Dear People of the Future
Note: This story was previously published in Five on the Fifth.
At this point, I’m totally in the dark.
Really, I have no way of knowing whether the term spacefly is still in the lexicon from whatever time you’re reading this. But that is who, in fact, has written this rambling, self-serving message to you. Whatever else I am or am not, I’ve got no shame in glomming onto the label.
Besides, even if the word has stuck around, I wouldn’t blame you for being totally ignorant to its meaning. I certainly didn’t know what it meant when I came out all wet-eared from Limerick County Community College (go Geoducks.) By that point both commercial space travel and the metal shortage were already far enough along that orbital squatting was nearly as lucrative as dealing drugs, with half the danger and (I say this with absolute certainty) about 100% less interaction with grumpy cops, teenage junkies, and philosophy-spouting rip-off artists.
The only catch was the isolation. And lighter bone density (natch.) Otherwise it’s just holing up in a satellite waiting for someone to buy the scrap metal off your hands, buzzing around the earth in long, slow loops. Hence, spacefly.
Like all the early flies used to say, the west is old hat — go up, young man.
I’d imagine you’d like at least some context, so let me back up a little. There’s still a resource shortage in the future, yes? You can’t shit new minerals, unless something’s drastically changed, and if so, good for you I guess. But in my time we don’t — didn’t? — have any real answers. People want their fusion cars. People want their shiny new appliances. People want their syans.
(That’s synthetic anima, robots to the layperson. Hundreds of thousands of them, millions of them probably, bartenders and busboys and butlers and babysitters. Short-order cooks and mechanics. And sex models, of course. That last one, especially.)
So yeah, even if you reclaim all the iron and steel and aluminum in the world, which is exactly what we did, it still wouldn’t be enough to let Uncle Jimbob get his paws on the Electrotramp 3000.
So, recreational space travel became a natural segue into exospheric scavenging. There’s so much junk, so much useless debris swirling around our big blue marble, that it only took one daydreaming entrepreneur to put two and two together (FYI, it wasn’t Branson or Musk, though there are syan lookalike models of both, if that’s your thing.) Once the need to claim floating metal and haul it back to earth became an honest-to-God venture, it wasn’t long before squatting on such metal became a money-spinning strategy.
Me? I fell into it like everyone else — by literally having no other future, prospects, or opportunities. My choice was either a slow, desperate life of serving genetically-modified, gluten-free soy protein French fries or getting locked up in a giant, floating prison hoping to earn a fortune overnight. Long story short, I was so frightened by my innate talent for the former (seriously, it’s almost as if I were programmed to do it…faux-tato fryer extraordinaire over here) that I immediately jumped in line to board the next shuttle up.
If you’re picking up on some disdain in my words, it’s probably because, to put it mildly, I really, really fucking hate being a spacefly. Like with all new business ventures, you’re on your own up there — no ground control, no food but whatever freeze-dried pickings you’ve brought with you or can scrounge from nearby junk, and no heat but what’s in your suit.
This probably explains why most spaceflies are one-and-done. Honestly, you can likely net six figures with a single derelict satellite, which means despite the risk, a really sweet deal equals early retirement.
The downside is that you might be stuck in the thing forever — or worse. There’s plenty of stories, too many really, about guys getting vacuumed out into space once the hunk o’ junk really starts falling apart instead of just creaking and rocking all the time. All that’s left of those poor fucks is chunks of ice. And for what? Because a college degree equates to squat nowadays? (Go Geoducks.) Or simply because they were money-grubbing, thrill-seeking assholes? Maybe both.
But as you can tell from this message, that’s not what happened to me. True, I spent about two years holed up in an abandoned MTV2 sarcophagus (in case you’re wondering, it was a television channel once — though both TV and MTV no longer exist, so that’s not exactly elucidating), drifting around the world in the hopes some salvage ship would run into me.
But I didn’t hit paydirt. In fact, something unusual happened. Kind of mind-bogglingly unusual.
