There’s an art to looking busy. Everyone knows the consequences of not looking busy enough, but looking too busy will attract unwanted attention as well. It’s the balance, the happy medium somewhere between bored and overwhelmed that we all seek at work. I’m really trying to perfect my technique. I’ve been watching Gale, who I consider a master of appearing busy, but not too busy, just busy enough that you don’t want to interrupt her, but not so busy that you notice how hard she’s working and inquire as to whether or not she needs help. That perfect busy that gets you left alone.
For a long time, I felt like I was suffocating at work. I thought it was just me. But that was before we realized there was a leak in one of the oxygen generators. Before we all almost died in the office. It was before we realized they wanted us dead. For ages and ages, I couldn’t breathe at my desk. I would sit there Blinking, and Tapping thinking I was just someone who couldn’t be content with life, that I had unrealistic expectations that I needed to find a way to squash. But then Leo passed out and all six of us all started feeling light-headed and nauseous and we finally understood that the office was trying to eliminate our department.
It’s a miracle we mostly survived, except for Leo who never did regain consciousness. It was just luck and bad timing that saved us. We had been expecting a shipment the next day, but it came early, and the delivery shuttle found us with only a few units of oxygen left in our emergency tanks. The company must have been furious, but publically, they released statements saying it was such a relief we had been spared. It came out later in the investigation that it was all about credits. They had been draining our oxygen supply slowly for months. Our department cost too much and it was far cheaper to dispose of us “accidentally” than it would have been to dismantle the department and reassign us all to other tasks.
I shouldn’t have been so unhappy. That’s what everyone said. It was boring work, but it was easy work. The people down on the surface had it so much worse, of course. I knew it. But that knowledge didn’t stop me from feeling so stuck. Metaphorically, I mean. I was stuck, in the literal sense too, since we couldn’t leave the orbiter. Really I barely ever left my station at all. It’s not like I wasn’t allowed to get up; it’s just that there was nowhere to go.
Ever since the gravity contraption went on the fritz, we couldn’t really move about freely. Or the problem was we could move about too freely—just floating all over and knocking into everything. It was a mess for a while. But instead of fixing the gravity, they just gave us harnesses, one for our desks and one for our sleep pods, and we strapped ourselves in.
I wasn’t getting paid much. But since I lived at the office, I didn’t really have bills or rent or anything. Just the debt, but everyone had that. My friends on the surface said I was lucky to get to just sit Tapping and Blinking. They were doing physical labor down there to keep the surface surfacey and livable. I knew they were right, but sometimes when my bones felt like mush and I couldn’t really remember what it felt like to hold my own body up, to be untethered, to walk instead of swim, I wondered if they were wrong. At least you felt alive on the surface Lifting and Pounding.
My job was to transfer incoming data from once source to another. The information was beamed into the chip in my head and then I basically just filed it by Blinking and/or Tapping my temple the appropriate number and duration of times to get the data where it needed to go. They tried to have computers do this, which everyone thought would be so much faster and more efficient, but since we were working primarily with Emotional Data, the machines often misfiled it. The best computer they built had an accuracy rate of 96.3%. Humans, on the other hand, filed Emotional Data accurately 98.8% of the time. It was a statistically significant difference.
Our supervisor, Vox, had a personal accuracy rate of 99.1%, which was pretty exceptional. Mine was 97.9%. I’d been written up for it once already. “You need to focus, Phoebe,” Vox told me. I nodded and agreed and looked concerned and remorseful as best I could, but inside I was seething. I was resentful and hated being criticized for something so stupid. And I was furious at myself for getting caught. The benefit, really the best part, maybe the only good part of being up off the planet was that my chip could catch old television signals sent out from Earth millions of light-years ago.
So while I worked, I downloaded old television episodes and motion pictures and watched them. There’s this thrilling little jolt of energy and excitement when you process information—interesting information, I mean. Something stimulating and fulfilling, something that makes your neural transmitters tingly and pumps the blood around your cerebrum. Not like the Emotional Data I was processing, which was once lively thoughts and feelings, but, by the time I got it, had been boiled down to a series of zeroes and ones that I could translate, but could not feel.
It was an addiction. I needed to watch those shows. It made the other stuff tolerable. I should have been rewarded for keeping such a high accuracy rate even while I was distracted by much more interesting information. But if they ever found out what I was doing, I knew they would find a way to block the signals, so I couldn’t ever tell anyone about it. Probably everyone else in the office was doing something similar, but we couldn’t talk about it. We were being monitored pretty closely. The only place they couldn’t fully monitor us was in our brains, which was how I got away with watching TV. That’s what they used to call it on Earth. T.V. They probably still call it that.
I’d, of course, never been to Earth, no one alive ever had, but we were from there. Humans. We still called ourselves humans. We were American before we left. Now, we’re not really, or only in name anyhow. It’s all in the History Data. We’re taught to be ashamed of being Americans now. We’re taught to be better than that, but there’s lots of ways we’re still the same. We just have different names for the bad things here. We just like to think we’re different now.
We didn’t leave because the Earth was dying like all the old motion pictures say. I watch them all—I even saw that one with the little robot guy, what’s his name? Tom Cruise. We left because you have to keep moving, growing, expanding. You have to keep taking in new things.
There are still people on Earth, or there were when we got their last transmission—1000 light-years ago. They’re probably still there. That’s what people say anyhow. We sent someone to check, but he hasn’t gotten back yet. Imagine going back to Earth? Like a reverse Astrella Serpens, when she discovered the Sickle Nebula, some backtracking Magellan.
