Hierarchy of Need

by Jennifer Busick


He had one rule:  no emergencies short of the star going nova were to intrude upon his bath.  It was a practical rule, for his system would catalog each demand with a ruthless efficiency that was bad for his digestion. Most of the messages would be routine, anyway--shipping and receiving updates, maintenance reminders, financial statements.  None of them would come to him by name.  Even the one message he wanted to receive would come keyed to his mining operation.  For a moment, as he contemplated this, he could not remember his name.  He decided it did not matter.  What mattered was his bath.


     So he floated, undisturbed, in the aromatic brew that fed him, cleansed him, and carried away his wastes.  Vapors rose from the liquid, tickling his nose with their yeasty scent, condensing on the ceramic walls of the chamber until the drops grew weighty, running in rivulets back into the pool.  His system, knowing his preference, accepted the distress call that came in, and ranked it below several demands of the mining operation that arose while he was indisposed.


    He emerged, dripping golden bathwater onto the nubbly rug in his dressing room, and rubbed his fingers roughly through his damp hair.  As he slipped into his only garment--a seamless coverall suitable for his work, lightweight and durable, constructed to his figure one molecule at a time when he last visited Grancy's World--he asked, "What first?" 


     His system, true to his self-determined priorities, replied in his mindsear, You have a message from Consociates.


     He grunted.  Consociates was building his orbital transshipment and repair platform, which should have been delivered three months ago.  They were, in a bluff unsubtle way, blackmailing him; he did not expect to take delivery of the platform until he agreed to join their community. Although the arrangement would not be without benefit, he found Consociates' coercive tactics galling.  His protests to the Interstellar Trade Agency had not even been acknowledged, and he was thinking of canceling the order.  The difficulty was that it would take another two years for Consociates' nearest competitor to build one from scratch, with no guarantee that he would be any better treated.   


     "Is my platform ready?" he asked.  That was the only message he wanted to hear.


     In reply, his system played back the recording.  The voice was well-modulated, pleasant--and one of three synthetic voices that he was already familiar with, from his dealings with Consociates.  He thought of them as male, female, and neuter; this one was the neuter voice, and it did not say what he wanted to hear.  "Stop playback," he snapped. 


     He sat down heavily on the bed, bending down to grab his work boots.  Calm down, he advised himself.  It's not the Cataclysm, after all.  Not the very existence of humanity hanging in the balance here.  "Give me something productive to do." 


     His system obliged, bringing up a list of tasks in his mindseye, and he immediately buried himself in his work. 


     The distress call was almost two weeks old when he finally said, "Next?" and saw it appear in his mindseye.


     The message header came up first, a jumble of code that identified the source as a spaceship, CEN449875-2731X-1422Y, and tagged the message urgent, Mayday. 


     "Mayday?  Why is it two weeks old?" he asked, as he hurried along the passageway that led from his workshop to his living quarters.  The passage felt faintly claustrophobic to him, overgrown as it was with the sharp-scented ivy that provided oxygen for his homestead.


     His system replied in his mindsear, Direct concerns of the mining operation take precedence over unrelated demands.  "Urgent" message tags are a frequent device of marketers and are meaningless except when used by official agencies and trading partners. 


     Those were his priorities, all right, and they didn't cover a Mayday from an unknown space ship. 


     He ducked through the hatch into his quarters.  The ivy here was trained into intricate patterns up the arches, around the doorways and underneath the spiral stairs that led up from the center of the octagonal room into the homestead's clear dome.  He drew a deep breath as he entered and said, "Play."


     A woman's face appeared.  "Mayday, Mayday," she said, looking incongruously calm.  He frowned as he settled into his armchair.  "This is ITA CEN449875 reporting a critical emergency, repeat, I have a critical emergency." 


     How critical can it be? he wondered.  He leaned forward, as if seeking a closer look.  The woman in his mindseye was immaculately groomed--not a single auburn curl fell out of place, and the lashes that framed her brown eyes were dusted with gold.  Of course, she hadn't necessarily recorded her distress message live, or she could have retouched it before sending, but if she truly had a critical emergency, he couldn't imagine that it permitted her to dust her eyelashes and record multiple versions. 


     "My engines are off-line and my power plant is slagged. I am running life support and other critical functions on batteries only.  I am appending a list of things I need," she said, and paused to draw a shaky breath.  It was the first sign of worry that he had seen in her.  "I don't yet have precise information on my location, velocity, and heading.  Anyone receiving this distress call is requested to respond immediately and render aid.  Anyone receiving this distress call is also requested to forward it to the nearest Interstellar Trade Agency outpost."


