“Summertime and the livin’ is easy”
“Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.”
“You’re daddy is rich and your ma is good lookin’”
“So hush little baby. Baby don’t you cry.”
“One of these mornings,” he yelled. Bap had no backing track, no instrument, and no rhythm.
“You’re gonna rise up singin’” He couldn’t carry a tune.
“Then you spread your wings, and you take to the sky.” His hands slapped several times at the blanket folded beneath his knees. People didn’t stop to watch.
“But til that morning, there’s nothin’ can harm you.”
Bap knew the lyrics of the song, but not the song itself. They came from a database of jazz music he’d seen once in his youth. He couldn’t carry a tune, but he could remember everything he’d ever read, everything he’d ever seen or heard, αlmost everything he’d ever experienced. But it did him no good, his knowledge. On the best days it was a life preserver he could use to keep himself above water. But mostly he suffered from the lack of filter; that inability to forget.
He wasn’t homeless. No one was. But he was friendless and any family he might have had, long ago disappeared from his life. He preferred to spend his days knelt alongside a food stall; Fat Li’s Fast Chickeeen. Fat Li made good food cheap and didn’t mind Bap’s presence.
Once in a while, Bap would switch up his location for the day, but anyone aside from Fat Li inevitably called station security to escort him home. After a few hours of shouting tuneless lyrics or starting up conversations with strangers people got tired of him. But Bap liked their frustration. It was their care for him, their attention that fueled him. He felt like he belonged in the ecosystem. Even if his belonging was a malign presence, it was still necessary in some way. Ordinary people of the mega space station needed people like Bap. He made them feel unsafe. They lived in such a well formed system. They needed outcasts and antagonists to give them balance.
Bap rolled off his knees and rubbed his ankles. He’d been there for a few hours now and his joints were starting to ache. He felt the pleasant heat of blood returning to the pinched capillaries in his legs as he stood and picked up his blanket. He swung it over his shoulders and meandered away. Fat Li, the skinny, chickeeen vendor, watched him go but didn’t say a goodbye. He knew Bap would repay any kindness with rudeness. The best thing to do with Bap was ignore him.
Bap meandered among the people of the station with his oversized blanket dragging along the ground at his feet. Some people stared but most were used to him. Those that lived in this block saw him regularly. He caught the eye of one young man, though. This man was dressed in a loose, blue, silk kurta with rich green trousers. He looked like an academic. Bap had been an academic once upon a time. He’d been the editor for a quarterly architecture review with readers on all the Locals, but eventually he was driven away by his colleagues. They found him acerbic and closed to new concepts.
Bap sidled up beside the academic who for his part looked pleasurably uncomfortable. Bap leaned in close to whisper.
“What’s your area of study?”
The academic nervously tapped his fingers together. His eyes flashed away as if to check for an escape, but Bap could tell - the man was stuck there. They were outside a walk-in clinic and he was clearly waiting his turn to be served. After a few seconds of silence, Bap pressed the issue.
“I said, what's your area of study? You struck dumb? Come on… you can tell me. It’s no secret, I’m sure.”
“I don’t know you,” the man replied.
“Obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be asking such a banal question. So? What is it? Want me to guess?”
“I’m an engineer.”
“An engineer. Okay, the rung below. Well, I’m sure you’ll get there one day. You look like a smart fish.” Bap grinned at the man. He liked to play this game. It felt cleansing to run through the list of job titles he’d seen available on the boards. He remembered every single entry after all. It was somehow cathartic to press people with his knowledge. “What do you make? What’s your field of specialization?”
“Come on, you can tell me. I’ll bet you make mobility devices for infirm Naturals. Am I wrong?”
“Yes, you’re wrong. But… please can you leave me alone?”
“I don’t think so.” Bap replied quickly. He was just getting started. He felt alive in this
interaction. “I think I’ll stay. I want to know more about you. What if I can guess what you design? Then you’ll give me that shirt you’re wearing? It looks really comfortable. Silk is making a comeback, I hear.”
“Why don’t you leave me alone?”
“Because I like you. You don’t want me to like you?”
“It’s not that,” the man said hesitantly. “I just want to be alone today. It’s just how I feel.”
“Oh but what about how I feel,” Bap replied with an edge to his voice. “I just don’t want to be alone today. What about that?”
