For a successful space pirate, Valentine Arvossio did not seem particularly intimidating at first glance. His eyes, though smug, were a rather peculiar shade of grey that in another context might have been referred to as “soothing.” It was the sort of grey that one used for office complexes and prison lavatories to keep the inmates subdued. His wiry frame was somewhat lacking in the “mighty thews” department, and his crew had mentioned to him on at least three nonconsecutive occasions that the long, flowing red hair was less “pirate” and more “dilettante.” Valentine ignored these complaints.
On the rare occasions when he could be persuaded to comment on his intimidation factor, Valentine insisted that anyone who was named after a type of gun could be nothing less than fearsome. If pressed, he might be magnanimous enough to tell the story of his conception, which occurred shortly after his mother shot his father with a Valentine .45 SXG handgun–precisely the same gun that Valentine kept strapped to his hip waking and sleeping. He claimed that he planned to find true love in the same way his mother had. It was a fantastic story, and all came away from the telling convinced of this fact, if not of the tale’s veracity.
Valentine had most recently related it to his latest mark, a mild-mannered engineer who owned a ship that Valentine would dearly love to get his hands on. The ship itself wasn’t muchâ€”without an engineer like Claude on board to give her tender, loving care, the thing wouldn’t make it through hyperspace, let alone a battleâ€”but on board was something Valentine coveted. Bounty on empathic species was high, and the pirate had no doubt that such a creature would sell for even higher on the black market. His informants had managed to locate one of them on board Claude’s ship, and Valentine was not about to let a jewel like that get away. The fact that Claude also happened to be the most delectable morsel that Valentine had set eyes on in some time was naturally beside the point.
Unfortunately, at their last meeting, Claude had been far too miserable to fully appreciate the intimidation Valentine intended to work upon him. The morose engineer had been hunched over Retichken vodka in a bar that Valentine happened to frequent, and once he’d gotten over his shock, the pirate had swooped inâ€”to no avail. In his semi-drunken state, Claude had found the story “romantic” and “heartwarming” and had thanked Valentine with a drunken pat on the back that the latter had been too stunned to enjoy. As he reclined in the central chair on his own ship’s bridge, the pirate’s full lips curled into a frown that came off as more of a pout. He was still cursing himself for letting Claude get away that night, in every sense of the word. At the very least, it had been highly unprofessional.
For the three days since his unexpected contact with the engineer, Valentine’s crew had been scouring space for the plucky little ship to no avail. His bridge officers had made themselves scarce, knowing that it was best to stay out of the captain’s way when his will had been thwarted. For all Claude’s drunken amiability, he was a top-notch engineer, and had somehow managed to elude even Valentine’s sophisticated tracking methods. After punching up a series of patiently blank scan screens, Valentine heaved a sigh and pushed his display away. At this rate, he wouldn’t find Claude again until the man once again decided he was in need of a drink. His first officer had sarcastically suggested to the pirate captain that next time he encountered Claude, he should use his ‘manly wiles’ on the quarry. Valentine had dismissed her in annoyance. “Next time,” he muttered to himself, “I’ll just drug the booze.”
There is nothing to burn. Modern life is plasticine, cheap and mutable and easily manufactured. Wooden furniture is the stuff of history textbooks and Better Homes and Gardens pinups, the pictures affixed to smooth synthetic walls with reused sticky-tack. Pinup is a misnomer; pins have no purchase in plastic.
The poor live in dingy cubes of space stacked on top of each other like ice cube trays, twelve stories high even in the slums. Oil is a thing of the past, hoarded by the elite and unheard of by the ordinary. Coal is a fiction in the lower city, a dream that children are chided for to protect them from the inevitable disappointment. There is nothing to burn. Even the telephone poles are polyurethane. Snow is praised as an insulator in the country, building up over low, squat houses and keeping their residents alive for as long as they’ve stockpiled food, but here in the city there is no such thing as snow. The heat of humanity melts it before it ever hits the ground.
Winter is the new population control, and the means of survival serve a double purpose. There is nothing to burn, so they burn their own, the stiff frozen twists of the unfortunate packed into thermoset stoves and lit with the dried dead fur of a squirrel or mouse. The vinyl clothing is carefully cut away before lighting the inferno, melted down by the heat of its previous owner and reused for the survivors. Bodies never rot. They are too valuable to be left so long.
