Directions by Lore Graham
Eddy wished the Glassguild Network talent office would hurry up and tell him if he’d gotten a better job. Working as frontstaff at MilkOpal was all right most of the time, but it’d been twenty-four Saturn-cursed days since he’d sent in his application for the tour guide job and he was getting desperate to hear back. He had been working in Silica City—the focal neighborhood of one of the biggest and best Martian Motorsports studios—for an earth-standard decade, and was ready to be doing something better than answering stupid questions in glorified vending machine restaurants.
He was jarred out of his thoughts by a customer—an angry one—marching over to the frontstaff desk.
“Excuse me, my drink came out all wrong!”
The aggressively sweet smell of one of MilkOpal’s berry-flavored milkdrinks filled Eddy’s nose as a pale-skinned tourist shoved a cup full of pink slush toward his face. He jerked his head back at the intrusion on his personal space but plastered a smile on over his annoyance.
“Ah, well, I’m sorry to hear that,” Eddy said, straightening up.
The two tourists in front of him were snob-class Frez-Martians, judging by their pale skin and frilly-edged jackets. The woman addressing him wore a babeljaw and was accompanied by a short zoman with cringe-worthy face paint. Sometimes tourists mistakenly thought that copying the face paint that Glassguild drivers were famous for was somehow flattering. This person had been trying to recreate the hexagonal patterns of Bronze Hon, but the shade of blue was wrong and the glitter poorly applied.
“All I wanted was a berry-and-cream milkdrink but as soon as I picked the berry layer, it spat this out.” She spoke to her babeljaw in a loud whisper rather than subvocalizing, amplified into a shout by the device’s speaker. “It didn’t give me any chance to add other flavors!”
Eddy knew for a fact that there were two separate confirmation pages any customer had to go through before the machine poured their drink.
“Got it, sorry about the mix-up,” he said. “If you give me your payment chip, I can process a refund for you right now.”
“And what about getting me a new drink?” the tourist demanded.
“Once we get your refund processed, I can walk you through how to—”
“Are you going to get me my drink or not?”
Eddy was glad he had much practice at hiding his exasperation.
“The machines are self-selection for your convenience,” Eddy said patiently. “But as I was saying, I can walk you through the ordering—”
“Oh, well, I wouldn’t want any special treatment,” snapped the tourist. “Just thought the person working here should be able to get me a drink! Now, are you going to get me a refund, or just keep blabbering?”
Eddy bit his tongue and held out his hand. Two more hours of his shift and he’d be out of here. “Payment chip, please, and I’ll refund you right now.”
“This is terribly inefficient,” grumbled the tourist not ten seconds after she’d handed over her chip. It took Eddy well under a minute to complete the refund, but every moment dragged with her hovering over him impatiently. And as soon as he finished: “So, my new drink?”
“Yes, I can help you with that,” Eddy began, standing up. “If you head to the nearest available machine—”
With an angry grunt, she threw her drink onto the floor. Nearby customers looked over curiously, and Eddy’s face flushed with anger and embarrassment. Great, just what he needed—and on the day the cleaner bot was in the shop.
“I’ve been waiting for ages for the right drink and you’ve done nothing to help me!” the tourist shrieked. “I’m done with this place! Come on, Yevvy, we’ll go to Stamen instead,” she continued, turning away from Eddy. “The flower-topped smoothies looked better than whatever mess this place makes, anyway.”
Eddy sighed at the bright, sludgy puddle on the floor as they stormed out, and then went to get the mop.
This was not what Eddy had imagined when he had been a kid dreaming of living in Maximus. He’d glorified the glitz and go-get-’em of Martian Motorsports, fantasized about walking under the shadows of race tracks and along the same streets as some of Mars’s most celebrated drivers. So at the age of nineteen, he’d left his hometown to look for practical jobs in the neighborhood of his favorite racing studio.
Unlike many fans, he was content to be a mundane piece of that magical world. Eddy never had any delusions about becoming a driver himself. Sure, he loved racing VRs and maintained the unrealistic fantasy of owning a car—electric, of course, and not even one with the fake exhaust—but that was a far cry from being a Martian Motorsports driver.
