Another moonstruck advisor from last night’s lunar viewing party stumbled onto the factory floor in the middle of our shift. All of us factory girls paused, watched, telescope pieces in hand. He staggered past the table of polishers where Adal and I were stationed that day, pointed up to the glass ceiling, and exclaimed in wordless awe. Mouth and eyes wide. Balancing on one tiptoed foot as if he might levitate straight into the void of space to be closer to Sao, Neptune’s psychotropic moon.
The moonstruck were a regular sight, but each time I was mesmerized by the stranger’s bliss as if by looking closely enough at their eyes, I might also know what it was like to feel good and happy. The factory managers descended. We turned quickly back to polishing our mirrors and lenses, setting glass into sockets. They’d escort the advisor outside and make sure he got a transport back to the chancellor’s headquarters. And so another happy customer of the Bliss Viewer Telescope would depart. Another person stunned by a glimpse of Sao.
“I talked to one of the blue-robes,” Adal whispered when the outer door slammed shut behind the managers.
I stopped. Glanced at her, then down at the mirror in her hands. Its circle distorted her face so that the pale rainbow sheen of her eyes was all I could see. “You promised you wouldn’t—”
The door to the observation deck opened, and another manager started down, staring at Adal the entire way to the factory floor. I turned back to my work, heart pounding for Adal.
The girls who talked to the blue-robed cultists were the ones we never saw again. A week after the first cultist was spotted in district C5, a pattern emerged. The blue-robes approached first. Their targets were factory girls with moonstone eyes, girls like Adal whose eyes reminded us of the seductive curve of lunar satellites we couldn’t afford to look at. Some who had witnessed the cultists lure a moonstone-eyed girl into the wilderness said their robes smelled like clean water, that they offered two silver strips of holofilm in one hand and fresh-cut night-blooming flowers in the other. For two days, Adal had smelled like water and flowers. For two days, she’d kept a secret.
That Adal was the last moonstone-eyed girl in C5 was not a secret. No one said so, but everyone was waiting for the moment she’d disappear, charmed by the promises of exotic strangers who drank clean water and cultivated living plants.
The factory managers, though they tried to treat all of us like interchangeable cogs, watched Adal more closely. Like all moonstone-eyed people, she could discern perfection with a glance and was therefore valuable for any tasks requiring precision. For them, her value was the same as a piece of state-of-the-art equipment, another attraction perfect for the daytime factory tours.
Tourists dressed in the vibrant, clean garments of B-district citizens filed after the returning managers. A couple dozen guests today. One of the larger groups that had toured the factory in the past few weeks. Their heeled boots clicked across the factory’s concrete floor as they headed for the catwalk. These were people who could obtain better work than us C5 citizens but still didn’t have enough credits to attend a viewing party and take home a Bliss Viewer telescope of their own. Watching us assemble them was the closest they’d ever get to the experience.
Two women and a manager broke off from the group and came towards the polishers’ table, towards me and Adal. I tensed, wadding the polishing cloth up in my fist. The tourists breathed awe, raising hands glittering with gems to their faces.
“Can we?” one said, extending a greedy hand towards Adal. The manager pulled Adal around the table and in front of the tourists.
They gripped her chin and turned her head as if inspecting a piece of merchandise. Tapped her eyes with their fingernails and exclaimed about how her eyes were “genuine stone, the real artifact!” Marveled at how beautifully the sunlight played across the moonstone. They leaned in too close, hands hovering over her face as if they were entertaining the idea of plucking out her eyes to wear as fashionable statement jewelry. I set aside the glass, not quite polished to standard, for fear of shattering it in my grip.
Alerted by the too-heavy clink of glass against glass, the manager shot me a look. Hands shaking, I pretended to need a fresh cloth and bent to inspect the crates of neatly folded linens beneath the table. The manager ushered the tourists back to the main group.
I’d stopped asking if Adal was okay after these encounters—not because I didn’t care but because I knew she wasn’t. I handed her a polishing cloth and used it as an opportunity to give her hand a clandestine squeeze. “I’m sorry,” I whispered. It was all I could safely give for now.
Transparent panels composed the upper half of the building, and during the tours, the managers liked to brag that they managed one of the only C5-level factories that really cared about the conditions of its workers, allowing us to work the daylight half of our shifts under natural light. But the real reason for the glass was the nighttime viewing parties.