Thick black smoke spews from the dingy acrylic chimneys, blanketing the slums in a charnel haze. Poor workers plod through the streets with heads down, trying not to breathe in their brethren. There is nothing to burn. They no longer notice the smell.
Innocence may be a commodity, but it’s easily emulatable. I get it in thin aluminum cans from the drugstore downtown, the kind that energy drinks come in. They’re kept behind the counter; innocence isn’t a controlled substance, but like condoms and suppositories, it’s kept out of reach to deter the easily embarrassed. Our society needs a moral compass, after all.
Me, I take pride in asking for a can. I keep my eyes languid and my tone casual, and I watch with a slightly widening smirk as the clerk’s smile fades to uncomfortability. I make no effort to hide it from the people in line. They’re all silent, watching me with individually tailored levels of outrage or disgust.
The clerk rings me up with thin lips, thanking me tonelessly for the purchase and handing me my plastic bag. As I leave, he wonders what kind of person would need to purchase innocence. He imagines what I’m trying to hide. He worries that this town isn’t safe with me in it. He wonders if I’m using it on a date with his daughter tonight.
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, sweetieâ€¦ 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 aâ€¦ 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 oneâ€¦”
“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 ponyâ€”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.”
Firanel felt the first stirrings at the age of thirteen. For her, it started in her temple, a slow but pervasive ache that soon spread to her jaw. By the time she told the Elders, Firanel could barely talk, but her soft voice brought praise and exultation. She had been chosen; she would become complete. Her time of change was approaching.
In the growing months, Firanel lost her speech entirely. The thin web of metal that had sprouted on her face, glittering and spiderlike, took as its root the jawbone that had prompted her to seek the Elders when the change began. She was moved to the temple, where anointed Complete Ones saw to her needs and murmured quiet prayers under their breath when she passed. Sometimes she missed being able to talk, but the Complete Ones sensed this and assured her that her other half would provide.
Each anointed one was different, their changes manifesting in different ways. Sister Daael’s right arm was entirely composed of smooth silver metal. Brother Sikvit’s eyes had atrophied entirely, replaced by glowing ocular cameras that the other half had created in his smooth sockets. Brother Mahe had to wear altered robes to accommodate his gleaming steel prehensile tail. Firanel had doubts sometimesâ€”they were all so devoted, so serene; how could she have been chosen to be among these worthies, to have an other half? The Complete Ones all knew her thoughts. They gave her secret smiles, and each told her that she would understand soon.
The metal spread down Firanel’s throat, growing and blossoming into a lattice that soon reached her lungs. For three weeks she was sick, moaning in her pallet, soft clicking sounds issuing from her metal-filled mouth as she moved. The Complete Ones cared for her, making cold compresses for her forehead and feeding her through soft plastic tubes. At last, her other half completed the meld with her stomach, and she was able to eat again, the food broken down and digested by the new metal parts of her body. The anointed ones congratulated her, telling her it was not long now, not long.
When her time was near, Firanel went into hibernation, the only way for her other half to complete the final changes. The anointed ones placed her in the temple and held watch for her in shifts, praying over her silent body. The metal web covered the right side of her face, whirring and glittering in the soft temple light. Its arms spread across her pale skin and into her mouth, down her neck and into it, the visible portions only a small fraction of her other half’s presence within her body. When she was ready to wake, all of the Complete Ones knew. The signal traveled on airwaves particular to the chosen, calling them together, linking them for the birth of one of their own.
Firanel was aware of the link as soon as she woke. Her smile clinked when she opened her eyes, the metal bars and threads that filled her mouth brushing together to make the sound. She sat up, gazing in wonder at her new partners, her new friends. They all turned expectantly to her, waiting, ready to experience the uniqueness of the newest Complete One.
Exultant, Firanel turned to face her brothers and sisters, gazing at their half-flesh, half-metal forms. She opened her mouth, jaw unhinging, the clicking, leglike rods of segmented metal reaching outwards, welcoming her brethren through her lips. Firanel’s throat thrummed and vibrated, and from the slick metal legs inside, her new voice emerged.