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Jul/Aug 2007 Fiction

River 16

by A.S. King

Photography by Kawika Chetron


H-125 has one river. One polluted river. It's like wading through chest-high metal-flecked molasses loaded with floating industrial waste and dead people. On Earth, the closest comparison would be the Ganges, the Lot, and the New River all rolled into one. When I work on the river, they pay me seven hundred Earth dollars per hour.

Other than the river, H-125 doesn't offer much by way of familiar scenery. The surface is potholed like the moon, but uglier. Half of it is covered in mines, so we can take every last ounce of aluminum ore and ship it home to Earth for just one more year of them living like a planet full of deluded assholes. The few monochromatic canyons and peaks are interesting enough, unless you've seen the Grand Canyon or The Rockies, like I have. Of course, I never will again. Even if I do make the lottery, I'll be too old to go. And I should have never been sent here in the first place because none of it was my fault.

I'm getting ahead of myself.

Let me start this another way.

I was shipped to H-125 fourteen years ago as punishment for a crime I did not commit. I worked in the mines at first--back-breaking prison labor--and then graduated slowly to my freedom and this job sifting through the polluted River 16 to weed out bodies, refrigerators, televisions, transports or any other things that the population here tosses in that might clog the hydro-generator. Of course, if a dead body gets to me, then Frank in sector 2-H isn't doing his job. And if a small household appliance floats this far, that means Denny in sector 2-D isn't doing his job either. I can't say I blame them, though. I used to work in sector 2 and the smell of the crematorium is enough to make you pass out sometimes. Plus, Denny and Frank, like most of us, are crippled after working so long and hard in the mines.

The planet's population is divided now, after forty years, between prisoners who work off their crimes and don't get paid, and ex-prisoners like us, who work with industrial independent contractors for more money than we'd ever see on Earth.

The only problem with making seven hundred dollars an hour is that there is nothing on H-125 to buy. Nothing. It's a 100% free society. We're the ultimate combination of socialism and communism and anarchy. Everything is free. But they pay us, anyway. So life is a constant state of financial impotence. It's like living inside of an eyeball but not being able to see out.

Here's how the math works. Seven hundred an hour is seven grand a day. That's forty-two thousand a week, which is two million, one hundred thousand dollars a year. And I get to look at it (glare at it) every month on payday--my balance. The balance of my life. Ten digital numbers on a screen. My $24,864,990.11. Say it with me. Twenty-four million eight hundred and sixty-four thousand, nine hundred and ninety dollars and eleven cents. I can't send it home and I can't buy anything with it. Unless I win the lottery in the next seven months, my time is up. My luck runs out. I'm done for, and my imaginary money comes with me down River 16, the waterway of the euthanized, to be plucked out by Frank or whoever replaces me in section 3-C, and reduced to ash the color of an H-125 sunrise. The few who make the lottery before they reach age fifty are allowed to transfer their credits earned here to a bank on Earth and return home, but unless you get lucky, all you have is a number to look at until they retire you.

 

Back home, I used to fish on the Niagara River when I was a boy. The Earth Corps had restored it in the 23rd century after centuries of abuse and neglect. They paid for projects like river restoration and oceanic filters and arctic ice cleanings by discovering and mining distant planets filled with what Earth consumers were still buying. Like some bum at the turn of the millennium, they were trading soda cans for nickels, and using the nickels to pay for more soda cans.

I had a beautiful family. Two boys, a baby girl, and Jean, my supportive and loving wife. We lived in a small, solar-heated home on the east side of Rochester, in a community known for its low population, which, when I was sent away, was around two million people. The rest of New York state wasn't so lucky. When Manhattan sank, the thirty million survivors scattered to the most nearby places. And the lust for higher ground crowded the Catskill, the Pocono, and the Adirondack Mountains. Rochester, being lakeside, was spared too much of an influx.

