“At the Sixes’ and the Sevens'” by Sara Kate Ellis
“Go.” Cody leans out the screen door and gives Call a quick peck on the cheek. “We’ll deal with this later after I talk to Syd. Okay?”
Call sneers at me before slinking off the porch like a dejected puppy. Cody closes the door and turns to face me. “Syd,” 2 says. “I think you’d better sit down.”
But I don’t. Instead, I stand in the foyer with my hands shaking. I can’t believe Cody’s expression, so serene and unrepentant as if I’m the one in the wrong.
“The Sevens are now the Sixes. And we’re,” 2 pauses, voice trembling with excitement. “We’re going to be the Threes.”
I step back when 2 reaches for me, consider slamming my palm against the wall, but let it rest and feel the cool ridges of the stucco under my fingers. A photo rears up in my sightline – Cody and me on one of our last trips before liftoff. We’re huddled close on the bridge at Multnomah Falls and the spray’s tossing 2’s straw-colored hair in my face.
“I’m already afraid of heights,” Cody’d shouted over the rush of water. “How am I going to handle being miles above the earth?”
“Miles?” I laughed. “That’ll be light years after the jump.”
I can see it now in the photo, a hint of deeper unease in 2’s eyes, a vulnerability that might have warned me that Cody and colony life wouldn’t be a good fit.
I inhale and turn back. Cody’s taken a seat in the breakfast nook and is rifling through the mail. You’d think it was still the 20th century here at the colony. Everything, and I mean everything, is on paper: Bills, licenses, money, even receipts, each page intricately watermarked. Got to get the numbers right. The numbers are everything, which is a whole other problem I’m dealing with.
“I thought you’d be happy,” Cody says, not bothering to look up.
“And I thought two would be enough for you,” I say.
Trouble came in sevens.
Cody was crying in our kitchen, going on about how lonely 2 was, and how it seemed I was always in Central. I might have purchased some of the most beautiful land in the colony, but how could we enjoy it if our neighbors – the Twenties, who lived up on an alarmingly vast estate up the hill, the stoic and puritanical Sixteens, who nodded in chilly greeting at the farmers’ market – wouldn’t have a thing to do with us?
“You told me we’d be different,” Cody said. “You didn’t say we’d be lepers.”
I put an arm around 2, already thinking about the work I’d brought home. I’d been sent to the colony by a think tank, a consortium of interests who were baffled by a problem. Although the recent advances in jump technology had facilitated exports from Earth, the colony had yet to become that grand, untapped market they’d envisioned. The colonists were wealthy, their incomes and land values grotesquely high. They should have been spending, shoring up their nests with luxuries, and enjoying all the space they could never dream of back in the crowdtowns on Earth, but it wasn’t happening, and none of the models I was running added up.
“You know how it works here, Cody,” I said. “As the numbers get bigger, so does a person’s status. You’ve got to learn to see it from their perspective. On Earth, would a CEO hang out with a gardener or a fast food worker?”
“Why not?” Cody rubbed a tear away with 2’s thumb and sighed.
I kissed Cody absently on the forehead. Such a bleeding heart. “If it makes you feel any better, I called a ten a five yesterday.”
“Really?” Cody let out a cackle despite 2self.
“I did,” I said. “You should have seen the face on that grumpy old decade.” Misnumbering someone was rude enough, but mistakenly lowering a pronoun was the ultimate faux pas. Cody and I had gotten language augments before liftoff to avoid any unwanted trouble, but it still required practice.
A loud rap sounded on the front door.
A grinning, rangy character was peering nosily through the screen, holding a basket and a bottle of honey wine. Maybe it was the broad shoulders, the sleek dark hair that dipped just below them like that movie star Cody adored, but I found myself bristling with an instant dislike. I reached for the pen in my pocket.
“Need me to sign for it?” I said.
The grin fell. The dark hair flipped back over the shoulders with a haughty flourish. “It’s not a delivery,” the visitor said. “My name’s Call and this is a gift from me and ours. We live two kilometers downriver, on Killen’s bight.”
“Sydney.” I smiled cautiously and opened the door. An ego the size of the bight, I thought, but not one of the Twenties or the Sixteens at least. “This a social visit then?”
“A welcome,” Call said. “Long overdue, and for that we apologize. We’ve had some complications over at the farm. A disentanglement. You understand.”
“Of course,” I said, amused that people who likely engaged in group sex would dig up such a Victorian-era euphemism. “How shall I count you then?”
“Seven’s fine.” Call glanced up as Cody walked into the room. “For now. And you?”
