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As he came to, Rick was aware of a voice shouting at him in some heathen tongue – Chinese or Korean. As his eyes blearily focused, he saw the source of the untranslatable noise – a short, pudgy Asian man who stood over Rick’s prone body, waving a sheet of white paper with an unlikely amount of zeroes printed on it.

“You pay bill!” the man shouted furiously, finally breaking into Standard. “Sleep with five hooker! You pay, cocksucker! No sleep here! No sleep!”

Rick mumbled incoherently, searched the pockets of his crumpled singlesuit for bills. He came up empty.


“Five,” nodded the short Asian, his eyes gleaming with malice.

“No cash. Can I pay by Flip?” The Asian nodded, produced a small hypodermic payment unit from his belt. Rick held out his wrist and tensed. The Asian plunged the small device into Rick’s forearm. He felt a hiss of compressed air as the terminal locked into his subdermal Flip banking chip. “Ow.”

“Most people pay cash.” The Asian man grinned. “Not want wife to see Flip statement, yes?”

Rick grunted. “Just take whatever I spent.” His head was beginning to pound now. The previous night was a blur of flashing strobes, sweat pearled on skin, endless shots of raw whiskey sliding down into an empty gullet, sloshing around like hot seawater. Beyond the diminutive Asian, Rick watched pale, glowing sunshine wash in from outside the bar. It was morning. In the natural light, the bar looked shabby – badly painted, with a thick layer of grime and scum covering the floor and tables. Over at the bar, a topless waitress in her late forties scrubbed at the enamel bar top, her sagging breasts shaking as she polished, a cigarette hanging from one curled lip.

The Asian removed the hypodermic. “No come back.” He waved his finger at Rick condescendingly. “This good club. No drunks allowed. Not welcome.”

“Well, fuck you very much,” Rick muttered, hauling himself up with difficulty from the patent leather booth where he had spent his blank, hollowed-out night’s sleep. He pushed past the club owner and staggered to the door, taking a deep breath and squinting as he moved towards the light.

Rick craned his neck backwards and forced his eyes all the way open. His body resisted, each muscle shaking and vibrating, but he persevered; pinned his eyelids back through sheer force of will. The sky was a bright, cloudless blue – almost luminous to Rick’s dark-accustomed eyes. He shivered violently, letting the light flood into him.

Rick had spent three years in the Deep. He had grown accustomed to the endless, velvet black of space. The cold, whisper-less silence – not even a breath of wind to disturb the awesome calm.

Here on Earth, it was chaos. A cacophony of sound and movement. Everything had to be re-learned. In the Deep, there was no up, no down – only Out, endlessly and forever. It was difficult to readjust, to look up and not think in terms of the planet’s atmosphere, but instead to think of the sky as a region. A territory. A vast canvas, upon which men painted their dreams of flight.

Rick’s eyes traced the path of an ascending Monofilament Wing. The Monowing was probably bound for the Lunar Colony, beginning the arc of its vast parabola towards the moon. As the Monowing ascended into the blue and eventually blinked out of sight, Rick felt a pang of longing. Part of him wished he were nestled in the Monowing’s aft cabin, strapped into a Null Gravity harness. As he watched a second Monowing, this one on its return journey, begin to bisect the great blue expanse of sky above him, his heart sank. He watched the Monowing make planetfall and felt a great sadness.

He tried to shake the feeling, but could not. How many times had he longed for this? To feel the solid ground beneath his feet; to suck fresh, clean air into his lungs with each breath; to feel the warmth of the sun on his skin? Now he was here, it was the Earth which felt alien and strange.

Reluctantly, he walked away from his apartment building, pulling a cigarette from its package and lighting it on the small blue ignition strip. He exhaled a thin stream of smoke from between clenched teeth. The city was crowded and noisy. The streets were thronged with all kinds of human flotsam and jetsam. Tweakers begging for change, wild-eyed and hyperventilating, their hair matted and dreadlocked through inattention. Hitchers, panhandling for work among the busy crowds of Lunar Module officers, down for a month’s shore leave – they were trying to get off-planet in any way they could, and would work their illegal passage to the Moon in any number of nefarious ways. The officers themselves looking tanned and healthy, making the most of their time on land – their close proximity to Earth meant they experienced less separation anxiety than a Deep Pilot like Rick. There were more respectable bums lining the pavements, selling their wares on fold-out tables stacked high with pirated Holotainment discs. In between these illegal vendors, a few rat-faced hustlers trying to make a quick credit from ancient games of cards, cups and marbles.