Government enforcers and chancellor advisors waited outside every evening to be invited in by the managers. The enforcers and advisors liked to watch the managers line us up and pat us down for any telescope parts we might have tried to smuggle out in our jumpsuits.
Months ago, a group of girls had managed to assemble half a telescope with stolen parts, and the managers let this go on for a couple weeks in order to make a big show of letting the enforcers stun and drag them away one evening. No one else tried to steal anything after that, but the managers sometimes liked to single out the most nervous among us for questioning. A pre-viewing show for the amusement of the chancellor’s men.
I was the one selected that evening.
I was almost to the door. Adal was behind me. A manager scanned my eyes for identification purposes. Hands shaking, I stared ahead at the door. The head manager patted me down and pretended to draw a small lens from my sock. Adal and the girl in front of me saw him palm the glass from where he’d tucked it up in his sleeve, but we all stayed still and silent. The manager turned to the crowd of enforcers and advisors and waved the glass so that it caught the light of the overhead lamps. Two of the enforcers stepped forward, going for the stunners at their hips. I felt my heartbeat in my mouth, in my ears.
“I asked her to do it,” Adal declared. “It’s my fault.”
Now it was their turn to freeze. They looked at Adal. At her eyes. Then the head manager fired us both: me, for being a worthless C5 girl they could throw away, and Adal for challenging their right to throw me away without consequence. The enforcers would be too reluctant to hurt anyone blessed with moonstone eyes—especially for a lie that everyone knew was a lie. “Get out of here, the rest of you!” the manager growled. The girls pushed for the doors.
In the outside heat, I immediately began to sweat, but my shivering persisted. The other girls, though they knew I was innocent, hurried past me without so much as a glance and dispersed into the alleys leading away from the factories. In the C5 district, fired equaled starvation equaled death. No one wanted to know a dead person.
I stared up at the smogged sky, felt numb, tried to understand how starvation would differ from the persistent hunger I’d felt for years.
“We’ll be okay,” Adal said, with an impressive amount of confidence.
We could not afford breathers, and so the longer we stayed outside, the more our lungs would burn from the C5 district’s polluted air. But fear kept me rooted to the cracked concrete in front of the factory. Adal wrapped her arm around me and pulled me through the damp alleys, swampy with trash. The rare streetlamps revealed bodies in fractions. Here, a bony hand outstretched. Head pillowed on arm, face against concrete. Scraps of gray jumpsuits soiled black. A foot, shoeless, among the trash.
A girl wandered into our path at the end of an alley. She reached for Adal in the flickering orange lamplight. Her eyes were wide and dilated.
“You’re here to escort me to the lunar colony?” she asked, voice singsong. Smile haphazard. “Your eyes are like portals! I could step through!”
Adal and I exchanged looks. The girl stumbled forward. Adal caught her. “You’re just moondusted,” she whispered.
The girl’s clothes hung loose on her. She was damp and smelled sour. Where her hair hadn’t fallen out from chemical exposure, it was matted and tangled. Adal continued to hold her as if she were a sick friend.
“You’ll take me to the moon?” The girl slurred her words, coughed.
“You’re moondusted,” Adal repeated. “It’ll wear off in a couple hours.”
I doubted whether the girl had that long to live. Like looking at Sao through a Bliss Viewer, moondust produced an ecstatic high. Unlike the Bliss Viewers, moondust permanently degraded the brain. That, combined with the toxins the girl had been exposed to, meant she was probably incurably sick.
A cough seized me again. We needed to get inside. Adal gave me a look over the girl’s shoulder.
“I just want to see the moon,” the girl whined.
Adal tried to guide the girl to a seat against a wall. “I’m sorry,” she said, letting her go.
The girl’s voice, keening, followed us. “I want to go with you! I want to go to the moon!”
The sting of the air grew as my breath quickened. Smog seemed to settle lower, thicker. Muck seeped in through the holes in my shoes. My lungs constricted. Shallow, wheezing breaths. One more block from home and we turned onto a dimly lit street. Skyward lattices of windowless living pods rose on either side of us, their aluminum sides streaked with soot. We’d reach ours soon.
Farther from C5’s industrial center, the roads were not paved. In the near-constant rain of summer, the ground became marshy. Every season, news spread of at least one lattice collapse due to unstable foundations. It was late spring.
Satiny blue fabric fluttering out from the shadow of a nearby lattice caught my attention. A silver pockmarked mask turned toward Adal.
