By Salena Casha
When Marly Hubert jumped off the Galactic Bridge, I was there. I stood alone, spritzer bottle in hand, and hydrated the orchids. It was night, and even though, on the bridge, it was always dark beneath the stars, I recall that my digital timepiece read one o’clock Old Earth time. He was a family friend, a friend of my father, or maybe he was just an acquaintance. I can’t really recall how I knew his name before he introduced himself, but I do remember the way my breath fogged my oxygen mask as I inserted the spray bottle into the silicone membrane to access the flower’s roots.
Why did we keep flowers on the bridge in plastic space pods? I wondered for the millionth time. Perhaps, if only to give people like me something to do, something to occupy our time and keep us from choosing to cross the bridge. If the plastic bubble was not there, the hydrogen-oxygen synthetic spray I applied would float, globular, into the air. I readjusted my weight belt to sit lower on my hips and squeezed the trigger hard. The spray split in a stream and even though I was separated from the plant by nearly two layers of polyurethane, I swear I smelled the flower’s half-dying scent. Everything always decayed and I had watched the process of this particular plant age for the past three or so years and it was the most elegant natural progression from life to death to which I had ever born witness. Nothing like the solitary walk others of my kind made, fleeting and ephemeral. A walk, my father had told me, that when I was ready, I would eventually make.
“You’re out late,” a voice behind me observed.
I had turned abruptly to see Mr. Hubert standing there, his shock of white hair just visible under his solar visor. His question led me to recall the time (as I previously noted being one in the morning) and forced me to pause and observe that normal people did not wander around at such an hour. I said to him, Yes, Mr. Hubert, I know, but this is my shift. My voice was quiet, mechanical, filtered through my helmet’s voice box. It was not, truly, my own.
“Marly, please,” he said. “Call me Marly.”
He was older than my father had been when he walked down the Bridge, old enough, perhaps, that he’d lived on Earth once, right before our kind had had to leave. And even though he was old, there was a subtle beauty about him, the way his silvered eyes nearly matched his hair. I was happy he couldn’t see my face beneath the tinted glass of my helmet. It was too grotesque, too common. My family had always been in the workforce, our faces disfigured by time and lack of resources, scarred with accidents from kitchen pod fires. After I’d burned the right side of my cheek and eye during a run gone awry when I was seven-years-old, the ship had granted me a helmet for my protection. The day I’d taken my new job, on the ship’s surface, had been my first step outside our transport’s bowels since my father had left. And I understood that my one consolation was watching things, once beautiful, wither and die.
I wanted to ask Marly what he was doing out on the bridge, but it wasn’t my place. He was some sort of ambassador or other. So instead, I commented our proximity to Planet Z, just visible above the Galactic Bridge causeway. Another chance to start over. I tried not to think about how others believed that Planet X and Planet Y had also been second chances, resulting in nothing but new strains of plagues and defeat. We, all 100,000 of us, were probably meant to remain on this self-sufficient ship for the rest of eternity with our mad scientists, our salvationary breakthroughs that kept us all in organized, single-minded formation: to reach a new paradise.
“Do you know where this bridge leads, Mica?” he asked, glancing at the label on my front pocket. I was quite sure he didn’t actually want to hear my answer because every few moments he turned his head to gaze down its length. Blue spectral light highlighted the walkway barriers to cast shadows on the four-foot high steel railing. Where it led, in an end of thrumming white light, had always been speculated upon. Below the cat walk was a grid of green electricity. It fed the bridge’s gravity field, exchanging frequencies with the belts we wore around our waists to keep us grounded. Beyond those sizzling sparks, however, was just space.
I wasn’t supposed to know where the bridge went even though my father had told me when I was fifteen, ten years ago, right before he crossed. Heaven, I mumbled. That word still, as I uttered it, instilled the hope my father had bequeathed to me. That there was something beyond, something more than space and that, when we were ready, we could move toward it.
His lips twitched into a half-smile. “One that’s made by man, I suppose,” he said.
I wondered why he had yet to cross, being so old that surgeries could no longer mask the toll our simulated gravity took on his limbs. Then again, being part of the higher ruling classes, he had the luxury of crossing later in life (Some were often wheeled down the causeway, too weak to walk on their own).
