Ironically Didier’s first win in months had coincided with a charity event run by the Fortress, the colony’s central force; the winner’s prize was a night at the opera: the pale, odious, stuccoed cake that one could glimpse at the end of the jetée, shimmering horridly even under starlight. He hated that structure, vomited out of misunderstood drawings of what remained from Paris’s archives, splattered out of one of the servers that had survived the Collapse.
His seat was of course way down the side, view barred by a fence gilded in some sort of golden aggregate: opera on the colony was synonymous with the elite, a front row seat facing the robotic orchestra worth an average ten years wage. On this particular Thursday, it was Wagner’s Fliegende Höllander, predictably replete with galactic connotations and delusions of grandeur. Didier’s thoughts started drifting, piecing together vague memories of Übermenschen and Germanic lore, morsels of romanticism failing to blossom in his cortex.
Little of that lore on the colony, populated by the army of mediocre shadows, Earth’s rejects embargoing days and years of revolve around the distant neighbour’s rings. His brain escaped the plastered décor and the bellowing grunts of the baritone: he suddenly noticed a figure in one of the side boxes. Red velvet curtains melted to frame him in angelic sublimation. Staring at him Didier recognized the impossibly chiselled face of R______, the governor’s secretary. Even from a considerable distance his eyes were beacons of cruelty, thin painted eyebrows raised in contempt, delirium only partially hidden by impeccable plastic features.
R’s grey-blue eyes caught Didier’s stare, and for an interminable second he felt as though petrified, his whole body suddenly starting to rattle of inexplicable tremor. R, especially in operatic attire, seemed to jump out of the early twentieth-century, or at least what Didier had read of it. The tight lapels of his frac so sharply and frigidly cut they somehow reeked of eroticism, his shirt so tight and white contrasting starkly with youthful blond curls.
It was murmured in the serpentine corridors of the Fortress that he was one of the MXs, Earth’s ultimate elite, the wondrous achievement of near-perfect androgyny and bimorphic experiments. No MX had been sent to Didier’s moon colony, for it was one of the lesser in the galaxy – an abandoned avant-post rusting at the threshold between a future that never was and the heavy relents of the past.
Yet he could easily believe that R belonged to that superior race: forever unflinched, unphased, and frozen in collagen like the caryatids of a forgotten dream. One consideration, however, interrupted Didier’s rêverie as he lustily stared at R., though this time refuging behind the darkness of his binoculars. R had placed his delicate, sinewy white hand on the hand of the android sat next to him. She, for without a doubt it was a she, was the strangest sight Didier had observed on the colony to date.
As beautiful as R was, it was the woman’s appearance that shook Didier: he suddenly felt wounded. An untenable poignancy hit him, mixed with an indefinable, strange sense of incantation: perhaps he fell in love. She was, he thought once more, an extraordinary creature. Her every being expressed sadness. As he focused his binoculars on her perfectly oval face he could almost smell the whiteness of the powder she wore. Her eyes were the lifeless organs of a doll, lacking movement yet surely designed by the finest craftsmen in the galaxy.
The heavy stage lights flamed on the string of pearls around her thin bird-like neck. She was wearing a black dress, a straight shoulder cut adorned with poseidonic lace. Her face and body were so very young, yet her posture eternal. Old age reeked from her every pore. Her face looked transfixed from the music, ecstatic. And yet not a strand of her black hair ever moved, her emotion held deep inside as if a secret from the Fortress.
Mould shadowed her eyes. Her face was composed of a kaleidoscopic assemblage of rotten substances, ancient pinks decaying into somberer purples. Her ballet dancer’s arms moved rhythmically to the tempo. And again her vacant stare, which expressed the sadness of the galaxy better than any pamphlet written by the anti-regime faction. As the sailor’s chorus echoed in the vast auditorium (Didier had done his research before attending the performance, scared that the merest sign of lack of knowledge would have him banned from the locale), she seemed to battle to escape R’s hand.
Cursing his poor binoculars for not allowing him to stare further, deeper in the soul of the android who loved the opera, he could only convince himself that what he had just seen was the flicker of a tear on her left cheek. She seemed to have given up, her hand just as inane as her eyes, her being forever imprisoned in the perfection of her design. He could not detach his stare from the sight of those dead eyes, the synthetic product of a distant marketplace.
