When Countess bit Zimin on the playground, her mom and dad got called in for a parent-teacher conference. Everybody was trying to pretend they werenâ€™t upset by putting on smiley faces, but they were mad, Countess could tell. She wasnâ€™t supposed to bite people till she was sixteen. Zimins blood wasnâ€™t even any good, it was all crunchy and weird. Her mom said that was because he had little robots inside him that made him smarter.
After that, they made her wear caps on her teeth. The robot nurse would come to the lunch table and take them off in front of the whole class. Countess was pale, but her face was always red when the nurse showed up.
The other kids stayed away. Even Lisa, who had been her best friend for a whole week now decided that Mary-Anne, the icky fish girl, was her best friend. Better a fish girl than a vampire. Countess didnâ€™t want to be a vampire anymore. On the playground, she went into the trees and played at being a lonely dragon, sitting on top of her book bag, pretending it was gold.
Mamma said that different families chose to be different things, and when she got older, she might decide to become something else, to have extra arms or eyes. Right now though, her mamma said, she was Countess, designed by mom and dad, just like they had been designed by their mom and dad. It may have been old fashioned, but it was who they were, and until Countess was eighteen, it was who she had to be too.
Countess stopped drinking her plastic packets of blood. She got hungry, but she didnâ€™t care; maybe if she stopped for long enough the robot nurse would stop coming to her caps off in front of everyone. Maybe if she stopped drinking blood, she might turn into something else, whether her parents liked it or not.
Thatâ€™s when her dad brought home the Squib. The Squib was small and black, with pointy ears and a pointy tail and a chubby stomach. He giggled when she tickled him, and snuggled next to her at night. He smelled like coco and floated along next to her on a little umbrella while she was at school. She was the only girl with a Squib. Mary-Anne had her tank for her fins, but that really wasnâ€™t like a Squib. The Squib held out her blood bag and would make sad faces if she didnâ€™t bite into it. When she did drink, he would do a little tottering dance with his umbrella that made the other kids laugh and clap.
Mary-Anne asked if she could tickle the Squib, and even though she was icky, Countess let her, because even smelly fish girls were better than nothing. The Squib would dance and sing for the other children but he always came back to Countess, it was clear he always liked her best. Kids would sit next to her just to see the Squib, and by the end of the week, Countess had three best friends.
Two weeks later she went out to the Transit stop and realized that her Squib wasnâ€™t with her. Her Squib hadnâ€™t been with her all morning! She ran back to the house, not even caring if she missed the Transit. She ran though the portal to her house and started looking for the Squib. Her lithe mother caught her.
â€œSweetie, whatâ€™s wrong?â€
â€œI canâ€™t find Squibbers!â€ Her mother knelt and wrapped her pale arms around Countess.
â€œOh, my little icicle. Your Squib had to go take care of other little vampire girls. Maybe heâ€™ll come back and visit sometimes, but I donâ€™t think you need him anymore. He hasnâ€™t been around much recently, did you notice?â€ She brushed back Countesses blue-black hair.
Countess sucked on her lip. Her Squib had been gone a lot recently but she had been so busy, she never noticed. She felt something strange kick in her tummy and she thought about other vampire girls. Her mother handed her a sweet blood ball and told her they could ride to school together this morning. They took their purple parasols and walked out into the morning.
The judge pounded his gavel three times on the sound block. “Next case!”
The bailiff stood at attention. “Sol versus Robert J. Walsh. Case Number 28769-807.61. Mr. Walsh was clocked doing 121,546 kilometers per hour within the ecliptic.”
The judge scanned the arrest report on his monitor. Without looking at the defendant he asked, “How do you plead, Mr. Walsh?”
“Not guilty, your Honor. I was beyond the orbit of Saturn. There’s no traffic out there. There’s over a million kilometers of empty space between ships. I don’t see why there should be a speed limit beyond the asteroid belt. It’s ridiculous.”
“Maybe so, Mr. Walsh. But the speed limit extends to the Kepler Belt. The law is very specific.”
