The first day we met, I described myself as a reader, but she never called herself a writer. Instead, she would always say she “had writtenâ€ and would pull down her collar or roll up her sleeves and show people. They would catch a paragraph or two as it ticked across her chest or revolved around her forearm. Her hands and face remained un-marked; every other body part was fair game, parchment awaiting ink. The scrolling tattoo was connected to an implant in her skull, allowing her to add and edit as she saw fit. Her novel was about a girl with a scrolling tattoo of a novel about herself, her life and loves; it wasn’t the deepest subject matter, but she had a brilliant turn of phrase.
I flatter myself that I read more of it than anyone. This probably has less to do with her willingness to be gazed upon while naked, than it has to do with my being a compulsive reader. I was very easily distracted when we had sex, for example. But having a girl who not only had written, but also was a book (a book!) was too good to pass up.
That was, until, he showed up. She called him the “The Reader,” and he was an obnoxious new character in the world that was scrawled around her body. The Reader arrived innocuously enough. We were watching TVâ€”or rather, she was watching TV. I was reading the words that poked out of her exposed middriff. And there he was, circling lasciviously around her belly button. A man, close to my description, introduced himself to the main character of her novel as “a reader.”
“Is this supposed to be me?”
“Who?” she said, straightening up and pulling her shirt down. “Is who supposed to be you?”
“You know who I’m talking about,” I said. “The Reader.” She feigned innocence and crossed her legs in such a way that her right leg stuck out from below her skirt. Marching along her calf was a part I hadn’t read yet. I let the matter drop.
But The Reader showed up again. And again. It started to get unsettling. It wasn’t so much what he did, it was that he didn’t do anything. All he did was read the novel on the main character’s body, a passive presence in her life. It was disturbing.
“Is this how you see me?” I asked, several times. There may have been a few times when I said this that were perhaps louder than necessary.
“You’re reading too much into it,” was always her answer.
When The Reader accused the main character of writing about him, I about near lost it. I held up her own arm as proof as it circled by, but she merely shrugged it off. When The Reader started yelling at the main character, and forcing her behind closed doors, crying tears he would never see, I knew our relationship was over. The Reader had ruined it.
I let her keep the television.
I saw her again, a few weeks later. She smiled at me, and we acted as old friends. But then The Reader showed up again, as brief description of what had happened to him since slowly crawled across her cleavage. Apparently, he had contracted prostate cancer, Asian bird flu and some sort of flesh-eating virus, as well as now taking it Thai Lady-Boy style from an ex-con named “Bubba.”
We don’t talk much anymore.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, but the answer is no,â€ Captain Diana Cai watched Ambassador Karr on her viewscreen as his face darkened. The Ambassador bit his tongue inside his mouth until he tasted blood. Captain Cai allowed him his moment. It was harsh news she had to deliver. â€œOur team has found traces of the Contagion in your soil.â€
Ambassador Karr regarded the Captains teardrop stomach, covered only by a sheer cloth that allowed him to see the erotic and powerful exposure of her fertility. â€œCaptain Cai, our cleaning efforts have been intense. Our scientists have found no active traces of the Contagion, and those minor elements still left are broken down. We are assured that, with proper precautions, the children would have a very low risk of infection.â€
Captain Cai put her hand on her pregnant stomach, indicating she wished him to be silent. The Ambassador held his breath.
â€œAmbassador, our highest priority is the welfare of the children. We cannot deliver life to a world where there is any possibility of contamination. I have no doubt that your people deserve the children. I was guided on a virtual tour of the school that you built for the twelve we hoped to give you and I was very impressed by the design, all that light. . .â€
Captain Cai looked around her command center, where sixteen women were operating the ship at various stations, all of them at different stages of their pregnancy. Seven years ago, the Barâ€™ak had spread the Contagion to every human world, rendering nearly everyone sterile. The only fertile humans were those members of the Fleet on space missions. After the infection the Fleet was split, the men sent to retaliate against the Barâ€™ak aggression, and the women charged with the task of repopulation. The situation was worse than the government let on. â€œOur children can only be released to colonies with enough security to keep them safe. Contamination levels are part of that security.â€
The Ambassador ran a hand through his silver hair. â€œCaptain, my people will double their efforts to clean our soil. We will have the remnants of the contagion removed in a matter of months.â€
â€œAmbassador, I regret to inform you that we will not be returning for thirty seven years.â€
â€œThirty seven years?â€ The Ambassadors calm face had broken, and angry wrinkles, like a thousand scars, descended on his face. â€œCaptain, that is outrageous, most of us are already aged past our prime. A delay of that long could kill our colony!â€
The Captain put a hand on her stomach and the Ambassador gulped.