Rick ignored them all, crossing avenues with a halting, shuffling step. His bones ached. Earth gravity was a chore for him now. He could feel the weight of the planet’s mass holding him down, chaining him invisibly to this ball of rock. Exercise helped the aches and pains – he picked up his pace a little, wincing as he did so.

As he entered a pedestrian subway tunnel, Rick felt himself relax momentarily. There was something comforting about the sense of enclosure. It felt like he was aboard ship once more, and outside the grey plascrete walls there could be beautiful, cold void, instead of endless, teeming life. He walked along the narrow passage, but the tunnel began to fill with more and more people. They pushed and jostled, angry faces grimacing, looking everywhere except each others’ eyes. Rick performed an awkward two-step with a red-haired woman in business dress. They each sidestepped, blocking the other’s path.

“Sorry,” smiled Rick weakly.

“Asshole,” the woman muttered.

This was the catalyst. As the tide of pedestrians swept the woman away, Rick entered a kind of rapture. He saw, for the first time, the misery and care, the aggression and hate on the faces of most of the early-morning commuters. Faces ravaged by drink and drugs – burst capillaries, deep wrinkles and epicanthic folds; the familiar lock-jawed grimaces of the meth-heads, bound for their high-flying careers in the financial district; the gout-swollen limbs of the managing directors; the stoned indifference of the teachers and cleaners and nurses.

Rick began to panic. His breathing became shallow, his chest tight – spots of brilliant light exploded in front of his eyes. He couldn’t breathe, his throat was closing up. Quickly, he pushed his way through grumbling bodies and made his way to the side of the tunnel. He cursed loudly as he sprayed his own shoes with bile and vomit. He got a few filthy looks from the commuters, but at least they gave him a wide berth, assuming him to be some kind of vagrant.

When he got his breathing under control, Rick walked shakily to the other end of the tunnel, emerging once more into the harsh daylight. He took a seat on a nearby public bench and put his head between his knees.

Out in the Deep, everything had been awesome. Awesome, and simple. Station life was routine, sure, and often boring. But Rick never got tired of suiting up and floating in the endless, directionless void. Watching the distant blue pearl that was the Earth as it slowly span used to make him feel calm, at peace. He had begged for this period of shore leave – but now he was here, it was unbearable. Surely this was the point of space exploration – human beings no longer had to cram together in ridiculously crowded cities. They could finally seek real solitude, real peace. That was why so many of the Hitchers were so keen to get back out there – once you had tasted the somatic calm of the void, human life was too vast, too teeming, too competitive to be borne.

Rick caught his breath and looked up. The buildings began to flicker and distort. One by one, the people milling on the pavements began to disappear, winking out of existence noiselessly; becoming fuzzy and indistinct and then simply vanishing. Panic gripped Rick’s whole being. Soon, all the people and buildings and vehicles were gone. Even the sky had gone, evaporating like water on a hot day, turning first to steam and then to nothing. The void enveloped him. Rick was staring at an empty, black space. His panic gave way to peace – he felt a deep sense of calm and belonging. He closed his eyes, and drifted in the amniotic darkness.

* * *

The Chief Technician pulled the diodes from Rick’s wrist and forehead. The astronaut’s body was limp in the pink immersion fluid, glistening slightly. A smile played across his unconscious face.

The Chief spoke. “Put him into cryogenic storage. Poor bastard’s gone space-native. There’s no way this one’s ever going back to Terra.”

The Second Technician nodded. “You think we can send any of them back?”

The Chief shrugged. “What would be the point? They’re totally unequipped to deal with the Warming, and there are already eight billion people on Terra. Not to mention the time dislocation – he’s lived through fifty fewer years than we have, because of the cryo. He wouldn’t recognise the Earth, even if you played him a million Holotainment discs in orientation. If we put him to sleep again, we can strengthen his bones, wipe his memory and unfreeze a fresh and rested astronaut in two or three years.”

The Second Technician frowned. “It’s weird, don’t you think? The way they all hate the Shore Leave sim... but Shore Leave is all they ever want when they’re awake.”

The Chief simply smiled. “I don’t think it’s weird. Some people just weren’t... born to be part of the human race.” Gently, he reached down and began to lift Rick’s body from the lukewarm, pink goo of the immersion fluid. “He’s a space baby. That’s all.”

Behind the technicians, through a porthole, the Earth revolved in the darkness, showing its grey, pockmarked, crater-scarred face to the Deep, as though proud of its scars.

Original image by NASA, some rights reserved.

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