â€œâ€™Scuse me, is this the sunbound dock?â€
Harrison started and nearly dropped the bouquet he was holding. He hadnâ€™t heard the woman approach. â€œUhâ€¦ yeah, it should be.â€
â€œThanks. Is this seat taken?â€
He shook his head mutely in response. Vibrant. It was the first adjective that popped into his mind, and it stayed there as she sat down and pulled out a compact. Every movement was sure and determined, as if she knew precisely what action she planned to take and followed through every time. He watched in awe.
â€œAre you going to Prime?â€
The unexpected question reminded him of his manners, and Harrison quickly averted his eyes. Prime was the first colonized planet in this system, and by this point it was entirely city, filled with excitement and flashing lights. â€œAh, no. Not all the way.â€
â€œThatâ€™s a shame. Nothing else interesting along this flightpath.â€
Harrison was shocked at her casual attitude. He couldnâ€™t imagine saying such things to a stranger. â€œI, uhâ€¦ I guess not,â€ he agreed lamely. Serenaâ€”the intended recipient of the flowersâ€”lived on one of the residential planets in the system, zoned to keep it from growing too congested but with regulations that prohibited any sort of bad neighbors.
â€œCanâ€™t see the point of suburbs, personally.â€ The woman pulled out a red lipstick, applying it expertly, even while speaking. â€œIf I want a city, Iâ€™ll go to the city. If I want the country, Iâ€™ll go to one of the outer farmworlds instead. Trying to compromise, trying to have everythingâ€”it doesnâ€™t work. In the end you wind up with nothing at all. Not worth it, really.â€ The thick chemical smell of the lipstick pressed against his senses, and Harrison found it impossible not to notice how smoothly it went on as she rubbed her lips together, never taking her eyes off of the mirror.
What he said was: â€œThatâ€™s a very interesting point of view.â€ What he meant was: Serena never wears lipstick.
â€œI like to think that all of my points of view are interesting.â€ She capped the lipstick and rummaged in her purse for a moment, coming up with a light green compact that she offered to him. â€œHere you go.â€
Harrison blinked. â€œUhâ€¦ what?â€
â€œItâ€™s makeup. For your black eye.â€ She turned and looked at him for the first time. The whoosh of air signaled the approach of the next ship on the outbound dock, and she raised her voice to speak over it. â€œYour skinâ€™s about the same tone as mine, and this is the foundation I use to cover things like that. I figured you might appreciate it.â€ She inclined her chin, indicating the bedraggled roses. â€œAnd so will she.â€
Two ship gongs sounded, one from the transport pulling into the station and one from the trnsport that would arrive momentarily to whisk this woman away. Harrisonâ€™s cheeks flared red. He hadnâ€™t realized the bruise on his face was that obvious. â€œWhat do you mean, â€˜sheâ€™?â€ he asked, quickly trying to change the subject.
â€œThe woman you brought those flowers for.â€
The station was filled with noise and clatter, filtered through the air systems. On the opposite dock, passengers were unloading, but Harrison didnâ€™t pay attention. He picked up the roses. â€œActually, I brought them for you.â€
The road lay before me like the body of an overdosed hooker; all valleys and plains and nameless geography. My hand stroked the air from the window of the pickup as the wind smoked my cigarette and left me with ash. This could work, she’d said. We can make this work.
Behind us, the dome shrank and shimmered in the ozone-laced sunset. My overeducated freelance cab driver droned on about something forgettable, something like music he’d liked as a child. Claire was five miles behind me and counting. By this point, I knew that the feds would have noticed my absence. I pictured her in a white interrogation room, angles and pale skin and cocky syllables in the face of bodily decommission. This had been her idea, of course. Everything good was her idea.
â€œ-totally captures the alienation of the human experience,â€ the driver said. The radio sputtered silence and noise. He’d gone to Yale. This was a rebellion, I’m sure. The type of rebellion that only the rich can afford. â€œSo what’s your story?â€ he finally asked when his thoughts on Bob Dylan had become less than captivating.
â€œDon’t have one,â€ I said, which wasn’t entirely a lie. Most people don’t have stories worth telling. The problem is that they very rarely recognize it.
