“We’ve had a problem with the cursing, haven’t we, dear?” Mr. Olivestone said, handing an iced tea to his wife. Helen Olivestone took it with a slight smile, but didn’t drink from it until she meticulously removed every drop of condensation from the glass with a paper napkin.
“Well, naturally. Thankfully, it’s mostly been in French, or German. What did the Bookmans say she said? In Chinese? It was darling!”
“It was “˜Tyen-sah duh UH-muo,’ I believe,” said her husband. He handed iced teas to Jennie and Edward Mandrake, the Olivestones’ guests for the afternoon.
“That’s adorable!” said Mrs. Mandrake. “I suppose it’s just a consequence of implanting.”
“Not really surprising,” chimed in Mr. Mandrake. “Curse words are base reactions to base emotions. Not really surprising at all that aâ€”how old is Rachel?”
“Seven months,” said Mrs. Olivestone.
“But she had a mouth on her out of the womb! Swearing up a storm right in the delivery room!” Mr. Olivestone wiped his forehead as he spoke.
“Not surprising at all,” Mr. Mandrake continued. “She’s just expressing herself in the most direct way possible.”
“I am so impressed that you chose languages, Helen,” Mrs. Mandrake said. Mrs. Olivestone flashed a tight smile at her guest before turning her attention back to her iced tea glass, which had once again gotten covered with little water droplets. Mrs. Mandrake massaged her swollen belly. “I wanted something artistic like that, but Eddie insisted on mathematics.”
“Got to give them an edge, don’t we? I hear even Quincy’s daycare won’t let you in without a scholastic implant anymore,” Mr. Mandrake said.
“We’re on the waiting list for Dalton’s.” Mrs. Olivestone said, not looking up. “If she doesn’t get into Dalton’s, she can forget about Harvard.”
“You care so much for Rachel,” Mrs. Mandrake said. “She’s so blessed. You give her so much.”
“Yes, well,” Mrs. Olivestone said, getting out of her lawn chair. “This heat has certainly gotten the best of me. I believe I shall have to go inside before I faint.” She left the garden party and hurried inside the house, wiping what appeared to be perspiration off her face.
“Probably going to check on the baby,” Mr. Mandrake said.
“Oh, no,” said Mr. Olivestone. “It wouldn’t be good for her. We only know two languages apiece. We can’t be in the same room as Rachel for at least another year.”
“You can’t have a ray gun,” Jolie said as she dragged her pen across Jake’s sheet. “They didn’t even exist back then.”
“My character invented the ray gun,” Jake clarified, and Tim snickered. “What? Somebody had to invent them.”
Above the terradome in Jolie’s mother’s living quarters, thousands of LCD crystals shimmered to give the illusion of a cloud passing over a digital sun. Jolie, newly sixteen, had moved to Io with her mother because the exchange rate inflated child support to nearly three times what her father paid. She hated the terradome, she hated Io, and she hated the circumstances that brought her there, but above all else, at this moment, she hated Jake. On Earth, people knew how to make character sheets.
“Besides, how do you know they didn’t exist? Were you there?”
Jolie sighed deeply. “On Earth they taught us something called history, Jake.”
“History is for pussies.”
Tim, ever the level-headed one, removed the pen from Jolie’s hand before she forced it through Jake’s cranium. “Why don’t you buy a revolver?” he asked his younger brother.
“He can’t have a revolver either. His character’s a Network Administrator, for Christ’s sake.”
“I’m a rogue Network Administrator.”
“Look,” Jolie said, “I’m not going to run a Microsoft game filled with ray guns and rogues. Either you learn the system or you find someone who wants to run Apple.”
“All I’m saying is that someone had to invent the ray gun, and I don’t see why it can’t be me.”
Jolie retrieved her pen and underscored the word NO several times.
“I thought you said this game was about imagining stuff.”
“It is. Imagine a world without ray guns.”
“That world sucks,” Jake said. He pushed his chair back and leaped up, heading for the door. Tim lifted his hand to stop him.
“Jake, just give it a chance. There was plenty of cool stuff back then, right?” he asked, looking to Jolie for verification. Jolie nodded enthusiastically, then considered the late twentieth century, then nodded again with slightly less force. “Like cars,” Tim continued. “Everyone had their own personal spaceship for the road.”
Jake hesitated before the door. “Can I have a car?” he asked.