     The message repeated.  "That's it?" he said.  It must have been, because his question was ignored just as if it had been rhetorical.


     He stood, unconsciously preparing to act even though the woman was an impossible distance away, and her message was two weeks old.  "Where is she?"


     Probabilities indicate that the distress message originated in interstellar space 0.4 lightyears outside the Praied System said his mindsear, while his mindseye displayed a three-dimensional map.  His system identified his own location, in the asteroid belt around an insignificant white dwarf star, with a stylized asteroid.  Her location, outside the Praied System, was marked with a stylized spaceship. 


     "Anybody closer?"


     Probabilities indicate that her message would reach us before it would reach the next nearest permanent human habitation.  Information on other spacegoing vessels in the area is incomplete.  As if to emphasize the point, his mindseye panned back, showing the next nearest inhabited system, with an outsized representation of a planet--Grancy's World.  It was nine light-years away from him--seventeen light-years away from CEN449875.  He'd grown used to the notion that he was the only human within a nine-light-year radius, resigned to the fact that he was well beyond help should something suddenly go wrong, but to be the only living being within a seventeen-light-year radius?  He found himself longing for the closeness of his workshop passageway.


     "What about her list?" 


     We have most of the supplies and spare parts.  We do not have a compatible power plant.


     "Put what we have on a drone," he said to his system, "and send a reply.  Broadcast, in the most likely region where she'd be."


     His homestead's nearest sensor swung around to focus on him.  Text? prompted his mindsear.  He fumbled for words, at last managing to say "CEN449875, this is mining homestead Mohs Beta. Can you provide precise coordinates?"


     He sent the message and wondered whether it would even arrive.  Was it too late?  Had the spaceship changed course?  Had help already been and gone?


     He shrugged.  He had done what he could.  "Next," he said, and his system continued through its list.


     Consociates was playing dirty.  They had refused his last shipment, a perfectly good load of nickel-rich ore, and demanded that he re-ship.  The message was in the familiar female voice. 


     He weighed his options.  Going to Grancy's World in person might get results, or it might not, and if he was gone too long he ran the risk of losing out to a claim-jumper.  Contracting with a different company meant losing his entire investment with Consociates and incurring a delay that could, again, cost him his operation.  Holding out was pointless; Consociates could surely outlast a single miner.  He had, as far as he could see, only three choices.  He could be absorbed by Consociates; he could offer himself instead to one of their competitors; or he could sell. 


     He didn't particularly like any of the three.


     A chime rang in his mindsear.  You have a message from CEN449875, said his system. 


     A distraction.  He nearly sighed with relief.  "Play."


     The auburn-haired woman, who looked just slightly less perfect than in her original message, appeared in his mindseye.  She still did not have so much as a misplaced lock, but her posture suggested weariness to him. 


     "Mohs Beta, thank you so much for responding!"  The single sentence seemed to take a lot from her.  "My coordinates--well, I don't--I'm not sure it matters," she said. Her speech was odd, halting.  "I've been trying to repair my drive, and...I can't.  Even with parts.  It's slagged, just like the power plant.  I'd have to install a new one."  She shook her head slowly.  "If I had a maintenance docking facility...here, though..."


     The recording skipped, a rough transition indicative of a power failure, perhaps, or a rushed edit.  "I'm appending location, heading, and velocity information.  Could you forward it to the ITA?  It's just inertial velocity at this point, of course.  But then you'd know that.  Wouldn't you?"  She blinked in confusion.


     She was deteriorating; her life support must be minimal.  He noticed that her lips were faintly blue.  And, in a flash of insight, he realized why her speech sounded odd.  She was stiffening her jaw, to keep her teeth from chattering.


     He knew what that felt like. 


     The memory rose in him unbidden.  He was a child again on Grancy's World,  standing outside the public bath, shivering, wearing every scrap of castoff cloth he could get his hands on.  The people walking in and out past him wore insubstantial modesty garments, and although their breath clouded like his did and their heads and feet were bare, they did not shiver.  They were well fed.  His own energy-starved system could not keep him warm.


