Copyright is held by the author.
M STARED at the brown-sugar clouds enveloping the skyscrapers; the clouds were pinpricked with flickering yellow lights. He felt an irritating pain in his shoulder, and fatigue shadowed him. Or was it deep repulsion he felt? He couldn’t tell. The sun was lost behind the countless buildings — thin walls of steel reaching to the sky — rising from a bright blue sea that spread out as far as his eyes could scan in all directions. The space shuttle, an old Avenger5 on its final mission — a fortuitous fit as this was his final assignment — locked its autopilot to the base station. Tower control oriented the massive ship to the landing area and supervised the off-loading of freight, including cargo, machinery, and passengers, in a single file. Staring at the usual crowd on the dock, M took his place at the end of the line. He carried a secured cube case. Inside the case ice was packed around the head of a young male, severed from his neck by a sharp axe just three months ago. Splitting off from the passenger line, M walked toward the corridor marked with a green sign that read “Flight Crew,” and was immediately stopped by an officer — a lieutenant maybe. The officer checked M’s papers with cruel scrutiny and let him by with a single word: “Proceed.”
“I missed home,” M said in a whisper, as he passed a conveyor belt packed with look-a-like cases. In his grip, his cold case rocked in rhythm to his steps. He felt the familiar relief of being on his home planet — a form of happiness one can only recognize once it is lost and then found. A rush of fatigue ran through his spine, making him dizzy. Long flights did not help his condition; his vertigo attacks were more frequent than ever. M stopped and leaned on the side of the conveyor belt. His eyes traveled from the case to the man in military uniform standing at the other side of sliding doors. M shook his head, trying to clear it and, gripping the case tighter, moved toward the Captain, an officer with a calm expression and an ironed shirt.
Half an hour later, he was listening at the door of his apartment. His right ear — the better one — was pressed up against the door’s hard plastic surface. He wanted to make sure no soul was there. M used his key to get into his place — a two-room apartment that he referred to as home. Unfortunately, he didn’t notice that the key’s crypto code had expired six months ago. Inserting the rectangular key in its slot a few times and jiggling it unsuccessfully, M was startled as the door cracked open by itself. On the other side, his wife Jenny clad only in her panties, gazed at him in silence, as if she were looking at a door-to-door salesman.
“I didn’t think that you’d be home,” said M to break the silence.
“Where else would I be?” asked Jenny, letting him inside. She looked worn and scruffy like a teddy bear you sleep with every night and wash only occasionally.
“I was listening at the door,” said M, dropping his backpack on the cabinet at the entrance.
“You’re a year late,” she said.
“A year?” M paused. “Well, you know Elora is very far away from Nimbus, and besides there were other complicated issues I had to deal with this time. You don’t want to know…” She was looking down at him, judging him, embarrassing him, in a way that M would not stand for. “I don’t want to talk to you when you’re naked,” he said. “Get dressed.”
“What for?” said Jenny. “Who’s going to see me in this shit hole?” She walked to the window and flattened her breasts on the cold glass. The pale lights of the facing apartments glittered in the starless night of Nimbus.
“I’m not talking about anyone seeing you,” said M, rubbing his eyes. “I’m tired and I’m asking you to put something on.”
Jenny turned to look at him. She walked a few steps and dropped herself onto the leather couch. They had bought it the week before their wedding; it was now old and battered, its leather worn, its colour darkened, its cushions deformed.
“How I liked this couch,” she said, her voice cracking. “It’s wearing out with me in this planet — this Hell that God endowed us with.”
M sat on the chair across from the couch. There was only a small coffee table between them; it was a wooden piece of junk.
“What is it now?” asked M, sighing. “I know it took longer than expected.” He wished he wasn’t so exhausted. He wished he could listen to her more carefully, share her worries, and comfort her — this woman who was once charming and breathtaking, full of life, an indispensable part of him.
“You know what,” shouted Jenny. “It’s been two years! I don’t give a shit anymore. I’m forty-one.”
“What? You started counting your age by Nimbus years? A year is just two hundred and something fucking days on this planet.”
“Who cares?” said Jenny. “A year is a year and we’re all rotting in this Hell.”
Hissing, M got up. He shook his head. “Are you on drugs?” he asked and without waiting for the answer he walked toward the only other room in their apartment. “I’m going to sleep.” He turned back and looked at his wife, who was watching his every move. “You better get dressed before you come to bed.”
M had his first cup of coffee — it looked like swamp water and had a vague (certainly articficial) flavour of roasted beans — in a meeting room close to his office on the 86th floor of his building, facing the dock where the cargo ships landed. Next to the giant flat building was the complex that housed the general hospital and the university, places where M had split his time equally over the past 10 years.
Mr. Bellows, his boss, entered the room without knocking. He was followed by man in a black suit and red-striped tie (some weirdo thought M) who introduced himself as a government officer in a dull voice and mentioned that he would be taking over the case.
“I don’t understand,” M said, avoiding other less appropriate words he might have used.
“There is nothing much to understand,” said Mr. Troy, the name M read on the man’s name tag. “We have reconsidered your priorities.”
“Then, maybe, you should travel to Elora and re-reconsider your priorities.” M was surprised to see himself so calm even after his first cup of coffee.
“M,” said Mr. Bellows, expecting his employee to start shouting, cursing, and perhaps bang his fists on the table.
“Don’t call me that,” said M, lowering his voice. “You know what they call me on Elora, The Flying M, and you know why.”
“Well,” said Mr. Troy standing up. In his hands was a red file that he had brought with him, but had not opened. “I will leave you two gentlemen alone to sort out your potential disagreements. As I said, we are taking over this case.”
