The kids in my local bat-house breathe heavy metals, and their gelatinous bodies quiver nauseously during our counseling sessions, and for all that, they reacted just like I had when I told them I was going away for a while -- with hurt and betrayal, and they aroused palpable guilt in me.
It goes in circles. When I was sixteen, and The Amazing Robotron told me he needed to go away for a while, but he’d be back, I did everything I could to make him guilty. Now it’s me, on a world far from home, and a pack of snot-nosed jellyfish kids have so twisted my psyche that they’re all I can think of when I debark the shuttle at Aristide Interplanetary, just outside my dirty ole Toronto.
The customs officer isn’t even human, so it feels like just another R&R, another halting conversation carried on in ugly trade-speak, another bewilderment of queues and luggage carousels. Outside: another spaceport, surrounded by the variegated hostels for the variegated tourists, and bipeds are in bare majority.
I can think of it like that.
I can think of it as another spaceport.
I can think of it like another trip.
The thing he can’t think of it is, is a homecoming. That’s too hard for this weak vessel.
He’s very weak.
Look at him. He’s eleven, and it’s the tencennial of the Ascension of his homeworld -- dirty blue ball, so unworthy, yet -- inducted into the Galactic fraternity and the infinite compassion of the bugouts.
The foam, which had been confined to just the newer, Process-enclaves before the Ascension, has spread, as has the cult of the Process For Lasting Happiness. Process is, after all, why the dirty blue ball was judged and found barely adequate for membership. Toronto, which had seen half its inhabitants emigrate on open-ended tours of the wondrous worlds of the bugout domain, is full again. Bursting. The whole damn planet is accreting a layer of off-world tourists.
It’s a time of plenty. Plenty of cheap food and plenty of cheap foam structures, built as needed, then dissolved and washed away when the need disappears. Plenty of healthcare and education. Plenty of toys and distractions and beautiful, haunting bugout art. Plenty, in fact, of everything, except space.
He lived in a building that is so tall, its top floors are perpetually damp with clouds. There’s a nice name for this building, inscribed on a much-abused foam sculpture in the central courtyard. No one uses the nice name. They call it by the name that the tabloids use, that the inhabitants use, that everyone but the off-world counselors use. They call it the bat-house.
Bats in the belfry. Batty. Batshit.
I hated it when they moved us into the bat-house. My parents gamely tried to explain why we were going, but they never understood, no more than any human could. The bugouts had a test, a scifi helmet you wore, and it told you whether you were normal, or batty. Some of our neighbors were clearly batshit: the woman who screamed all the time, about the bugs and the little niggers crawling over her flesh; the couple who ate dogturds off the foam sidewalk with lip-smacking relish; the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla.
I don’t want to talk about him right now.
His parents’ flaw -- whatever it was -- was too subtle to detect without the scifi helmet. They never knew for sure what it was. Many of the bats were in the same belfry: part of the bugouts’ arrogant compassion held that a couple never knew which one of them was defective, so his family never knew if it was his nervous, shy mother, or his loud, opinionated father who had doomed them to the quarantine.
His father told him, in an impromptu ceremony before he slid his keycard into the lock on their new apt in the belfry: “Chet, whatever they say, there’s nothing wrong with us. They have no right to put us here.” He knelt to look the skinny ten-year-old right in the eye. “Don’t worry, kiddo. It’s not for long -- we’ll get this thing sorted out yet.” Then, in a rare moment of tenderness, one that stood out in Chet’s memory as the last of such, his father gathered him in his arms, lifted him off his feet in a fierce hug. After a moment, his mother joined the hug, and Chet’s face was buried in the spot where both of their shoulders met, smelling their smells. They still smelled like his parents then, like his old house on the Beaches, and for a moment, he knew his father was right, that this couldn’t possibly last.
A tear rolled down his mother’s cheek and dripped in his ear. He shook his shaggy hair like a dog and his parents laughed, and his father wiped away his mother’s tear and they went into the apt, grinning and holding hands.
Of course, they never left the belfry after that.
I can’t remember what the last thing my mother said to me was. Do I remember her tucking me in and saying, “Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bedbugs bite,” or was that something I saw on a vid? Was it a nervous command to wipe my shoes on the way in the door? Was her voice soft and sad, as it sometimes is in my memories, or was it brittle and angry, the way she often seemed after she stopped talking, as she banged around the tiny, two-room apt?