Frontstaff gigs were easy enough to find, but Eddy was finally, truly getting tired of them. MilkOpal was the fourth establishment he’d worked at, having left a prestigious but exhausting host job at Emerald Eye ten months ago. Overall the change had been a relief, but returning to another automat job also meant a return to the awful Glassguild Network apron. Aprons were common for frontstaff across Maximus (excepting the classiest places, like Emerald Eye), but Silica City’s were jade-green, stiff, and covered in gaudy sequins.
Worse than the apron was Eddy’s feeling of uselessness. Mopping at the mess on the floor like a bot certainly didn’t help. If he was a tour guide, he could be actually helping people—showing them the sights, making conversation, answering questions that weren’t about how to work a vending machine.
As Eddy went to put the mop away, a vibration shook his wrist. By the time he finished stowing the supplies and cleaning his hands, the man waiting at the drink machine was crossing his arms and giving Eddy an accusatory look. Great.
“I can’t find the list of flavors,” he said, not bothering with any preamble.
Eddy knew the interface wasn’t perfectly intuitive. No single design could satisfy everyone’s way of thinking, and the plethora of menu options could be overwhelming. But it wasn’t this bad.
By the time Eddy had walked the man through how to preview the available flavors and order the drink precisely how he wanted it, new problems had cropped up: blue milkdrink smeared across one of the machines, drunk locals slinking in to try to nap at the tables, a confused-looking Thrashean lingering by the frontstaff desk clearly looking for assistance.
By the time it reached 16:00, Eddy was done. He didn’t wait for his replacement Janece, instead heading straight to the employees’ corridor while narrowly avoiding eye contact with a trio of arriving tourists.
He paused at the alcove at the end of the hallway to punch out. As he lowered his arm, he felt the jolt of his frontstaff bracelet and immediately peeled it off. Whoever it was could read the screens more closely or else wait for Janece.
Eddy pulled out his scroll as he stepped out the door. Unfortunately, the only message was from Alban confirming that e was on eir way to the restaurant. Nothing from the talent office. Rust.
He headed out on foot, ignoring the spiraling ramps up to the tramlevel. Transit would only save him five or ten minutes of walking within Silica City. Besides, the exercise was good for him, and even after all these years, he still loved the scenery.
Everything was clean, polished, and glamorous beneath the thousand-pane, rainbow-tinted glass of Silica City’s dome. Sparkling white concrete paved the streets, lit by small, spherical lanterns hanging from the narrow transitway above. Neatly trimmed bushes and fruit trees were interspersed with statues of automobiles and legendary racers. Cleverly placed alcoves for luubots kept everything beautifully clean for the tourists—though the locals, Eddy included, appreciated it just as much.
Eddy barely made it a single block before he was accosted by a tourist.
“Excuse me, can you help me, please?”
All right, accosted was too harsh of a word. E hurried over to him from the side of the street, eir babeljaw-adorned face wide with worry and eir lip trembling.
The tourist stood out even in the relatively diverse crowd. E was almost half a meter shorter than Eddy—he was tall, but not that tall—and wearing voluminous Jovian robes. Callistan, Eddy guessed, judging by eir stature and the strange blandness of eir appearance. E didn’t have a single visible piercing and eir inky hair was coiled around the back of eir head. Strangely though, e was alone; tourists from the Callisto Ring almost always stuck closely together.
“What’s up?” Eddy asked. He swallowed, immediately wishing he’d been a little more formal.
“Um, you work around here?” e continued, visibly nervous. E glanced at Eddy’s outfit, as if for reassurance, and he looked down too.
His apron. He’d forgotten to take it off when he bolted out of work.
Even as he cringed internally, Eddy mustered a smile.
“Yup, I do.” It was his own fault for leaving on his rusting apron, he supposed. And besides, he had a few minutes to spare and e looked like e genuinely needed something. “What can I help you with?”
“I got separated from my companions, the scroll that I rented is distraught—” Eddy had heard that translation error a few times before with Jovians, distraught in place of broken or unnavigable “—I didn’t bring my minder glasses, I have never been to this city before, and I have no idea how to get back to the Visitors Center.” The words poured out of em like e might burst into tears at any moment, though the translation that came from the babeljaw sounded less rushed and desperate than the high, hurried voice of the Callistan.
