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Safe Space

Rich Larson was born in Galmi, Niger, has studied in Rhode Island and worked in southern Spain, and now lives in Ottawa, Canada. His short fiction appears in numerous Year's Best anthologies and has been translated into Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish, Czech, and Italian. He was the most prolific author of short science fiction in 2015, 2016, and possibly 2017 as well. His debut collection, Tomorrow Factory, comes out in May 2018, and his debut novel, Annex, follows in July 2018. Find more at richwlarson.tumblr.com and support him via patreon.com/richlarson.
Novapolis was like no city Gen had ever seen in her life. The architecture flowed around her in graceful arcs and waves, all of it a gleaming white that seemed to gently press against her eyeballs. Battery pillars rose in small copses where denizens recharged their 'cycles. Glass-topped channels displayed sparkling clean water as it coursed through the blue veins of the city's filtration system. There were no engine sounds; everything powered was as soft and melodic as the whispertrain that had conducted her here in the first place.
And everywhere she looked, there were the custodians: small white spheres that moved through the air like schools of fish. One such school had been waiting for her when she stepped off the platform, welcoming her, in a synthetic chirp, to Novapolis. The custodians explained that her refugee application had been accepted and her face and body metrics had been scanned into the system. She was officially a denizen. They had offered to guide her to housing, but she'd elected to explore instead. All she had to carry was her battered violin case and the ratty backpack slung over her shoulder.
Even now that she'd wandered for hours, stopping once to press her palm to a mobile vendor and select a dish of steamed rice with chunks of fish or something like it, everything still felt like a dream. She wanted to be happy, but she still felt thick and numb, coated in scar tissue. She hoped she would be able to find candles to burn for the sister and mother and cousins and friends who had never made it to the whispertrain or even gotten close.
Gen was up on one of the floating balconies, looking out over her new home, when someone spoke from behind her.
"Excuse me."
She turned around, and saw a man with a beautiful somber face, long-lashed eyes, thick black hair that ruffled in the breeze. While most of the denizens she'd seen so far wore bright colors, he wore a black body glove that hugged his musculature, his broad shoulders and wiry arms. Everyone she'd seen in the city so far was beautiful, in that they were clean, with unblemished skin and straight white teeth, but nobody she'd seen had set her heart hammering like it did now.
"I noticed you get off the train," the man said, with a small, apologetic smile. "Not many refugees make it here anymore. And when they do, the custodians try to make it inconspicuous."
"Oh," Gen said. She couldn't think of anything else to say, too entranced by the richness of his voice, the intensity of his dark eyes as they locked to hers.
"I'm Prosper," he said, putting out his hand into the air between them.
Gen stared at it for a moment, then remembered there were no contagions here, no bioweapons. She gripped his fingers awkwardly and shook them the way she remembered seeing in blurry netshows when she was younger.
"I'm Gen," she said. "It's... It's very beautiful here."
The man, Prosper, gave a sad smile. "In its way, yes," he said. "It's also very quiet." He pointed to her violin case. "I see that you're like me. You're an artist."
Gen shook her head fiercely, tucking the case deeper into her armpit. "No, no," she said. "I played a little for money. For foodcred."
Prosper's eyes lit up. "Incredible," he said. "It must have felt incredible. Like an open wound."
"An open wound?" Gen echoed.
"Of course, you won't be able to play much, here," Prosper said. "Not in public places, anyway. Something about music--something about the waves and the sonics--it bothers the custodians' algorithms. That's why it's so damn quiet here."
"It's peaceful," Gen offered.
"How morgues are peaceful," Prosper said with a wink. "Real cities, they have music. Loud music. They have parties and drunks and graffiti and trash and fighting and dancing and arguing and fucking in public places."
Gen felt her ears get hot at the last part, especially since Prosper, this strange and beautiful and confusing Prosper, was looking up and down her body.
"You have scars," he said. "Actual scars."
"I know," Gen said, bristling for the first time.
"I think they're very beautiful." Prosper's gaze roved up and down her arms, where her skin was pocked and pitted. "You've suffered and survived. I'm glad."
Gen didn't know what made him glad, the suffering or surviving. She shook her head, less off-balance now, more angry. "They're ugly."
"I disagree," Prosper said, moving past her and swinging himself up onto the edge of the balcony--just seeing it made Gen's stomach lurch. "But in any case. You won't get any new ones here. It's very safe here."
"Good," Gen said curtly. "I'm glad."
Prosper gave his sad smile again, shaking his head, then tipped himself backwards off the balcony.
Gen gave a holler of surprise and hurled forward, shedding her bag and violin, groping at the empty air where he'd been only a second before. Prosper was plummeting towards the stark white plaza below, limbs spread wide like a starfish. Gen couldn't stop herself screaming.
Then a flock of custodians swooped underneath his black-clad body and stopped him mid-freefall. Gen watched, disbelieving, as the spheres carried him back up, up, up, and gently deposited him back onto the balcony.
"Please be cautious in high places," they said, in their scratchy synthesized voice.
"See?" Prosper said, as they drifted away. "It's too safe. Too comfortable. We can't feel pain, or shock, or horror. We can't feel anything at all." He raked his hands back through his hair, looking haunted. "And without feeling, there can't be creation. People here go see the same stupid plays, the same stupid fucking AI-generated sculptures. It's all so dead and sterile."
Gen could feel a mounting rage inside her chest. "Dead things aren't sterile," she said. "Dead things rot and infect and swell and stink. You've never seen a corpse. Have you?"
"No!" Prosper said it in a fierce whisper. "No, I've never seen a corpse. I've never seen anything real. I've been in this horrible white void my entire life." He gripped his head in both hands. "It's a prison. You've come to a prison, Genna."
"Then leave," Gen said. "Get on the whispertrain and leave."
"I've considered it a thousand times," Prosper said. "But that would mean giving up. Abandoning this place to its sick bland regurgitations. I want to save it. I want to bring it life, not just living. We need drama, passion, pain. You understand, don't you? You've seen it yourself. You know where art begins."
Gen stared for a moment, too stunned to speak. Then she reached down and opened her violin case.
"Our first act of defiance," Prosper said, his eyes lighting up. "Play, Genna. Play until they come and tear the bow from your hands. You've suffered so much. You must have so much material."
Gen lifted the violin, nocking it to her chin on instinct, peering down its strings and seeing most needed tightening. Then she smashed it hard against the balcony railing. Wood crunched and splintered; a sliver flew past her eye. She swung it again and again, until it was nothing but mangled pieces, until Prosper slunk away, until the custodians arrived to begin sweeping up her debris.
The End
This story was first published on Saturday, March 17th, 2018

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