â€œYou’re outside of the limits,â€ he said.
â€œSo are you.â€
â€œYeah, but I’m getting paid for it.â€
Seven miles, now. I pictured her blond hair traced with blood, her body curled up on the interrogation room floor. She wouldn’t tell them anything, of course. I wished that she would tell them something.
This isn’t how it should have been, I thought to her. Next time, I won’t let it won’t come down to this.
The cab driver flicked up his control panel, and I turned around to watch the last spark of the silver bowl disappear into the horizon. We were far enough away for the rockets. We were beneath their radar. Decades beneath their radar.
â€œAll strapped in?â€ he asked as he entered a code into the ancient keypad. I nodded. I was more strapped in than I’d ever been before.
â€œBut why donâ€™t you want to be Prince Charming? I just donâ€™t understand.â€ Beryl worried a handkerchief nearly to the point of tearing with her plump little hands. Saske could see she was almost to the point of tears, but he wasnâ€™t going to relent. A man had to draw the line somewhere.
â€œI have no problem spending our honeymoon in Orlando, babycakes. And if it means that much to you we can get married in the Magic Kingdom. But does it have to be Cinderella themed?â€
Beryl dabbed at the corners of her eyes and fanned the collection of brochures at Saske. â€œThereâ€™s Sleeping Beauty. We could do Sleeping Beauty. They have animatronic replicas of Flora, Fauna and Merryweather that float around on little gasbags and even a Maleficent that storms from the back when the priests asks if anyone has any objections.”
“Thats not what I meant…”
“You can have Maleficent turn into a holographic dragon if you want. You could fight her. They give you a sword.”
“I don’t want a sword…”
“My cousin Stacy had the Little Mermaid and she said the Ursela was just fantastic. Iâ€™d have to dye my hair red for that.â€ Berylâ€™s tears were lost, and she was now fingering her auburn curls in front of the hallway mirror.
â€œI donâ€™t want you to dye your hair red!â€ Saske didnâ€™t mean to shout, but now that he was started, he couldnâ€™t keep it in. â€œI donâ€™t want to marry Ariel, or Aurora, or Cinderella! I want to marry you!â€
â€œAnd you donâ€™t think Iâ€™m a princess?â€ The tears were starting to come back, and Beryl sunk down into the sofa. She looked at the handkerchief in her hands, â€œI think youâ€™re Prince Charming.â€
Saske sat down next to Beryl and put his hands on hers. â€œYouâ€™re a princess to me, sweetie. Youâ€™re my princess. Not Waltâ€™s. What is it you want out of that type of wedding?â€
Beryl looked him deep in the eyes. â€œThe fairy tale, honey. I want to be Cinderella, if just for a night.â€
â€œIn rags, scrubbing the fireplace?â€
â€œNo, silly! Cinderella isnâ€™t about rags!â€
Saske looked at the brochures, the glossy, pastel gowns and the castle backdrops. â€œNo, I guess not. Youâ€™d think Little Red Riding Hood would be in here. I loved that movie. I could be The Wolf for that.â€
â€œThe Wolf isnâ€™t a romantic hero!â€
Saske turned to his fiancÃ© with a saucy gleam in his eye. â€œAu contraire, my little Forest Traveler,â€ he growled. â€œAllow me to show you how wrong that notion is!â€
â€œOh my!â€ Beryl said. â€œHow big you are!â€
The van comes for me at the usual time. I imagine myself as the driver must see me, a doll with matching parts, standing in front of buildings that are coated with red sand. I pull my coat around me but the cold wind climbs under and up my bare legs. I am wearing the dress that my mother saved for, the one I do not eat in, the one I keep laid out at the foot of my couch, the one that my grandmother presses formaldehyde in to keep it fresh.
Girls are crowded in, stinking of perfume. I see the usual faces and a few new ones, their nervous twitches betray them. With a years of experience, I have become old at this game. A few of the new girls chatter, hoping for handsome and rich. They lie to themselves; no one who is handsome or rich would come here for a woman. The driver jokes, and makes check marks on his pad. He tells the van where to go and it takes us to the Hotel.
