Sometimes when the door opened, it coincided with another door at the end of the hall opening. When that happened, if Desset pressed himself against the far wall, he could see outside. The glimpse never lasted more than a couple of seconds, but even the briefest image of yellow sunlight on white pavement and neatly trimmed green grass lingered in his mind for days. At night, when he was locked in place, he dreamed of wind in his hair and warmth on his face. He always woke from these dreams in tears, gnashing his teeth to keep from wailing.
That fateful morning, he was floating in the residue of a dream when the director stormed into the room, his suit jacket unbuttoned and his crimson tie flapping up over his shoulder like a devil tongue. Desset had tools in either hand, and he was bent low over the open panel of a hover chair, but his mind was elsewhere, sailing through clouds in a gold-tinged sky. The director slammed a plastic folder down on the table, and the clatter of data chips roused Desset. He looked up into the hard and haggard face of Director Thane.
“Complaints,” the director said, flashing his big crooked teeth. “Endless complaints.”
Desset glanced down at the plastic folder, which had fallen open, gushing data chips onto the table like a disemboweled animal. He set his spanner down and picked up one of the chips.
“Oh, go ahead,” the director said. “Plug it in and see for yourself. Page after page.”
But Desset merely shook his head and set the data chip back on the table. It almost didn’t bother him. Almost. He knew he would think about it too much later, but his immediate reaction was only weariness.
“The quality of your work is plummeting,” Director Thane said, jabbing a fat finger in Desset’s face. “It is beginning to affect business. Customers are saying they won’t come back.”
Desset retrieved the spanner and made as if to return to work, but he only stuck his hands inside the open panel and held them there.
“What happens if this company becomes financially unviable?” the director asked, leaning in so close that Desset smelled the coffee and bacon on his breath. “What happens to you? Is anyone going to spend money to have you relocated?”
“I shall work harder,” Desset said, but he said it too quietly and had to repeat himself to be heard.
Director Thane stared at him for a long uncomfortable moment. Desset didn’t return the look, but he could feel those big, bloodshot eyes boring into his skull.
“It might be too late,” the director said, at last. He picked up the folder and began scooping up the data chips, but then he seemed to change his mind and scattered the chips across the table. “You know what? I don’t even want to deal with them. If people come here to complain, I’m just going to send them to you. How does that sound?”
Desset pretended to tighten a screw. “That sounds fair.”
Director Thane nodded then gave a little snort and turned to leave. “A waste of money,” he said, with a broad sweep of his arm. “All of this. We should have sent you to prison.” And he stormed across of the room, the empty plastic folder clutched so tightly in his fist that it bent in half.
The door swept open at Thane’s approach, and Desset considered flinging himself against the far wall to catch a glimpse of the outside, but he was too tired to attempt it. So very tired. It felt like all of the strength had drained out of his body into the network of tubes beneath him. All he wanted was to retract against the wall, turn off the power and sink back into his dreams of sunlight.
Prison. Yes, he had thought about it more times that he could count. If the director had come that morning, opened a portal into a dark cell and offered to detach him, he would have accepted. Better a cell than this endless decay. He had thought about it many times and felt ashamed. How thankful had he been when the offer had first been made to put him to work in the factory? With tears of relief and trembling hands, he had embraced the director. Good food, real work, no threat of punishment, and the chance to do what he felt gifted to do: tinker with electronics.
He hadn’t understood then that his freedom was only another prison. He had become a puppet on a stick instead of an animal in a cage, and which was worse? He took a deep breath, brushed the data chips to one side of the table and returned to work, but he felt as if a shadow hung over him. He had no other options if the factory went out of business. He was trapped. If some generous fool wanted to pay to have him detached from this place, shipped elsewhere and reattached, then maybe. But there were few generous fools left.
He had trouble concentrating on his work, but, then, he always did after a browbeating. A little voice in his head wouldn’t stop whispering, “Your doom draws near.” But he did finish, closing up the panel and tossing the spare parts into a drawer on the wall beside him. He tested the hover chair, and it seemed to be working. The lights came on, the lift gave a little whine, and the whole thing rose about an inch from the tabletop. Surely that was good enough.
He pressed the button that signaled he was done and swept across the room for a sip of water.
“Well, now, this is not what I expected.”
Desset was bent over the water fountain when the voice spoke. High and soft. He hadn’t heard the door open over the tinkling of water. He turned back and saw a woman standing just inside the room, dark hair and fair skin, a wry and slightly disturbed look on her face.