“That sounds like a rough day.” Eddy’s impulse was to give em a friendly few pats on the arm, like he’d do if he ran into a neighbor or acquaintance who was upset. But his customer service habit of not touching the customers held strong; not all cultures appreciated casual touch like Vale-Martians did. “But it’ll be okay. I can walk you back to the Welcome Center if you’d like.”
He sympathized with em, really. The handful of times he’d left the Valles, he’d felt a little overwhelmed himself. Being alone in a strange land could be exhilarating, like watching a Glassguild race or riding a tunnelcoaster. But if any little thing went wrong, it could easily feel like too damn much.
The one time he’d gone to Venus, he’d forgotten his toothbrush and had spent nearly a day stressing about how he could get one. Did he print it in the guest house’s HomeMaker or buy it in a store? Did Venusians even use toothbrushes? Fortunately, he had met up with a local friend-of-a-friend who asked him if he needed help with anything.
“Are you sure?” e asked, grabbing at the sides of eir robes. After a moment, e stopped abruptly, smoothed them out, and then wrung eir hands together anxiously. “I don’t want to keep you from your work…”
“It’s no problem at all,” Eddy promised. “I just got off my shift, and the Welcome Center’s not far from here. Less than a ten-minute walk.” He appreciated eir concern, but honestly, the Welcome Center was practically next door from where he was meeting Alban.
“Thank you,” e said, visibly relieved. “I follow you?”
“Sure thing. This way.”
The Callistan was quiet as e followed him down Fourth Street to the intersection with Glory Avenue. Eddy kept quiet at first too, watching em take in Silica City. Despite eir obvious discomfort, e looked around with more wonder than fear. E glanced up curiously when the street rumbled gently due to a tram passing overhead, and eir gaze lingered on some of the statues.
“That’s Ether Shields,” Eddy said when e slowed by a silvery statue near the main intersection. “Ze was one of Glassguild’s top racers near the end of the Diamond Age and set the record for longest horizontal jump. Took almost fifty years for someone to break.”
“The Diamond Age? When was that?”
“It’s a Martian Motorsports era, specifically,” Eddy clarified. “About two hundred years ago.”
E nodded and they continued on, taking a left down Glory. A few moments later, a family ahead of them dropped a slushy drink. Within seconds, a luubot wheeled out of its alcove to clean up the mess. The tourist’s eyes lit up with something like comfort. Something familiar at last, though it did crack Eddy up a bit that that familiar thing was a trash robot.
“Pretty lights,” the tourist said as they passed the intersection with Third Street and its ostentatious lamps clustered at its corners.
“Yeah, they really are,” agreed Eddy.
The lamps were ridiculous: steel-painted coils twisted together into a mockery of a willow tree. The lights themselves hung from the branches, lumpy and vaguely melon-shaped, but beautiful in their glowing colors of white, jade, bottle blue, and crimson. Despite himself, Eddy had grown a bit attached to them. He’d never seen or heard of anything like these lamps outside of this particular intersection in Silica City.
It wasn’t much longer before they reached the Welcome Center. Even among Silica City’s attention-grabbing facades, the Center’s technicolor-glittering dome shape was unmistakable. The tourist looked at it in palpable relief, nodding as e read the sign glowing in insistent red, the symbol in New Universal for “Visitor Center” looming large above Glassguild’s Silica City Welcome Center in Vale-Martian.
“Ah, we are here, thank you,” e said. “I appreciate your help so much.”
“No problem at all,” said Eddy. “Will you be okay from here?”
“I think so.”
“Well, if you need anything else, there’s Glassguild staff inside.” He gave em a little wave. “Hope you find your friends soon and have a great day!”
“Thank you!” e said, giving him a shy smile before e walked through the doors.
Alban was waiting for Eddy when he arrived at the Hidden Pearl restaurant, and of course the first thing Alban said once they had sat down and typed in their food orders was, “Did you hear back about the guide position yet?”
Eddy’s old friend was hunched over slightly with eir elbows perched on the table, lacing eir long fingers together like e so often did when awaiting news or gossip. Like Eddy, Alban’s family had lived in the Valles for generations. The two had a similar look, the same bushy brown hair and aquiline noses that were common in the local Vale-Shen. They’d gone to secondary school together and reconnected a few years ago when Alban found a position as a transit mechanic in Maximus.