Before we realized the oxygen processor was broken, Karen and Jed were having another tiff. No one liked Karen, but most of us tried not to start anything, knowing how unpleasant any tension in our small workspace could make everything for everyone. Even if you weren’t involved there was no way to avoid a fight. Vox subjected us to an awful number of team-building activities to try and quash squabbles, but I think the activities just made everything worse. And no amount of team building could make Karen tolerable.
I was much younger than the rest of them, except for Jed, who was about my age. Karen was ancient and antiquated. Jed and I got along because we were younger and we got each other’s jokes and references. If we had been on the surface, I probably wouldn’t have had much in common with him at all. But he had saved me more than once with a covert eye roll when Karen said something terrible in the office.
Fornication was strictly forbidden in the orbiter, but I’d fooled around with Jed once or twice, more out of boredom than anything else. It was an unstated requirement that everyone working in the obiter was either widowed or un-mated since we only got to go to the surface once or twice a revolution. When they hired people with mates and small offspring they demanded to leave more often to see them, so they just stopped hiring them. It was illegal, of course, but there were ways around everything in the Legislative Data.
That was part of the reason I took the job in the first place. I was set to be mated and freaked a bit. You just never know what you’ll end up with. The match is made by an algorithm that’s based purely on genetic makeup and what’s best for the colony to keep us from inbreeding. I was secretly in love with a person named Wyatt, but he was my 16th cousin so it was never going to be allowed. My best friend, Vega, was mated to the most gruesome human on the surface. I couldn’t imagine having to cohabitate with someone like him. So when my time came, I ran. If only I was same-gender oriented. Then I could do whatever I wanted. The colony didn’t subject samies to the mating rules the differents had to follow. It was total hypocrisy.
Gale was same. She’d been mated to the love of her lifecycle for 20-something revolutions when her mate, Zeta, ended. She said she applied to work on the orbiter because everything on the surface reminded her of Zeta. That was the kind of life I was looking for—the stuff I saw everyday in the TV shows and movies streaming out from ancient Earth. Everyone on Earth was always in love. If it weren’t for sames the whole concept of love would have been erased from our colony. They tried to get rid of it when the colony first settled, but the sames were always there, mucking up the spin they were trying to sell.
Love was one of the things I liked to watch best on TV. Love and trash. Any time I saw trash I got excited. As a small offspring, I learned everything I could about landfills. We used all our waste as fuel so the concept of unlimited fuel material just sitting around in big piles rotting in people’s homes, in public places fascinated me. Harness it and control everything! But the people on TV were always trying to give it away for free. Life on Earth must have been odd.
Trash was bad on Earth. I learned that quickly. But love—they were obsessed with love. Nearly every piece of media they made was about love. Media about love was censored on the surface. They couldn’t stop it happening, but they could control its dissemination. Any love story we saw had to be about randomly mated people realizing they were actually in love after thinking they’d be miserable for the rest of their lifecycles. It was a popular trope for both comedies and dramas. Everything was about realizing your mate was the perfect person for you, genetically and emotionally. People fell for it. My progenitors totally fell for it. They thought they were completely in love. Told the story of their mating any chance they got, how they’d been sure they would hate each other, but then realized that their genetic difference and compatibility made them extremely well suited for one another. I’d heard that story a gazillion times. And always at the end, they pointed to my siblings and me as the healthy genetic proof that it was true.
Even before I’d started watching the old Earth TV, I knew it was crap. We have to tell ourselves stories to stay alive and that was the one that kept my progenitors going. But it wasn’t enough for me. Nothing ever felt like enough for me.
On the day the oxygen generator broke, I was watching something called Lost, downloading each episode with that shock of excitement and then desperately craving the next. The high only lasted a few seconds. Once I’d ingested the episode, I knew it, and it was old, and I needed more. Earth had these things called “cliffhangers” that meant you needed to see what happened in the next episode badly or you wondered.
Media on the surface wasn’t like Earth media. It was virtual and interactive. You plugged into an experience and had it. So you weren’t just watching. You picked a character to be at the beginning of the event and lived it in real time. It felt like you were really in wherever it was set, you could feel weather and touch and all of that. Sometimes it was exhausting. Especially when I was stuck in one of those soul-mate rom coms. You were the character and you had their thoughts and feelings and you, the viewer—the real you—got lost in it. The Earth media was trying its damnedest to simulate that feeling, but you couldn’t really get lost in it because you were still a corporeal being while you experienced it. You could still think for yourself. And that was what I loved about it. You could question it. It didn’t just drown you.
I was watching Lost and a character was drowning and I felt like I was unable to breathe too. Not Penny’s boat. For a flash I was all mixed up about where I was and what type of media I was involved in. I misfiled an Emotional Datum and said, “Frak.” I could barely get enough air to push the word out, which I’d learned from another show. I looked around at the others in the office and they were looking around too. Then Leo passed out in his harness. He looked like he was sleeping, floating there all limp and still.
Vox knew protocol and immediately passed out the emergency oxygen supply and sent word to the surface that we had trouble. We followed all the steps from the drills. We waited for help. But no one came. The surface didn’t respond. The transmitters were working as far as we could tell but no one was saying anything back. At first we were worried that there was an attack on the surface, that it was terrorism or sabotage. But we could still access the News Data and everything was fine down there. They were ignoring us.
Sacha Siskonen’s work is forthcoming or has recently appeared in Quarter After Eight, Hobart, Juked, Midwestern Gothic, Crab Orchard Review, Alice Blue Review, Word Riot and Spork. Her poetry chapbook, Turbulence, is available from Dancing Girl Press. The search term that most frequently leads readers to her weblog, The Saskatchewan Review, is: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”