I’ve been working on this book for forever. Here’s the beginning of it. I’m not necessarily looking for feedback just yet, but trying to inspire myself to write more by sharing it, if that makes sense.
Tag line: Set in an intergalactic Cold War, 18-year old Joel, a drug-addicted burn out from a prestigious military family, is drafted for war on a remote planet engulfed in noxious pink gas.
I think, when they tell you to find shelter, they must mean something more spiritual. Four walls and a roof have never saved anyone from anything.
Right now, it stinks like stale crotch, and Bick and I are holed up in this tattered hut in the jungle while the skeeth rains bombs closer and closer. It’s so hot here you can taste the air and the gas makes everything all disco. I’ve either gone deaf from the explosions or I’m just used to them.
Bick takes a drag of his cigarette and blows smoke in my face. I can feel his hot, sour breath on the beard I’m trying to grow, but everything’s hot and sour on Planet Zero.
“Listen dingus,” Bick says, “Now’s the time. We’ve got about five seconds before that thing blows us sky high.”
I mouth the words back and watch the skeeth through the blown-out window, dragging its bloated metal belly above the trees and shooting bombs like it’s lactating.
“Four seconds,” Bick says. The ‘dingus’ is implied.
Everything’s a countdown. You’re born and you’re growing and growing, but really it’s all just entropy. Any planet you’re on, gravity goes the same way.
“So?” Bick asks, like there’s an answer.
I shoulder a gun that isn’t mine. A gun that still has one bullet left. If I aim just right… I still have nothing close to a chance.
I swing the door open and stare the skeeth down. It’s now or never and I’m dead either way. Pink gas hangs over the stars and bathes the trees in a warm, summertime glow. The skeeth lurches forward, belching smoke, plopping out bombs.
I think, Is this what you wanted to be when you grew up? Is this how you wanted your life to end?
Here lies Joel Pererra. Traitor, coward, burn-out. Prodigal son with no home to return to. You know, good riddance.
This is something I can get behind. The whole me dying thing.
I can hardly see through the gas and bits of palm tree. I can hear Bick, calling me “dingus” from some faraway place. Dingus. Dingus. Dingus. I stare the skeeth down. Another bomb. Dingus.
I’m going out there. I’m going in, even if this is it.
A word of advice: Do not fuck with someone who has nothing left to lose.
I’m not sure if this all started a week ago, or two months ago, or fifty years ago when the Humans and the Antibodies first went to war over the galaxy. But you don’t even know what the Antibodies are. Let’s back up.
My story begins on the Second Gadcom Space Station a little over eighteen years ago. I was born in a plastic birthing chamber at ten o’clock in the morning, screaming and covered in blood, doomed to enter the world as I am to exit it. Right now, our cast of characters looks like this:
Me – Joel Pererra, age zero. Brownish skin, little tuft of black hair.
Nathan Pererra, my brother, age four. The prettier, taller version of me.
Mom and Dad Pererra, parents, age whatever.
Nathan is pointing at my tiny baby penis and laughing and Dad has to pull him out of the birthing chamber so Mom can recover and bask in my adorable baby goodness. The nurse bots clean me off and wrap me in a disposable towel and then the moment gets all human. There was a lot of hugging. Mom has about a thousand pictures of me in that towel. We’re all together and smiling and Nathan is still there. Those days are over, but we’ll get to that later.
Growing up on Gadcom II is a strangely idyllic thing to do. The ship (you’re not supposed to call it a ship. It’s a “station.”), but the ship’s got this calm, kind of zen energy. Most ships are a bit more jumpy, but Gadcom II is just this big dopey thing that really likes people.
There are about ten thousand of us on Gadcom, and we all live in the pores. Little holes on the edge of the ship. They put us way on the outside so no one’s personal drama can mess with the core of the ship. That might have been their mistake with the first Gadcom, putting everyone near the core.
It takes a long time to get anywhere from the pores, but it’s cool because you can see out into the galaxy for zillions of miles. The ship rotates over the course of the year, and our view is always best in July where we face just left of the Lightbulb and you can see hundreds of planets and all the ships in the western arm. In May we look at Planet Supply Depot. At some point every year, everyone on the ship faces Planet Supply Depot. You can always tell someone’s Planet Supply Depot month by their slightly reduced will to live.
Way out past the United Defense Forces fleets and the other stations and Lightbulb and the moons, you can just see Gadcom I. Or what’s left of it anyway. That was our last station before this one, but now it’s just a metal skeleton.
The first Gadcom died of anorexia.
