Satellite Nights, by Mithran Somasundrum

SFReader 2002 Story Contest
First Place Winner

I don’t sleep anymore, thought Lange, and wondered if he ever had. Opposite his bed, evil crimson digits read “02:15.” Another sterile night stretched out.

It was always in summer. Those slow evenings when the city seemed to sigh and loosen itself. The streets would fill with people strolling; people with places to go and friends to meet. Something under Lange’s skin would start to itch. He’d come home to a house filled with dark, hot silences. There were too many empty rooms. He’d wander from one to another, unsatisfied. When in bed, life outside the walls would whisper in his ear and pull at his sleeve, and sleep would become even more elusive.

I need a change, thought Lange, that’s what the problem is. It felt as though he’d been at Celcis Software forever. The same cubicle with the same window view. Surely the rest of the world didn’t grind on like this? I should ask for a secondment, Lange thought, as he rode his flyer to work the next morning.

Lange always had lunch with Richardson. They always sat at the same table, next to a pillar, in the large echoing dining hall.

“Do you ever wonder what the point is?” Lange asked.

Richardson blinked, “Of what?”

“I mean,” said Lange, “we come into work, right? And then we go home again. How long have you been doing this for Celcis?” Lange waved his fork, “I just get the feeling sometimes that things are being done elsewhere.”

Richardson was frowning at his lasagna. He’ll never get it, Lange decided, but propelled by his need to think out loud, he continued, “I’ve been meaning to put in for a secondment. If I go somewhere new, things might be different.”

“Where would that be?” Richardson asked.

Not meeting his eyes, Lange said, “Perhaps the Satellites. After all, they’re farthest from Earth.” Lange waited, but there were no sly comments about robot sex, no clumsy innuendoes. Good old Richardson.

Instead, after they’d pushed in their chairs and left the table, Richardson said, “Come to think of it, I don’t know how long I’ve been at Celcis.”

***


L
ange made an appointment with Crompton, his Section Manager, and later that week pushed open the door of Crompton’s 50th floor office. He stepped into a hushed, light-filled space as large as ten programming cubicles. One whole wall consisted entirely of bookshelves. There was a sofa and a drinks cabinet and turning silently in mid-air, a small light sculpture. The far wall was all glass and Crompton sat writing at his desk with the sky behind him. The only sound was the scratch of Crompton’s pen nib. This was a measure of the man’s power: he had no computer.

Lange approached and coughed into his hand.

“What is it?” asked Crompton, without raising his head.

“It’s Lange, sir.” He paused, but it was clear Crompton wasn’t going to put his work aside. “I wanted to discuss taking a secondment. Well, not discuss so much. I wanted to take one.” Lange stared at Crompton’s bald patch and wondered if he was going about things the right way.

“I’ve been at Celcis a long time now, since…” how long had it been? In Crompton’s sky-bound office, Lange felt slow-witted. He couldn’t remember when he’d arrived.

“I feel as though I’m in a rut,” he told the bald patch. “Every day I seem to do the same things.”

“Why would that matter to you?” The Section Manager was looking up.

“It seems like I’m missing out,” said Lange. “That’s the feeling I get.”

Crompton gave a sigh. “Where did you want to go?”

“Actually, I was thinking of the Satellites,” Lange replied, trying to sound clinical and academic.

Crompton said nothing.

“Because they’re the farthest from Earth,” Lange added. The spectre of robot sex stood at the desk, grinning at them.

Crompton snapped the cap onto his fountain pen. “If this is what you really want, you can take a year. Go and see personnel tomorrow. I’ll send them a chit.”

That appeared to be the end of it, so Lange thanked the man and left. What I really want, he thought.

***

The most striking thing about the Satellites was the speed at which they’d grown. Hovering over Newton City, it seemed as though someone had taken a handful of the past and slammed it into the future. Looking down, Lange saw 100-floor skyscrapers generating their own anti-gravitation fields and, clustered at their feet, shacks made of corrugated iron. Roads thick with combustion vehicles lay tangled around sleek, glass-fronted architecture. In Lange’s office he was on-line to Inter-Sat. He could contact any hyper-link in the colonized universe, and yet parts of Newton City had neither electricity nor running water. The city seemed to be illuminated at sky level only; the lights of the hover-jets, the neon sky signs, the phosphorescent landing pads. When Lange looked down, ground level was an area of darkness.

Lange had read up on the Satellites before he left. Celcis had an official guide, full of exclamation marks and italicized words. “Of course, they’re really planets! That’s why here at Celcis we don’t use the term “Satellites.” We call them the Outer Territories. Or if you want to sound like an old hand, you can call them the O.T.s!” With lumbering attempts at humor, it skirted uneasily around the subject of robot-sex. “Many people come to the O.T.s for their well known night-life. Of course, that’s tourists-not those of you working for Celcis!”

