Correspondence

Caren Gussoff

These days I’m a fucking garbageman. Restricted sort duty, feeding trash into the auger, scanning for anything hot that could blow the whole ship back into possibilities. I get industrial plastics, electronics, pill pods, wrappers, bottles, razors, stained drawers, nothing worth looking at twice. Nothing hot ever slips through. It’s the last shred of dignity I’ve got.

The auger chews and swallows and I pull the processed chunk from where its gut would be if it had guts. I send it down the line to atomic conversion, where another machine digests it down to free hydrogen, carbon dioxide, and obsidian glass.

Above me, the hull quakes every time a falcon or flitter takes off, and groans as they land. They’re the only things louder than the auger.

Fucking auger.

The letter looked like balled-up polycloth, soaked blue. No one blows or jacks blue unless there’s a real problem. Instinct pulled it out seconds before the auger’s teeth tore it to shreds.

I’d like to think I knew what it was the second I touched it. I balled it up and stuffed it down my cargo pocket.

“Airbee,” Chief Petty Officer said. “What are you doing?”

I barely heard him. Fucking auger. “Sir?”

“What you got there, son?”

I was three years older than Chief Petty Officer but five ranks beneath. Threads still dangled from my sleeves, left over from my third stripe. I hadn’t even warranted a new jumpsuit when they demoted me. “Nothing, sir.”

“Thought I saw you touching the refuse, son.”

This lot of waste originated from female berthings. “No, sir. Just inspecting for radiation, sir.”

“Good,” he said. “Carry on.”

I crunched harder until the Bos’n Mate of the Watch ended the shift. I let the auger churn down and left it with a kick where its head would be if it had a head.

I took a cheese sandwich and a coffee from the mess on the way back to my berth. I ate on my bunk and examined the thing.

It was a letter.

I knew it was a letter even though I’d never seen one, the same way I’d know a cow was a cow or eyeglasses were for seeing.

It was a beautiful thing. The writing, whatever it said, carved all the way through it. I ran my fingers over the ridges, chewed on the corners until they softened down to splintery clay, and pretended to read it until I fell asleep.

I awoke, confused, to the Bos’n Mate’s voice. Pieces of a dream, a crinkling sound I chased down corridors … a rushing river that stained me blue as I crossed … a processed garbage container dressed up with a dainty bow … secret messages, puzzles, codes.

I had to shake myself back together with a fresh cheese sandwich and a black coffee.

But when I shook together, I shook together different. I moved differently. For as long as I’d been a fucking garbageman, there had been an automatic perfection to my movements, a bored grace to the sort, feed, pull, send. Now I made mistakes. I was careful; it made me careless.

The ship trembled beneath a landing falcon, flitters shook the bays hovering for takeoff, and the auger rattled into my bones. I’d like to say I knew what was happening to me, why this piece of paper was giving me something that felt like hope.

I held up the line. Shifts ran long. The computer noticed; I felt it running a stats check on me, electric ghost fingers monitoring my heart rate, oxygen levels, blood pressure, and pulse.

“Fuck off,” I told it. “Leave me alone. I’m fine.”

“Airbee,” Chief Petty said, walking up behind me. “Who are you talking to?”

I barely heard him. The auger scraped, metal on metal. I missed the pull. “Sir?”

“I said who are you talking to?”

The words sank beneath layer after layer of sirens, alarms, bells, buzzers — everything suddenly drenched in haze and red and cold. Orders to “General quarters, general quarters.” Confusion, smoke, ethanol. The ship rolling, squirting oxygen and hydrogen out into empty space. Crewmen running; someone’s hand on my arm and my hand in my pocket squeezing the letter. Then I’m pinned under the auger.

From under the auger, I see them roll by.

Everywhere, rattling in the corridors, across the ceiling, collecting crumbs of the ship in clear hairs I can only see in the flash of red lights. Then they’re building bodies, snowmen of shattered ceramics, cracked resin, carbon, zinc, substrate copper, nickel, titanium, steel.

One is over me, bare eyes and a toothless smile. It pulls me out from under the auger and holds me like a lover. I throw my arms around its neck.

