Cutting It Fine
So this is it. Last day on the job. Opening up the salon just one more time.
This place has been my life. I've only once been off this orbital, down to the planet below. Dad opened the shop the hour they opened the station for business, and here I am, pulling down the shutters on the day we hand it over to the Krub.
I grew up here, fell in love here, lost my wife here, and said goodbye to Dad here. Morden and Son, Barbers. A taste of Old Earth.
I've been cutting hair, and alien growths that pass for hair, for thirty years now. I get all sorts, like Matricus with his single blue bristle. He comes in whenever the Drabi seasons change to have it cut to the new sacred length.
Or Brokan. The Vosps are overgrown cockroaches, but they sprout a kind of fluff around their mandibles which I trim off with a razor.
Then there's the Commander. I've been cutting his hair since he arrived as a young lieutenant. He's always had the same style. Neat, and tidy round the ears. Of course, back then it was thicker and would never lie down. I used to slick it back with wax after the cut, knowing it would rise up like a coxcomb half an hour later. He had the hair from Hell. He was a bit of a roustabout himself. The number of scrapes he got himself into, it's a wonder he was ever promoted.
But look at him now. He's been in charge for ten years and that hair of his is thinning out, with silver at the sides. Very distinguished. Still as black as space on top.
He came in this morning and waited his turn like everyone else. It's the first time I've ever thought he looked old, like all the punch had been knocked out of him. He's a big man, but today he seemed to shrink away into the chair.
I cut his hair in silence, just the gentle snipping of the scissors. For once he didn't look like he wanted to talk. What could he say? 'Sorry you lost your job and your home? Sorry I screwed up?'
We know it wasn't his fault, at least we're all still alive, but he's the sort that takes these things hard. Do I blame him for it? Of course not. He's always done his best for us and for the station. This time it wasn't enough.
I know there are those who say he sold us out, but I've cut his hair and believe me, he's better than that. It was hard for him, though, knowing so many out there hated him for a coward. I could see it in his eyes.
A news story flashed up on the wall screen, above the row of ancient cutthroat razors my clients like to send me. A riot in the darker corridors of the station; the guards were using shock sticks. The caption rolled: SECURITY CLEARS SLUM SECTOR.
I asked the Commander if he wanted the sound up but he shook his head. He didn't even turn to look at the screen. Just stared straight ahead into the mirror, his jaw clenched tight.
I knew he had the handover ceremony coming up so I made extra-special sure that his hair looked good. I peeled off the cape, brushed him down, and then held the chair as he stood up. He gave me a big tip, seemed about to go, but then turned back and held out his hand to shake mine.
"Everything set for you?" he asked. "No problems with your berth?"
I was booked on the Grace, leaving in the early hours of the morning. I told him so, and wished him luck. He nodded. As he left the shop the screen was panning across a view of the evacuation ships, and beyond, to the dark mass of the Krub fleet.
I swept up the clippings and wiped down the chair. There was no one else waiting for a cut, so I poured a coffee then went over to lean against the salon door. Dad used to do that to bring in the customers. It says, 'The shop's empty, no need to queue, and I'm here and friendly.' He used to have this look that suggested your hair was too long (or short, or untidy, or the wrong shade of green), but I've never mastered that. Mostly now I stand there just to see what's going on outside.
My shop's off the main corridor running to the docking spires. Dad knew what he was doing when he set up here. It's a big wide street, with lots of traffic. People arriving, leaving, and hanging around waiting for the ships to come in. A lot of folk decide to get their hair cut in a street like this.
Of course, I'm surrounded by the type of establishment you get so close to the docks: strip clubs, cheap-sleeps, liquor stores and casinos. But it's colorful, and I fit right in. The last couple of days, though, most of the shops have shut. Neon lights that had blinked at me for over forty years were dead, just grey worms of glass. Even the overhead panels have started to flicker and fail.
I stood there drinking my coffee and watched the long line of evacuees trudge past. My bag was packed and ready, but I didn't want to leave before closing time. This had to be a proper last day.
The girls from the bar opposite were patrolling the queue, but who'd have the time to avail themselves of their services? We all had to be on board by midnight. Still, they're eternal optimists.
A video board over the street was belting out that rolling promo for the colony on Glason, our "Life On A New World!"
