By Matt DiBiasio
“It shouldn’t be this dark”
Too stubborn to turn on a light, Brody inched his way across the living room, the contours of the furniture just visible enough for him to make it to the terrarium. Simon’s heat lamp had gone out, two days after he bought it. With a few sharp,frustrated shakes, thankfully, it turned back on.
“Look,” Brody addressed the iguana “We can’t afford a better one right now, let’s hope it keeps working”
As soon as he said it the lamp went out again.
“Son of a bitch” Brody fumed.
“These things just happen”
The words rang through his brain.
“These things just happen”
Was it only yesterday that he had been fired?
“These things just happen”
That was their reason. That’s what they had told him. Those were their parting words.
Bullshit. These things didn’t just happen, people made them happen. He wasn’t jobless because some weather pattern had swept in over Cydonia Mesa. His piece-of-shit company prioritized their profit margin over their workforce, hence layoffs. They didn’t ‘just happen.’
He had thought it wouldn’t phase him. For lower level programmers losing your job was common thanks to a slew of new developments in AI. Brody had been let go like this before and he’d found his way back. But something about the iguana’s broken heat lamp gave the cheap platitude a larger, more menacing significance: “These things just happen.” Right. Except the heat lamp could have been assembled better. Someone could have invested more in the product. His company could have invested more in him instead of his replacement computer.The lamp didn’t just have to go out.
But none of that changed the fact that this morning he just happened to be heading off to a labor-ready site for ten plus hours of bodily abuse that, hopefully, would buy enough food for his table while he figured out what was next.
The rusty clatter of his daughter’s bedroom door shook him briefly out of his mental stew.
He heard Gracy plod into the bathroom, listened for her to wash her hands, then turned back to his food, offering her an overly cheerful good morning as she came in.
Simon was going to have to go. They couldn’t afford a pet right now. This wasn’t going to be fun.
“Good morning, ma’m.” His apprehension fueled the repetition.
“You already said that.” Gracy didn’t miss a beat.
“It must be a really good morning then, for me to say it twice” There you go-really build her up before you break her heart.
These things just happen-maybe that’s how he should tell her they were getting rid of the iguana.
Without looking up from her food, Gracy reached into her pocket and slid something across the table.
It was a stone, almost perfectly round.
“Well now, is this yesterday’s find?”
Gracy nodded. Lately she had been spending her afternoons in the silt fields behind their bunker complex. She enjoyed picking her way through the Martian geology.
Brody held it up.
“Very nice” he told his daughter. “Almost a perfect circle”
He slid the stone back to her.
She slid it back to him.
“It’s for you” she insisted.
Brody swallowed. How was he supposed to get rid of the iguana now? Even a simple gift from his daughter had a way of not working out.
“Thanks,” he muttered, slipping the rock into his pocket.
As they packed up, the waves of disappointment wore on him. He couldn’t help thinking about Gracy’s mother, who had left them almost 7 years ago. Did that ‘just happen’? Had some unseen force propelled her to abandon them?
He taunted himself. Was it inevitable that his fears of failure had made him guarded? Had some unfathomable drive compelled her to run off? Was a greater power at work when she sent those transmissions from Europa, over half a decade later, begging him for credit transfers? He became addicted to the game of rhetorical abuse. Maybe it was some irrefutable cosmic calculus that caused him to ignore the transmissions. Was that it? The same grand equation that had broken Simon’s heat lamp, the same conveniently mysterious circumstance that left him jobless? It all suddenly made so much sense, he jeered. Why had it taken him so long to realize? These things just happen.
He entered the lock code into the front hatch and watched Gracy run to meet her friends at the school transport before he marched off to the West Area Tram.
On the ride to the job site, sitting there, staring off as the colony rolled by, he realized something. It wasn’t an epiphany, the realization didn’t have any larger significance beyond his momentary ability to cope. But, in the absence of any greater solace, Brody decided that it, maybe, was the best he could do. He realized that if he actually took the words to heart, if he greeted his misfortunes with a resigned “these things just happen” he felt..not great, but better. Like someone taking drugs feels better. His wife, his job, the heat lamp-all temporarily lost their power over him. Brody let the refrain lull him along the Martian landscape. “These things just happen” He imagined the words as the chorus to a bad country song, the sound of the tram providing supporting instrumentation, punctuating the senseless twang in his head, herolding entropy in all it’s disillusioned finery.
