“You just need to get your priorities in order,” Pern said as he plunked the ripe wikifruit onto the table. Courtney watched with dismay, her eyes wide as she watched the young man end drive a long knife through the product of her months of gardening. “Food is all fine and good, but we already have food. We’ve got over a hundred rations to get through before the supply ship comes. This,” he said, indicating the smooth, pink outer shell of the fruit, “is for something better than eating.”
“The only thing better than eating is breathing,” Courtney said, reciting one of the three principles that had been drilled into her during pioneer orientation. Pern laughed.
“You haven’t been here for long, have you?” he asked. He moved the blade around the thick stem of the wikifruit until a circle the side of his palm could be lifted from the foot-long purple shape. Pern reached for the next instrument, a long-necked spoon, which he stabbed deep into the fruit’s body.
“Iâ€¦” Courtney began, but her shock quickly overcame her dedication to the pioneer ideals. Pern looked up to her with a warm smile, then twisted the spoon and lifted a clump of soggy pink from the inside of the wikifruit before dumping it into a bowl. He repeated the motion several times, and the rose-colored heap grew larger and larger until it seemed that so much mass could not have been contained within the now-hollowed fruit. Pern ripped the corner from a bag of sugar with his teeth, then poured it into the bowl in an avalanche of white.
“Get me the riser,” he told her. Courtney stared at the fruit, her horrified expression similar to the one she’d worn when she heard about the great wagon incident. She had no choice but to obey, though, and he knew it. When she returned with one of the small packets she used to bake bread, he tore the top away and emptied the paper envelope over the white and pink heap. Pern stirred the pile with his spoon until the wikifruit meat was a squishy, sugar-embedded glob. He lifted a spoonful, offering it to Courtney. “Wanna taste?” he asked.
“You monster!” she whimpered. He shrugged, and shoveled the bowl’s contents back into the purple rind.
“You’ll thank me in a month or two,” he told her with a knowing smile as he sealed the wikifruit with the circle he’d first carved away. “Everyone always does.”
There was frost on the window. It was supposed to be summer, but since the last conflict began, every season had been extended. A fleet of enemy carriers lay still in orbit just outside of normal battalion fire, visible through the large viewscreen window, but they did not move. General Dana Blain looked out over the debris of thousands of warships as it floating up above the atmosphere in the night sky, watching as some succumbed to the gravity of the planet and became shooting stars in reentry.
Her blue eyes stared into the stars as her hands found each other behind her back. “Ensign, I need a status report of the orbit.”
Red lights flashed for days, and the people felt it all over the globe. Ensign Webber punched in the codes and looked upon the glowing screen as he read the statistics to the General. “General, the report from the Scientific Data Association reads us at an orbit increase of twelve days, sixteen hours, forty-three minutes and fifteen seconds.” The ensign paused while a droplet of sweat moved down his temple. “That’sâ€¦”
“An increase of almost double over last time. Yes, I know.” General Blain walked over to the console and punched in a few numbers to see for herself. Her expression was blank and disaffected, as it had been since the third conflict of the war.
A screen to the right of the panoramic view blinked on, displaying the features of a man nearly as stoic as the General. “General Blain, this is Senator Ruger! Peace negotiations are beginning with the Dek’a. You are to cease military advancement immediately. This planet cannot take another blast. Do you-”
He hadn’t finished before the General’s finger flicked over the console button and cut off power to the screen. Everyone in the room turned to her, their faces glazed with astonishment. “Ready the cannon, Ensign Webber,” she said as the eyes of every person in the room focused on her with undisguised astonishment.
“But-” the ensign protested with what the last remnants of his confidence.
“Do it!” As she snapped, she fixed him with a glare more potent than any weapon’s force. Ensign Webber nodded. It wouldn’t be long before they would hear the rumble of the weapon rising to the surface. The cannon was the most deadly weapon in their arsenal.
A science expert’s voice finally broke through the silence. “General, another blast from the cannon will push us out of orbit,” she said quietly
While the scientist stood in defiance, the General waved a hand to have her escorted off the bridge. In that same moment, she watched the planet, her planet, shine its weapon of destruction towards the helpless fleet of carriers. It was that stone cold look that now filled her being and pushed fear like a drug onto her crew.
“This is for John,” whispered the woman, as she avenged one man with the motion to fire.
I remember your touch, your taste, the way your mouth curled slightly when you said my name. Everything about you that made me happy, I’ve copied and cached. I can call it up with a thought, or a few key strokes if it’s unusual. The odd high note your voice lilted into when you laughed at my joke when we ate at the Nyala, the way you tied my boot lace, the odd jiggle-dance you did when no one was around but me and that blind street musician. Everything I ever liked about you is now recorded and filed. I keep hard copies in that safe you gave me.
So don’t bother coming around anymore, okay? Please. You’re just embarrassing yourself.
And you’re ruining my memories.
Robert made the same mistake every Spartan makes. He thought he was ready.
A thousand miles away they were stretching Michael out on the wall. He was naked and bleeding. They took out the tool that Michael recognized from his training and he switched his router on with a thought. Suddenly, the cold of the wall became distant, like a memory. He could feel cotton beneath him, skin on his forearm.
“I’m patched in to Lieutenant Michael.” said Robert, testing his restraints. “The rebels are about to begin.”
“I’m here,” said Dr. Wyatt, squeezing Robert’s muscular arm. Dr. Wyatt was an experienced doctor in physiology and psychology. This was her third substation session. Robert watched her lined face as if it was a mirror to his own.