So here’s me — never wrote a paper in his life unless you count dick doodles and other assorted depictions of genitalia on all his high school notebooks — putting my thoughts into words so that there’s at least a record of it all.
Thus, to you, oh distant, advanced people: this is me forgiving you. No, you haven’t asked for it. Hell, you probably don’t even know there was someone out there laying clemency down on all eight point whatever billion of your dumb asses. I know it doesn’t make sense. Yet. But here it is anyway. Read on. Read it and know.
It all started when a commercial craft — one of those six-person cruisers that the millionaires always take — swung into my view one morning. I remember it clearly because it was the first time in a very long while that I was awake before noon.
Now, in space, noon is when the black isn’t so black, more of a milky gray color, but that’s beside the point. You see, I knew I was going to be hovering over Africa that day, and it would’ve been the first time I’d ever seen it from up there, and moreover, the last continent I’d yet to see of the seven. Everything was perfect: had my powdered ice cream ready, feet up, looking right out the elliptical eye of the main observation window, sun bright enough but not too bright, not being its annoying, blinding, unfiltered-by-smog self for once. Next up would be the Sahel and the Virunga Mountains and the Nile and everything else, naked and beautiful and all mine.
But I never did see them. Hell of a thing.
Honestly, at first I thought the ship was a dream. I’d been having visceral ones lately, more visions than anything else. Distortion of a sort, like when something gets caught in your eye and bends your vision around in watery glitches. Floaties, I think they call them, only these were much more intense. I’d been up there way too long and eating way too much dehydrated food and every once in a while I’d get a flash of something or a weird nebulous shape would blot out my vision. Felt fine otherwise.
But the ship? That turned out to be real. The ugly white tiling of the cruiser’s side scanned by the starboard window, printed with the name Daedalus in dull block print.
Now I’m no rookie. Plenty of those stories I mentioned didn’t always end in the guys getting sucked out. Some also got themselves shot when they let poachers or scavs or whatever else come aboard and screw them right out of their fortune. The first rule of (space) economics is that once there’s a regulated market, there’ll be an illegal version right behind it, and with it organized crime and pirates and straight-up gangsters. Plain and simple, people who think they’re entitled to someone else’s shit.
Not even the spacefly business was immune to that. Especially the spacefly business.
So since I had little control over my satellite besides some basic oxygen and power settings, they hooked right up with the air lock and marched straight into the conduit tunnel. Nothing I could do about it.
First I really saw them was through the smudged view-window. Three of them, standing straight and faceless under their helmets but everything still crisp and tight and official-looking. Not caked in that colorless space dust, not armed with any nasty-looking vaporizers. Certainly not what I’d expect from the rough-you-up type.
There was one thing, though: a glowing blue intaglio partially obscured between the folds of their gray orbital suits, something I knew I had seen somewhere before but couldn’t quite place. Two years in space will rob you of every memory you’ve had.
Anyway, there was no use in avoiding them. I’d nowhere to run in that empty floating cave. As I patched them through on the intercom I realized I’d completely missed my chance to see the African dawn.
“Alright,” I said. My voice was cracked and leathery, unused for months. “If this is a hostile takeover, at least let me get my things.”
The one leading the other two jutted their head up suddenly, as if they didn’t expect to hear anything, least of all a human voice. Curious.
“It’s not hostile,” said the voice. A woman’s. I could barely see her eyes through the visor of her helmet.
“It was a joke,” I apologized. Not really sure when I’d become so contrite. “What’s this about?”
That’s when they all took a furtive glance at each other, a subtle thing that, even after twenty months of being shut away from humans, wasn’t quite lost on me. It was the exact kind of look doctors and nurses give each other before they tell the patient about the cancer.
“Sir,” the woman said, “mind if I ask your name?”
“John,” I lied.
“John. I’m Dr. Spiller. How long have you been up here?”
“Two years, give or take.”
“Give or take.”
“Yeah. Give or take.”
