Soft Passage (Chronicle)
It was a chilly day on the station, late in the evening. Fall was closing in, and while the station's atmospheric generators compensated for it to some small degree, the air was still kept cold and crisp. Wind machines kept currents running and made for buttoned-up coats, scarves and hats. People needed seasons, to mark the passage of time.
The young couple, Satyan and Treta, were walking hand in hand down the station's busiest shopping street, window-shopping for daydreams. Both of them had good jobs, he in health-goods marketing, spearheading the new transparent ad campaigns after the recent viral marketing fiasco, and she in accounting, where she specialized in passenger monitoring and toll calculations. Their wedding was still a few weeks away.
They stopped in front of a travel agency and looked at the ads, which were scrolling through on large flat screens set in the windows. Motion sensors registered their presence, and the scrollthrough automatically slowed. On one side of the screen was a narrow band that showed a spectrum of color from dark blue to dark red; the color represented the kind of excitement and adventure you wanted from your trip. Satyan waved a hand at the spectrum's red end, but Treta immediately waved hers a little further down.
"Killjoy," Satyan said.
"Nutcase," Treta replied, and kissed him.
The screen began flipping through images of various trips, on both space stations and planets. "The planetside ones are so expensive," Satyan said.
"And overblown, too," Treta said. "Look at this one. A safari on Luminaire?
Satyan glanced at it and smiled. "Actually, I went on those quite a bit when I was younger. Which planet is it?" He noticed Treta's expression. "Uh, I mean, who wants to spend their honeymoon surrounded by wild animals?"
"Apart from each other, I mean," Satyan said.
Satyan continued, "There's another one. It's ..." He peered at it. "Seriously? Stay in an old Amarrian palace for a week?"
"My kind of life. Can we even afford this, though?" Treta said.
"If we could, I wouldn't go anyway."
"So no partying and no frippery. Halfway between."
"Perfect," Satyan said and kissed her.
"I wonder what things will be like after that."
"Same as before," Satyan said. "Only better."
She smiled, then looked at a nearby store window and pointed. "Oh, look! They've got food mixers. This would be perfect for you when you're starting your day."
Satyan grunted something in reply.
"Oh, come on," she said, dragging him over to the window. "You've got no morning appetite and can't drink milk, and you know the doc said you have to eat breakfast. It's either this or gruel."
"Sweetie," Satyan said, "these things are so loud they could wake the dead."
"That's nice, dear. Look, they sell all sorts of different things! Alarm chronometers, more mixers, equilateral bread slicers, EMP cookers, washing microbots, oh, self-cleaning coffee brewers, ion stoves, holoviewers, stasis-cooled cheese plates, electric pillows... and look, they even expect wooden furniture."
"That's hideously expensive."
"It's antique style, too," Treta said.
"So will we be if we buy it. The debts'll age me prematurely."
"Now now," she said. "The-... what's that?"
Something small and mechanical buzzed passed them, followed by a little human tornado that bumped into Treta on its way past. Satyan reached down and grabbed hold of the kid's shirt. "Hey, hey, hey! Where you running to, little man?"
The kid gave him a startled look, then smiled from ear to ear. "That's my drone," he said and pointed at the mechanical thing. It was indeed a small toy drone, and was currently encircling a trashcan nearby.
"What's your name?" Satyan said.
"Well, Dappy, you should know it's not polite to run into people. What do we say if we do that?"
"Sorry," Dappy said and grinned.
"Not to me, silly," Satyan said, but couldn't help grinning back. "The lady here."
Dappy turned to her and said, "Sorry, lady," still grinning.
Treta nodded at him, then looked at Satyan and silently mouthed Lady?
"Can you help me?" the kid said and pointed towards the drone, which was still flying around the trashcan. "I set it too fast."
Treta, aching a little from where the kid had bumped into her, whispered to Satyan, "I never even saw him coming."
Satyan whispered back, "Well, he's here now, I suppose," and set about trying to catch the boy's toy drone. The machine eluded his first couple of tries, but he eventually got a hold of it, tuned its speed down and handed it back to the kid, saying, "Here. And don't run so much. Relax. Enjoy life."
"Thanks," the kid said, and immediately ran off.
Satyan shook his head. From here he stood he happened to glance at a nearby window, one that Treta couldn't see yet, and noticed a store that was selling cell phones. Each 'cell' was in fact a station, and phone prices were effectively determined by whether your phone would work only within the solar system, or could be used to contact people in other systems as well. Intra-system talk would have crisp, clear communication, but as soon as you left the solar system, all talk got laggy, distorted and muddled, not to mention far more expensive. Once you were out of the region, that was it; silence fell. Only the capsuleers had access to better technology.
