On The Ship Breaking Beach
by Nathaniel K. Miller
A Note: This little story was published by an elusive e-zine called Quantum Realities, which didn't post the final file anywhere online and whose website has, as I just found out, finally disappeared entirely. It's a little naive, and more than a little preachy, I guess. Here's the little explanation I wrote about it for some reason or another:
"On The Ship Breaking Beach" is about how those at the outer fringes of neoliberalism are transformed by its consequences. It's about how we 'other' people, and how sometimes, seeing people as inhuman is the first step in a path toward literal mutation. The gender-loss and early-pregnancy mechanisms aren't meant to be lurid, they're meant to show how thoroughly identity and choice can be removed, both by economic structures and by a constant stream of poisons and dangers which drastically change the quality and nature of existence as a biological entity. It's about the irrationality of rationality, as it is known; it is about efficiency as a value. It is about the crassness of cops and agents of law, and the way law can act as a rubber stamp on contracts of oppression. It's also about as long as these notes, so maybe you should just read it.
So maybe you should.
On the ship-breaking beach at Bar Ceti, Tam breathed deep. The air, such as it was, stuck like tar in the lungs. Notes of exotic pollutants, rare metals, obsolete fuels. Tam’s lungs were sensitive organs, sophisticated and resilient things which responded to all shades of chemical signal. They were the only organs not dulled, but enhanced, by the permanent miasma which composed Bar Ceti’s atmosphere.
Humans and Cetians described the inhabitants as hermaphrodites, but this implied a normality, a standardization, which did not exist. Tam, like the others, had no functional sex organs this late in life (seventeen, give or take), and possessed no accessible memory of whatever might have existed there once. Tam did have memories, vague and smoky things, of children, but no recollection of the mechanics of their conception, nor whether they had lived or died. Tam’s people became sexually mature around age ten, and were usually compelled, in any number of ways, to have children as soon as they were able.
At seventeen, Tam was sterile and physiologically indecipherable, from a sexual standpoint. Other organs idled and gave out like an old sublight craft, regularly now. Death would come soon; it was making its presence known. Death was sexless too, thought Tam. Death was childless, parentless, speciesless. Death did the job of death, always, face unchanging, name unspoken. Tam liked death, prayed to it and for it each day.
Tam's stripped and dulled senses allowed, just barely, for avoidance of the constant dangers of the beach - collapsing frameworks, clattering hulls, evil dust pockets made of hot solder and ember, the occasional gunfire of a brawl or disciplinary culling. The dull glimmer of the sun through the filters of smoke and cataract made little spots of brightness on the untarnished surfaces of newer, salvageable parts; Tam hobbled after these dim stars, while inside, a mantra repeated, a sort of song without melody - it went “death, death, death.”
Today, a big freighter had arrived. Tam approached it haltingly; most of the others were already there. The hull had a matte black finish, and Tam could see no details in its surface. With no bright spots, Tam's feeble hands were utterly useless, the eyes being unable to lead them to any task. Trying to gather a sense of what was happening, Tam felt around for someone working. Oddly, instead of hunched and sweating workers, those around were inert, standing fixed.
Before them, Tam saw the hint of something moving. A nearby neighbor, sensing the confusion, spoke. "It's a shipload of humans. They're filing out."
Tam's ears were keen, and though the language the humans spoke was fractured, it was, in some way, the one Tam knew.
"We come to work," said someone, a man, perhaps. "They told us jobs are here," said another. They were speaking to Arma, whose curiosity was as strong as ever. "We work along side you."
Behind the crowd, the sound of laughter, cruel, strange laughter. Tam followed it, keeping what distance could be kept, trying not to fall over anything. The language was again the one Tam knew, but its character differed from that of the workers, and in their tone their vocation was evident. They walked the lift onto a small shuttle which had been removed from the hulking black craft, and their laughter resolved into chatter.
"They can't keep the bloodlines going for more than a few generations. Too muddy. I mean, these Fricks' babies wouldn't even check out as human."
In the darkness of Tam's mind, a vague sense arose, a compulsion: to feel for something. A necklace maybe? Yes; there it was, tarnished gold barely visible. Inside, a picture of a girl, not quite human but at least a little bit, and very clearly a girl. Beside her, a woman, a human woman worn down to mere suggestion.
"Won't they figure it out?" said the second guard.
"Sure, but so what? They signed a contract. And by the time they really accept what's happened, their brains won't barely work. They'll think they were born here. They won't even remember being human."
The lift closed behind them, and the shuttle took off. The noise of their departure subsided, replaced by the sounds of demolition: the new workers were already busy taking apart the ship they'd arrived in.
Tam looked down at the necklace again, but it was invisible now. She considered screaming, considered losing all hold on reality, but a sharp pain in her left kidney extinguished all thought. Always forgetting, she thought through the searing pain. Her eyes tried to focus on something, on any tiny fragment of light, but there was nothing. In the dark she could cast no anchor.