The Newcomer

A speculative tale by Joanne McNeil

First appeared in Failed States Issue 3: Refuge

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Consider a room. The room has a bed, curtains, blankets, rugs, warmth. Hear the crack and sputter of heater pipes while the fridge hums in another room. Another room. A cat rustles through yesterday’s newspaper. On the bedside table is a stack of paperbacks so tall it might topple with the gentlest touch. The room is dry like a scratchy sweater and warm like a morning light shaft through heavy curtains. Warm like that light on your face as you wake. Bright warm. Duvet warm. Clutching a cup of coffee warm. Bare feet on a bedside rug warm. A warm room, all yours, a space that contains you. There is nothing like the toasty feeling of being embraced by your context. 

Linota has no curtains and no rug. No bed. No heater pipes. No brightness. Instead of embraced, she feels repelled by the very place where she is contained. She straps herself inside a sleeping bag mounted to the wall. She sleeps there, latched in bungee cords like human macrame. In slumber, her arms lift up like winter tree branches, thin and bare. She wakes with her arms out in zombie-posture. There’s no morning light. No cat. No signs of life. She misses the skin of others. Pages are a small substitute (skin of information). Crosswords keep her sane. There are five games left in the puzzle book velcro-sealed to the wall by the treadmill. She might read one of the novels in the ‘library,’ a weighted box underneath the kitchen table. First she must unstrap herself from the vertical bed. She is dressed already when she wakes up. Dark and day at once. Here is a room and it is a cell and it is a vehicle. It is a spaceship for seven but there is only one. She has an intergalactic view but the wonder is gone. 

Consider a kitchen. The kitchen has hot plates, pans, cups and spoons, cups and spoons to measure, pots, a blender, an oven, spices. A sink. Water. A microwave. Water. Milk and butter in the fridge. Water. Oils. Knives. Water. Water. Tap Water. Endless boundless water. Fresh water. Water to washing hands in. Water to bathe a cat in. Water for cleaning dishes. Water for tea. Water for drinking. Water.

Dominique has spices, pots, pans, knives, cups and spoons, and cups and spoons to measure. She has rations of water: a satisfactory and survivable allocation of water, but this ration is an unfamiliar lack, a persistent reminder of where she is not. Her water has an origin story. Waste water recycled into drinking water. Water shed and water renewed. She has no refreshing water, spring water and new water, only wastewater, water recently used, excreted, put to work and purified, never for a second without a purpose for being anything but: Water. 

In her kitchen, Dominique stumbles as she lifts the lid off the drum of water (fresh as can be, fresh enough) and spoons out a modest amount. The colonists set upon this habitat for the water and now the water they carried on their backs is all they’ve got. In the kitchen, a dozen men and women stand beside her, stirring, baking, fixing, working. They will eat their lunch together, as ever. They share their days and their labor and their everything. What they have is enough, but it is not more than enough. She sips her glass of water slowly through a straw as she walks through the greenhouse, past the cottages, where everyone lives, to the beige hollow that was meant to be a beach. Sand bags are piled up, untouched, unopened. There’s a boat covered in dust. Some beachfront property. Everyone has a cloud-like bed; still, she thinks about the hot baths that will not be had. It’s a hopeless situation. She looks beyond the habitat glass to the rusty atmosphere and giant rocks outside. So still. A swarm of gold derricks and pumpjacks stand inert in rocks, but at the ready, like gilded grasshoppers from afar. All those miles and all those years. All the money and all the dreams. And in the end, it was water that truncated the ambition of this project.

There’s something moving in the afternoon night sky. Could it be — a shooting star or a visitor? Or nothing at all? Dominique sips the last of her water.

Linota looks at her calendar. It is velcroed next to the crosswords she chose not to waste. One hundred and ten days have passed since she has last spoken to someone, looked at someone, talked to someone. Three hundred and ten days since she touched someone. She has ten days before the last of the water is split into oxygen and hydrogen fuel. She had the choice to move, to drink, or to breathe. There are twenty days of food rations. In ten days, the ship will cruise forward indefinitely toward nothing in particular. She will eat the last bricks of shrimp cocktail, apricots, and chalky ice cream with no water and wait to die. Unless. She is lost. Her crew members are dead. Three hundred days and she still can’t decide whether the loose discomfort of her floating chest is worse than breasts strapped down with bungee. Unless. The radar is singing. It has tricked her before. Why must her heart overrule her head with its simplistic belief in unless. The radar picked up false positives before — it is inevitable with this expanse and debris. Linota unstraps herself from the breakfast table velcro. She believes in this unless. Maybe it is better to die with belief. She sits before the control deck and propels the ship toward the siren call. 

