Just the Thing

The rosy Martian sunrise had just dusted over the white curtains on Beth’s bedroom window when her parents heard the wild thudding of eight-year-old feet charging their door like a herd of wild horses. Marlene groaned and stuck her head under the pillow as a small fist tapped earnestly on the sleek plastic of the door. “Greg, it’s five in the morning. Can’t you tell her to wait a little longer?” But her husband was already dragging himself out of bed. Marlene groaned. Beth had always been a daddy’s girl.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” came the voice from outside, and Marlene forced herself to sit up, rubbing her eyes. Gregory pressed the blue button that would unlock the door and was immediately assaulted by a small, brown-haired bundle in a white nightgown. “Daddy!” Beth cried out gleefully, launching herself at her father’s pajamaed legs. “It’s my birthday!”

“I know it is, Beth sweetie,” Gregory said, casting a helpless look at his wife. Marlene couldn’t help but smirk as she took her time getting out of bed, leaving Gregory to deal with their offspring. He leaned down and hopped the child up into his arms, and Beth squealed with delight. Gregory grinned and tickled her stomach. “Is my big girl ready for her present?”

“Present!” Beth crowed, flinging her arms around her father’s neck. “Can I have it now?”

“Ask your mother,” Gregory replied, his lips quirking with amusement.

“Can I have my present now, Mommy?” The girl turned immediately to Marlene, squirming in her father’s arms to face her mother completely. “Pleeeeease?”

“If you want it, you’d better run downstairs quick before the little green men show up and take it away!” Marlene laughed as Beth squealed and squiggled out of her father’s arms to pelt back down the hallway and thunder down to the living room. Gregory shook his head, and Marlene smirked. “Mother’s instinct,” she replied to his unspoken question, then plucked her silk robe from the closet and patted her husband’s shoulder. “You’d better go down there and give your daughter her birthday gift.”

Gregory kissed her and disappeared downstairs, and Marlene took her time finding her slippers and tying her robe. It was only when she heard a child’s shriek from downstairs that Marlene dropped her hairbrush and rushed to the sound. In the living room, Beth was clinging to her father’s shirt, face buried in Gregory’s chest, while a placid creature with large blue camera-eyes and sleek white plastic hide looked on.

“Beth, what is it?” Gregory was clearly distressed. “You kept saying you wanted a pony for your birthday! Daddy got you a pony, sweetie… what’s the matter?”

“It’s not a pony!” the eight-year-old wailed, casting a look of mingled fear and reproach at the silent android. “It’s a robot! It’s not a… not a real pony!”

Marlene bit her lip and knelt on the floor. “Beth, you know we can’t have a real pony on Mars. Daddy and I thought you would like this one…”

“But Daddy’s the con-soo-late!” Beth protested, emphasizing the word she’d heard time and again to describe what, to her, was simply a Very Important Job.

“Even the consulate can’t break the law, Beth,” Gregory reminded his daughter, looking helplessly to Marlene for guidance.

“I don’t want it!” Beth cried out, shaking her head and burying it in Gregory’s shirt again.

“Look, Beth honey,” Marlene said, trying to coax her child to face her. “It’s a good pony—better than a real one. You can ride it and play with it and even polish it if you want. You get to pick the name, too.”

“No, no, no!” Beth shook her head emphatically with each negation, her little fists balled up in Gregory’s shirt for emphasis. Gregory looked at his wife, entirely at a loss. Marlene pressed her lips together.

“Beth, would you like the pony if we got him a hover attachment?”

The tears stopped. Round blue eyes peeked out at Marlene from Gregory’s shirt. “You mean… a flying pony?”

Marlene nodded solemnly. “A flying pony of your very own.”

Beth blinked at her mother, then turned to face the pony. Its luminous eyepieces gleamed back at her. Before Gregory could blink, his child’s arms were flung around the warm plastic neck as tightly as they had been around his own.

“Thank you, Daddy!” Beth smiled at her parents as brightly as if her eyes had never known tears. “He’s perfect.”