When you give something a heart and lungs and pores, when you try to give it life, you can’t be quite sure what’ll happen. The thing is, you can’t be quite sure where life comes from. And somehow in the mess of all the wires making up the synthetic life of the ship, it wound up with serious body image issues. A space station with an eating disorder. You can thank the fine architects at the Galactic Astronomical Development Company. Basically, the whole thing starved and shut down. Everyone had to evacuate and live in the fleet ships and in big holding cells on Planet Supply Depot while they built this station. Gadcom II. This one’s fat and happy. I’m not sure if they reprogrammed it or just trusted that life is always a little bit random.
A lot of people want to go back to Earth, but a lot of people are stupid.
Let’s fast forward a few years. It’s my first day of school and we’re adding a few people to the cast:
There’s still me, Joel Pererra. Age six. Hello.
Nathan’s just turned ten and he thinks that makes him important.
Mom and Pop, still age whatever, just a little older than before.
But now there’s the gang.
Franky, also known as Francis Augustin Gershwin-Thomas. His initials are FAGT. I don’t know how his parents walked into that one, but I think they did it on purpose. To dare anyone to make fun of him for it, teach him to have pride no matter what they threw at him. He was a real shrimp back in the day, but they must be pumping him full of protein and adrenaline because he grew about two feet last year. Sometimes he puts me in a headlock just to show he can.
Then there’s Reno. Irene Beet, if you have to write her a letter. We call her Reno so we don’t have to think about the part where she’s a girl. She doesn’t like to think about that either. She ran up to us all excited one day because she found a hair in her chin. The thing looked like a pube. Her mom made her pluck it out but I think she still has it somewhere.
This was before that, back when all of us were six. This was before we knew what a pube was or what they meant when they called you a faggot. We were all stuck at the corner table on the first day of first grade. Reno was staging a protest against her mom making her wear a dress and by cutting all her hair off when our teacher wasn’t looking. Then she’d reach under the table and passed us each a chunk of it. I looked down to see a neat little pile of brunette fuzz on the crotch of my shorts.
Like I said, we didn’t know what pubes were, but we found out pretty fast.
Most of what we learned in school I don’t remember. That’s kind of the point of school, pack you full of so much useless knowledge that you can’t possibly remember any of it. Least of all the useful stuff.
Mostly we looked at a lot of pictures of the galaxy. Some planets are red, some planets are blue, but they’re all round and pretty much useless. And there are so many that you really can’t pick out the useful ones.
The most useful, according to our teacher, was called the Earth and that’s where all humans came from. Now it’s completely destroyed. Done. Expired. Full of sludge and grosser than gross. Our teacher said our parents’ parents’ great-grandparents grew up on Earth, but ever since then everyone’s lived in the stations.
I think that’s what she said. I wasn’t paying attention. Franky and I made little battle swords out of Reno’s hair and had sword fights when the teacher wasn’t looking.
In those days, we didn’t know much about war. It was one of those vague, older people words. Something my dad did back in the day. Something older people talked about in a way that got you thinking you weren’t supposed to understand it. Me, I never really tried to. Nathan was a different story.
The thing about Nathan is, wherever he was, he wanted to be somewhere else. Whatever he was doing was never good enough. Was never enough enough. He always wanted to be older and stronger and better, not than everyone else, but than anything he’d been before. Dad would catch Nathan sitting on the ledge at the top of the pore in his old United Defense Forces uniform, just watching all the planets roll around like great, slow billiard balls. The way he tells it, Nathan used to put his fingers against the window’s membrane and you just could see him start to think he could own it all.
That’s how they all start.
Dad would put Nathan on his knee and tell him stories. The history of the space stations and the end of Earth. The great conquest of Planet Bland and its unending flat, beige deserts and how hard the Antibodies fought. Nathan was always interested in the Antibodies. He always wanted to know how they’d grown, where they were, what they were planning.
Dad said things like, “No one really knows where the Antibodies came from, but we sure as hell know where they’re going.”
Nathan always nodded like he knew what that meant.
The important thing is that they’re out there and they’re hungry. They swallow planets faster than we can build stations and tankers and skeeths to blast them back. Decades ago, they sprang up in some backwater corner of the galaxy with just a single ship and started sweeping through the stars, planet by planet, making everything go dark. Their numbers started growing.
The first war was on a moon called Scorch. It lasted for three weeks and four of our U.D.F. soldiers died. The Antibodies retreated to their ship, but a week later they came for another planet.
And so the war began. An Antibody victory here, a human victory there. On and on, one giant chess game, all the way up to Planet Bland when I was a kid. The war for Planet Bland was the worst one yet. Hundreds of lives lost. My dad’s best friend, he died there. Another face we didn’t see at the dinner table anymore.
It seemed like after that, everyone got tired of fighting. War was something we really thought we’d grown out of. A canker sore we used to tongue all the time but now we just want it to go away.
But some people, they get war under their skin. Living isn’t enough for them. They need something to die for. They need to look death in the face, or something.