I was never any good at history, but from what I remember, recycling laws came into effect in the USA sometime in the twenty-first century. After the second revolution in 2234, when Earth became a global entity, the laws went lax for a while, but by the time my eldest boy Ginero was born one hundred years later, the squads were out in full force every waste collection day, with their detectors and their electronic citation devices. Until Ginero became a teenager, we never got a fine.

Two soda cans in the regular paper/composting trash cost me four thousand five hundred dollars. Five weeks later, my dear wife Jean mustn't have been paying attention one day and threw a Ragu glass jar in the wrong bin and that cost me a second fine, which was double the first, and a strict warning that the limit was five. Five fines, and then prison for the homeowner. This was the 24th century--mistakes of this sort would not be tolerated.

I held a family meeting explaining that if we weren't careful, they could put me in jail, and so, we would no longer be buying anything in glass jars or bottles, and every bag of trash that went from the kitchen to the garage would be inspected by me. At that, Ginero tried every single day to slip something in past my eyes. It was his teenaged way of pressing authority, I suppose, but he didn't understand the consequences. It's one thing to stay out later than curfew or start drinking alcohol, but this would damage our entire family. I would lose my job at the advertising firm. Our upper-middle class existence would drain so quickly that soon we would be no different from the riffraff that settled in the mountaintop cities of New Harlem or New Brooklyn or New Bronx. Ginero was thirteen and a smart-ass. Nothing we said made him understand that this was not a game.

The third fine, twelve thousand dollars, was for a crushed soda can he'd stuffed in the bag after I'd inspected it and put it at the end of our driveway.

The fourth was for a glass bottle he must have pinched from a neighbor's glass bin and tossed into the trash on his way to school.

Another family meeting. This time, just me, Ginero, and Jean.

"Son, do you realize what my being put in prison will do to your mother?"

He shrugged.

Jean slapped his arm. "God damn it Ginero! What the hell has got into you? Don't you understand you are about to send this entire family into poverty?"

"So?"

"So?" Jean repeated. "So? Is that how you want to live? Like those children who have no shoes? Like the Manhattan refugees? Are you so spoiled you can't see how good you have it?"

He sneered at us and yelled, "You call this good? I get everything I want! The kids at school make fun of me for being a spoiled rich kid. They call me 'Ginero Dinero'! I never have to struggle for anything! I hate it! I'd rather be poor like everyone else!"

I received the fifth fine in the mailbox, for two more crushed soda cans. Along with the bill for twenty thousand dollars, which was three months' salary, was a letter from the Rochester sheriff explaining the procedure for taking me to prison or one of the mining colonies, which would happen the next time we failed to recycle.

Jean hugged me in bed that night and swore up and down that she'd testify that it was Ginero's fault. That Ginero should be sent away, not me. But he was thirteen. And he was our son. She couldn't send him to prison any more than I could.

For three weeks, Jean and I would sift through every little bit of garbage in the garage on Tuesday nights. We'd re-bag it, put it in the bins and I'd lock the new padlock we put on the garage door to keep Ginero out.

On Wednesday mornings, I'd stand with the cans until the trucks and inspectors came, making sure Ginero didn't drop anything in on his way to school. It was at those times, while guarding my waste bins from my own son, I got angry about the whole mess. Part of me wanted to stand back behind the oak tree in the lawn and catch Ginero in the act, and then beat him senseless, like my father had done to me on a few occasions to teach me how the real world worked. Another part of me asked, if his behavior was, in some way, my fault.

 

It was a ball of tinfoil that sent me to H-125. He'd wrapped a paper towel around it and when Jean and I went through the trash that fourth Tuesday night, we just didn't think to unwrap the thing.

 

Not a day goes by up here when I don't think of Jean and the kids. Even Ginero, the little bastard. He'd be twenty-seven now. I wonder how they made it, if they stayed together or if my arrest ripped the family apart. I wonder if Jean is still as beautiful as she was when I first met her at the little diner two miles from the Niagara River. I wonder can she still afford to fill the hummingbird feeders and sit and wait for them to come and stick their long tongues in and drink the sugary water. I hope she never had to be hungry.