“Can I help you?” Desset asked, rinsing his grease-stained hands in the water and drying them on a dangling, ragged towel.
“Actually, I was told to come and complain to you directly,” she said, stepping further into the room. Her eyes were fixed on his attachments, the metal shaft and cluster of tubes that began at his lower back and curved into the wall. “Are you…” She swallowed, as if struggling not to vomit. “Are you connected to that thing?”
“I am,” Desset said with a sigh. This he did not need, to be gawked at like some kind of museum freak. “It’s standard practice for people like me.”
The woman crossed the room and leaned both hands against the edge of the table. “I guess I’ve read about it. I’ve just never seen it.” She shook her head and looked into his eyes, and the sickness melted into pity, which was worse.
“It’s better than being locked in a cell on a moon somewhere,” he replied. He was so tired, his words all ran together, but the woman seemed to understand him.
“Is it?” she asked.
No, Desset thought. No, not at all. But instead he nodded. “Here I can work. I’m never beaten. It’s well lit.”
The woman kept staring at him. She started to say something, but the words died on her lips. Finally, Desset turned away from her and began rooting through drawers, as if looking for something, hoping she would go away.
“What did you come to complain about?” he asked, finally, when he realized she was not leaving.
“My exercise platform,” she replied, sounding dazed. “It shorted out a few days after I brought it home.”
“I apologize,” he replied, digging his hands into a drawer full of tiny screws and sifting them through his fingers like sand. “Bring it back in, and I’ll work on it for free. We’ll even refund what you’ve already paid.”
“Okay, I will.”
“Thank you,” he said, before she could continue speaking. “Now, I really must get back to work. Have a nice day and goodbye.”
“Okay,” she said again and turned to leave. She took two steps, paused, and turned back to him. He could see her out of the corner of his eye, her fingers pressed to her cheeks. “Did they… Did they remove the rest of you?”
“Yes, of course,” he said, waving her away. “You agree to take the job, and that’s the deal.”
“For how long?”
“Forever,” he said. “It stays like this forever.”
“Would you leave if you could?” she asked, hesitantly.
He didn’t want to answer. It wasn’t a good idea to speak the truth to a customer, but when he tried to lie, the words stuck in his throat. “Yes,” he said, so quietly he didn’t know if she heard him.
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Thank you for being honest. My name is Neoma. What is your name?”
“Desset. Now, please, leave.”
“It was nice to meet you, Desset,” she said and walked out of the room. The door closed behind her with a soft whoosh. Desset slid the drawer shut and turned back to the table. And he wept, tears spilling down his cheeks like poison. He clasped his hands in front of his face, and they shook like the hands of a madman. In that moment, he would’ve given anything, done anything, suffered anything, to be able to walk out of the room. A prison cell on a moon, yes, he would’ve crawled into it, curled his fingers around the cold bars and cried out in exultation if it could’ve been.
But no. This was the choice he had made, and he could never escape it. Never. He slammed his hands against his forehead until he saw stars, but the pain diminished the weeping, if only a little. Workers came in to pick up the repaired hover chair, and they glanced at him, frowning in disgust, but said nothing. As they left, one of them glanced over his shoulder and shook his head. By the time the lunch cart came through, he had mostly pulled himself together. He stared at his face in the mirror above the water fountain and saw red blotches around his eyes and on his cheeks.
“Time to eat,” the server said, pulling a segmented lunchbox out of the cart and setting it on his work table.
Desset wiped away the tracks of tears and glided back over to the work table. “Thank you,” he said, but the server was already wheeling the cart out of the room. He ate his lunch in silence, but the food had no taste. The sandwich might as well have been a stack of cardboard, the peas dust, but he choked it all down and sat staring at the empty lunchbox, feeling miserable.
The door opened again, and Director Thane strode in, scowling darkly. “I hope you enjoyed the complaints. That’s what I get to put up with a hundred times a week, thanks to you.” The door closed behind him, and he came to stop. “And this is why.” He gave the hover chair a push, and it sailed off the table, bounced on the floor and scraped its way across the room.
It came to a stop near the bend of Desset’s metal support rod. “I’ll take another look at it,” he said, pushing his empty lunchbox away from him.
“Willful incompetence,” Director Thane shouted. “I just got done screaming at you for ruining the company, and you have the nerve to send this shoddy piece of work back out?”
“It hovers,” Desset said. He felt the old weariness stealing over him, but a hard knot had developed in his gut.
“It scrapes the floor like a damned plow,” Thane said, shaking a fist at him. “That’s not fixed, you worthless half-man! That’s another complaint and refund waiting to happen.”