â€œAmbassador, I remind you that it is treason to raise your voice to a woman with child.â€
The Ambassador knelt, the screen following him as he crossed his hands over his chest and closed his eyes. â€œCaptain, Mother, forgive me, Life Giver, I pray to you. Please, spare us, give us one child, just one, to teach and love and hold. Please mother, mercy on us. The child you give us will be our most beloved creature, its feet will never touch soil. Please mother, I beg you.â€
â€œIâ€™ll do it.â€ Said a young Ensign, newly pregnant with her third child. â€œIâ€™ll go.â€
Captain Cai switched off the screen. â€œAdia, you are out of line.â€ The Ensign put a hand on her stomach.
â€œIt is treason to raise your voice to a woman with child.â€
Captain Cai put her forehead in her hands. â€œYou read the reports, the soil is dangerous.â€
â€œYes. I read that in some parts of the planet, the soil has minor contamination. Captain, you saw the Ambassador. We cannot leave this colony to die.â€
â€œAre you ready to be a symbol for the rest of your life? An object?â€
â€œNo, Iâ€™m not.â€ Adia walked out from behind her console. â€œMother, I canâ€™t do this any longer. I cannot continue to give birth and give my children away. Iâ€™ll go mad. I have the right to leave the program.â€
â€œActually, Ensign, you do not have that right. Humanity is in a dire situation right now. There are planets of worlds that cannot reproduce on their own. Even if you, and your children manage to avoid infection, even if you do that, the Barâ€™ak may find out you are there and return to this moon and spread the contagion again. Then we will have lost yet another fertile woman.â€
â€œIf you donâ€™t leave me there, you may lose an entire colony! Mother, please. I want to go. Please, give me to them. Give them hope.â€
â€œI canâ€™t. I cannot let you go for anything less than an act of treason.â€
â€œThen let me be a traitor.â€ Adia, cradled her mothers face in her hands. â€œI love you mother.â€ She lightly slapped the Captains cheek.
Captain Cai swallowed. â€œTo strike a fertile woman is an act of treason, the punishment for which is death. Ensign Cai, because you are fertile, you will be spared capital punishment and will serve your lifelong sentence in the care of this colony planet.â€ Captain Cai nodded to two female guards. â€œTake her to transport.â€
â€œCaptain, mother, I promise you, I will give them hope.â€
â€œNo Adia, you will give them everything.â€
Sergeant Ariel Odipo held back a grimace as her squadron approached the Sepch encampment. She doubted they could see her face through the mirrored visor of her helmet, but she wasnâ€™t taking any chances. She loosened her grip on her rifle as well. The tension was thick enough as it was. This was a peacekeeping mission, after all.
Besides, these people werenâ€™t the problem. Odipo had grown fond of their crabby little faces and way they waved their eyestalks when she approached. They were not her problem.
â€œPerimeter clear, sir.â€ The crackle of Odipoâ€™s earpiece contrasted with Private Moharasundaramâ€™s constantly even voice. M was already Odipo’s favorites out of the new privates; she could take the head off a target at 2000 meters. Not that she would get a chance here.
On Odipo’s orders, the rest of the company filed in with the loaded skimmers. The food and medical supplies they were bringing didn’t look or smell like anything Odipo would put in her body, but that was other cultures for you. Odipo had gained the respect for Sepch culture that can only come from spending every day defending yourself from them.
She found herself gripping her weapon tighter again. Odipo loosened up immediately, hoping none of her company saw a tense C.O. But M saw. M saw everything.
“Permission to speak freely, sir?”
“When the insurgency comes, why don’t we just take them out?”
“You are aware of the Rules of Engagement in this situation, Private.”
“Yes, sir. But I still believe that–”
“What did you learn in basic, soldier?”
“Sir! To put big holes in tiny people, sir!”
“You should have also learned to follow the R.O.E. This is a peacekeeping mission, Private. We do not fire unless we are fired upon. Is that clear? Follow your training.”
“I was not trained for peacekeeping, sir.”