Paint is curling off the plastic in the Hotel, breaking down, like all of Mars. They line us up in rows of chairs. We wait for the men. There is the clatter of breakfast dishes, the smell of baked goods. Our best reproduction of Earth food. The little oily man comes in. Heâ€™s not so bad, maybe he sleeps with a couple girls to give them front row seats, but that is their business, not mine. It doesnâ€™t matter, he isnâ€™t really bad, not as bad as what could be.
Most of the girls are smiling now, watching the middle aged men, the best dressed. I do not make eye contact. I will not act like a whore to meet a man. I do look, though, at the oldest men when they are not looking. I am watching the oldest. If he looks toward me, I will look away. Perhaps that will interest him. A few of the girls giggle and the men watch them. One girl touches her leg, another, her cheek. I hold my hands on my lap and practice stillness. On the other side of a small window I see there is sandstorm coming, red sand, whirling.
The men are looking at our profile on their data pads. I am a virgin. Some earth men like that. Some do not. I have seen the Earth women in the Interactives. Earth women are wild. Earth women will deny men. Their denied men come here.
I feel his eyes on me before I see him. He is not so old and has a soft face. He says something in his Earth tongue. I do not smile. He is too young, fat on Earth food. I look at my hands but he is staring. There are other women who are more attractive, who want him to look, but he is watching me.
I am at the edge. He mispronounces my name and the oil man, our translator, flashes a smile.
â€œStand up.â€ He says â€œTurn around.â€
I stand and turn, looking at my shoes. I am naked now, on display.
â€œBe a pretty cat.â€ Says the oil man.
The cats on Mars are starving.
I try to make eye contact with an old man, but he is looking at a young girl. I am looking out the window for signs of a red storm. Will my shoes get stained in the storm? The red can stain everything.
I try to sit but the young man grabs my arm. He points to me; his fingers are hard. The oil man motions to the other girls. I snubbed the oil man once, I did not want the front row as much as he wanted me and he has not forgotten. He is telling the young man that he has time to decide, that he should think it over.
The young man shakes his head. He has made up his mind. He will take me to Earth, to him home. He has paid his fee to the oil man, and my parents will get five percent. It is more than they make in a year.
The men break for lunch and the oil man leaves me in his office. They want me to sign papers. There are pictures of weddings here, each of them with the same background, the same fake cake and champagne, only the date changes on these photos. There are hundreds of pictures.
It is my eighth trip to the hotel and no one has chosen me.
The papers absorb my signature as I sign them and they carry the confirmation to the oil mans data pad.
Red sand beats the window in his office. The storm has arrived.
The engineer stumbled into the cargo hold and dropped his bags like they were made of lead. At the moment, he couldn’t think of any place in the galaxy where he’d rather be. Not that that was a surprise.
His pilot wandered into the hold wearing underwear, a bra, and a towel wrapped around her head. She blinked at him and frowned. “I didn’t know you were back.”
“I just got in.” He flopped down on the floor next to his luggage.
“You look like hell.”
“Gee, thanks.” The engineer rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you put on some pants?”
“They’re in the wash.”
“All of them?”
“Aren’t you embarrassed to be wandering around the ship in your underwear?”
He sighed. They’d had this debate many times before.
“So why do you look like you got run over by a tank?” she asked.
“Is it really that bad? Maybe I should take a shower.”
“I used all the hot water. And you’re trying to change the subject.”
The engineer scowled. “I ran into that pirate again, okay?”
“The one who’s been tracking us over three sectors?” The pilot hopped onto a steel barrel, crossed her legs, and put her chin in her hand.
“Yes, that one,” he growled, “and please don’t remind me of it.”
“So what happened?”
“Do we really need to talk about this right now?”
“Yes. What if some doohickey broke on the ship and you were brooding over that pirate? I’d need to know how toâ€””
“I am not brooding over him!”
The pilot rolled her eyes. “I hate pirates,” she remarked to no one in particular. She was obviously refusing to move until he finished the story. Sighing, he gave in.
“Well, I was in a bar.”