I stopped. This was the first time I’d seen one of them. Even in the dim light, the mask gleamed. The robe moved around them as if they were bodiless. Flowers scented the air.
Adal seemed not at all surprised and spared only a furtive glance at the cultist. “Not yet,” she whispered. We kept walking. The dark eyeholes in the mask stared after us.
Adal removed her scarf from her hair and tied it over her eyes after we’d climbed up the lattice to our pod. She often did this after work. “Eyestrain,” she’d say. “Headache.” But tonight she tied the scarf slowly, deliberately, as if her fingers were studying the texture of the fabric.
“It’s becoming harder to look at this world,” she sighed, settling down on the narrow bunk we shared. “My eyes … Sometimes I wish I had eyes like yours, Bimi.”
“But your eyes are beautiful,” I said automatically. My coughs had started to settle down, but my chest and throat were sore from it.
Her lips twitched. “They’re too sensitive. Every bad thing I see is magnified.”
“But so is every beautiful thing. You get to experience that more strongly than the rest of us.”
“Where are beautiful things? Who has beautiful things?” She worried the loose ends of the scarf. “This weighs on me. It’s not just objects, it’s emotions. Spirit, I think. The managers are dirtier than the streets. And that girl, living in the ruins of herself.”
I stood, uncertain, at the door, one of the only spots in the pod where one could stand. The metal ceiling sloped low so that I had to bend my neck and slump my shoulders, and I was starting to feel the ache.
“I want to go somewhere that won’t hurt my eyes. Better, a place where they would really feel like a gift.”
“Is that what the cultists promised?”
“Yes,” said Adal.
“Where have they been taking everyone?”
“To Sao. The A-district citizens can look at the moon, but the cultists have found a way to actually put souls on Sao. I could be there.”
“How do you know they’re telling the truth?”
“I could see. They were the most radiant people. They weren’t stained by lies.”
“Could they have tricked your sight?” I asked.
“My eyes are true.”
I thought about the Bliss Viewer factory girls who had probably been killed for trying to assemble stolen telescope parts, for trying to experience the dopamine high of simply looking at Sao. The moondusted girl dying on the street. I doubted any promises of safety or happiness for girls like us.
Neither of us slept through the night. We alternately held each other, then rolled away, sweating, to opposite sides of the bunk, a couple inches of space between us. We were close, but there was always that last little space between us. In the early hours of the morning, I became restless and got up, searching for anything soothing to occupy my thoughts and hands. All the while, I wished for a splash of cool water on my face.
When I heard Adal stir awake, I asked, “What do they want from you in return?”—because anything involving cultists involved sacrifices.
I stood across from her at the fold-out surface mounted on the wall. The pod was always hot, but today I sweated more than usual, the moisture tickling down my back and soaking into the rough fabric of the jumpsuit. I sweetened the last of our weekly rations of carb powder with sugar from the tin that I hid in the safe under our sleeping bunk. I tried to keep my hands steady as I measured and stirred; I did not want her to see the way emotions were creeping in and making me shake. Adal, quiet, sat up and watched me work in the dim light of our pod’s single light bulb. We had no space for chairs, and we couldn’t have afforded any even if we had the space, so Adal remained on our bunk.
“What sacrifice?” I repeated.
Adal had nothing valuable to give that I knew of. The pod was too small to hide anything. We both knew about the safe.
“The one I talked to said I was special enough to attain transference.”
“Because of your eyes? They’ll help you get to Sao somehow?”
I swallowed, my throat dry from lack of water and something else. I glanced down at the brittle paper card as I continued mixing the contents of the antique plastic bowl. The recipe had been passed down in my family from a time when food for common people wasn’t wholly reduced to powdered versions of its components, when words were put to paper instead of holofilm. The card of the recipe was frayed at the corners, yellowed. I stored it with the sugar tin, and each rare moment I took it out, it disintegrated a little more. I’d transferred the original recipe along with my experimental ratios for carb and protein powders to holofilm in order to preserve the original, but today I needed to hold the paper.
Cake? Adal had tried the sound when I first attempted the recipe years ago, overemphasizing the hard snaps of the word.
Sweetened carbs held together with moisture and protein, I’d explained. I didn’t know if I’d ever get the finished product anywhere close to what my ancestors had eaten, to what I was sure the chancellor and the rest of the A-district people still ate.
“How long will you be gone?” I asked, stirring faster. The ingredients were well combined. My upper arm burned. I could have stopped but didn’t.