I'd seen it a hundred times; we all had. The gleaming starship landing. The smiling couple, hand in hand, walking down the exit ramp, their faces lighting up with wonder at the wide open spaces. They point, and we see kids playing in the park, the rich, green grass bathed in sunshine. Then soaring shots of Glason's lakes, forests and snow-capped mountains.
Last I heard, most of the jobs were in those mountains--mining--and the terraforming was years behind schedule; but I'm an old cynic.
What's certain is that the big ships will take us there once the hammer comes down, and none of us are coming back.
Someone called out to me from across the road. Smitty. He grew up round here but moved deeper into the station when he married. I hadn't seen him for years. Seemed to be on his own. I wondered what had happened to his wife.
"Hey, Bill-boy, Billy, Billy!" he said, leaving the line and coming over, that same vacant grin on his face. I'd always hated Smitty. Never told him.
Smitty's the sort of man who dresses in a hurry. He'd put on a lot of weight since I saw him last, which didn't look good with his sports top and leggings. Age had done for his hair, too. Now his head was mostly crown, save for a few dark strands scraped over the top. As if to compensate he'd grown a moustache, but even this was ragged, thicker to the left than to the right.
He was tugging along a large case on wheels, bulging with things he'd grabbed at the last minute. My own bag was smaller. Going through the bric-a-brac I'd collected over the years, I'd realized that photographs were all I needed.
Marie would have kept more, but she was gone.
Some had paid for additional hold space, but what was the point? We'd soon have more use for spades and tractors than vid machines and music players. Anyway, by the sound of it we were going to be short of time on Glason. While the adverts made it look wide open, empty and exciting, they certainly didn't make it look ready.
I suspected that the few hours we could spare for reading or enjoying a movie would be spent slumped in a chair recovering. The youngsters were going to have a great time, no doubt, but for anyone over forty, who'd spent their life on a station, Glason looked tough on the back and the knees.
Smitty barreled into me. "Billy-boy, I can't believe you're still here."
"I'm closing up in a few hours."
"No, Bill: here. Still got this old shop open. I figured that you'd close it when your old man... you know, that you were just keeping it open for the family. I mean, cutting hair? Let the bots do it!"
"People like the human touch."
"That's my Bill, never looking forward, always looking back. Me, I've got my eyes set on the future. Soon as I'm on Glason I'm putting my money down on as many acres as I can farm. Gonna get some serious machinery, hire a few hands, make the money grow. There's miles of dirt there, Bill. You can't see beyond the station walls. Don't you watch the vids? Don't you want to get yourself out in the fresh air? We've been living in a can!"
It seemed like Smitty had bought right into what the ads were selling. Never mind that the furthest he'd been off station was the round trip down to the Proteus dome. We'd all done that when we were nine. The council call it the most expensive school trip in the galaxy, but they don't cancel it. Whatever Smitty's thoughts about Glason, he's right that you need to get the kids off station at least once. Let them feel what it's like to have a real sky over your head. Okay, on Proteus there's a thin film canopy half a mile up, but I remember how giddy it made me feel. I wanted to drop down and cling to the rock. I didn't of course, because I was nine, and I sweated it out, but looking back I bet all of us felt like that. Even Smitty.
"Maybe catch you later? I'm on the Dauntless." Smitty hauled his case back to the line. He waved once and gave me a big thumbs up. I watched him go. Good. My ticket's for Grace, and by all accounts Glason's a pretty big place.
The evacuees started jeering. A group of Krub had appeared, coming from the docks. Their shuttles were coming in as fast as ours were going out. These Krub had walked from the barriers, but when the catcalls and whistling started they curled up into their protective balls, and several combined for safety. Like that, they look like raspberries a couple of feet wide, or bigger if they get together.
They rolled towards us, jostling with each other and bouncing off the walls. They're pretty impervious balled up--their skin is rubbery, tough, and dimpled--but they're not so good at navigating. These were a dark purple, but I've seen them in green before, and shades of blue.
More of them arrived, some bunching up and rolling, others keeping to the sides of the corridor. The ones who were walking were poking their noses into any shop that wasn't locked up tight. I could see them making themselves at home in the bar across the way, tossing bottles out into the street.
That was a mistake.
People grabbed those bottles and threw them right back, and the mood got ugly. I couldn't see any police around, but it was only a matter of time before they showed up. I didn't want to get caught up in that, not on this last day, so I went back into my salon and pulled the door shut.
"COMING UP... HANDOVER!"