“You design DNA drives.” No response. “You design zero G printers. No? You design XiaoBang. You design lighting systems, you design guns, you design genes, you design our ubiquitous little ID cards, you design pets, you design Soundscapes…” Bap stopped. Something flickered through the eyes of the uncomfortable man. Recognition? Bap pressed further.
“You design soundscapes for relaxation. You design soundscapes for… travels through time…” Again that hint of recognition… “You recreate the sounds of old places, situations, eras… How fascinating! I’ve heard of these, of course. High end bullshit for high end consumers. Wouldn’t mind giving it a try myself… except I doubt I’m your sort of clientele.”
“I design immersive sound experiences, yes.”
“Alright then, I got it. Fair’s fair. Come on.”
“I’m up next,” the engineer said with little conviction. “Soon you’ll have to leave me alone whether you want to or not. I doubt they’ll let you in.”
“Oh no, they definitely won’t let me in. We don’t get along real well. Me and the clinic, we’re not friends; not like me and you. Now come on. Give it here. Fair’s fair.”
“I can’t imagine why,” the engineer’s sarcasm was unpracticed but obvious.
“Ohhhh. Whit! Yeah, you’re a real high end guy. Educated, I can tell. Now, no more diversionary tactics. I can see what you’re doing.”
“What are you talking about?” The man pinched the crown of his nose as if to quell an oncoming headache.
“Your shirt, man. Your shirt. I guessed! You owe me that nice silk shirt.” Bap reached out to feel the fabric but the man jumped away.
“Get away from me. What’s wrong with you?” The engineer exclaimed. “I’m not giving you my shirt! I never agreed to that.”
“What!” Bap said with fake exasperation dripping from his dumbfounded expression. “You’d betray a friend like that?”
“Maz3 xiansheng.” The engineer's name burped from a speaker mounted to the wall. “Your prescription is ready inside. You may enter.”
Without a second glance the man hurried in and left Bap alone outside. “Thief! Oathbreaker! Run,” he shouted after the man’s retreating blue shadow. “We’re no longer friends you soulless dickcake!” Bap noticed a group of strangers had stopped to watch him from the thoroughfare. “Oh, you see that guy? He wasn’t a good person. He owes me a shirt but he reneged on our agreement. Can you believe that?”
None of the group answered. After a brief pause, three of the four hurried off. The last person, a young woman, thin with a messy afro looked at him with concern. She almost approached but before she had the chance, one of her friends returned and pulled her away.
“Come on Tin,” the friend said. “He’s crazy. Just ignore him.”
Bap laughed loudly at the girl’s back but she turned quickly, “I don’t blame you. You could offer less than they thought you had, I can tell.”
Bap stopped laughing. Her words hit him hard. His mind swelled with the words. He had less than they thought. It was true. Everyone assumed the curse of memory was a gift. They forced it to be a gift. But it wasn’t. He staggered sideways and almost bowled an old man over, but Bap didn’t notice. Somehow the image of the girl wouldn’t leave him. ‘You had less than they thought.’ He rushed after the girl but she was lost in the ever-stream of DaJie ren; the millions of residents of the space station.
His shoulders sagged and a familiar bitterness filled his chest. He cinched the blanket around his shoulders and entered a nearby Cafe Local. He needed to ingest, to wipe his mind with new information. He sat at a terminal. “List the current residents of DaJie,” he said. But immediately a message replied “This information is not publicly accessible.”
“List all the known animals that have gone extinct.”
An alphabetized list appeared and he began to read the names. It was a meaningless exercise for his mind; just something to fill it and push aside his anger and frustration. He ran down the list several times and then logged out of the terminal. He felt a little slower, a little more calm.
Bap exited the Cafe Local and meandered back to his sleep space. It was a short walk but he kept his eyes glued to the ground the entire time. He didn’t want his mind to begin racing again. Once inside the bare little studio he undressed and stretched out on the bed.
As a younger man he’d been into hallucinogens but his drug of choice had changed. Now, whenever he wanted to be home, whenever he wanted to hide from the world outside, he watched the daily stories until his eyes shut and he drifted into a dream filled sleep. He always dreamed. Sometimes they were mundane but often they were filled with terrible passion. He couldn’t remember a time he woke up rested.
He flicked through a list and chose an AI from Old Earth he’d watched before. With a deep sigh of cramped back pain, he laid out and let the ceiling fill with the story. “Allow eye contact,” he told his sleep space’s control system. Immediately the story adjusted and he began to control his point of view with his eyes. He let his POV drift along the randomized romance on his ceiling. Soon his eyelids flickered closed and he floated into sleep.
