"She's out there again," Maria said.
Julien sat at the table behind her as she looked out of the large, semi-circular window that occupied one side of the room. Their apartment sat atop a towering, cylindrical block that droned quietly each day as it worked tirelessly to mimic Earth's gravity within. It sat near the centre of activity on Saturn's satellite, Titan, and Maria still couldn't shake the feeling of being on display at all times.
The woman was out on the other side of The Gap, standing outside of her small Pod dwelling. Maria could just make out the faint blue glow of the woman's transparent Skin from her own lavish apartment when the orange smog passed, and she thought about how cheap and thin it would be compared to her own. The woman would be freezing; warmth depended on cost.
Maria couldn't make out the woman's features clearly, but she stood imagining a woman like herself. Long, dark hair; petite and quiet; sad, disappointed eyes. Maria felt a connection to the woman like there was an invisible rope that tethered them together, despite the huge crater that separated them.
She thought about those who had seen Titan as a chance to escape other wildly over-populated or difficult satellites and make the fresh start promised by Titan's Administration. All the blathering billboards, all the theatrical commercials.
Come, Be a Titan!
Instead of a new beginning, some arrived to find themselves only able to afford barely adequate Pods on the outskirts of Coeus on the guarded, restricted side of The Gap. They found that the great amount of money they were promised was not a lie, but the cost of living was extraordinary and rising all the time. They were trapped. The close, orange smog that enveloped the moon was the ceiling of a prison and not the previously promised haven.
A flask of coffee warmed Maria's hands, her forehead an inch from the glass that protected them from Titan's unsafe atmosphere. Their apartment was comfortably warm, but she liked to feel the distant cold of the glass near her skin.
"Hmm?" Julien asked finally.
"That woman I told you about? She's out there again," she said. She made to sit next to him, but his delayed response stopped her.
"Oh really?" he said eventually, never raising his eyes from the HoloReader that shimmered in front of him, lines of electric-blue outlining his personalised news from the satellite and beyond. The feigned interest in his voice was palpable. Maria moved back to the window.
"She's probably insane," he said, disinterested. "Perhaps we should tell somebody." His voice could have been coming from another room. Maria's mind wandered back to candlelit dinners and moonlit river walks. Julien's mind was preoccupied with other things now. Money, mostly.
"I'm sure there is a reasonable excuse for it all," she said quickly.
"Hmph, reasonable. Unpredictable, that's what they are over there. If I'd have known we'd be living this close to them," he said, "I would never have paid all that money for this place. Unpredictable. And dangerous. Those guards are the only things between us and anarchy." He carried on, lecturing her about how lucky and grateful she should be that they lived on the civilised side of The Gap.
Julien got up and went to the bedroom, as he did every morning, to grab his briefcase and check on his Skin that hung expensively in its own wardrobe. He visited it every day like it was some kind of shrine; it was his most treasured item in the house, Maria included. She hated the thing. He used a different one for his daily comings and goings; this one was special.
The woman in the distance looked up at the sky for hours on end without moving. It seemed that she was as obsessed with the sky as Julien was with his Skin. She would stand and stare before eventually disappearing inside her Pod. Until the next day, where she seemed to spend a little longer before going in. Maria was desperate to know why the woman stood there each day, wanted to help in some way.
Maybe she didn't need help. Maybe Julien was right.
Saturn itself could sometimes be seen through the smog, and the sight of it still made Maria catch her breath. It was huge in the sky, far bigger than the Moon seen from Earth. Its rings seemed close enough to touch. But she just knew this was not what the woman was looking at.
Maria didn't think so, somehow.
* * *
"Still out there, is she?" Julien's voice came from behind her, surprising her in the silence like the breaking of glass. Was he showing an interest now? It had been weeks since they had last spoken about her.
"She is. I want to -- " "I wish you'd stop standing at that bloody window. People will think you're insane too," he said. Any interest she thought she might have heard was gone.
"It's so cold out there," she whispered.
"Then she should try staying inside,' he said, 'like a normal person."
"They say that some of them had to send their children to Enceladus," she said without facing him, "because of all of the violence and the problems over there past The Gap. And now they're stuck here, because they can't afford to leave themselves."
She noticed Julien had looked up from behind her, his face clear in the reflection of the glass. He still looked like the man she had married, but there was something jagged about his edges that hadn't always been there.
"They?" he asked, ignoring the issue she raised. He wanted the source.
"They've had their food rations cut apparently," she continued, distracting him from his question, "and people are eating garbage. And they don't have any access to medicine." Maria was very aware of the leftovers of their sizeable dinner that were sitting on the table. Their pillbox sat on the counter. Equalisers, the various pills necessary to live off-Earth unimpeded by sickness and atrophy had been named.
"Staring at the sky isn't going to bring her daughter back, is it?" he said, looking back down at his Reader.
The woman was testing her Skin, Maria now knew. Standing out there in the freezing cold, a little longer each day, seeing if she could survive the long trip to the Shuttle Station for the flight to Enceladus. She would kill herself. Her Skin would be not be strong enough. Maria knew her own was not. They were both prisoners there. The positioning of the Station in relation to Coeus was no accident.