Desset could no longer stand the sound of the director’s voice. He deserved the scolding, perhaps, but it didn’t make him care. He didn’t care if the complaints flowed like a river through the front door and swept everything in the building away. He moved over to the wall beside the water fountain, but only because it was the farthest he could go. The hinge in the metal shaft gave him about a hundred and seventy-degree arc in which to move, the work table at one extreme, the water fountain at the other.
“You’ve ruined this company,” Thane said. “More than that, you’ve ruined yourself. If this place closes down, I can find other work, but you, you have nothing. You’ll be here when the wrecking ball knocks down the walls. Maybe that’s what you want?”
“No,” Desset said, bending over the water fountain, as if to take a drink. The little knot in his stomach was growing, like some furious worm feasting on his despair. “No, that is not what I want.”
“It has to be intentional,” Thane said. “This level of incompetence has to be intentional.”
Desset turned to the director. He spoke without thinking. “It is.”
Thane had one hand in the pocket of his jacket. He pulled it out now, clutching a fistful of data chips. “It is? It is intentional?” he shouted. “Did you just admit it?” He threw the data chips at Desset with a cry of rage. They hit his chest, his arms, his stomach, made high tinkling sounds as they bounced off the metal shaft, but they were as light as fingernails. He scarcely felt them. Desset watched them fall to the floor and wished he had feet to stamp on them.
“Financial reports,” the director said, still shouting. “The testimony of your failures, and you’re telling me you did it on purpose?”
Desset felt heat filling his chest, making his heart race. He gazed into the director’s wide, wild eyes and felt like he was looking into a void. “Yes, I did,” he said again. “Disconnect me and throw me outside.”
Director Thane shook his head, gnashed his teeth, and took a step toward Desset. “Don’t you tempt me. I did you a favor letting you work here.”
“You did not,” Desset replied, gliding back over to the work table. “You have a contract with the government, and they pay you well. If my services are not acceptable, disconnect me and throw me outside.”
“Believe me, if I could get away with it, I would,” Thane said, taking another step toward him. “I will see better work from you, half-man. I will see better work.”
Desset grunted and reached for the lunchbox. “Better work,” he said. He flung the empty lunchbox at the director. It hit him on the chest, spattering his blue shirt with the residue of peas and meat paste, and fell to the floor. “There’s some better work for you, sir.”
Thane stared at the lunchbox for a long, tense moment, then reached up, very slowly, and brushed the crumbs off his shirt. “That’s how it’s going to be, then.”
Director Thane rushed at Desset, head low, hands reaching. Desset saw him coming and shifted away, but Thane altered course, trapping him against the water fountain. He grabbed the collar of Desset’s shirt and slammed him into the water fountain, causing a great rush of agony at the place where the shaft attached to his spine. Desset cried out, and Thane clapped a hand over his mouth.
“Shut up,” he screamed. “You shut up!”
Desset screamed through his fingers. The agony sent a wave of nausea through him and made his head spin. He screamed until his voice broke, and then he let out a last defiant hiss until he ran out of breath. Thane sneered at him and slapped him across the face so hard his vision dimmed.
“I will not be treated with disrespect by the likes of you,” he said. He slapped him again, this time so hard his head bounced off the wall. “Do you hear me, Desset?”
Desset felt blood running from his nose. His first instinct was to retract into his nook in the wall, as if that were an escape, but the fire still burned in him. The worm was restless and angry. He licked the blood dripping from his upper lip and spat it into Thane’s face. Thane made a grunt of disgust, and Desset, catching him off guard, punched him in the neck.
“I don’t want to fight, sir!”
The director staggered backward, clutching his throat and gagging. Desset didn’t wait for him to recover but rushed over to the work table, opened a drawer, and pulled out a small hammer. When Thane came for him again, a crazed light in his eyes, he threw the hammer at him. Thane tried to deflect it, but the head of the hammer caught him on the forearm with a loud and satisfying crack.
“I don’t want to fight,” Desset said again. “Disconnect me and throw me outside.”
Thane, his face distorted in pain, grabbed his injured forearm. “I’ll do worse than that,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I’ll do much worse.”
He rushed at him again. Desset turned back to the open drawer, fishing around for another suitable weapon, but the director was upon him. He grabbed his upper arm, fingers clamping down until it hurt, and jerked him away from the drawer, flinging Desset across the room. The hinge of his support rod gave a squeal of protest at the forced movement. Thane drew a screwdriver out of the drawer and came for him.
