The snow falls on my smile like that old fairy taleâ€”you know, the one about the dwarves and the cannibal queen, the one with the apple. The tableau would be better if it was sunset, because I always liked sunsets best, but you take what you can get.
Iâ€™m drinking in the buildings, the river, the empty streets where cabbies used to curse at pedestrians who never bothered to listen. Iâ€™m eating the silence that comes with snow. Everything is filling up white, though thereâ€™s a grey cast to the new blanket, not like the picture books I used to read about Christmas when I was a kid.
I know they will have missed me by now, but no one will come back. The overseers wonâ€™t let them. Itâ€™s too dangerous now. I canâ€™t feel it, thoughâ€”my bodyâ€™s still strong, still perfectly capable of walking and talking and breathing in the last of my home. Theyâ€™ll say I was crazy, Iâ€™m sure, but I love this city, this state. Iâ€™d go crazy for real if I had to leave it all behind. I never got how people could live underground. Itâ€™s the air, I think, that would get me. I canâ€™t live without the wind on my face.
The snow is thick now, and I think I can feel a little of the numbness setting in. Thatâ€™s the way they said it would be: slow but painless. I did the research. I knew what I was getting into. My body feels stiff and I canâ€™t quite tell if the snow is cold when I pick it up with my bare hands. Itâ€™s so beautiful. I know what it means, but all I can think is that itâ€™s beautiful.
I throw my handful in the air and let it fall down with the rest, laughing out loud as it brushes my fading skin. In all my life, it has never snowed like this in New York.
â€œI donâ€™t want to come home.â€
Reggieâ€™s wife began to cry, tears sliding around her cheeks.
Reggie smiled beatifically. â€œDonâ€™t cry Carol, its alright, really. Youâ€™re young and awfully perky. Youâ€™ll find another husband in no time.â€
â€œBut Iâ€™m in love with you!â€
Looking at her open red mouth and the slobber on her lip, Reggie wondered how this had ever been enough for him. â€œPlease try to understand, Iâ€™m very happy here. I donâ€™t want to go back to earth. I donâ€™t ever want to leave my Asas side, the only reason I did now was because she demanded that I commune with you.â€
â€œCommune? She?â€ Carolâ€™s hands trembled. â€œDo you fuck it?â€
Reggieâ€™s mouth twisted with revulsion. â€œWhat? No! Thatâ€™s disgusting!â€ He folded his hands on his lap, his narrow face turning intense and cruel. â€œI say â€œsheâ€ because Asas is the female of her species, you sick hag, a life giver. What she does is nothing so banal as fucking. I myself have not had a sexual urge in weeks, well, not till now but I blame that on the fact that youâ€™ve made me upset.â€
Carol wiped her tears with the back of her hand. â€œOh Reggie, what have they done to you?â€
Reggie shook his head. â€œThese creatures are transcendent, utterly fascinating. Socially, they are far more advanced than we are. Not knowing one, you canâ€™t comprehend. You know one and you donâ€™t want to leave.â€
Carols face went blank. â€œTheyâ€™ve taken your mind.â€
Reggie sighed, rolling his eyes. â€œNo, thatâ€™s not it at all. Listen, Iâ€™ve only contacted you because Asas asked me to, she is concerned because of all of the messages Iâ€™ve been getting from you and the government. I havenâ€™t had a lot of time to read them because Asas and I have been very busy, but those I have read have been very disturbing. Asas asked me to contact you because she is worried that if I donâ€™t humans will send more people and those people would just fall in love and want to stay. Asas doesnâ€™t think that itâ€™s good for us, as a race, to be so infatuated and frankly, I agree. Of course, sheâ€™s going to keep me.â€ He sighed. â€œWe have a very special relationship. They arenâ€™t a cruel species Carol, they really are thinking of our best interests.â€ He paused and the blissful expression on his face changed for a moment. â€œIts possible that if they sent humans that werenâ€™t receptive to social signals, autistics perhapsâ€¦no, it shouldnâ€™t be risked.â€
â€œReggie, I miss you. Your mother is so worried, she asked me to-â€
Reggie interrupted her, waving his hand. â€œThis is all very unpleasant. Asas feeding time begins soon and I donâ€™t want to miss it. Itâ€™s so beautiful, I canâ€™t even describe. Donâ€™t send any more messages, okay?â€ He stood and grinned at the screen. â€œGood luck finding a new husband babe.â€ Reggie pointed his finger at the screen like a cocked blaster and then the transmission cut.