“Cars ran on fossil fuels. They practically raped the environment. Plus, according to the sourcebook, traffic in Silicon Valley was…” her voice trailed off. “You’d know better, if you were from Earth,” she finished.
Jake smiled broadly and folded his arms across his puffed chest. “Well, I’m not from Earth,” he said proudly. “I’m imagining it.”
â€œAny personal belongings youâ€™ll need accommodated in your craft, Mr. Mercer?â€
â€œNope.â€ John shook his head at the distribution agent before him. â€œNo baggage.â€
It was John Mercerâ€™s last day on Earth.
Heâ€™d lived here for thirty-eight years, give or take a decade or so spent on Luna or the nearby outposts. Never once had he gone out of the solar system, not even on vacation. John Mercer had spent his life working, just like everyone else. Heâ€™d been a paper-pusher, a street cleaner, an asteroid skimmer, a window-washer, a cheap thug, and even a postman for a few months, but no matter where he went, she followed him. There was nothing he could do to escape her. Nothing except this.
As John climbed into the small craft the distributor had assigned him, he felt the weight of those thirty-eight years shifting, readying for flight just as he was. Her face lingered in the back of his mind, stern and matronly, as it had since he was a child hitting baseballs into solar panels. He grinned to himself as he closed the hatch and flicked the switches to prepare the in-ship lights for flight mode.
After today, heâ€™d never see the face of the Earth again. After today heâ€™d no longer be a paper-pusher or a street cleaner or an asteroid skimmer or a window-washer. Heâ€™d be a pilot, somewhere in the outer coloniesâ€”goodness only knew where. John hadnâ€™t specified. Heâ€™d just asked for a first assignment somewhere where heâ€™d never be able to come back.
The base doors slid open and John met the field of stars with the white of his teeth. He could feel the rumbling of the ignition through his entire body and made sure the IV drip in his arm was secure. He wouldnâ€™t want to wake up during the jump, after all. As the outpostâ€™s bulkheads fell away beneath him, he stared a challenge back at the blue-green planet he had once called his home. So long, Earth. Nice knowing you.
The drip started right on schedule, just as the engines shot him away from everything he wanted to forget. His consciousness dissolved in time with the drip of the IV, and he could feel her face dissipating as well, fading away as surely as the planet behind him. With his last moment of coherence before the three-year jump, John Mercer grinned.
In the full body cycle Lindaâ€™s chest burned, sweat slipping into her eyebrows. She could feel their eyes on her, the children watching the old woman strain. The lines of her skin betrayed her. Generations blended, their cells dividing perfectly, making exact copies, eternally renewed. She pressed her arms and legs into faster rotation.
Last night she lay with her lover, his head on her naked breast, silent, exhausted, fulfilled. He traced his fingers over her body, touching the tiny red dots that marked her age. He pressed his nail harder with each mark, pinching her skin.
â€œCanâ€™t you get rid of these?â€ She stiffened.
â€œGregory, I was stabilized late.â€ His soft face twisted.
â€œI know, I just thought there might be some treatment.â€ She shook her head.
â€œThere isnâ€™t. Theyâ€™ve stopped looking into those problems a long time ago.â€ He rolled his eyes and bit his lip, like a child denied its favorite toy.
â€œAre you sure? Have you asked your doctor?â€ She laid her hand on his soft curls and swallowed. She wanted to sound firm, but her voice was small.
â€œNo. There isnâ€™t anything.â€ He rose and sat on the edge of the bed. His back was a blank screen.
â€œIt just looks like you donâ€™t care.â€
Linda spun faster till she could feel her heartbeat, till the sweat salt reached her chin. Around her, the frozen faces of youth skipped blithely though the gym routines, perfect curves in infinite wheels.
Malcolm should have been thinking about shrimp, but he was thinking about Sumitra’s smile instead. He hated himself for it, but he was almost glad for the leak in the shrimp pond, since it gave him an excuse to call her. And Sumitra’s voice was well worth the cost of a call from Lee County to Bangkok, or wherever the heck she lived.
Whether it was worth asking a favor from Clem Greentower, well, that was another matter entirely. Sumitra did smile on the phone’s display screen when she saw it was Malcolm calling. She’d only been doing that recently. And that smile went a long way.
“Clem, I need to borrow your boys.” Malcolm shifted from one foot to another. The itinerate glow of Clem’s bug zapper made Malcolm uncomfortable. He twitched every time a mosquito got too close and the passive azure energy erupted. Mosquitoes were as big as Malcolm’s thumb this year, and their charred husks littered Clem’s porch.