“Have you always cared so much for the plants?” he asked. He leaned back on the rail, one elbow creased back. He sighed and the effort rattled his body suit.
No, not particularly, I said and explained it was the only job I was allowed to do.
“My wife did,” he said. “Her name was Shelley.”
I shifted my weight from one foot to the other. It was an uncomfortable statement and I knew better than to inquire. He seemed to suspect as much because he nodded and tapped the glass of his helmet. “I have a proposition for you. Why don’t you let me water the plants for now so you can go and watch Planet Z?” His tone sounded as if he addressed a shy child.
I hesitated. I was never supposed to leave my post, at least not until my shift ended as the Space Republic rules dictated. Order, Silence and Respect. Still, my eyes flickered from his face to the wide arena just beyond. Among the stars that glimmered like dots of hope, blinked the indicated planet. But still, it was only a bit of light slightly bigger than the rest. I’d been staring at it for the past hour or so already. I’d seen what I needed to see, but I didn’t tell him that. It would be, after all, quite impolite to refuse the gesture.
“It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity,” he pressed. “It could be the next Earth and don’t you want to tell your grandkids you were one of the first people to see it?”
I wanted to tell him what the clinic nurse had told me only days before as she inspected me with gloved hands from a safe distance: I would bear no children, my ovaries had been completely irradiated by exposure to exhaust molecules that existed within the ship’s lower quarters no matter how much the higher-ups tried to purify our air. I bit my lip instead and even though he couldn’t see me make the effort, I hoped he sensed my pain.
Are you going to journey there? I wondered aloud.
Yes, I replied, and he half-smiled. “I was one of those who helped ruin Earth so I don’t think it’s my place.” I averted my eyes to look at the green grid below us. He was far older than I thought. Earth-bound Elites had been the ones to engineer our ship, just as Earth let out its last, dying breath. They were the ones in charge of everything, the people who were responsible for humanities destruction with their greed-driven, environment-destroying intentions. I took a deep breath, aware that even in my thoughts I sounded like my father. Still, people like Marly Hubert, people with far more power than Marly Hubert, had been the ones who spared us and brought us along for the ride toward finding a new Earth. All we had to do was repay them with service until we reached our new home. Or until our children reached it. Not mine though, I recalled sadly.
Marly gazed once again down the causeway, but following his stare, I saw nothing different that merited another look. “They won’t let me die,” he said. “Walk the bridge’s length, I mean. I’ve applied and been rejected now over twenty times.”
Silence hung in the zero-gravity air as I toyed with my weight belt. Punishment perhaps for something he had done, I thought, but not aloud.
Why don’t you come and look at it with me? I asked. I wondered if he knew he’d known my father at all or if I was just some girl with one name to him, watering plants as he strolled about contemplating life. No one will notice the flowers for now. I’ll do it after. Just a minute or two. The phrases all came out breathlessly, toppling over one another to clamor for his response.
He nodded and I set the spray bottle on the ground and I wanted to take his arm and lead him to the railing because he looked so frail and old and tired but I resisted and walked a bit behind him instead. Standing there with him, my heart slowed. On Old Earth, when people stood on bridges, there was always wind of some sort that blew through their hair (in the old French films my father had shown me, of course). Here, though, we wore helmets and there was no wind in space, nothing romantic at all about space. I watched the bright planet until it looked as though it had a heartbeat, the light flickering. I refused to blink.
“Who told you about the end of the bridge?” he asked. His gaze was still focused on the star, but his voice, undisguised by mediation technology, trembled slightly.
My father, I replied but said nothing more of the matter. Marly did not seem to remember him.
“And he claimed that heaven is at the other side, not some black hole?”
My skin bristled, oddly defensive, but I made no movement to acknowledge his words. He smiled.
“It’s odd to think that it would lie at the end of a bridge. Perhaps it’s complete with dream-beds and hallucination IVs. I just always thought it was higher.” His eyes looked up into space. Endless space.