Carol began to cry again, reaching toward the static of the dead screen. Light years away, Reggie ran joyfully to find Asas, the unpleasantness of the encounter with his wife fading quickly in the euphoria of new love.
Jack Strap didnâ€™t bother burying the men. Buzzardsâ€™ gotta eat, he thought. Same as worms. A man makes his own funeral. You wander in the Desert, youâ€™ll go the same way all Desert creatures do. In the belly of something else.
Buzzards werenâ€™t gonna do a thing with the corpseâ€™s shooting irons, so Jack took that scavenging upon himself. Turned out not to be worth the effort; damn pieces might as well be wood for the good theyâ€™d be. Cursing, Jack tossed them aside. No wonder heâ€™d plugged them so easily. You couldnâ€™t hit a broadside with those things, corroded as they were.
These men were amateurs. Wouldnâ€™t have lasted long, not out here, not if they didn’t know how to protect their weapons. If they hadnâ€™t caught up with him so quickly, the Desert would have chewed them up the same way. The Desert was eating away at him, too, Jack knew that. He was not a young man, and what skill heâ€™d once had was now little more than luck. If it wasnâ€™t men like these, out for the price on his head, it would be a night when the campfire that kept the spiders at bay would blow out. Or he wouldn’t treat a cut properly, and would collapse, his blood turning to powder. Or the caustic sand would get into his eyes, and he wouldn’t be a predator anymore, just prey. Or it would be one of a million other deaths the Desert had in wait, and his bones would bleach and crumble same way these fellas’ would.
That which is built on sand is destined to fall, the saying goes.
Jack wasted no time going through their pockets, tossing out the paper money that was already crumbling and pocketing the coins. But it was the bigger of the two that had what he was really after: a satellite link-up. No bounty hunter traveled without them now, not in the Desert. A GPS signal was your best hope of getting out once you were in, and even that was no guarantee. There it was, in a inside pocket, its plastic protective case already being eaten away. The small red LED on top slowly pulsing, signaling the connection was solid. Jack opened it and thumbed an orbital view. It had been months since the Desert had gotten to the last one he took. He was comforted by the little lights that represented the cities. What was left of the cities.
It had been a long time since he had seen an orbital view, but even Jack could tell there were fewer lights.
Jack Strap placed the link-up in the pouch on his belt where the old one used to stay, and was surprised at how much space was left. â€œThings keep getting smaller,â€ he said, to no one in particular, and left his would-be arrestors to the belly of the Desert.
Sometimes I pretend I have a metawomb inside me.
Things would grow there. Children, I mean. Dozens at a time. Girls and boys. I might not be able to stop. Iâ€™d populate my entire livingspace with pudgy pinkfaced versions of myself, and when I went to the recreation floor, strangers would come up and ask me how I managed to adopt so many. How strange, theyâ€™d remark. Some of them even look like you.
Iâ€™d never tell anyone. Iâ€™d just smile and watch those tumbly bright-eyed beings chase eachother from wall to wall.
At night, when I canâ€™t sleep, I press my hand to the soft space above my hips and think of my body filled with pink goo and hundreds of tiny, tiny people, growing like unspoken words.
â€œItâ€™s a family business.â€ The shopkeeper trembled, his telltale American face-lights blinking. â€œMy daughter and my wife make the simulations themselves. Very good, high resolution, but they donâ€™t do any touching, theyâ€™re good girls, they donâ€™t touch.
â€œHe didnâ€™t want the Sims, did he?â€ said the thin man, running his fingers over the crystal display, inside which two women winked at him suggestively. The tiny store was filled with animated images of the same two women wearing different costumes and teasing the viewer with repeating loops from their Sims.
