“Put on a Happy Face, Part One: No Frowns in This Town”
The door swung open with only a gentle shove, giving way to a long, gunmetal hallway lined with windows. It offered nowhere to hide, which Cas considered both a blessing and a curse. No one could sneak up on her, but she would be spotted easily by anyone near the windows. She looked back to the artificial lake. The shore she had climbed onto was the only land she could see. Sheer metal walls flanked the water, and there were no visible doors.
Cas stepped across the threshold and into the hallway. The door at the opposite end was translucent gray, betraying nothing of what stood beyond it. Cas crouched down and made her way to the first set of windows. Slowly, with calculated speed and caution, she stood up and glanced out the window. The grass was sparse and patchy, islands of dull green amidst a sea of dry, cracked soil. The occasional tree slumped sadly. Their trunks were a uniform gray, giving them more the look of stone than wood.
It was the first slice of nature Cas felt certain wasn’t a trick of technology.
Cas saw no other signs of life outside and decided to continue. She crossed the hallway at a brisk pace, still wary someone could be watching her. The translucent gray door revealed little detail of what was beyond it. There was a row of doors visible on the opposite wall, each one with a light set at the top of its frame.
Smudges of ashes at the door’s edges compelled Cas to press on. She placed a hand against the door’s cold, metal surface and gave a gentle push. It swung inwards slowly, its hinges groaning as rust flaked away. Save for one, the lights above the doors were off. The solitary bulb that was lit shined a soft green.
Without a second thought, Cas crossed the small room and prepared to open another door.
“Stop! What are you doing?” demanded a raspy voice from behind Cas. She spun around, fists raised and wishing she still had the knife she’d taken from Maeve. An old man stood there, an alarmed look in his eyes. He held his hands out as if to show he wasn’t a threat.
“You can’t go out there without protective gear on,” the old man continued. “You got some kind of death-wish, lady? Two breaths of the air out there will leave you deader than a doornail.”
Cas breathe a sigh of relief. “Excuse me,” she said.
The old man shook his head. “Been longer than I can remember since we had a new arrival,” he muttered. He eyed Cas for a moment. His gaze seemed to be free of judgment and apprehension. He turned and shuffled to the wall next to the door Cas had entered. Several lockers lined the wall, each marked with a numeric code. The old man considered each of them before selecting one. He tinkered with its combination lock, then stepped back as the door popped open. A dull gray uniform, much like the one Cas was wearing albeit much dryer, sat folded on a shelf in the locker. A gray spacesuit was held above the clothes by a hanger. It was slightly less plain, bearing a small insignia on its chest that looked like a flame. Bands of red fabric circled the elbow and knee joints, with two parallel rings around the suit’s midsection.
The old man picked up the clothes, shuffled back over to Cas, and handed them to her. He waved to the other side of the boxish room. “Privacy curtain over there,” he said. “You’ll catch your death if you stay in those soaked rags.”
“Thank you,” Cas said. She took the clothes from the old man and stepped behind the privacy curtain.
“I’m sorry,” Cas added. “I don’t believe I asked your name.” She changed out of her soaking clothes and into the ones she had been given, appreciating the warmth they held.
“Not to worry,” the old man said. “I’m a second-generation Epsilon colonist, so I was given a number. Long. Not easy to remember. The youngsters call me Old Grim when they think I’m not listening, so I think that will do just fine.”
“It’s nice to make your acquaintance, Old Grim,” Cas said. “I go by Cas.” She stepped out from behind the curtain, pleased to have found the outfit fit her well.
Old Grim had returned to the locker and was shuffling back towards her with the spacesuit. “Cas, hm?” he said. “I knew a nice young lady named Jocasta. You look a little like her. She had some dense curls on her head, though, and I think you’re a little taller.” He considered Cas for a moment before shrugging the thought off.
Cas took the suit and stepped in. As she pulled it on, it seemed far too large for her. It seemed to adjust, however, as Cas zipped the suit up. She paused, glancing towards the doors. “Are you the only one here?” she asked. “Forgive my ignorance.”
Old Grim shrugged. “Best you see for yourself,” he said, frowning. “This used to be a state-of-the-art habitation unit, back when I first got here.” He returned to the lockers, opening another one. He shuffled back to Cas with a helmet in hand.
“This one’s outdated, no doubt,” Old Grim said. He held the helmet out to Cas, and she took it. It fit loosely on her. The visor, she noted, allowed no light through. She could see nothing.
“There’s a small power button situated around where the helmet covers your left ear,” Old Grim said. “Press it.”
Cas placed her hand against the helmet and slowly guider her fingers to the area Old Grim had mentioned. She found a small, round depression, and pressed at it gently. The inside of the helmet flashed to life, full of brilliant color. A progress bar appeared momentarily, sped to 100%, then disappeared. The helmet’s interior display then switched to showing the world around Cas. Faint outlines of icons were overlaid on the world. Cas shifted her focus to one—a smiley face—and it gained clarity.
