Story by Geoff Tuffli
++++ DATE 2.5.2469
++++ TIME Period 7.1.9
++++ LOCATION Manufactory 9, Division T, Alpha Complex, Orcus
The comm crackled for a moment. "Work hard, increase production, and be happy," urged the soothing voice.
Gregory 7566-1 bowed his head, making the sign of the circle on his bare skull, completing the motion by touching where the center of the circle had been drawn. He tried not to, but could not help but glance at his work partner, noting with troubled disapproval that Lucida 9566-2 was blithely ignoring the comm.
Lucida noticed his scowl, and smiled impishly. "You worry too much."
"TruthSec could be watching," Gregory insisted.
"Not from that comm," Lucida remarked. "That one has been waiting for a capacitor replacement for eighteen periods now."
Gregory looked uncomfortable. "Still, someone might say something."
"Let them. They will not be saying anything TruthSec does not already know."
"You are going to get us both in trouble."
"You worry too much," Lucida said again. She glanced at the chronometer on the wall. "Besides, our work cycle has been over for the last 0.1.0 periods, so if it pleases you to continue work do not let me stop you, but I am returning to the creche."
"I am going to look at the comm again. Maybe I can bridge the gap on the capacitor and get it working," Gregory considered. "I will see you in a bit then," he said, glancing at her. "Work hard," he said.
"Be happy," she replied cheerily as she picked up her own tool kit and made her way back down the corridor.
Gregory reached for the multi-tool at his belt, stepping beneath the comm, looking up at it. Perhaps some conductive cement would pass enough of a charge to get it functioning again? Likely not, but leaving the work unfinished left a bad taste in his mouth. "It might work," he said aloud to himself dubiously as he stretched up to unfasten the outer casement on the comm.
"Not generally, in my limited experience," came a new voice from behind him. "But my engineering skills are rather, shall we say, atrophied."
Gregory spun, his multi-tool slipping from his fingers to clatter on the floor. He frowned at the man standing in front of him. "What is that on your head?" Gregory declared quizzically, kneeling to retrieve the fallen multi-tool. He stood, continuing to stare.
The man frowned, touching his head. "Ah, hair."
"I have heard of that," Gregory nodded. "A vestigal evolutionary trait, since removed from our genepool for sanitary reasons. Clogs air fliters and the like." He looked confused. "But how do you have...hair?"
The man put one hand to his chest, bowing slightly. "Caught me," he said slyly. "Not from around here, but surely you guessed that. You can call me Mr. Tennyson. And you, my new friend? What is your name?"
"Gregory 7566-1," he replied bemusedly. "Communication systems engineer. Are you from Gamma Complex, then? I hear things there are rather more primitive compared to the more established complexes. It must be terrible."
Mr. Tennyson held up his hands, shaking his head. "Oh no," he chuckled. "Not from Orcus at all. I am the lead contract negotiator from Hobb Industries, finalizing arrangements for the purchase by your Directorate of its bright shiny new super dreadnought. I seem to have gotten a tad bit lost on my way back from the conference section."
Gregory slipped the multi-tool back into his belt, shaking his head. "I am sorry, but I do not understand. What do you mean, you are not from Orcus? You mean you are from the Badlands?"
"You know. Where all the other decendents of the refugees from the fall of Earth settled. We have to fight them every so often, as they try to take away the civilization we have built here."
Mr. Tennyson laughed. "Oh, that's rich. Refugees, indeed. I wager that's not a bad way to describe anyone who has escaped Earth, however." His eyes flashed with amusement. "Have to remember that one when I get back. I know a few people who will get a kick out of that."
"The Death of Earth is hardly a proper subject to be making jokes about." Gregory frowned, glancing at the still-blind comm unit out of habit.
"Death of Earth? What have they been telling you here, my friend?" Mr. Tennyson snorted. "I am from Earth, near Toronto. Second biggest metropolitan area in North America after Vancouver, and that's saying something even these days. Why, there are ten times more people in Toronto alone than in all the Orcus Directorate."
Gregory searched Mr. Tennyson's face for signs of a jest at his expense. "Truth?" he asked. "You are not making fun of me?"
Mr. Tennyson looked grave. "Quite serious."