They used the tool, and Michael watched as his body spasmed. He could see it happening, but it seemed unreal. All that blood made the scene look like a campy horror movie. They were asking him questions, but their voices were distant.
“Can you hear me?” asked Dr. Wyatt, holding Roberts screaming face as he strained against the padded restraints.
Michael saw his leg hanging like a loose sock, part of it no longer attached to him. He was making noise, very loud, and he wished he could turn the channel and watch something else.
Dr. Wyatt held Roberts eyes open. “Say it! Tell them the message!” she yelled. Robert screamed and forced his mouth around the words. A thousand miles away, Michael spoke with Roberts voice, spilling his lies to the rebel armada.
Michael felt his body dying. He transferred, his pattern floating into waiting receptors, thousands of miles away. He woke up on cotton sheets.
“There will be a little itching at first,” said Dr. Wyatt, leaning over him. “It’s the new body, it will take some adjustment.”
“Where is Robert?” asked Michael. Dr. Wyatt pointed across the room, where Robert was sleeping.
“You Spartans.” said Dr. Wyatt. “Do you think of nothing but your partners?”
“Nothing else.” Michael stood, wavering on his feet.
“You really shouldn’t do that right away,” said Wyatt. “Your body needs time to adjust. Besides, you’re a half inch taller now, it will take some getting used to.”
Michael shot her an annoyed glance, and stumbled across the room, to sit on the bed of his partner. “Robert.”
“He’s out. He’s been out three days.” said Dr. Wyatt, brushing silver hair back behind her ear.
Michael tried to wrap his head around the idea that what had happened a moment ago was actually a three day old memory. He swayed on his feet. “Why is he still out?”
“There is only so much the mind can take. He felt what happened to you.”
Michael touched Robert’s pale face. “Don’t be a wimp.” he said. “Walk it off.”
Robert cracked one eye open. “Can’t a man get any sleep around here?” he said, his voice hoarse. Michael laughed, feeling high and crazy all at once.
“The doctor doesn’t seem to think that you were awake.”
“What do doctors know?” said Robert. “I woke up as soon as I heard your voice. We are Spartans, no matter where you are, I will always hear you.”
Rage. It was burning, fiery, coursing, singing like a hurricane through wind-bent trees and thundering like a tsunami. He felt his teeth clench and grind, his eyes widen, his nails cutting two crescents of half-moon wounds into his palms. His thoughts cascaded together, mind like an avalanche. He couldn’t see straight. Everything seemed covered in a veil of red. Until now he’d thought that was just a clichÃ©. Anger consumed him, roaring through him, and Harry rode it until it finally died away. When the tide ebbed he was left gasping, fists clenching and unclenching within the protective restraints, grasping for more.
“How was that one?” Leroy asked, his voice hushed and mouth grinning as he leaned in over Harry. “Good shit? You were tripping balls, man.”
Harry only had the strength to nod. “That’s the stuff,” he said when he had enough breath. “Grade-A. We can get a half-mil a pop, easy. God damn.” He craned his neck forward to wipe his forehead on the top of his sleeve, wriggling in the safety chair. “What’s next?”
“You’ll like this one,” Leroy said, already loading up the needle. “You can’t get this shit anymore. It’s been bred out, treated before we even know we have it by all that shit the government pumps into the water. This’ll sell for sure.”
“Well what is it?” Harry asked, squirming in the chair, trying to read the label on the bottle.
Leroy smirked. “Sadness.”
Harry’s mouth dropped open and he leaned back, arm twitching with anticipation as Leroy shot him up. He let his eyes roll back into his head as he waited for the drug take effect. It happened all at once; the chemicals reached the nerve endings in the brain, and suddenly the world dropped away, replaced by a gaping void of hopelessness and despair. Harry experienced a true and complete sensation of worthlessness.
He had never known such bliss.
The girl was only on at night, like all of the girls on Bleeker. Her hair was a different color every couple of weeks, because it was so easy to change, but her eyes were always the same. They dressed her up in costumes depending on the season. In December, it was a red velvet miniskirt with white trim. A pilgrim hat in November. In July, small triangles of red, white and blue stretched over artificial breasts with perpetually hard nipples, inviting New Yorkers to celebrate their freedom. When there was no holiday on the horizon, they dressed her depending on their mood. She performed best with her golden wig and the Marilyn dress, standing on the subway grate with a glazed-over smile as she waited for the train to pass beneath her. Once, they dressed her as a mime, complete with white makeup smeared over rubbery skin. The makeup wore off after two jobs, and they couldn’t be bothered to keep touching it up. She’d done well, though. She was excellent at talking with her body.
When men spoke to her, she listened dumbly, nodding at carefully calculated intervals. Usually, they didn’t speak at all. Their business was done in a large loft, where curtains of sheets strung from twine sliced the space into private rooms. Hers was at the end of a white cotton hallway, and was two feet larger than the mattress of the futon. Although they washed the cover twice a week, it always seemed yellow beside the fluttering wall.
Once, after the job, the client asked her about her eyes. “Are they real?” he said with a slight Midwestern drawl. “They look like they’re glass or something.” Although she was capable of speech, the girl rarely answered questions. “I don’t know,” she said, her voice as dense as the well-packed mattress. When he left, he gave her a generous tip, though her service had been distant and uncomfortably rhythmic. “You should have those things looked at,” he suggested, and the hallway billowed as he walked away.