“We’re two,” I said, feeling like I’d lost a round of poker. I shouldn’t have. Cody and I were Catholic after all, and even after the great schism that ushered in birth control, same-sex spouses and conception, marriage remained strictly a two-person deal. To the colonists, however, it was like choosing to be legless.
I saw a whiff of condescension cross Call’s features. “We brought you a welcome gift. It’s not much, but I thought you’d enjoy some almonds from our orchard. And butter. And there’s a nice peppermint foot lotion that Marte, one of ours, had a real talent for.”
“Had?” Cody said. 2 reached into the basket and plucked out the small cylinder containing the ointment. The smell of mint settled around us as 2 opened it.
“Our defection,” Call said.
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Cody’s voice, I noticed, sounded oddly controlled, but there was a hint of judgment there that seemed out of character.
Call smiled uncomfortably. “The others’ll be along soon,” 7 said, eyes resting on Cody’s backside as 2 turned to take the wine into the kitchen. “They’re excited to meet you. Both of you.”
After 7 left, we sat in the porch swing, hands clasped tightly as if we’d just warded off an evil.
“Well, that was something,” I said.
Cody glanced at me, expression neutral. “Call seems nicer than I’ve heard.”
I jerked my head back slightly. “You knew about them?”
“Just some gossip at the market in New Barstoke,” Cody said. I felt 2’s fingers loosen from mine, ten becoming eight, then three. “You said it yourself. The smaller clusters aren’t well-liked and well, people like to talk. Anyway, I’ve got a mess to deal with in the studio.”
The previous owners, a cluster of fourteen, had built a barn where Cody painted. 2 had been spending a lot of time out there lately, even on days I was home.
Nothing to worry about, I thought as Cody dropped my hand and walked away. Divided by zero.
When I came home late again a few days later, Cody was ebullient. Call had stopped by with Jorre and Fen and who’sa and what’sa, and they’d driven 2 down to the bight for the grand tour.
“It’s gorgeous,” Cody said. “They’ve got a windmill and the whole place is covered in solar panels, but they’re beautiful the way they reflect the light in different colors. Not like that blocky green architecture on earth. This is more like stained glass. It’s meditative.”
“Meditative?” I said. “You’re starting to sound like one of them.”
“Like seven of them.” 2 smiled at me like I was a faint but pleasant idea. “I got so many new ideas just from being there, you know?”
“Sure.” I forced a smile and told myself I was jealous of 2’s inspiration. A week’s more of rooting through relational databases and forecasts hadn’t produced a single breakthrough. Incomes were high, but savings rates in the colony were on the moderate to low side, which should have pointed to consumption. Anthropologists – apologists, I liked to call them – said it was a response to the waste on Earth, that the colonists were avoiding a repeat of the mess we were still cleaning up back there, but I couldn’t believe that. People stayed people – greedy, self-absorbed, and feckless.
Cody put a plate of something mashed and purplish in front of me. It smelled like butter gone off and old vinegar.
“It’s pasta,” 2 said. “They make it from these root vegetables they grow down on the bight. Thought it’d be fun.”
I got up to take a beer from the refrigerator, opened it and downed half the bottle before sitting back down. “Why,” I said, “do people on communes always eat this kind of stuff?”
Cody turned and tilted 2’s head. “What kind of stuff?”
“Listen, Cody, I’ve got to work–”
“In Central this weekend?” Cody said.
“I was thinking you could come with me,” I said. “They’ll put me up in this great hotel this time, and I can upgrade for a better view. You can go to a spa, get a massage, get your hair–”
“I like my hair,” Cody said. “It’s your hair you’re always complaining about.”
“You said you looked disheveled.”
“I was talking about you.”
“We could have dinner somewhere,” I said.
“Or,” Cody said, “I can wait for you until you can finally get away, around ten maybe? By that time, I’ll already be drunk in the hotel room, having long given up and hit the mini-bar. You’ll show up and we’ll have to take a walk down to the night market because none of the restaurants are open anymore, and we’ll be so hungry by the time we get there, we’ll have a row in front of all the Thirties and Seventeens and the Million Gazillions…”
Cody trailed off, grabbed the rest of my beer and finished it. Then 2 got up and slipped on a jacket.
“Where are you going?”
“My studio. I need to check my supplies. Call’s taking me into New Barstoke tomorrow.”
“Cody, we can have anything you want delivered.”
“How about company?” Cody said and walked out.
The week after that, the Sevens were over. All fucking seven of them, sprawled out on pillows around our lonely woodstove. Not as obnoxious as I’d thought. In fact, they were downright boring, but at least there weren’t any kids yet.