 

My walk home from River 16 takes me through Hermes Sector, where I can see the docking station for the biannual round trip to Earth. Today, the ship has come with three hundred new prisoners, each dressed in a color-coded thermal jumpsuit to designate his crime. Red are the white-collar polluters, CEOs of dirty corporations, who get sent to the depths of the mineshafts to do the most dangerous work. Green are the litterbugs, whether a gum wrapper from a car window or a transport trailer full of scrap or garbage, who go to work in the civil service. Yellow are for personal-use criminals like FR (Failure to Recycle), water wasting, sewer violations, or OEL (Over Energy Limits) who get sent to the mines to become human trains, like I did, to move the tons of slag with their bare backs.

The arrival of the ship means in two weeks, there will be a departing flight, with three hundred lucky lottery winners on it, which means a week from today will be my last lottery.

At an intersection, a transport bus stops to let opposing traffic through, and I look at the men, who gaze, in shades of awe, out at their first dead planet. Are they disappointed by the endless gray? The lack of clouds and wildlife? The dim light from a too-distant sun?

Suddenly I am looking at Ginero, who is looking back at me. We lock eyes for two seconds before the transport jerks him toward whatever quadrant his mine will be in. He raises a red-suited arm to acknowledge me and I say, "Wait," but the bus is gone, turned round a corner and out of sight before I register that my son is on H-125. A slave. Like he made me fourteen years ago. I run after the bus, hoping it might stop, hoping I was wrong, that it wasn't him, hoping that I can rescue him, but it accelerates and I stop, wheezing, and realize I do not want to save Ginero. I realize I want Ginero to save me.

 

A week later, on payday, they announce three hundred lottery winners. I'm not on the list, and I ask my payment officer if transfers of Earth credits are allowed to H-125 prisoners. He tells me it's possible, if I pay the right people the right amount of credits.

"So, would five million be enough? Do you think? To get the job done?" I ask.

He grins. "I think that ought to do it, yeah."

"So what if an old man wanted to find someone here? Would an extra two million buy him a quadrant location?"

"That sounds reasonable," he says, looking over my shoulder at the line of men to be paid, "but the old man had better hurry up."

I hand him a slip of paper with Ginero's name on it, and after a quick tussle with the computer, he hands it back, with the address. I scribble it onto my palm, and slide the paper back to him, because he knows what to do next. Can I trust him to only take seven for himself? No more than I can trust Ginero, if he ever gets off H-125, to take the money home and help our family. No matter. At least when my body is hooked and dragged from the river, I'll have lived for something up here in this wasteland. For now, I stare at the numbers on my palm and wonder what kind of man I will meet when I visit, and whether I will like him.

 

Ginero stares at me through the thick glass, and the lines on his forehead stretch wide with worry. I want to put him at ease and smile, but admit to myself that part of me wants to break through and strangle the thirteen-year-old boy he once was. I notice his manicured hands, and compare them to my splitting thumbs and my septic calluses, and for a second, I feel happy that he is here. Happy that he about to experience real work for the first time in his life. Until I remember that he will be worked to death like the rest of us, and no matter what a boy does to his father, it is never a good thing to contemplate the death of your child.

We stare like this for a while, eyes darting from the floor to each other, to the other prisoners, until it is our turn to meet at one of the four visitor booths for our ten minute conversation. When we are face to face, no glass between us, I see he looks like Jean. Her chin, her eyes.

"Dad."

"Son."

He purses his lips, and frowns. "I'm so sorry."

I nod and squeeze my brow into the same frown. "How's your mother?"

"She's fine. Still lives in Rochester with Annie. Annie'll graduate school this year."

I feel hot tears run down my face. "Graduate? Annie?" I sigh. "How did Jean afford to stay in the house?"

"I don't know how she did it for the first years, but I got a job at the plant as soon as I turned sixteen and so did Darren."

"Darren. How is he?" The last time I saw Darren, he was ten, and playing with plastic toy soldiers in the flowerbeds Jean had just mulched. I can smell the spring air and the tree bark.