All I know is, Nathan had war in his blood from the day he was born.
It started like this:
One day every year, every kid in school goes on a field trip to Planet Supply Depot. You can see the people whose pores are facing it just die at the prospect of having to look at it some more. Planet Supply Depot is a big blackish rock you’re supposed to really respect because without it, we the people of Gadcom II couldn’t breathe or fight Antibodies or whatever.
It’s also just about the ugliest thing in the universe.
I mean if rocks could have pimples, that’s what the whole planet would look like.
If rocks had pimples and instead of makeup, you covered them in big hulking hangars and half-built ships and skeeths.
Come to think of it, skeeths might give Planet Supply Depot a run for its money on the ugliness thing. Skeeths are synthetic organism bombers that can zip between planets and walk on land. They look kind of like fat insects on four stilts if fat insects vomited bombs.
Planet Supply Depot is the skeeth of planets.
Anyway, every year we the privileged children of Gadcom II get to take a tour of our beloved ugly piece of shit supply rock. The first time we went, it was kind of cool for about five minutes. All the military crap everywhere looked so big and important. Nathan absolutely creams himself every time we go, but me, I couldn’t possibly care less.
When we got to middle school, me and Franky and Reno used to hang back and find whatever weird alien kids were there to mess around with. The U.D.F. knows no human could stand to spend more than about five seconds on Planet Supply Depot, so mostly they get little guys from neighboring planets to keep things running. They’re all our allies, of course. A few years back there was this big thing about why they couldn’t just use humans in case the Antibodies infiltrated, and then everyone remembered that Planet Supply Depot is a cesspool and we might as well make alien kids do it.
They’re making us crane our necks to look at yet another half-finished skeeth in a hangar. Awesome. And Reno jabs me in the ribs and points out this little guy who looks like a lumpy beige carrot, maybe three feet tall, buzzing around the edge of the square.
“Hey,” I hiss, and the little guy looks up. “What do you guys do for fun around here?”
“Hello, sir,” the little carrot says. “How might I assist you?”
Franky just gives me this look like, I can’t believe anything would mistake you for someone important.
“Can you get us out of here?” Reno says and we chance a glance up. The teacher this year is Miss Blisters who’s a lot less fun than the others. Miss Blisters is one of those sad people who thinks life is really hard and serious, so her duty is to make things really hard on everyone else.
“Miss,” the carrot says uncertainly, eyeing the pube on Reno’s chin, “My job is simply to assist in the building and maintenance of the battle fleets.”
“Yeah,” Reno says, “But can you get us out of here?”
Franky looks at her like, This is even more boring than the half-finished skeeth.
So Reno kicks the little carrot and he flies back and makes this really weird high-pitched noise. We’re all just kind of looking around, wondering if this makes us assholes, and the little guy lands on the ground and a pager on his hip goes off.
Then everything goes really to hell.
An alarm starts blaring, then another one, and then it’s this whole symphony of red beeping things screaming at us. And me and Franky and Reno don’t know if it’s our fault or the little carrot guy having his revenge or something actually happening but everyone’s getting pushed into the hangar and the door slams shut. I can see Nathan at the front of the group trying to see what’s going on.
Side note, people are always asking me why I’m not more like Nathan. I usually just point to him and say, “Really? You’d want to be like that?”
The sad thing is, I think a lot of people do. But a lot of people are stupid.
The alarm just keeps blaring on and on and Reno’s picking at the pube on her chin and muttering, “This is all our fault, this is all our fault.”
I tell her to shut up.
Franky gives us this look, and even in the darkness of the hangar I can tell he just wants us both to calm down.
After a few minutes, the siren goes off.
A light beams overhead and the United Defense Forces seal shines out from the ceiling.
Some monotone computer voice says: “Attention, school children of,” and then there’s a break where a pleasant female voice cuts in, “Gadcom II School District.”
“This is a routine drill. The United Defense Forces must test the efficiency of our emergency response system at regular intervals. We apologize for the inconvenience.”
Then the lights come back on and we’re staring at the half-built skeeth again.
Franky just gives us this look that says, That was the single least interesting thing that alarm could possibly have meant.
And I say, “I know.”
Miss Blisters rounds us all up and starts pushing us back towards the door, and there’s Nathan, standing off at the side and staring up at the skeeth. And I swear, there are actual tears in his eyes. Like this kid thinks the ugliest thing in the universe is a work of art. Miss Blisters gives him this sad, pitying smile and puts an arm around him.
“I heard about your father’s friend,” she says, and I remember that we’re all still supposed to be sad about Greg Matthews dying on Planet Bland.
I wonder, how can you possibly be a hero if you die on Planet Bland?
Nathan just shakes his head and walks stoically through the door and Miss Blisters smiles after him. He always manages to come off looking so noble.