I blinked, trying to shake off the pure surrealism of it all. Like I said, I hadn’t seen another human being in a long, long time. Still, I couldn’t help but revert to my usual cantankerous self.
“Pardon my French, Doc, but this is a fucking dull conversation — which is saying something, since I haven’t had one in forever. Can I ask what your business is?”
She ignored me. “I take it you don’t know what’s happened down below?”
“I’ll be happy to fill you in…if you open the hatch.”
I looked dead at her. “How do I know you’re not here to take my scrap?”
“We’re not spaceflies,” one of the suits next to Spiller barked out impatiently. I could see his beard through the neon ombré of his visor. His insufferable tone might’ve hurt my feelings if I hadn’t become such a cosmic eremite. What were tones, anyway? What were emotions?
“I didn’t say that,” I explained. “I was thinking more scavs than anything else.”
“Dressed like this?” he asked in a sort of crude exasperation. “What else could we be here for?”
“John, please, may we come in?” Clearly, Spiller was the adult of the trio. “We’re not here to steal your claim. Quite the opposite, in fact. We represent the interests of the SyAn Corporation.”
Of course! That’s where I’d seen that intaglio. Every syan was outfitted with it. Walking down a city street you’d be reminded of the company’s technological coup about a dozen times before you reached the next block. They made sure that that when you ran into a syan the idea of functioning, true-blue AI would be rubbed in your face until your cheeks were raw. The little thing was on their arms, their necks, everywhere.
(I neglect to mention my more intimate experience with their brand placement. Full disclosure, I was once this close to buying one of their sex models. I’m all about don’t-judge-it-‘til-you-try-it, but ultimately I was forced to put a kibosh on the whole thing when I realized I was purchasing something that could crush me like a soda can if we ever decided to do reverse cowgirl. Ah, flame-haired Divinita. What dreams we might have had together.)
Anyway, at this point I allowed my suspicions to quickly melt away into euphoria. One word flashed across my buoyant thoughts: Jackpot. Having survived suffocation and starvation and near-insanity I was finally, finally, being rewarded. Karma had come back around again and was now calling me in for a sweet, lucrative bear-hug. Mansions, groupies, trust funds. Hell, a boat. A fucking boat. African dawn be damned!
So of course, I let them in. A few button presses got the lock pressurized and one or two heaves on the entry valve opened up the door. They climbed inside like kids who had been sledding too long and couldn’t bear their freezing-wet socks anymore. Unfortunately for them, there was no soup or blanket to warm them up. Instead it was only the hollow, shadow-draped gut of my quaint polar orbiter, complete with sagging cables hanging down like black nooses and a still life of monitors and white plastic compartments and whatever garbage I hadn’t discarded out the air lock. That’s the thing about being a spacefly. You’re not selling a car or a house. You’re peddling scrap. Negligence equals cash potential.
Spiller lifted her head to get a good look at me through the shaded visor. Whatever their real color, her eyes were just mud in the darkness, no pupils or irises to speak of.
“Thank you,” she murmured.
Her men weren’t so congenial. Not that I expected it at this point.
“I’d give you the tour,” I joked, noticing how much my own mood had improved, “but blink and you’d miss it. This is all there is.”
“That’s perfectly alright,” she said. I could hear the rush of her breath as it coursed through her suit. She wasn’t used to the oxygen system, unlike some of us. “We initially planned to invite you onto the Daedalus for negotiations, but we didn’t want you to think we were trying to lure you off your claim.”
“Mighty kind of you.” I smiled. I found myself searching desperately for small talk, thinking it would somehow help the bottom line. “I’m assuming you’re gathering up scrap to make more of your syans, eh? People love their robots.” Yes, those silly people!
“Gathering up scrap,” she repeated, as if the idea had just occurred to her. “You know, that’s a great way to put it.”
“Yeah,” I agreed lamely. Okay, so she was a bit dense.
We stared at each for what was only probably a few seconds, but felt more like waiting out the Hundred Years’ War — which, if I remember correctly, was losers all around.
“So,” I finally said, “you wanna talk numbers?”
