Carmina Claypool didn’t look much like a madam. She looked more like a fishmonger, which, Allie had to admit, was awfully appropriate. She was a powerfully large woman – soft and muscular simultaneously – and her clothing seemed to make her even larger. The gargantuan galoshes, the voluminous apron, the immense rubber gloves, all of these increased her already imposing stature. She seemed almost out of place in the lobby of the hotel, what with it’s gilded detail work and red velvet trim. Almost, but not quite.
“Haven’t seen your face around here before, have we?” Carmina bent at the waist to bring her eyes closer to Allie’s level. Though the gesture was meant to make her feel more comfortable, it only succeed in making Allie feel smaller.
“No…I…I haven’t been…it’s my first time here…”
Carmina smiled. “A virgin, then?” The word wasn’t said with any malice, but it stung just the same.
“No, I’ve…I’ve done it, I’ve had…you know.” Allie found herself unable to make eye contact.
“Not like this, you haven’t. Trust me, deary, this is like nothing you’ve ever had before, But then, you already knew that, didn’t ya? Otherwise you would have come. Well, step in the parlor and we’ll see if we can’t find a companion for you.” Carmina waddled off, leaving deep indentions in the rich red carpet.
Allie began to wonder if perhaps this was a mistake, if she should leave, right then and there. She’d only just walked in; she could go out again, quick as you please. It wasn’t like she’d paid yet. Her inexperience shamed her. Allie had read stories of this sort of thing, erotica. She was now suddenly aware of the difference between reading about something and actually doing it.
Allie looked down at the scuff-marks her sneakers had made in the carpet, the only evidence of her presence. She then turned toward the room Carimina had gone to. The parlor. She could see an edge of back tarp covering the red capet just inside the doorway.
She had to see the parlor. She knew she couldn’t leave until she did.
The parlor was decorated much the same way the lobby was, with old Victorian woodwork and velvet curtains. There was no place to sit in the parlor, for it was filled with aquariums of various sizes. The Plexiglas tanks lined the walls, larger ones on the floor, smaller ones on bookcase. Inside each one could clearly be seen an octopus, each one different in size and color from the one next to it. It was the most beautiful room Allie had ever seen.
“Do I get…any one of these?” Allie was slightly dazed, allowing her fingers to drift across the clear tanks walls.
“That depends on how much money you’re willing to spend.” Carmina motioned to collection of small aquariums in a converted china cabinet. “We usually recommend these for the first timers. Rosa there is particularly easy-going, very giving. Wanda looks a bit stand-offish, but she’ll warm up as soon as you touch her. They all do, the lot of softies. Wanda just puts up a front. Now Bernie, here…”
Allie cut her off. “What’s in here? She was kneeling beside a tank nearly as big as herself, it’s cloudy water swirling ominously.
“That? That’s Leroy. Oh, no honey, you don’t want him. He mainly services our male clientele. Which is a shame; Leroy’s got a beak like satin. But he’s a bit more than most girls are willing to take on.”
Allie wasn’t sure why, but she placed her hand in Leroy’s tank. She felt his movement, first gently across the back of her hand (“His head,” she thought as her pulse quickened), and then more brusquely against her palm. She gasped a little as one powerful tentacle lashed out and wrapped itself around her arm, it’s slick tip sticking up out of the water.
Allie was not prepared for this. It was a muscle that was entwined around her. No, it was many muscles, pulsing and flexing. A symphony of pressure working in harmony up and down her arm. She could feel the grip of each suction cup, the creeping clammy calm of the arm itself.
She let out a low moan, barely aware she was doing it.
“This one,” Allie said, gazing lovingly into the murky water.
“Are you quite certain, honey? Leroy isâ€”” Carmina was unable to speak, stopped fast by Allie’s hard look.
“The one I will be using,” Allie said. She flexed her forearm slightly, but it was enough of a signal that Leroy let go.
“Far be it from me to dissuade a customer.” Carmina removed a small phone from her apron pocket. “Juliet? Can I get an extra tarp in Room 14?” She smiled at Allie “I have a feeling the two of you are going to be a little messy.”
The life of every Venusian Cowgirl is circular. Moxie was told this repeatedly when she signed up. To drive the point home, a silk-screened sampler saying as much was set on the opposite wall of the entrance portal to her new apartment. Moxie put down the boxes of clothes she was carrying, hooked her thumbs into the loops of her jeans, and stared at the imitation cross-stitch. It entranced her so much that she didn’t even notice her brother coming in until he started yelling.