Alban loved Martian Motorsports almost as much as Eddy, but kept eir involvement strictly hobby. Last year, Eddy had told Alban about an open tram mechanic position in Glassguild Network. To his surprise, e’d immediately declined.
Alban loved Glassguild’s spectacle and illusion, e’d told Eddy. If e got too close, e might see through it.
Eddy didn’t agree, and the comment had honestly stung a little, but he’d dropped it. Now though, after so much experience with Glassguild Network’s bureaucracy, on top of the expected headaches of dealing with tourists, Eddy was starting to see Alban’s point.
“Nope, still no news,” Eddy replied, leaning back against the stiff-cushioned chair. Not for the first time, he wished that furniture in Silica City felt as comfortable as it looked.
“Did they even give you an estimate of when they’d let you know?”
“If it’s much longer, you could follow up with them. It’s been almost a month, which is a bit ridiculous.”
“They said they’d be in touch.” Eddy shrugged. “No one really gets how the Talent Office’s process works, but they always follow up eventually.”
“Glassguild’s really not as transparent as their name implies,” Alban said. When e saw Eddy roll his eyes, e chuckled. “Right, I suppose you hear that all the time?”
“Yup, one version or another at least once a week.”
“My apologies then. I’ll try to keep my jokes fresher” —Eddy’s bracelet vibrated softly and blinked yellow, jolting him out of the conversation— “rather than boring you with the same old stale ones. Ah, a message?”
“Yup.” Eddy’s tension was tinged with a brittle excitement. He’d calibrated his inbox filters to notify him for important messages, and there was only one important message he was expecting.
“Just a sec,” Eddy said, but Alban was already nodding, gesturing for him to read it. He pulled out his scroll and pressed to open the message.
Greetings, Eddy Quor:
Thank you for your application for the Silica City Official Tour Guide position. Unfortunately, upon further evaluation of your infosheet, we have decided not to move forward with your candidacy. We appreciate your service as a part of the Glassguild Network team, and we hope you continue to find fulfilling opportunities with us for many years to come.
Best wishes, Glassguild Network Talent
“I didn’t get it.” Saying it made Eddy’s stomach clench, like letting the words past his lips was what made them real. The look of foolish optimism on Alban’s face vanished before it’d fully formed. “But the Talent Office made a point to thank me for my work in Silica City.”
Eddy ground his teeth. “I wouldn’t call it nice to have them rub in my face that they know how long I’ve worked in Silica City and yet I’m still not worth an interview.”
“All right, yeah, that’s utter crap,” Alban agreed, grimacing.
“They like that I’m dedicated, but it’s still not enough. Nothing’s ever enough for them.” Eddy hated how true it rang in his ears.
Alban looked away, then down at eir plate. E said nothing, but Eddy knew what e was thinking. I did tell you you shouldn’t work for the studio that you idolize.
Eddy left the restaurant in a stormy mood. He’d had a drink, as Alban had suggested, but it only deepened his feelings of rejection and resentment. Something in his chest ached, like an old stitch pulled open to bleed again. He’d poured so much of his time and his effort into Silica City, and yet all they apparently wanted out of him was to be some lifelong automat peon.
As he wandered through the plaza, Eddy looked at the glowing lanterns and glittering street, pained as he saw them for what they were: affectations for tourists. He felt unintelligent, not on an intellectual level but an emotional level, for having thought that Silica City was something more than just his employer and his landlord.
It was still beautiful, but Silica City didn’t feel like home right now.
As Eddy neared the façade of the Welcome Center, he slowed. Part of him ached to go home, have a drink, and head to bed early to be alone with his grumbling thoughts.
Instead, he walked in the door.
Because despite everything that had happened today, Eddy ached to remember why he loved Glassguild, to feel a little bit of that thrill he’d so often felt in Silica City. A less charitable part of him wanted a reminder that he wasn’t good enough, that he’d always be able to admire the workings of the place but never truly belong as anything but a replaceable cog.
He walked past the help stations at the front—staffed by both humans and screens—into the Automotives Room. Part-museum, part-entertainment, the room was a reasonably large hall, enough for a few dozen tourists to wander at any time before it started to feel crowded at all. Around holidays, he’d seen it fit up to a hundred.