He dreamed of a lover he’d once had, an intellectual man, a man of immovable principles. They sat across from each other in a 平静花园 (Calm Garden) with a small pool of bubbling water between them. They said nothing. His lover meditated while Bap watched him meditate. But as he watched the handsome man in stillness he began to notice movement in the background. Blurry shapes like twisting worms grew from the soft blues and greens. Soon the shapes became tentacles; sentient vines with thousands of fingers wriggling like fly larvae.
The thing touched his arm and Bap awoke.
His bed was wet with sweat. He pushed himself into a seated position, shoulders sagged, head down. How he hated himself, his worthless life, the endless repetition… How he hated his acceptance of the cycle. He dragged himself off his bed and pulled clothes over his sweaty body. A daylight clock told him the station was presenting night. Some people didn’t follow the day/night rhythm, but most did. The long boulevards and side alleys would be quieter, more lonely. He liked it like that.
Bap left his little apartment and wound his way down escalators to the central avenue for his block. With no other thought beyond hatred for his dream, he decided to head in the direction of the 平静花园. Maybe his old lover would be there, but probably not. He was long dead after all; cancer the young man refused to cure.
Bap compared himself to the cancer. He turned the thought round in his mind, like meat on a roasting spit - a malignancy of the station, one that only worsens, one that won’t disappear and refuses to be destroyed. Somehow the thought calmed him.
Before long he found himself outside the Calm Garden. The surrounding streets were empty and bap took comfort in his own loneliness. He stepped past the glass divider and into the central courtyard. It appeared to be empty. He took off his shoes and left them by the door. Small, heated pebbles ringed the central garden area. As he crossed through them he noticed the way they cascaded over his toes. It was warm in the garden and he wiped a drip of sweat from the crown of his nose.
And then he saw that the courtyard wasn’t empty. An old woman sat, eyes closed in meditation, on the far side. A gentle stream wound between several olive trees. Other flora hung from the high ceiling or grew in curated clumps along the water’s edge. Bap suddenly hated the beauty of the scene in front of him. He HATED the woman. He HATED the way a ray of soft light seemed to train on her alone and give her warmth in the green and blue surroundings.
Bap ran at her with a great shout of rage. “How can you be so calm!” he stormed. “How can you accept IT so easily!”
He leapt over the stream and slid to a stop in front of the woman. She didn’t seem to recognize his presence. Her breathing stayed as steady as ever, her belly smoothly expanding and contracting with a clockwork rhythm.
He leaned in. “Hey!” he shouted, inches from her face. “Open up! Anyone in?!” At first nothing happened and then after a few long seconds, one of her eyes popped open.
“Oh, you startled me,” she said without a hint of surprise. In fact she had a twinkle of delight somewhere beyond her obvious expression of calm. This infuriated Bap further.
“You broken or something? You been lobotomized? Nothing in this hellcap has earned this level of calm. WHAT’S YOUR BIG…”
She slapped him hard across the cheek. Bap was so taken aback he didn’t even react at first. He just kept staring at her as though he was waiting for a response. And then his face burned with the impact and his eyes went wide. “Hey! What’s wrong with you? That stung!”
“I thought it might. It was intended to sting a little.” she replied. “Now sit here. I want you to tell me what’s troubling you. What’s eaten you so completely that you no longer accept an old lady like myself sitting quietly in a Calm Garden such as this.”
“I just,” he began but his cheek was a little swollen and he felt his teeth scrape along the inside of his mouth. He tried to stretch his jaw a little to alleviate the sensation. “I’m sorry.” Bap turned to leave but he found the lady’s fingers gripping his forearm. She pulled him back. He watched a huge bruise spread across the back of her hand. “You’re hurt,” he said dumbly.
“Hmmm, yes it’s true. I think I must have broken a bone in my hand when I struck you. Getting old I guess.” There wasn’t even a hint of discomfort in her voice. “But come sit with me. Tell me what you tell yourself.”
“We need to get you to a clinic to fix that bone,” Bap said but she brushed him away.
“It’s not important. Your injuries are worse. They’re harder to heal. If you sit with me for a while, then I’ll let you take me to the clinic.” Bap looked at her with such obvious confusion she let out a little giggle. “Come on, life isn’t so hard to understand. Sit down here. Tell me what you tell yourself.”