I can’t remember.
My mother fell away from speech like a half-converted parishioner falling away from the faith: she stopped visiting the temple of verbiage in dribs and drabs, first missing the regular sermons -- the daily niceties of Good morning and Good night and Be careful, Chet -- then neglecting the major holidays, the Watch out!s and the Ouch!s and the answers to direct questions.
My father and I never spoke of it, and I didn’t mention it to the other wild kids in the vertical city with whom I spent my days getting in what passed for trouble around the bat-house.
I did mention it to my counselor, The Amazing Robotron, so-called for the metal exoskeleton he wore to support his fragile body in Earth’s hard gravity. But he didn’t count, then.
The reason that Chet can’t pinpoint the moment his mother sealed her lips is because he was a self-absorbed little rodent in those days.
Not a cute freckled hellion. A miserable little shit who played hide-and-seek with the other miserable little shits in the bat-house, but played it violently, hide-and-seek-and-break-and-enter, hide-and-seek-and-smash-and-grab. The lot of them are amorphous, indistinguishable from each other in his memory, all that remains of all those clever little brats is the lingering impression of loud, boasting voices and sharp little teeth.
The Amazing Robotron was a fool in little Chet’s eyes, an easy-to-bullshit, ineffectual lump whose company Chet had to endure for a mandatory hour every other day.
“Chet, you seem distr-acted to-day,” The Amazing Robotron said in his artificial voice.
“Yah. You know. Worried about, uh, the future.” Distracted by Debbie Carr’s purse, filched while she sat in the sixty-eighth floor courtyard, talking with her stupid girlie friends. Debbie was the first girl from the gang to get tits, and now she didn’t want to hang out with them anymore, and her purse was stashed underneath the base of a hollow planter outside The Amazing Robotron’s apt, and maybe he could sneak it out under his shirt and find a place to dump it and sort through its contents after the session.
“What is it about the fu-ture that wo-rries you?” The Amazing Robotron was as unreadable as a pinball machine, something he resembled. Underneath, he was a collection of whip-like tentacles with a knot of sensory organs in the middle.
“You know, like, the whole fricken thing. Like if I leave here when I’m eighteen, will my folks be okay without me, and like that.”
“Your pa-rents are able to take care of them-selves, Chet. You must con-cern your-self with you, Chet. You should do something con-struct-tive with your wo-rry, such as de-ciding on a ca-reer that will ful-fill you when you leave the Cen-ter.” The Center was the short form for the long, nice name that no one ever used to describe the bat-house.
“I thought, like, maybe I could be, you know, a spaceship pilot or something.”
“Then you must stu-dy math-e-mat-ics and phy-sics. If you like, Chet, I can re-quest ad-vanced in-struct-tion-al mat-e-rials for you.”
“Sure, that’d be great. Thanks, Robotron.”
“You are wel-come, Chet. I am glad to help. My own par-ent was in a Cen-ter on my world, you know. I un-der-stand how you feel. There is still time re-main-ing in your ses-sion. What else would you like to dis-cuss?”
“My mother doesn’t talk anymore. Nothing. Why is that?”
“Your mo-ther is...” The Amazing Robotron fumbled for a word, buried somewhere deep in the hypnotic English lexicon baked into its brain. “Your mo-ther has a prob-lem, and she needs your aff-ec-tion now more than e-ver. What-ev-er rea-son she has for her si-lence, it is not you. Your mo-ther and fa-ther love you, and dream of the day when you leave here and make your own way through the gal-ax-y.”
Of course his parents loved him, he supposed, in an abstract kind of way. His mother, who hadn’t worn anything but a bathrobe in months, whose face he couldn’t picture behind his eyes but whose bathrobe he could visualize in its every rip and stain and fray. His father, who seemed to have forgotten how to groom himself, who spent his loud days in one of the bat-house’s workshops, drinking beer with his buddies while they played with the arc welders. His parents loved him, he knew that.
“OK, right, thanks. I’ve gotta blow, ‘K?”
“All-right. I will see you on Thurs-day, then?”