The House Remembers

They sealed Emily’s room three days after the accident, trapping puzzle games and animatronic bears behind the white hydraulic door. Her parents did not want to see the small proofs: things like names doodled on digipaper, the I’s topped by pixellated hearts. A week later they shut down the biofield to save energy and the house’s mainframe showed the room turn cold, its window displays no longer marking the difference between imagined night and day.

The cards and flowers dwindled off after a few weeks, but Emily’s parents waited months before disposing of the everblooms. The white and green plants, caught in photosynthetic stasis, did not shadow the evolution of grief. “Who’s getting married?” the mother of one of Thomas’s school friends asked when picking up her son. Her question was met by lingering silence until Thomas told her, “They’re my sister’s. She’s dead.”

That night, the organic material was recycled, and for days, every meal tasted of chlorophyll.

The forms arrived eighteen months later, stating in cold, efficient terms that the period of sanctioned mourning was over and it was time to consider the population stability of the community. It was a matter of duty, and only the mattress made sound.

Thomas watched his mother swell. Against all odds, pregnancy had improved her mood; she now spent days smiling, one hand resting over the growing bulge. “We need to renovate the room,” his father said.

“Emily’s room?” Thomas asked.

“It’s just a room,” he said, his tone flat. “Rooms don’t belong to anyone.”

At night, Thomas stood before the mainframe, trying to guess the password his parents had set. Her birthday, no. The day of the accident, no. Nothing. He pressed his hand against the sense panel and the mainframe grew warm.

Password accepted, the display read, although Thomas had typed nothing.

The door to the room opened with ease, just like the door of every other room in the house. The lights were dimmed for night, as Emily had always been terrified of the dark, and he noticed the scent of a recent biosweep, killing the bacteria that might have harmed the young girl. It took Thomas several moments to realize that the biofield had never been lowered, despite what the mainframe had claimed.

On the opposite wall, the constellations of Earth hung in the frame of the window display and Thomas moved closer, scanning the well-mapped ocean that his parents had chosen as his sister’s view. At the edge the dark and textured expanse, the horizon showed the faintest signs of dawn: darkest purple blending into the night sky like a bruise.


The Annual Garden Party was called such more out of tradition than anything else; there was no vegetation to be found, only green crystal ferns and porcelain roses. However, appearances and traditions had to be respected and kept up. It was commented on that the way the artificial sunlight glinted off the facets and glaze was, in humble opinions that would never be expressed if the whole effect wasn’t just so breathtaking, better than the original.

Byron hated it. Cecelia could see he hated it, but she brushed it off as concern for his younger sister, Bunny, as she continually tottered dangerously close to the ferns, her immense platform sandals and limited coordination not helping the matter any.

“Bunny,” Byron called, and the girl ambled over to the table he and Cecelia shared. “Look, here. I brought your tiara. Why don’t you go pose in it away from the ferns?”

“Oooooo! Shiny!” Bunny’s jewelry clattered noisily as she half-ran, half-fell away from the tables.

“She’s a beautiful girl, your sister,” Cecelia said. Byron only looked sad.

“She’s a beautiful girl with Holstein-Gottorp’s Disorder. I’m just glad she’s still young enough for the pageant circuit. When that goes, I’m not sure what she’s going to have.”

“It’s wonderful the way you care for her. You’ll make an excellent father.”

“Cecelia, we’ve talked about this.” Byron nervously ran his fingers over the gold tabletop. “You know I love you, but my sister has Holstein-Gottorp’s, and, well, with our combined inheritence, there’s a good chance any children we have could end up a…”

“BRIETARD!!!” Some smaller children were yelling at Bunny, throwing chocolates at her ample cleavage. She ran away from them, crying, and hid under a table. Byron looked pale.

“Byron, baby.” Cecelia took his hands, their multitude of rings clacking as they came together. “Even if we have brietarded children, we’ll make it work.”

“You don’t understand. Yesterday, my sister was asked to introduce herself, and she said ‘What? Like, with words?’ I can’t live with that.”

“So then we’ll give it up,” Cecelia said. “All of it. Maybe we even…I don’t know, get jobs or something.”

