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THE VITAL ABYSS
An Expanse Novella
James S. A. Corey
The Vital Abyss
They kept us in an enormous room. Ninety meters by sixty with a ceiling eight meters above us, a bit less than a football pitch, with observation windows along the top two meters all the way around from which our guards could look down on us if they chose to. Old crash couches salvaged from God knew where lay scattered around the floor. Eventually I came to recognize a certain subtle smell like alcohol and plastic when the air scrubbers were replaced, and the humidity and temperature would sometimes vary, leaving runnels of condensate coming down the walls. Those were the nearest things we had to weather. The gravity, somewhere in the neighborhood of one-quarter g, suggested we were on a spin station. Our guards never said as much, but I could think of no planetary bodies that matched that.
For most of us there was a sense that this shabby, empty room was the final destination for us, the former science team from Thoth Station. Some wept at the thought. The research group did not.
We had toilets and showers, but no privacy. When we washed ourselves, it was in front of anyone who cared to observe. We learned to shit with the casualness of animals. When, as was inevitable, we began to turn to each other to fulfill our sexual needs, it was without the veneer of privacy we had once enjoyed, though eventually several of the crash couches were sacrificed to create a small area visually cut off from the rest of the room and that we began calling “the hotel.” There was never anything sufficient to absorb sound. Our enforced physical intimacy with one another was a source of shame for many of the prisoners who didn’t come from the research groups. Those of us who had—myself included—held a different perspective. I think our shamelessness was part of what made it hard for the others, the ones who had worked security or maintenance or administration, to accept us. There were other reasons too, but I think the shamelessness was the most visible. I might be wrong about that. I have learned to question my assumptions about what other people feel.
The lights in the room went on at what became morning, turned off again at what we agreed to call night. Water, we took from a pair of spigots beside the showers, drinking directly from them using our own cupped hands. For want of razors or depilatories, the men among us grew beards. Guards and jailers would come through whenever they saw fit, armor-clad and carrying guns sufficient to slaughter us all. They brought Belter food, vat-grown and yeasty. Sometimes they joked with us, sometimes they pushed us away or beat us, but they always brought us sustenance and the thin paper jumpsuits that were our only clothes. All of our guards were Belters, with the elongated bodies and slightly enlarged heads that spoke of childhoods in low gravity and long exposure to the pharmaceutical cocktails that made such lives possible. They spoke in the polyglot cant of the Belt: a hundred different vocabularies all crushed together until understanding it was as much music appreciation as grammar.
During the first year, they occasionally took us out of the room for periods of interrogation. The times that I was taken, the sessions were held in small, dirty rooms, often without chairs. The techniques varied from threats and violence, to offers of privileges, to a thin-faced woman who just sat in silence and stared at me as if she could force me to speak through raw, unspoken will. As time went on, these occasions grew fewer and farther between. Sometime in the third year, they stopped entirely, and the room became the totality of our collective world. We were a community of thirty-seven people living under the eyes of cold and unsympathetic jailers.
Though we came to know each other quite well, the taxonomy of our previous employment remade itself into a kind of tribalism. Van Ark and Drexler might disagree about everything from the best use of our “daylight” time to who had starred in the entertainment videos of our youth, but they had both been maintenance, and so when any conflict arose, they took each other’s side against the rest of us. Fong had enjoyed the highest rank among the security team in our random organizational slice, and so she was not only the unspoken head of that group but through them the ersatz leader of our community. Research was kept separate, and even then divisions by work group made a web of subdivisions. Of the several dozen large signaling and communications work group, only Ernz and Ma had come to the room. Imaging was the largest with five: Kanter, Jones, Mellin, Hardberger, and Coombs. Nanoinformatics had three: Quintana, Brown, and myself.
Of the system outside the room—Earth and Mars and the Belt—we knew essentially nothing. For us, history had ended on Thoth Station with our experiment on Eros only half-done. Even years after the fact, I would find myself ruminating on some peculiarity of the dataset. I no longer trusted my memory enough to say whether the issues that absorbed my hours were accurate or figments of my somewhat fragile and altered mind.
During my bitterest times, I would lie in a crash couch for days at a time, thinking of Isaac Newton and the way that, by having his mind and his peculiar history, he had refashioned all of human understanding. I had stood on a precipice as great as his and been pulled back against my will. But more often, I was able to ignore such thoughts for weeks, sometimes months, at a time. I took a lover. Alberto Correa. He worked in administration and spent his childhood taking odd jobs at the spaceport complex at Bogotá. He had an advanced degree in political literature, and he said both my names—Paolo and Cortázar—reminded him of authors he had studied. He would talk for hours sometimes about the effects of class systems on poetic forms or Butler-Marxist readings of the action videos of Pilár Eight and Mikki Suhanam. I listened, and I like to think I absorbed some of it. The sound of his voice and the presence of his body were comforting, and the moments we spent together in the hotel were pleasant and calming. He said that if he’d known he would end here, he’d have stayed on Earth and lived on basic. When I pointed out that then he and I wouldn’t have met, he would either agree that I made it worthwhile or else tell me about the beautiful men he had loved in Colombia.
