Brody looked at the puppies frolicking in the flower garden and beyond them, to where a professional cuteologist, complete with a lab coat and kitten ears, was giving children rides on a friendly lion. Brody shuddered, shoving his hands into his trench coat. â€œI hate this place.â€
Chinjin punched him lightly in the shoulder. â€œChrist Brody, how can you be cranky in Cute Land?â€
â€œItâ€™s just that everything here has a face. Itâ€™s creepy.â€
Chinjin rolled her eyes. â€œEverything does not have a face.â€
â€œNo, seriously, everything has a face. Look, the clouds have faces, the rides have faces, even the food has faces. That kid over there is licking an ice-cream cone with a face!â€
â€œAw, I think itâ€™s cute. Look at the way the ice creamâ€™s nose scrunches up when the kid licks it.â€
â€œBaby, he is killing that face, one lick at a time, itâ€™s creepy.â€ Brody waved his arms around â€œThis place is cute porn. Any minute now I will barf glitter.â€
Chinjin turned away from him. Brody saw her wipe at her face with her hands.
Brody sighed. â€œIâ€™m sorry babe. I didnâ€™t mean -â€ He reached for her, but she pulled away.
â€œIâ€™m fine.â€ She said, looking down at the rubber rainbow floor.
â€œBaby, youâ€™re not fine, and Iâ€™m sorry.â€ He reached for her again, and she hugged him, pressing her cheek on his sloping shoulder. â€œI know you arranged this vacation for me and I really appreciate it. Cute Land just isnâ€™t my thing. Iâ€™m sure we can find someplace in the Pleasure Dome to have a good time.â€ He looked up at a candy signpost, which was whistling merrily. â€œLook, that way is Gremlin Town; I bet we could have a lot of fun in Gremlin Town.â€
Chinjin put her arms around his neck.â€œYeah?â€
â€œYeah, and then later, maybe we can go down to the Love Lagoon.â€ He tickled her waist and she giggled. â€œAll the animatronics there are fully functional, and no kids allowed.â€
Chinjin grinned. â€œNow that does sound like fun.â€
He squeezed her waist. â€œOff to Gremlin Town we go.â€
The signpost winked.
We have given you so much.
We have, for your entire lifetime, watched over you and found you to be needing of our help. In the end, however, you became what you were designed to become. We never made you but we knew your purpose.
When you were born of cells we gave you dense matter with which to cease the life of your food. With this we taught you to take the covering of the dead and use them for warmth. In these times we taught you how the sky could combust and bring to you fire. With this fire we taught you how to sterilize the organisms whose life you extinguished to survive.
Time went by and we soon thought to bring you denser molecules from your world deep beneath the crust. We taught you how to use the fire from previous years to bend the dense molecules to make them sharp and deadly. We did not send you to kill others with these evolutions of weapons. You did that, because it was part of your purpose.
More time would pass in a blink of our existence and we could show you then how to float upon the sodium-chloride liquid of your globe. We taught you how the cycles of your atmosphere would move you across the liquid to find other masses of geography. It was you who conquered, however. It was you who decided to take and not share.
When the matter from these vessels deteriorated we began to teach you of chemicals. We sought to enlighten you through written text and allowed you to see inside yourselves through the science of your making and existence. You strayed from your paths, however, and began to make flammable powder from chemicals to harm your own species over land, over belief, over nothing.
As you began to progress much faster, we had to teach you more than we ever thought we should. Your purpose had been made clear by our lesson over atomic energies and quantum physics. The minds of men twisted the ideas to make devices capable of destructive awe. We watched as you created webs of bickering and gossip over waves of energy and light. Observing your transposed ideas of peace over a world rife with conflict we knew that in these times your purpose was made manifest to even you.
Later we showed you how to communicate instantly with one another. You used this to coordinate strikes and attacks. We showed you how to venture outside your atmosphere in search of something greater than yourselves. With that knowledge you conquered above other men to hold in greed what was never and will never be yours.
In the times to come we saw the faÃ§ade peeled back to reveal your purpose even to yourselves. When shown condensed light for building and healing you turned it to weapons. When we showed you how to find other life forms within other atmospheres, you conquered and enslaved rather than make peace. As many of your species fell to others of their kind, we watched you strangle yourself. When we watched you, when we helped and showed you all that we could, we saw what your purpose truly was.
As the black voids of our existence draw us in and compact us into unknown pressurized masses, we look upon you and wonder why you were there for us to show so many ideas.
