Fertile didn’t begin to describe it. The park was an outcry, a verdant protest not only against the drab metal and polymer that comprised the other thirty-nine rings of Borman Station but also the barren vacuum through which it floated. It was hallowed ground, a sacred reminder of what it was like to live in a world without ceilings, in a world that didn’t seem to constrict around you every time you blinked.
“We were always up here,” said Del, pulling in a deep breath of the heady green. “All us kids from the lower-rings, every second we weren’t busy with our schooling. There just wasn’t enough space down there, you know? The hallways aren’t wide like they are in the upper-rings, we needed this place.”
“Need is a strong word,” said his companion. A broad-shouldered and handsome man, Councilor Lei Chen didn’t look terribly different than the rest of Borman Station’s bourgeois, yet the disenfranchised voters in the lower rings seemed to flock to him more than any other Tribunal candidate. Perhaps there was something about the way he carried himself or the soothing yet firm baritone with which he spoke that resonated with them on some unconscious level. Whatever it was, Del had never understood it, especially considering how aggressively opposed he was to defending their interests. “There are exercise halls in the lower rings, are there not? And even the poorest of families can afford the new VR booths.”
“Yes, Mr. Chen, but not even the most robust simulation can hold a candle to this,” said Del, motioning to the sprawling vegetation around them. “Wide-open space, the kind that first nurtured our people, it’s vital to psychological health. Humans weren’t made to spend their lives in simulators, after all.”
“Nor were we made to spend them free of the pale blue dot where we originated, yet here we are.”
“Just look around for a second, Councilor,” said Del. “Are you telling me there isn’t anything the least bit special about this place? That it doesn’t make you forget, if only for a moment, that you sleep in what’s effectively an ergonomic coffin? That even your bathroom is so small that the toilet folds out from the wall?”
The Councilor glanced down to check the time on his wrist-com.
“With all due respect, sir,” Del sighed, “You made this appointment with me, you came all the way down here, why did you bother if you weren’t willing to hear what I had to say?”
“Have I not meandered through this wood with you patiently enough?” Chen grumbled. “You’ve shown me your grotto, I listened to you ramble over this ‘Snarled Oak’ with its thousand lovers’ names, what else is left, Mr. DuPont?”
“Well, sir,” Del said, burying his anger beneath a grin. “I have been saving the best for last.”
It was off the beaten trail, a small plaza hidden in a thick patch of trees, yet even before it came into view the steady, rhythmic churning could be heard. As Del led Councilman Chen down the path, he let the familiar, synthesized melodies carry him back in time. The songs were still the same as when he was a boy, when his mother would bring him every weekend to ride a nebulae-wyrm or zoom round in a Cerberian star-fighter.
“What’s this?” asked Chen when they reached the clearing where it stood.
“It’s a carousel,” said Del. “A tradition from Old Sol. Nearly every park on Mars and Earth had one, though theirs didn’t sport near the same variety of mounts.”
“Let me get this straight, you want me to cancel one of the most lucrative development deals in this station’s history just so we can keep a few old trees and this spinning table around?” He gestured to the carousel, its host of creatures and vessels bobbing up and down joyfully, unaware of his disgust.
“It might just be that to you sir, but the park is culturally significant to the people of the lower rings. Our parents carved their names in the Gnarled Oak, they brought us to ride this carousel, and so it’s gone for seventeen generations now.”
“DuPont, it’s a patch of dirt,” Chen said, scraping at the edge of the grass with his polished loafers. “Now, if that’s all you have I have a meeting at noon that I could be preparing for.”
Del revisited the practice arguments he and Janie had run through the night before but kept drawing blanks. Was that all he had? He’d known, of course, that Chen had a certain fondness for silver but he’d thought that actually seeing the park might deter him. But wait, that was it, wasn’t it? “The offset costs,” Del nearly shouted. “What about the offset costs?”
Chen looked unimpressed. “Offset costs?”
“Yes,” said Del. “Have you taken into consideration the park’s contribution to the station’s atmosphere? As you know, it was built along with the first three habitation rings and was integral to Borman’s early air-filtration.”
“And now an atmo-engine the size of a small closet can contribute the same,” said Chen, growing weary. Then, gesturing to one of the benches that lined the outer rim of the plaza, “Shit, kid, could we just sit down for a minute?”
Del planted himself timidly beside Chen who dug a small tin from inside his suit jacket and thrust it toward him. “Care for a bump?” he said, flipping the lid back. Inside was a fine, pink powder.
“Erm—no,” said Del. “The wife can always tell.”