I didn’t think Dad literally meant heaven, I thought to myself. Just a place of rest and security, away from the tunnel-running mechanical work we were forced to do. Not forced, I reminded myself, but rather born to do. Not that Marly Hubert, member of the upper levels, would understand. My gloved fingers grasped the steel railings inside curled fists. Mom never liked that talk, and, as much as I loved the woman, she was a bore in comparison. She, unlike Dad, had never given me hope of any kind; she believed that we all had a set time limit, like robots or machines, and were discarded. And perhaps, I loved my father for proving to me that such existence was not the case. That in the end, we had one free choice.
Instead, turning back to him, I observed of the planet, it’s beautiful isn’t it?
“Nothing I haven’t seen before,” he replied and turned away. He swayed as he walked to the opposite metal railing and leaned his head on his hands. He did not move or address me, simply stood and stared into the distance. I returned to spritzing the orchids.
I thought he had left, disappeared, but then his voice returned to my ear. “Walk with me.”
I hesitated, wondering if he would lead me to my death, to the end of the bridge but instead he motioned back toward the Port ship. He did not wait for me to answer as he paced, fast, ahead of me.
“It’s night; everyone has curfew. No one will see you,” he said impatiently and waved me inside. There was an endless row of orchids to be watered, but I followed anyway, tapping my helmet to reassure myself it remained shaded.
He was almost at the Port door and I hurried after him. Light split and bounced from the glass orbs of the infinity ceiling. The white walk glowed beneath my feet as we traversed empty halls. I hadn’t been back inside, on the upper levels, since before my father had been alive and I had still been a teen.
“You knew my father,” I said. This time, my words cut through the metallic voice-transmuter and grew a bit higher in pitch. I cleared my throat, wondering if the filter had broken, unable to handle the level of my emotional frequency.
He blinked, nervous almost. “Pardon me?”
“You heard me perfectly fine.”
We continued to walk the ways. There was nothing special about the upper levels; all the pavilions were closed, the small inset stores and shops, exercise centers and spas useless to us, useless in the night. No Entertainment Center was open, no lights flashed inside sound-proofed walls. It was just empty and serene and even though I thought it was beautiful, I would have given anything to return to my hammock in the ship’s bowels where others like me ate and slept and continued on a path toward death. At least there, among the blackened visors of the unseen, I could breathe.
“I’ve known many people who’ve spoken of heaven,” he said finally. But he was avoiding the question, the idea in itself. He could not lie outright. This, for some reason, meant the world to me. That the man standing before me with his white-hair and frail disposition and high office had known, intimately, one of us lowly workers, had taken the time to speak with one of us, had given us hope that there was some humanity left in our manufactured world. That we didn’t need a Planet X or Y or Z because the principles of old Earth, somehow, existed within us, even if latent.
“But you knew my father,” I pressed. And in Marly Hubert, I would find that old Earth just as my father had.
“Yes. I did,” he said finally. His breathing had grown heavy and he paused to rest against a polyurethane wall, the plastic slick and cold and inhuman. I chose not to touch it. Triumphant, I smiled beneath my headgear and he sensed it because his lips bowed upwards in a moment.
“He was a hard worker,” he said. And I could not tell if he was merely humoring me or if, indeed, he thought as much.
The reason I knew it was Marly Hubert before he introduced himself that night was because, long ago, my father said the man saved my life. That day of the kitchen accident, the day I had tripped headlong into a burner that I was supposed to refill with kryo-oil, he had been there exchanging heated words with my father’s overweight supervisor. Others had said my face was beyond help and were going to bring me across the bridge. I do not remember the day because I’d been unconscious but my father had told me of it. The story goes that Marly took my blistered face in his hands and said, ‘this beautiful girl will see a day when she doesn’t have to run the kitchens anymore.’ Everyone had fallen silent and he’d gathered me in his arms and had taken me to the hospital and even though they did not reconstruct my face, he had saved me. And, more than ten years after the accident, more than ten years of running tunnels and kitchen pod fires with my black helmet on, his prophecy had come true.
“I know,” I said. But my father was not, perhaps, as valiant as Marly Hubert, the person to which I owed my life. I wanted to ask him more questions now, demand his knowledge, absorb it. In his presence, I felt as though I’d risen, somehow, above the orchid bridge, and now operated, if briefly, on his plane. Still in the static light of the early morning hours, anxiety overwhelmed my nerves and my thoughts slipped, occasionally to the thought that if I remained inside, soon someone would arrive and demand why I was not minding the orchids.