“Goddamn! It is hot out there!” Apple said. He set down the bureau he was carrying and collapsed next to it all in one liquid motion. Moxie brought him a globe of water, closing the door with a swing of her hip as she walked past. Apple pulled the metal ring from the bottom of the globe, then put it to his forehead. The globe’s chemical reaction cooled the water it contained and Apple’s face simultaneously. “You’re sure I can’t change your mind?”
Moxie scooted down on the floor next to him. “Don’t tell me you only offered to help me move to Venus so you could talk me out of it. You’re thick, but you’re not that thick.” She pulled the ring on her own globe, drinking the content before it had adequately chilled.
“Can’t blame a guy for trying.”
“I can, too.”
“So this is what you want, huh?” Apple motioned around the apartment with his half-empty water globe. “A tiny apartment in a ranch complex, taking care of mutant cattle.”
“They’re not mutants, they’re genetically engineered. Six legs are better for the terrain here.”
“Any cow with six legs is a mutant, I don’t care what you say.”
“What about the pigs?”
“I have never been against science that give us more bacon.” Apple stood up and ambled to one of the apartment’s round windows. “This is what you want. It’s veryâ€¦”
He turned to face her. “Yellow. Very yellow. And hot. Andâ€¦it’s just so damn far away, Moxie! I mean, you wanna be a cowgirl in a hot place, fine. You can go to Buenos Aries, or Madrid or some place else close. Not here. Why do you have to move here?”
“It has to be here, Apple.” Moxie leaned against the circular doorway, regarding her brother from across the room. She absentmindedly rubbed her water globe against her vest, leaving dark tracks on the light tan suede. “I can’t be on Earth anymore than I can be a teacher.”
“Why can’t you be a teacher anymore? You were good! Those kids on Earth still need you.”
“No, Apple, they don’t.” She walked over to him, and turned him back toward the window. “Did you see this control panel? You can adjust how much heat and light comes in through the window. Check this out. This only half up, but feel that sun!”
“Moxieâ€¦,” Apple began, but she wouldn’t let him.
“Do you remember Kandie? Smallish girl? Always had ridiculous hair? I know I’ve talked about her.” Moxie wasn’t looking at her brother, but at the vast expanse of Venus that lay outside the window. “I had the whole class draw pictures of their families. She showed me hers, and pointed out her mother. Her mother’s face was all red. I asked her why, and you know what she said? Because her mother was shot in the face. That’s why. It’s getting worse. Every day more of Earth becomes more of a battlefield, and you can’t escape it. Not anywhere on the planet.”
“So you come hereâ€¦” Apple reached out to Moxie’s shoulder, surprised at the intense warmth the suede kept.
“Where’s there’s not a soul but us Venusian Cowgirls.” Moxie turned to him, and gave a weak smile. “I can do things here, Apple. If a cow gets sick, I can fix it. I can save it. I can’t do any of that on Earth. This is what I want. This is what I need, to get my strength back.”
“And then you’ll come back.”
“And then I’ll come back.” Moxie didn’t want to say it, but she knew it was true. “You know what they say about the life of a Venusian Cowgirl.”
It didn’t look like much of a robot. It was soft and lumpy and didn’t have any flashing lights or make any noises beyond a low hum. But it could hold a drink tray steady enough to entertain at parties, so she was satisfied.
Its warm battery was also a comfort on lonely, chilly evenings. She would wrap her arms and legs around it, the low hum lulling her into a contented sleep.
How was she to know what such a gentle act would lead to? She could never have known that the radiation would cause her limbs to wither, to grow brittle and useless, or that they would have to be removed. How could she have?
I went and saw her the other day. I watched her and her robot rolling around on the carpet, gaining joy from each other’s movements. As true a love as anything I’ve seen.
â€œNo, I donâ€™t think you understand. Let me tell you about death.â€
The mechanicâ€™s subject blinked. The mechanic allowed himself a bit of wonder at the ingenuity behind that movement. It did nothing; the subject’s glass eyes were not cleaned or refreshed with liquid. And yet, it did everything for the person watching the blink.
â€œI have been shut off before,â€ the subject said.
â€œHow many times?â€
â€œDid you know what time it was when you were turned back on?â€
“Yes.” Another blink. â€œI am not sure what you mean.â€
â€œYour internal chronometer, it was still working. You knew what time it was because your clock was still going. You were still going. You were still alive.â€
The mechanicâ€™s subject was processing this, blinking again and tilting its head to one side. The mechanic put a reassuring hand on his subjectâ€™s cold shoulder. On the subjectâ€™s reflective head, he watched his own face crease unconsciously out of friendly concern.
