by Deborah Rocheleau
The day her photo came out in the Intergalactic Charter, Jaya thought there’d be backlash against the Lomads. They were, after all, technically illegal, even if the photographer assured her his interests were purely anthropological. The photo was authentic enough, a shot of her striving over the lunar surface, an oversized O-tank strapped to her back, every inch of skin covered: flannel pants tucked into her hiking boots, a scarf wrapped around the parts of her face not hidden by enormous goggles. Already people were commenting that it was worn for religious reasons.
No, she wanted to type, it’s to keep the lunar wind from freezing my nose off.
But she’d only payed the cyber barista for viewing privileges, and wasn’t about to shell over another six-fifty to set some earth-siders straight. Besides, she didn’t know who of the crowding, rocket-greasy strangers around her she could trust. She didn’t like public places, especially not ones filled with staggering mechanics who chuckled often, but at least no one would question her outfit here, and she only had to wait long enough for the photographer to pay her.
There, in the corner by the Ocean Breeze Simulator, she spotted him. The same shortish, goggled man who’d approached her at the oxygen bar outside launch pad thirty-two. She hated the goggles most, though they were the same brand as her own, as if he could pretend his way into Lomad culture. They weren’t broken like hers, though, lenses scratched by nights spent in a home made of a discarded fuel tank, or trekking miles to the nearest city for oxygen runs.
Or forbidden business deals.
“You’re late,” she said.
Without answering, the photographer handed her a wallet. She eyed him as she opened it, pouring a dozen coins into her palm.
“This is more than you said.” Her eyes darted toward him.
“The story’s doing really well,” he said, goggles glinting. “It’s in all the major news feeds. Squatter rights are big this month. That’s why I wanted to meet in person.”
He slid onto an oil-splattered bar stool. Jaya did not. She didn’t like that word “squatter,” like she and her fellow Lomads had wagon-trained onto some settler’s property. Never mind it wasn’t really the settler’s to claim, but the natives’. Well, there were no natives on the moon, and plenty of deserts still left to support some self-sufficient Lomads. So what if they used the public oxygen banks sometimes, rerouted a few city grids to power their homes? If the cities ever once lost communication with the outside, infrastructure crumbling, the Lomads would be right there to show the citizens how to survive. How to recycle waste into useable water. Repurpose old rocket parts into piping, not to mention weather a lunar storm without the protection of the city walls.
“I’d like to do another story,” the photographer said, adjusting his goggles on his forehead. “About you.”
Jaya inhaled sharply. The coins in her hand suddenly felt incriminating.
“Don’t worry. I won’t use any real names. Just a few details about your life, what it’s like living on the surface. Why you chose to become a Lomad.”
Jaya looked down, shielding her face from the photographer.
It took the photographer a moment to realize she wasn’t repeating his question, but asking a new one. Why should she agree to tell her story?
“Wouldn’t you like to preserve your culture? See it celebrated rather than condemned. Who knows? With the political shifts this election, someday your homes might be protected.”
Or razed. Jaya thought. They already had the satellite power, could easily locate every Lomad settlement with a few aerial photographs. The powers-that-be just hadn’t mustered the interest yet, more concerned with the border disputes on Io than the appropriation of the moon.
“What would you say?” she asked.
“Well, I’d like to start out with a picture of your face. Humanize you a little, you know? Let people see the flesh under all that equipment.”
Jaya touched her goggles which, in the dim cyper café, made it hard to see the photographer’s face. She breathed through her mouth valve, the stench of motor oil reminding her of the reason she wore a mask. One of the reasons, at least. She thought of it exposed over the internet. They wouldn’t like what they saw underneath, any more than they liked the cyborgish face that had become, without her consent, the emblem of the Lomad cause.
Lomads didn’t need help to preserve their culture. They could do without internet or photographs or the security of a climate-controlled city. They didn’t need ID chips to prove they were people. Or photos of their faces.
“I’d say we’re done here.” She pocketed the coins, turned to leave.
“Are you sure—”
“Go.” She pointed to the door. “Your editors will be expecting quite a follow up story.”
Through her tinted goggles, she saw him scowl. The sight of his pair, so shiny and bug-like, made her smile.
When he finally left, she pulled the coins back out of her pocket and stared at them. Real, registered money, good for anything. She could buy a few minutes of Ocean Breeze across her face from the simulator, a fleeting sensation of the home she once knew. Probably she should spend it on a new mouth valve: this one was beginning to taste like rust.
Even as she approached the counter, though, she knew what she wanted.
She laid down six fifty, told the cyber barista her console number. She returned to the computer, screen still displaying her photo on the Intergalactic Charter website, and clicked to leave a comment.
“I didn’t choose to be a Lomad,” she typed. “When my shuttle crashed, everyone assumed there could be no survivors. But that is what I am. I’m a Lomad. I wear a mask because my face was severely burned in the crash, and I don’t believe in photography.”
Not when a picture could speak so many lies.
* * *
What do you think is the most important aspect of a fantasy story?
Be inspired by the real world—believe me, it’s crazier than anything you could come up with. This story was inspired by a photo in National Geographic of African women carrying water jugs on their heads. You don’t have to travel to another planet to be fascinated by the universe.