In the office, people were more direct.

“I suppose you’re here for the robots?” asked Philpott. He was a sharply-dressed young man with a plain, angular face, who worked three cubicles down from Lange.

“I’m just here to get away from Earth,” said Lange. “I’m looking for something new.”

Philpott snorted, “Well that’s the robots out. They’re not new, they’re B.C.”

“B.C.?”

“Before Celcis. They were here back in the old days, when the Satellites were wet-mining planets. You knew about that, did you?”

“I read something about it in the guide. Now they can’t take anymore water…”

“Right, because it’ll throw off the wossname, the ecology. So now it’s manufacturing, isn’t it? It’s factories and markets. Anyway, that’s where the robots come from-the old days. Wet-mining planets are almost all male. You can’t go a whole year and not get your end away.” Philpott checked his watch and then began packing his things.

“Well, I’m done. I suppose it was an inducement in a way, wasn’t it? Seeing how it’s illegal on Earth.”

“Androids are illegal on Earth?” asked Lange, surprised.

Philpott was looking at him strangely. “For sex, Lange. They’re illegal for sex.”

In that first conversation something had apparently struck Philpott. He seemed to think it would be good for Lange to visit a robot alley.

“You should check it out, Lange, you don’t know what you’re missing.” This became his regular Friday evening suggestion. Then he’d put his hands in his pockets and grin around the room, encouraging people to agree with him.

“Lange should give it a go, eh? Find out what the Satellites are all about.”

Lange would feel he was the butt of an unseen joke, but would always smile to show he was willing to play along.

***

Gradually weeks passed into months and Lange settled into a working rhythm. He had his projects labeled on the year planner above his desk and his monthly meetings entered into the organizer on his wrist. He arrived on time and never extended his lunch break. The only thing Lange regretted was the absence of someone like Richardson. You could think out loud with Richardson, even if he didn’t always get the point.

At the Newton City office there was no one similar. Everyone seemed nervy and slightly impatient; perhaps, thought Lange, because they were all just passing through. ‘Seconders’ only had a short time to impress. The most outgoing person in the office was Philpott, but Lange found him tiring to be with. Whenever they spoke, Philpott seemed full of a suppressed hilarity; as though he was waiting for Lange to deliver a punch line.

Lange ate lunch alone.

Because the city still had very few flight paths, they were always jammed in rush hour. The result was that everyone worked flexi-time. Most of the building came into work before eight o’clock, and the rest at half-past ten. Lange was surrounded by early-birds. At four there’d be the whine of computers shutting down and then the room would darken as desk lamps were switched off. By five Lange would be sitting in near-silence, thinking about the robots.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to visit a robot alley? For one thing, he’d have a story to take back to Richardson; for another, to have gone to an alley in secret would put him beyond Philpott’s jokes.

***

Late on a Friday evening, Lange hovered to the edge of the commercial district and then docked. He took a lift down to the sidewalk and stepping out, was assaulted by the fury of life on the ground. The grinding gears and screaming acceleration of the combustion vehicles lent the roads a sense of hysteria. Everyone seemed desperate to be somewhere else. There were no street lights and in the darkness, the city seemed like a giant underground cavern. The people on the street had the furtiveness and restless energy of underground creatures. They scurried between the food stalls and the shacks that were both homes and workshops. Everyone was busy making or selling something. How did they survive down here? Lange wondered.

The ‘alley’, when he came to it, was a tangle of narrow lanes, with go-go bars standing side by side. A confusion of neon lit the night with the likes of Safari, Kings Castle, Love Boat, Love Shack, Love Sat…. Dance music insinuated out of doorways like a beckoning finger. Lange entered one lane and maneuvered his way through the press of bodies. As he did so, he looked into the bars and occasionally caught glimpses of the robots. It was true what they said, he thought. You couldn’t tell an android from the real thing.

The dancers wore either bikinis or high-cut one-piece swimsuits. They were all beautiful. Each face was different and when Lange’s eye searched for a flaw in any of them, he was unable to find it. Balancing on high-heels, they moved to the music with expressions of android remoteness. The aura of sex surrounded them, crackling in the air like static. When Lange caught the eye of a dancer, it was as though an electric charge had leapt between them.

Lange returned to his hover-jet feeling unsatisfied. Well now I’ve been down a robot alley, he thought. He told himself he’d paid off an obligation to the city; he’d responded to its most famous attraction. That’s that over with. But on the ride home Lange knew it wasn’t an end. Just a beginning.

