Past the shattered tree line stood nothing but decadent ruins, and so the Committee decided that this, then, was where they would build. Ashes of the last century puffed, swanlike, into the acrid air as they were lifted by the mouths of broad mechanical shovels. Geiger counters followed after and chirruped in dying protest.
Through slow-dawning years the machines coughed deep in their throats as engineers lived and died over stacks of blueprints. The carnage of the earth grew in tandem with the distinct beauty that is born with things man-made.
On a grey-skinned afternoon, many years after the Committee had been disbanded and prosecuted, the last remaining engineer laid down the wooden sliver of her pencil. She pushed the sweat off her face, tossed her hand up into the wind, and solemnly nodded. Thousands of workers roared and stomped their feet together on the fresh-laid cement and turned to face their glittering Creation.
The Launchpad crouched, her squat body four miles across, with massive, segmented legs reaching out to every direction of the known world. A low hum spread from the fiber of Her Being and shook the grasses that grew between the claws of Her feet, vibrating the hearts of the men who set about polishing and readying Her for the launch of the first rockets.
To Her eyes, how small the crowds of worshippers which came then – endless lines, those eager to go up into the severe sky and those who shivered with homesickness already. Distant satellites glittered above. Time felt short. A suitcase, or less, held tightly by each traveler, and a ticket- everything else they needed already sent on ahead.
The Launchpad purred in pleasure as she shared the gift She had been built for- a burst of fire and fuel to commence the one-way journey.
Years later Grace stood looking out the broad glass window of her home Station, hands stiff in their heavy gloves. Below, two of the ruined satellite colonies, 13-C and 87-H, cast soft shadows across Earth as they floated, comatose. Each year the joyless habitats twisted closer to the lonely planet.
“Missing something?” Chess asked. The engineer typed out commands on the small keypad of her coding tablet, checking the heat sensor in the ceiling above.
“Hmm..?” Grace’s eyes followed a miniscule hurricane speckled across the blue ocean planet. The unique curve of the Station windows often telescoped similar distant weather patterns into bright visibility.
“Missing something- down there?” Chess repeated, tapping the thick glass near Grace’s face with a manicured finger.
“Oh.” She closed her eyes, thought a moment. “Dogs, I guess. That.”
“Oh man, me too. I never had one, but Juan- my ex- his stepdad did. A pug. I loved that thing.” Chess grinned.
Behind them, doors in the far wall slid open periodically as men and women in cotton jumpsuits trundled past. It was quiet here, the low, constant hum of the Oxygen Regeneration System, or ORS (the OR ELSE, as the engineering team referred to it) a whisper barely registering against the level of conversation- no one seemingly took notice of the soft sound.
The far end of the hall opened into a nature-simulating play area where a group of young children scrambled over synthetic grass. A recent solar tax had been approved to line the cold tile floors with precious carpet- work had started at one end of the hall already and there were several young women, shoes removed, luxuriously smoothing their bare feet against the fibers and giggling.
Grace pressed a finger up against the glass. “I used to have this beagle- a mix, really, so he had this tiny body and big head. We had three other dogs, all hounds, and my mom got him for me when I wanted a puppy. Thought he would be quieter than the others. They were always barking at every little thing.” She laughed. “Turns out he was the noisiest dog we ever had.”
“Yeah. It was pretty bad.”
“Is your mom up here too?”
“She died before they… umm, cancer.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. Had to leave that dog though. And my dad. He stayed. Dropped my dog off at his house a few days before my rocket. Cried like a baby when I left them both there.”
“Is your dad still…”
“Don’t know. Can’t get through to Virginia anymore. I hope he’s ok, but… anyway, that dog is long gone. They only live for about 15 years, really. Even mutts.”
“What’s a beagle?” Chess looked down- there was a small, wild-haired boy standing next to her. His nose badly needed to be wiped.
Grace sighed, “A type of dog. Don’t worry about it. They don’t exist anymore.”
The boy pouted. “I want a dog. They sound fun.”
“Too bad, kid. Not enough space in space for pups.”
“Yes, I know. That’s what my teacher said, too.”
Grace gave a pained smile. “Don’t you ever go see the fish pond?”
“Yes. We took a field trip to the one in 19-E last quarter. But fish are for eating. They’re boring.”
“Used to go fishing with my grandpa in Memphis.” Chess said wistfully, turning back towards the window. She moved a lock of brown hair out of her face, and Grace caught a whiff of soap and sweat.
“Yeah? I never went. There was a pier near us but the water was filthy.”
“Oh yeah no, us too. Couldn’t eat anything that we caught. Microplastics.”
“Where’d you grow up again?” Chess asked.
“Where’s Baltimore?” The boy demanded. The women ignored him.
“You had three hound dogs in the city?” Chess whistled; “Must have been a big house.”
“Four. Yeah, well… small house- big yard. Actually. Two yards. Place next door was abandoned so we just took it over.”
Chess nodded. Her coding pad beeped- time to get going to the next heat sensor. She silenced it.
“How was Memphis?” Grace asked.
“Oh- you know. Good. But like everywhere else near the end. Good, but not? Like everything was drying up. Even the Mississippi seemed like it was getting smaller.”
“Yeah, well… it was.”
“I remember seeing this story on TV about these dogs. They lived by Chernobyl and when it went they just stayed. Just got wilder. Survived the radiation and everything.”