"Might need something like that," Satyan said.
Treta walked over to him, looked in the window, then shook her head. "My turn now. It's too expensive."
"Come on. What if I get posted off-station?"
"Then you can send me recordings. Or use the combooths like everyone else."
Treta turned on him. "It's too damn expensive, Satyan. If we don't have enough money for the furniture and things, we don't have it for this, either."
"Hey, come on."
"No, you come on. I'm tired of you scuttling anything that I want to get, then not applying the same standards to yourself." She threw up her arms. "But hey, what do I know? Maybe it'd be good to have a cell, so's I can keep an eye on you when you're away."
"Oh, right," Satyan said. "Because I can't be trusted. I'd jump into bed with the next woman I saw."
"Well, what do I know? For all I know you could be doing it with Sari right now."
"Hah," Satyan said. "Not in a million years."
"Hey! That's my best friend you're talking about."
Satyan put his arms around Treta and kissed her on the forehead. "I'm sorry, baby. I would definitely sleep with Sari if you weren't around. Feel better now?"
She plonked him on the nose, then kissed it. "Silly man." Then she broke free of his grip and walked on, oblivious of the future.
Satyan remained, staring at the cell phones in the windows, not seeing them. Then he followed, grasped for Treta's hand and took firm hold of it, and they continued on.
This time it was Treta's attention that was caught by something, across the street. She crossed it, and Satyan followed.
"Look," she said, pointing to a window. It was a baby clothing store. Satyan's eyes widened and he took an exaggerated step backwards, his hands in front of him like he were being held up at gunpoint.
Treta laughed. "Get over here," she said, and looked in the window. The display included everything from jumpsuits to shoes. The latter were at a discount, a sign said, because of a manufacturing error.
Satyan, who felt uncomfortable even looking at the things, decided to at least take part in the conversation. "Well, they're cheap."
"Mmm. I don't like them too much," Treta said. "They might fall apart at least notice." She looked closer. "It almost looks like they've been worn before."
"Sweetie, they're baby shoes, for sale," Satyan said, "and were probably never worn."
She shivered, and moved on.
As Satyan followed, he noticed that the air had in fact gotten even colder. It would probably be time to head home soon. He found a street vendor nearby, selling food and hot drinks, and led Treta there. The greasy smell of fried fat didn't much raise their appetites, so they bought hot drinks instead; Satyan a warm soup, Treta a frothy brew. For no real reason, Satyan reached out with his free hand and put it around Treta's waist, hugging her tight. Treta returned the gesture. Behind them, the baby shoes stood still on the shelves, unmoved.
After they were done, they tossed the plastic cups into the recycle bin next to the vendor's cart, and walked on. The next store was an insurance booth, and Satyan made a crack about having one right next to a fast food vendor.
Treta thought it over while looking at the premiums they offered, then said, "Well ... I'm not sure I want to say that something like this is too expensive. But still..."
"Yeah," Satyan said. "I know what you mean." And they put it out of their minds, like a blackened match tossed into a dark corner.
After they'd walked apace, Satyan added, "Actually, the furniture might not be a bad idea."
Treta stared at him. "Are you serious?"
"And some curtains." He saw her look. "Well, why not? If we plan to make a home, why not make a home? I don't mind the idea of coming back home to a warm place, familiar smells, lights on and a fireplace on the screen. And you."
She grasped his hand a little harder.
"The world doesn't always have to spin around," he said.
"No, it doesn't. Nor we with it," she said.
They came to a park, and saw the wind blow through the trees. The leaves were falling off in droves, leaving the branches bare and alone. The trees stood there like sentinels; from the viewpoint of the leaves, and the seeds nesting in the ground, they'd undoubtedly always been there, and would always be.
They walked on until they came to another travel agency, and on unspoken agreement they both slowed the walk. Satyan idly waved his hand in front of the sensors, close to the low, blue end. Now, with the nippy winds of fall blowing down every crack and crevice, and the trees shorn of their leaves and seeds, a sedate, relaxed vacation on some warm planet didn't seem half so bad.
They looked at each other, turned and went into the park. Night was falling, and it was time to head home. Hand in hand, they walked down the final trails together. The leaves obscured their path until at last they were gone.