On our way back to the dingy ship, we pass the beige carrot guy and Reno says “Sorry.”
That night at dinner, my mom makes us carrots. It’s March, so we’re facing the Lightbulb and one of the prettier moons, but Nathan’s staring away from the window like he’d rather be looking at Planet Supply Depot.
I draw a face in my carrot with my fork and when I look up, Nathan’s clearing his throat like he’s going to make some big speech.
He says, “Mom. Dad. I have something to tell you.”
“You’re gay?” I ask.
Dad says, “Shut up, Joel.”
Nathan is too noble to respond. He just looks at our dad and says, “When I grow up, I want to be a soldier.”
Dad gets all watery eyed and says, “Hopefully, by the time you’re old enough, the galaxy will be won. The Antibodies won’t threaten us anymore.”
“Hush,” Mom says, “The way the U.D.F. talks, you’d think the Antibodies aren’t human.”
“They’re not human, Caroline,” Dad says.
Mom rolls her eyes. “You know what I mean.”
They’re always bickering about this. Whether the way the U.D.F is hunting out the last Antibody ships and blowing them to bits is humane. Whether the wars are really necessary.
The truth is that my mom really doesn’t see eye to eye with my dad on anything. Before they got married, she used to travel around in a dingy following bands from planet to planet and getting high with alien kids. Her parents found out and stuck her on Gadcom I, and she married my dad I think just to annoy them.
I’m not sure if she misses her old life, or if the drugs just messed with her brain so much that she’s not totally there.
She says, “I just think we could try cooperating with the Antibodies instead of destroying them.”
And Dad slams his fork down and says, “Caroline, don’t go talking about things you don’t understand. If Nathan wants to blast a bunch of Antibody faggots until they’re primordial ooze, well then I’ll be a proud father that day.”
There’s one of those loud silences.
I say, “What’s a faggot?”
Whoever designed the interior of Gadcom II was either blind or a sadist. I remember when they moved us into our new family pore on my fifth birthday. Mom took one look at the walls and said, “Oh dear God, I am not living in this.”
The only thing you could say for it is that everything’s kind of groovy. It’s all zig zags and flowers and bright, toxic looking colors. Everything’s patterns. Patterns on patterns on patterns, painted over and over.
Mom tried to clean everything out of our pore in protest. She tore off the wallpaper and put all the rugs upside down. It was a nice change it first, but something weird started happening. One day, the door was just a bit too short. The ceiling got lower. The walls moved closer in. The window kept breathing in and out, in and out, and slowly the ship shrank our pore.
“I’m sorry, okay? You little shit,” Mom said and flipped the rug back over. She took the faux plants back out and put the shag zebra print cushion back on the toilet seat.
The ship relaxed and our pore went back to normal size.
Another word of advice: no matter how much you want to, don’t mess with something you depend on for survival.
Other than the décor, Gadcom’s a pretty cool place to grow up. The ship is about three miles end-to-end and stuffed with rooms and passages. Most of them have shag carpeting with red and yellow geometric patterns, but it doesn’t get to you as much as you might think.
Reno started a game to make the ship even better. Every day after school, we go find a new corner of Gadcom and mess something up. The whole ship is a bit like a body. There’s a heart and a brain that regulate the synthetic life, the air, the oxygen levels in the greenhouses, all of it. There are all these big lungs in the basement made out of some kind of tarp thing that shivers when you touch it.
Most people don’t know that, but most people haven’t tried poking one of them with a broom handle.
Franky’s parents live in one of the biggest pores up near the brain. The Gershwin-Thomas family is important or something, but Franky likes to kick it around the middle ship with the likes of me and Reno. Still, being a Gershwin-Thomas and all, he got away with a lot growing up. Stuff like, he stole the code to get into the air shafts out of a maintenance guy’s wallet. When you can get into the air shafts, you can go everywhere. I mean everywhere. Parts of the ship most people don’t even know exist, we’ve been there. We’ve peed on them, or farted on them, or poked them with things, or put cigarettes out on the walls.
You might be wondering why. Sometimes I do too. The thing is, the why isn’t really important. Call it a youthful act of rebellion. Call it wanting to leave our mark on the world.
Maybe we’re just young and stupid. Definitely that, but I think the rest of it is true too.
Our favorite spot is way at the back of the ship. Behind the birthing chambers, behind the greenhouses, behind the reserve skeeths. Way down at the very, very end there’s a window. It’s only about the size of a coffee table, but it’s the only window in the whole ship that doesn’t breathe. I’m not sure what it’s built of, but it’s perfectly still. We call it the Anus of Gadcom.
All through the walls leading up to it, you can see little lines of light like veins, and they hit the window and turn around. Little lights, hundreds of thousands of them, all closing in at the end and feeding back into the ship. The circle of fake life.
