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.”
Purby Stolafson took a deep breath and regarded the man and woman across his desk. He recognized the womanâ€”with her luxurious blond hair, hourglass figure and delicate features, she was unmistakably one of his. He still didnâ€™t know what to make of the man, other than he wanted him out of his office.
â€œIâ€™m sorry,â€ Purby said, reshuffling the papers on his desk. â€œWhat was the problem with her?â€
â€œHer breathing. She breathes. She doesnâ€™t stop.â€
â€œMost of our customers appreciate the breathing.â€
Purby sagged a bit in his chair. He knew where this was going. â€œIs that all? Just the breathing?â€
â€œNo! Itâ€™s not just the breathing! Itâ€™s everything! I can feel her pulse. I can hear her stomach gurgling. She eats! Itâ€™s disgusting!â€
Purby sighed. He looked at the woman, at her blank, forward stare. â€œSo, if Iâ€™m understanding you correctly, your problem with the X-3â€”you are an X-3, right?â€ She nodded. â€œYour problem with the X-3 model is that sheâ€™s too life-like.â€
â€œExactly! If I want a woman, I can go get one.â€
â€œIâ€™m sure you can, sir.â€
â€œAnd theyâ€™re a fair sight cheaper than this squishy monstrosity youâ€™ve saddled me with. Donâ€™t you have anything in chrome?â€
â€œWe donâ€™t do chrome, sir.â€
â€œExposed piston-joints, then. Blinking lights. An atomic power source. Gimme something! For Godâ€™s sake, man, youâ€™re supposed to be building robots! Is it too much to ask for them to look like it?â€ The man was on the verge of leaping out of the chair. Purby, by contrast, was sinking deeper into his.
â€œYouâ€™re not the first person to come to us with this complaint,â€ Purby said, removing a small brown business card and a voucher from his desk drawer. â€œThis is an antiques dealer down in Old Town. Heâ€™s got a machinist on staff. Iâ€™m sure they have something that meets your needs. And tell the girl out front to give you a full X-3 refund.â€
The manâ€™s attitude instantly reversed. â€œOh, thank you, Mr. Stolafson! I do appreciate it!â€ Fortunately, the man wasted no time leaving Purbyâ€™s office.
Purby relaxed and turned his attention to the woman. Her expression had not changed. â€œWell, what do you make of all this?â€
â€œTo be honest,â€ the woman said. â€œIâ€™m quite relieved.â€
It made Kara nervous that the wall of her quarters breathed, waves of slow expansion and deflation. Cloth was the only thing between her and the harsh explosive cold of space. Kara knew that the blended weave, was a hundred time stronger than steel, lighter, and cheaper too. Without this material, the station wouldnâ€™t be even a quarter as large. During launch, the space station was a slim, silver arrow, the people tied down inside, and after, the sides flew off and the station inflated like a balloon, blowing out in a rush of electricity and air, forming rooms and creating warm, safe space. Still, Kara couldnâ€™t shake the feeling that a moment of madness and knife would kill them all. They said it wasnâ€™t possible, but weightless in a station orbiting Earth, everything seemed possible.
Lean more than muscular, Kara she was dwarfed by the massive female marines who piloted the water ships and who bullied their way about the station like giant rolling boulders. Kara was used to being small, nearest to the ground, to having taller kids look down on her, but these women in weightlessness, seemed to surround her, feet below hers, head above, shoulders off to her side. She felt like a mouse in a catâ€™s mouth, dangling by her tail, limbs swinging. Men watched her eyes lingering, repressed urges flaming in the periphery of her vision. In the orphanage, she maintained a head of long hair, past her shoulder blades. She had cut off her hair for the trip, in the hope that it would make her look boyish, but it only succeeded in making her look like a pixie, and exposed the back of her neck to burning stares.
When she went to the medic for her weekly checkup, the female marine looked at her with hard eyes, jamming shots into her arm, making her eyes well up with tears. The doctor sneered and shook her large head.
â€œYou think you are so beautiful. You think you can have anyone you want, you little bitch, but if you touch one of my men, or let him touch you, I will cut your wrists and tell everyone that it was suicide.â€
Kara held her shoulder, a drops of blood floating from the wound. She felt nauseous and blinked her eyes to keep from crying. â€œI donâ€™t-â€
The doctor waved her hand and took out another syringe. â€œDonâ€™t talk, you shut your fuck mouth. You make a shit and I shove this next one in your eye.â€
Kara found herself unofficially banned from all recreation, isolated in quarters no bigger than a closet, silent as space. She looked down at the crowded earth through the plastic window, the cities lit in the dark, bright outlines tracing human habitation, so numerous in the black, everyone and everything connected by trillions of wireless connections, communications, signals, lights. She closed her eyes, and in the dark behind her lids, she was truly alone.