The shopkeeper put his palms against the sides of the simulation pods and blinked, drops catching in his eyelashes. â€œHe made them do it real-time here. They were laughing and moaning and then he left and took the feeling with him. My daughter wonâ€™t leave her room and my wife is so ashamed she canâ€™t speak. Neither of them have the heart to produce the Sims over the Network. Sims are the family business and without them working, we will be taken to the Steam camps by our creditors.â€
â€œPsychics are brutes.â€ The thin man shoved his hands into his thick wool coat, oblivious to the Martian heat.
â€œBeasts.â€ said the shopkeeper.
The thin man winced and his brow wrinkled. â€œHeâ€™s coming here now, isnâ€™t he?â€
â€œCompadre, please, I need your help. He is coming here to rape my wife and daughter. Altec said that you could help, that when the zift was on the road you were the man to call.â€
â€œYou didnâ€™t tell me he was coming here now. You knew, and you didnâ€™t tell me.â€ The thin man shivered and pulled his coat tighter. â€œI donâ€™t help liars.â€
â€˜Papa?â€ A small voice drifted from upstairs. Little feet padded down the narrow broken staircase and a tiny woman came into view. She held herself against the wall and looked at the thin man as she spoke. â€œAre you okay Papa?â€
â€œYes baby. Papa is fine. This man is the one I told you about, he is going to help us.â€ The shopkeeper looked up, his face lights oscillating on the grey cheek of the thin man.
â€œFuck you, yes. Iâ€™ll deal with him.â€ The thin man pulled out an illegal cigarette and lit it. â€œPsychics are brutes, but we take care of our own.â€
Marcus wiped blood from his chin. The thick red fluid stuck to his fingers. He stood slowly, pushing himself up off the ground with all the dignity he could muster as his foe stood proud and arrogant. Marcusâ€™ feet were pressed into the soft Mars soil as he readied himself again.
“You fool!” Marcus screamed out across the yards between him and his adversary. “You do not comprehend how much more precious is my life than yours! I am Mars-born!”
Gaither kept his eyes on his quarry and turned his attention inward for a moment. Focus the rage. Do this professionally. Itâ€™s a high-profile case; lots of media attention. Donâ€™t give them any reason to cry brutality. His fist ached from cracking into the Red Planet monsterâ€™s jaw. He shook it off and pushed the pain back down, eyes boiling with a deluvian hatred that conquered all other emotion. He knew that if he didn’t kill him today, Marcus would go on living for another four hundred years. All of the Mars-born did- at least the ones who could escape Marcusâ€™ knife. This time, however, Gaither had to stop him. Ninety-seven murders, eighteen rapes, and so many robberies that NASA police were still piecing it all together; Marcus had outdone every other criminal in extra-Earth territory. It stopped here.
The fiend spat blood, shaking off the solid hit that jarred his jaw. His broad shoulders rose and his bleeding lips sneered at the NASA marshal. “You high-radiation types are all the same. What? You think you got time? Ha! A pathetic 75 years at best you filthy Earth-born. C’mon… you’re dealing with a deity here. Just walk away, boy.”
Gaither left his pistol in its holster, watching Marcus weigh his escape options across a skyline of yellow Mars soil. He had heard enough. “Under NASA law of the Solar System Peace Treaty Agreement, you are hereby ordered to surrender You will receive a fair trial.” The wind was blew holes in his words, but Gaither knew Marcus got the idea.
“Simpleton!â€ Marcus squealed. â€œYou die today, Earth-born!” He charged the officer, but Gaither was ready. Dodging the first fist, he took a second in the ribs before he grabbed Marcus’ wrist and sent his own head cracking into the criminalâ€™s fleshy face. The blood was thicker than Earth-blood; it had to be. The nose broken, and the man disoriented, Gaither snapped the cuffs on his left wrist.
â€No,â€ Marcus frothed as he spoke. “I wonâ€™t be defeated by a weak-muscled Earth-boy! I live forever!” He wouldn’t shut up, so Gaither exercised his militaristic rights: he expertly administered a slam of his fist into the yet undamaged side of Marcusâ€™ jaw, precisely as per the diagram in the Academyâ€™s text books.
“Under NASA law, you are under arrest.â€ For the first time in days, Gaither smiled. â€œPoint of interest: I’m from Pluto, asshole… I’m the one that’s immortal.”