“Who can blame them for what they do?” Sergeant Dobbs sipped his coffee as he leaned back in the patrol car, musing to Lieutenant Carson. Through the windshield, the morning throngs of people left their homes and crowded the streets on their way to work and life as they knew it.
“I can blame them, Roger. It’s the same thing as blaming a drunk driver for killing someone on the road. It just ain’t right, and it’s not excusable.”
It was then that their mark came into view. He must have been wandering the streets for at least a few nights with a sawed-off shotgun and a roll of cash. The kid had the usual glazed look in his eyes, and the twitch of a gamer in his stride. The epidemic was easy to follow. That wasn’t the issue; the issue was how randomly it occurred.
“There he is,” Dobbs said. He sat up and poured his coffee out the window as he moved to open the door.
Carson knew that making a scene would be a mistake. “Shit, Roger. Wait a sec.”
Too late. The kid saw the cops and raised his gun, blasting a slug right into the hood of the cruiser before taking off. The blast left Dobbs diving for cover and Carson revving up the engine as he grabbed for the radio.
“We got another one headed east on Union, requesting back-up. This ones been in the game a while.” He threw the car into gear and the cruiser jerked into traffic just in time to see the kid yank a driver from the door of a hybrid Honda. It definitely wasn’t his first car-jacking either.
Sergeant Dobbs pulled his Beretta from the holster and cursed, but the Lieutenant grabbed his hand before the gun could be leveled.
“Roger, we can’t kill the kid. He’s gotta do his time in rehab just like the others.” Despite his anger, Dobbs complied and let the gun return to its holder. Besides, up ahead, the lights and sirens indicated the barricade had already been set up. The trap was sprung.
Moments later their car came to a screeching halt as they nearly T-boned the kids’ jacked ride as it met with the barricade. Six cops weren’t going to point their weapons and wait. The ring began to tighten.
“Out of the car, now! Get the fuck out of the car!” The boy seemed more perplexed than he was nervous. He looked around and tried to rev the engine, hoping to break away from the two cars that had wedged him in. Eventually, the cops pulled him out and gave him a taste of asphalt before cuffing him.
Sergeant Dobbs glared at the kid as the boy struggled, kicking and screaming as they dragged him off. Carson came up behind Dobbs and gave him a pat on the shoulder. “It’s all nice until they fire at you, eh?”
“Yeah, it is.” Dobbs was still watching the boy as his pale frame was shoved into the police car and his shrill voice was screaming about the tragedy.
“I have a saved game! I want to go back to the save point! Fuck! You can’t stop me from resetting!” The slammed door muffled the final words, but Dobbs thought he caught something about an upgrade.
Lieutenant Carson just sighed. “Back in my day, the console and the LCD were all you needed. Poor bastards.”
It’s a dangerous job. They told me that in college, they told me that in my doctoral studies, they told me that when they recruited me, and they tell me that every morning of a jump. It’s a dangerous job, Jodie. But I know the risks. Everyone in this field knows the risk.
My first case was standard: a sociopath who slaughtered half a dozen children in his basement two centuries earlier. We don’t save the victims, of courseâ€¦that would mutilate the timeline. We don’t even see the subjects. In the projection chamber, I lie on the table as wires are taped to my head, stimulating REM. It takes a special type of person, I hear: a lucid dreamer. Without that ability, it’s easy to lose yourself.
I enter him as he’s almost there, hovering on the brink and fantasizing about the pale-eyed brunette in the basement. I feel the body shudder with the feeling of falling that accompanies the transition to sleep. His mind unfolds into images: the man who sold him bread in the morning, people he passed on the subway. They never dream about the victims. They have their waking hours for that.
Years in the future, the movements of his unconscious are being recorded. In hours, they’ll be processed and scrutinized, and the database will be updated.
His mother, long dead, walking down a corridor and holding a glass of water. She opens a door and he’s inside. “Did you finish shopping?” he asks, and she gives him the glass. He drops it, spills it. The water is the ocean and the shattered glass is light breaking on the jagged edges of waves as he looks overboard. Dreaming. I watch.
When they pull me from his mind the transition is gentle. The scientist enters the dream patterns with keystrokes. “Nice job,” he says, because he’s flirted with me for months. I smile and leave. I’ll be back the next day.
As I sleep in my own bed, fragments of the dreams are recycled. The lucid dreaming distances themâ€¦this is simple review, observation rather than motivation. The scanners realize this, and ignore me. Across the city, people are dreaming, matching and evading profiles. Dangerous cases are summoned and saved by doctors who do my work in reverse. I research, they cure.
It’s a dangerous job, but someone has to do it. We haven’t had a serial killer for centuries.