Time, of course, became difficult to track, but I was fairly certain we were into the fourth year in the room when Kanter died. He’d been complaining of feeling ill, then grew agitated and delusional. The guards, seeing all as they did, brought medicine that I suspect was merely a sedative. He died a week later.
It was the first death, and reinforced to us the idea that we would likely never again be free. I watched as the others went through a period of mourning that was less for Kanter than for the lives we’d had and left behind. Not the research group, but the others. Alberto became a much more ardent lover for a time, and then lapsed into a funk in which he barely spoke to me and shied away from my touch. I was patient with him because I found patience easier when there was no alternative.
Day by day, we were ground down. Our experiential worlds narrowed to who was having sex with whom, whether someone’s comment about a fellow inmate was innocuous or provocative, and fighting—sometimes violently—over who among us slept in which of the crash couches. We were petty and cruel, despairing and restless, occasionally humane and
even capable of moments of actual if ephemeral beauty. Perhaps all periods of prosperity and calm go unnoticed when they occur. Certainly I didn’t look on those days with any fondness until after the Martian came.
I didn’t see him arrive myself. I was talking with Ernz when it happened, so my introduction to the man was Quintana barking my name. When I turned, the Martian was simply there. He was pale-skinned with nut-brown hair and a bad complexion, and he wore the familiar uniform of the Martian Congressional Republic Navy. Our customary Belter guards flanked him, chins lifted a bit higher than usual. Quintana and Brown stood before them, waving me impatiently to them. I didn’t hesitate. The pull of something new after so much sameness called forth an excitement that left my hands trembling. I plucked at my beard as I strode over, hoping against all reason that it would make me look more respectable. When we stood before the new man, the three of us together, Brown took a little half-step ahead. I stifled the urge to move forward as well, certain that it would end in all of us crowding in on our visitor. I would swallow Brown’s little physical dominance play in order to keep the Martian from leaving.
“This is all of them?” he said. He had a pleasant voice, barely accented with the drawl of the Mariner Valley.
“Bist,” the Belter guard said with a nod. “Nanoinformatic, you wanted. This them.”
The Martian looked at us each in turn, studying us like we were fresh recruits. It felt as if the floor was shuddering, but it was only my body. There was always an electricity in the unknown, a sense of impending revelation like the last moments before orgasm. Seeing this man and being seen by him, I felt more naked than I had since my first sexual experiences; though the longing and desire sprang from my heart and throat now, they were as commanding. All the things that the room had taken from me—my curiosity, my hope, my sense that a life outside of my nameless prison was possible—were distilled into his cool brown eyes. One of the occupational hazards of my career path is a kind of solipsism, but I truly felt at that moment that God had sent an angel to deliver me and whisper the secrets that had been hidden from me so long into my ear, which made the actions that followed so devastating.
“All right,” the Martian said.
The filthy little half-step Brown had taken reaped its reward. The Martian took a dedicated hand terminal from his pocket and held it out. “Take a look at this. See what you make of it.”
Brown snapped it up. “I will have a reaction prepared, sir,” he said, as if he were team lead again and not a filthy, long-bearded captive in a paper suit.
“Can we have copies?” Quintana asked.
I was going to add my voice to his, but the guard cut me short. “One trade, one terminal. Sus no neccesar.”
The Martian turned to leave, but Quintana surged forward. “If you need someone to interpret data for you, Brown’s not the right person. He was only team lead so he could spend more time talking to administration. If he’d been a better mind, they’d have kept him in the labs.” The same sentiment was forming in my own throat, but my hesitation in finding the words saved me. The nearest of the Belter guards shifted his weight, turned, and sank the butt of his rifle into Quintana’s gut, folding him double. The Martian scowled, disapproving of the violence, but he did not speak as the guards led him to the doorway and out of the room. Brown, his beard jutting and his face flushed, half-ran and half-strutted to the hotel, the hand terminal clutched to his chest. Triumph and fear widened his eyes. Quintana retched, and I stood over him, considering. The others watched from all around the room, and when I looked up, there were more figures behind the glass staring down at us. At me.
Quintana had made a mistake, and one I would have made as well. He’d called the Martian’s judgment—capricious as it was—into question. He’d tried to take a position of authority when we were all here specifically because we had no authority. Seeing that was like remembering something I’d forgotten.
One trade, one terminal. The words meant two things to me: first, that after all this time someone was trading for either our freedom or possession of us, and second, that only one of us would be required. Needless to say, I determined in that moment that the traded prisoner would be me.
“Come on,” I said, helping him to his feet. “It’s all right. Come on, and I’ll help you get washed up.” I let them see me assist him. With any luck it would get back to the Martian that one of the three was a team player, the kind of man who helped someone when they were down. Quintana, I felt sure, had lost his chance. Brown, by having the hand terminal and whatever was on it, was ahead. I didn’t see yet how to arrange things so that I could gain the advantage, but simply having a real problem to solve again felt like waking up after a long and torpid sleep.