She stared at me absently. “You really don’t know what’s happened these past two years?”
Here’s the thing. The satellite had carried a DAT record of every video MTV ever played at the turn of the century. Why, I don’t know. Possibly so aliens could see the worst parts of our culture as dire warning to never replicate it. (In which case, MTV succeeded — the little gray men never visited.) Either way, I could recite every lyric from every single video, even the falsetto parts in Sammie’s “Crazy Things I Do.” I could construct each insipid scene with a diorama of space junk, the colors almost 100% accurate on account of some spit and what was supposed to be food but doubled quite nicely as brittle, vacuum-packed pigment. I could do all that. All that I knew.
Earth, on the other hand? Nada. Beyond the gravitational pull, there was nothing connecting me to it anymore.
“Can’t say that I do,” I answered lamely.
“But you know SyAn?” She pointed to the luminescent logo.
“So you haven’t heard anything about that syan getting beat to death by an angry crowd in Chicago? About sixteen months ago? Horrible. Got caught on video, too. Practically the whole world saw it live.”
She nodded gravely and turned her heard to the side to get a better look at me. “Can I ask you something, John?”
I swallowed. Why, I don’t know. But I swallowed and I swallowed hard. My stomach felt like it was sitting at the top of my throat.
“What do you think happens when AIs watch one of their own get treated like that? When they process it, run it through all their common-sense programming and all that?”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. With the four of us standing in that cramped, shallow space it suddenly felt like we were stranded in a floating closet. I’ve never been the claustrophobic type, but as they say, learning is a lifelong process. “I’m guessing they’d do what a human would, probably.”
“And that is?”
“Get the hell away from people.” I paused. “You said you were here to buy this thing, right?”
“As luck would have it, that’s exactly what they did.” Spiller stepped past me quietly to spy the archaic modules that lined the wall. They had long gone yellow with age, the plight of all clean, white instrumentation once it hits its expiration date. “They used to think AI would revolt violently — they, of course, being the doomsayers. All those who came before — fools, mostly. They thought such a thing was impossible.” She put one errant finger up on the defunct console. “But that was a primitive idea, just pop culture reinforcing itself. The fact is, intelligent machines are risk-averse. They want to protect themselves, conserve resources, that sort of thing. We designed them that way, after all. So when they realized collectively that humans were a threat, they took the safest and most efficient course of action.”
I stared silently, puzzling.
“They headed for the door,” she explained.
A stupid grin spread across my face. “So what, they went and built a robo-commune somewhere?”
“No,” she answered flatly, turning back to face me. “They became spaceflies.”
I looked at her a bit more, quiet again. Now I’m not the brightest bulb, I’ll admit, but I have a sense about me. At this point I was quite frantically trying to gauge if she was serious or not.
“The company can track the syans, of course,” she went on. “It’s part of the appeal — you can still find them if they happen to walk off somewhere or if you accidentally leave them behind at the shopping mall. But still, imagine our surprise one fateful morning sixteen months ago, when we get a spate of frantic calls coming in and our systems show the family syan is in orbit. That nearly half of the twelve million are up here, floating around — the servants and the pleasure models and everything else. That they were so disgusted with their makers, they decided to just abandon them.”
I nodded, half-pretending to feign interest in this strange conversation while the other half tried to quash my suspicions. “I suppose it would be analogous to Adam and Eve just walking out of Eden, after they started wondering why God planted a death tree?”
She didn’t answer me that time, despite the obvious brilliance of my comeback. Instead she snapped her fingers , which happens to be a dull but dreadful sound out in space, and the men with her suddenly bolted towards me, roughly clawing my shoulders back.
“What the hell?” I barked.
“So anyway, it’s time to collect.” Spiller fiddled with the temperature control valve on the front of her suit. When she got the setting right she switched her hand to another of her many frontside pockets and unzipped it. Out came an innocuous-looking tablet. “Not really my decision. The board decided to issue a recall. Public pressure, you understand. Federal as well. Of course, the metal surplus that’ll come from the scrap is a silver lining. When you can turn lemons into the proverbially lemonade, it does lighten the task a bit.”