“Then it’s a dumb law.”
Visibly angered, the judge pounded his gavel once again. “I’ve heard enough. I find you guilty of violating Solar System Statute 2375.329 for exceeding the beaconed speed limit, and for reckless flying within the ecliptic.” The Judge turned back to the monitor. “I see that this is your third offence, Mr. Walsh. Therefore, I have more options in sentencing. This time, you will perform system service. And, since you appear to enjoy traversing the solar system, you are ordered to tow an ice comet, not smaller that 100,000 metric tones, which contains at least 50% of its mass in the form of water-ice, to the Deimos colony in Mars orbit. You have to tow the comet by yourself, Mr. Walsh. You cannot use your father’s credits to hire a towing company. You have six months to deliver the comet, so I suggest that you start hunting for your snowball right away. Try looking in the asteroid belt, or the rings of Saturn. You are dismissed Mr. Walsh. And I recommend you obey the speed beacons in the future.”
The defendant jumped to his feet. “What! Are you nuts? Tow a comet to Mars? Do you know who I am? I’m not an ice-jockey. I have three college degrees, including a PhD in Political Science. This sentence is ridiculous. You’re ridiculous. The damn speed limit is ridiculous.”
The judge pointed the business end of his gavel toward the defendant. “Make that 200,000 metric tones, Mr. Walsh. And if you don’t like the law, run for congress when you get back from Mars and change it. Now, if you don’t want to be towing ice cubes the rest of your life, I suggest you get the hell out of my courtroom.”
The judge pounded his gavel three times on the sound block. “Next case!”
Carlos didn’t want to appear suspicious, so he stayed in a doorway three houses down from the corner. He tried to distract himself, thinking about the possibilities of using curry sauce in chicken Kiev, but he kept looking at the corner. Carlos wanted this to be over as soon as possible, so he wouldn’t have to worry anymore. Skott had said it was simple. Meet the girl–who Carlos would know as soon as he saw, Skott assured him–make the trade, leave. That’s it.
Skott didn’t mention that Carlos would be thinking about the worst-case scenario over and over again. By the time the girl showed up two minutes late, Carlos had already envisioned himself be arrested, convicted and eyed by a gorrilla of a cell-mate named “Big Beauford.”
Skott was right, Carlos recognized her instantly. “I’m Saki,” the girl said when Carlos approached. “Are you Skott’s friend?” Even in street clothes, Saki looked like she was wearing a lab coat. Poor girl was probably born in one. She was pretty, though, in that little Japanese girl way. Carlos like the way her faded-pink hair brought out her dark eyes from behind her glasses.
“I’m a friend of anyone who’s eaten my coconut and wasabi custard pie. One bite, and you’ll know why.” It was a standard line Carlos used around girls at parties; it was the only thing he could think of. Big Beauford was still weighing very heavily on his mind.
“Heh,” Saki said, without any sort of humor. “You’re funny. You got the chow mein?”
“Hot and fresh,” said Carlos, as he handed over the paper bag stuffed with Chinese carry-out containers. Saki opened one of them, appraising the scavenged processor chips Carlos and Skott had spent all of the afternoon ripping out of junked motherboards. “You’re looking at enough processor power to run a small defense grid, you hook ’em up right. I brought the chow mein, you got the egg-drop soup?”
Saki shifted the bag to her left hip and dug into the right pocket of her jacket, removing a small translucent-plastic pod. “Here. It wasn’t easy to get, but I got it.”
Carlos cracked open the pod. Inside was a blob of silver and black, slowly swirling with the slight shaking of his hands. Thin, straight wires stuck out from the goo, giving the it the appearance of a melted spider. This was the goods. Top of the line. Unhackable. Uncorruptable.
