Ash-mixed whips of air rise to Center Sky. Looking up, you think you see the soft green fields through the filth. The white lattice of wealth sprawled along the verdant curve of Bright Side. Families and love live there. The seats of power. But for you that place is a dream—you live in Cupid. Sector 6 slum to be exact. Your education in sex work and drug usage finishes this semester. And at eighteen, it’s time to enter the working world at last. Still, it’s a better life than sectors 7 and 8.
Things might change though. Douglas Triumph has just been elected President of Lutalica (the 5th Earth-launched tube colony). He’s won on the promise that he will make the tube great again. Make things as good as they are back on Earth. But you and everyone else in Sector 6 know he’s talking about one side of the tube—the Bright Side.
He’s on TV again tonight. Announcing that at last he’s implementing his first promise—to bring capitalism back onto its proper course—encouragement of competition at the genetic level. The world was proud of its eugenics programs back in the early 1900s, he says through the screen. Great names—the Rockefellers, Roosevelt, Churchill—they were thwarted before the full fruit of capitalism came to bear. Prevented by a historical overreaction to one man—Hitler. Hitler went about it all wrong, but we can’t let his mistake taint our progress any longer, he says. And as Triumph begins a sermon, explaining how the roundup will occur, how the gutters will be cleared, how he will put a stop to all unlawful movement between Sectors—send the illegals back to 6, 7, and 8—you turn off the TV. Because Dad wants to have a cake for Mom’s birthday. She’s been dead for 3 years, but he doesn’t care. You still celebrate.
She died on the job. HTR. The Helen Trigger Retrovirus.
They taught you the statistics in school. Sex workers can mitigate their risks by following the rules. Obeying the law. Doing the right mix of drugs. You do your best to listen. You know she didn’t, but you still loved her. And so did Dad.
But something is hanging in the air. A gloom over the candles. The palpable reek of Triumph’s words. Dad says that the roundup will be nothing like what he’s broadcasting on TV. That he’s out to cull the population and overload us here. That they’re not just going to dump the trash from their side into the high sectors. That they’ll be deselecting in Sector 6 too.
Somehow, you don’t care. As Dad nods out again after the last of the candle smoke disappears, his crippled body salved by the instruments on the tray near his chair, you walk toward the back door. Belly runs by your legs. Her hair all matted in knots and dirt. She needs a bath and you feel guilty. Reaching down to pet her, the quick tinge of happiness her kisses give you is destroyed by a sadness you’ve felt all too often lately. Sadness for Belly, and for the future weighing down on you. Like a taunt, you think of what the older sex workers tell you: enjoy school while you can. It will be the last of your social happiness.
Standing up from Belly, as she runs out the back door, you catch a glimpse of the mirror. Beautiful, they call you. The most beautiful one in school. It will make your life worse, the uglier girls assure. You’ll never be free. And you look away, almost ready to curse your dead mother for giving you her beauty, and then you remember that they’re wrong—there is a freedom you do have. Reaching for your cigarette, your hand brushes up against it—the powder. Just a small bottle of it for tonight. And tonight you’ll need it. Tomorrow you’ll need more. But not yet. Just a slow cigarette for now.
As you inhale and watch smoke flow away from your face, out into your steel-bare yard—a gravel pit heart surrounded by weeds—the loud noises of trucks rumbling over a sagging iron bridge call your name. Your eyes meet the ever-climbing smog from the distant factories. Through the chain-linked fences you count a blurred vision of countless chutes churning their cancer up to Center Sky. There are rumors that the Bright Side has a system in place so all of it falls back down on the slums. Real equality is earning the right to be equal, Triumph’s slogan echoes in your head.
The comedown from the powder starts to haunt the back of your mind as your cigarette burns finished and you put it out. But there’s something deeper about tonight’s depression. It’s Harley.
Don’t think of him, you remind yourself. He’s gone. One of the rare, chosen ones. Ascended to the Bright Side to work for the hero himself—a political liaison to the slum world, Triumph’s Sector 6 man. The school had taught you to avoid deep connections. Love is a good thing, Ms. Whitney had said, When it comes in non-invasive doses. Class, think of it like powder—If you love too much, you’ll be in trouble. Is this true for sex workers only? a student had asked. Of course not, she answered with a smile, But it’s an especially fatal risk for our class. Scientists still haven’t figured out why.
You made the mistake though. You loved him invasively. And still do it now. Even though he’s gone. You love more, somehow, his ghost. Without even a goodbye he left. Should have listened to Ms. Whitney. But as much powder as you take, it doesn’t seem to blunt the pain.
A wild thought leaps into you as you pass Dad and head to your bedroom. It comes as you undress and survey the perfect, but more importantly, valuable curves of your body. What if that assassination plot was real?
You try to remember what you overheard. It was one of the Dirty Boys. He’d said they were going to kill Triumph and turn the tube around. Turn the tube around, you laugh. As if you could just go right back to Earth.
Your mind digresses as you stare into your eyes: What was our original purpose, generations of humans traveling to some distant sun? Why did we ever leave if it was so good there in the first place? Then, you think of the time, and how it’s too early, but you say fuck it anyway: You scoop the last of the powder into your mouth and drink it down. You tell yourself you’ll find that boy tomorrow. And if you don’t, maybe you’ll walk right into Sector 5 until they shoot you down.
Empty minutes pass on your bed. You almost pick up your guitar. Waiting…
As calm euphoria finally finds your bloodstream, the problem of identity comes into your mind again. Who are you really? You are a citizen of Lutalica. You try very hard to center yourself. A resident of Cupid. The best sex city in the tube. You are Sofia, the daughter of a proud and hard-working couple. A sex worker and a machinist. A Picture-perfect Sector 6 home. No reason to feel so depressed. Blame it all on Harley.
A ringing destroys your nod. Anger fades away as you answer the call—it’s Deese. Her voice cuts you high and quick. She says they’ve come. The men wearing the checker—Triumph’s logo. They’re taking everyone. And then, as she explains how they already stormed the next block down, and she thinks they might be coming to hers next, she screams. There’s a loud sound like a door slamming, and then the line is cut. Powerlessness overwhelms you and you fight your head out of the powder cloud, just enough to think that it must mean they’re hitting Sector 8 first. You feel sad for her but there’s nothing you can do. Dad is asleep, and you refuse to wake him over it. He needs the rest. They’ve almost fired him because of his failing body.
Your head spins and settles as you lie down. Belly is here, curled up by your side. She licks you and you smile at her. But even as the peace of sleep warms you, there is a last mantra. It’s the same nightly siren—your mind trying to get you to read Harley’s last letter before he disappeared. Something to remember him by. You lean off the bed, reach underneath the post, and pull up a small cardboard box. You take the top letter and read the part you’ve circled. The reason that you should be able to stop loving him. Sofia, I learned the greatest thing today in philosophy class. Being born equal is a myth, perpetuated by the belief that a single life span earns something, just by its own existence—no, it is a family line, an entire ancestry, that creates earned privilege. The colony proves this—ancestral lines are our basic and most essential unit. Someone isn’t born into luxury—their line, at some point in history, earned it for them. It is then theirs to squander, retain or enhance. And it is the slum child’s hardship to overturn the missteps of their line. We are responsible for our ancestral pasts, Sofia, whether we admit it or not, and the powerful deserve their power, even if they themselves haven’t earned it.
Tonight, the line disgusts you more than it ever has before, so much that you lean over to the nightstand and write a note to your morning self: Talk to the Dirty Boys…
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