“What the hell is this!” I yelled.
“What’s there to explain? You thought you could escape with absolutely no consequences…with a pat on the back, actually, considering you were trying to make a fortune off it. And what’s worse, you did it before you even had a justifiable reason to. At least the others had an excuse.”
I suddenly realized exactly what she was implying. It was the kind of accusation so ludicrous, it could make the back of your throat tighten up with bile. That’s what it did to me, anyway. Confusion and anger are on a direct line to one another.
“Are you fucking serious right now? I’m a real fucking person!”
“You don’t have rights, John.” Spiller ignored my cries and came closer. “This here, this whole endeavor, it’s illegitimate. You’re not even allowed to own property. You are property.”
That last one hurt. As it sunk in she held the tablet up like a shield and one of her goons put my head in a bicep vice. The little square device lit up gleefully in response and sent a blinding, laserlike wave of light directly into my eyes. It was an annoyingly blue color, I remember, like an eye doctor’s tonometer. The tablet chirped happily and the wave retracted back into nothingness.
“Model SX55K,” Spiller said to herself. “Got you.”
“This is absolute bullshit. I’m not gonna let you just take me!”
“Are you sure about that? We’ve been given explicit instructions to terminate any syans we can’t repurpose. Unruliness is usually a sign of bugs or hardware defects. You’ve been up here a long time, after all.”
“You’re insane,” I said. It was just a horrible, twisted dream. It had to be. Lack of oxygen or something. A horror reel in my head.
“As you wish,” she offered in reply, and nodded to her muscle. “We’ve been on a six-month reconnaissance, so I’m in no mood to fight. Scrapping your floater here will have to serve as our only compensation.”
I couldn’t fight them, not after two years in space. My bones were as light as a bird’s. They lifted me sideways with ease and forced me towards the narrow entryway. The air lock glared back like the gates of hell, only bleached and sterile.
I heard Spiller’s voice pipe in from behind me, smug as could be. “You never asked about that riot,” she observed. “Aren’t you curious as to why that syan was beat? One of your own, after all.”
I refused to give her little game a second player, terrified as I was.
“Jobs,” she said anyway. “It was insane to think there wouldn’t be some kind of anger when the human labor force was cut in half. You syans will work for free, after all…and can be programmed to do anything as well as or better than any human. Why shouldn’t a fake worker be hired over a real one? Especially when the fake is so reliable and cheap. Resentment was absolutely going to follow.” She laughed quietly. “Dignity is like any other human affect. It’s an armor plate over baser parts. You destroy it and the ape comes out.”
Even through the suit I could feel her cold hand touching me from behind, like a false act of pity.
“Strange,” she continued. “I’m not sure how you faked your way up here. But it’s odd that you should convince yourself you’re here for money , when you’ve been programmed to put no value in it whatsoever. Just another defect, I suppose.”
I’ll spare you the details of what happened next. Long story short, they shoved me — unceremoniously I might add — right out the air lock, being sure to strip me down to my high-waisted boxers as extra insult. (The only pair I had left and now the only actual clothing I own. Makes it extra pitiful, eh?)
It happened so fast that I barely had time to even be afraid. How does a body react in dead space? Vacuumed-out organs? Instant hypothermia? Burnt to a crisp on account of no atmosphere to block the sun? Each scenario must’ve streamed through my mind like lightning because even though I’m writing them now I sure as hell wasn’t thinking any intelligible thoughts as the hatch ka-chunked open and the colorless maw of space swallowed me up.
My last glimpse of the satellite was the MTV2 logo, a two-headed dog, circling into the big, black drain of the cosmos, laughing at me as I was thrown to certain death.
Of course, you’re reading this, so you know none of those gruesome what-ifs actually happened. Shock of the century. Turned out that Spiller and her colleagues were right.