Clem regarded Malcolm with folded arms. “Whatcha need ’em for? I know for a fact that you ain’t got no more stumps.” Clem was not a tall man, but he made up for it in girth and attitude. “They sure as hell ain’t plowin’ your field for you.”
“Aww, Clem, I wouldn’t ask for them to plow. I’m hurt you said that. â€˜Sides, you know as well as I do that the state won’t let me plant tobacco on Pa’s field no more.” Malcolm searched for sympathy in Clem’s face, but found none. “Shoot, Clem. I just need â€˜em to walk around.”
“Yessir. See, my shrimp pondâ€”the one the state suggested I put on Pa’s land â€˜stead of tobaccoâ€”my shrimp pond has a leak.”
“You can just put Hydrochlrone in it, cantcha?”
“Nope, that’ll kill the shrimp. Now, I called my friend Sumitra. She does this sorta thing up in Thailand, and she says to just let some cattle graze around the pond to compact the earth. There ain’t been cows within miles of this county since the plant went, Clem. But I got to thinking, you been giving your boys beef hormones since they’ve been old enough to crawl.”
“You just gonna have â€˜em walk? I charge for labor, you know.”
“I’m aware of that, Clem. You can ask ’em when I’m done if they did anything but circle the pond.”
“I will, too.” Clem said. “‘Spose you want ’em now?”
“If it ain’t a bother.” Clem grunted and went back inside the house. Malcolm removed his cap to scratch at his hairless scalp, and watched as another mosquito twitched its last. He didn’t know why he felt the need to mention Sumitra. Covered in the blue light, Malcolm felt very exposed.
Clem’s boys pounded out of the front door, five love-children of some epic tryst of an elephant and a refrigerator, the blue light glinting off their bald heads. Four of the boys had moonstruck, glazed-over faces, save for the oldest, who’s mind probably had the most time to develop before his father took nature into his own hands and stunted the developing grey matter with muscle steroids.
“Pa said we’re suppose to go with you, Mister.”
“Well, you best come on then,” Malcolm said, and led the boys onto the bed of his pick-up. Malcolm’s truck was not an old model, but it strained under the weight nonetheless.
Down at the shrimp pond, Malcolm gave the boys as much direction as he could, then busied himself by dumping bags of sugar into the pond water.
“That ain’t sugar, is it?” the eldest of Clem’s boys asked.
“Yep, it is.”
“Whatcha puttin’ it in the pond for?”
“It’s to control the PH bal…it’s to fix the acid it…it’s to make the shrimp sweeter.”
“Oh! That’s really smart!”
“Yeah, it is. My friend Sumitra told me about it. She’s a smart girl.” There he was, bringing her up again! If Malcolm could, he’d kick himself in the ass.
“Is she your girlfriend? Are you gonna get married?”
“I seriously doubt it. She ain’t gonna want some poor son of a tobacco farmer who’s been on this land so long he ain’t got no hair and his piss glows in the dark.”
“I dunno, she might. You don’t know.” Clem’s eldest contemplated joining his brothers walking around the pond, but thought better of it, and turned his attention back to Malcolm. “I got a girlfriend. Least, I like her a lot. Her name’s Chablis. She’s got the prettiest hair.”
That would be Chablis Levee, Malcolm thought. He remembered her from school. “She wears a wig, you know.”
“She does? Huh.” Malcolm watched the gummed-up mental calculations necessary to process this new information play across the boy’s face. “I guess it don’t matter. I like her anyway. It looks good on her. I think she likes me, too. She smiles whenever she sees me.”
“That’s usually a good sign.”
“Thought so. That’s why I smiled back. One day, I’m definitely gonna ask to hold her hand.” The boy’s giant eyes shifted down to Malcolm’s bags. “Can I have some of your sugar?” Malcolm couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Sure thing. Just don’t tell your Pa.”
“Oh, I won’t.” The titan offspring of Clem Greentower licked a gargantuan finger and jammed it into a sugar bag, only to quickly shove it deep in his mouth. “Oh, man. That’s good. I don’t think that anything could ever be better than that, ever.”
Malcolm found himself doing the same with his own finger. “You’re right. That is good.”
“You’re a good man, Mister,” Clem’s boy said. “I like you. You ever hold your girlfriend’s hand?”
“No, I…I haven’t. She lives…I just haven’t.”
“You should ask. I bet she’d let you if you asked. It never hurts to ask.”