But Chet was already out the door, digging Debbie Carr’s purse from under the planter, then running, doubled over the bulge it made in his shirt, hunting for a private space in the anthill.
The entire north face of the bat-house was eyeless, a blind, windowless expanse of foam that seemed to curve as it approached infinity.
Some said it was an architectural error, others said it was part of the bat-house’s heating scheme. Up in nosebleed country, on the 120th level, it was almost empty: sparsely populated by the very battiest bats, though as more and more humans were found batty, they pushed inexorably upwards.
Chet rode the lift to the 125th floor and walked casually to the end of the hallway. At this height, the hallways were bare foam, without the long-wear carpet and fake plants that adorned the low-altitude territories. He walked as calmly as he could to the very end of the northern hall, then hunkered down in the corner and spilled the purse.
Shit, but Debbie Carr was going girlie. The pile was all tampons and makeup and, ugh, a spare bra. A spare bra! I chuckled, and kept sorting. There were three pennies, enough to buy six chocolate bars in the black-market tuck-shop on the 75th floor. A clever little pair of folding scissors, their blades razor-sharp. I was using them to slit the lining of the purse when the door to 12525 opened, and the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla emerged.
My palms slicked with guilty sweat, and the pile of Debbie’s crap, set against the featureless foam corridor, seemed to scream its presence. I spun around, working my body into the corner, and held the little scissors like a dagger in my fist.
The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla was clearly batty. He was wearing boxer-shorts and a tailcoat and had a halo of wild, greasy hair and a long, tangled beard, but even if he’d been wearing a suit and tie and had a trip to the barber’s, I’d have known he was batty the minute I laid eyes on him. He didn’t walk, he shambled, like he’d spent a long, long time on meds. His eyes, set in deep black pits of sleeplessness, were ferociously crazy.
He turned to stare at me.
“Hello, sonny. Do you like to swim?”
I stood in my corner, mute, trapped.
“I have an ocean in my apt. Maybe you’d like to try it? I used to love to swim in the ocean when I was a boy.”
My feet moved without my willing them. An ocean in his apt? My feet wanted to know about this.
I entered his apt, and even my feet were too surprised to go on.
He had the biggest apt I’d ever seen. It spanned three quarters of the length of the bat-house, and was five storeys high. The spots where he’d dissolved the foam walls away with solvent were rough and uneven, and rings of foam encircled each of the missing storeys above. I couldn’t imagine getting that much solvent: it was more tightly controlled than plutonium, the subject of countless action-adventure vids.
At one end of the apt stood a collection of tall, spiny apparatus, humming with electricity and sparking. They were remarkable, but their impact was lost in what lay at the other end.
The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla had an ocean in his apt. It was a clear aquarium tank, fifteen meters long and nearly seventeen high, and eight meters deep. It was dominated by a massive, baroque coral reef, like a melting castle with misshapen brains growing out of it.
Schools of fish -- bright as jellybeans -- darted through the ocean’s depths, swimming in and out of the softly waving plants. A thousand neon tetra, a flock of living quicksilver sewing needles, turned 90 degrees in perfect unison, then did it again, and again, and again, describing a neat, angular box in the water.
“Isn’t it beautiful? I’m using it in one of my experiments, but I also find it very calming.”
I hail a pedicab and the kids back on my adopted homeworld, with their accusing, angry words and stares vanish from my mind. The cabbie is about nineteen and muscular as hell, legs like treetrunks, clipped into the pedals. A flywheel spins between him and me, and his brakes store his momentum up in it every time he slows. On the two-hour ride into downtown Toronto, he never once comes to a full stop.
I’ve booked a room at the Royal York. I can afford it -- the stipend I receive for the counseling work has been slowly accumulating in my bank account.
Downtown is all foam now, and “historical” shops selling authentic Earth crapola: reproductions of old newspapers, reproductions of old electronics, reproductions of old clothes and old food and other discarded cultural detritus. I see tall, clacking insect-creatures with walkman headphones across their stomachs. I see squat, rocky creatures smearing pizza slices onto their digestive membranes. I see soft, slithering creatures with Toronto Blue Jays baseball hats suspended in their jelly.
The humans I see are dressed in unisex coveralls, with discreet comms on their wrists or collars, and they don’t seem to notice that their city is become a bestiary.