“I don’t know what you think you’re going to with that.” Saki said after Carlos had slipped the pod into his pocket. Her voice was low, a hurried whisper. “You can’t hack it. There’s no code. The programming is part of its structure. I know Skott is all about open sourcing everything, but this tech cannot be brought to the people, okay? It can’t be done. You’d have to be some sort of biologist to take it apart.–”
“Thanks for your help, Saki,” Carlos said, turning away.
“No!.” Saki thrust the word so hard against her clenched teeth that Carlos felt her saliva on the back of his neck. “Tell you what you’re going to do with that! You owe me that much, after what I’ve been through!”
Carlos’s posture softened when she grabbed his arm. Her hands were so small; delicate for a lab monkey. Carlos found himself imagining what else she could do with those hands. “Everything comes apart, Saki. That’s what biology teaches us. It’s how it comes together that makes it work.”
“But how could it possibly–”
“Because biological components aren’t just stacked like blocks, they’re mixed in specific amounts. They’re recipes. And any cook worth his salt will tell you that any recipe can be simplified or improved upon.” Saki looked at him blankly behind her thick glasses. Skott would approve of this, surely. This was bringing enlightenment to the people, wasnâ€™t it? “Here, why don’t you come back to my place. I’ll explain everything with some curry sauce and a handful of dill.”
â€œItâ€™s not that youâ€™re boring,â€ John protested, even though it was. He hated conversations like this, and they always seemed to happen to him. This was his third uncomfortable breakup in as many months.
â€œThen what is it?â€ Lila demanded, her pout twitching on the edge between anger and tears. John sighed. Heâ€™d seen this one before.
â€œI just, well, Iâ€™ve got other things to worry about in my life, you know?â€ John turned his head away and fiddled with the miniature joystick on his day planner. Heâ€™d had a portable version of Exatz World IV custom-installed so that he could play it while waiting for the train to work. Lila slapped his hand away.
â€œYou mean like that game? Donâ€™t touch that thing when youâ€™re around me, Jonathan! I mean it!â€ Lilaâ€™s eyes were sparking and her pout increased, screwing up her face in a most unattractive manner. â€œIs that what this is all about? Did you meet some girl online? Are you cheating on me?â€
â€œNo!â€ John protested in exasperation. â€œYou canâ€™t cheat on somebody with a video game, damn it! They just have much better writers than whoever came up with your life.â€
â€œWhat do you mean, writers?â€ Lila was aghast. â€œJohn, this is real life. There are no writers! There is no script! Get your head out of the clouds!â€
â€œIâ€™m sick of real life, okay?â€ John snapped, sitting up from his customary slouch and glaring at Lila. â€œNothing changes! All the girls are the same, all the places are the same, all the stuff that happens is boring and predictable. Itâ€™s all sugar and no spice. Thereâ€™s noâ€¦ noâ€¦ conflict! No heroism! You canâ€™t be a man in real life!â€
â€œJohn, you are really starting to scare me. Are you even listening to yourself?â€ Lila stared at John as if heâ€™d grown two heads. â€œThat â€˜sugarâ€™ is called peace! The world finally gets itself into some sense of order and youâ€™re complaining?â€ She threw up her hands in disgust. â€œYou are the most disrespectful man Iâ€™ve ever known. What would your father say if he could hear you now?â€
â€œAt least my father was a man!â€ John snapped. â€œHe got to fight for what he believed in. He had a heroâ€™s death.â€
â€œWhat he believed in was a peaceful world for his son. Youâ€™re disgraceful.â€
â€œGet out of here!â€ John grabbed a cushion from the couch behind him and threw it angrily in Lilaâ€™s direction. He had had enough. Everything she said was exactly what heâ€™d predicted. It was a good thing this wasnâ€™t a script, because John would have marched right up to the writers and given them a piece of his mind.
Lila gritted her teeth and clenched her fists. â€œYour father would be ashamed of you,â€ she said, voice trembling, then turned on her heel and slammed the door behind her. John sighed. In all honesty, he was relieved that she was gone.
