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These Fine Vistas

"You were programmed to take these pictures," Professor Meiling said.
"I'm not a rob--" Feng didn't finish. More than any other faculty, this professor often spoke to provoke. High above, bright images floated on the classroom widescreens. Jupiter's red eye, vibrant and churning across the sky. Saturn's sunlit rings, glittering as they raced around doomed orbits. An ice volcano bursting on Io, shooting snow plumes toward the stars.
Professor Meiling waved her hand, her jade rings clinking. "A hundred girls your age could go on vacation and come back with similar images. From you I expected originality."
"These are the best places to visit in the outer system," Feng argued, offended on behalf of her parents. Cruise ships and their automated crews did not come cheaply. "The best vantage points!"
"Who made those vantage points?" The professor settled on a silk yellow pillow floating over the floor. "Gatekeepers guiding you to what they want you to see, how they want you to frame the universe. The opposite of unique. To be original, you have to step off the proscribed path."
Feng shut her pix and stalked out.
Professor Meiling left Red Moon Station soon afterward, very abruptly. Rumor had it that she'd been sent to the outer colonies. The teacher who replaced her thought Feng's pix were well framed and interesting.
"You have a notable talent," the new teacher said, and promised to increase Feng's grade.
"She increased everyone's," said Feng's girlfriend as they cuddled under the station dome and glittering universe. "Parents were complaining."
Later that night, piqued, Feng scrolled through public feeds and found hundreds of pix similar to hers. The same sunlit rings. Volcanic ice. Jupiter's angry eye. Repetition stung her like bees. What was the point of seeing what everyone else saw? During spring break, on a tour of gray wrecks from the great lunar wars, she watched her parents and sisters snap pix at every suggested viewpoint. Twice she dared to slip away from their mechanical guides, to step past politely marked barriers with her camera and eyes.
"Slightly better," said Professor Meiling after Feng tracked her down and sent pix all the way to outer Neptune. "But step farther. Look harder."
Feng didn't reply. Not with summer so close, internships so sparse, and her parents so disapproving of anything other than business classes. Her mother arranged an interview with her cousin in the cloudscrapers of upper Beijing. The windows of cousin Ling's office looked down at rooftop greenery, skyways of silver cars, the great prosperous empire sprawled under a smudged horizon. The job itself was menial, the pay satisfactory enough.
"Don't bother coming in every day," Ling said, folding his hands over his enormous belly. "The company runs smoothly on its own. Enjoy yourself. Be a tourist."
She walked the Forbidden City, where automatons narrated exhibits and politely herded guests. She rode alongside the Great Wall, where more machines helped more humans take excellent snapshots of crumbling stone. Feng herself took no pix. Only in a secluded alcove in a sled above flooded Guangzhou did she turn on her lens.
"Dear guest," a voice behind her said. "This area is not optimal for viewing."
Feng glanced over her shoulder at a slim robot with silver eyes. "I don't want optimal."
"It is not as pretty from here as it is upstairs," it insisted.
In the ruins below, dark water lapped at toppled skyscrapers and hollowed apartment buildings. Sooty birds fluttered from shattered windows. Feng saw a flash of white on a ledge and squinted at a torn rag, a dirty thin hand, a face. A child, wide-eyed and scrawny, flagging for help. Crying out in a voice lost on the wind. Above Feng's head, the sound of clinking glasses and casual conversation rolled off the observation deck. No one saw or heard the boy below.
"Someone needs help," Feng said.
The robot stepped forward as if to block Feng's view. "They always do."
The sled continued to glide over the drowned city. Feng hung over the rail to snap more pix. "The guide said everyone was gone."
"Mostly gone, dear guest."
Down below, a woman with a charred face pulled the child inside the moldy, decrepit wreck of a building. Feng's last pix captured the boy's blurred expression, his starved body. Later, when she showed the pictures to Ling, he remained unperturbed.
He said, "There are scavengers everywhere, feeding off the old world and trying to hold us back from the new one. Ignore them."
The teacher who had replaced Professor Meiling was also disinterested. "Such images are not pleasing. Why be upsetting?"
Behind the teacher, a robot janitor emptied a trash bin into its pouch and deployed a broom. Its one blinking eye swept past Feng to the photos and back to Feng again.
"Thank you for the advice," Feng said carefully. She shut down the pix. "I appreciate your feedback."
Shortly before graduation an acceptable job offer came to Feng from friends of her parents. She turned it down. Instead she sold everything she had to buy passage to the frozen blue skies of Neptune, where Professor Meiling floated on a pillow of yellow silk. The professor's studio on a junk barge was filled with students bent over images, diligent and attentive.
"Teach me how to see," Feng asked her.
"You already have eyes," the professor said. "I will teach you how to show others."
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, November 7th, 2018

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