“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.
â€œShe likes the rain,â€ Ms. Jones explained to her neighbor when the woman called in a panic, yelling that Xue had spent the last six hours sprawled across the top of the house â€˜looking like a half-drowned corpse.â€™ She scowled at the shrill, busybody voice, but saved her choice words for the sound of the dial tone after Mrs. Hatter had been disconnected. The social workers had warned her that the transition would be difficult for Xue, but no one could have cautioned her about the Hatters.
The entire country had seen the news reports of the commune raid, but it had been reduced to late night talk show jokes in a matter of days, and within two weeks, it was forgotten. The commune leaders were sent to jail, which Ms. Jonesâ€™ pastor described as a light punishment for the crime of playing God.
In the first few weeks, Ms. Jones had become aware of the whispers that stopped when she drew near to the groups of ladies assembled to collect their biological children from the churchâ€™s after-school care program. Sheâ€™d learned to ignore them, eyes forward as she swept through the handful of women to the corner where Xue played by herself. After she gathered the abnormally small child into her arms she always made it a point to walk past the other mothers with her posture straight, her jaw clenched, and her eyes narrow. It had taken Ms. Jones less than a month to become fiercely proud of her foster daughter. The condescending glances only strengthened her conviction.
Such a pity, the ladies gossiped. The girlâ€™s barely human. Can you imagine? And with no husband to help. She should have just gotten a pet.
After Ms. Jones replaced the phone on its cradle, she left through the front door and walked to the sidewalk, shielding her eyes from the downpour and scanning the roof for Xue. Sure enough, the girl was stretched across the mottled shingles. Ms. Jones didnâ€™t bother calling her name. She strode to the ladder and climbed eleven feet before stepping over the edge of the ranch house roof.
â€œXue?â€ Ms. Jones said softly. The girl shuddered, sending droplets of rain in every direction. â€œDonâ€™t you think itâ€™s time to come inside, honey?â€
Xue turned, her dark, unblinking eyes meeting Ms. Jonesâ€™ blue ones. Her nose twitched, but she offered no response to the question.
â€œItâ€™s cold out here,â€ she said. â€œYou must be freezing.â€
â€œIâ€™m not cold.â€
Ms. Jones shrugged as she took a seat beside her foster daughter. â€œI am,â€ she said.
â€œThatâ€™s because you donâ€™t have fur.â€
Ms. Jones had no argument. She crossed her arms over her chest and watched the clouds scrolling over the horizon.
â€œNo oneâ€™s making you stay out here,â€ Xue said. Her voice was cool, sullen, and seemed old for her eleven years.
Again. Ms. Jones shrugged. â€œItâ€™ll stop raining eventually,â€ she said.
â€œAnd the colder I get, the better the hot chocolate will taste when I go back inside.â€
Xueâ€™s whiskers trembled. â€œYou have hot chocolate?â€ she asked.
â€œAnd marshmallows,â€ Ms. Jones said.
The girl considered this for a long minute. â€œMaybe in a little bit.”
â€œNo hurry.â€ Ms. Jones brushed away the lines that rain had traced through the thin fur of her daughterâ€™s forehead. â€œItâ€™ll be there whenever youâ€™re ready.â€
Jupiter pulled on her wrist, dragging her behind the shed. It was right after evening prayer, and the sky was turning bright orange and deep purple. He kissed her like he had seen his parents do, putting his tongue in her mouth, wiggling it around. She backed away from him, giggling.
â€œCan I do it?â€ he said, holding out his hands, palms up in front of her.
â€œI donâ€™t know.â€ she said.
â€œPlease Katie? Donâ€™t you like me?â€
â€œI like you.â€ Katie pulled his hands down onto her tiny breasts and he massaged them though her wool dress. It felt warm when he touched her like that; so different from when she touched herself.
Jupiter smelled like boy sweat and river water. He fumbled with the buttons at her waist. She let him unbutton her, and he slid his hands up on her slender ribs, on her small breasts. His fingers found her nipples, and he pressed her against the shed, grinding his hips on her thigh. He squeezed her nipples tight between his fingers, and she clenched her teeth, letting out a sharp whistle of breath. Jupiter mistook this for encouragement, and he twisted them, hard, and she cried out. Just a little, but she cried out, and then Jupiterâ€™s uncle came running round the corner with a lantern.
Jupiter got six lashes, but they were going to exile her. They didnâ€™t need girls around that would tempt good boys to the devil. They lashed Jupiter outside of the courthouse, in front of the terrible small cell where they put her. As they lashed him, the people in the village came by to throw rotting fruit at her between the bars, and call her horrible names. Her brother came by and called her a slut and spat on her. Her mother and father watched her from far away. Her aunt came by and said that her parents were happy, because now the village would let them have another child, one that wasnâ€™t a slut and a whore and one that would be a god fearing child who would be with them when they all went to heaven.
At night, the guards came by with knives, and they showed her what would happen to her after exile. They would shoot her up into the blue sky, past the blue out into the black, and then the metal men would take her out of the pod, and she would be their whore. They showed her what they would do, thrusting with the knives into the air. The robots were made of knives, they said, and they would cut her from the inside out. Thatâ€™s what they did with girls.