And not knowing what else to do, he did just that. He told her of the way he needed to rub against people’s comfort. How he needed to feel their revulsion. How the station just couldn’t accept him as ordinary and couldn’t reward him as extraordinary. He told her of his dead lover and his old life. He told her of his cursed memory that never left him alone, his daily binges of mundane randomly generated stories. He told her of his desire to be an outcast, because at least then he was a singularity; not just a simple cell in the monolith of station life. He told her of the way he dreamed and ate and sat for monotonous hours beside Fat Li’s chickeeen stand. And finally he told her how the girl had noticed his reality just hours earlier. How she’d instantly seen his truth; that the station just couldn’t accept that he had less to offer than it calculated based on his intelligence. The girl had seen his humanity above the data and her truth had enraged him.
“The waste of it. The waste of my life, living below unreasonable expectations. The horror of a life in the prison of a rigid society,” he said finally.
“Do you come here often,” she asked after a pause.
“I did when Benga was alive. We came here together. Haven’t been in a while now, though.”
“I like it here in the evenings because I can be alone with living things. Sometimes I meditate. But sometimes I just play word games or dip my feet in the stream.” She didn’t say anything for some time, but Bap didn’t feel compelled to speak. Somehow the silence felt comfortable. Then she sighed and stood up. “It sounds to me like you suffer from your own expectations more than anything else. You expect yourself to be singular, the red oil in a sea of black water. But that’s okay too. The suffering isn’t something you need to fight. It’s okay to suffer.”
“What do you mean?” Bap asked.
“I mean, I suffered through a broken hand, but I got a beautiful story. I heard you, and I heard the truth of your life. What an excellent trade, don’t you agree?”
“I guess that depends on how long your hand takes to heal.”
The old woman chuckled lightly. “I guess it does. What if it never heals!” she said with mock terror.
And for the first time in years, Bap smiled with warmth. He smiled the way smiles were meant to be. He wasn’t filled with manipulation or malice. He smiled uncontrollably and it staggered him. He immediately began to cry.
The old woman wrapped him in her arms and let him cry.
Finally, when he’d spent all his tears, she offered him a hand; her good hand. “Come take me to the clinic. It’s really starting to get sore now.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.”
“You should say, of course I’ll take you to the clinic. Let’s go immediately.”
He got to his feet. “Of course I’ll take you to the clinic. Let’s go immediately,” he said. “Wouldn’t want you to suffer any more than necessary on my behalf.”
“Don’t worry,” she said as they stepped across the stream. “You’re worth it.”
An hour later they exited the same clinic outside which Bap had harassed the engineer. Seeing the elderly woman there, on his arm, made him feel ashamed. He hadn’t felt ashamed for his behavior in years but this woman seemed to draw it out of him like siphoned water. As soon as it bubbled to the surface it just kept flowing. He couldn’t stop it; the shame. He walked her to her sleep space. It was near to his, only a few minutes away.
She let go of his arm. “Thank you for taking me to the clinic.”
“If you ever need another chat, I end up in that Calm Garden nearly every evening. Can’t sleep much at my age.”
More shamed silence. He couldn’t do anything except peer into the depths of her eyes.
“Good night, Bap. See you sometime.”
Bap let her disappear inside before he thought to open his mouth and speak. “Goodbye,” he said to the blank door. He suddenly realized he didn’t know her name. How did she know his? He didn’t remember telling her. And worse, he realized they must have said her name at the clinic at some point, but he couldn’t recall what it was. He couldn’t remember it. But was that a bad thing?
“No!” he exclaimed aloud. It was good! He couldn’t remember it! Something lifted from his shoulders. He let out a long breath and turned his back on the woman’s sleep space. How joyous it was to forget! He smiled again and strode into the empty street. “Summertime and the livin’ is easy,” he sang tunelessly. No one was around. Bap’s voice echoed hollowly off the chip-plastic walls.
“Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high.”
“You’re daddy is rich and your ma is good lookin’”
“So hush little baby. Baby don’t you cry.”
“One of these mornings,” he yelled. Bap had no backing track, no instrument, and no rhythm. He was dissonance personified.
“You’re gonna rise up singin’” He couldn’t carry a tune, but it didn’t matter.
“Then you spread your wings, and you take to the sky.”
“But til that morning, there’s nothin’ can harm you.”
“With daddy and mommy standing by.”