THE CITY THAT ALWAYS SLEPT

Veronica Brush is the author of a pair of novels—First Grave on Mars and Second Deception on Mars—as well as a number of short stories. This is her first appearance in Galaxy’s Edge.

 ***

I stood at the edge of the city and stared out into the void. Laila was out there somewhere. Gone where she wouldn’t have to see me anymore. Mars, I’d heard. She couldn’t just transfer to another city on the Moon. The woman who used to look up at me like I hung the stars couldn’t stand to live on the same surface as me anymore. Now there was nothing but space between us. Space and three feet of clear metal dome on either end. At least on Mars she could look out at the sky created by the atmosphere. She’d have sunrises and sunsets. From where I stood, all I could see was emptiness.

Where’d she get the money? That’s what I really wanted to know. Laila was working as many jobs as she could handle, saving up to try and transfer to a new city. Even that was taking time. Moving off the Moon to Mars was expensive; ten times the price it was to move here from Earth. Getting back to Earth was impossibly steep. It was a well-thought out trick to funnel people off Earth. Make Earth living expensive. Lure the poor off-world with the offer of cheap living. Make sure no one can make enough money to afford to get back to Earth. Populate the less desirable worlds with less desirable people and make more room for the wealthy to enjoy Earth. Even though that plan wasn’t so much of a secret anymore it still worked. The downtrodden were flocking here as fast as new cities could be built. Then they learned that the Moon wasn’t an escape from poverty, but a place to wallow in it. No way to advance in your job. No honest entrepreneurial opportunities. No way to ever get more than what you started with, unless you were willing to steal it.

A lot of people turned to a life of crime. But stealing from the poor won’t get you very far. People stole food or shoes because those were the only things to take that someone else would want to buy. Most people had sold off their valuables and excess long ago to people outside the city. One change of clothes and one pair of shoes was all we really needed, which didn’t leave much to swipe. And if ever you got so lucky as to find something of value to lift, someone else would steal it right off of you. Like a continuous game of hot potato, the same few items of small value pass from crook to crook, never staying in anyone’s pocket long enough to do them any good, and not being worth enough to get them off this crummy world.

Laila wasn’t the type to steal. She was too honest for the Moon. She’d have given the last food she had to a poor kid just because he looked too skinny, even though all Moon kids are skinny.

Three months ago we found out the protein our city was buying from the next city over wasn’t synthetic, but ground meat from a black market cat farm. Laila stopped eating meat. She held out as long as she could on vegetables and soy proteins. Eventually she had to give in or she would have starved to death. That was life on the Moon. There wasn’t room under this protective dome for good thoughts and deeds. There was no helping any of us out here anyway.

She bought two tickets. The man selling tickets to Mars remembered her. Who wouldn’t? The way her bouncy blond locks reflected the sunlight, like her hair was made of stars. She was always smiling.

Six months ago, there had been a food shortage and we couldn’t afford the black market prices, so we had to go two days with only water. She never stopped smiling. By day two, I was ill-tempered. I asked her what she had to be so damn happy about. I was surprised how quickly her eyes filled with tears as the smile faded from her face.

“You think we’re the only ones who’re hungry?” she asked. “You think we’re having a hard time? There are plenty of others who have it this bad or worse. And I can’t help them right now. I can’t give them anything to eat if they’re hungry. I don’t have a second pair of shoes to offer them if their feet are scratched and bloody and hurt. All that I have left on this moon to give them is a smile. So help me, I’m not going to keep that from them. It doesn’t matter what I’m feeling. I’ve got to keep smiling because maybe that’ll help somebody somewhere in this miserable city feel at least a little glimmer of happiness!”

I never told her, but she was right. I knew that smile brought people happiness. I never told her how much it meant to me. Now that it was gone, I would notice its absence greatly.

Why’d she buy two tickets? The other one obviously hadn’t been for me. By the time I heard the rumor she’d bought tickets to Mars and was able to get to the shuttle dock, the ship was already gone. Laila was already gone.

We’d never even talked about going to Mars. I wasn’t one for impractical dreams. Laila and some of her friends liked to make extravagant plans sometimes. Somehow—the “how” was always the detail they left out—we were all going to move to Mars and open a business together. Because they couldn’t agree, the business was going to be a little bit of everything. One person wanted to make and sell desserts, something that none of us had gotten to eat since leaving Earth. Somebody else wanted to invent cheap transports so people on Mars and the moon could travel between cities easier, with the hopes that the people in the poor cities could get better jobs in the less-poor cities. Laila wanted to sell shoes. She said that for every pair of shoes they sold, they would send a pair to a poor family on the Moon. None of the ideas made great business sense, but since none of us were ever really getting to Mars, it didn’t matter.

I had been adding what money I could to Laila’s savings to help us move to a more well-off place on the Moon. I don’t think I ever believed we would actually get to a better city. But it didn’t hurt to have extra money set aside for tough times.