“Are They punishing you?” I asked. For saving me? I finished to myself.
“Who?” A glazed look overcame his eyes and I gestured to the empty inside of the ship, the place that had become our world after our real one had fallen. Everything was fake, from the genetically modified food we ate to the artificial gravity that allowed us to walk about. Even some of the people here were more robot or plastic than human. Not me though.
“Them, the other Elites. The others like you. By not letting you cross,” I said.
He batted away my question and returned his hands to his knees as he supported himself against the wall where we had stopped. “It matters little,” he replied
“But not letting you go through even if you’re ready…It’s just not right. It’s in violation…” I tried to keep my voice from cracking. The filter had definitely broken. I’d need to see my supervisor. The implications of my statement were too far for me to handle. If there was one thing in this life, upon this ship that I knew we could choose, it was when to die. And maybe They wouldn’t let Marly Hubert go because he wasn’t ready.
He gazed at my black helmet with eyes so piercing I thought he could see straight through it.
“I need to go back to my post,” I said.
“It wasn’t your father’s choice to go just as it’s not my choice to stay,” he said. “It wasn’t Shelley’s either. My beautiful, dear Shelley.”
Ignoring the woman, I focused on the words he’d spoken of my father. “That’s not true.”
“You should be upset, you should be angry,” he continued, as if it was a sentiment he could just throw off his shoulder. “Angry about someone pacing the bridge before they’re ready. He was tired of life perhaps, but maybe the reason doesn’t even matter. All that’s important is that he did not intentionally abandon you.”
And in that moment, I could not have hated him more. My hands shook and I clenched them by my sides.
“It was intentional. He had a choice. And he chose to leave.”
But Marly Hubert did not stop and advanced toward me, hand outstretched, like a modern day grim reaper. “I’ve always thought, why walk toward death when you can race? The ending is all the same. Maybe They won’t let me because get on because They know I’m nervous that death isn’t what waits at the end of the tunnel but rather prolonged living. You know?”
I didn’t, I told him, even though my hands shook and my legs felt like jelly-cakes we ate on national holidays (like Survival Day) and my breath rasped out of my lungs. I really didn’t damn understand it. Why some people had to die and others were forced to live.
“We’ve lost our free will,” he finished. His final words crashed upon me like a hammer, shattered the years since my father’s death, years I head spent answering to every beck and call of my superiors, being obedient. All because inside I had smirked at them and said in the end, it wouldn’t matter what they told me to do.
I turned from him now, face flushed, grasped my spritzer and walked onto the bridge once more. Squeezing the bottle, I recalled the day my father had died, how he’d come to me and taken my hands and explained that he had to leave. He had taken my hands and smiled and said he needed to go onto a new adventure, a new place, that he’d applied to cross the bridge and they’d let him.
“It’s the first thing I got to choose for myself in a long time, Mica,” he’d said. “I’ll see you over there in heaven eventually.” And he hadn’t cried and even though I was meant to remain in the lower levels as he walked the path alone, I’d raced to the upper levels to watch my father pace, without assistance, without soldiers, a solitary soul, across the bridge and I knew he hadn’t been asked to leave but had chosen to for some reason. And there had been a power bequeathed to him for it in the end.
I heard the door slide open but I did not look to see Marly re-enter. I did, however, feel him place his hands on the metal railing. A vibration ran along the bar and knocked my elbow from where it rested. I heard him take a deep breath. I turned, in slow motion, watching, as he hoisted himself up onto the ledge. Below, the electricity grid crackled, pulling his weight belt towards it, edging him off and he knew, I knew, that one touch would vaporize him.
And he jumped and even though he didn’t go anywhere because at the last minute I grabbed his hand and pulled him back and saved his life, I will never forget that he jumped. That he chose, in that moment, something no one else had for him.
“Why,” I asked, through tears, still holding his hand, hoisting him up, “didn’t you ask me to jump with you?”
And he smiled, his eyes wet and said, “Because I, like your father, wanted to give you some form of simulated hope.”