Byron looked aghast. “Are you mad?” He turned to watch his sister, once again tottering toward the glimmering fake plants. “Can’t we just do something sensible like adopt one of those strange little alien refugees? Something sane like that.”

Where The Wild Horses Run

Even in the heart of the city, Rene is in the open places. His feet splash in streams, not gutters, and his ears feel the whistle of the wind and not the cry of sirens. Past the dumpsters and yakatori stands, Rene smells green grass and the air right before a storm. He can hear his brother’s laughter, and the thunder of a thousand wild horses running with him.

Shelia Ruye told him it wouldn’t last, and when Rene reaches the docks, he hacks and he wheezes and the real world slithers back in into his frame of vision. Shelia Ruye told him that Reservation was the best, like no dose he ever had, that Rez took your fondest memory and gave it back. Didn’t last long, though, and to Rene the city looked small and crumpled and dirty and his brother was still in the ground. Rene tried to vomit food he hadn’t eaten, and made sense of the city best he could. Because making sense of the city was the only way to get away from it, only way he could find more Rez.

Rene runs to the heart of the city in order to run back out of it again, with enough Rez pounding in his ears and his eyes to make it past the docks, past the city. His brother’s laughter will hold him up and wild horses will carry him across the moonlit water.

He sees this as surely as he sees the wide open places and the cramped dank alleys. And Rene knows that to stay in one, he has to leave the other.

Weekend Warrior

By federal law, I am required to inform you that by stepping outside of these doors, you are releasing the federal government from liability for your safety. Although I have never lost a person on one of my guided tours of the Outside, I have seen people maimed and kidnapped. People have died when taking these kinds of trips, and it’s important for all of you to be educated about the dangers that exist Outside.

I see many young new faces today, so I think it would benefit us to review some of the safety standards for an Outside Tour.

For the first time since the Great War radiation and air pollution levels are within acceptable limits for human tolerance. However, we still recommend that you keep your air filters on your face and your suit zipped over your head. Experienced Outside travelers enjoy removing their protection for limited periods of time, but until you know your own limits, I don’t recommend doing this. I have had individuals who were unprepared for unfiltered air become very ill. Many of you may have medical conditions that you are unaware of because you have been breathing filtered medicated air since birth and the adjustment from this air to the Outside air may be uncomfortable.

Remember, even with the filter, you will not be getting the regular medications that the government provides indoors. Unless you have purchased daily pills to compensate, which are openly available over the Net, you may experience symptoms of withdrawal. Some people report feeling very tired, some people report high energy and anxiety. Most people experience feelings of nausea, which pass after a day or so. Please be aware of your own needs. If you begin to feel ill, please report to a group leader.

The buddy system is imperative to this trip. Keep your buddy in sight and touching distance in all times. Watch your buddy carefully for signs of physical or mental illness. You are responsible for each other. Team leaders on my tour are highly trained professionals with hundreds of tours under their belts. They can protect you and keep you safe, but only if you follow the simple rules that I will set out for you.

Rule one, don’t touch anyone. There are no real people on the Outside, only monsters and people so far deformed it ain’t worth calling them people anymore. Although most of these individuals are quite harmless, some of them are tricksters in the worst way, and will try to get you close so that they may inflict violence upon you.

Rule two, don’t eat anything you find Outside.
Remember that what we consume here on the inside and what is grown on the Outside are very different. We cannot anticipate your body’s reaction to anything you consume on the Outside. Fruit of the Outside may be the greatest taste that you have ever had, but there have been cases where people have been driven mad, or died, from consuming the food out here. Do so only at your own peril.

Rule three, do not give handouts.
At select points during the tour you may see group leaders trading with individuals on the Outside. Do not attempt to do this yourself, as individuals Outside can be highly unstable, and may be able to use even the simplest of tools or food to fashion weapons. You may see some terrible things on the Outside, but leave your sympathy here in this room.

Obey these rules and your group leaders and you will see some of the most magnificent sights of your life, and you will be challenged beyond anything you’ve done before. Everyone have their packs ready? Are your suits zipped? Check your filters?

Alright. Open the door, we are going Outside.