Up on the screen, the talking heads were guiding us through the details of the contract the Commander was about to sign. There were some long sweeping shots of the evacuation fleet outside the station: Arcturus was outbound, and Gallivant had already lit her engines. I cleaned up the counter keeping one eye on the feed. I didn't want to miss this.
The picture switched to a view of the station council chamber, which I'd always thought was too grand for an orbital like ours. It usually held sessions dealing with room allocation disputes and complaints about smells from the plumbing, but today it suited the occasion.
The seal of the Federated Systems glowed above the stage, and you could hear the hubbub from the press and senate staff packed into the auditorium. This was history in the making. The first station ever to be handed over to another race, and hopefully the last. A symbolic act to end the war with the Krub.
The stage was empty at the moment, just a small table with a red cloth, and a pair of Pads. Their screens were projected up at the back of the stage, one on each side, the articles of the agreement written in Anglish and Krub. Linked out to terabytes of legalese no doubt, but for this ceremony the summary would be enough.
The lights dimmed in the auditorium, and the murmuring ebbed. Three Krub rolled up to the stage, then grappled with each other and stood as one. It always surprises me how cleverly they fit together. Their limbs can extend a little, and the lowest Krub pushes body mass down into its legs for support. There are entire books on how they link together, how they extrude tendrils of themselves into each other, combining nervous systems, but I've never got past the first chapter. Suffice it to say they exchange fluids and nerve signals, and can combine their minds. It's part conversation and part sex.
It's a strange paradox with the Krub. Separately, they behave more like ants, colony creatures. Each one rolls around with a minimum of thought, a drone going about its set task. When that's done, you'll see it come to a halt, spend some time figuring out what's needed, then get busy again. There's no room for personality with an individual Krub; it's all about the job.
But let two or three come together and you end up with something more like a man. A paradox, you see? Separately they work as a hive, together they become more individual. I've no idea whether they like to join up with regular friends or whether the nearest Krub will do, but when you've got three standing in front of you, you can talk.
I've never seen more than three joined though. Perhaps that's the limit. Perhaps they have three sexes and that's the way it works. Or maybe they keep those collaborations out of our sight. People have speculated wildly in the natural history vids and talk shows. Do they get even smarter? Are there ways that they fit together that expose vulnerable parts? Is it simply taboo in Krub society? For that matter, do they have a society? It's been hard to get any sort of idea of them when they've spent the last century shooting at us.
Cameras flashed. The Krub glanced around, perhaps uneasy with the crowd.
Then, to everyone's surprise, two more Krub clambered up onto the stage and joined the first three. The five of them locked together, and the thing drew itself up to a very impressive eight feet tall. It flexed its limbs for a while, as if testing the body, and I could see fluids draining onto the carpet. You don't see that with three. Pushing five together must squeeze the Krub bodies in interesting ways.
The Commander appeared at the door to the chamber. No fuss, no fanfare. Not even an announcement. He climbed the stairs to the stage and went to the table. He stood tall and strong, with no trace of the uncertainty I'd seen earlier in the chair. His jaw was set, and those steely eyes twinkled. That was the power of the man. Even with the eight-foot Krub next to him he dominated the room. His hair looked great.
"Friends," he said. He was miked but you couldn't see it. His voice reverberated around the room and made the news feed hum. That was the voice we all remembered: the one on the vids from the Helios landings, and the sun mission, back when he was a fleet commander and a fighter hotshot. It was the voice that woke us up in station emergencies, and told us when it was safe.
"In signing over the station today, I close a chapter in the human story, one of expansion hubwards. Our borders are set from this day. It's time to be happy with what we have. The Krub have never sought to push into our home systems, but have fought valiantly to retake what was once theirs."
Never attacked our home systems? Well, perhaps not without provocation. There were a few murmurs from the crowd, but the Commander ignored them. "The Krub are an ancient folk, slow to anger, but unstoppable once they seek to move. It's time for us to show humility and accept our place in the greater order of things. In this direction, the Krub hold sway.
"We built this orbital fifty years ago, and for many years it was a stepping stone to our colonies deeper into what we now must accept as Krub space. We thought then that human expansion would be limitless. We were wrong. There are and there must always be limits. We must respect the lines established in the Peace Treaty."
He took a sip of water. "The Krub are alien to us, but differences are there to teach us to see beyond the surface. They are a people much given to introspection. They like an ordered universe. When Humanity thrust itself into their neat and orderly world it was like a man poking an ants' nest back on Earth. Krub boiled up around our stick and set about putting things back the way they were.