"He works in advertising. I stayed in the plant and worked my way up to the office jobs. Soon, I was bringing home as much money as you were before you got... sent... here."

"So you lived with Mom? Took my place?"

He nods. "Until I met Stephanie, yes. Then we moved into a place on Harvest Street. You know, near the park?"

God. The Harvest Street Park. The days I used to spend pushing Ginero's little denim covered butt on those swings. The fun we had in the snow on the sliding boards. The time Darren slipped on the steps and split his lip.

"Stephanie? Is that your girlfriend?"

"My wife. We had a little girl three years ago."

I think about Annie when I left her. She was three as well. "I'm a grandfather?"

"Yes." Ginero is crying now too. He wipes his eyes with his red sleeve. "We named her Jeanie, after Mom. She looks like her too."

"Jeanie," I say. I can't hold back the sob. I am a grandfather. I pinch the bridge of my nose with my finger and thumb and then look at the timer. I have two more minutes.

"I miss them so much," he says.

"I know, son. I know you do. I guess you know by now that up here, they put out your candle once you hit fifty, right?"

Ginero suddenly looks at me, concerned.

"Well, if they haven't told you that, then I'm glad I'm the one that broke it to you. Up here, you aren't much use as an old man, and the fumes in the mines age you double anyway. But that's not why I'm telling you."

"Go on."

"Once you get free of the system, you'll get work, like I did, doing something else. And you stand to make a fortune doing it, too. I made a fortune, but I'm never going to make it home."

"Oh, Dad."

"It's okay," I say, glancing at the timer. Sixty-two seconds left. "Look, Ginero. I transferred all of my money into your prisoner account. You won't be able to access it or spend it up here, and you can't tell anyone about it, but if you're luckier than me, and you make it back to Earth, you can take it with you and assure that our family never worries again."

He looks guilty. This secures my trust, and I smile and touch his hands. "You must tell your mother I love her, and your sister and brother too."

"Will I see you again? Can't you come back and see me again?"

"Only once every six months, son. And in six months, I'll be floating down River 16, another lump for Frank to drag out and put on the conveyor."

"But," he begins to sob and grips my hand like he used to when he was a frightened boy.

"You'll make it, Gino. I know you will. Remember that I love you. Think of your wife and daughter often and you will serve your years here with purpose."

The buzzer sounds and we hug over the wide table. He is crying and I see his mother again, crying, having lost her husband and her son to this environmental tyranny. What sort of pitiless world divides a man from his young family for the sake of mere litter?

 

Walking through Hermes Sector on my way home, I see the launch pad and imagine Ginero flying home to his family. I see him at the bank on the corner of Elm and Green streets with Jean, transferring fifteen million dollars into her account. I see Annie going to college and becoming a doctor, like she wanted when I last saw her as a three-year-old, grasping her play stethoscope and laminated eye chart. I see Jean smiling a little, knowing I thought of them every last year of my life, knowing I loved them through all of my suffering.

I hug myself away from H-125's dismal horizon and imagine I am holding my granddaughter, my Jeanie. These are the things that give life meaning. Not numbers on a screen, or job security with hospital benefits. As I squeeze myself, I feel her squirm and nuzzle me with her soft, little-girl skin. I hear her giggle and squeal with ticklish laughter. I see her growing tall and broad-shouldered on the sweat money from my toiling and I am happier than a man has ever been on this awful dusty rock.

I near G sector and begin to smell the river. I am happy to go to work today, to keep my mind from melancholy, to remind myself of the realities. But still, I have a granddaughter. This, somehow, makes the scent sweeter than it's ever been and though I know it must be my brain playing tricks, I remember the smell of a freshly washed child and baby powder. As I suit up, I breathe in baby oil and diaper cream. As I walk to my chest-deep platform in sector 3-C of River 16, I hear soft lullabies. As I hook a rusty old filing cabinet and motion to the crane man to pull it out, I feel, for the first time in fourteen years, like a proud father again.

 

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