     It could have been any of hundreds of days that he remembered, those long cold days after his brother died and he ran away from the shelter.  There were baths at the shelter, but there were too many starveling children and malingering adults, and the baths were thin and gray and cold and you had to have the strength to fight for a place.  Without his brother he lacked that strength.  So he stood with his breath frosting in clouds and waited for the people who came from the public baths, their hands still glistening with the viscous fluid.  Occasionally, someone would take pity on him and touch his head.  He quickly learned that their touch lingered longer if he did not whimper in relief, so he was silent.


     Once, on a day when the dim dwarf star shone in the sky alone, a woman had actually knelt, taken his hands, and looked into his eyes.  "Poor child," she said, to herself--she was not speaking to him--"They would maul you at the shelter, wouldn't they?"  She reached up to her shoulder.  He forgot himself, and grasped after her hand when she took it away, but she seemed not to notice.  She undid the broach that pinned her short sari together, and unwound it from her shoulder, all the way down to where it ended at the tops of her thighs, and handed it to him.  It was still wet from the bath, and he stripped off everything else he wore and wrapped it next to his skin.  For a little while, then, he was warm even though he stood in the street in the watery light of a secondary star. 


     It was during that brief moment of warmth and lucidity that he vowed, somehow, someday, he would never be cold again.


     He did not have what she needed most.  The drives in his inventory were machine-grade--high-powered, thinly shielded, and more unstable than passenger-ship drives.  As a precaution against their misuse, they were designed not to fit passenger ships.  His power plants, on the other hand, were smaller than she needed--again, designed to serve the needs of matériel-carrying drone ships.  And as for installing a replacement drive--for that, she needed the one thing he could not get. 


     She needed the orbital repair platform that Consociates would not deliver.


     He finished outfitting a drone with what he had to offer--fresh batteries, plus a few small components to use as spares for her communications and life-support--and sat down to compose a message. 


     "I am sending what I have on hand," he began, but the image of her blue-tinged lips was vivid yet in his memory, and he could not go on.  What he had on hand would do nothing but lengthen her ordeal, while she waited on uncertain rescue from another quarter.  If none came, then she would freeze, suffocate, starve to death, her auburn curls dull and disheveled forever out in space. 


     He was quiet so long that his system asked, Do you still wish to send a message to CEN449875?


     He rubbed both hands through his hair, and drew a deep breath.  "Message text:  I am sending what I have on hand.  I have forwarded your coordinates to the ITA on Grancy's World."  The ITA might still help her.  She was one of theirs, after all. 


     He paused, wondering whether to add anything else.  "Send," he said at last.


     The auburn-haired woman aboard CEN449875 said, in breath that puffed whitely between chattering teeth, "Thank you."  She had received only his message; the drone was still en route. 


     After a pause she said, "Mohs Beta--do you have a name?  Mine is Asarya.  Asarya Turianasatha."


     He had inquired with the ITA about the status of her Mayday.  The noncommital reply sounded, to his suspicious ear, a lot like the carefully-worded, artificially spoken communiques he received from Consociates.  The speaker had given no name. 


     But the woman aboard CEN449875 was Asarya. 


     "My name is Elex," he said.  It sounded strange to him, after such long disuse.


     He had fallen asleep in his bath, and was dreaming.  He dreamed that Asarya sat in his workshop, across from him, and that they were conversing.  It was something else he had not done in a long time, conversing, and he was not sure what else to say.


     "Elex," she said.  "What do you do?"


     "I run the mines."


     "What do you mine?"


     "Carbon, mostly.  Iron.  Silicates.  Some nickel.  Trace elements."  His voice sounded flat to him.  Boring.  Mining was dull work, had to be, especially compared to whatever exciting endeavor took Asarya out among the stars.


     "Where does the name come from?" she asked, seeming not at all bored.


     "Elex?  I don't know."


     "I meant the mine.  Mohs Beta."


     "Oh."  Here was his chance to sound smart.  "The Mohs scale was an ancient scale for measuring the hardness of minerals," he said, proud to know that bit of arcana. 


     "Then it's a good name for a mining operation," she said, smiling. 


     Before he could return her smile, he woke.  And even though he lay floating in the nutrient-rich bath that had been the great ambition of his youth, he felt a sick twisting in his vestigial gut.


     He ordered the drive, the power plant, a number of incidental items and a drone to carry them out to Asarya.


     He sent her a message:  "I am sending the things you need.  Asarya."  He didn't need to use her name, but he wanted to.  He wanted her to use his name.  "My name is Elex."


     Then he recorded a message to Consociates.


     This time, he did not recognize the voice that replied.  Nor did he recognize the face.