Elsewhere, somewhere, Dominique reflects on the circumstance that brought her to her colony. She and her husband were great savers, strategists, and practical people. They built Sapienter C3 with their hands and mined their way to good fortune. Their practicality is reflected in the peaceful community that they have shepherded. They tend to people like they tend to crops: they express care and concern and it is returned in kind. Only the water haunts her. There’s water but it’s not enough water. Shower once a week water rather than shower twice a day water. In conversations with her husband, she speaks of matters water technical, water dry. If only they could fix the water crisis there would be so much water.

“To think this is a space where human beings are not born to be,” Dominique says with a smile, as she serves food on gold plates in heavy spoonfuls. The colonists say grace and snatch up mitt-like hunks of bread. It is kindness, not water, that strengthens their bond. Knives and forks clink and the colonists murmur to one another how thankful they are to be together, sharing this moment and their lives. Dominique holds the pot to her chest and insists everyone have their share of seconds. But things aren’t perfect. “We need a water technician,” Dominique says to a colonist, with the casual intonation of a person who hasn’t raised this issue before. “We aren’t going to find one out here,” he says as she fills his plate with grainy peas. Back home she was susceptible to satisfying every want. Now Dominique lives strictly in the world of need. It is no matter. She is surrounded with the good of humanity. She sees their goodness in their faces and she can see her face reflected in the eye of her husband. He blinks. She leans in for a kiss. “You must finish,” she says, pointing at the portions of vegetable and protein on his plate.

 A colonist returns to the kitchen to distribute the dessert of pie. Dominique grows impatient. She sweetly invites another colonist to check in on the other colonist and the pie, before he arrives at the table, out of breath and with no pie. “We have a visitor approaching,” he says, astonished by his own words as he utters them. On the radar. A ship coming in. “We haven’t had a visitor in years,” Dominique’s husband says. “A visitor,” she repeats, as the other colonist arrives with pies. Dominique smiles as she slices the pieces into equivalent slivers. “I will handle this,” she says. 

Dominique, her husband, and several colonists line up at the arrival gate for the newcomer to arrive. Dominique thinks of the men and women who gave their lives for this junk palace of a space paradise. Elsewhere, somewhere, not far away, Linota’s heart is pounding. A new home awaits, perhaps. A place to breathe and stretch her arms and feel the wingspan of herself. 

 The blast doors open and reveal a little ship. A man jumps out. He is small and shivering. He trembles as he removes his helmet. His ship looks so cheap, Dominique thinks to herself.

    “My name is Wilmot,” the newcomer says. His accent is unplaceable. “I am lost.”

    “On your knees,” Dominique orders. Wilmot obliges.

 She asks if he has any water, and continues, before he can answer, “There is just enough water for the lot of us. We share everything, but to share you must provide.”

    “I can help in other ways,” he says.

    “Can you find water or create water?”

    “No.”

Dominique snaps her fingers and the blast doors shut. Wilmot is stunned, and still on his knees. Suddenly the doors push outward toward the edge of the habitat. The inner doors press into Wilmot. Outer doors open up. The doors shovel him away, flushing him back into space. He floats out, trailing behind his ship, barreling into nothing.

Consider another planet. The air is breathable but heavy with smoke. All is quiet except for the coughing. The environment is overbuilt with caves and tunnels and filthy honeycomb structures. The living quarters would be tight for a single person but each room is home to three people or more. They don’t seem to mind. Through the smoke and haze there’s scaffolding in metal marked with fingerprint-like ridges. It’s crowded, smoggy, and difficult there. It’s too bright and yet it is always cold. 

Linota directs the ship toward a small pocket-chamber. She passes through the tunnel and is spit out into the ugly smog and city of scaffolding and waste. She opens the airlock and tumbles as she remembers what it is like to collaborate with gravity. A crowd of people stand waiting for her. They are smiling. Someone hands her a hot drink. Warm. Her knuckles, so tense, release tension as she clutches the beverage. She stumbles as she finds the words to say …Lost my crew after a meteor crash. Spun off course upon impact. I am a pilot — I was. I burn hydrogen…and work in desalination… She is startled by the rippling movement of scaffolding. It is some other thing’s long bony leg. Someone whispers, “We are all guests but they let us stay.” 

    “I still got the supplies if you need anything,” Linota blurts out. A new friend wraps her in a blanket. “Whatever you want,” the friend says. “Give or take what you need.”

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