***

The bottle in Lange’s hand was almost empty. He had a three-beer rule for the go-go bars and was close to the end of his third. But still he didn’t feel like going home. It’s Friday night, he thought. After all.

Lange had taken to stopping at the alley almost once a week; each time picking a bar at random. He’d learnt soon that it made no difference-they were all the same. The same music, the same beer, the same sweet-faced, expressionless dancers. Lange visited them all, but still felt something eluding him. Walking past open doorways he’d look at the girls under the neon and feel he was standing at the edge of a wild and riotous party. But then when he entered, it was like stepping into a vacuum. In the darkness, the drinkers sat apart from each other and didn’t communicate. Lange was isolated by the stale, empty space around him.

“Want to buy a drink for me?” asked a voice at Lange’s elbow. It was an android in a pale green bikini.

“Right,” said Lange, without turning. It was tacitly assumed that customers would buy the androids drinks. This helped to keep the price of the beer low.

“You want to go with me?” asked the dancer, after she’d received a glass of coke. Lange shook his head and tapped the side of his almost empty bottle.

“I’m only here for this,” he said.

“Then why don’t you take it home with you?”

Surprised, Lange twisted around. He found himself looking at a pale heart-shaped face, framed by jet-black hair. The android had a small, pert nose, full pouting lips; her brown eyes returned Lange’s gaze with a direct and incurious stare.

“Well it’s not the beer so much,” said Lange. “It’s the whole atmosphere thing.”

Something seemed to flicker in the android’s eyes. She looked briefly amused.

“My name’s Gina,” she said and held out her hand. Lange hesitated for a moment and then shook it.

“I’ve been watching you,” she said. “You know, you think too much. This isn’t a place for thinking. It’s a place for fun.”

“It’s fun sitting here,” said Lange.

Gina’s hand slipped under his T-shirt and ran across his chest like a spider.

“But we can have a lot more fun together.” Just then androids began stepping down from the bar. “I’ve got to dance now. But wait for me, okay?” Lange watched her climb up and wondered, what must it be like to live according to a program? To ask the same questions every night?

The music started and Gina began to move. Wearily shuffling her feet, she could barely be described as dancing. Lange drained his third bottle and felt sorry for her. An alcohol-flavored pity welled up inside him. The music thumped, its low baseline vibrating the walls.

Lange could feel the night pushing him in a certain direction. He called for another beer and gave himself up to the bars’ logic.

When the dancers next changed over, Gina came back. Lange asked her how much and she told him an inexpensive price. “I’m game,” said Lange and started on his fourth beer, while the android went to get changed.

Gina came back wearing black silk trousers and a white cotton shirt. Taking Lange’s hand, she lead the way out of the bar. Outside, Lange had expected to take his hover jet, but instead they walked and one block from the alley, came to the Orchid Guesthouse.

When the glass doors of the lobby closed behind him, they cut out the street noise completely. The silence had a sobering effect. Why am I doing this? thought Lange. But it was too late in the night for him to do anything else. He pressed for the virtual receptionist and gave his credit card number to the ubiquitous smiling blonde.

The room was spare, clean and functional, like a private bed in a hospital. Gina suggested Lange take a shower, and when he came back she was sitting on the bed, naked, watching the holo-vision. Robot-sex, thought Lange and found he was strangely unmoved by the idea.

Unable to do anything else, Gina half-heartedly gave him a massage and said, “Next time you should drink less.”

***

Lange needed to talk to someone, but unfortunately there was only Philpott.

“So what actually goes on in these robot allies then?” Lange asked, trying to approach things sideways.

“Eh, eh, Lange’s getting interested is he?”

“I’m just, you know . . . it’s what they all talk about, isn’t it?”

“Listen to him!” Philpott told the tea room, “Lange’s ‘Game On’ for a visit.”

“Have you ever been to one?” Lange asked.

Before Philpott could reply, someone said, “And risk getting it from Alison?”

“So you’re married?” said Lange.

Philpott was staring down at the table, as though caught lying.

“Is your wife in Newton City?”

“Different building,” said Philpott.

“I suppose she wouldn’t like you in an alley at all?”

“As if! You should listen to her. I said once, look, d’you think I want to come home and screw the toaster?”

Someone snorted and Philpott said, “Not that I’ve got anything against robots, personally.”

Lange didn’t try asking Philpott again. Instead he sent hyper-link messages to Richardson. Things are different here, he wrote. I’ve changed all of my circumstances. He would have liked to mention the robots, but he knew managers at head office could monitor the line. Crompton wouldn’t be amused.

You can alter your life in the Satellites by quite a lot, Lange wrote. You can be close to many other people. Almost intimate.

