Science fiction and fantasy
Fear of Man
by Ros Jackson
I think about the days just after the change, to cheer myself up. It was a good time when anything seemed possible. My new body allowed me to work in space, in submarines, or in the fire service. It took me fifty minutes to land my new job as an astrotechnician. I direct and service small shuttles around the Earth's orbit which mop up all the space debris. Some people tell me they envy the fantastic view, but it's lonely up there. The work is not exactly challenging either. Basically I'm a jumped-up garbageman.
There's more than just garbage up there, though. Only yesterday I was working at the same altitude as the wreck of the Cassiopeia. It's spread fairly thinly now, but I still managed to pick up two or three bits worth smuggling back down. We're not supposed to check the refuse, but most astrotechs do. Even though it was only thirteen years ago, souvenirs of that accident are worth a fair bit.
Because my job is low skilled, the wages are nothing to write across the sky. It's less than I earned at the power plant, in spite of the space worker's danger premium. Half of it went on my debt to the clinic, so I moved to a smaller apartment. After three months I moved again and sold my dog. In the early hours of this morning I came here.
I'm bursting for a pee. I don't expect they'll let me out to visit a toilet if they won't even open the cube to feed me. I've got to go. At least if I do it now whilst nobody's watching, I'll have a scrap of dignity left. I turn away from the the lab door and unzip my fly.
As I watch the yellow liquid pooling on the floor something occurs to me. The floor is solid, but the walls are porous and it is slowly sinking through.
I zip up, and collect what's left of the urine in my hands. The generators are less than a metre from the cell walls. Maybe I can get the circuits wet? I have to at least try, ridiculous though it seems. Pressing my cupped hands to the wall in front of one of the machines, I breathe deeply. Then I close my eyes and blow hard. It's so noisy I'm sure they'll hear. Some gets through the wall, but hardly a drop reaches the machine. I scoop up some more and try again. Nada. I have no chance of short-circuiting it from inside this box.
My situation is hopeless whichever way I look at it. I slump down and stare at the ceiling. The contraption above me stares back. I feel better knowing it's not a camera. There are cobwebs in the corners, as well as a smoke detector and some sprinklers. If only I could set off the sprinkler system! From in here, though, escape seems impossible.
I feel a broad grin spreading across my face, and reach for my foot. Of course! Sure enough it's still there, under my insole, one of those paper souvenir matchboxes, compliments of the doomed Startours Cruises. I remove my shirt. It's cotton, although there's a bit more fabric than I want to burn. I rip it in half. The first match lights easily, but the shirt doesn't. I need something more flammable. Finding a tissue in my pocket, I light it. I hold the shirt over it until it catches. It doesn't burn well, but there's plenty of smoke and that's what I want. I take a huge gulp of air in. Smoke stings my eyes. Soon there's smoke everywhere, so I drop to the floor and leave the shirt to smoulder. I can't see the top of the cube. I have no idea if any smoke is escaping at all. At some point I'll have to take another breath.
Outside it is quiet as the grave. I exhale slowly, my lungs burning. This was a stupid idea, and now I'm going to suffocate. I sip what's left of the clean air, counting in my head. At fifteen the shrill beep of the alarm sounds. I can see the sprinklers going. Perhaps they won't be enough to short out the particle wave gizmos? I can feel the panic rising. I have to escape, I can't breathe!
The wall in front flickers. Some of the smoke escapes. There`s a spark and a crackle, and the walls disapppear. Gasping, I leap forward. I run through a corridor. Turning a corner I find a group of people evacuating that way. I run the other way - in here they'd recognise a stranger instantly. I find a window, thinking that I might be able to jump out. It's no good, I'm on the sixth floor. But there's a lift further down the corridor. I gamble that they're good citizens who won't take the lift when there's a fire in the building. I'm right, and I go to the first floor, praying that I don't meet anyone when I get there.
As I step out Peters and Cerise are leaving a nearby room, each holding sheaves of papers. Cerise spots me and drops her pile. Peters gives chase. I have a head start, and he's no match for me anyway. I plunge through a closed window, trying to hit the ground rolling whilst shards of glass dig into me. Within seconds I'm over the fence and on the streets. They won't dare shoot me down on a public road, but I don't stop running. I run down the street bleeding and shirtless, not caring what anyone thinks.
I'm standing in my own flat now, holding a fly poster I've torn from a wall in the street below. It reads :
Looking at this rain-spattered scrap of propaganda brings back my escape four months ago, and the sickening unease that followed it.
I remember how I ran all the way home that day, twelve miles through rush-hour London. Incredibly nobody stopped me. Perhaps once the bleeding had stopped I looked like just another jogger. I have never felt so terrified. I had to report my credit cards stolen in order to get hold of new ones. Obviously I couldn't say anything to the police, so I lied and told them I thought it had been a pickpocket. I knew I'd never see my possessions again.
Since my ordeal nothing new has come of it. I have begun to believe that the Organics Alliance won't go to the police. I have to assume that they have as much to lose as I do. Nevertheless they are known for taking direct and often violent action. I can't help looking over my shoulder every time I leave my flat. I crumple the piece of paper and fling it in the bin. I clench my fists tight but it does little to stop me from shaking.
As for my apartment, I have enough room to lie down in it if I tidy up. I'm still working as a space garbageman. The repayments will last another thirty years, but when I could live to be 300 it doesn't seem so bad. I won't be going back to a life of crime, not ever. The Organics Alliance have put the fear of man into me.
But that's not the main reason I have decided to stop. It seems that I'm going up in the world, and not just because I work in space. My new body has its share of admirers as well as its detractors, it turns out, and this has been keeping me out of trouble. I'll be meeting one of these in particular tonight, and we'll be going to a quiet, out of the way restaurant. Very out of the way, in fact, because her family would murder me if they found out. I suspect that the excitement of secret meetings and the chance to rebel holds most of the attraction for her, but I can forgive her this. Especially if the young lady lets me call her Cerise.