The cabby isn’t even out of breath when we pull up at the Royal York, which, thankfully, is still clothed in its ancient dressed stone. We point our comms at each other and I squirt some money at him, adding a generous tip. His face, which had been wildly animated while he dodged the traffic on the long ride is a stony mask now, as though when at rest he entered a semiconscious sleep mode.
The doorman is dressed in what may or may not be historically accurate costume, though what period it is meant to represent is anyone’s guess. He carries my bag to the check-in and I squirt more money at him. He wishes that I have a nice stay in Toronto, and I wish it, too.
At the check-in, I squirt my ID and still more money at the efficient young woman in a smart blazer, and another babu in period costume -- those shoes look painful -- carries my bag to the lift and presses the button.
We wait in strained silence and the lift makes its achingly slow progress towards us. There are no elevators on the planet I live on now -- the wild gravity and wilder windstorms don’t permit buildings of more than one story -- but even if there were, they wouldn’t be like this lift, like a human lift, like one of the fifty that ran the vertical length of the bat-house.
I nearly choke as we enter that lift. It has the smell of a million transient guests, aftershaves and perfumes and pheromones, and the stale recirc air I remember so well. I stifle the choke into my fist, fake a cough, and feel a self-consciousness I didn’t know I had.
I’m worried that the babu knows that I grew up in the bat-house.
Now I can’t make eye-contact with him. Now I can’t seem to stand naturally, can’t figure out where a not-crazy puts his hands and where a not-crazy puts his eyes. Little Chet and his mates liked to terrorize people in the lifts, play “who farted” and “I’m gonna puke” and “I have to pee” in loud sing-songs, just to watch the other bats squirm.
The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla thought that these games were unfunny, unsophisticated and unappetizing and little Chet stopped playing them.
I squirt extra money at the babu, after he opens my windows and shows me the shitter and the vid’s remote.
I unpack mechanically, my meager bag yielding more-meager clothes. I’d thought I’d buy more after earthfall, since the spaceports’ version of human apparel wasn’t, very. I realize that I’m wearing the same clothes I left Earth in, lo those years before. They’re hardly the worse for wear -- when I’m in my exoskeleton on my new planet, I don’t bother with clothes.
The ocean seemed too fragile to be real. All that caged water, held behind a flimsy-seeming sheet of clear foam, the corners joined with strips of thick gasket-rubber. Standing there at its base, Chet was terrified that it would burst and drown him -- he actually felt the push of water, the horrid, dying wriggles of the fish as they were washed over his body.
“Say there, son. Hello?”
Chet looked up. Nicola Tesla’s hair was standing on end, comically. He realized that his own long, shaggy hair was doing the same. The whole room felt electric.
“Are you all right?” He had a trace of an accent, like the hint of garlic in a salad dressing, an odd way of stepping on his vowels.
“Yeh, yeh, fine. I’m fine,” Chet said.
“I am pleased to hear that. What is your name, son?”
“I’m pleased to meet you. My name is Gaylord Ballozos, though that’s not who I am. You see, I’m the channel for Nicola Tesla. Would you like to see a magic trick?”
Chet nodded. He wondered who Nicola Tesla was, and filed away the name Gaylord for making fun of, later. In doing so, he began to normalize the experience, to structure it as a story he could tell the other kids, after. The guy, the ocean, the hair. Gaylord.
A ball of lightning leapt from Tesla/Ballozos’s fingertips and danced over their heads. It bounced around the room furiously, then stopped to hover in front of Chet. His clothes stood away from his body, snapping as though caught in a windstorm. Seen up close, the ball was an infinite pool of shifting electricity, like an ocean of energy. Tentatively, he reached out to touch it, and Tesla shouted “Don’t!” and the ball whipped up and away, spearing itself on the point of one of the towers on the opposite side of the room.
It vanished, leaving a tangy, sharp smell behind.
The story Chet had been telling in his mind disappeared with it. He stood, shocked speechless.
The guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla chuckled a little, then started to laugh, actually doubling over and slapping his thighs.
“You can’t imagine how long I’ve waited to show that trick to someone! Thank you, young Mr. Affeltranger! A million thanks to you, for your obvious appreciation.”