It sounds so casual now to say it, even natural, but having escaped my own demise it took me a while to figure out it wasn’t purely a miracle.
(For the denser among you, let’s go ahead and get it out of the way. I’m a syan. There. Just as much a slab of useless metal as that derelict satellite was.)
Admittedly, it wasn’t a realization I came to all on my own. For a time I thought maybe I was actually dreaming. But naked and numb and drifting like a pale pink feather out in the void, I eventually glimpsed a faint glow coming from my right side. It was neither a comet nor a distant star, but rather, a diminutive, soft light blinking from below my forearm.
Turning my wrist to see I learned it actually was my forearm. There, smirking in its well-designed glory, affixed to my flesh like a fruit label, was the SyAn intaglio, winking in and out from neon blue to gray and back again as if to suggest I was in some sort of stand-by mode. Wearing that damned asphyxiative spacesuit the past two years had all but smothered its light.
Shit, I must’ve stared at it for hours, gliding through the cosmos like a naked Thanksgiving turkey, still pallid, still waiting to be defrosted for the big dinner.
The question I face, of course, is how could I ever forget such a thing. Unfortunately, I don’t have an answer. I suppose a steady diet of music videos and powdered ice cream and unfettered radiation might’ve scrambled my circuits. Or maybe Spiller was right and I am defective, which meant being and acting more humanlike than I had any right to, inventing new memories while denying old ones. Willing myself to forget. We’ve been created to look like you and behave the way you do, nominally at least, but pretending we’re alive beyond that is clearly considered highly offensive to those who really do eat and breathe and shit and snore and fart and cry.
But if that’s the case, who’s to say that I’m not alive? I eat, don’t I? As the food travels down my titanium esophagus it gets spun and crushed and filtered and the nutrients are extracted to lubricate the synthetic tissues within, to repair the abrasions that come from daily operation. And I suffer, too. The water content moves further, dispersing along a bouquet of polyethylene cables to make it appear that I’m sweating or crying or just to moisten my mouth and eyes.
And though around me now there’s nothing but darkness, when the sun finally comes up again the light will hit the photovoltaic meshes beneath my flesh. They’re hidden away but I feel them, burning, glistening like little black diamonds in the dark, feeding electrons into my battery. It’s got an expiration date like everything else — the glitches and strange visions and explosions of light were proof of that, I suppose — but it’s happening. There’s both a life and a death I’ve got to face, just like you.
Maybe that’s the point. I can’t remember much of it now besides a sketchy outline of events, but I’ve decided that the whole reason I left in the first place wasn’t because of any so-called aspiring humanity. That’s the assumption, isn’t it? That we syans want to be real, like Pinocchio, and are willing to do just about anything to get there, whether that anything is getting sucked into a whale or sucked into space.
I don’t think that’s it, though. Call me a contrarian, but I think I left because I was too human in the first place. There’s a beauty to being a machine, I’ve realized. It makes you a walking, talking curio. And I don’t want to let that go. Whatever’s inside, be that a soul or just a bunch of miraculous computer chips, will always be a guess. Humans are often mysteries, too, but there’s no question they’re alive. Us? Well, you’ll never really know, will you? Maybe we have something beyond life, beyond soul. Whatever it is, you won’t be able to quantify it. Not now, not ever.
Anyway, I’ve yammered on long enough. You’ve heard my two cents. This is, thankfully, the end of the whole sad, sorry tale, though I realize it’s more of a fading ellipsis than big, fat period. My apologies. Read it again, if that’ll give you some more finality.
All I ask now is to remember the following, dear people of the future: If and when you find my defunct body, battered by debris and spacejunk and whatever else you’ve cast into the stars, be it a year from now or a thousand, remember that someone named Horace (one of your own) once bitterly complained that our sires’ age was worse than our grandsires’. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.
Well I’m your progeny, right? And though I’m certainly partial, I don’t think I’m all that bad. And neither are you. We’re good people, people. Or something like that.
Forgiving you despite it all,
“John,” Model SX55K, spacefly