Him usually so focused on his petty and miserable life and how it unfolded across the corridors of the universe…
…he was striving to recall the gossip he must have heard spoken so many times around the poker tables. R’s sexual inclination was predictably fickle: some swore that his troops of elegant show-piece androids were only the smokescreen to a grim institutional brothel populated by ruined toy pieces, loopy gigolos and entirely submissive pieces of metal, flesh only displayed for situations such as the present one.
The rigid pose of his hand signalled control rather than desire – and in fact R’s cruelty was known to all. Though off the principality’s radar the colony was still held with utter discipline, its rejects pushed even further in the galaxy, either on Saturn’s detention deserts or, if the faults were found to be graver, thrown against the scaffolded pillars of the new construction sites blossoming at the other side of the jetée. R had a habit of attending each and every execution: raised upon a throne on the sea his bejewelled hand would dictate the faith of the hooded men, shipping them onto the next inter-space gallion or activating the contraption that projected them with utter precision onto their final impalement.
No flying Dutchman had ever managed to escape such treatment, and many whispered that R’s trophy lovers sometimes ended in a similar manner, though dealt with after curfew, spectacle swapped for a more prosaic send-off. And indeed amongst the young androids often glitches were observed, as though they were but the reconstructed replicas of a bygone product. Journalists from the colony had tried delving into such stories, yet after M___, the most persistent, was found stranded out of the Silver Sea (‘thrown herself from the jetée’) and her newspaper the Voice of the Colony had been abruptly shut down, the whispers became even more inconsistent before vanishing into silence.
Meanwhile the singing never seemed to stop, a good two hours having gone by. Didier had kept his binoculars fixed on the beautiful android throughout. He remembered the mannequin he once found in an Antiquities hangar during one of his last inter-galactic travels. It looked so much like Meredith he had tried to bring it home, only for it to be confiscated by the principality’s border guards (for in this gloomy age iconoclasm was the rule and mimetic statues only allowed in the shadow of the Powers’ boudoirs).
The pale skin of the mannequin he found once more in the android, but as much as she resembled the doll, she was everything Meredith was not: composed, noble, and sad. Flashing in front of him came Meredith’s messy hair, her contagious deep laugh and her ratty cackle. The android, he imagined, spoke in a whisper, a shrill voice regulated on the pitch most sublime. Already he was dreaming of holding her hand, listening to her sad tales as they helter-skeltered the galaxy together.
This thought, of course, was blasphemy even if contained in the recesses of his psychotic mind. He must hide these obscene visions deep down in his soul, aware of how the psychiatrist’s scanners could pick them up at any point – and send him to the gallows. The death of a mediocre gambler was no fit subject for lyricism, and he had the distinct feeling the only thing that made her somewhat alive was the hyperbolic passion found in a libretto.
Flowers were one of the most sought-after currencies in the galaxy, their delicate petals inapt to resist the harsh moonlight: some laboratories, very few, had mastered the art of preserving real blooms (not these horrid synthetic variants that were sold by the kilogram) and they were held under crystal domes in the alcoves of the Fortress.
Irises were Didier’s favourite, memories of a time in the Neptune colony V.Y. when he would receive celluloid messages from Meredith and Earth, a vase full of white irises always half-hidden in the shadow of her mantelpiece. In vain he had asked his doctor friend René to steal one from the Fortress, to which he had intermittent access. Not that the Frenchman would not have done the deed for him: irises, it seemed, were too brittle even for the dimmed lasers hitting the alcoves.
His quest for the iris had surged from an anxious dream that kept haunting his sleepless nights. Meredith walked along the jetée trying to reach for the glistening flowers at its end, yet never succeeding to. He had concluded, back then, that if he were capable of bringing one beneath her grave-screen some sense of guilt surrounding her death would escape with those dreams. Or at least that was the psychiatrist’s opinion when Didier recounted his nocturnal visions.
Now, Wagner still resonated glacially in the amphitheatre, but he was consumed by the need of crowning the melancholic android with real irises. And then she would let the flowers die and forever wear them as an eternal memento mori.
Angelic was the vision in his head. The idea of authentic cellulose, of petals not made of polymer aggregates caressing her wired blue veins was hauntingly apt to harass him in the following days, and weeks, and months, as he went back to his daily occupations and sombrely gazed across the green tables and the token piles, through the windows towards the ever-mounting tidal waves.