     Asarya replied.  "Elex!  I received your first shipment and have been installing the components you sent!"  She looked warmer, more like her initial message.  "Thank you again!"  She did not ask how long it would take for the additional equipment to arrive.  He did not yet know.


     It took him days to think of something to say in reply, besides the obvious "You're welcome."  He feared to ask how long the fresh batteries could be expected to last.  He asked instead, "What business takes you out among the stars, Asarya?"


     He almost could not work, waiting on her reply.  A drone bringing in ore-bots for non-routine maintenance broke down, and he had to go retrieve them.  His concentration was so poor he needed three tries to hook the ships up properly.  He found himself daydreaming when he should have been working.  And when his system asked, Would you like to see CEN449875? he leaped from his chair and cried "Where?"  For a brief instant, before sense caught up to him, he thought Asarya had somehow repaired her drive and come to Mohs Beta.


     What his system meant was that his homestead was oriented in the direction of Asarya's ship.  He walked up the spiral lattice staircase into the dome, which was positioned so that he could not see the asteroid's surface falling away beneath him.  He seemed wrapped in a blanket of stars. 


     He never came to the dome; the homestead's previous occupant had put it there, and Elex had always thought it unnecessary.  Now, though, he sat on the metal grating and craned his neck and wished for a proper floor, or perhaps even a chair.  His system identified in his mindseye the region of stars where Asarya's ship lay.  He reached up with both hands and formed a circle with his thumbs and forefingers, blocking from his view every star but those.


     "I'm a census taker," she said.  She looked well rested and warm.  "That's the CEN designation in my ship's ID.  I know what you're thinking--'I file in my census data by comm'--and most people do.  But there are always anomalies.  Sometimes whole colonies disappear, and someone has to go find out what happened.  After all, we don't know how the Cataclysm began.  So we have to know whether there was some real catastrophe, or whether the data just got lost.  That's my job."


     Elex resolved never to file his census data by comm again.


     Asarya laughed, tossing her curls and revealing that her teeth, like her eyelashes, were dusted with gold. "People are shocked when I show up.  The ones whose data has just been lost, I mean.  Sometimes I arrive, and the whole colony has been destroyed, and there's no one to be shocked.  But most of the time when I take my skiff to the surface, people don't know what to make of me.  They haven't seen anyone come from the stars for the longest time!  I think a lot of them feel like the remnant all over again--like there's nobody left but them in the universe."


     Elex nodded. 


     "You must feel like that, sometimes," she said, tilting her head knowingly. 


     "Oh, yes," he replied, and then felt like a fool, even though there was no one to hear him responding aloud to a recorded image.


     "Well, don't feel like that ever again," she said, smiling.  "Because I will never forget you."


     Nor I you, he thought, and his throat closed up so that he could not make a fool of himself again by speaking aloud.


     "The repair platform arrived today," Asarya said.  A week ago, he corrected mentally.  There were glistening tracks on her cheeks.  "I didn't think the batteries would last.  They almost didn't.  But I used the rig to set up a sail, so I'll have enough power until the new drive is installed." 


     The problem with a recorded message viewed in the mindseye, Elex reflected, is that you can't simply look away.  He blinked, but her image was relentless; it seemed that his own cheeks were wet with her tears.  "You've saved my life," she said.  "And I am only a stranger to you."


     "No," he said.  He'd given up feeling foolish about responding to her recorded image.


     Her final message arrived two weeks later.  "I'm returning your maintenance platform," she said.  Her cheeks reddened slightly, and she looked away.  "There's something else, something for you.  It's not much, really, it's actually kind of silly.  But it means something to me."


     She was already gone.  She would have left soon after dispatching his drones.  She had not said so, but he knew it.  If he sent a message now, it would not reach her.  He paced, the grated floor of the dome rattling beneath his feet, and cast his gaze to the small circle of sky where she had been, the broad horizon of stars that now hid her. 


     His drones arrived within days, the maintenance rig awkwardly piggy-backed to them.  He detached the rig and left it in orbit.  The drones, he brought back to his shipping bay. 


     Asarya's gift was in a box no larger than the palm of his hand, bolted to a drone's cargo hatch where it was easy to find.  Inside was a lock of auburn hair bound with a gold-dusted ribbon.  It was as cold to his touch as the space between stars. 


     Elex pressed it to his breast.  He sat down, shivering, on the bare floor of the bay, and waited for warmth to return.


All Content (c) 2002 Jennifer Busick