at the back of his mind. A blackness that sucked at the pit of his stomach. He thought of the TAF again. He thought of the trail of blossoms and imagined them floating icy and flash-frozen. He thought of their house and the upshunt and Nuevo Palermo. All of it would be gone. The Earth would spin off giddily into the blackness. A dry, waterless rock. Human time would stop. There would be nothing. For ever.
Becker's wooden surface glowed. Luna waved at the box in a gesture that forbade him from administering tranquillisers. Charlie doubled over and grabbed the bucket and was sick. Luna leant towards him and brushed his hair back from his face. He breathed. He felt his body swell each time he inhaled. The blackness receded, but remained hovering at the back of his mind. Luna stepped away from him. She stubbed out the remains of her cigarette.
"So, now that’s over with, do you want to fuck?" she said. She yanked the hem of her skirt to her knees. "It’s included in the price," she shrugged.
Charlie’s stomach contracted. The mitochondrial joke that made a noot into noot, expressed itself in other ways. He'd heard of noots with penises and vaginas. Some had neither, instead they had grown a kind of male vulva, while others exhibited an even more aggressive atavism and were blessed with non-human genitalia altogether.
"Uh... I don’t have any money," he said.
Luna looked up at the ceiling.
"Of course, why would you?" She looked at Becker. "He’s pretty fancy, though," she said nodding towards the 'box. "I’ll take him."
"Back off, stick-shift," said Becker, sputtering into life.
"Bueno," said Luna. "How about your body-stocking then, that looks expensive. I have some old clothes you can wear."
"Done," snorted Becker. Charlie felt dazed, but he nodded.
The need to be with the familiar filled Charlie, but more than that he wanted to find Florita and hug her and never let go of her.
"Please, do you know where my friends are?" he said. His voice sounded small.
Luna sighed and dropped her skirt. She leant forward and grabbed his cheeks.
"No fucking then? That’s a pity. You're very cute. Anyway, your friends are out front," she said, grasping him across the shoulders and lifting him to his feet. He staggered to Becker and pushed the 'box into his pocket.
"You can change over there," said Luna, pointing to a curtained recess.
Later, Luna pushed him through a beaded curtain. Waning sunlight filtered through the doorway of the bar.
Charlie rubbed his eyes and blinked. The relentless sound of Ska music from the wayback filled his ears. He realised how much he wanted to see Syd and Florita. The stump in his pants itched. He wanted to see Florita, especially.
Luna conducted him to a dark corner of the bar. On a rustic wooden table lay Florita’s half-lensed sunglasses. Syd’s brocade jacket hung over the back of a chair, still regal despite being spattered with patches of mud.
"They don’t have their 'boxes anymore, but they’re all in one piece," said Luna. "The townies are rough, but they only want money, mijo."
Florita and Charlie nestled in the dark alcove, faces locked together. Their eyes were closed. Charlie watched Florita’s pale fingers trace up Syd’s thigh in an urgent stroke towards his crotch.
Luna patted Charlie on the forearm and shrugged, brandishing another cigarette. She walked towards the door and stepped out. As she walked away, Charlie suddenly recognised what was familiar about the interwoven spirals on her arm. They were anchored in the same three red letters that Wallis wore on his arm: "CJM".
Without disturbing his friends Charlie ran to the door. It was already raining again and Luna had disappeared into the gloom. He looked at the sheer face of the upshunt and towards the belt itself. Tiny propellent clouds from launch vehicles stippled its dark edges. They glittered like the dust motes in his yard, all those years ago.
The fear and emptiness swept into his head, but this time mixed with something else. Perhaps for the first time he felt hope. Hope that someone up there would find a way to save the stupid, the crazy and the poor.
He thought of Florita and Syd in the warm darkness at the back of the bar. He knew he ought to feel anger or perhaps jealousy. Instead, all he could think of was Luna and Wallis piloting the C.J. Macintosh, years before. He imagined their hands playing over the banks of controls, firing the engine of their machine as it careened around the dry, sedated Earth to block out the unblinking eye of the angry, yellow sun.