But the view is ridiculous. I mean you can see everything. The whole galaxy, not warped like it is through the windows in the pores, just clear and laid out and endless like it’s all yours.
When we were younger, we used to sit up there with my radio and listen to music and just watch. Sometimes we just listen to static. You can see the Lightbulb reflecting off a hundred planets and moons. There are other stars, smaller than the Lightbulb. Other galaxies. Whole other kinds of life. Maybe even the Earth.
The best part about it is the whole room is closed off in this little valve. The only way in or out is through the air shafts, and it’s dead quiet. None of the regulated day and night in the rest of the ship. There’s just the Lightbulb, and sometimes you’re behind it and sometimes you’re in front of it. Us, the planets, the rest of the universe, and no one else.
School, well, that’s all just a day job. This is our real life. The three of us messing around with the ship, making sure Gadcom knows we’re there.
Not that school is all bad. It has its perks. Two of them, sticking out of the chest of Jenny Lambone. Back when Franky was fat, we used to call him Jenny. That was before he got tall enough to stick me and Reno in a headlock and choke us half to death without breaking a sweat.
Reno doesn’t think Jenny’s that hot, but Reno’s an idiot.
“You’re a girl, you don’t get it,” I tell her. And Franky just gives her this look.
“What?” Reno says. “So she’s got big tits. Lots of people have big tits. Franky’s mom has huge tits.”
“Not the same,” I say. Franky just nods and takes a hit from Reno’s bong. People think Franky’s a mute, but he’s not. He just has better things to do than talk.
“Whatever,” Reno says.
Right now, we’re about a month from finishing high school, but nobody wants to think about that. Sitting in the Anus of Gadcom, that all seems like a big deal over nothing. I think I get why Nathan joined the U.D.F. straight out of school. I think he wanted to feel like he was doing something important, but he’s not. Taking orders from a bunch of old guys in suits doesn’t make you important.
Graduating definitely doesn’t make you important, but people will look for anything to make themselves feel bigger.
The three of us, we know it’s all going to shit. My dad says it’s only a matter of time before the Antibodies strike again.
“It’s not like we even wanted those planets,” Reno says and Franky nods along wisely. “Like Planet Bland is just a bunch of deserts. Who cares?”
Nathan would probably tell you it’s the principle of the thing. Supremacy in the galaxy, safeguarding the future. Whatever. Gadcom keeps breathing and we keep getting older. When we die, the rest of the universe won’t remember we were here.
I still peed on the ship’s heart. That’s immortality, if you ask me, but nobody does.
“I’m gonna fuck Jenny Lambone before we graduate,” I say. Franky just gives me this look and Reno says, “Pass the bong.”
I’ve got a month left.
* * *
It’s Saturday so I’m supposed to be able to sleep in today but instead my radio’s beeping like it’s having an aneurism. I press the button to turn it on and some garbled voice filters through. It’s our esteemed President of the Galactic Fleet, Archibald Quail. Even with the sound this static, you can’t mistake the Quail.
He says, “A hard time. A time of great sacrifice for our people.”
I roll over. Guys like the Quail, like my dad, like Nathan, they’re always on about sacrifice. I don’t really get why throwing yourself away makes you a good person. I move the dial over so the voice fades back to static.
They say ignorance is bliss, but God forbid any of us be happy.
“Joel?” Mom shrieks from the dining room.
“Joel?” she says again even though she heard me the first time.
“Did you listen to the broadcast?” she says. Her face is white. I keep staring at the little veins in her cheeks.
She knows I didn’t, and she sighs. Everyone’s always sighing at me.
She says, “The Antibodies are back. They’ve invaded Planet Zero.”
“Planet Zero,” she says like that answers the question. I raise my eyebrows.
“So, guess who signed up to be on the front lines.”
My brother the hero. My brother the good one. The opposite of a disappointment. They don’t have a word for that, but if they did, it would be Nathan.
“Your father will be home in a bit,” Mom says. So this is my only chance to get out. I give her a quick pat on the head and slip out of the pore before she has the time to make me feel bad about it.
Right now, I just want to walk. I just want to find new corners of the ship. Places it doesn’t want me in and see what it does.
Nathan the hero. Nathan, my father in miniature. I’m so bored of this story.
I’m not sure where I am right now but it’s metal and glass. No one’s put shag carpet on anything. They haven’t painted the walls here with disco flowers. This is one of those places that’s allowed to be ugly so I’m probably not allowed to be here.
At the top of the stairs is a flat little circle just under a window. There’s a sort of breeze from the window breathing in and out and it’s so narrow you can’t stand up.
I’m just lying here and smoking and looking at the window breathing. It’s weird how when you stand up one way, you get this delusion of up and down, left and right. But out in the universe, everything just floats. Up and down is just a way to make sense of the world, but in space it doesn’t work like that. In space, nobody’s decorated anything.