“Transference lasts forever. My soul will exist on Sao. My body here will be unconscious.”
I gripped the bowl of batter too hard when I turned to offer it to her. “Forever?” I repeated.
I had never had anything to heat the mix in order to complete the final step, never had enough water to thin the batter out properly. But this was the most precious thing I had to give.
She took the bowl from me. “My sacrifice will pay the way for two if you want to come. We can live on Sao forever. Happy and safe and together,” she said. She spooned a chunk of cake batter onto her fingertips, lifted it to her lips, paused, and plucked a white flower bud from beneath her tongue. She held it on her palm while she licked the batter from her fingers.
Night-blooming, I remembered from the rumors. I wondered if, when the sun set, I might watch it unfurl there in her hand.
“The cultists can smell the flowers,” she explained before I could ask. “It’s how they’ll find me when I’m ready to go with them. When we’re ready to go.”
The batter was dense and stuck our tongues to the tops of our mouths, and when I could swallow and free my tongue, I said, “You mean we can escape? Like the chancellor and the other A-district people do but forever?”
“Yes!” She took another bite of cake. She pulled her sleeve over her hand to polish her right eye. A nervous habit. Even in the unflattering light of the pod, the cabochons of her eyes glimmered a hard rainbow.
“But the sacrifice,” I said. Wouldn’t everyone go live in bodiless eternal bliss on Sao if it were that easy? Could anyone really live there if the happiness of just looking at it disorients whoever sees it?
Adal frowned and made a noise around the cake in her mouth. When she could speak again, she said, “You know what happens next if we stay here.”
I looked into the bowl of lumpy batter and crunched the undissolved sugar between my teeth. Thought of the fired girls whose gray jumpsuits were soaked black with toxic garbage. Adal cupped my face. Her hands were sticky with sugar. “I’m sorry. I just want you with me.”
“What if we could find another job?” I asked.
She sighed and dropped her hands into her lap, cupping the flower. “Just trust me. Come with me.”
Two blue-robed lunar cultists pinged our pod near midnight. Like the one I’d seen before, they wore shining silver masks patterned like the surface of a moon, small eye holes set into the shallow craters. Adal handed them two strips of silvery holofilm I hadn’t seen before now. They studied them, nodded, and floated to the ground, leaving the scent of clean water and white flowers in their wake. We climbed the lattice down after them.
Adal produced the flower from under her tongue. It had begun to blossom. The cultists nodded and started wordlessly into the night, the deep blue of their robes smears in the darkness. The swirl of wind revealed no feet. The fabric didn’t catch against a body as it billowed. Adal looked small and faded next to the cultists.
We passed through the ruins of the old city that C5 was born out of, a grid of skeletal structures lancing the sky. Despite its brokenness, the air here was easier to breathe. The farther out we marched, vines began to twist over the ruins of the city. Then, in the cracked concrete, I spied grass growing all stubborn and wiry. Adal squeezed my hand. I tried to smile at her. The flower in the palm of her other hand glowed harsh and white in the moonlight as the crumbling structures around us gave way to desolate countryside.
On a distant hill, the spherical shadow of a structure stood out against the night. The masks turned to study us. Adal held her flower up to the sky, and its glow washed the deep brown of her face in eerie light that hollowed her features. I wished she had never freed it from under her tongue, never let it bloom. We headed for the shadow.
At the structure, the cultists marched us up a series of stairs until my legs burned and my lungs, weakened from a lifetime of toxic air, constricted. I tripped up several steps, wheezed. They finally listened to Adal when she pleaded for a break. I gasped ineffectually for air until the cool satin of their robes settled around me and buoyed me up the last steps as if I were propelled on a gentle wave.
We emerged into the sphere of an observatory, its domed roof cracked open like the egg of my ancestor’s recipes. An abandoned relic of the age before the chancellors took power. In a spot of moonlight at the center of the room, white flowers bloomed.
I’d never seen the sky so clear. Hadn’t known there were places where it was still so clear. Clean darkness dotted with crisp silver light.
The cultists let us have our moment with the sky. Adal hugged me and pressed her cheek against mine as we looked up. A breeze whispered through the observatory, brushing crisp air against our faces.
I glanced away from the sky, and my chest seized again. The cultists were not hurrying us because they were making preparations for the transference, moving in a silent sweep of robes.
Two shells of machinery, throne-like in height and strung with cables, dominated the center of the room. The cultists swirled around them as if in a dance, snaking the cables of the shells across the room to another machine in the shadows. When they were done, four of them advanced, a pair beckoning us each toward one of the shells.