“Do you think it’s better down there now?” Grace asked.
“Hmmmm. Don’t know. Probably for the plants.”
“What’s Shernobil?” The boy tugged on Chess’s jumpsuit. She started, turning. A whole group of small children stood together now, looking up, pale-eyed, at the two engineers.
“Don’t they teach you this stuff in class?” Chess snapped. She tugged the fabric from the boy’s hand and stepped back.
“It’s not your fault you don’t know.” Grace murmured. She cleared her throat. “You’re learning important stuff. Calculus. Biological chemistry. I didn’t learn any of that until I was older than you, even.”
One of the small girls in the group laughed. “What! But that’s little kid stuff! You don’t know chemistry?”
“She said she didn’t know it then, not that she doesn’t know it now. Now, scram!” Chess snapped. “That means leave! Go! You got it? Stop bothering adults.”
The children stared at the women, sixteen cold eyes together, then guffawed as a group and ran back to the play area. Chess, frowning, watched them go. Grace’s coding pad beeped but she ignored it, turning back to the window. She traced her fingers gently over the shape of the planet below.
“Chess- do you hear that?”
“Nothing. Never mind.” Grace turned, tilted her head down, and glanced at Chess. “Look, I- I had a dream last night.”
“What?” Chess asked. Her hands, which had been fumbling with the straps on her coding pad, stilled. “I’m sorry?”
Grace nodded. Her voice was low. “Yep. I know. Haven’t dreamed since my rocket.”
“I…” Chess looked around. There was no one near them. She leaned in. “Me neither. What did… what did it feel like?”
“It felt brilliant.” Grace smiled and closed her eyes. “Like I was back in Baltimore again, watching the sun come up and smelling the saltwater. But I could never smell the water at home- only the city heat and the dogs and the dumpster behind Iggie’s fish shop down on the corner.
That’s how I knew it was a dream.”
Chess nodded. “Wow.” Her hands were shaking. She clasped her fingers together to still the tremor. “Oh. Man.”
“There was more, but I can’t remember. I think- birds… A deer running down Monument Street. Someone standing on the steps of the Basilica, smiling at me.” Grace shook her head. “I can’t remember his face, though. He just- whoever it was- felt familiar.” She scowled. “I’ve been thinking about it all day. Trying to remember his face.”
“I’m jealous, a little bit. A lot, really.”
Grace shrugged. “Don’t be too jealous. I woke up crying. When’s the last time that happened, either?”
“Yeah, well… I guess I never asked about that. Before I came up. I just thought it would be the same. The crying and the…the dreams.”
“Me too. And sleeping, and my eyes- our eyes- and-“She looked around, but no one was listening. “-And periods, and orgasms, too. What kids would end up like. The rules, even. I didn’t ask.”
“I didn’t ask, either.” Chess whispered, “I knew what I would miss. Elbow room. Flowers, my parents. Breezes – dogs. But I was worried. Too worried.”
“That antibiotic-resistant flu.”
“The summers- the summers were too hot.”
The two engineers stood still before the windows. Behind them, the doors slid open again. A pair of guards, SECURITY printed in red across their jumpsuits, walked across the hall, chuckling and chatting loudly. The younger guard, chestnut-haired and handsome, nodded at Chess and winked. She nodded back, her face reddening. Grace stared silently out the window.
The coding pads beeped out. Both women simultaneously reached to quiet them.
Grace looked back- the Security guards had crossed through another doorway. She turned to Chess. “Don’t tell anyone. Please.”
“Jesus, of course not.”
“I just don’t know how it would go over.”
“Of course. I mean, it’s not – it’s not illegal. It’s just-“
Grace grabbed Chess’s arm and softly squeezed. “Thank you.” Chess nodded. “Thanks for telling me. Look, let’s finish getting these sensors checked out. Then we can head to lunch. Talk some more.”
That night Chess crawled into her cot and fooled with her media tablet until exhaustion crept up. She lay the tablet down on the charging pillow and closed her eyes. What was it that Grace had said? The dream had felt- brilliant. A deer running down an empty street. A man on the steps of a church, smiling like the sun.
She drifted to sleep. A picture appeared in her mind- a pier, weather-worn, with plentiful, fat rainbow-drenched fish leaping from the water below. An old man sitting at the edge, scaling trout in a bucket, the flesh slipping easily between his hands. He looked up at her and smiled. I know you, Chess thought, but who…? And she did not know if she was asleep and dreaming or if she was remembering something long forgotten.
The next morning she woke suddenly and fell out of the cot, her legs tangled in the sheets. A loud humming noise permeated her room. Her eyes darted around, and she thought- electrical fires, engine failures. An unseen meteor crashing through the hull of the mammoth ship. Just how 87-H had gone- a few moments of oxygen leaking out the rip and then other objects- chairs, bodies, entire rooms flying into space. Chess panted, her heart accelerating, and then realized. She sat back down heavily on her cot. The small light of her alarm was only now beginning to brighten the room. She had awoken earlier than normal.
For twelve years Chess had barely noticed the persistent murmur or the ORS. Now she could hear its strobing voice over everything. She pulled on a jumpsuit and left her dorm, disoriented and stumbling down the hall. The humming followed her- it followed her everywhere.
Christina Bailey is an artist and writer living in Baltimore, MD.