Once, someone had been exiled who had been possessed by evil spirits. When they sent the pod up in the air, it burst into flames partway up, exploding like fireworks, bits of plastic and flesh raining down from the sky. Katie prayed all night that she would explode, that God would hear her, even though she was a whore, and that he would kill her rather than let her die with the robot men.
In the morning, the same men took her out of the prison and bundled her into the pod. As they closed the door, Katie saw her mother in the crowd, crying. They had always held each other when they were feeling low, and Katie wanted nothing else than to have her head in her mothers lap, her mothers fingers in her hair. Katie cried out for her mother, and the door sealed shut.
The pod rocked so hard that Katie threw up and knocked her head against the cushioned sides. The pod was so small, she couldnâ€™t move inside it, and the sides became terribly hot, and then suddenly so cold that frost formed on the inside walls.
Then, after a long time, the pod stopped. There was a hiss and then the door to the pod slowly swung open. Kneeling on the other side of the pod was a bald woman in what look liked tight blue underclothes. The woman reached out to Katie.
â€œItâ€™s alright.â€ said the woman. â€œNo one here is going to hurt you.â€
Katie cringed. â€œAre you a robot?â€ she asked, her fingers pressing into her thin arms.
â€œThatâ€™s complicated sweetheart. Iâ€™ve got a cybernetic net over my brain and there are a few cameras in my body, but Iâ€™m mostly meat, so no, Iâ€™m not a robot.â€
â€œAre the men out there robots?â€
â€œNo robot men on this ship little one, though there are robots in the universe, but they arenâ€™t likely to hurt you.â€
Katie shivered. The bald woman sat back on her haunches.
â€œThirty-eight years ago the people on our planet launched me into space, just like you were launched. They though they were sending me to slave traders, because that is what their grandparents did. But things have changed here in space, and slave trade is outlawed in this sector. I set up an organization to collect the girls, and itâ€™s mostly girls, that our people exile. Iâ€™ve been doing this for a long time, and I have to tell you, there are bigger things than on that planet down there, and some of them are wonderful and some of them are scary, but not one person coming off our home world hasnâ€™t been able to handle it. You canâ€™t go back, and you canâ€™t stay in the pod. Why donâ€™t you come out and we can get you something to eat.â€ The bald woman held out her arms, palms upward.
Katie reached her hands out of the pod. â€œIâ€™m Katie.â€
â€œWeâ€™re sorry, but the tissue damage is irreparable. Itâ€™s spreading. Youâ€™ll start to feel the pain in a few days, then, nothing at all.â€ The silence in the room gave way to a gentle sigh from Russ, whose eyes looked up at the Doc with longing.
â€œDoc, whatâ€™s my time?â€ he barely choked out.
â€œHonestly, Russell you have about a week, maybe two.â€
Russâ€™ girlfriend just looked up, concerned, but Russ didnâ€™t seem phased by the time he came to ask about the only alternative safe enough to use this day and age. â€œCan they prep the machine before that? I mean theyâ€™ll be able to clock me in, right Doc?â€
Checking his clipboard, the doctor made a few hums and clicks as if he were prescribing medicine for a cold. A sense of nonchalance hung about him before his brows rose, â€œWell, we do have an opening in about five days. Early morning, though. That wonâ€™t be a problem for you will it?â€
â€œFive days?â€ The patient nodded as he mulled it over before looking to the corner seat where his girlfriend was. â€œHoney, we got anything going on Saturday morning?â€
â€œUhmâ€¦ you got that job interview in the afternoon.â€ Her words showed the most concern out of anyone in the room.
â€œShit, youâ€™re right. Wait, I can probably make it back before then, right?â€ Hopeful eyes glanced to the doctor who already started to yawn at the whole situation.
â€œYeah, Russell, I think everything will be okay. Now I wrote down what probably caused the long-term effects, and the guys at the machine lab will be able to tell you some ways to fix it all up.â€ The Doc checked his watch as he handed him a note card. â€œRussell, I have other patients today, so just give me a call last week and let me know things are fine and Iâ€™ll bill you for this in a couple of days.â€
Smirking as he glanced over the card, Russ shook his head, â€œRight, rightâ€¦ but Doc, câ€™mon! I can understand the smoking butâ€¦ caffeine? Alcohol? This is going to be tough convincing me to quit this.â€
Shrugging, the doctor opened the door to exit, â€œHey, I donâ€™t make the laws of time, I just tell you what you got to fix to live, Russell. See you around.â€
“Are you sure?”
Lena bit her lip and nodded. “Yes. Very sure.” Her voice was quiet but strong. She needed this.
The counselor nodded, looking down at her clipboard as she checked off items. “All right. I’ve noted your reasoning. The records will be sealed, of course, after the procedure is finished; if you look them up you’ll know you had something performed, but of course you won’t remember what. That would be counterproductive, wouldn’t it?” She gave Lena a lukewarm smile which Lena didn’t return. She didn’t feel much like smiling. The counselor looked back at her sheet. “You passed the psych screening, so now we just need you to isolate the memories you’d like us to modify. Make sure you take your time and get your story straight. I’ll give you the forms.”
