Summer in Realtime
by Erica L. Satifka
After Tina's parents got divorced and she and her mom moved to Earth, she spent summers with her dad in the hyper-labyrinth of Ganymede Station 9-B, in a far-off world called reality.
She'd liked it when she was twelve. She'd run all up and down the corridors of the Station, oblivious to the milling engineers and bureaucrats, until the spider-like structure of the All-Seeing Eye jabbed a syringe into her neck and put her gently to sleep. But now that she was older, she was so over it.
"I don't want to go!" she yelled, stomping her boots on the smooth parquet floor. Their slice of the simulation was Old Earth all the way, a sunny, well-kept enclave where the grass was all the different shades of green there ever were.
Tina's mom looked up. She was wearing the silver face today, the one with the feathers. "Honey, you have to. Your dad misses you."
"Bullshit," Tina said. Tina slammed her bedroom door so hard that it rippled.
Tina ignored her father's outstretched arms and pushed her way through the security monitor, letting its rough tongues slide up and down her body, feeling for bombs or dirty code.
"Got a full schedule this week, baby," her dad said. "How'd you like to go see the Great Red Spot?"
"We do that every year," Tina said, sneering.
"Or... something else," he said, smile starting to droop.
There was nothing else to do at Ganymede Station 9-B. Tina had been coming here for five years and she knew that much about it. "Let's just go home."
Her dad's quarters were two steel-walled rooms. When Tina was there, he slept on the cot in the first room. She gagged as she passed under the dripping rust stain on the ceiling, which still hadn't been fixed. On Earth, these things would never have existed in the first place. You could order them away with a touch of your palmtroller. "I'm hungry."
"Mess hall is open in an hour. Why don't you tell me about your trip?"
It had been the same journey she took every year. The prickly-pain feeling of downloading into her body, the near-drowning as she was fished from the tank by the rough-handed attendants. The anxiety she felt as she looked at the mirrored surface of the download display into the face she only saw three months out of the year. "Sucked."
"I think you'll have a good summer, Tina. Some of the new workers are nearly your age. You'll probably get along with them."
Bullshit, Tina thought.
Tina felt the gaze of the All-Seeing Eye at her back as she slopped food onto her tray. Not too much, she reminded herself. Food's scarce here.
A group of younger workers flagged her over.
"Hey, are you new?" one of them asked.
"Just visiting. I really live down there," she said, gesturing vaguely at the Dyson net that encased the Sun and ran the program called Earth. Her tablemates got the message.
"How's it feel to be back in reality?"
She shrugged, suddenly self-conscious of her fishbelly-white skin and soft hands. These people had scars from working in the Station, and stories to go along with them. Tina loved her life in the simulation, but suddenly, she felt self-conscious about it.
Her dad slid next to her. He pushed a little of his food onto her plate. "Gotta get your strength back," he whispered. "Right, kiddo?"
You're embarrassing me, she thought.
Across the table, one of the workers caught her eye. Tina turned away. There'd be no summertime romance on this trip. Not for her.
One afternoon, as Tina sat on the inadequate bed with her father's tablet on her lap, she heard a knock at the door. She sighed and went to answer.
It was the worker from the mess hall. "Netling," he said. "Wanna come on a spacewalk?"
Not really, she thought. But what else was there to do here? "Okay."
She'd expected a puffy white marshmallow suit. That was the kind of thing the astronauts who originally built the net and the Station wore. Instead, the worker sprayed Tina with something from an aerosol can that hardened when it made contact with the stale air. "Give it three minutes."
She waited, staring at the lanky young man, who'd already sprayed his suit on, the red goop stark against his dark skin. "And why are you here?"
"Gotta adjust the farcaster."
"No, I mean on the Station. Are you being punished?"
The worker laughed. "Silly netlings."
Tina ran a finger along the surface of the suit. "I think it's almost dry."
"Then let's go." The worker led Tina to an airlock, tied a rope to her, and pushed her out. Tina's heart dropped as she fell, fell...
And hung in space, suspended by the cord. Jupiter loomed above her, its swirled orange mass obscuring nearly all of her field of vision.
I think I'm gonna be sick.
Over on the side of the Station, the worker opened a tool kit. All the tools were tied to their own tethers; they floated in the air like keys on a ring. He adjusted the farcaster effortlessly, while Tina closed her eyes. Anything to avoid seeing the huge gas giant head-on.
She felt a tug on her cord, and followed the worker inside. "Wasn't that great?"
Tina's knees went weak. She collapsed onto a pile of blankets in the corner. "Thanks, I guess. What's your name?"
"I'm Tina," she said, holding out a hand. The goop was already starting to melt.
He didn't take it. "Everyone already knows who you are."
"What's it like down there?" asked the woman sitting next to her in the mess hall.
Tina closed her eyes, recalling the glory of the simulated Earth. "Well, you remember it. Don't you?"
"No. I've never been in the program."
"Oh," Tina said, feeling sympathy. "Well, it's bright and green all the time. Nobody ever gets sick. Nothing's ever broken down or rusted over. You get everything you want by pressing buttons in your hand." She held hers up, examining it. Tina felt the loss of her palmtroller like a phantom limb.
"It's like a video game."
"We're real people."
"You might be, sometimes. Because you come here. There's a lot fewer people in the program than there used to be. Now that we've got Mars all nice and terraformed, and the sleeper ships out to Proxima, there's not really a need for it."
"People die on Mars," Tina said, looking down.
The worker smiled, not meanly but not nicely either. "People are supposed to die. It's what we do."
The All-Seeing Eye swung past. Tina looked up at its tracks, twin rails sunk into the Station's ceiling. "If you don't like the program, then why are you working here? Why don't you go to Proxima?"
"Aw, I don't mind you netlings. You're cute. It's easy work. And the pay's good. I'm saving up to buy a slice of Titan when it opens."
"I've been to Titan." But no, she hadn't. Tina had been on a virtual tour of Titan. It's as good as the real thing, she thought defensively. But she didn't think this woman would understand.
"It's like a nature preserve, right?" the woman continued. Tina wished she'd shut up. "Old Earth preserved, the way it used to be, since we don't have the planet anymore. Our past down there. Our future up here. Out there." She pointed. "Better than a video game."
"We're not a video game. Or a nature preserve." Tina left the room, scratching at her hand where the palmtroller should be.
The summer passed by without notice. Tina read a little, and thought a lot. Dad spared her a repeat trip to the Great Red Spot. He must have known it would be a downer for both of them. As Tina and her dad waited at the upload point for her transfer back to the program, she asked him the question she'd been gearing up to ask all summer long.
"Why did you stay here?"
Her dad waited a minute. The Station shuddered beneath their feet. "I loved your mother, Tina. I didn't want to leave either of you. But I couldn't live in the program. It wasn't real. This is." He stretched his limbs out, both hands nearly touching the sides of the cramped corridor. "Room to expand. Room for you and your mom, if you want it."
"We are real. Mom and I are real."
"I know, sweetheart. That's why I do this. I want to keep your world safe for you. Until it's time for you to decide where you belong."
Where I belong. She thought of pleasant Earth with its pristine parks, sparkling waterfalls, and freedom from disease. She thought of space, dirty and full of want.
She touched her father's worn face. "See you next summer."
This story was first published on Friday, October 2nd, 2015