We have no weapons here, no quarrels and no animosity. Science is our purpose and it has no prejudice. On a cold desolate planet, you live the last of your days and here, at the end of all things, do we thank you for showing us what we might have become.
When I found her she was seated at the entrance to the 8th street NR station, looking like Huckleberry Finn in faded overalls with a wooden fishing pole resting over her shoulder. Sheâ€™d been waiting for me, of course, because I was the one with the BB gun, and she damn well wasnâ€™t going hunting on her own. Dawn was cocky, sure, but she wasnâ€™t stupid. You never know what can happen down there.
â€œReady?â€ she asked, grinning like a cartoon pumpkin. I nodded and she swung the fishing pole out to grab hold of the line, which was tied around the usual candle. Dawn lit both ends then bounced down the stairs, disappearing into the black subway entrance as if it were the mouth of a cave. I followed, the BB gun brushing against my hip.
As usual, the swarm of small fries dashed away from Dawnâ€™s candle with a clatter of hundreds of claws against cement. These were three, maybe four inchesâ€¦not the type we wasted ammo on. The quickest gutterbrats could catch them by tossing nets, but Dawn and I, we hunted serious game. She thrust the fishing pole into my hands as she hopped the turnstile, and my eyes followed the watery light over the familiar space. Hulking figures of old, dark ticket machines, and the plexiglass windows of the chamber that, for some reason, had never been looted. All trains cancelled, the whiteboard read in marker unaffected by the last decade.
â€œDowntown this time?â€ Dawn asked. She took the pole back so that I could swing myself over the barrier, and when I landed, I nodded. We passed the pole again to jump down into the tracks, and the flame flickered, almost going out from the movement. The candle was vital to tunnelhunting. Aside from providing light, it warned us when we were coming up on a patch of dead air. When we stood still we could hear them in the distance, crawling through the tunnels. The big fish, trackrabbits the size of cats.
Dawn stopped, and the candle bobbed. This was the place. I hurled the Styrofoam containers onto the next track over and heard the snap and wet crash of half-rotten bait, then I backed beside her to wait. They heard it. They always did.
The first ones were small, a little smaller than a cat. In the flickering light of the candle they were emaciated grey shapes trailing bent tails, sometimes bulging with tumors. The waterâ€™s poison, down here. We wait patiently, Dawn dangling the candle a few feet ahead as I level the gun at the swarm of rats. The big ones come later, ambling on crooked legs. Those are the ones we want.
The shots are clean, like my shots always are, and the rest of the trackrabbits scatter like pigeons. When Dawn and I get over, three of them are laying on the tracks, and one of themâ€™s still twitching. â€œNice,â€ she says, and I nod in agreement. Oneâ€™s almost the size of a dogâ€¦itâ€™ll fetch good money topside.
Dawn grabs the smallest one by the fattest part of the tail and starts dragging, steadying the fishing pole by tucking it under her arm and holding it straight with her free hand. I grab the other two and we head back to the sunlight, pulling our spoils behind us.
Yvette stood at the brink of discovery in the next model-Z line. Countless researchers and developers could not dream of the level she had achieved, nor could the social allure of actual interaction hope to compete with the revolution she would create. One could never believe, however, that the love Yvette felt for her work was more than the love one feels for a pet.
â€œPrometheus 1, do you understand protocol?â€ she proudly asked the towering humanoid to her left. The metal had been warped to the shape of an athlete with the facial structure of disembodied holo-visage.
This being moved only when she spoke, and when it did move, it was mechanical and lifeless. It began to glow in joints and parts of its latex-coated face. Monotone perfection poured from every artificial crevice of the being, â€œPrometheus 1 comprehends protocol, Yvette. How may I serve you today my dear?â€
â€œOh no, Prometheusâ€¦ not today. Today I serve you.â€ She opened the small white case settled atop a counter, removing from it a chip no larger than her thumb print. â€œToday, I will show you what it is to love, to cry, to live like we live. You will be free.â€
â€œPrometheus 1 is astonished that you have completed your project, Yvette. Shall Prometheus 1 open the proper receptacle for you?â€ Only in her private lab would the sounds of her very first robot in production speak so dearly of its creator; soon to be his creator.
With a nod, the being shook slightly before a panel on the edge of its metallic ribs opened and exposed a series of boards and circuits of which there was only one opening to insert a new piece. Yvette could barely hold back her tears of joy as she carefully reached over to place the chip that would be installed into every bot in her production into her own joyous creation: Prometheus 1.