Having children on the colony was an expensive and arduous process. Although most of the effects of exposure could be reversed, radiation from the jump had meant sterility for the first comers. It’s what caused the colonists, the theory goes, to take up clustering in the first place. Even now, in-vitro was the only way to be safe, and if you were a newcomer and could afford it, the wise choice was to harvest and freeze on earth and have the eggs or embryos shipped in pricey containment tanks. I’d researched whether this wasn’t at the root of the colonists’ frugality, but so many of them didn’t seem interested in children. They spoke of them like a long obsolescent chore or an extinct species.
“Of course, it must be out of the question for you,” Fen said to Cody. “I mean, the Twenties have two daughters, but just two and a child sounds Sisyphean.”
I forced a smile. “People manage it all the time back home. For a long time too well. Anyway, Cody and I don’t want any children. Not for awhile.”
Cody squinted at me. “When did we decide that?”
“I wouldn’t call 10 billion managing,” Call said, cutting off Cody and smiling with friendly hostility. “But what you must realize, Sydney, is that children are more than just a resource issue for us. Having only two parents would ultimately limit the child. More people means more support.”
“More support, maybe,” I said. “But limitations can be freeing.”
“Can they?” Cody said.
7 reached over and placed a hand on Cody’s shoulder. 2 didn’t brush it away.
That night we fought and Cody moved 2’s things into the barn. Cody wasn’t flirting with Call, 2 said. There were just some things I didn’t understand. I headed into Central, checked into the hotel early and worked until I couldn’t think anymore. Cody could wait, I figured. The numbers sure wouldn’t: They clung to my retinas like floaters.
I met Wynn in the elevator on the way out for air.
Wynn was a lawyer, a member of a cluster of Eighteens, with long legs and a dazzling smile.
“I was just coming up to get you,” 18 said. “Some of mine are meeting for drinks down at the Belltower. Like to join us?”
I considered it briefly. What was Cody getting up to, after all? I imagined 2 spending a rose-tinted outing at the Sevens’ farm, churning butter, walking amid fields of imported butterflies and dandelions, and Call whisking 2 off to the hay loft. I felt my nails digging into my palms and smiled.
“Live some,” Wynn said, leaning in a little. The cologne and the smile were inviting. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“I do,” I said. “But thanks.”
I needed to clear my head and there was really only one place to do that. The sole church was in Central and a pitifully small one at that. Despite its long history of conquer and convert, a single place of worship was all the Vatican was willing to gamble in this place, either apathy or a passive-aggressive sign of strength.
I stepped into the building, marked only by a small wooden crucifix on the door. Though cramped, the interior was reassuringly familiar: pews made from real wood, a life-sized carving of Jesus, naked torso oddly brazen in the discretely kinky colony, hung above the altar. When I ducked into the confessional it smelled of dust and cheap wine, so authentic I wondered if they’d bottled the scent.
“Forgive me, Mother, Father, Brother and Sister,” I said, “for I have sinned. It’s been…a very long time since my last confession.”
I spoke about my job, about Cody, about leaving 2 alone. I confessed my othering – no, let’s call it flat-out dislike – of the Sevens and the Twenties, and my Earth-centric judgment of colony life in general. When I was finished, the priest sighed. I heard knuckles cracking on the other side of the screen.
“I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Mother, Father, the Brother and the Sister, joined in the Holy Spirit,” 1 said.
I blinked. “No penance?”
I heard the priest’s fingers slide against the dark wood of the confessional. “What do you want? Fifteen Hail Marys? Ten Our Fathers? You think more numbers are going to help you?”
“I thought that was the point.”
“That’s rather cursory,” 1 said, 1’s voice rising slightly. “Let me suggest an idea to you. If it’s so bad being two, just try being one.”
“Very funny,” I said.
“It’s not a joke. Even if that one is a number encompassing everyone and everything, it’s still hard to be reminded of it. Constantly. Human isolation, our loneliness, comes and goes, but that is the burden of our Lord. Think about that. And then find a way to deal.”
I never have the chance.
I find Call and Cody in a huddle on the carpet. Still clothed, sure, but 7’s using 2’s chest as a throw pillow. Cody bolts up, one hand balanced against the carpet. Call slides off 2 reluctantly, like a wet towel.
“Syd! This isn’t what it looks like,” 2 says.
I stroll into the living room and shove a boot into Call’s shoulder. I don’t kick though, just push forward as 7 scrambles back against the sofa, face wet from crying.
“What are you doing?” Cody says. “Stop!”
“You like nuzzling up to 7?” I say.
“Don’t call me that!” Call kicks back at me and I nearly fall as pain judders through my legs.
“I’ll call you whatever the hell I–”
“Syd!” Cody cuts me off. “You’re misnumbering Call.”
Call wipes a sleeve across blotchy skin and flips that hair back with the petulant grace of a diva. “I’m not a seven anymore.”