Brown didn’t leave the hotel for the rest of the day, and while he did venture out when the guards brought our evening rations, he sat apart, the hand terminal stuck down the neck of his jumpsuit. Quintana glowered at him from under storm cloud brows and I kept my own counsel, but the effect of the day’s actions went well beyond the three of us. Everyone in the room buzzed. There was no other subject of conversation. Mars knew we were here, and what was more, they wanted something of us. Or at least of one of us. It changed everything from the taste of the food to the sound of our voices.
Keep a man in a coffin for years with just enough food and water to live, and then—just for a moment—crack the lid open and let him see daylight. We were all that man, stunned and confused and elated and afraid. The numbness of captivity fell away for a few hours, and we lived that time deeply and desperately.
After the meal, Brown retreated to a crash couch near the wall, curling into it so that no one could sneak up behind him. I, pretending nothing had changed, went through my customary nighttime rituals—voiding my bowels, showering, drinking enough water that I would not wake thirsty before the lights came back. By the time our sudden toggle-switch nighttime came, I was curled in my couch with Alberto. His body was warm against my own. Brown, whose movements I had become profoundly aware of, remained in his crash couch by the wall. The glow of the terminal was dim as an insult. I pretended to sleep and thought I had fooled Alberto until he spoke.
“And so they’ve thrown us the apple, eh?”
“The fruit of knowledge,” I said, but I had misunderstood which apple he meant.
“Worse than that, the golden one,” he said. “Private property. Status. Now it’s all going to be about fighting over who’s the prettiest one, and war will come out of it.”
“Don’t be grandiose.”
“It isn’t me, it’s history. Differences in status and wealth are always what drives war.”
“Have we been a Marxist paradise this whole time and I didn’t notice?” I said, more acidly than I’d meant to.
Alberto kissed my temple and brushed his lips along my hairline to the cup of my ear. “Don’t kill him. They’ll catch you.”
I shifted. In the darkness, I couldn’t see more than a limn of his face, floating over me. My heart beat faster and the coppery taste of fear flooded my mouth. “How did you know what I was thinking?”
When he answered, his tone was soft and melancholy. “You’re from research.”
* * *
I wasn’t always the thing I became. Before I was research, I was a scientist who had educated himself into too fine a specialty. Before that, a student at Tel Aviv Autonomous University, caught between investing in a future I couldn’t imagine and losing myself in a grief I couldn’t fully encompass. Before that, I was a boy watching his mother die. I was all of those men before I was a researcher for Protogen corporation based on Thoth Station. But it is also true that I remember many of those former selves with a distance that is more than time. I tell myself that remove allows me to trace the path from one to another, but I’m not sure that this is true.
My mother—a heart-shaped face above a pear-shaped body who rained love on me as if I were the only one in the world who mattered—lived on basic most of her life, sharing
a room in a UN housing complex at Londrina. She wasn’t educated, though I understand she was a good enough musician when she was younger to play in some local underground bands. If there were recordings of her on the network, I never found them. She was a woman of few ambitions and tepid passions until she reached thirty-two. Then, to hear her tell it, God had come to her in her sleep and told her to have a baby.
She woke up, marched to the training center, and applied for any program that would earn her enough money to legally go off contraception. It took her three years of fourteen-hour days, but she managed it. Enough money for both a licensed child and the donation of germ plasm that would help begin my life. She said that it was her choice to purchase sperm from a trading house that gave me my intelligence and drive, that the only fertile men in the housing complex were criminals and thugs too far outside of civilization to be on the basic rolls, and that I couldn’t have gotten it from her because she was lazy and stupid.
As a child, growing up, I used to fight back on the last point: She was smart and she was beautiful and anything good about me surely had its roots in her. I believe now she used to denigrate herself in front of me in order to hear praise from someone, even if it was only a beloved child. I don’t resent the manipulation. If intellect and focus were indeed the legacies of my invisible father, emotional manipulation was my mother’s true gift, and it was as valuable. As important.
Because I was an adolescent when it began, I did not notice her symptoms until they were fairly advanced. My time was largely spent out of the house by then, playing football at a dirt-and-weed pitch south of the housing complex, running badly designed experiments with some garage-level makers and artists, exploring my own sexuality and the limits of the young men of my cohort. My days were filled with the smell of the city, the heat of the sun, and the promise that something joyous—a football win, a good project, a transporting affair—might come at any moment. I was a street rat living on basic, but the discovery of life was so rich and dramatic and profound that I wasn’t concerned with my status in the larger culture. My social microenvironment seemed to stretch to the horizon, and the conflicts within it—whether Tomás or Carla would be goalie, whether Sabina could tweak off-the-shelf bacterial cultures to produce her own party drugs, whether Didi was homosexual and how to find out without courting humiliation and rejection—were profound dramas that would resonate through the ages. When, later, my project lead said There is a period of developmental sociopathy in every life, this is the time I thought of.