Gregory shook his head. "I do not understand. I remember my history classes quite clearly. Earth died. Humanity fled. Most scattered to survive in holes where they might. Our own ancestors came here, to build a shining new beacon for civilization." He repeated the words by rote, but this time when he stopped he frowned, troubled.
"Not entirely true, I'm afraid," Mr. Tennyson said. "Don't get me wrong, the Orcus Directorate has done quite nicely out here for being in the middle of the Kuiper Belt. You have a top-notch operation going here, under the circumstances. But Earth's doing just fine here. As are Mars and Venus and the Jovians. Triton and Pluto too, for that matter."
"This is not what I learned in my creche."
"Your creche?" Mr. Tennyson asked.
"You do not have creches? But of course you would not, being from the Badlands. In the Orcus Directorate, we have escaped the tyranny of biological accident, you see," Gregory explained, suddenly animated. "We are grown in creches, raised to adulthood, trained in our work cohort together to serve as our genes dictate we best serve. Bad mutations are weeded out, the subjects returned to the vats for organic reprocessing. It is all very civilized. Very efficient."
"Grown? As in cloned? No, ah, sex?"
Gregory pursed his lips with distaste. "No. No sex. That is just...terribly inefficient. Our way is much better. No genetic accidents this way. We grow what we need, recycle who we do not. There is never a question of discontent or rebellion like in societies of old."
"Don't you...miss it?"
"No. The onset of puberty is arrested by slow-release capsules." Gregory put a finger on the inside of his left arm. "They are implanted here when we are young. I barely even remember the operation." Gregory cocked his head. "You have had...sex then?"
Mr. Tennyson chuckled. "Oh yes. One of my favorite past times."
"I have read descriptions. It sounds disgusting."
"That's what my ex-wife said. But that's a good part of the reason why she is my ex-wife." Mr. Tennyson noticed Gregory's frown. "Wife. Pair-bonding. You really don't know the term?"
Gregory shrugged. "I think I recall it from my course in anthropology." He looked past the strange man and straightened self-consciously. "TruthSec," he said in a low voice.
Mr. Tennyson glanced behind him at the four black jumpsuited figures approaching at a jog. "Sadly, it seems my minders have come to fetch me," he sighed. He stuck out his hand, taking Gregory's in his own hand, pumping it a few times. "Pleased to have met you. Lovely conversation, really."
The four figures stopped as they reached the pair. The lead woman stepped towards them. "Mr. Tennyson," she said cooly. "This is a restricted area."
"Very sorry, ma'am. I must have gotten turned around on the way back from the conference room. I was just looking for a coffee shop."
Her face was very still. "The Orcus Directorate does not have...coffee shops," she said.
The black-jumpsuited TruthSec woman turned to Gregory. "Has this one said anything to you?"
Gregory glanced at Mr. Tennyson, then back at her. He lowered his eyes. "He just stopped to ask directions to a...coffee shop. Whatever that is."
"He said nothing else?"
"I said I did not know what that was. Then you arrived."
She pursed her lips. "You may go. This encounter should not be discussed. There may be a follow-up interview."
"Yes. Of course. I will leave now."
She nodded curtly, turning back to Mr. Tennyson. "You will come with us, sir." He sighed, nodded, and surrounded by the quartet, moved away.
++++ DATE 8.5.2469
++++ TIME Period 3.3.9
++++ LOCATION Subdivision 8, Division T, Alpha Complex, Orcus
Lucida 9566-2 was staring at him again.
"What?" Gregory 7566-1 asked testily.
She shook her head. "That is the sixth bolted joint you have had to re-do. I have never seen you so distracted."
Gregory was silent for a moment. "Have you ever been into the Observatory? For a job, I mean."
"No. Is that a place for telescopes or something?"
"That seems logical. I am just wondering if you could see Earth from there."
Lucida cocked her head. "Why would you want to do that?"
"Curiosity, I guess. Do you never wonder?"
She shrugged. "Why? It's a dead rock. Nothing on it. Even the air is dead."
"Maybe." Gregory went back to working on the bolted joint. She was right; he would have to re-do this one, too.
++++ DATE 8.5.2469
++++ TIME Period 9.0.2
++++ LOCATION Junction 19, Division G, Alpha Complex, Orcus
The panel clicked twice, then fell silent. The light turned green.
