“I knew the Chief went to Japan, I just didn’t know he picked up a new wife,” Bedford said. Bedford removed her welding mask and wiped the sweat from her face with an oily rag. She adjusted herself in the crook of the mecha’s kneecap, letting her repair work cool.
“Pretty too,” Armijo said. He slipped his arms out of his coveralls and tied them around his waist, his chest shiny from accumulated sweat. He tossed a Bedford up a cold soda. “She’s a 400 model.”
“A model, huh?” Bedford said. She cracked open her drink and took a long swig. “One of them toothpick bitches? I’ll never understand the Chief. I mean, havin’ us paint the hangar baby blue and wearin’ all those Hawaiian shirts, thems is one thing. But some spoiled brat paid to walk down a runway? Gimmie one of these hunks of junk over that any day.” She patted the giant robot’s knee-pistons affectionately.
Kruse scooted over on the Mule, the brakes squealing. “Funny thing is, so would the Chief, apparently. Give a fella one of them cans. She’s a 400 model, Beds. She’s a robot.”
Bedford took another drink, scratched at her armpit, then slurped another. “Chief married a mecha?”
“Well, sorta,” Armijo said. He leaned an elbow on the Mule’s handlebars, and shoved his grimy left hand into a similarly filthy pocket. “An android. Looks human. You wouldn’t be able to tell if you didn’t know.”
“Looks human, hell!” Kruse spat. “You tellin’ me I can work on the damn things all day, and I don’t know a robot when I see one?”
“Just tellin’ you what I seen,” Armijo said. “My brother’s got a catalogue–”
Kruse spat again. “You seen her? The Chief’s wife? Iffin’ you can call her that.” An oily rag smacked Kruse in the face. Both he and Armijo turned to Bedford, her tiny fists clenched.
“Listen at you!” she called down. “Ev’ry day I hear you agree with the Chief’s decisions, now all of a sudden you can’t accept a one of ’em? So he got himself a robot wife? What’s the problem? I didn’t hear you complain when we got the Mule.”
“That’s different,” said Kruse. “The Mule ain’t a wife–”
“Might as well be, the way you coddle it,” Armijo said. Kruze gave him a shove.
“All I’m sayin’ is, I wouldn’t hold to my son marryin’ one.”
“Chief ain’t your son,” Bedford said. “He’s the Chief.” Bedford looked up at the robot she was working on, and then past it at the bright-blue ceiling of the hangar. The Chief spent near a week off hours on the highest scaffold they had, painting white, fluffy clouds. Looking up at the painted sky made her smile.
“It ain’t normal, is all,” Kruse said.
“Mayhaps,” Bedford said, lowering her welding mask to return to work. “But neither is the Chief.”
The restaurant still sold wine from when the meteor struck. The very year. Abigail said she could taste ash in every sip, though that didn’t stop her from drinking. I swirled my glass, looking for bits that might be floating about in the cold liquid, fragments of catastrophe sealed by glass and cork.
Abigail had ordered some human cheese for the both of us, to snack on while we decided on our orders. The waiter swore that the milk was all given voluntarily, but even his definitive nature couldn’t dispel images of captive women chained in the back. His assertion that the cheese was made on the premises didn’t help much.
“You’re so morbid,” Abigail said when I told her about the captives in my head. She dipped her slender fingers in her wine and flicked droplets at my face.
“You’re the one who chose this place.”
Abigail pouted. “I took you out to cheer you up.”
Fine place for it, I thought. I didn’t say it, though. Instead, I mentioned Oshiwara Gainsberg’s new film, Big Black Mariah, an animated fable about the legendary boarding-house owner here in Boston. Abigail turned up her lip in a sneer.
“God,” she said. “It’s about the meteor, isn’t it?”
“I don’t see how.”
“Wake up! Everything is about the meteor these days. This woman, she’s a force of nature, right? Nothing, no one, can stand against her? But she only harms the guilty? Propaganda!” Abigail threw her arms wide on that last word, flashing jazz-hands.
I thought of the still-frame I had seen on the feed, Mariah towering over the innocent and guilty alike, her ink-black dress the only thing separating the two. I remembered the sun was behind her, forced the ne’er-do-wells to shiver in her shadow. I shrugged. “It’s just the way things are now. It’s part of the human condition.”
Abigail grumbled and blew bubbles into her wine. “Whatever. People need to get over it.” Abigail wrapped her sweater tighter around her shoulders, as if she was cold. As the restaurant grew darker in the fading evening, Abigail took a big swig of her wine, and said again that she could taste ash in it.
It was only then that it hit me. Abigail had a girlfriend named Ashe, who was among those the meteor claimed.
