I went for breakfast one morning to find that the Shining Star, a greasy spoon on Amsterdam and 78th had closed. It was Saturday morning and the people I shared my life with were still in their pajamas. Signs taped in the window said goodbye and thanked everyone for being loyal customers and we’ll miss you. Businesses up and down the avenues were closing because of high rents. And on the cross streets, too. The empty restaurant stayed vacant a long time, until after we left New York I think, but I can’t be sure any more. Maybe a bank moved in, or a drug store.
Now it’s winter in a different city. It’s on days like today I want to get lost in the city, to get on the subway, transfer to a line I’ve hardly ever taken, get off at a strange stop, and then walk, camera in hand like a tourist. There aren’t subways in this town, though. I could Uber, I guess, but it’s harder to get somewhere by accident in a car.
What is a day like this? Cold, but not bitter, the sun sharp enough to make your eyes ache, but not bleed. A day with unallotted time, where you’re itchy and your legs twitch, eager to pound unfamiliar sidewalk where whole sections are swallowed up in the long shadows cast by the winter sun.
“It made me feel sprung upon,” is a sentence near the beginning of Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, a New York novel of the late 1930s, and it’s New York I wish was outside my window, like it was every day for the first fifteen years of this century. I’m re-reading Rules, comparing it structurally with a story I’ve been working on for nearly forever called the New Palace Hotel.Hotel is decent enough, but needs work under the hood. For stretches, it just rolls along the highway, like the old Toyota on the first page, purring as it disappears around a mountain bend. And then chokes and coughs out some white smoke. It’s needs work to turn into something reliable. Anyway, I really like that sentence, “It made me feel sprung upon.” If I could tap out a few sentences like that, well, that would set things right.
The Morgan Fairchild, a Model Nine residential rocket, had just cleared the atmosphere and begun approaching a low earth orbit. Oates heard two quick pings, then what sounded like a can of soda opening. A gong sounded, then the voice, so calm, so matter-of-fact it could put you to sleep. “Hull breach, decks three and four. Hull breach, decks three and four.” It was ANDREA, the ship’s artificial intelligence.
“Uhhhh, check that,” Oates said.
“We have a hull breach on decks
three and four. Would you like me to call support, Passenger Oates?”
“Can’t you just fix the hull
“I’m sorry, the base Model Nine
can’t do that. Would you like to upgrade? I can contact customer support.”
“Yes, the upgrade sounds like a
good idea,” Oates said.
“I’m sorry, Model Nines must be docked
for upgrades. Would you like me to contact support, anyway?”
“Yeah, do that.”
The ship gonged again. Kath was in
the basement – deck three. The Morgan Fairchild, as far as Oates knew, had only
three decks. Main was deck two, the basement was three, and the attic was one.
It was supposed to be a joke, naming the decks for the floors of a house, but
it ended up just being confusing.
“We’re third in the support
queue,” ANDREA said.
“The wait is less than eight
“What is the status of ship’s
systems?” Oates said, thinking Kath would ask that if she weren’t downstairs
“The ship is losing air. I
recommend sealing the basement.”
“Kath’s down there.”
“Passenger Kath’s head has pierced
through both decks three and four…,” said ANDREA.
“I didn’t know we had a deck
four,” said Oates.
“Deck four is very narrow. It’s used
to channel wires, tubes, and fuel, and it’s no longer pressurized.”
“I see,” said Oates.
“Passenger Kath in all probability is dead. Would you like me to seal the basement to prevent further loss of atmosphere? Air at 64%.”
“No, wait. I want to have a look,” Oates said, unstrapping himself. He slid down the rails to the basement. From her shoulders down, Kath’s body was sticking into the room through the wall, her legs and torso parallel to the floor. He pulled her legs, but the suction was too strong, and she didn’t budge. He didn’t know what a dead body felt like, but it must have been something like this. He could feel the air rushing toward the opening in which her head was lodged.
“Sir, support is picking up.”
Oates liked that ANDREA called him, “sir.”
He returned to the main deck and
strapped himself in.
“Good morning, passenger, how are
you today?” the voice said. “My name is Amir. To whom am I speaking?”
“Yeah, this is Oates. ANDREA tells
me there’s a hull breach.”
“For quality assurance purposes,
this call may be recorded. After the call, would you mind staying on the line
and answering a few survey questions so that we may serve you better?”
“Yeah. No. What? Look, the ship is
leaking, and my girlfriend’s head is sticking out into space.” Protruding would have been a better
word, he thought. Protruding into space.
“That’s unfortunate, sir. Let’s
see if we can fix the problem together. Now, according to our records, you’re
in a base Model Nine, the Morgan Fairchild?
“Have you upgraded to the latest
“I don’t know…I thought we signed
up for automatic updates.”