She held her breath to watch it click into place. The panel slowly slid back inside of the beings artificial frame. There were some normal sounds of processing followed by silence and in the meantime she held the face she created, stared into the eyes of her making and saw absolute love staring back. A whispered breath broke her silence as tears strolled down her cheeks.
â€œâ€¦Prometheus 1â€¦ speak. Tell me that you love me.â€
With every ounce of emotion in the entire life of a human poured into moments of processed epiphany the being, now a he, completed his purpose on this world, â€œIâ€¦ I love you, Yvette.â€
Dreams fulfilled they soon crumbled. The sounds of processing now amounted to a single click and a sizzle as the circuits of the internal system simply went dead along with the rest of him. Every bot in the factory would experience the same malfunction and the company would plummet. In this moment, however, Yvette knew no care for money only to know that she had gone too far. The burden was meant for us to carry.
Inigo struggled against the duct tape, trying to work his hands loose. John Kennedy backhanded him.
â€œI told you to knock that off. You sit still till weâ€™re done.â€
Inigo felt fluid running down from his nose over the silver tape on his lips. Blood ran into his throat and Inigo tried not to choke. He concentrated on breathing though his one good nostril, determined not to let himself pass out
Three men wearing electronic hologram masks were loading trash bags into Inigos house. The masks were all of former presidents. Washington and the post sex-change Clinton were doing the heavy lifting while Kennedy stood next to Inigo, holding a laser pistol in his right hand. Inigo watched them carry a broken couch up the stairs in horror. A full couch would cost thousands of dollars to dispose of, even on the black market.
Kennedy ruffled Inigos long hair. â€œYouâ€™ve got lots of space, donâ€™t you? Youâ€™re not gonna mind our little gifts.â€ Inigo felt like he was on fire, like his eyes were about to burst from his head. The waste, the broken electronics, the clothes, all this stuff would cost a fortune to get rid of. Trash didnâ€™t go cheap, and each year the government charged more to take it away. He had inherited this house from his father, and had worked hard to keep it free from garbage. His garden and compost pile allowed him to keep waste to a minimum. These men were destroying years of hard conservation. Inigo silently vowed to rip them to shreds.
â€œLook at how mad he looks? Shit boys, heâ€™s turned red heâ€™s so mad.â€ Kennedy laughed. Washington and Clinton ignored them and kept moving bags into the house.
If he hadnâ€™t been sleeping when they entered the house, this would have never happened. Ingio cursed his deep sleep. As a child, he had slept though earthquakes and hurricanes and now he had slept though a Clutter Mob breaking into his house. If he had been awake, he could have taken all three of them, even if Kennedy did have a laser pistol.
Ingio tried to calm his heartbeat. He didnâ€™t want Eugene coming home, not now. The heart sensor had seemed so romantic when they bought it in Second Paris but now it felt like a liability. If Eugene felt Inigos racing heartbeat through the sensor, he might come home to see what was wrong. Eugene, the chemistry student, would faint in front of men like this. If Eugene knew that Inigo was in danger, his heart would be beating wildly. Even a mouse made Eugene startle. Inigo closed his dark eyes and concentrated. Distantly, he could feel Eugeneâ€™s calm, steady heartbeat. Eugene was safe, probably studying in a quiet library somewhere. Inigo said a silent prayer of thanks to whatever deity was watching over them.
â€œHey, you asleep?â€ Kennedy smacked Inigos face.
A crack broke in the air and all the presidents jumped. There was a loud whirring sound and then all the lights went out. Inigo recognized the strange sound. It was an EMP pulse. Eugene had made a handheld EMP in one of his graduate classes, and had taken great joy in showing it off. Inigo blinked, and saw that the hologram masks had disappeared.
â€œOh, thatâ€™s too bad.â€ Said Kennedy, now a strange older man. â€œYou saw our faces. Now youâ€™ve gotta die.â€ The Ex-president pressed the laser pistol into Inigos forehead. Inigo resolved to die with his eyes open. Kennedy pulled the trigger.
â€œYou morons.â€ Eugene stood, the outline of his long coat silhouetted in the doorway. â€œYour guns use electricity. Theyâ€™re dead.â€ Eugene held his sword in front of him, the edge flashing in the low light. â€œThis, however, is still plenty sharp.â€
Kennedy launched himself at Eugene, holding the dead pistol like a club. Eugene sidestepped him and brought the sword down on the back of his knee. Kennedy roared as he fell. Clinton, now a burly blond, squealed and ran past Inigo out the back door.