Turning to his console, John sank back into his comfortable, slouched position with a groan of contentment. It only took a single keystroke to call up the world of heroes and villains, of struggles and escapes and creativity. It was easier than breathing to slough off the peace that his father had fought for in the war to end all wars. As he fitted his goggles over his eyes, John prepared to lose himself in an earlier time.
The curtain went down.
The heat death of the universe played out in one last resounding note, the final dÃ©nouement to the performance.
â€œWell.â€ The young one emoted wildly, sending sparks of light and beauty bouncing off its consciousness. â€œWhat did you think?â€
The Eldest did not comment but turned its presence to another, a middle aged being by the count of their people. They had all always been there, but their consciousness sparked in and out, sometimes sleeping, sometimes dying and reborn. The middle-aged consciousness had a voice like the whirls of a sucking black hole.
â€œVery enthusiastic.â€ It intoned â€œbut not very heavy. The piece was shorter than I expected and the sentients were concentrated in that one area, which was quite an odd choice. Personally, I found the lack of activity in the wider cosmos to be quite dull. The stars, the cosmic dust, these seemed unremarkable, lacking in chemical drama.â€
â€œWell, yes.â€ The young one admitted, â€œIâ€™ve never been very good at all of that cosmic art. Iâ€™m really interested in what all of you thought of the sentients, thatâ€™s where I put most of my energy. What did you think of the sentients?â€
â€œOh, they were quite dramatic.â€ Chimed one that had just woken from a long death. â€œI only saw the end, but it was very magical.â€
â€œI thought it was a little too over the top.â€ Said the middle aged one. â€œA bit much for my taste. Iâ€™d like to see you do something less fanciful, more meaningful next time.â€
The young ones glee swirled around him like a solar wind. â€œOh! Oh! Then there will be a next time?â€ it asked, focusing on the Eldest. â€œEldest, I have such plans. Could I please try again?â€
â€œYes, youngest. You shall do it again. This time, let us see more of what you can do with these sentient beings, but always remember, my youngest, never neglect the stars.â€
We finally did it. For centuries philosophers both of science and religion wondered how much it would take to push ourselves to the brink. They hypothesized and prayed to what end man would come if they kept pushing the limits. All of the wars fought, the corruption broadcast and the sin rampant in environment and in our everyday lives could never have awoken us to the simple truth that we had been sliding down this inverted mountain since the day an ape chose a stick over its bare hands.
They wanted to know what would happen if we continued along our ways. Today they got their answer.
I was what you would call a believer in nothing. Nihilism wasnâ€™t my game it was the mark of atheism that took me by its reigns. Being an atheist wasnâ€™t my problem. Not thinking that there was something right in front of us that weâ€™d all been missing that was. When I woke up today I didnâ€™t question why things were different I just knew that they were.
Even when I walked outside I knew that something was missing more than the obvious and I felt cold and dim. The news yesterday had announced how many had died from the nuclear affair in the east and how many more had been killed in the name of having the almighty on ones side. Truly, I never thought that our time would be the last straw.
Everyone did the same thing upon waking up. Hell, I did it too. We all checked our clocks, we looked at the date and we tried to come to grips that we werenâ€™t crazy. No, I knew it was more than just a lost point in our daily lives that was gone. I stepped outside and I didnâ€™t have a shadow anymore. No one had shadows anymore.
The news didnâ€™t come on today and I knew it was because they felt the same as I did. You wake up; you expect it to be there to greet you. It was right in front of us and we had it right a long time ago but science made it like unto a fairy tale.
All of us woke up today and found that the sun was gone. It didnâ€™t explode and it didnâ€™t fizz out. It left. The warmth that was lost was more than just from the heat the rays gave us. We felt empty inside, we felt cold in a way that not even electric heaters turned on high could fix. The wars might stop, they might not. Something gave up on us today and it left because we were beyond hope. I have to wake up tomorrow knowing I am hopeless; knowing this world is lost.
I woke up today and walked outside to a world with no sun and no warmth. I looked on the ground and saw that I had no shadow. No one had shadows anymore. We were the shadows now.