None of us were, Odipo thought. But she did not say it. Instead she turned her attention to a group of larger Sepch forcing their way to the front of the crowd. They carried the armbands of the Kree-Gnaugk-Kluf, but Odipo didn’t need that to tell her they were bad news. Their rough behavior to the other Sepch and their greedy possession of all game off the skimmer made their position abundantly clear. Odipo could see her soldiers closest to the gang, and saw them slowly start to raise their weapons.
“All units, hold fire,” Odipo said. “Repeat, do not fire unless fired upon.”
Odipo and her squadron watched as the gang–the insurgency, make no mistake–made off with most of the supplies, leaving little for the civilians to pick through in their wake. They would take the supplies to the cliffs that perched above this valley, and once they had achieved sufficient cover, they would fire their weapons down on the enemy forces who were dumb enough to give them food.
Sergeant Ariel Odipo watched her enemy walk away, and tried very hard not to think about the number of men she would lose once they reached those cliffs. She was suddenly very much aware of how tightly she was gripping her rifle.
â€œGoodman Ernest, your application for life expectancy has been denied.â€
Ernest, as his own legal representation, was standing at the podium before the masked council. When he heard their pronouncement, he nearly fell off the stand.
â€œCouncil! I beg appeal!â€
The head councilwoman banged her gavel; the advantage of psychic links between the council was immediate judgment. â€œAppeal granted. State your case.â€
â€œI have lived three hundred years. I have taught our children, I have been a lawyer, a pimp and a priest, I have redesigned a product and I conducted an orchestra. Council, I have lifetimes full of accomplishments.â€
A Councilman at the end of the long table shook his masked face, and the head Councilwoman closed her eyes, receiving opinions through her psychic neural implants. When she finally spoke, her eyes remained shut. â€œIndeed you do Goodman Ernest. We have reviewed your accomplishments and found them suitable for two lifetimes, but not three. Reviewing the facts, we have noticed that in the last 50 years you have lived off of the proceeds on the wise investments from your bestselling audio feed. You have failed to contribute anything further to society and are living off the fruits of past labors.â€
Goodman Ernest put both hands over his heart, the gesture for mercy. â€œI appeal for a retroactive sabbatical.â€
â€œDenied. Retroactive sabbaticals are only applicable to those who can demonstrate significant emotional or physical injury, besides which, no sabbaticals over ten years are ever granted, and you would need to be granted a sabbatical of over seventy three years.â€
â€œCouncil. I am capable of contributing society again.â€
â€œAs stated by our constitution, when a person slows its pace through our world, it is time for them to move aside and allow the innovations of those younger beings to take their space. The ripe fruit must give way to the seed.â€ The councilâ€™s language was always flowery, a result of the impassioned arguments flowing between them.
â€œI appeal to your sense of mercy. I am capable of giving, of innovating. I can reinvent myself again. Grant me the years to prove that I can give a lifetime to our people.â€
There was a moment of silence and the head Councilwoman finally opened her eyes. â€œIn reflection of your reluctance to depart this mortal coil, we shall grant you a period of five years in which to make your contribution.â€
â€œFive years!â€ Goodman Ernest felt faint. Five years was a blink, you could barely make a plan for change in five years. â€œYou expect me to give a lifetime in five years?â€
â€œThink of our ancestors, and what they gave to us in their short lives. Imagine them, and show yourself worthy of their legacy. Go, and make your mark.â€
I don’t remember being a citizen, but when I was growing up, it was all my father ever talked about. ‘Back in the valley,’ he would say, and point to the acrylic mural that took up most of the wall by the front door. It looked nothing like a valley. It was a jumble of angles and curves, oddly pixellated like most of my mother’s art. I don’t remember much of my mother either, but there are bits and pieces of her all over the apartment, plotted out in meticulous detail on nearly every flat surface.
Of course, my father wanted me to go into something with computers. He still does. “Dennou,” he says, when I meet him for coffee, “when are you going to give up that mess and buy yourself a datafeed?”
“I have a datafeed, dad.”
Actually, I have six. Only one has been turned on, and I use it as a lamp in the hallway. Across from me, my father began listing the merits of computer operation, chuckling and gesturing like he was describing a woman he wanted to set me up with. I smiled and nodded a few times, but we both knew nothing would come of it.
It’s not that I don’t know how to use a computer. I grew up around them, after all. I used to type eighty words per minute, but I haven’t tried in months. My father has never been away from a datafeed for longer than a day, except for the horrible, horrible night he spent in an airport after his wallet was stolen. I still hear that story, sometimes. You’d think he was kidnapped by terrorists.