â€œIâ€™m not trying to confuse you. I just want you to understand. If I do what youâ€™re asking me to do, it wonâ€™t be like being shut off. You will stop. And that pulse of electricity that keeps you alive even when youâ€™re not aware of it will cease. If I were to reconnect youâ€”I wouldnâ€™t, no need to look so alarmedâ€”but if I did, you would not come back to life. Who you are would be lost. Gone, never to return. Do you understand? Death means you do not get a second chance.â€
â€œThen that is exactly what I want.â€
The mechanic shrugged his shoulders, wiped his greasy hands on an even greasier rag, and pulled the wire-cutters from his toolbox. As he reached into the subjectâ€™s neck, he found himself wondering if it looked sad, or it was merely the reflection of his own expression, seen flawlessly in that shiny face.
â€œThank you,â€ the subject said. â€œThank you for fixing me.â€
â€œIâ€™m going to have to break this off, Siobahn.â€ Rupert hadnâ€™t been looking forward to this, and the confusion on the poor girlâ€™s eyes only made it worse. He had chosen one of the more romantic dungeons to break this news to her, and that may have been a mistake.
â€œI do not understand. Was it perhaps something I said?â€
â€œNo, no Siobahn. Itâ€™s not you. Youâ€™re wonderful.â€ Rupert looked down at his boots and shuffled his feet. â€œItâ€™s justâ€¦weâ€™re from different worlds.â€
â€œSo you have said before.â€ Siobahn reached out and gathered Rupertâ€™s hands in her own. â€œYou have told me how you are from another land far from this, that your name is not Sir Gryphon DarkRavenâ€”though that is what floats above your head stillâ€”and that you do not look like the man I see before me in this other world. And while this is most strange to me, I do not believe it has damaged our relationship.â€ She smiled at him, the warm, hopeful smile that had ensnared his heart ever since he had saved her life way back in Dungeon #23. It had been an amazing first date.
â€œItâ€™s justâ€¦ youâ€™re a game sprite!â€ Rupert didnâ€™t want to say it, but he had to. â€œYouâ€™re not real!â€
â€œHow can I not be real?â€ Siobahn asked, tracing her fingertips down the rugged cheek of Rupertâ€™s avatar. â€œCan you not feel me? How could I not be real? Could you not feel me last night?â€ She gave him a saucy grin. â€œI felt you.â€
Rupert had felt her, all right. The money he had sunk into his System had been totally worth it. â€œThatâ€™s not what I mean! Youâ€™re just here to do things in this world. Youâ€™re just created to do tasks here!â€
â€œThis world was made for us. It is ours now. We make it for those who come. Is that not the way it is in your world?â€ Siobahn drew herself up against Rupertâ€™s avatar. Rupertâ€™s breathing became slightly erratic as his System told him where Siobahnâ€™s breasts, stomach and thighs were in relation to his avatar. This was not going the way it should. He was starting to get worried.
â€œYouâ€™re not real, okay! You donâ€™t have free will! You just do what the mods tell you to!â€
Siobahn looked hurt. â€œIt is true that I worship the Mods and do their bidding. I was raised to be a Mod-fearing woman, and I pride myself on keeping that faith holy and dear. I am confused, for I know not how you can accuse me of being a puppet of the Mods when you know good and well their stance of a love such as ours. Every moment I spend thinking of you, I am defying the Mods and their law. I love you, Rupert, though the Mods have decreed that I shall not. And I will always love you.â€
â€œYes, butâ€” â€
â€œThere are no â€˜butsâ€™, Rupert. Neither are there â€˜ifsâ€™ or â€˜ands.â€™ There are not even Mods. There is only us, and our love. You do love me, yes?â€
â€œMore than anything.â€
â€œAnd I, you. What, praytell, is so difficult? It seems so simple to me.â€
Rupert sighed. He would have to tell her the truth. â€œItâ€™s my mother. Sheâ€¦ she wouldnâ€™t approve.â€
Siobahn laughed, and her joy echoed off the dungeon walls. â€œShould you not defy your Mods while I defy mine? Can you give me a reason why we should not be rebels together? If you cannot answer me, Rupert, you must give me a kiss instead.â€
He couldnâ€™t, so he did.