I would have said something, if the waiter hadn’t returned with our cheese.
“Pure Mother’s cheese,” the waiter said. “A hundred years ago, such a thing would have been looked upon as immoral, or even illegal. Times have sure changed, eh?” He waited anxiously for us to try a piece.
The cheese was surprisingly sweet, a good compliment to the smoky wine. It felt very warm in my mouth, and I noticed it caused a faint smile on Abigail’s lips. I imagine a similar expression was on my own face.
“Thank you,” I said. “This is just what we needed.”
I remember your touch, your taste, the way your mouth curled slightly when you said my name. Everything about you that made me happy, I’ve copied and cached. I can call it up with a thought, or a few key strokes if it’s unusual. The odd high note your voice lilted into when you laughed at my joke when we ate at the Nyala, the way you tied my boot lace, the odd jiggle-dance you did when no one was around but me and that blind street musician. Everything I ever liked about you is now recorded and filed. I keep hard copies in that safe you gave me.
So don’t bother coming around anymore, okay? Please. You’re just embarrassing yourself.
And you’re ruining my memories.
Sanjay Patelov was busy. Now, he was busy using his new telescope to focus in on the jiggly parts of the female joggers in Time Square, but he felt justified. Patelov & Murkin was a new publisher, but six of the New York Times current ten best-sellers proudly had that “P&M” emblazoned on their spines. It was a great deal of pressure, and Sanjay felt justified with a little peeping-tom-foolery from his sixty-sixth floor office window.
Which is why he was more than a little irritated when Clarence, his secretary, buzzed in.
“Message from Jermont McGuilligotty, sir.”
Shit, Sanjay thought. Talking with him is like talking to a brick wall possessed by E. M. Forster. And yet, the man’s books might as well have had wheels bolted on, they moved so fast… “What’s he want now?”
“He wants his latest novel removed from the site. He says he has no intention of giving away his work for free.”
Sanjy put the telescope away. He was no longer in the mood. “I imagine he believes you still have to cut the pages of magazines before you read them, as well. Nothing doing. No one’s going to buy the book if they can’t read it online. They’ll think we’re hiding the content, that it’s crap. The book stays.”
“He says he’s going to take it to a Print On Demand outfit if that’s the case. He says he already has a new ending and cover art.”
Sanjay stared out onto the New York skyline. He remembered, briefly, how it looked when he first came to the city. How the buildings towered above him. And now, they seemed so approachable. “Let him do it. If he wants to Lulu his novel, so be it. But keep our version up. And advertise that we have the original ending. He’s got to learn, you can’t sell anything anymore without giving it away for free.”
Marco can leave the hospital bed, and for that, he is grateful. His balance is unsteady, but with a cane and time, he should be able to get around much the same way he used to. Dana smiles when he moves his hand to touch her cheek, the way she did for him for so long, and, that makes him smile in return. Marco wishes, however, that he could feel her face when he touches it.
His titanium and plastic fingers are flexible , and Marco has been told that they give him 90% of his original range of dexterity. Which was a hundred-percent improvement from before, when the accident had left him numb from the waist down. He knows he is gripping a glass of water due to the weight and texture and resistance his new fingertips sense and he recognizes now the way those sensors tell him the glass is wet with condensation. But he cannot feel it. It’s not the same as being in the hospital bed, but it’s not the same as before he was forced into it either.
Most frustrating, sex is out of the question.
Marco spends a great deal of time on the beach, watching the teenagers splash in the surf, showing off their developing bodies. He watches them laugh and amble about, unused to larger hips or feet. Marco watches the games they play, the ones from their childhood and the games they will continue into adulthood.
One day, Marco is surprised to feel weight and pressure against his back, and when he turns his head, he sees Dana leaning against him. She has a lazy smile on her face. “Are you comfortable? I must be pretty cold…” “Oh, I’m fine,” she says, and snuggles herself in the crook of Marco’s plastic elbow. “You out watching the jailbait, you perv?”
“No, I’m just…I don’t know what I’m doing.” “I like watching the waves break,” Dana says. “The way they crash and slip back. The way they reform.”
“I’m not a wave,” Marco says.
“No, you’re not. But I love you just the same.” Marco feels the pressure of Dana’s arms around his neck, and he touches her arms with his fingers, taking in the texture of the fine hairs on her arm, the rhythm of her pulse. He feels pressure on the side of his face, and when he touches it, his fingertips tell him his cheek was wet.
“You kissed me.”
“Well , I’ll be,” Dana says, her eyes sparkling. “Even a man in a prosthetic body can blush.”