He continued to visit the alley, and walking deeper into the maze, found curtained doorways. Signs beside them shouted TOPLESS and BOTTOMLESS. Lange thought of unattached legs and torsos. Android spare parts.

Despite visiting other places, he only ever paid for Gina. She was a puzzle he couldn’t quite solve. Even though she was an android, she seemed to have moods and opinions, and sometimes she said the strangest things. Once as they’d been on their way out, Lange had caught her looking back into the bar, smiling.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Like you,” said Gina. “All of them. They always come here, but I don’t know why.” Then she took his hand and walked out.

“Like me how?” Lange had asked, “You mean programmers?” But Gina had laughed and refused to answer.

Sometimes when they got into bed, Lange would try to talk.

“Tell me about being an android.”

Invariably, Gina would cup his face in her hands and say, “It’s however you imagine it to be.”

They never seemed to move on from this.

“That’s no answer.”

“Lange, what do you want?”

“I want to know how it feels to be you. I want to know how you go about being you.”

“Lange believe this, because it’s true: there’s nothing I could say that would make sense.”

She was right after all, he’d sigh to himself. As an android, what could she tell him?

And yet at other times, it seemed her being an android was the whole point. She was standing on the other side of an uncrossable border, looking at him with the eyes of a machine. Lange felt that if Gina could find words to explain her own life, she could also explain his.

***

Eventually Philpott’s secondment finished and Lange’s floor held the usual leaving bash. People drank cheap wine from plastic cups and told Pilpott he’d improved his chances of promotion. Soon, they said, he’d be a Section Manager. It was the blessing seconders always gave each other: something on your CV, a step up the ladder. Lange had heard it all before, but believed none of it. He knew-without knowing why-that he’d never be management material.

Philpott grew red-faced with the wine and went around slapping people on the back, promising to keep in touch.

“And how’s Lange doing?” he asked, rocking backwards slightly. “You know, I was just joking about the robot allies and all that. No offence meant.”

“None with me,” said Lange.

That evening, riding his flyer back home, Lange had thought about the time that was left to him. How should he spend it?

Instead of taking the direct route, he arced out to the Western edge of the city and then cut back inside. He watched as dark slums gave way to the lights of the commercial district. Often the rides back home were the best of times. Outside the Orchid Guesthouse there was always too much heat and noise to think clearly. Meanwhile, in bed with Gina there’d be a brief moment of mindlessness and then unquiet life would come back to him. But at night, in an air-conditioned flyer, the city had a calm, severe beauty. Office blocks glittered like secrets and from high above, a flight path became a necklace of lights. At times like this Lange could almost understand Newton City.

Like you, Gina had said, and when Lange remembered this he felt he should be content. It’s what men do, he thought. They drink in bars like these, they sleep with women like Gina. On Earth he’d never felt a part of society, but here on the Satellites, for a small investment of time and money you could have a lifestyle.

As Lange docked into the hover-port, he realized the itch was still under his skin and that it would never go away; that he could only fight it to a draw. The most he could do was continue visiting Gina in secret and know that at least he was living a life no one would expect. He wasn’t Lange the Salaryman after all.

Though what was he instead?

***

Lange stood looking out of the window as he buttoned up his shirt, his reflection haunting the city. He had three days left on the Satellites. It would be his last visit to the Orchid Guesthouse. Outside in the darkness, frantic underground life continued. Combustion vehicles raced in silence. When he turned round, Gina was standing in front of the mirror in her bra and panties, brushing her hair. Lange was on the edge of knowing something. He watched as she buttoned up her blouse and stepped into her jeans, and then realized he’d known it all along, somewhere deep inside.

“You’re not a android,” he said.

Gina sighed. “Everyone is what they are, Lange. You can’t do anything about it.”

“But I’m not talking about everyone, I’m talking about you. It’s true isn’t it? You’re not a android.”

“One of us is.” She picked up her purse and stalked out of the room.

Riding back to his apartment, Lange thought of the Newton City slums-dark clusters of metal huddled around the skyscrapers. Why build androids when people were cheaper? It had probably been like this since the wet-mining days. You couldn’t go a whole year and not get your end away. No one had to design the poor; they were already up to spec. Why didn’t I see it before? wondered Lange.

The next day the travel company sent a courtesy flyer to his apartment and sitting in the back, Lange watched the city sprawl out beneath him. It lost its beauty in daylight. A diffuse layer of smog hung below the flight paths and under it Lange could sense the tired mechanical lives of the city’s ground dwellers.

They left behind the skyscrapers of the commercial district. Lange looked down on wooden shacks at the banks of a dried-up river. His mind flicked through memories like scenes in an album: the hot neon of the bars, the girls in doorways, Gina wrapped in a towel, framed by a wedge of light from the bathroom.

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