Out the window I can see planets we don’t get to see from our pore. Just scattered around the galaxy like someone threw paint at a canvas. Way off in the distance, past Planet Bland, in some dark corner out of reach of the Lightbulb is a little pink dot.
A pimple on the black surface of the universe, light years away. So far that they have to measure its distance in time.
What I’m looking at now isn’t happening anymore. It hasn’t happened for years. What I’m looking at now probably happened before I was born.
Little, glowing pink history.
Way out there, that’s Planet Zero.
That’s where Nathan’s going.
I never used to listen to the news. I think it’s just that Mom and Dad have it on 24/7 now and it’s started to feel like home. I can sleep with it on. I wake up to the Quail droning on and on about Planet Zero. Brave men and women. Sacrifice.
Absolutely everyone in the galaxy thinks my brother is just so wonderful. Just the beacon of humanity. Nathan is more of a robot than half the bots on this ship.
All he does is Yes, sir. No, sir. The U.D.F. is just a whole bunch of guys in the same outfit taking orders from each other. Your sacrifice is your free will. Your freedom to enjoy life. Your personality. And for what? Duty? Glory? A one-way ticket to some backwater planet no one’s ever heard of just to shoot at Antibodies until they get bored?
War is in style again. Everyone’s talking about it.
My dad says it was like this fifty years ago when we first went to war with the Antibodies. In the beginning, after people started moving up into the ships, things were alright. We started trading with other planets, even sent some humans down to a few. But the Antibodies saw their hold on things getting shaky. They’ll never attack any of our ships outright, but they’ll go after any planet allied with us. Burn it to the ground, kill anyone we send there, swallow it whole until it’s another dark spot on the galaxy.
It’s just like, get over it already. It’s our galaxy too.
Even though the Antibodies are vicious, we’re better at fighting. They’re not disciplined. They don’t strategize. It took us a couple decades to figure it out, but now we can pick them off like specks of dust.
They’re getting desperate too.
I mean, Planet Bland? There’s nothing there. And that was six years ago. If they’re going after Planet Zero, this has really gone too far.
Let me break it down for you:
There’s the Lightbulb, our closest sun, and most of the human ships float around that. There’s a few moons, there’s Planet Supply Depot. Outside that ring, there are a few neighbor planets. A few aliens here and there, but they’re harmless and they’re pretty well in the Quail’s pocket these days. We trade with them, we employ them, we protect them, it works.
Outside that, you get some really stunner planets. I mean, huge mountains and crystals and insane stuff. I’ve never seen them, but my mom did back in the day and she still can’t stop talking about them. If they weren’t on the galaxy maps, I’d be pretty sure she just tripped the whole thing.
Then, outside of those planets, that’s when you start getting the real backwater boonies of the galaxy. Planet Fingers, Planet Hook, Planet Bland. I mean just useless rocks. Almost impossible to breathe on. If anything lives on the surface, it’s nothing you want to deal with. When the Antibodies started going for all of those, that’s when we knew we were winning the war.
But now, they want Planet Zero.
You might be wondering why, and I sure as hell couldn’t tell you. It’s a tiny rock way out at the end of the galaxy. It hardly gets any light. The entire thing is covered in noxious pink gas and you can’t even get to the surface without nearly killing yourself going through it. There’s absolutely nothing useful on that planet whatsoever. That’s why they call it Zero.
From the sounds of it though, the Antibodies are really sinking their teeth into this one. They’ve brought out the big guns. Ours are bigger, but they’re putting up a real nasty fight. My mom has our radio on constantly in the kitchen. She’s been cooking a lot lately and she’s getting a lot better at it. Last night’s food was almost edible.
I can’t tell her to turn the damn thing off or she’ll probably hit me with something.
Anyway, I get it. In the last few weeks, Planet Zero went from stupid to serious. Every day people are dying. They don’t read the names, but the families get reports. Right now Nathan exists in a kind of limbo. Both alive and dead until otherwise notified. We plan for the best.
Dad spends a lot of time sitting by the window. It’s our Planet Supply Depot month in a few weeks. I don’t think he’s even looking at the view. He just watches the window breathe in and out, in and out. Life is all flux. But on the timeline of the whole universe, the death toll is the only thing that keeps going up.
It’s two weeks until we graduate and we still don’t know what to do about it. It’s Thursday and we’re sitting on top of the cafeteria after school. The school is just under the ship’s ribs and you can see massive steel cages half a mile above your head. Above those are all the lungs, breathing and pumping life to the Anus and back.
“We need to go out with a bang,” Reno says. “Show everyone we were here.”