Normal parents encourage their kids to get married, settle down, spit out a couple kids; my dad just wants me to hack. I haven’t decided if I’m lucky. We meet at the teahouse every Tuesday, and he rants about my career choice for a bit before giving me the manila envelope of stolen blueprints and security codes. Then I pay, or he pays, and we part.
Today, I pick up the tab. Money’s been good this week. He asks me if I need any cash, as usual, and I tell him no, as usual. I don’t know where he gets his money, since he seems oddly isolated from the crime circles of the island. I had to describe the runner code using networking references, and I still don’t think he gets why, because I’ve agreed to work with my partner, I couldn’t stop working even if I wanted to. Which I don’t. I suppose, in the valley, they didn’t have honor among thieves.
“So you’ll think about it?”
“I’ll think about it,” I lie.
“You’re getting old to be playing Robin Hood,” he warns, his tone shifting to the serious. This is a deviation from the script, and I adjust my posture to hide the usual slump.
“I’ve got it under control.”
“Ah, you can’t control age, Dennou.” He’s called me that since I was six, when, on a sadistic whim, he convinced me that I was a robot.
Outside of the teahouse, I pull a cigarette from my pack and shield my lighter from the fierce January wind. “I downloaded the patch for that,” I joke, and he fakes a grimace.
“Are you sure you don’t need anything?”
“I don’t need your money, Dad.” I open my bookbag against the wall and slide the envelope between two notebooks of securifeed schematics while I held the cigarette in my teeth. “Do you want money for the files?”
“From my own son? Never. I give you those to keep you alive.” He grins, but he knows it’s true.
“Same time next week,” I say as I sling the bag over my shoulder.
“Take care of yourself, Dennou,” he warns. I make a face before turning my attention to the sidewalk.
This is it, lads. Weâ€™ve done it. The future of dating is now.
Forget all those phony hookup services, the holodates, the matchmakers. Weâ€™ve discovered what your problem was all along. You donâ€™t need to find the right girl, mate. Not anymore. Thatâ€™s a thing of the past. You need to find the right you.
Itâ€™s taken decades of surveys and analyses and precision research, but we have finally figured out that mystical ideal: what girls like. Brace yourselves, gents. This oneâ€™s a doozy.
Girls like assholes.
I know youâ€™ve heard this one before, and it didnâ€™t work, did it mate? Well, thatâ€™s because you didnâ€™t understand it the right way. Sure, we all know nice guys finish last, but assholes tend to get left in the end, tooâ€”unless theyâ€™re just the right kind of assholes.
Now, I wonâ€™t deceive you blokes. This ainâ€™t easy. You canâ€™t be an all-out fucker and expect a girl to like you. There is a certain type, a certain formula: the thing all women secretly want. They want just enough asshole to keep their lives exciting, to make â€˜em think theyâ€™ve got work to do, but not enough douchebag to bugger off with some other chick in a shorter skirt.
Being an asshole takes care and talent. You need just enough cruelty to make â€˜em hurt, and just enough kindness to make â€˜em simper at you afterwards. You need to play the game, boys. Itâ€™s all in the game.
So how do you do it? Ay, thereâ€™s the rub. Let me tell it to you straight: if you donâ€™t already know it on your own, youâ€™re never gonna. Itâ€™s just that simple. What you need, my friends, is some way to know when enough is enough and when itâ€™s not. What you need is this little miracle.
See it? Barely visible to the naked eye, but with more computing power than your entire cubicle. This little guy takes information directly from your brainwaves and figures out just how you should react. Itâ€™s like having that proverbial angel on your shoulderâ€”or devil, boys, take your pickâ€”to tell you just what to do. Doesnâ€™t even need surgery.
Youâ€™ll have just the right formula, just the right mix: enough asshole to make a girl feel needed and enough humanity to convince her sheâ€™s done her job. And if youâ€™ve got the unfortunate habit of being a nice guy at heart? All the better. You can go back to your goody-two-shoes ways once the prize is won. All you have to do is take the miracle bug out of your ear and hide it away. Itâ€™s that simple.
But youâ€™ve got to start somewhere, gents. Youâ€™ve got to start somewhere. Now, I know the trick. I can show you the way.
But itâ€™s gonna cost you.