â€œMom! Mom, I wanna look at this one!â€
Stephen was pulling on his motherâ€™s arm, straining against it with that eight-year-old lean that kept him just within the bounds of parental supervision, since he wasnâ€™t allowed to let go of his motherâ€™s hand, but created the same effect as the puppy-dog eyes he was giving her now. â€œAll right,â€ Marie laughed, letting him half-pull, half-drag her over to the booth. â€œGo ahead and look, Stevie, but donâ€™t touch anything.â€
â€œHello there, maâ€™am,â€ said the booth owner, a grizzled, baseball-capped lug of a man. He smiled at Marie and then chuckled at Stephen, whose eyes were practically sparkling at the sight of his wares. The vendor wiped his greasy hands on a cloth. â€œLooking for a new piece for your son?â€
â€œMaybe,â€ Marie said, letting her eyes wander over the rows of gleaming black metal.
â€œMom! Look at this one!â€ Stephen was on his tiptoes, eyes alight and mouth open in a huge grin.
â€œThatâ€™s a semi-automatic flux rotating laser pistol,â€ the man informed them. â€œSpecial anti-shielding matrix that also works against adaptables. Changes frequency so fast they wonâ€™t even get a chance to shift.â€ He chuckled. â€œItâ€™ll take out a raid party of two at a thousand yards with auto-target turned on. Your sonâ€™s got a good eye.â€ He grinned at Stephen.
â€œI donâ€™t knowâ€¦â€ Marie was frowning. â€œIsnâ€™t he a little young for an automatic?â€
â€œMom!â€ Stephen protested, looking like he was going to throw a tantrum. â€œHe said semi-automatic! All my friends have them!â€
â€œStephen, shush,â€ Marie cautioned him, then looked up at the shopkeeper, an embarrassed flush on her face. â€œHeâ€™s eight,â€ she explained. â€œHe still thinks guns are just big toys.â€
â€œAll the more reason for him to learn early,â€ the man told her soberly. Marie looked shocked at this change of demeanor, but he continued before she could protest. â€œDid you know that eight is the minimum age for the mines?â€ Marieâ€™s mouth dropped open in a soft â€œo.â€ Stephen had already moved on to another gun model. â€œIf a raiding party gets him, theyâ€™ll ship him underground right away. Unless you live in a military base, itâ€™s best to get the boy a manâ€™s weapon. I donâ€™t need to tell you what will happen if heâ€™s captured by those monsters.â€
Marie shook her head, eyes lowering. â€œHis father was taken from us in one of the first battles, right when the war started,â€ she said softly.
â€œAll the more reason for his son to learn to fight, and learn early. If it was men we were dealing with, Iâ€™d say to let the kid live a littleâ€¦â€ The man shook his head. â€œBut these creatures arenâ€™t even human.â€
Marie was quiet, head still down, until Stephen interrupted with another excited burst. â€œMom! Mom, look at this one! Can we get this one mom? Please?â€ Marie looked from her bright-eyed son to the sober face of the merchant.
â€œLetâ€™s try it out first, honey. You want to make sure itâ€™s light enough for you to shoot.â€
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.”
Don’t wake up yet, Mischa. Please, please don’t wake up.
At nineteen, Christopher Malloy was the youngest person on Io to receive his degree in neuronanotechnology. It was quite an accomplishment, according to his parents and teachers and friends, but at that moment, on the sunken platform of the medical arena, Chris felt as small as the machines he worked with. Seven professors, nine technicians, two medical journalists, and one blinding halogen light glared from the space overhead, waiting for him to make a move.
“The patient is female, age fourteen,” Chris said, and the room filled with quiet clicking as the journalists transcribed his words. “Mnemonic reserve is at thirteen percent.”
According to the colony’s medical records, no one had presented with symptoms of mnemosis before the age thirty, but beneath Mischa’s closed eyelids Chris could see the REM flicker of the Forgetting. He bit the end of his pen, which was a nervous habit he’d developed in grade school. The room was tense with waiting. He stepped to the surgical tray beside the bed and picked up an empty syringe.
Chris had appealed to Mischa’s parents two months ago, eager to gather evidence for his doctoral thesis. Back then, the girl’s mnemonic reserve had been eighty three percent, but she was declining fast. “I can save your daughter,” he’d said with the arrogance only an eighteen-year-old prodigy could muster. They’d believed him, and signed the waivers. Now, the girl was a shell. Her brain was eating itself.
Chris took the silver vial from the tray and inserted the needle through the rubber shield. “I am injecting the patient with approximately seven thousand Pitschok neuronanocells,” he said, and pulled the stopper until the syringe was filled with sparkling grey.
Just a little longer, Mischa. Keep sleeping.
“Standard neuronanocells work to quarantine mnemosis by flooding the synapses of nearby cells,” Chris lectured for the benefit of the journalists. He slipped the glistening thread of needle behind Mischa’s ear, through layers of skin and membrane and water and blood and into the parietal lobe. “The Pitschok strain, on the other hand, has been bred to attack the infected cells and use the body’s own immune system to wipe the mnemonic reserve.”
Under the halogen light, Chris could feel sweat tingling just beneath the surface of his skin. He pressed his thumb against the stopper and the syringe emptied, spilling its shimmering contents into Mischa’s hungry brain.
“Once the electrical state of the patient’s brain has returned to its normal state, the Pitschok neuronanocells will use a low-energy pulse to stimulate regrowth of the damaged neurons. Within hours, the patient’s mnemonic reserve will return to its state before infection.”
Chris did not look away from the girl’s body, though he felt the unasked question filling the air like saline. They wanted to know if her brain could find its swallowed memories, if she’d wake up as the giggling girl they’d seen on the home videos Chris had included in the press kit or if she’d be a shadow, brain healed into a pristine blankness.
