My head throbbed. I sighed and rubbed my temples. It was Friday afternoon at the office, and Allie was boasting again about her cream-colored villa in Tuscany.
“I just expanded the polo grounds!” Allie giggled, coquettishly covering her mouth.
I popped an aspirin into my mouth as the new office girls oohed and fawned over her. Among the gray uniforms, Allie stood out at the water cooler. Her fingernails were manicured blood orange today, and they fluttered in circles around the new medal pinned to her breast pocket. Derision burned in my stomach as they skated around the inverted crescent, but I bit my lower lip and went back to my typing. I cracked my knuckles, exhaling in relief as I flexed my out-flung elbows; they no longer touched the walls.
According to regulations, my office cubicle had recently been enlarged two by two inches with my promotion to a Level 3 assistant. It wasn’t as big of a jump as Allie’s after the quarterly assessment, but I still had additional housing credits I could use for my workspace, maybe to expand the desk to fit another mug. I agonized, wanting to save my spending for Home. I settled on rearranging some of my family holographs to free up the counter instead, when Allie stalked over to me in her high heels.
“Hard at work as always, Bertha?” Her shrill tone pierced my eardrums.
I took a deep breath. Counted to five, then rotated in my seat and raised an eyebrow. “Yes, some of us actually do what we’re paid to.”
Most of Allie’s sycophants glared at me from behind her back, but the more recent additions to her sorority shuffled their feet nervously. We all knew she was earning extra credits between motel sheets. It was an open secret. Allie’s irritation darted from one downcast face to another. She snatched the spreadsheet out of my grasp.
“I can’t believe you’re still using chemosheets instead of the tablet.” She turned the sheet sideways, flipped it front to back with wide-eyed guile. Then she crumpled it in her fist. “Who taught you Steno? A caveman?”
Her goons laughed.
“Backwards Bertha is so sawas,” said a redhead, using space slang.
“I bet she doesn’t even know enough to program her Home,” added a brunette. The girl was still wearing the student’s blue stripe on her sleeve. She was a new travel school graduate and her face still bore deep lines, imprints from the Gear used for virtual education. In my youth, one physical location could handle the modest number of students wanting certification, but demand for courses was Milky Way high these days and live instruction couldn’t meet it.
“That’s right,” Allie smirked. She leaned over conspiratorially, fingering the lapels of my uniform. I hadn’t refitted it in two years. “When are you going to let us visit your Home anyway?” She pinched the fabric. “It’s been five years now and I don’t even know what parcel you’re living in anymore.”
I grabbed her wrist and pried her fingers off my clothes. I turned back to my VidScreen. I smiled secretly at my reflection.
“It’s in the Sahara.”
Allie laughed, “Worthless desert?”
“What do you do at night?” the new graduate asked. “Cuddle up to a camel in bed?”
It was a low blow. Paul was on another salvage mission that would take him away for months. My eyes stung and my chest clenched, but I pasted on a bright, sharp grin.
“Why don’t you find out?” I tilted my head. “I’ll host the book club tonight.”
The brunette appeared taken back and Allie’s gang shared suspicious glances, but Allie herself remained as cool as chrome.
“Sure, Bertie.” She pretended to dust lint off my shoulders. “Seven o’clock at the Meeting Center.”
Allie and her group wandered away, occupying their own stations as our supervisor returned from his lunch break. Allie simpered, twirling one of her teal-dyed curls around her finger as she chatted him up. I snorted and bent back to work.
At five o’clock, the Minister of Business and Industries came onto the loudspeaker. The brief glissando of a xylophone filled the room, and then the minister’s cheerful, announcer voice:
“Hello workers! It is now the end of your workday. The Ministry of Business and Industries thanks you for your efficiency and dedication. Please remember to enjoy your three-day holiday, starting tonight, in honor of our Spaceport’s launch anniversary. Praise be our 70th year and don’t forget to collect your food chips!”
I went to the payroll desk to obtain my chips while my co-workers talked, making dinner or cinema plans. I wasn’t interested and never had been. Paul was all I needed. Craving solitude, I exited the building and walked along the perimeter of the station in a circumscribed route to the Meeting Center. My breath misted as I traveled further away from the heart of the port where heat was conserved and concentrated, but the view on the outer rim was beautiful.
Shivering, I pressed my nose against the cool viewing glass and identified the constellations –dazzling old mythos flourished with bears, rams, and gods of battle – but what I strained to find was a small marble: the Earth. I imagined I could view the Sahara on its swirling surface, although the whole world was a frigid wasteland after the fallout from the Wars. Even so, I liked to think Allie’s villa in Tuscany existed there. For half an hour, I conjured up a green, growing land that smelled of freshly cut hay. My heart swelled like the breasts of songbirds; their tunes rung sweet and clear unlike the static-filled recordings I had dug out from the library archives as a child. I stood, allowing the spell of the planet to trap and keep me until my legs tingled from numbness.
“Goodbye,” I whispered to the blue, frost-colored sphere. I touched Earth through the glass. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
When I arrived at the Meeting Center, all of Allie’s girls were there and so was Allie. She tapped a visor against her right knee impatiently. Her face stiffened into a haughty expression, the shallow marks around her eyes deepening for a moment as she thrust the Gear at me.
“Well, punch in the coordinates for your Home,” she smirked. “We’re dying to see it.”
I smiled, still tranquil from my walk, and took the Gear from her gently. I set it aside.
“Follow me,” I said and turned.
The girls furrowed their brows at each another. But confusion made them docile and curiosity held them obedient; they followed.
I ambled past other workers on their way to closet-sized domiciles. These were domiciles where they sat, put on their Gear, inputted their credits and went Home – to Tuscany for Allie, but to Paris, Tokyo, or the Alps for others until they fell asleep. All lies. But I led Allie and her girls to my domicile, a space converted from ten units.
I disengaged the lock and the front door slid open to reveal a den, a plush red sofa, and violet posies swaying under a combination wind-and-sun lamp. My home had an electric stove with which I could cook meals for myself instead of buying them prefab from the supermarket. It turned on at my approach, and the overnight pot of cold curry warmed for my supper. I had a tea kettle which filled and began soon to whistle. I had a bookshelf brimming with real paper books which I thumbed through for the simple pleasure of their roughness against my fingertips. And I had a mattress with a bedspread big enough to fit an embracing husband and wife.
I had a house that had no Gear.
I sat down on my bed and smiled beatifically. “Welcome,” I smoothed the silk coverlet to their delighted, anguished expressions, “to my Home.”