Troy left the room, closing the door after him. Moving toward the window, M brushed by Mr. Bellows. A police shuttle passed by a few floors below, and a thick fog covered the sea like a warm quilt.
“This is some welcome,” said M, his breath leaving a white mark on the window.
M met Jenny for lunch at a small café located in the central mall, a giant dome of blue glass. It was an infinite arena of shopping, placed on round steel pillars, hovering on the ever calm waves of Nimbus. M hated the mall, and hated Jenny for forcing him to spend his first day back on the planet among shopping-crazed consumers. Without words, he made his views on the matter clear by ordering his steak medium-rare.
He glanced at Jenny before he cut another piece from his bloody meat; compared to the night before, she looked more orderly and attractive, with the help of two sleeping pills and a half-hour’s worth of makeup. She was wearing a blue skirt. M considered her efforts a peace offering; M only remembered seeing Jenny in a skirt twice: her father’s funeral and their wedding.
“I have a meeting with the Board today,” said Jenny, gently biting a green leaf that looked astonishingly like a real lettuce leaf. “Harold, the dean of our faculty, will be retiring in a couple of months and I’m planning to apply for his spot. The initial hearings are this week.”
“Here, here,” said M. “Jenny, the dean. Look at that. I’m happy for you. I mean it.”
“Nothing’s for sure,” said Jenny, making a sour face. “I’m not the only candidate. I’m not even sure the job’s a good fit for me.”
“Why not? Who lead the research team for the last 10 years? Who else published 20 papers in the faculty including the one on the Krushwitz’s Theory? I think you deserve the job, and you’ll get it. You can do anything once you’ve set your heart on it.”
“What do you mean?” asked Jenny. “Do you mean I’m stubborn?”
M absentmindedly rubbed his chin. “I would say tenacious or determined.”
Jenny shook her head and looked away, as if she glimpsed a familiar face in the crowd for a second, and was still looking for it in the flow of people. “Anyway,” she said. “What are your plans?”
M did not answer the question — believing that she wasn’t expecting a reply anyway. Rather, he filed the inquiry in his mind to think about in the future.
“Professor Krinke asked me if you would be teaching next semester. Of course, I told him that I had no idea whether you’d be back by the beginning of the semester or the next. But, I think his offer is still on the table.”
M let his breath out in hisses. He looked at Jenny and back at his steak. His mashed potatoes were almost completely soaked in red. He cut a small piece of the meat and adding some yellow-red potatoes, brought his fork to his mouth. Jenny watched his every move, a habit of hers, a routine — the value of which she never judged. She waited before hissing out a breath of filtered Nimbus air — just as M did a minute ago.
“Well,” she said. “If you want to keep on working in the field, work in the field. It’s your choice, not mine. But, let me remind you that the university won’t be able to fund your research indefinitely, if you don’t give them back something.”
M looked at his wife. She was calm and peaceful, but frightening like a black rain cloud capable of pouring forth at any time, but still surprisingly cool inside. She wasn’t the woman he married, but worse, she wasn’t the woman he wished her to be.
Taking a cab, driving leisurely around the newly constructed buildings, towers like needles mostly, astonished at the increasing number of cars hovering about, M got to his office at two o’clock. A red light was blinking on the wall-clock, indicating that even the secondary battery needed a recharge. He sat on his chair and laid his hands on his tidy desk. The room had been cleaned recently. He smelled a thick odour of bleach mixed with an artificial flower scent, and the air was heavy and wet. The file cabinet on the other wall, the proton server next to the window, his computer, and the pile of paper on his desk looked both familiar but also disturbingly foreign to him. The feeling of redoing the already achieved depressed him. He put his head on the desk, and slept until the last orange rays of the sun left his office.
The next morning, M found Mr. Bellows and the government officer, Mr. Troy, sitting on the wooden bench, the one M had carried back from Elora after one of his trips, next to his door, waiting for him silently. Mr. Troy checked his watch a couple of times before he walked inside the room, and once he did, he started grumbling like an old man in a doctor’s office.
“The sample you brought us is worthless,” he said. “We can’t use it.”
“Worthless?” asked M. “Isn’t the virus still there, still in the Brain?”
“It is,” said Mr. Bellows with a soothing tone. “But it has mutated into a malformed derivative.”
“It’s worthless,” repeated the government officer.
“Look,” said M, pointing at Mr. Troy. “I checked twice with the base. I got the blood work from the selected sample and sent them the details. The base confirmed the virus and that’s all I know.”
“No mistake was made at the base,” said Mr. Troy. “But we still have a useless piece of carcass.”
“That bloody virus was in that guy’s head and I carried it all the way to this damned planet,” M said, shouting.
With a tight smile, Mr. Bellows stepped between the two men. “We are not here to judge your work,” he said looking at M. “But we have to solve this problem. I’ll be honest with you. The army is no longer interested in this operation and it would like to wrap it up with this last specimen.”
M was stunned, hearing the announcement like this. “Is it cancelling the project?”
Mr. Bellows looked back at Mr. Troy, who was looking out the window impatiently. Mr. Troy put his left hand in his pocket and turning back gave Mr. Bellows a veiled look.
“It already has,” said Mr. Bellows. “Look, we need someone to undertake a last trip to Elora to replace the spoiled sample with a viable one. And there’s no one in the department right now to assign this task to…,” He hesitated for a moment. “…Except you.”
“Is that so,” said M with a smile, staring at the man with a hand in his pocket.
Check back tomorrow to read the conclusion of this story.