The rosy Martian sunrise had just dusted over the white curtains on Beth’s bedroom window when her parents heard the wild thudding of eight-year-old feet charging their door like a herd of wild horses. Marlene groaned and stuck her head under the pillow as a small fist tapped earnestly on the sleek plastic of the door. “Greg, it’s five in the morning. Can’t you tell her to wait a little longer?” But her husband was already dragging himself out of bed. Marlene groaned. Beth had always been a daddy’s girl.
“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” came the voice from outside, and Marlene forced herself to sit up, rubbing her eyes. Gregory pressed the blue button that would unlock the door and was immediately assaulted by a small, brown-haired bundle in a white nightgown. “Daddy!” Beth cried out gleefully, launching herself at her father’s pajamaed legs. “It’s my birthday!”
“I know it is, Beth sweetie,” Gregory said, casting a helpless look at his wife. Marlene couldn’t help but smirk as she took her time getting out of bed, leaving Gregory to deal with their offspring. He leaned down and hopped the child up into his arms, and Beth squealed with delight. Gregory grinned and tickled her stomach. “Is my big girl ready for her present?”
“Present!” Beth crowed, flinging her arms around her father’s neck. “Can I have it now?”
“Ask your mother,” Gregory replied, his lips quirking with amusement.
“Can I have my present now, Mommy?” The girl turned immediately to Marlene, squirming in her father’s arms to face her mother completely. “Pleeeeease?”
“If you want it, you’d better run downstairs quick before the little green men show up and take it away!” Marlene laughed as Beth squealed and squiggled out of her father’s arms to pelt back down the hallway and thunder down to the living room. Gregory shook his head, and Marlene smirked. “Mother’s instinct,” she replied to his unspoken question, then plucked her silk robe from the closet and patted her husband’s shoulder. “You’d better go down there and give your daughter her birthday gift.”
Gregory kissed her and disappeared downstairs, and Marlene took her time finding her slippers and tying her robe. It was only when she heard a child’s shriek from downstairs that Marlene dropped her hairbrush and rushed to the sound. In the living room, Beth was clinging to her father’s shirt, face buried in Gregory’s chest, while a placid creature with large blue camera-eyes and sleek white plastic hide looked on.
“Beth, what is it?” Gregory was clearly distressed. “You kept saying you wanted a pony for your birthday! Daddy got you a pony, sweetieâ€¦ what’s the matter?”
“It’s not a pony!” the eight-year-old wailed, casting a look of mingled fear and reproach at the silent android. “It’s a robot! It’s not aâ€¦ not a real pony!”
Marlene bit her lip and knelt on the floor. “Beth, you know we can’t have a real pony on Mars. Daddy and I thought you would like this oneâ€¦”
“But Daddy’s the con-soo-late!” Beth protested, emphasizing the word she’d heard time and again to describe what, to her, was simply a Very Important Job.
“Even the consulate can’t break the law, Beth,” Gregory reminded his daughter, looking helplessly to Marlene for guidance.
“I don’t want it!” Beth cried out, shaking her head and burying it in Gregory’s shirt again.
“Look, Beth honey,” Marlene said, trying to coax her child to face her. “It’s a good ponyâ€”better than a real one. You can ride it and play with it and even polish it if you want. You get to pick the name, too.”
“No, no, no!” Beth shook her head emphatically with each negation, her little fists balled up in Gregory’s shirt for emphasis. Gregory looked at his wife, entirely at a loss. Marlene pressed her lips together.
“Beth, would you like the pony if we got him a hover attachment?”
The tears stopped. Round blue eyes peeked out at Marlene from Gregory’s shirt. “You mean… a flying pony?”
Marlene nodded solemnly. “A flying pony of your very own.”
Beth blinked at her mother, then turned to face the pony. Its luminous eyepieces gleamed back at her. Before Gregory could blink, his child’s arms were flung around the warm plastic neck as tightly as they had been around his own.
“Thank you, Daddy!” Beth smiled at her parents as brightly as if her eyes had never known tears. “He’s perfect.”
They sealed Emily’s room three days after the accident, trapping puzzle games and animatronic bears behind the white hydraulic door. Her parents did not want to see the small proofs: things like names doodled on digipaper, the I’s topped by pixellated hearts. A week later they shut down the biofield to save energy and the house’s mainframe showed the room turn cold, its window displays no longer marking the difference between imagined night and day.
The cards and flowers dwindled off after a few weeks, but Emily’s parents waited months before disposing of the everblooms. The white and green plants, caught in photosynthetic stasis, did not shadow the evolution of grief. “Who’s getting married?” the mother of one of Thomas’s school friends asked when picking up her son. Her question was met by lingering silence until Thomas told her, “They’re my sister’s. She’s dead.”