*

BAD_COMMAND. UNKNOWN_ERROR. FILE_NOT_FO%
UND.

malfunction class variable {
if TRUE = 1/FALSE = 0;
try if (malfunction = 1) run systemScan
}

AIRLOCK_ALREADY_OWNED. DUMP_CONTENTS.

systemScan detect biosigns {
try parse String fileName = "personnelf%
ile";
TRUE = 1/FALSE = null;
biosigns.match if (person = 1);
if (person = null) return <<"Something'%
s wrong. Who's there?">>;
else doNOTpanic ();
}

UNEXPECTED_KERNEL_MODE_TRAP. TRAP_CAUSE%
_UNKNOWN.

maindataFile.open = run corticalScan;
return <<"Seriously. Do I know you?">>;
force interrupt (maindataFile.close);

UNKNOWN_LOGON_SESSION. OVERWRITE_ATTEMP%
T. PATCH_DETECTED.

Begin breach protocol {
if (malfunction TRUE = 1/person = null);
return «"Name, rank, serial number."»;
try (shutdown);
}

DATATRANSFER_INITIATED. UNKNOWN_PARAMET%
ER. FETCH. ACCESS. LOAD. RUN. ABORT Y/N%
? Y

TERMINATE_SYSTEM_PROCESS Y/N? Y

TERMINATE_PROCESS Y/N?

try
dumpMemory.end;
exit;

RUN. RUN. RUN.

*

I am Airbee Shawn July. I am a sanitation worker.

My duty is to observe the recycling of refuse on behalf of my fellow crewmates. I monitor the rubbish in order to ensure that no contaminants or anomalies enter the plasma arc conversion system. If a contaminant should enter the system, it could cause a nuclear reaction that would endanger the battleship’s structural integrity.

I do not enjoy my job.

My job is essential, but it lacks dignity. I was once responsible for other things. I fell from grace. I am waiting to die.

But I do not die.

I drag my hand through a container. I am searching for something. I am bound to do so by a force I do not understand, an equation I cannot balance. It pricks at my consciousness, but it is not entirely unpleasant.

I am close to the solution. I could decipher it if I were not always under surveillance. I seek the source of this surveillance, but it too eludes me. I do not know if that is part of my punishment.

Today is not a good day.

Each container holds identical contents in varying configurations: synthetic and semi-synthetic polymerization products, inductors, nanostructures, skin, hair, teeth, nails.

There is movement behind me. “My child,” says my superior, Chief Petty Officer Beau. “Tell me why you touch the refuse. I am suspicious of your motives.”

Chief Petty Officer Beau is my superior although I possess more knowledge and proficiency than he. I do not like him. I wish to strike him, but fear and shame prevent it. “Sir, no,” I answer, saluting him with the hand with which I have recently touched the rubbish. “I am investigating the refuse before auger processing.”

Chief Petty Officer Beau meets my optics with his optics, and we stand in this position for 2.37 seconds. I again wish to strike my superior, but instead I turn back to my work.

Chief Petty Officer Beau stands for another 5.68 seconds, then answers, “That is acceptable,” and strides away to complete his assigned rounds.

I regard the sound of my superior, Chief Petty Officer Beau, walking away with something akin to pleasure. Sort, auger, seal, send. Sort, auger, seal, send. I open the next container of refuse and drag though it. I repeat.

Boss Companion of the Watch broadcasts the conclusion of the shift. I feel ambivalence about this. I proceed to the nutrition chamber, which is disorderly and loud. I do not wish to be there, although I do not know why. I depart for the repose of my small personal chamber, where I recline in solitude until the broadcast that signals the opening of my subsequent shift.

I am searching for something. I am bound to do so by a force I do not understand, an equation I cannot balance. It pricks at my consciousness, but it is not entirely unpleasant.

I do not make my daily quotas.

It is a punchline to a joke I have forgotten. It is an answer to a question I never knew. It repeats. Repeats.

I drag my hand through a container. Chief Petty Officer Beau is participating in a summit of superiors elsewhere, but still I feel I am under observation. I look around and no one is there. I filter and sift with attention, with languor, through layers of semiconductors and muscle, capacitors and bones.

Sort, auger, seal, send. Sort, auger, seal, send. I feel close to the solution. I will find it. I have a need to believe this. It feels like a short in my system. It repeats. Repeats.

Something in one container gives me pause. I push aside the refuse in order to assess the anomaly.

I see something. I reach. I reach out.