They guided us to sit. I could only look at Adal. She seemed too far away. She reached up to rub at her eye. A cultist took her arm and strapped it down.
“Why are you restraining us?” I asked.
No one answered. One of the cultists securing Adal brought down a metal ring that secured her head to the apparatus. I got no such thing.
“Does it hurt?” I asked. “Does it hurt?”
Adal tried to shake her head. “I’m fine,” she said, trying to smile for me.
A whirring noise started above us, and two metal arms descended from an unbroken place in the ceiling. They paused in front of Adal’s face, the claws at the ends of them clacking, calibrating. The cultist at the block of machinery input a series of commands after conferring with the one who’d strapped Adal in. She tried to turn her face away as the claws moved in, but the metal ring held her. My chest wound tight. The claws came away with Adal’s eyes glinting a pale rainbow in their clutches. Adal’s face, her beautiful face, hollow. Holes staring out, weeping a trickle of blood. She twisted her mouth, flexed her hands wildly, the only part of her that she could move. She breathed, air rushing in out, in out, so loud I imagined I could feel her breath in my lungs.
My sacrifice will pay the way for two, she’d said.
“Adal? Adal?” I repeated her name. A question, a cry. I struggled uselessly.
Adal tried to reply. Gritted her teeth.
Two cultists stepped forward, each holding a moonstone. An eye. They slotted Adal’s eyes into sockets just over our heads.
“You’ll return them to her after this? Return her sight?” I questioned.
“The transference chassis—” the cultist in front of me finally spoke, “—is focused by moonstone.” Their voice was soft as if they weren’t used to speaking, the rhythm of the words off like someone unused to speaking the government-enforced common language. Starlight caught the eyes within the dark holes of the mask as they stared up at the moonstone—the eye—they’d placed above me. Their silvered mask shined too bright, and I squinted, looked away. “The process of connecting to Sao, a strong moon, blesses the stone for later ritual.”
“What ritual?” I said. “What do you do with all of them?”
The cultist turned the holes of their mask to meet my gaze. Leaned in and whispered with the girlish delight of sharing a secret. “We will give strength back to the Earth moon.”
I was struck by the voice. “You’re girls like us?”
“In your language, you’d call us that. But we are stronger. Eternal. And not of Earth.” I thought I sensed a smile beneath the mask. “Terrans invade the Earth satellite, our goddess, our moon. She will not become another of your ruins.”
“Can’t we help you fix it?”
“You have helped,” the cultist said. “Now you can rest.”
The robed figures wheeled Adal’s apparatus beneath the open sky and starlight—“We’ll be together soon. On Sao,” Adal said—and it was then that I glimpsed the outlines of similar silhouettes along the back wall. Rows and rows of girls, eyeless and dreaming.
Adal’s voice was hazy, distant. I saw her stumbling on the cold black horizon, hands out in front of her, two hollows in her face.
“Bimi?” she cried. “Bimi?”
But the ground, so silver and shining. Shifting beneath my feet like powdered diamond. I could look at it forever. Wanted to look at it forever. Couldn’t raise my eyes to anything else. Couldn’t leave this most perfect spot in the universe. I’d landed here! How lucky to be here and alive! Why did I, of all people, deserve to witness this beauty? This one last beauty?
I fell into the moondust, scooped it up in great handfuls, smeared it across my skin. So beautiful. Forever.
The voice on the horizon was stumbling away, turning off. I think I heard her shriek and fall and get back up again, but really, she should have stayed close to the moon, in its beautiful, beautiful dust.
I was very blissed when a cold foot stepped on my hand. My head was heavy now as if sleep had weight and had been stuffed into my skull. When I managed to turn my neck to look at the foot, I saw it had passed through my hand so that our bodies occupied the same space.
How long had I been staring into the void of sky and sweeping moondust across my body?
Over the pile of shimmering particles on my chest, an eyeless face turned down towards me. This face had a sound that went with it, a tender sound I loved.
“Adal,” I said. “Adal.” I sat up and left the dust behind.
Her lips trembled into a smile. “I’ve walked the moon so many times looking for you. It’s been—forever.”
I stood to embrace her and realized my soul-body was so heavy. Moving took years. Every inch of space, so far. Remember how to raise an arm. Step forward.
But when we touched and melted through each other, I knew her soul, and it was the closest we’d ever been.