"Maybe we could hel --"
"Maybe if she had worked a bit harder on Earth, like me, she wouldn't be in the position she's in now."
"Yes," Maria replied, "maybe."
* * *
"Somebody got robbed inside the Medical Centre," Maria said, breaking the silence, "one of the nurses."
"One of the nurses," she repeated, "whilst on duty. With a knife. They only took medicine. That's all they wanted. Second time this month, apparently."
"What's that got to do with her?" he asked. Maria had mentioned that she couldn't see the woman through the smog and rain.
He appeared to shift uncomfortably in his seat then and scrolled faster on his Reader, news articles fluttering by unread. Maria felt hopeful. She was affecting him. But she didn't want to push too hard. They could help, if only she could persuade him. His circle was vast, she knew, and he worked within the Administration.
"Sounds unlikely. Where'd you hear it?" he said.
"Where'd you hear about it?" he repeated. "The robbery."
"Just one of the articles. In the news." She tried to stop her voice from shaking. "One of the articles, I think."
The silence swallowed her and the apartment whole. She couldn't tell him where she had heard it, that she knew it to be true. Maria remained standing at the window whilst he sat down, the table hovering between them like The Gap between her and the woman outside.
"You think," Julien echoed quietly after some time. She watched him shake his head in the reflection, unbelieving, behind her.
* * *
Maria made her way across The Gap, sheltered by her Skin.
It was good for a relatively short trip such as this, but its limitations were evident in the complex array of numbers and codes that were present on the screen around her face. She had made the trip several times now; she found it slow but meditative. Walking across the city was like walking at the bottom of a swimming pool due to the atmosphere, but she somehow felt less pressure out there than inside her apartment.
She dragged a small suitcase behind her this time, but the lack of gravity made the trip no more cumbersome than usual. It was the attached weight of it, of what was inside, that weighed her down far more.
When she arrived, Maria lay the case softly on the bed and left it there. She removed her transparent, glowing Skin from her top half, peeled it off and left it hanging around her legs. The part that covered and sealed her face, she placed on the kitchen table. A whimper from behind her made her turn, and she saw that the woman had opened the suitcase.
"A present," Maria told her, "for you and your daughter."
In a second, Maria was wrapped in the woman's arms. The woman then pushed her away, held her shoulders, stared into her eyes.
"You know what this means?" the woman asked. "We won't see each other again."
"I --," the woman began.
Maria grabbed her hands and squeezed. "I know," she said.
* * *
Maria was sitting at the table by the window when Julien returned home. He didn't announce himself, didn't look at her as he came in and threw his briefcase on the floor. He went straight to the toilet, undid his daily Skin clumsily, and released a heavy stream into the water bowl. He didn't shut the door. He must have been drinking.
He flushed and made his way into the kitchen, zipping himself up. He had shed his Skin. Maria didn't look up from her HoloReader, the words of a book floating unread on the screen. She stilled her jumping foot as he approached. He walked past her and leaned his head heavily against the glass. His breath fogged the glass around his mouth.
"Where's that lunatic today, hey?"
Maria didn't answer until he poked her in the shoulder. She pulled away instinctively.
"I don't know," she said, "I haven't looked."
"Probably seen some sense," he slurred, not seeming to notice her answer. "Or maybe they just hauled her away."
Julien laughed. Maria winced.
"I'm going to Enceladus tonight," he said, stumbling over and kissing her sloppily on the cheek. She did everything she could to not pull away from him a second time.
"I know, you told me," Maria replied, a thin, fake smile on her lips.
Business, he had said. Enceladus was also home to a Vegas-like complex and he flitted back and forth between the two satellites whenever he wished. Sometimes he told her he was going, sometimes he just sent a message to her Holo. She glanced out the window.
He pulled away and stood straight, staring at her. Considering her. She looked back down at the Reader, but he grabbed it and put it down heavily on the table. The words it had held vanished on impact. Her heart pounded without rhythm and panic rose within her like hot air. She repressed the heat behind her eyes, looked down at her hands.
"What did you do today?" He stood over her like some ugly, Earthly skyscraper.
"Nothing," she replied, looking up at him, "just some reading."
"Where is she?" He pointed out of the window and across The Gap. He moved his face inches from hers. His breath was stale. Maria didn't say anything. "Come on," he carried on, "you know eeeverything about her. You haven't stopped going on about her for months!"
She held her silence.
"Forget this," he spat. He stormed away and pulled open the sliding door of their bedroom violently. It bounced back from its limits and sealed him inside.
Maria sat completely still as he crashed around the room, hoping to be invisible by the time he emerged. She glanced over at the suitcase that she had left by the door that he had stumbled past.
"WHERE. THE. FUCK. IS. IT?"
He was roaring, every word punctuated by the crash of an ornament or the bang of a door. He was an uncaged animal looking for his Skin in the vacant wardrobe she had taken it from. She waited for him to finish, for silence to swallow the apartment.
She imagined Julien sliding the door open slowly and standing in the gap staring at her. His fists would be clenched, and he would be stood like a bull ready to charge. But Maria didn't know what he did.
She was gone.