The ethereal gas waves had always fascinated Didier, for he conceived them as the most intricate design, fabrication knitted into almost-nothingness. In his mind dying flowers were suddenly falling amidst the foam, shrouding R’s companion in the most solemn tableau.
Months had passed before he briefly saw her again. Weeks prior to the parade, he had discovered her name. Andréide, an exquisitely ironic patronymic chosen by her despotic owner. Bimorphic and MX-like was her name, but for Didier she embodied the ultimate avatar of femininity: images of her pale grey and purple cheeks, thinly painted eyebrows like faint memories of Earths 1930s, increasingly occupying more spaces in his drawings and his dreams until, one day, he stopped sketching anything other than his memory of the android who loved opera.
Paranoid as he was he could not approach his new obsession by conventional means, and of course he was well aware of the true dangers of letting slip even the faintest glimpse of interest in R and his puppets. As she was commonly referred to as A, no one but a small group of Fortress initiates knew her full name: by chance, or what he would like to believe was lunar destiny (or lunatic parody), René had once been reporting stories from the Fortress as they were drinking dark prohibited liquids in a seedy néo-brasserie in the outskirts of the colony – not too far from the jetée.
Due to a sudden death in the higher echelons of the Fortress he had been called to duty for about two weeks, as one particular operation the surgeon had initiated required skills that few of his medical engineering colleagues and none on the surface of the colony at the time of the procedure could have performed.
Because of these peculiar conditions the Fortress had closed an eye on René’s opaque past and current anti-depressant abuse: most of all on his drinking, which though sometimes reaching the point of utter unravelling never had his fingers shake as he held the electro-scalpels.
Didier was vaguely listening to the doctor’s rambles when René, three empty bottles next to him, started divulging details on the operation he had performed on this subject, Andréide. He would have been thrown to the detention deserts by R himself for revealing her name to an inferior, though he spoke it in a murmur as he thought Didier still revelling in some forgotten memory of Meredith, more a ghost at the table than a party in dialogue. But as he spoke her name, which echoed metallically in the gamer’s ears Didier’s body went through a sudden, if at first unnoticeable change. Tensely drawn towards his friend’s meagre face he had already seen the portrait associated with that most tragic name.
To René he asked if she was wearing a string of pearls, no more. As his friend nodded he thought of her punctured lithium lungs and had horrific visions of R’s treatment of her slender, emaciated body. Anger started to contract his facial muscles, slowly at first, gradually more violently to the point that to anybody looking they would have appeared electrode-operated: though of course René was far too inebriated to notice the glitches in his friend’s otherwise grim and composed demeanour.
Didier went home through the misty artificial canals, an eye forever fixed on the Moon’s craters, thinking of his own failing lungs and flowers covering pieces of metal laid under a crisp black sheet in the DeepTown morgue. Mournful and more anxious than ever his hand was instinctively caressing the brick walls as he walked and walked back to his aseptic residence. That morning his alarm clock rang four hours too early: an uncommon deficiency of the fuses, yet another ominous sign hovering around his all too uncertain reality.
In the fourth month of lunar revolve he had been commanded to join the memorial parade for the fallen of Neptune V.Y. Names were always taken at random amongst the veterans who could still play the portable organ up to five notes, if not with decency in a mockery of what was once the finest instrument of the galaxy. A gloomy march of dozens of figures clad in blue hoods walked towards the sea where the elite of the Fortress was splendidly aligned in matching silver veils.
Next to R, there, she was: Andréide. Her hands made greyer by the light of the day, skin devoid of any luminosity clashing against the somewhat joyful liquid aluminium of her attire. R’s hands were forcefully holding hers. From a distance Didier could only guess her ruby ring to be, perhaps, sign of a future union with her cruel companion. R of course, like all his political counterparts, had a real-flesh wife somewhere on another colony, to pose for stilted portraits in regime pamphlets, though as of yet he had not chosen an official mistress.
That night and countless that followed his mind kept conjuring ruby rings in his dream; often distorted into the hostile eyes of half-completed monsters, memories from the games he used to play, decades prior, in the blissful and mundane days of Earth.