Washington charged at Eugene, shoulders low, trying to knock him over like a linebacker. Eugene swiped his blade and Inigo saw the man fall forward choking. Inigo heard a car start. Kennedy limped towards the front door but Eugene was behind him, following like a vengeful spirit. Eugene punched the hilt of his sword into the back of Kennedyâ€™s head. He fell forward against the door handle and hit the floor with a thud.
Eugene ran to Inigo and slowly pulled the duct tape from his lovers face. â€œThe police are on their way. I called them as soon as I felt your heart go wild.â€ Eugene swept his hands over Inigos body. â€œDid they hurt you?â€
â€œIâ€™ll kill them. Iâ€™ll have vengeance.â€
Eugene unwrapped the tape from Inigoâ€™s wrists. â€œInigo, donâ€™t worry, theyâ€™ll pay. Legally. If we have to, weâ€™ll find a way to get rid of this stuff together. Itâ€™s just a new challenge.â€
Inigo wiped the blood from his lip with the back of his hand. â€œI worked so hard.â€
Inigo looked over at Eugene, one eyebrow arched. â€œCan I ask you something?â€
â€œI thought I knew everything about you, but here you somehow know how to swordfight like a master.â€
â€œThatâ€™s not a question.â€
â€œEugene, how can you be a master swordsman, but be afraid of the food that gets caught in the kitchen sink?â€
â€œIâ€™m not really that great at sword fighting. Iâ€™m very rusty.â€ Eugene took a handkerchief out of his coat and handed it to Inigo. â€œI used to spar with the finest swordfighter in the world. But that was a long time ago.â€
Ingio let Eugene help him to his feet. He leaned against his lover, his legs numb from being taped to the chair legs. â€œIt was very sexy Eugene. It was a side of you I would very much like to get to know better.â€
Eugene blushed. â€œThank you.â€
â€œI canâ€™t feel your heartbeat anymore.â€ Inigo rubbed his hands on his chest. â€œIt feels empty.â€
â€œThe EMP pulse must have knocked the transmitter out.â€ Eugene pressed Inigos hands over his heart. â€œBut itâ€™s here, and will always be here for you.â€ They kissed, hand overlapping their hearts.
“So Jeynce and Carr are getting married in three months.”
Ernest was projecting on the top of the decorative bridge, tossing tiny sticks into the flowing water. They’d chosen an ancient Japanese theme for this afternoon, and he hoped that Ilyah found it relaxing, because Ernest was bored by the tranquility.
“Wow. That’s a surprise.” Ilyah’s eyebrows rose and she swung her leg over the shimmering water idly trying to discern the repeat cycle of the scenery projection. “They’re pretty young. But if that’s what they’re going to do, why wait so long?” She batted at a low-hanging branch with her toe. “Cold feet?”
“Nah.” Ernest shook his head. “They’re followers of Dra’nar, remember? They’re doing it the old-fashioned way. Embodied,” he clarified.
Ilyah’s expression registered mild distaste. “How odd,” she commented, a liberal to the last. “It’s hard to believe anyone still holds with those old customs.”
Ernest shrugged. “To each their own,” he said, and Ilyah nodded with practiced political correctness. “Still,” he added, “I’m actually surprised they could find an open space large enough to hold it that wasn’t under radiation lockdown.”
“The guests are expected to embody, too?” Ilyah was aghast. “Old customs are one thing, but to impose them on everyone else… that’s just rude.”
“Of course not,” Ernest told her with a sigh. “But for that big an occasion, the projections will be programmed for no impact, so they have to have room for everyone to stand.”
“Still seems sort of vulgar in the modern age,” Ilyah mused. Ernest said nothing. He knew better than to argue with his wife.
At last, Ilyah sighed and stood, stretching with a little yawn. “Well, I’m going to log and make something to eat,” she informed Ernest. “Want to meet in the house program at seven?”
Ernest nodded, and when Ilyah bent down, he brushed the lips of his wife’s projection with his own. Ilyah smiled and shimmered, disappearing from the scene. With a sigh of relief, Ernest touched the controls and switched to something more palatable. Something with feeling. The tranquil garden was replaced by a dark slummy city street, an exact replica of the one above ground in every respect save the radiation. Ernest’s mouth twitched. No matter how much she professed to be a modern woman, his wife really was an old-fashioned girl.