“You? In a bar? I’m shocked.”
“Shove it. I was in the bar meeting a contact for a job. Do you want me to tell this story or not?”
The pilot absently cleaned her ear with a finger. She stayed quiet, though. Eventually, he continued.
“So there was some, uh, unrelated trouble, and the local cops closed off the street outside. Some explosion or something. I didn’t speak up to find out.”
“Aren’t you wanted on that planet?”
“That wasn’t my fault! And who’s telling the story here, you or me? Anyway, I was in the bar, and it looked like we were going to be there for a while. So I had a drink. Nothing else to do, right?”
“I sure would’ve if I’d been there.”
“Right. Yeah. So anyway, it turned out that Valentine was there, too.”
“I still can’t believe his name is Valentine. Fucking pirates shouldn’t be named after fucking holidays. It’s unethical.”
“He’s not named after the holiday. He’s named after the gun.”
“The Valentine .45 SXG? Are you serious?” There was a pause. “How do you know that?”
“He told me, okay?”
The pilot blinked, then blinked again. The engineer looked away and, not for the first time, was eternally grateful for his dark skin. It hid the flush. He hurried on.
“It’s not like I was talking to him on purpose. He was heckling me. You know how he does that.”
“Boy, do I ever. Fucking pirate.”
“Anyway, he was heckling me, and I got sick of it, so I slipped out the back. Of course the cops were all over me, chased me around, stuff like that. So that’s why I look like shit. Now let’s get out of orbit before they realize where I disappeared to. Oh, and add another “˜wanted’ label to the map for this sector.” He pushed himself upright and headed towards the cockpit. “I’ll get the engines fired up. And put on some pants first!”
The pilot watched him leave, then hopped off the cargo barrel. She rubbed the towel against her hair and casually tossed it into the corner of the hold. The engineer probably didn’t realize that the pirate wore lipstick. She smirked, making a mental note to be near the bathroom the next time her co-worker and employer went in. The look on his face would be priceless when he realized what the red stain was around the corners of his lips.
Seamus dipped the greasy piece of bread into the even greasier layer of oil in his plate. â€œMm. It seems so much easier when you know your own sin, doesnâ€™t it?â€
Carol hadnâ€™t touched her food; her lust for love blinded her, but only to a point. She watched the buffoon in front of her as he ate away his life. â€œI donâ€™t think it was meant to be taken literally, Seamus,â€ she said. â€œPeople have just becomeâ€¦ more goal-oriented.â€ The words were lost beneath the sound of her blind dateâ€™s incessant chewing. His blue eyes peered up ignorantly and a muffled confused phrase somehow made it out of the crevice.
â€œWhat I mean to say is, just because we have thirty-five years doesnâ€™t mean we should debase ourselves to such trivial concepts of living.â€
The glutton finished swallowing before bellowing an answer, â€œWell, youâ€™re looking for love, right? Thatâ€™s your purpose; love. I, as stated in the advertisement, am transfixed upon simple pleasures. Food is too good to let go to wasteâ€ Again, he stuffed his mouth full of various confections and salty doughy things.
Her words came after much thought and in-between the orificial cramming of her oh-so-temporary partner for the night. â€œIt has come to my attention that you, Seamus, are gluttonous because you think you do not have anything else to live for but your own pleasure. I, on the other hand, believe in a world meant for one person to stand beside me. For children, I feel that we need to have similar goals.â€
The manâ€™s eyes went into thought and he gulped his food down with his mind working in overdrive. They both had at least fifteen years left, and the rush to procreate had crossed his mind. He sat up straight, cleaned off his chin and stared directly into her eyes.
â€œI love youâ€, he said without wavering.
â€œGood. Now letâ€™s talk about a house and kids.â€ Her mood was changing from highly annoyed to mildly irritate.
A napkin he brought to his face rubbed away any remaining stains, and he looked up to the teenage waiter. He was sure that the kid couldnâ€™t imagine how disturbing it would be to hold such a job when he was halfway done his life. â€œWaiter, take this away,â€ Seamus said. â€œBring me a salad and filtered water.â€