Maybe that’s why she left without me. Maybe she took one of her friends who actually listened and gave credence to her crazy dreams.

The city behind me was quiet. Asleep. It was night. An arbitrarily distinction on the Moon. According to the daylight, a day on the moon was equal to twenty-eight-and-a-half Earth days. But, tied to the memories of Earth, we all lived on a twenty-four-hour schedule. Like mass-hysteria, the city’s population moved as though the sun were rising and setting, as though we could wake to the promise of a new day. There weren’t any new days on the Moon. There was nothing new in this place. We were the city that always slept. No reason to wake up. Our life was a twenty-eight day reminder of how long and slow a weary life can be.

It wasn’t weary with Laila. I counted the hours until I got to see her again. We were one of the few who stayed up at night. With how many jobs she worked, she always got home late. As long as we had food, we’d eat first and then go for a stroll through the city. We rarely saw another person. Most nights you could have believed we were the only two people under that dome. It wasn’t a prison then. It was our private kingdom. Walking on the rocky surface of the Moon would cut up your bare feet, but with shoes on it wasn’t so bad. We held hands and we walked and she poured all of her thoughts out to my waiting ears. And when she’d said all she had to say and leaned her pale face toward me to lock her lips with mine, I couldn’t get her back to our small home fast enough.

Walking through the city alone wasn’t the same. I had come out here searching for solace, but there wasn’t any in this city. Not without Laila.

Why had she left? My head kept repeating the question and my heart kept ripping open every time I repeated the answer.

We’d had a fight. Yesterday she came home from work barefooted. She had sold her only pair of shoes. Laila had such a big heart, but she never thought things through. How was she going to walk to all her jobs? Her feet were going to get torn to pieces. Most of all I was upset that we weren’t going to be able to take our walks anymore. I’d yelled at her, didn’t give her a chance to speak. I didn’t want to hear about whatever poor family she was helping. What about us? If she was so busy looking out for everybody else, who did she expect to be taking care of us?

I was angry. I didn’t watch what I said. Even as her face fell, I kept shouting. All my frustrations with this hopeless life came cascading out at her. In that moment, I just wanted to crush her useless optimism.

She ran out of our place crying. I figured she’d stay the night with a friend and come back the next evening. I’d apologize, she’d accept, and life would go on as it always had.

I didn’t know we’d managed to save up so much money. The irrational dream had actually been within reach. Just the price of a used pair of shoes away from Mars. She must have been so excited to tell me. After all she’d done to make my life better, I had thrown it back in her face, telling her how wretched I was.

Now that she was gone, I saw how few reasons I had to be miserable before. We usually had food. We spent much of our time apart because of how hard we both worked, but that made our time together more special. Waking up to her scent in our bed made me start each day with a smile.

Even though I didn’t share in Laila’s wild dreaming, I had some crazy ideas about what my life should have been but would never be. It was more irrational than anything Laila and her friends came up with. And because of it, I didn’t appreciate all I once had.

Exhausted, I walked back home, knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

I opened the door and she was there, sitting on the floor, waiting for me. A memory here to haunt me, I thought. But I reached my hand out and felt her face and it was the most real thing I had ever touched.

“Where were you?” she asked.

“I thought you were gone. You bought two tickets for Mars.”

She nodded, then backed away from me to lean against the wall.

“Are you mad?”

“Confused. The ship’s long gone. Why are you still here?”

She straightened up. “You thought I left without you?”

“What I said last night…”

“I was upset. I wouldn’t leave you over a fight. But…” She hesitated.

I wanted to sweep her up in my arms; tell her I didn’t care. It didn’t matter because she wasn’t gone. But she didn’t look like she wanted to be swept up, so I kept my distance.

“I stayed with Mia and Chris Chenelley last night. Mia Chenelley, she’s sick.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“They haven’t told anybody. It’s nothing that they can cure here anyway. She’s just going to get sicker and sicker while Chris has to watch. And there’s not anything anybody on the Moon can do. Except me.”

She looked up at me with such sad eyes, they told me the whole story.

I nodded my head at her and offered a small smile. She came forward and fell into my arms.

“Those tickets were for us,” she said. “I bought them and was on my way to come get you. We were going to leave the Moon forever and start fresh on Mars. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Mia and what kind of chances she’d have on Mars. You and I, we’re not so badly off. We have enough food in our cabinet for at least two days. We’ve each got a change of clothes that’s not too old. We have lots of friends. We’re lucky. And I’m sorry, because I know you’re not happy here, but…”

I pushed her back so I could look into her eyes, those puddles of blue I thought I’d never see on this gray planet again.

“I’m happy! I’m one lucky guy to be on the Moon with you!”

That night after we ate, we went out for our nightly walk, a little later than usual. Since she didn’t have shoes, I carried her through the sleeping city. But I was finally awake.

Copyright © 2019 by Veronica Brush