In the windowless ghettos of the moon colony the youth spent days and nights playing with an odd trophy of Earth: a basketball. Targets made of synthetic rope ran in lines for miles, one every six feet perpendicularly arrayed in the vast outside space of the colony’s biggest council estate. Never-ending on the soundscape of the solitary expanse was the bouncing ball, metonymic of the youth’s desire to find ludic escapes, the meaning of which they could not fully grasp.
Out of scorn perhaps, the Powers had decided to organise a basketball tournament, the mechanisms of which were however far less humane than its bygone earthly equivalents: rather than played in a team the game was a two persons affair, somewhat similar to the dirtier roulette fights played in even more neglected corners of the galaxy. While poker belonged to a nether-middleclass basketball was the signifier of poverty. The tournament was to be played in the bleak mornings of September, in a mock-up recreation of the council set embedded this one extraordinary time within stately palaces. One could only win the game out of sheer exhaustion from the adversary, as games would last an average of a day, a night and, for the finest specimen, yet another gormless day.
The game was inhumane to any physique that was not designed for such purpose and clock-worked into paranormal efficiency. Yet the prospect of a win was still enough to lure countless shadow youths to their deaths in the unrealistic hope of winning the equally unrealistic prize of an upgrade to the upper middleclass plaster-gated communities that one could see from the other end of the jetée.
Didier had become aware of this lugubrious joke sport when he was swallowing his melancholic dreams once more in the company of René. This time René blabbered of the curious case of an estate kid who came to him requesting a rather unethical leg extension, in the deluded hope of beating the government’s grim tournament. Sketchy as ever, René had accepted, though perhaps out of a truly rebellious impetus, for the kid could not dream of paying the surgeon (despite his faults René had skyrocketed to the galaxy’s elite through his procedures on A). The operation details Didier could not digest without having to run to the pissoirs to vomit his guts. What would Meredith have said? Who could be mad enough to undergo a transformation of more than half of body tissues into iron cogs…
René admitted that the kid’s brain functions, already bordering on the lower spectrum, had collapsed entirely. The kid was a machine in whose head the only running theme was victory. Truly he believed he would have no competition in the long mornings and sunsets of governmental basketball. Still agile despite the amount of ironwork, he spent weeks and weeks rehearsing for the main event in the surrounds of the estate. Even his former friends were too scared to dare challenge him to a game. None could utter the word game to him anymore, as the risk of being thrown to paralysis onto the barbed fence of the estate was too real.
On and on he went day and night, sleeping an average of twenty minutes while the internal machinery, of course cheap contraband provided by one of René’s sketchier Frenchmen – the Marseillais they called him in reference to some half-forgotten films from Earth – was slowly but surely rotting within.
As you know already, opera was one of the only music genres that had survived the collapse; of Earth’s infinite musical production nearly nothing remained; there were old men across the galaxies singing old tunes from memory though these were illegal and the brave musicians would often fall in the gallows, guilty of unruly nostalgia. Another genre of music had unexpectedly survived however, brought across the galaxy by some of the Powers and subsequently bellowed through high-potency speakers in prisons and estates on diabolical loops. Oi! music it was called, and it paralleled the colony’s political core, a derivative of right-wing skinheads and societal enemies. Songs of abysmal intellectual poverty, often akin to hooligan anthems, these were the only official alternative to opera, which in any case nearly nobody on the colony could afford. Only on special occasions would Wagner be heard outside of the palaces and the stuccoed music-hall. A demented sound designer appointed by the Powers had overlaid some of the arias on tunes from Cockney Rejects that the youth of the outskirts was used to hear everyday.
The basketball kid had been given the permission to train to these medleys though only in a designated hall far, far from his abode and only under the invigilating eyes of R who had taken a perverse liking for the boy. Indeed post-operation he had grown more similar to R’s metallic gigolos, though his poor upbringing gave him an edge that R could not possibly find in the elegant eyes of neither Andréide nor any of her artificial siblings.