She has a point. It’s not like anybody really noticed us before. Me and Franky don’t give it too much thought, but Reno’s stuck on this whole being remembered thing. It’s like she has unfinished business.
“We could fill one of the lungs with piss and pop it,” I say.
Franky gives me this look like, Where the hell would we get that much piss?
Reno lights a joint and cracks her back.
“We could hot box the library,” I say. I don’t have to look at Franky to tell he’s saying, Where the hell would we get that much weed?
“We could do really well on our finals,” I say. Everyone laughs, even me.
Reno’s pager goes off and a grin spreads over her face.
“Kids, our prayers have been answered,” she says. Thank God, or whoever just paged Reno.
“You found enough piss?” I ask. Reno shakes her head.
“Something so much better.”
We’re in a giant bubble somewhere in the ship’s upper abdomen. The music is so loud it’s shaking the shag patterning on the walls and making everything groove like writhing limbs.
I’ve never seen half of these people, but there are hundreds of them. Everyone packed into this big tube and the lights are flashing everywhere. It’s about a billion degrees.
“Seriously, Reno, is this necessary?” I say. Reno rolls her eyes.
“Jenny Lambone is here with her friends,” she says.
“Yeah, sure,” I say. Reno takes a little bag of something out of her pocket and drags us back to a table in the corner.
Franky eyes the bag, but I’m too busy being annoyed.
“It’s too loud,” I say, “Can’t we just go poke some of the lungs or something?”
“Joey, Joey, Joey,” Reno laughs, “Stop with the baby crap. We’re adults now.”
“Grown a beard yet?” I say. Reno’s about five seconds from punching me.
She says, “Here,” and shoves the bag at me. I look at it for a second, then back to Reno, then back to the bag, then to Franky just to see what he has to say on the subject.
“Reno, what the fuck.”
“Bleak,” she says with a grin. I know what it is. Not that I’ve seen it in person before, but everybody knows what it is.
I’m just staring at it and she grabs it back out of my hands.
“What, you want to go wave it in some U.D.F. patrol guy’s face?” Reno says.
“Since when is Reno into bleak?” I say, and Franky just shakes his head. I mean, the girl smokes like a grenade, but bleak is hardcore. People die doing that.
Then again, people die doing everything.
“Come on, Jay, do a line with me,” Reno says. “Then you can go rabbit fuck Jenny for days.”
It’s a little bag about the size of my thumb. The powder inside is so finely ground it looks like liquid. It’s almost black, but almost every other color too and it sparkles. It looks like a tiny galaxy.
“Are you fucking high?” Reno says.
“What?” I say, “It does.”
“You don’t get to say shit like that when you’re sober, it’s tripping me out.”
Franky raises an eyebrow.
Some people say bleak is actually a rock, mined from a distant moon light years away where all the native beings died of euphoria. Some say it’s transported all the way back from the ruins of the Earth. I’m pretty sure there’s just some cracked out old guys who cook it in basements and shuffle it from ship to ship, but ask Reno and you’d swear it’s the crystallized eczema of God himself.
“I’m telling you kids, this shit is prime,” Reno says.
If it’s so prime, there’s no way she could afford it.
“You don’t know shit,” she says. “Maybe I had to blow someone for that.”
I say, “Reno, you’ve never blown anyone. You’d just take his dick off and keep it for yourself.”
Reno grabs the bag out of my hands.
“Come on, Reen,” I say, “Don’t be like that. I’m sure you’ve sucked a thousand dicks.”
She passes me a straw, and gives me a look that says I should take that as an insult. The line is out on the table, neat and tidy, all those little sparkly planets ground into a pretty gray dust.
I should take a moment to appreciate this step in my life. This frontier I am crossing. Later, I might look back on this as a defining moment of sorts. A time when I stopped being apathetic and started taking my self-destruction seriously.
I look up a second later and the straw falls from my nose.
My head feels sort of fuzzy.
I say, “Do you think it would be better to get head from a girl with no teeth?”
And Reno says, “If you’re just wondering about the lack of teeth, does it really matter if it’s a girl?”
Franky just gives me this look like, No one’s ever sucked your dick so how could you know the difference?
And then everything fades to disco. And I really understand the zig-zagging on the floor. And I really feel as one with whoever designed Gadcom II.
The whole ship. Everything. From me all life goes forth and comes back to me.
I am the Anus of Gadcom.
And everything is possible. Even Jenny Lambone.
Tonight I am floating in a cloud of people. We are all one big breathing thing. We are all life.
Look at me, being life.
Why can’t everyone in the universe be part of my fluffy cloud? Hey everyone, I want you to understand how much you should love yourself.
I want to hug everyone.
I say, “Franky. I want to hug you. Forever. Please pass that on to all of humanity.”
Everyone’s eyes are little stars.