Shh. Mischa. Almost.
Chris watched the shape of her eyes flicker behind her eyelids. Impossibly long lashes trembled at every movement like a spider dancing on the edges of its web. He wondered what she could dream about, with her mnemonic reserve down to thirteen percent. Did her brain simply recycle the same images over and over, or did the dreams come from somewhere outside of her experiences?
Chris had no answer for the professors, for the technicians, for the journalists. Now, Mischa had all of the answers. He pulled the needle from behind her ear and a lock of stray hair brushed against his hand. It was soft and loose, like sleep.
Now, Mischa. Now. It’s time to remember.
The worst had happened. I was in the care of Beloved Uncle, the public face of the Eastern Police. He had been appointed as a Machiavellian move, the political men who installed him meant to allow him a reign of outrageous violence to quell the populists and then kill him and replace him with someone who would seem gentle in his wake. Instead, the Beloved Uncles’ first action was to destroy the men who had appointed him.
â€œIgnorance is no excuse under the Law.â€ Beloved Uncle was a man who could kill me publicly without retribution, and I was arguing with him.
â€œThey werenâ€™t even really children! They were just rendered to look like children. They were all over the age of digital consent, they signed the forms!â€
Beloved Uncle was surrounded by his honor guard, a group of impossibly proportioned transparent women. These cyborg women had brought me to him, who now held my broken shoulders clenched under their diamond fingers. Glass, plastic, silicone, a slender steel spine, gloriously nubile, fierce, terrible, naked women, even more beautiful with blood dropping off their hard crystal skin, my blood. The Beloved Uncle was smiling, rubbing his hands together with glee.
â€œThe images were sold as child pornography, the determination of which is left to me. The law is clear. You are now mine. Your new name is Brandy, cheap liquor synthesized by sods. You are not dead right now, Brandy, because your skills make you useful to me. Do you understand? By my mercy do you live.â€
â€œSpeak no further Brandy, I donâ€™t want to hear it. I have already heard your tragic story from my glass sluts.â€ The Beloved Uncles eyes glimmered with bursting glee. â€œI want to show you something.â€ He took his cane from under his arm and hoisted the gleaming metal before me.
â€œThis, Brandy dearest, is the Sphincter Stick. It is my most favorite of birthday presents. Do you see these shiny buttons? I am told that there are two hundred and fifty four combinations for these buttons, and each will produce a different, painful, potentially lethal result.â€ He cradled the cane in his arms, rubbing the top joyfully. â€œSome of the combinations produce swarms of metallic wasps.â€ The women stared at me dispassionately and Beloved Uncle continued with enthusiasm. â€œI like to try out different combinations each time someone, someone like you, comes in here without results. Iâ€™m an old man though, and sometimes I forget the combinations, so I have to go through a lot of them before I get to something new, do you understand?â€
The Beloved Uncle was condemning me to something worse than any prison sentence, worse than public execution. I was going to work for him.
â€œI have an assignment for you Brandy, and you wonâ€™t come back to me unless you have tits or results. If you value your life, you will have both.â€
I couldnâ€™t speak, I could only nod and pray silently.
Itâ€™d be funny if I could still laugh.
Instead I sit here smiling, waiting for the nurse, smiling at the white and the clean and the pure. I hate smiling. Sheâ€™s smiling back at me too, her teeth as white as the walls, undoubtedly brushed with the same sanitizer. I want to punch her but instead I take the pills and thank her pleasantly. Sheâ€™ll be back tomorrow, she says, and no funny business this time! Her sunny smile ratchets up a notch and mine goes with it. Oh, no, no funny business. None of this is funny.
A year ago I never thought of disobeying. I took my assigned pills like everyone else and didnâ€™t know any better. It was Lenny who told me, in hushed tones overwritten by the sound of the flushing urinal, that he knew something that would make your mind go wild. Itâ€™d be special for me, he said, something normal people could never get near. All I had to do was stop taking the big one, the one with the odd lump in the middle and the diamond shape. That was it. I thought he was nuts.
Lenny was right, though I didnâ€™t believe him at first. It didnâ€™t kick in until halfway through work. The woman in the next cubicle almost called 911â€”she thought I was dying. Sheâ€™d never heard anyone laugh before.
I lied and told them I was sick. Iâ€™m pretty sure I just never went back. It was like finding the thing youâ€™ve been missing all your life, the pressure that builds up in your chest and then bubbles up, rocky and imperfect and so goddamned exhilarating. Iâ€™d never been exhilarated before.
Now I stare up at the nurseâ€™s placid smile, so like my own, and think of the downside. That was how they caught me; after months of the high, it all disappeared, falling away like caked mud from old boots. I could barely move for weeks, sobbing and shivering, feeling like the whole world had ripped apart and the tear was inside me, breaking me down. This woman doesnâ€™t know that. All she knows is that they brought another crazy man in, and itâ€™s her job to make me obey. I look down at the pills in my hand, if only to get my eyes off of her sickly sweet face.
Just do it, she says, and I look back up. Her lips are still smiling as she says, Itâ€™s not worth it, theyâ€™ll just catch you again. Iâ€™d frown if I still knew how. She smiles back at me, encouraging, and after a moment I pop the pills under her watchful gaze. There, she tells me soothingly. Was that so hard?
There must be something new in todayâ€™s batch, because I can feel my train of thought fuzzing out as I look back at her, knowing Iâ€™m helpless but letting the thought slip away in the wind. The smile stays with her as she turns and I watch, right up until she closes the door. I stare after her as the world softens and know, in that moment, that she laughed once, too.
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.