Didier heard the monotonous rattle of the inter-galactic train, its rhythm like a clockwork machine of old, hissing louder while approaching the abandoned station. The whistling tyres of a nearby vehicle had the same hypnotic effect on Didier, whose thoughts soon began to drift. Instead of visions of Meredith or of the sad android A., which composed by far the largest chunk of the furniture of his psyche, his mind was drawn to images he had seen a few days prior, glued in a kaleidoscopic array to the humongous billboards of the outer Drive. The deserts of Io, bathed in a milky, malevolent light, as if drained even of tone. Somehow, the forlorn image had stuck with him and had slowly morphed from a tourist-spot (reserved solely to the Elite) to a paragon of melancholy. Meteorology had always fascinated him, especially in its quixotic extremes: wastes and icy lands and volcanoes and sudden storms. For years he had wished to be sent to the lighthouse of the Scarlet Land, a lone building standing on a barren promontory covered in moss. To watch over the fate of ships, those relics of a bygone age, would fit him, so entangled as he was to the presence of the past. Suddenly he recalled a passage from Wagner’s Flying Dutchman that was to haunt him for the rest of the day.
He had chosen the station, for it was one of the few spaces that did not seem to affect his fragile moods, rather pleasing him with its orderly schedules and operatic sounds. The passage of people did not disturb him. They became mere morsels, shadows speckled in time. Those who had to resort to the train were the most miserable of beings, forced to stand hours long in the furnace of the locomotives. To reduce expenses, these trains were seatless, mere hollow shells of iron rustling under the gases of the atmosphere. And yet, these structures appealed to Didier, often reminding him of their cronies back on Earth. Sometimes he would come to the station in the middle of the night, sitting for hours on a wooden bench under the starless skies of late summer. An unpleasant sound suddenly interrupted his reveries; turning slightly, he glimpsed a man’s fist pushing through the train’s brittle glass window. Shattered glass leapt out of the train towards him, bouncing slowly and against gravity, a jigsaw of debris stuck in the air for what seemed like eternity.
Didier could not see the face of the culprit, yet he guessed the extent of his desperation, for to deface an object in the colony could send one to the gallows. And indeed as the train halted he heard the whistle of the policeman and the cries of his hounds. There was a poetic tinge to the ephemeral result of such rash action, and the shattered shards remained in Didier’s mind long, long after he had left the silent station.
As he walked back to his house he could sense the sadness of the whole colony, as if the ground and the architecture and the shadows of its inhabitants were collectively weeping in silence. Moved by this thought, Didier could not fathom the idea of home any longer, and decided to pay a visit to René, whose high-end high-rise stood not far from where his steps had taken him, in the Citadel district. The tower was made of basalt and stood ninety-seven stories high, a menacing black block whose only decorative element was an old brass elevator. The elevator was a room in itself, with four fold-up seats and a gloomy attendant in white uniform. Didier looked in wonder at the digits running with rapturous frenzy from 0 to 43. René lived in the lower half of the high-rise, reserved to allies of the Powers not deemed worthy of the celestial vistas that unfolded above. Didier knocked repeatedly at the Frenchman’s door, sure that he had heard a mirthless laugh coming from the flat. After knocking in vain at two minutes intervals, he sighed and rushed back to the elevator. The carpet under his feet was an odd shade of ivory and hushed his steps fully. Taken by a sudden impulse he decided to avoid the glum sight of the attendant and instead attempt to take the stairs in the back of the tower. Destined to service and emergencies, the flights of steps were made of raw concrete, a material scorned by the finer architects of the colony. He did not stop once, despite his breath running short, and eventually unlocked the gate leading to the refuse area.
And there, piled upon the trash, unavoidable even in the crepuscular light, lied a corpse. Murders on the colony were rare, and proofs of such deeds even more so. And yet, oddly, the sight seemed almost natural to Didier. Cautiously approaching the body, he saw that it was without a doubt one of R.’s androids. Silver joints instead of muscles, riveted plaques running out of its smashed head. The body had been bashed with such violence that the traits of the MX were utterly effaced. Didier could see by its height, however, that it was not his beloved. He sighed in relief. He then noticed that the victim was shrouded in a strange, liquid plastic substance, which glistened from time to time as the security lamps slowly followed their course.
It was then that Didier heard that mirthless laughter again, and soon after a bird cawing, surely a raven. Ravens however were not often to be seen on the seaside, for the seagulls attacked them relentlessly. Even stranger, despite hearing repeated sounds, as if the bird stood just above his head, there was no animal in sight.
The clothes on the corpse seemed, for lack of a better term, mauled. Finally Didier noticed the repellent stank of the rubbish bags, and resolved to abandon the unknown victim to the care of the next bystander. Deeply unsettled, he left the Citadel at once.