The stars are all shining on me and there, swishing through the crowd, is curly black hair. Perfect tits. Jenny Lambone.
The lights flash around and Jenny turns every color. She looks even more perfect in each new shade. I want her. The way you can whizz past stars so close you can feel the heat. I want her the way you almost want them to hit you.
I say to Franky, “This is true love.”
Franky just gives this look like, You are so high. You are high as balls. You are so high, you’re not even a real person.
Yeah, well. You can’t tell Franky anything.
Reno’s on my level. She’s got this big grin on her face like she doesn’t even see the rest of the world.
“Why do they call it Bleak?” I yell over the bass line.
I can’t feel my feet. It’s like my legs stop at the knee and everything’s just floating. Like we’re space.
I am a star and everything orbits me.
Reno says, “Because after you try it, regular life just sucks.”
I’m not sure what this is, but it’s so much better than life.
Jenny’s hair is red, is green, is purple, and it sways ahead of me. I reach out for it and it slips through my fingers. I’m paddling towards it like a distant sun. It keeps getting farther away. I move forward and my hips collide with something round and soft and Jenny.
“What the?” she says and spins around. She makes a face like she’s tasting something sour and shoves my shoulders.
I laugh. Jenny. Her eyes are the best stars.
She throws a hand up and silk walks away and jerks her head and another girl steps in to take her place. Brown hair. I can see Jenny, moving back and forth, hips and thighs and colors. I am a floating cloud of warmth. Everything radiates from me.
I see Reno and say, “I’m grinding on Jenny!”
Reno yells back, “That’s not Jenny!
I look down and she’s right. It’s not Jenny, but it’s the thought that counts.
It might be hours later, or maybe years. All I know is that I’m sweaty. There were lights, and patrol guards, and people shouting, and everyone had to run away. We ran into one of the greenhouses, and the lights and shouts followed and told everyone to go home. So that’s what we’re doing.
Me, Reno and Franky, we’re home. Sitting in the Anus of Gadcom, smoking a joint.
It’s supposed to be morning in an hour or two, but outside the ship is already facing the Lightbulb. All the planets are glowing. The little blue veins of light shoot towards the window and ping back.
“We graduate in twelve days,” Reno says.
Franky nods like the passing of time is all an illusion.
“You didn’t fuck Jenny yet?” Reno says.
The fucking of Jenny is all an illusion. Everything is an illusion right now when we’re this close to the window.
I’m still high.
“There’s still a week,” I say.
“Yeah, well, I should go home,” Reno says. Franky nods and helps her to her feet. I don’t want to go home. Home brings me down. Right here by the window, this is where I can be home and be me.
No, I did not fuck Jenny Lambone. But there is still time.
I climb back through the air shafts as my head starts to clear. I really would prefer if it didn’t. I want to feel this fuzzy and miraculous forever. The air shafts are gray, the whole ship is hideous, it’s almost morning. Nathan is still gone. Mom still hardly gets out of bed. Dad still doesn’t like me.
Bleak. Bleak is how I feel. I get it now.
I slip out onto the hallway outside the pores and follow the zig-zagging lines. I bump into a few doors. Maybe wake some people up.
Just to make sure Gadcom knows I’m here.
All the doors look the same. I could reach out and knock on any one of them and it would be almost the same thing. But each time, I’d be in the wrong place. And eventually, I’d hit where I’m supposed to be.
That door, the door I’m supposed to go through, it swings open before I even have my keys out.
“Where the hell have you been?” Dad says. I take a step back to bring him into focus. He takes one look at my face and makes a noise like he’s coughing up a kidney stone.
“Joel! Oh Joel,” Mom rushes to hug me. Mom doesn’t hug anyone.
“We’ve been calling you for hours,” Dad says. “Where is your pager?”
I don’t know. I probably didn’t bring it. I just shrug and try to keep everyone in focus.
“Are you high?” Dad says. I shake my head No. He exhales through his nose and a little bit of snot comes out.
“Joel, honey,” Mom says. “You should sit down.”
“Why? Am I dying?” I ask.
All of us are dying, some people are just better at it. I plop down on the couch and look at the ceiling.
You know, I could be dying right now. That’s the thing about bleak. It’s Russian roulette. You keep doing it and one day it’ll just kill you. No slow degeneration, getting wrinkles, losing your teeth. You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine, then boom, you’re dead. But Reno says that’s like life. You wake up every day until one day you don’t.
Mom’s face is white again. Dad looks like, I don’t know what. Neither of them wants to look at me and Mom says, “We’ve been calling you for hours.”
I shrug. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry?” Dad says. Like I stepped on his neck. Like I shot him. Like I shot him and then stepped on his neck.
There’s a silence when I don’t think even the ship breathes.
And Dad says, “Your brother is dead.”
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