"War is never easy to end. It breeds reasons to keep on fighting. But we were wrong, and it must end here."
He bowed his head to the Krub beside him, and then turned back to look straight at the camera lens. "We accept the Krub as overlords of this system and all beyond it."
The Krub came forward to the table. It reached out and placed its hand, extrusion, whatever you want to call it, on the Pad and stared out into the audience. Unlike the Commander it wasn't looking at the cameras, but at the people in the room, so on the news feed it was strangely distant. No eye contact. The Commander had been speaking to all of us. This Krub was talking just to the room. More than that. There was something about its voice that told me it was speaking only to itself. Or maybe to every Krub between here and the galactic center.
That was it. Inside that remoteness I could hear not emptiness but distance. Endless reaches of space, peppered with planets crawling with Krub. Each world a jewel for them. No celebration of individuals, but of mass. Of a total sum of happiness. Growth tempered with death. Consumption balanced with need and renewal.
Or maybe I've been reading too many of those pamphlets that get pushed through the salon door.
So there it was. The Commander had set things up, but we all knew that it ended when this Krub said it ended. It moved its hand on the Pad and on the screen behind it the texts lit up.
"Is a stop to this the fighting," said the Krub.
And that was it, though its words hung in the silence for long seconds afterwards.
The Commander stepped up to his Pad, and signed his name, with careful deliberation. Then they swapped Pads, and made their marks again. The images on the screen behind them merged, and were overlaid by the logo of the Bonds of Justice.
The Commander and the Krub came round the front of the desk. The Commander held out his hand. The Krub took it. They shook. I think everyone was holding their breath.
"I take my leave of you, sir," said the Commander, and he crossed to the steps. That was when I saw his shoulders shake. Inside, he wasn't doing so good. But he straightened up. Ready to leave the stage for the last time.
"No," said the Krub.
The Commander stopped, and turned back looking puzzled. "The station is yours, sir. Our ships will be gone within hours. This system now belongs to you."
"No. You stay. They go."
"I don't understand. Am I to be a hostage?"
"Mouthpiece. Ambassador. Your usefulness continues."
The Commander opened his mouth to speak, perhaps to deny, but then to our surprise he nodded. He turned to face us.
"The border gates close at midnight. It's been an honor." Then he and the Krub stepped down from the stage and left the room. The camera panned back to the projection screen with its image of the signed contract.
The news feed anchors cut in--a jabber of fatuous opinion and questioning--so I switched away to the service channel. I had to keep an eye on embarkation.
I guess he could stay. As far as I know he had no family, no ties other than to the Navy. But what was it going to be like here on a Krub station?
For that matter, what was it going to be like on Glason? The packet I'd been given had simply stated an address.
The news feed piped out an urgent announcement. Dauntless was in the final stage of undocking, and anyone not aboard should return to the information center and get reassigned. Space was still to be had on Grace.
There was a crash and I slapped my hands to my eyes as the shop window exploded around me. I could hear the glass falling, smashing, crashing down over the front bench. Tiny splinters stung the backs of my hands, my head, my cheeks. I crouched there, frozen, waited for it to stop, then gingerly took my hands away.
There was a gaping hole in the window--most of it was gone from the frame--and lying in the middle of the floor, making a pitiful keening whine, was a Krub. Someone had kicked the thing right through the glass. It had rolled up tight into a ball, dimples standing out hard-edged from its rubbery skin. I knelt down beside it, and, after a while, reached out and touched it.
"You okay?" I asked.
Its skin was warm, but blistered. Not smooth at all. I could feel something pumping, or vibrating inside. Shaking maybe.
"Hey," I said.
With the window gone, the video opposite was louder.
"PEACE AND PROSPERITY," it boomed. "MAN AND KRUB, HAND IN HAND."
The Krub unrolled and lay there, looking up at me. This far from its fellows it was a dim thing, grub-like. It probably couldn't speak. It squirmed around, taking stock.
I held out my hand.
It reached out, took hold, and I helped it back on its feet.
It stood there, blinking. Then it bowed twice, turned and left.
I stared round at the ruin of the shop. That window had been there for forty years. I remembered my Dad painting the words 'Morden and Son', back when I was nine. There was still one big piece intact, lying in the middle of the floor. It had the big M, the O and the R.
Good job I didn't have to replace it. But it hurt, you know? Like I hadn't made it to the finish line. Knocked out of a forty year race with just an hour to go.