“Let me check that for you. You’re
running version 9.13. The current version is 9.22. Would you like to download
“Wait. I thought I had to be
docked. What does that have to do with the leak?”
“Sir, I can’t do any remote
analysis and repair unless you’re on the latest version of the software.”
“Air at 54%,” ANDREA chimed in.
“Oh, that’s not good,” Amir said.
“I’ve gone ahead and started the update. You may notice a slight lag in
performance during the download.”
The lights in the cabin dimmed
while the screens displayed a progress bar.
“While the system updates, would
you mind taking our online survey? Your opinion is important to us, and your
ratings can influence other people’s purchasing decisions.”
Except for the screen, the ship
went dark and silent and suddenly cold. Oates could see his breath, a puffy
cloud, hovering. Then the lights flickered on and everything came to life.
“Air at 41%,” ANDREA said.
“Okay,” Amir said. “I see you have
a hull breach on three and four.”
“And you’re quickly losing air.
Why don’t we seal off deck three from the main cabin? That should kill the
“Wouldn’t that kill Kath, too.”
“It looks like Passenger Kath’s
head is in the cold, dark void of space. I’m sure she’s dead.”
Oates rubbed his temples. This was supposed to be a ride into the rest of their lives, an escape from the ruined earth. Everyone who could was getting away from the once-green world that could now barely support cockroaches and moss.
People like Kath and Oates couldn’t afford a place on the massive satellites designed for the world’s richest, but they could buy a simple old Model Nine, and join it with other Nines. Plus, it was compatible with the new Model Tens and farming pods. They could start a life in space. They were already overdue to meet up with the Petrovskys on the Victoria Principal. Now Kath – the only one who knew how the ship worked – was dead. Who would fix things? Who would he cuddle with at night? Who would make everything better?
“Air at 34%,” ANDREA said.
“Sir, I’ve gone ahead and sealed
off decks three and four while you think things over.”
“Atmosphere stable. Air at 37%.”
Amir continued, “Try to maneuver
your ship into a stable orbit while you plan your next steps.”
Oates pressed the gas pedal, a
silly option, but one Kath insisted upon. It reminded her of a vintage GTO, a
muscle car she had inherited from her grandfather.
“Thrusters inoperable,” ANDREA
“Let me troubleshoot that for
you,” Amir said.
“Thanks,” Oates said, bewildered
and a little bit lightheaded.
“It looks like Passenger Kath’s
head has severed the fuel line and fuel is leaking out into space,” Amir said,
“Can you fix that?” Oates said.
“Fuel at 14%,” ANDREA said.
“You’ll need to go down to deck
three and manually repair the line.”
“I see,” Oates said.
“Put on your approved space suit.”
“My space suit…”
“Your space suit,” ANDREA said,
“is in the basement.”
“What do you recommend?” Oates
“Eject?” Amir said, for the first
time appearing as flummoxed as Oates.
“Eject?!? To what?”
“Orbit degrading,” ANDREA said,
her voice calm and reassuring. “Hull failure is imminent.”
There was a knock on the basement
door. Then a pounding.
“Oates, let me in. Open this door
“Kath? Is that you, Kath?”
“Of course, it’s me. Who else
would it be?” Kath said.
“Opening the basement door will
result in complete cabin depressurization,” ANDREA said.
“I thought it was you, but your
voice is a little bit muffled. I’ve missed you so much. How are you alive?”
“I’m wearing a space suit. Like
you’re supposed to.”
“Great. Yeah, I should have thought
to do that. It’s great you’re not dead,” Oates said.
“Ask her to fix the leak in the
fuel line,” Amir said.
“Kath, did you hear that??
“What? I have a splitting
“Can you fix the fuel line?” Oates
“Why can’t you do it?”
“I’m locked out of the basement. I
can’t open the door until the pressure has equalized.”
“Do you think Kath can take a
moment to fill out a survey?” Amir said. “Just a short one.”
“It’s really hot down here,” Kath
“That’s just the atmospheric friction,”
Amir said. “If you’re skimming the atmosphere, that’s bad news. I’m sending you
“Hull has been compromised,” ANDREA
said. The vessel shook. There was an explosion.
But Kath, now helmetless, drifted
by the window toward the earth below, a look of surprise on her face. As she
entered the atmosphere a moment later, her body glowed red, sprouted flames and
disappeared in a flash.
“Your warranty covers catastrophic
failure,” Amir said. “You’ll have the option of a pro-rated refund, or a credit
toward a Model 10.”
“But Kath’s gone. What difference
does it make?” Oates said, dizzy, angry, confused.
“Hull failure on decks one through four,” ANDREA said.
“Listen, you don’t have much time,
I’m going to read out the questions and fill in the form for you.”
“Question 1: On a scale of one
through five, with five being the best…”