Lena took the binder from the counselor with pale, cold hands. A part of her was aghast at the idea of changing her own memories–it felt like self-mutilation. She knew her parents could never find out what she’d done, however, and there was no way to lie to them with her memories intact. They’d use the serum on her, and if she remembered her wrongdoing, Lena would be forced to capitulate.
With a firm and steady hand, Lena wrote her directives and specifics into the binder, recording what would be her new memory of the last six months. “Here,” she said in only a matter of minutes. “I’m ready.”
“Are you sure?” the counselor asked. “That didn’t take long. Make certain you’ve written down everything we need to change.”
“It’s only one thing,” Lena said softly. “It was a miscarriage. That’s all. That’s the only thing I want different.”
The counselor regarded Lena for a moment, then nodded slowly. “All right.” She took the binder and stood, beckoning Lena towards the operating room. “Right this way.”
Sunset Lake made Mike nervous, which was something that hadnâ€™t happened since he came home from the war. Sunset Lake was a nice place; lots of natural light, pretty gardens and a big dining room with stretched white tablecloths. Still, all the old people made Mike feel uneasy. Cosmetically, they all looked like teenagers, but they were rotting inside. The cosmetics industry was far ahead of internal medicine. Everyone looked young in their graves.
Mike was happy to be in Melodyâ€™s office. Melody was the head nurse of Sunset Lake, and she actually looked all of her forty some years
â€œYouâ€™re a veteran,â€ said Melody, looking at the computer pad that was displaying Mikesâ€™ resume. Melody was stocky, with large arms and an ample bosom. She had layers of silver chains under her blue smock.
â€œYes. Maâ€™am.â€ said Mike.
â€œWell, I donâ€™t want you to worry. I had a cousin that was in the war. Noatter what most people think, I blame the government for what happened, not our boys in space.â€
â€œItâ€™s good to hear that Ma’amâ€™â€ said Mike, but really, it wasnâ€™t. Mike never expected a homecoming parade, he just wanted to forget the whole thing, scrub that part of his life off his record, so people would stop talking to him about it.
Melody sat down, and leaned across her desk. â€œMike, I like your resume and you seem very honest. Iâ€™d like you to help me protect our guests.â€
â€œMaâ€™am, Iâ€™m glad for the offer. I just want to know what kind of threats you think your guests are facing. Itâ€™s a nice neighborhood here, do you really get a lot of thefts?â€
â€œThefts arenâ€™t the problem Mike. Most of the people here donâ€™t bring too many personal possessions, and most of their children keep anything that is of value. I need you to protect the people in this facility.â€
â€œAre they in danger? Do they fight?â€
â€œNo Mike, most of them, it takes all their effort just to walk.â€ She crossed her arms tight around her body. â€œWhen I first started working here, I noticed some young men hanging around the building. At first, I thought they were children or grandchildren of some of the patients here, but when any of my employees would ask for ID, they would always have â€œLeft it at homeâ€ and they would beat it. After one of my staff caught a boy in with Mrs. Lansing, touching her on her breast, we instituted an ID scan on entry to the facility and I set nurses to watch the womenâ€™s dorms very carefully. I always had someone in eyesight of all the doorways of every room, and there were random spot-checks.
I blame myself for what happened. I was sexist. I just didnâ€™t imagine. . . Mr. Walsing started telling me that his legs were hurting, and he told me to get his Sword. He said ninjas were attacking him at night. Mr. Walsing has never handled a sword in his life. He was an investment banker before he retired. He just kept asking for a sword, to keep away the nightmares. I had them do a medical exam on him today, and I found out that he has been physically abused. Theyâ€™ve hacked our system and were coming in here and since they couldnâ€™t get to the women. . .â€ She stopped speaking for a moment and looked out the window, blinking her eyes.
â€œThatâ€™s terrible.â€ said Mike, feeling awkward.
They were silent the rest of the way to Mr. Walsings room. When they entered, Mike saw a slender purple haired teenager sleeping on the bed. His smooth pale skin was blanketed with soft sunlight streaming through the light yellow curtains of his room.
Melody lowered her voice. â€œMr. Walsing was an engineer. Heâ€™s got these beautiful holos of the ships he designed in flight. Maybe you even rode in a few of them. These boys came in here and they hurt him. I donâ€™t know what I am going to say to his family.â€
â€œWhat about the police?â€
Melody shook her head. â€œWe canâ€™t afford them. In this neighborhood, their rates are too high and if we default on a payment, it could be worse for us than the kids.â€
Mr. Walsingâ€™s black lashed fluttered and his eyes opened. They were a wet green color, like a forest after itâ€™s rained. â€œWhose there?â€ he asked softly, squinting at the doorway.
Mike walked closer, so Mr. Walsing could see his face. â€œGood afternoon Mr. Walsing. My name is Mike. I am your sword. I am here to keep the nightmares away.â€