The chairs were covered in shards of glass. There were probably splinters in the embrocations and ointments I use too, and all the combs and scissors and razors were going to need washing. Maybe I could get it cleaned up in an hour, maybe not. Either way, that was the end. That hurt. I'd pictured one final customer. Maybe Brokan coming in for a shave, or Matricus wanting his hair trimmed one last time. Then, as the clock ticked up to 5, we'd nod at each other. I'd show him the back of his head in the mirror, and perhaps we'd pop open a bottle of whiskey and toast the old place. Give it a proper sending off.
One hour, and then I had to get my bag in line and move on through to embarkation.
Well, I'd see how much I could set to right in an hour.
I got to work with the broom and swept up as much of the glass as I could. I wiped down the chairs, pulling little splinters from the leatherette. I washed down the basins and cleaned the combs and tools. I polished the mirrors and the face of the news feed. I took all the mugs and glasses and pots and buckets out to the little room further back and cleaned everything until it shone.
On a whim, I started throwing out anything recent. Stuff that had drifted in over the last few years. Stuff that had always seemed out of place. Those leaflets had to go, and the postcards from other people's holidays. Having such fun. Wish you were here.
I threw out the plastic flowers, the lottery tickets and the wig stand. Where had that come from? Someone gave it to me as a joke, so I'd put it on the counter, and there it had stayed. Now, out it went.
Then, with everything in its place I took a look at the shop. It was neat, tidy, as if my father had just popped out for a smoke. The only thing wrong was the shattered window.
I picked up the broom and started to smash the remaining glass out of the frame. With each crunch I smiled. Pushing back the years. Making things new. I remember my father doing the same when I was a boy.
The old window had gone a milky grey. It sent the wrong message. Cloudy window, bad haircut.
So Dad broke it out. I remember squealing with laughter as he took a big hammer and swung it into the middle of the glass. What a smash! I'd never heard a sound like it. Smash! It made me cry for joy then and--Smash! It made me laugh and cry now.
I bashed every scrap of glass out of the frame, and swept up and bagged all the pieces.
Then I went out into the street and looked back in. It could have been the day my father put that window in, when it was so clear. Invisible. My heart seemed to swell then, as I remembered him turning to me and saying, "Now the fun part."
And that's when Dad got that big bucket of paint and I watched him writing our names, so slowly and so carefully. I was only nine, but that '& Son' made me feel so proud.
There was a clang and a groan and the news feed informed me that Dauntless had been set free. Good luck, Smitty, I thought. You're an annoying bastard, but I really hope you make it.
Outside, the line had gone. The last shops had shut. Some doors had been left hanging open, others were shut tight in defiance. The video hoarding had been switched off, and the street was oddly quiet. Half a dozen Krub were bouncing back and forth at the curve of the passage. I had no idea why.
Morden and Son. With the window smashed that was the end of it. That chapter was closed. Even if I could get the frame reglazed, and paint those words back in, who would see them? Who'd still be here who remembered my father? No one. Except for the Commander.
That sign would just have to stay painted in my head, and in the photos I've got of Dad and me in front of it, together.
I went to the back of the shop and got my bag. A small thing really to hold all these years. Brown, shapeless, with two thick straps.
So here I am, looking round the salon for one last time. There's just one thing I've missed. I unclip my wife's picture from the wall. Put it in my bag.
Marie would have loved Glason. She always felt cramped by the station, was always talking about a day when we'd be free of it, raise a family somewhere under an open sky. Well... Sometimes the wrong people get taken. She'd slipped away in the hospital here, in a box in a featureless room in a great warren of metal. There'd even been a lid between her and the ceiling.
But I don't mind the station, you know? I know the extent of it. The distance to its walls. I know the people. And it's never been about humans and aliens, us and them. For me, everyone was a customer. Whoever sat in that chair, I took the time to listen.
No Krub would ever get in that chair.
But it's a big galaxy, and we've never gone deep towards the hub. There are people out there who trade with the Krub, who'll come forward to the Line now the fighting's over. This will still be a crossing point, within Krub space. Men might not come and go here, but other folk will. And the ambassadors will stay. Matricus is still going to want his seasonal trim. And someone has to be on hand to cut the Commander's hair.
There's a living to be had here still.
I let go of my bag and sit down, taking a deep breath.
I'm going to have to get that window replaced.
I wonder what 'And Son' is in Krub?