Chet felt a giggle welling up in him, and he did laugh, and when his lips came together, a spark of static electricity leapt from their seam to his nose and made him jump, and laugh all the harder.
The guy came forward and pumped his arm in a dry handshake. “I can see that you and I are kindred spirits. You will have to come and visit again, very soon, and I will let you see more of my ocean, and maybe let you see ‘Old Sparky,’ too. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for dropping in.”
And he ushered Chet out of his apt and closed the door, leaving him in the featureless hallway of the 125th storey.
I had never been as nervous as I was the following Thursday, when my regular appointment with The Amazing Robotron rolled around again. I hadn’t spoken of the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla to any of my gang, and of course not to my parents, but somehow, I felt like I might end up spilling to The Amazing Robotron.
I don’t know why I was worried. The guy hadn’t asked me to keep it a secret, after all, and I had never had any problem holding my tongue around The Amazing Robotron before.
“Hel-lo, Chet. How have you been?”
“I’ve been OK.”
“Have you been stud-y-ing math-e-mat-ics and phys-ics? I had the supp-le-ment-al mat-e-rials de-liv-er-ed to your apt yes-ter-day.”
“No, I haven’t. I don’t think I wanna be a pilot no more. One of my buds tole me that you end up all fugged up with time an’ that, that you come home an’ it’s the next century an’ everyone you know is dead.”
“That is one thing that hap-pens to some ex-plor-a-tor-y pilots, Chet. Have you thought a-bout any o-ther poss-i-bil-i-ties?”
“Kinda. I guess.” I tried not to think about the 125th story and the ocean. I was thinking so hard, I stopped thinking about what I was saying to The Amazing Robotron. “Maybe I could be a counselor, like, and help kids.”
The Amazing Robotron turned into a pinball machine again, an unreadable and motionless block. Silent for so long I thought he was gone, dead as a sardine inside his tin can. Then, he twitched both of his arms, like he was shivering. Then his robot-voice came out of the grille on his face. “I think that you would be a ve-ry good coun-sel-or, Chet.”
“Yeh?” I said. It was the first time that The Amazing Robotron had told me he thought I’d be good at anything. Hell, it was the first time he’d expressed any opinion about anything I’d said.
“Yes, Chet. Be-ing a coun-sel-or is a ve-ry good way to help your-self un-der-stand what we have done to you by put-ting you in the Cen-ter.”
I couldn’t speak. My Mom, before she fell silent, had often spoken about how unfair it was for me to be stuck here, because of something that she or my father had done. But my father never seemed to notice me, and the teachers on the vid made a point of not mentioning the bat-house -- like someone trying hard not to notice a stutter or a wart, and you knew that the best you could hope for from them was pity.
“Be-ing a coun-sel-or is ve-ry hard, Chet. But coun-sel-ors sometimes get a spec-ial re-ward. Some-times, we get to help. Do you re-ally want to do this?”
“Yeh. Yes. I mean, it sounds good. You get to travel, right?”
The Amazing Robotron’s idiot-lights rippled, something I came to recognize as a chuckle, later. “Yes. Tra-vel is part of the job. I sug-gest that you start by ex-am-in-ing your friends. See if you can fi-gure out why they do what they do.”
I’ve used this trick on my kids. What do I know about their psychology? But you get one, you convince it to explain the rest to you. It helps. Counselors are always from another world -- by the time the first generation raised in a bat-house has grown old enough, there aren’t any bats’ children left to counsel on their homeworld.
I take room-service, pizza and beer in an ice-bucket: pretentious, but better than sharing a dining-room with the menagerie. Am I becoming a racist?
No, no. I just need to focus on things human, during this vacation.
The food is disappointing. It’s been years since I lay awake at night, craving a slice and a brew and a normal gravity and a life away from the bats. Nevertheless, the craving remained, buried, and resurfaced when I went over the room-service menu. By the time the dumbwaiter in my room chimed, I was practically drooling.
But by the time I take my second bite, it’s just pizza and a brew.
I wonder if I will ever get to sleep, but when the time comes, my eyes close and if I dream, I don’t remember it.
I get up and dress and send up for eggs and real Atlantic salmon and brown toast and a pitcher of coffee, then find myself unable to eat any of it. I make a sandwich out of it and wrap it in napkins and stuff it into my day-pack along with a water-bottle and some sun-block.