That night, the organic material was recycled, and for days, every meal tasted of chlorophyll.
The forms arrived eighteen months later, stating in cold, efficient terms that the period of sanctioned mourning was over and it was time to consider the population stability of the community. It was a matter of duty, and only the mattress made sound.
Thomas watched his mother swell. Against all odds, pregnancy had improved her mood; she now spent days smiling, one hand resting over the growing bulge. “We need to renovate the room,” his father said.
“Emily’s room?” Thomas asked.
“It’s just a room,” he said, his tone flat. “Rooms don’t belong to anyone.”
At night, Thomas stood before the mainframe, trying to guess the password his parents had set. Her birthday, no. The day of the accident, no. Nothing. He pressed his hand against the sense panel and the mainframe grew warm.
Password accepted, the display read, although Thomas had typed nothing.
The door to the room opened with ease, just like the door of every other room in the house. The lights were dimmed for night, as Emily had always been terrified of the dark, and he noticed the scent of a recent biosweep, killing the bacteria that might have harmed the young girl. It took Thomas several moments to realize that the biofield had never been lowered, despite what the mainframe had claimed.
On the opposite wall, the constellations of Earth hung in the frame of the window display and Thomas moved closer, scanning the well-mapped ocean that his parents had chosen as his sister’s view. At the edge the dark and textured expanse, the horizon showed the faintest signs of dawn: darkest purple blending into the night sky like a bruise.
The Annual Garden Party was called such more out of tradition than anything else; there was no vegetation to be found, only green crystal ferns and porcelain roses. However, appearances and traditions had to be respected and kept up. It was commented on that the way the artificial sunlight glinted off the facets and glaze was, in humble opinions that would never be expressed if the whole effect wasn’t just so breathtaking, better than the original.
Byron hated it. Cecelia could see he hated it, but she brushed it off as concern for his younger sister, Bunny, as she continually tottered dangerously close to the ferns, her immense platform sandals and limited coordination not helping the matter any.
“Bunny,” Byron called, and the girl ambled over to the table he and Cecelia shared. “Look, here. I brought your tiara. Why don’t you go pose in it away from the ferns?”
“Oooooo! Shiny!” Bunny’s jewelry clattered noisily as she half-ran, half-fell away from the tables.
“She’s a beautiful girl, your sister,” Cecelia said. Byron only looked sad.
“She’s a beautiful girl with Holstein-Gottorp’s Disorder. I’m just glad she’s still young enough for the pageant circuit. When that goes, I’m not sure what she’s going to have.”
“It’s wonderful the way you care for her. You’ll make an excellent father.”
“Cecelia, we’ve talked about this.” Byron nervously ran his fingers over the gold tabletop. “You know I love you, but my sister has Holstein-Gottorp’s, and, well, with our combined inheritence, there’s a good chance any children we have could end up a…”
“BRIETARD!!!” Some smaller children were yelling at Bunny, throwing chocolates at her ample cleavage. She ran away from them, crying, and hid under a table. Byron looked pale.
“Byron, baby.” Cecelia took his hands, their multitude of rings clacking as they came together. “Even if we have brietarded children, we’ll make it work.”
“You don’t understand. Yesterday, my sister was asked to introduce herself, and she said ‘What? Like, with words?’ I can’t live with that.”
“So then we’ll give it up,” Cecelia said. “All of it. Maybe we even…I don’t know, get jobs or something.”
Byron looked aghast. “Are you mad?” He turned to watch his sister, once again tottering toward the glimmering fake plants. “Can’t we just do something sensible like adopt one of those strange little alien refugees? Something sane like that.”
Even in the heart of the city, Rene is in the open places. His feet splash in streams, not gutters, and his ears feel the whistle of the wind and not the cry of sirens. Past the dumpsters and yakatori stands, Rene smells green grass and the air right before a storm. He can hear his brother’s laughter, and the thunder of a thousand wild horses running with him.
Shelia Ruye told him it wouldn’t last, and when Rene reaches the docks, he hacks and he wheezes and the real world slithers back in into his frame of vision. Shelia Ruye told him that Reservation was the best, like no dose he ever had, that Rez took your fondest memory and gave it back. Didn’t last long, though, and to Rene the city looked small and crumpled and dirty and his brother was still in the ground. Rene tried to vomit food he hadn’t eaten, and made sense of the city best he could. Because making sense of the city was the only way to get away from it, only way he could find more Rez.
Rene runs to the heart of the city in order to run back out of it again, with enough Rez pounding in his ears and his eyes to make it past the docks, past the city. His brother’s laughter will hold him up and wild horses will carry him across the moonlit water.
He sees this as surely as he sees the wide open places and the cramped dank alleys. And Rene knows that to stay in one, he has to leave the other.