Old Grim offered a thumbs-up. “Looks to be working well enough,” he said. “Try looking at another.” Cas complied, shifting her gaze from the smiley face. It dulled, again a faint impression against the helmet’s visualization of the world around Cas. She shifted her gaze to the right, stopping on another dulled icon that turned out to be a frown.
“Excellent,” Old Grim said. “I think that should do it. I should explain the point of this little exercise, I suspect.”
Cas nodded, suddenly aware the gesture didn’t necessarily register with the helmet and spacesuit on. She offered, instead, a thumbs-up.
“The habitat’s atmospheric cycling hasn’t been working right for years, but this habitation zone has been deemed a failure,” Old Grim explained. “No help from above, so to speak. These suits, previously a novelty item, became our only hope. You communicate by way of guiding your eyes to an icon. It presents on the helmet’s outer display.”
Cas nodded. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have it so you can simply speak to one another?” she asked.
Old Grim shook his head. “You’ll want to be cautious with questions like that out there,” he said. “Nowhere to go but forward at this point, and I suspect you’ve got plenty of forward-moving to do.”
Cas considered Old Grim’s words. “Thank you,” she said. “Why are you helping me?”
“I think you’ll end up helping us,” Old Grim replied. “First visitor shows up fifty years to the day from when this habitation zone was established? Maybe I’m just foolin’ myself. You stay safe out there, now. Not everyone you encounter is going to be so welcoming.”
“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” Cas said.
Old Grim gestured towards the solitary door with a green light above it. “Out that way,” he said. “Follow the dirt path along a ways and you’ll find yourself at the edge of town.”
Cas nodded. She placed a hand against the door and prepared to push, only to pause. “Will you be safe if I open this?” she asked. She turned her attention back to Old Grim. He had shuffled back to the lockers and was holding what looked to be a breathing mask to his face. He nodded to Cas, who nodded in return. She turned back to the door and pressed.
There was a soft popping sound as the seal broke, and the door swung open. The sunlight’s warmth, though artificial, made its way through the spacesuit. It was strong, but not unpleasantly so. Sickly flowers swayed, drooped over, in the few patches of surviving grass. Cas closed the door behind herself and stepped forward. The trail stood out, despite being a dirt path in a landscape dominated by dried earth.
Cas followed the path along its few small hills and valleys. She took in the scenery as she walked, finding herself wondering what this placed had looked like in its early years. How beautiful, she thought, it must have been.
Small cottages became visible in the distance. Cas walked faster, spurred on by her curiosity. As she reduced the distance between her and the buildings, she saw the paint on their exteriors was cracked and worn, stained by dust and soot. She could see people here and there in the distance, each wearing a spacesuit identical to hers. Something, however, seemed different. She noticed how they all looked down as they shuffled about, clearly avoiding meeting one another’s gaze. She continued along the road, careful to imitate the shuffling gait and downward gaze of the locals.
The path grew into a street, then a cobblestone road as it continued. Cas hazarded a glance upwards. The cottages were closer, forming a manmade wall circling what looked to be the town’s center. Fragmented remains of a marble fountain stood at odd angles. What was once a man and woman pouring water from ornate pottery had been reduced to a collection of shattered limbs and leaking pipes. To the statue’s left, off-center by comparison, was a small, circular stage. Stone steps, pristine compared to the statue and the surrounding cobblestones, wound around the stage from the ground to its plateau.
There was a loud, tinny sound, unpleasant and jarring. Cas took a moment to identify what it was—an old recording of a bell ringing.
The townsfolk appeared one or two at a time at first. Then groups of four or so. The town center filled quickly, Cas suddenly stuck amidst the crowd. She focused her gaze downwards still, hoping to continue to blend in until she had time to observe more. The crowd parted, but Cas couldn’t see why. Gradually, two large figures carried a platform, its handles straddled on their shoulders as one walked ahead of the other.
There was a smaller person atop the platform. Diminutive, Cas thought. Perhaps even withered. The person’s limbs seemed loose within the confines of the same suit that fit snugly on everyone else
Without a word, the two carried the figure to the top of the stage, set the platform down at its center, and stepped away. Even the slight breeze seemed to fall silent.
The screen on the small figure’s helmet lit up bright green, then was replaced by a banana-yellow smiley face. There was a soft clicking sound all around Cas. She looked around and saw images cycling on the other helmets until, one by one, they all mirrored the figure on the stage. Thinking quickly, Cas shifted her gaze to the corresponding symbol on her helmet’s internal screen. The smiley face came into view as internal processes caused her helmet to hum and chirp. There was a sudden snapping sound, and the internal display flickered. The world around Cas had become pixelated.
On the stage, the withered figure’s helmet switched to a look of puzzlement surrounded by question marks. Others in the crowd had shifted their focus to Cas, their helmets displaying a variety of expressions from quizzical to concerned to, to Cas’s dismay as she found herself surrounded, anger. She looked frantically for a way out as the crowd began to close in around her.