It’s a long walk up to the bat-house, but I should make it by nightfall.
Chet was up at 6h the next morning. His mom was already up, but she never slept that he could tell. She was clattering around the kitchen in her housecoat, emptying the cupboards and then re-stacking their contents for the thousandth time. She shot him a look of something between fear and affection as he pulled on his shorts and a t-shirt, and he found himself hugging her waist. For a second, it felt like she softened into his embrace, like she was going to say something, like it was normal, and then she picked up a plate and rubbed it with a towel and put it back into the cupboard.
Chet left without saying a word.
The bat-house breathed around him, a million farts and snores and whispered words. A lift was available almost before he took his finger off the summon button. “125,” he said.
Chet walked to the door of the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla and started to knock, then put his hands down and sank down into a squat, with his back against it.
He must have dozed, because the next thing he knew, he was tipping over backwards into the apt, and the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla was standing over him, concerned.
“Are you all right, son?”
Chet stood, dusted himself off and looked at the floor. “Sorry, I didn’t want to disturb you...”
“But you wanted to come back and see more. Marvelous! I applaud your curiosity, young sir. I have just taken the waters -- perhaps you would like to try?” He gestured at the ocean.
“You mean, swim in it?”
“If you like. Myself, I find a snorkel and mask far superior. My set is up on the rim, you’re welcome to them, but I would ask you to chew a stick of this before you get in.” He tossed Chet a pack of gum. “It’s an invention of my own -- chew a stick of that, and you cannot transmit any nasty bugs in your saliva for forty-eight hours. I hold a patent for it, of course, but my agents report that it has been met with crashing indifference in the Great Beyond.”
Chet had been swimming before, in the urinary communal pools on the tenth and fifteenth levels, horsing around naked with his mates. Nudity was not a big deal for the kids of the bat-house -- the kind of adult who you wouldn’t trust in such circumstances didn’t end up in bat-houses -- the bugouts had a different place for them.
“Go on, lad, give it a try. It’s simply marvelous, I tell you!”
Unsteadily, Chet climbed the spiral stairs leading up to the tank, clutching the handrail, chewing the gum, which fizzed and sparked in his mouth. At the top, there was a small platform. Self-consciously, he stripped, then pulled on the mask and snorkel that hung from a peg.
“Tighten the straps, boy!” the guy who thought he was Nicola Tesla shouted, from far, far below. “If water gets into the mask, just push at the top and blow out through your nose!”
Chet awkwardly lowered himself into the water. It was warm -- blood temperature -- and salty, and it fizzled a little on his skin, as though it, too, were electric.
He kept one hand on the snorkel, afraid that it would tip and fill with water, and then, slowly, slowly, relaxed on his belly, mask in the water, arms by his side.
My god! It was like I was flying! It was like all the dreams I’d ever had, of flying, of hovering over an alien world, of my consciousness taking flight from my body and sailing through the galaxy.
My hands were by my sides, out of view of the mask, and my legs were behind me. I couldn’t see any of my body. My view stretched 8m down, an impossible, dizzying height. A narrow, elegant angelfish swam directly beneath me, and tickled my belly with one of its fins as it passed under.
I smiled, a huge grin, and it broke the seal on my mask, filling it with water. Calmly, as though I’d been doing it all my life, I pressed the top of my mask to my forehead and blew out through my nose. My mask cleared of water.
The only sound was my breathing, and distant, metallic pink!s from the ocean’s depths. A school of iridescent purple fish swam past me, and I lazily kicked out after them, following them to the edge of the coral reef that climbed the far wall of the ocean. When I reached it, I was overwhelmed by its complexity, millions upon millions of tiny little suckers depending from weird branches and misshapen brains and stone roses.
I held my breath.
And I heard nothing. Not a sound, for the first time in all the time I had been in the bat-house -- no distant shouts and mutters. I was alone, in a vast, personal silence, in a private ocean. My pulse beat under my skin. Tiny fish wriggled in the coral, tearing at the green fuzz that grew over it.
Slowly, I turned around and around. The ocean-wall that faced into the apt was silvered on this side, reflecting back my little pale body to me. My head pounded, and I finally inhaled, and the sound of my breathing, harsh through the snorkel, rang in my ears.