“If I hadn’t been worried about losing the contract, I would have dumped your half-self in the dumpster a long time ago,” he said, hunched over, the screwdriver held in front of his face.
Workers came to the door then, no doubt drawn by the screams. Thane rounded on them, red-faced, and yelled, “Get out! This is none of your concern. Go back to work!” And the workers fled.
Desset, seizing the opportunity when his back was turned, glided up behind him and grabbed the hand wielding the screwdriver.
“Let go,” the director said, in a voice like the snarl of a rabid dog. “I’ll carve your heart out.”
They struggled over the screwdriver, shifting back and forth in a kind of violent dance. When it became clear that neither would win, Thane drew his other hand back, balled up a fist, and punched Desset in the face. Darkness descended, and it felt like the world broke loose around him and drew back. As everything shrank into the distance, Desset thought, though surely it was only the old familiar dream, that he saw a flash of sunlight through the door.
“What in God’s name are you doing?”
The voice roused him. His head had tipped forward onto his chest, but he lifted it. The sudden movement almost made him pass out again. His whole face felt numb, but his back was a sea of agony. Thane was stumbling away, a look of open-mouthed horror on his face.
The woman with the dark hair, Neoma, stood in the doorway. She had a purse in her hands, holding it up in front of her like a shield.
“I said, what in God’s name are you doing? Are you hitting him?”
“He attacked me,” Thane said, adjusting his tie and pulling his jacket back into place. “Things got out of hand, ma’am. Could you please wait outside?”
“He’s bleeding,” she said. She remained in the doorway, so the door wouldn’t close. Workers had gathered in the hallway outside. One of the workers had a large flat piece of black plastic held in his arms, which Desset recognized as the woman’s exercise platform, the very one he had failed to repair.
“He means to kill me,” Desset said, but the words were a mess. His lips felt a hundred sizes too big, and blood was running into his mouth.
“Foolishness,” Director Thane said. “Things got out of hand. I’ll send for a nurse to tend his wounds.”
“No, you don’t go anywhere,” Neoma said, rounding on the director but drawing her purse against her chest, as if she feared he might try to take it. “Don’t come near me. Don’t even move. What sort of an animal are you?”
Thane frowned and shook his head, clearly feeling that he had been grossly misunderstood. He started to speak, but the woman interrupted him.
“Desset,” she said, her voice softening. “I don’t know what you did to wind up here, but I won’t leave you like this.”
Desset gave her a brief smile, though it was forced and made his lips hurt all the more. Of course, she would leave him like this. She had no choice. He turned to the water fountain and began washing the blood from his face. Let the woman feel sorry for him, if she must, but she couldn’t help him. She was only going to make it worse between Desset and the director later, that he knew all too well.
“Ma’am,” Thane said, trying to sound patient though Desset heard the threat in his voice. “There is nothing you can do for him. He is a convicted felon under a government contract. If you want to detach and relocate him, you’ll have to buy out his contract and pay for the relocation, and, trust me, it’s more than you can afford.”
“Don’t you pretend to know me,” the woman said, her voice rising. “You don’t know what I can and can’t afford. You keep your mouth shut.”
“Ma’am,” he said again.
“I said shut your mouth!”
“Very well,” Director Thane said in a sigh.
Desset finished washing his face and hands and turned back to her. She was still in the doorway, still holding her purse against her chest. Thane stood in the corner, his head bowed, his brows knitted. He looked worried, not the enraged sort of worry that Desset was so used to but genuinely afraid.
“Desset,” the woman said, lowering the purse. “You were honest with me, and I want to help you. What can I do?”
Desset shrugged. He knew he should feel hopeful, even if the woman was out of her mind, but he felt only weariness and pain.
“Him,” she said, pointing at Director Thane. “Despite what he thinks of me, I could buy this company and fire him. He’s not worth much. If you ask me to, I will.”
“Now, please, let’s calm down,” the director said with an uncomfortable laugh.
“I could also call the police,” she continued. “Surely he’s not allowed to beat you.”
“That’s not necessary,” Thane said, clasping his hands. “I know I got carried away, but it won’t happen again. Ma’am, listen to me.”
She ignored him and took a step into the room. The door started to close behind her, but the gathering crowd of workers pressed in behind her and kept it open.
“Tell me what you want me to do with him,” the woman said. “And I will do it.”