Chen then pressed two of his own fingers into the substance and rubbed them profusely against his gums. Del must have made a face of some sort, because when Chen looked up again he asked, “Does my habit disgust you?”
“I’m sorry,” said Del, trying to keep from staring. “It’s just, I’ve never seen anyone from the upper-rings dip borrel-snuff before.”
“And you probably never will,” said Chen. “You ever heard of Sarabhai Station?”
“Sarabhai, Sarabhai,” Del said, searching. “Isn’t that some big shipping station on the edge of the Grissom Systems?”
“It was,” said Chen. “Until the UOS re-routed the interstellar shipping lanes. One hundred rings on that station, would you believe I was born on the lowest of them?”
“Really?” said Chen, his surprise seeming genuine. “Is it that hard to buy?”
“Sort of,” Del admitted.
“Interesting,” Chen said with a chuckle. “Especially coming from you.”
“Why ‘especially coming from me?’”
“Well, you’re doing the same thing, aren’t you? Everyman from the lower levels, clawing his way up to a seat on the Tribunal Council?”
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration,” Del argued. “I’m just a lower-ring representative, a glorified community organizer. I really haven’t clawed my way anywhere yet.”
“You’re further along then I was at your age,” said Chen. “And with the waves you’re making I honestly wouldn’t be surprised seeing you on the Council within the decade.”
“Th—thank you, Councilor,” Del sputtered, struggling to keep from turning red. “That means a good deal coming from–”
“I wasn’t finished,” Chen said, raising a finger. “What I was going to say is that while your record is impressive, if you choose to continue dying on utterly useless hills like this,” he gestured toward the carousel, “then a ‘glorified community organizer’ is all you’ll ever be.”
Del shook his head, he was beyond biting back words at this point. “How many times do I have to tell you, Chen? This isn’t just some useless cause, this place is important to the people of the lower rings.”
“Really?” Chen said. “And where are they? I think I’ve seen only about two-dozen folks down here since we arrived. I mean, if you’d really been trying to convince me you could have at least paid a couple hundred of them to spend the morning up here.” He grinned then, it was the sort of grin a man who just won a bet would wear.
“You don’t have to gloat,” Del snapped. He’d grown tired enough of the Councilor’s candor that he no longer cared what consequences his own might have. Chen didn’t seem to mind though.
“You’re a smart man, DuPont,” he said, clapping Del on the back. “You could even be a powerful one someday, but if you want to get there’s an important lesson you need to learn.”
“And that is?”
“Never fight change,” said Chen, punctuating each of the words with a wag of his finger.
“How noble,” Del scoffed. “Have you thought about making that the slogan for your next campaign?”
“You think I’m joking?” Chen said. “Do you know what happened when the trade lanes moved away from Sarabhai? Everyone I grew up with, people who’d been training from birth to operate cargo-loaders, repair ships, run the inns and pubs the traders frequented, they all had their futures pulled out from under them. But it wasn’t the lanes moving that put them in economic turmoil, it was how they reacted to it. They turned a blind eye, they trained for jobs that wouldn’t exist by the time they’d be doing them, they clung to hope instead of adapting to reality and by the time I’d finished my schooling there were more empty rings on Sarabhai than there are on all of Borman Station now.”
“I’m not sure what you’re getting at,” said Del.
Chen sighed. “Say I don’t tear down this park of yours, and say, by some miracle, that the person who comes after me doesn’t do it either. Say you get to spend the rest of your days walking these fertile halls and even get to show it you your kids. Do you think it’ll still be around long enough for them to do the same? What about their children, or the ones after them? Every inch of housing on this station is valuable, do you really think that if I told the luxury housing board ‘no’ that this wouldn’t be back on the table in the next five years?
“The point is, Del, that the galaxy won’t stop spinning just because a person wishes it would. Change is inevitable, it isn’t good or bad, and neither is railing against it. It is useless, however, and if you ask me, you’re too smart a man to be wasting what little time you have worrying about something like this.” Then Chen stuffed the snuff tin back in his jacket pocket and rocked back to his feet, “And on that note, so am I.”
Del stood up too, extending a begrudging hand in Chen’s direction. “I won’t say it was a pleasure,” he said. “Though it has surely been—informative.”
Chen smiled, grasping the younger man’s hand. “You’ve got stones, DuPont, start putting them to better use and you might actually get somewhere.”
“Maybe I’ll use them to run against you,” Del said as the Councilman turned and started for the tram that would carry him back to the upper rings.
“I’d welcome it,” Chen called back as he passed beyond the thicket of trees that surrounded the carousel. “After all, change is inevitable.”