“I am more than able to figure that out,” I say. “So you’re all an 8 now? Is that it? Cody?”
Cody stares at me like I’m hopeless, then helps Call up and pushes the unknown quantity gently out the front door. “Go,” Cody says, pecking Call on the cheek. “We’ll deal with this later after I talk to Syd. Okay?”
Then Cody turns to me, folds 2’s hands together like I’m being sentenced. “So, Syd, I think you’d better sit down.”
My mother, a four-time 2, always told me that threes don’t work. “Not in friendships, dear. Certainly not in love.”
Minutes later, I’m outside walking hurriedly toward the barn where I know I’ll find Call. Waiting for Cody, of course.
But 2’s studio is empty with the exception of an easel and a stack of boxes draped with canvas. Cody’s already packing, I think. My heart sinks as my eyes adjust to the darkness, nostrils burning with the smell of turpentine and that mint foot scrub the Sevens gave us really not so long ago.
I walk over and tug at the heavy cloth, hoping to find Call cowering underneath, but instead I find a safe, its blinking green light indicating the gravitational field that will keep it locked to the spot for as long as its owner requires. The colonists are fond of these little strongboxes. They’re virtually uncrackable and besides, all that paper needs to go somewhere. So Cody’s been saving, most likely, planning to leave me for quite a long time.
Something rustles from behind. I turn and peer up at the loft to find a frail looking shadow standing at the base of the ladder.
It’s too short to be Call. The stranger looks panicked and mildly unkempt.
“Who are you?”
The intruder steps into the light, and I recognize the sharp features and the shock of red hair, now bronze in the dim light of the barn.
“Please.” Fen’s voice is quavering. “Don’t tell the Sixes. Call will be out here. They’ll take everything I have.”
“The Sixes?” I spot the bedding folded neatly at the edge of the loft and start to feel sick. “So it’s you then?”
“Did you actually think it was Call?” says a voice from behind. I look back to see Cody. 2’s standing in the doorway, face contorted in amused disgust. “That swaggering crybaby? It’s because of Call that the others have been defecting.”
Cody sighs and gives Fen a comforting glance. “7, or should I say 6 now, is a manipulative tyrant, Syd. Or haven’t you noticed? What you saw back there was me trying to get rid of the creep.” Cody takes a breath and reaches up to massage 2’s neck. “Marte came to me first. 1 needed somewhere to go, a place to stash 1’s money until another arrangement could be made, and I…I needed a friend. Now Fen’s doing the same.”
I feel my body trembling and sit back weakly atop the safe. “You could have told me.”
“No,” Cody says. “I couldn’t have. You were so stressed out about work. You would have told me to stop, that I was threatening your job and our visa status, and it was too much of a risk for Marte. And Fen.” Cody nods to the safe.
I glance down at the blinking green light on the vault, watch it flicker in and out of focus. “This isn’t yours?”
“No,” Cody says calmly.
Fen starts making 1’s way down the ladder. “Individual accounts are against the laws of clustering. It’s illegal but most colonists do it. It’s the only insurance we have if things don’t work out. If you tell them, Call and the rest of the Sixes will confiscate it. I’ll have nothing left. Nowhere to go.”
Why didn’t I see this? I’d known that all of an individual’s assets were absorbed into a group upon clustering, but not about what happened if one disentangled and their net worth dissolved. On Earth, it was a well-known secret that women in polygamous societies took to secret accounts in order to maintain autonomy. People did stay people after all, and to protect themselves, the colonists were stuffing their mattresses even as they invited more partners into bed.
“I’m sorry I lied to you,” Cody says. “But I hope you understand.”
“I do,” I say. “And it still hurts.” I shoot a glance over at Fen. “Who’s 3 then? Is it you?”
Fen’s eyes widen with confusion and Cody laughs, walks over to cup my face in 2’s hands.
“You know, Syd. I don’t think I can answer that yet. I don’t think either of us will have any idea really until 3 is ready for college.” Cody plucks a strand of hair from my eyes and waits until the second realization finally sinks in. “You okay with that?” 2 says.
It takes me a minute to respond, but when I do, I’m smiling. For the first time in a long while, I’m thinking we’ll add up. It’s mysterious really, and I sure can’t explain it with a growth model or some theoretical construct. Certainly not to my employers back on Earth.
People are people after all, but one does have a sense about these things.
About the Author
Sara Kate Ellis is a 2011 Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow and a master of seat nabbing during crowded commutes. Her essays and stories have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, Bete Noire, Ideomancer, and Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine. Her story “Liarbird” also won the 2015 Defenestrationism short fiction contest. She lives in Tokyo with her cat Tom.