Gregory 7566-1 let out his breath explosively. He glanced over his shoulder, but it was deep in the night cycle, and the corridor was empty. The security was solid, but working with the comm systems gave him an edge in circumventing the entry system. He secured the temporary micro-welding, then slipped the multi-tool back into his belt. He took a deep breath, then touched the screen.
The door slid open with a faint hiss. Gregory slipped inside, closing the door behind him.
The inside of the Observatory was not at all as he had imagined it. Where he had thought to see, perhaps, some great telescope, or perhaps even a giant screen, instead he saw an array of small terminals in three neat rows. Each bank of terminals was sunk into the floor, low steps at either end of the bank descending into the pit, two walkways dividing the three banks.
The walls did have a screen, although much smaller than Gregory had imagined in his mind's eye, and on it were only undecipherable rows and columns of numbers. Stepping fown into one of the terminal banks, Gregory frowned at their much smaller screens. Again, instead of star fields or even meteoric debris, the terminal screens all only had two words in red upon them, blinking slowly and in unison like some strange choir: AUTOMATION ENGAGED
"I do not understand. This is an observatory. Where are the stars?" Gregory asked aloud to the empty room. "Where is Earth?"
"Who are you?" asked a voice behind him.
Gregory spun, multi-tool out like a weapon. He felt foolish as he stood there clutching it.
The man in front of Gregory was dressed as he was, in a white jumpsuit, but the cut was different, the badge on the shoulder distinct. A Special.
"I asked you a question," the Special said impatiently.
"Work hard and be happy," Gregory said automatically. Then, "Systems Maintenance, sir. There was a report of a burned out conduit."
The Special frowned. "Absurd," he said. "All maintenance requests come through me, and I certainly requested nothing of the sort." He took several steps forward until he was almost in Gregory's face. "I will ask one more time. Who are you?"
Gregory had never struck another being in his entire life. He swung the multi-tool at the Special's temple. The Special shrieked out in pain, crumpling to the ground. Gregory stood over the Special, his jaw open, the multi-tool still held over the man. His breath quickened, and he felt faintly nauseous.
"You will tell me how to work the telescopes," Gregory demanded.
The Special looked up at him, eyes wide in shock. "The telescopes?" he said blankly.
"Yes, the telescopes!" Gregory yelled. "This is the Observatory. I want to see the stars. I want to see..." He took a deep breath. "I want to see Earth. I want to see if it is really as dead as they say."
The Special stood slowly. "Very well. I will show you. This terminal, here." The Special walked over to the nearest of the terminal. His hands flicked over the touch screen. He straightened, folded his hands in front of him as he faced Gregory. "It will take a few minutes for the telescopes to warm up. I am sure you understand."
Gregory lowered the multi-tool minutedly, but the Special did not appear to be making any threatening motions, though his temple was still bleeding from where Gregroy had struck him with the multi-tool. "All right," Gregory said. He started to fidget. "How much longer will it be? I want to see Earth."
"Just a few moments longer, I am sure," the Special replied reassuringly.
The door opened. The Special started backing up quickly.
Black jumpsuited TruthSec charged into the room, stun batons held out. One struck Gregory. His nerves lit up like fire as the electricity hummed from batons through his body. Gregory crumpled to the ground. Two of the TruthSec pulled him to his feet, supporting them between them while a third secured his hands behind his back.
The Special held up a hand. "Wait." The TruthSec paused. The Special walked back up to Gregory, saliva sliding in a tiny trail down one cheek, his eyes glassy, but still conscious, if only barely. The Special shook his head. "You poor fool," he said. To Gregory it almost seemed as if he truly was sorry.
"The Observatory is not for watching the stars; it is for watching all of you." The Special frowned. "Apparently not closely enough. You, of course, will have to go to the vats to be recycled. The rest of your work crew as well. And your entire creche. One cannot be too safe with these things."
The Special sighed. "This kind of cultural contamination is a disease. Once insinuated into the body politic, it can only be rooted out with determined zeal." He made the sign of the circle on his bare skull, completing the gesture with a reverant soft touch in the center of where the circle had been drawn.
"Be happy," the Special said to Gregory.
They dragged him away.