Desset looked into her eyes as long as he dared. Misty eyes filled with pity, he could only manage it for a couple of seconds before he dropped his gaze. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Was it possible? Was this woman for real? Desset glanced at Director Thane, at that big cinder block of a head, the sharp lines of his face, the hard glint in his eyes. Not a nice man, not a pleasant man, never a happy man. And Desset considered what, in fact, he really did want to do to him, the one who had contributed so much to his ongoing misery. Pick up the screwdriver and jam it into his eye socket? Seize the hammer and shatter his skull like an eggshell? Perhaps.
He considered, and Thane kept his anxious gaze fixed on the floor.
“I don’t want you to do anything to him,” Desset said. “It’s not his fault that I’m here. It’s my fault. I chose this, and, even though I didn’t understand the stupidity of the choice when I made it, I still can’t blame anyone else for it.”
The director swallowed hard and looked up at Desset, daring to smile. “Oh, Desset, thank you. I’m so sorry I lost my temper. It won’t happen again.”
Thane was so busy apologizing--it sounded abnormal on his tongue, like a language that he hadn’t yet mastered--that he didn’t notice the woman’s approach. She walked up to him, raised a hand, and slapped him across the face. Thane grunted, stumbled back into the wall and grabbed his cheek. Danger flashed in his eyes, and Desset fully expected him to charge the woman, but he didn’t. The workers in the hallway gasped and grumbled.
“That’s from me,” she said. She turned back to Desset and approached him. He found himself trembling as she drew near, and he almost retracted into the wall. “I can have you relocated, if you want. I will do whatever you ask of me. What do you want, Desset?”
He met her gaze and felt the room swimming around him. He was all too aware of what he looked like, pasty and thin, nearly bald, sickly, yet she reached out and took his hand and held it.
“What do you want?” she asked again.
And what did he want? He had dreamed many times of relocation, but now that it was being offered to him, he felt no real excitement at the prospect. He would always be a half-man attached to a metal rod, kept alive artificially by tubes. He would always be confined to a single room, always under contract, always working for unfriendly people as a convict. What difference did it make if it was Director Thane abusing him or some other bully, it all came to the same thing.
“There is one thing I would like,” he said.
“Tell me,” Neoma said. “Anything.”
Desset slipped his hand out of hers and leaned against the wall beside the water fountain. “Sometimes the door to the room will open just as the door at the end of the hallway opens. When that happens, if I’m standing here, I catch a glimpse of the outside. Maybe you could have the workers prop both doors open for me. Not all the time, of course, that’s unreasonable, but perhaps once a day, in the morning when the sun is brightest, have them prop the doors open for an hour or so. That would be enough, and I’ll work harder. I promise.”
She looked at him for a long moment, glanced over her shoulder at the door, then looked back at him. And she burst into tears.
* * *
The feel of wind in his hair and the warmth of sunlight on his upturned face. Even now, after a month, he still found himself sitting on the porch behind the guest house, eyes closed, just basking in it. When he wasn’t sitting on the porch, he was usually at work, though neither Neoma nor her husband required it of him. He owed her so much, the sense of gratitude was overwhelming, but he did what he could for them, repairing appliances that broke down or working on little projects around the house, hoping that in some small way, he could improve her life as much as she had utterly transformed his.
He heard the sound of her feet on the walkway and turned. A small concrete path led from the back door of her house to the porch of the guest house. She had a wicker basket in her hands, and as she approached, she held it up, smiling. He returned the smile and reached for the control stick of his hover chair. The irony of his situation, that he owed his new mobility to a hover chair, hadn’t escaped him, for it had been another hover chair, poorly repaired, that had almost cost him his life at the hands of Director Thane. Of course, designing attachments for the hover chair to suit his needs had been more expensive than he could bear to think about, but he meant to make every penny of it count.
“Lunch,” Neoma said, setting the wicker basket on a table near the door. She opened the lid, and the smell of baked chicken wafted out. Real meat, lab-grown, not that awful pink paste.
“You do too much for me,” Desset said. “I should be bringing lunch for you and your family.”
“Oh, stop,” Neoma said. “You’ve done work for us every single day that you’ve been here, and it’s not necessary.”
He glided over to the table and peeked into the basket. Chicken, peas in a small dish, bread, a bottle of wine. He shook his head.
She turned to leave but lingered. “No more seeing through doors.”
“Thank you, yes,” he said. “I mean to take a look at the thermostat on the pool this afternoon. I know it’s not been working right lately.”
She smiled at him over her shoulder and left. Desset’s gaze turned to neatly trimmed grass beside the walkway, swaying in the warm noon breeze, and then to the billowing clouds in the eastern sky.
“No more seeing through doors,” he echoed, and reached into the wicker basket for his lunch.