He walked past toy auto vending machines and VR racing simulators into an open area with scattered exhibits. Several large panels of screenwall erupted from sections of the floor, each lit up with the same high-speed chase filmed from different angles.
Eddy recognized the cars on the screenwalls instantly: Oldmirror’s sleek, low build in cobwebbed crystal, and the matte black behemoth that could only be Betelgeuse’s Grand Blasphemy. It must’ve been in the last High Season or the season before that. Oldmirror’s driver, Shattermage, hadn’t been in the Elite division long before retiring, and zir replacement was barely managing to stay in the Showcase now. A little embarrassing for the studio, honestly.
Grand Blasphemy, of course, was always in the Elite. Rusting Betelgeuse.
The racetrack was Black River and the two drivers were facing off around halfway through, vying for the lead when they’d left the other nine behind. Much to Eddy’s delight, Shattermage had pulled ahead and ended up winning the race by a good margin. Best race of the season, in his admittedly biased opinion.
As Eddy wandered toward an engine diagram, he spotted the tourist he’d helped earlier. E was standing with three others in billowing blue and green robes, probably the buddies e had lost earlier. He felt glad e’d found them.
He watched the group for a minute, somewhat curious where else they were going to go from here, what they thought of Silica City—well, of the Valles and Mars in general too, he supposed. The one he’d helped looked much more relaxed now, chatting amiably with eir companions as they pressed buttons to highlight different parts of the diorama. He felt a little surge of pride, but it flickered as he realized a well-placed robot probably would’ve soothed em just as much.
But just as he was ready to turn away, e glanced his way—and to his surprise, enthusiastically waved a hand in greeting. E turned to eir companions, and with a single word, they all looked to him curiously.
He raised a hand back politely and was further surprised when e walked toward him.
“I’m glad to see you again!” e said. “My friends just showed up a little while ago, and the staff here were very kind while I was waiting. I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t run into you.” E clutched eir hands together, but eir smile was unforced. Honestly appreciative.
“Oh, it was no problem,” Eddy felt a little embarrassed. He hadn’t done that much.
“No, no, it means a lot to me.” E spread eir hands palm-out, a gesture he was unfamiliar with but assumed meant expansive gratitude, or something like that. “This is the first time I have ever been to Mars, actually. My companions convinced me to come, and the first two days were fine, but when I got separated from them, it was terrifying.
“Everyone else on the street just pushed by me. And there’re no bots, no search infrastructure on the streets here!” E shuddered, like that was unthinkable. “Even one of the tour guides walked by a few moments before you, and they just ignored me when I tried to get their attention. You were the one who helped me, and you weren’t even on shift!” E lowered eir voice, leaning in slightly. “So please, accept my thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, honest but still slightly incredulous. “Glad I could help. I’ve never been to any of the Jovian worlds, or anywhere off-world besides Luna, really, so I can imagine how overwhelming that must’ve been.”
Eir eyes widened slightly as he mentioned his paltry off-Mars experience, but he supposed he couldn’t blame em. Jovians made a big deal about interworld travel, what with their pilgrimages and cosmopolitan ideals.
“Oh, yes, I suppose that’s true. Well, thank you, again. Peace and Sol upon you.”
The Jovian phrase still struck him as strange, but he’d heard it enough times to know the appropriate response.
“And upon you,” Eddy said.
E gave him a smile and a slow nod of eir head before turning back toward eir companions.
Eir words echoed in Eddy’s ears as he left the Welcome Center. Strolling down the crowded, sparkling streets, he glowed faintly with pride knowing that, if nothing else, he’d done a better job helping the tourist than an official tour guide had.
It still made him warm with anger that he couldn’t get the rusting job himself, but there were other decent jobs in the district that he could try. Come to think of it, the Welcome Center had a listing on the job portal when he’d checked a few weeks ago.
Yeah, the rejection ached, and he suspected it would for many days to come, but even if Glassguild itself didn’t appreciate his hard work, someone else might.
Lore Graham is an agender author of speculative fiction and poetry. When ze’s not writing, ze’s often reading, cooking, or moon gazing. Lore lives in Massachusetts with zir partners and zir cat. You can find more of zir work at zir website.