He passed the rest of the day in this state, wrapped in a muffled layer of volitional deception. Everything existed at a comfortable distance.”These things just happen” The opiate tones took over completely. Everything became manageable, unthreatening. He coasted through this new life-in-relief as easily as water runs through a drain- steadily, certainly, void of resistance. The lifting, the strain, the aching that turned to pain that turned numb, that turned back to pain-it all meant nothing and that was fine, just fine.
Clearing and rigging maintenance tunnels for long distance optic lines-the monotony of the work was the perfect host for Brody’s detachment. In theory, a job as rote as this should have been performed by simple robots. But, unlike in the programming sector, in the physical labor sector it was usually cheaper to hire humans-maintaining machinery was the more costly option. The irony wasn’t lost on him, but at the moment it also didn’t bother Brody. He was sedate in a universe of “these things just happen.” Not until he took his final break of the day, up in the portable atmo-dome, did the self-hypnosis begin to wear off.
There, under the muted Martian light, he barely noticed that he had taken Gracy’s present out of his pocket and was spinning it between his fingers. It took him a minute to realize that someone was commenting on the stone, but once he processed that he was being spoken to, his senses gradually returned.
“Looks like daramite” Brody vaguely heard someone say.
“Your stone” the stranger repeated. “Looks like daramite.”
“I’m sorry?” Brody finally came to.
The stranger laughed, repeating himself for the third time. “The stone in your hand looks like it’s daramite.”
“Oh.” Brody had no idea what daramite was.
“Mind if I take a look?”
Brody handed it to him.
“Yep” the stranger mused, holding it in front of his face, catching as much light with it as he could.”Definitely. See how it gains a little luster when I scrub it?” He demonstrated. “And how it gets deep green right below the dirt? It’s daramite.”
“Daramite,” Brody repeated, saying the word for the first time.
The stranger handed the stone back to him “Hold on to that” he advised “That’s an incredible relic. Potentially one of the more durable substances in the galaxy. They lifted most of it out of here when they terraformed-use it for specialized machining, I think. Hold on to that,” he advised again “that will last.”
And with that Brody was back.The stranger’s comments had laid bare his self delusion and forced Brody to recognize his coping mechanism for what it was-a cheap trick. The philosophy of “these things just happen,” just like it had been at the beginning of the day, was no longer a workable substitute for the realities of motive and consequence. However, unlike before, he was not discouraged by this truth. His daughter had decided to give him the stone-she had consciously decided to give it to him. He could feel his blood again, hear his thoughts, and he recognized the gift for what it was.
On his way home, Brody took a detour. He got off the tram at High Point and boarded another to City Center, to a familiar pet store. Simon needed a new and better lamp.
As he approached the shop, despite his welcome sense of clarity, the exhaustion of the day began to catch up with him-so much so that he hardly noticed the sudden change spread over the street. At first, he didn’t register the shouts and the gasps – he didn’t really hear the quickening pulse of all those footsteps as people dropped what they were doing and sprinted toward the nearest information terminal. It took an elderly woman almost running into him before he realized that something seriously out of the ordinary was occurring.
He looked immediately toward the locus of the mayhem and thought for a second that it was like watching some kind of distilled, frantic religious pilgrimage; people pushing past each other toward the terminal, hungry for the revelation of the news and then suddenly stopping, gazing up in motionless awe when they neared to within viewing distance.
Entranced himself, Brody stepped toward the crowd. Just as he did, a faint ringing sounded from behind him-the bells on the door of the pet store. He turned to see the store’s owner flip a sign from open to closed. Impulsively, Brody lurched forward and rapped on the window. He mouthed something as the door cracked open. “I just-” Brody stammered into the seam..
“I’m sorry. we’re closed” said the shop owner “You didn’t hear what just happened?”
Minutes later, Brody’s was one of the hundreds of faces staring up at the broadcast. He didn’t really have any thoughts as he took in the news-that a solar flare had completely destroyed the colonies on Mercury. He had no idea how to respond when he heard people start to murmur around him, saying that Terminus Cult was right, saying that this was the beginning of the Helionox, the beginning of the death of the sun.
And in that moment Brody could not have told you why he reached into his pocket and found the rock that Gracy had given him, the daramite, the almost perfect circle, and in a manner both unconscious and deliberate closed his hand around it, unable to let go.