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€
There was a time when food could be remembered; a time when you could lick your lips and recall the sweet sting of dehydrated packaged delights. Too bad those days donâ€™t exist anymore. Days like that leave you when the thirst takes over.
Travel has just about stopped by now. No one comes off-planet because there is no source of sustenance to be had. I am smarter than that. Perhaps there were fewer of them, but the lack of competition made it easier to capture what you needed.
Watching, I remind myself that I cannot afford the luxuries of stress or frustration. Those things could cause a leak, and I wonâ€™t have it. The temperature in my craft is well below what it should be. They say the thirst holds itself at bay for longer when itâ€™s frigid. My breath attests to the fact that I have taken this rumor to heart.
As my cold eyes watch the dead space I know that whatever is left of my soul is out there beyond my reach. The cold, hollow truth lay bare before me while I stand vigilant near the radar. There is nothing left inside, above the saturation percentage. I can measure it by the time that passes between when I swallow and when the glands ache as they thirst for more.
Well above the dying planet I can witness the small blots of what isnâ€™t land. Sometimes I muse to myself how they still exist or why I havenâ€™t drawn closer. They would kill me if they saw me, but in the end they would do exactly as I have done. They would do the same, because there is no other way. Clouds will not gather over a dusty rock and let redemption fall down from the gray mass.
A beep, and my eyes stop wandering. They are now fixed upon the red screen, watching the tiny dot edge closer like an insect to a web. My God, I can feel it rising within me, wanting me to feast. I must wait, however. I must prepare.
One on board? Two on board? It doesnâ€™t matter now. Iâ€™ve locked onto them and I prepare the grappler. If not for the emptiness, I could hear their screams. Their horror at being pulled in while the oxygen ceases to flow in their vessel. It must be maddening.
On one side of the device, I observe a gallon-sized capsule stained a dark brown. This is my sin. On the other side, I can see a flask with a dusty, cloudy, but ultimately empty interior. It smells of metal, and it tastes of hydrogen. This is my salvation.
I hear the grappler pulling home, and I hear it lock in before the ship becomes silent again. Itâ€™s silent as the inside of their pod. They need not worry anymore. What is left of them will be my salvation. What is left of them will slake my thirst. I power up the machine and I wait for the doors to open into their vessel. Ounce by ounce, pint by pint, the future is on its way.
My brothers made me lay on my stomach, my bare back exposed to their brushes. We are a family of artists; my brothers make a fine design. My father, his fingers stained with ink, watched them work, his face warped in a scowl.
â€œShe may not come.â€ warned my father. â€œShe is the weakest of her sisters.â€
â€œShe is the smallest of giants.â€ I said, â€œShe will come.â€ I havenâ€™t had any contact with her for a year, but I believe she will keep her promise. I will not die. She is a warrior, she will come.
â€œYou can still back out.â€ said my father, sudden concern on his face. â€œIt is your right. You are not yet sealed into a contract.â€
â€œFather.â€ I said. â€œI have prepared our hearth. I am in love with her. From the moment we met, my contract to the Gods was already written.â€
My father has never liked warriors, and never liked the violence of their binding ritual. I tucked her letters in a pocket underneath my lavish robes.
â€œWhat are those?â€ my brother asks.
â€œI wrote her letters, every day.â€
â€œYou were not allowed to contact her.â€ he says, thinking he has found a loophole in the ceremony, imagining he can break the ritual before it began.
I shook my head. â€œThey were never sent, they waited for her, like I did.â€
My brothers tied me to a pole on top of a giant mound of burning sand. In some places in this dessert, pools of sand turn to glass in the terrible heat.
â€œThese knots could be broken.â€ whispered my oldest brother. â€œIf you run away, we will find you.â€ I shake my head. He does not understand.
In the distance I saw the giant lizard pulling at its electric chain. As soon as my brothers board the airship, the chain dissipates. I am not afraid. She is probably hiding. She is an intelligent warrior.
The lizard ran toward me. It was bigger than I thought. My brothers watched from above. I smiled at them. They were worried that even if my lover does come, she will fail. She has not yet made a name for herself in her clan but I know her strength.
The lizard crawled up the mound where I was tied when my lover jumped into my vision. She was caked in mud and she moved like a blur across the sand. I watched her as she shot a golden beam of light from a silver gun in her hand. It strikes the creatures side, a non-lethal blow. The Lizard roared. She drew her sword and it crackled with blue electricity as she leapt towards the monster.
She managed to deal a blow to its leg. It turned swiftly and knocked her to the ground. She lay very still then, and the creature hovered over her, snarling. The creature reared its head and I screamed, my blood burning inside of me.
Her eyes opened, and she moved quickly, slicing at its throat, its orange blood coating her as she rolled out from under its falling body. She dealt the killing blow, her electric sword shaking the giant lizardâ€™s body. She turned and ran towards me. A year has changed her, she has become hardened from her time in space. I weep and she is wiped the blood from her face.
â€œEmbrace me.â€ I cried. She hesitated.
â€œI am so dirty.â€ She said, shame on her face. It was her first words to me in a year.
I slipped out of the lightly tied knots, reaching for her. â€œEmbrace me, and see if I care.â€
From the airships above, our families tossed flowers onto the sandy mound, and we were one at last.
The bud blossomed into her ear, its hairlike tendrils snaking towards her eardrum where they fanned out into electric petals, sensors cool against her hot skin. The soft thud reminded Meredith of being submerged, and in a way, she was: holding her breath against the summer rush hour stench of body odor and urine as the subway undertow pulled her beneath the island. The bud measured her heart rate, body temperature, slight changes in her pH. It understood her mood, and it provided a soundtrack to match. Slow, quiet. A Monday evening mix.
Meredith was well into the third track when her hardware buzzed against her thigh. She shifted her weight to detach it, and pressed the backlight button to better make out the words. Josh.
im fine, she messaged back. y?
Three thousand miles away, on the west coast, the boy Meredith had met on her favorite bandâ€™s forum frowned at the letters on his own messenger. She couldnâ€™t lie to him any more than she could lie to her bud. Josh syndicated all of his friendsâ€™ iTracks, and the downtempo music broadcast her mood better than any facial expression could.
im reading ur itrack, he typed. sounds sad.
just a mellow monday, Meredith replied.
Meredith answered with an indifferent emoticon, but Josh understood. He positioned his analogue headset over his ears and smiled at its weight, at the cold feeling of leather-covered foam beside his cheekbones. He clicked the link on her iTrack feed and jumped in mid-song, then settled back into his armchair, closing his eyes and concentrating on the gentle, melancholy notes.
Separated by an ocean of land, Meredith leaned into the hard cradle of an orange subway chair as her world, too, faded to music. Around her, dozens of bodies shifted to their own rhythms, composing their iTracks over the steady, low hum of the train.
“I knew the Chief went to Japan, I just didn’t know he picked up a new wife,” Bedford said. Bedford removed her welding mask and wiped the sweat from her face with an oily rag. She adjusted herself in the crook of the mecha’s kneecap, letting her repair work cool.
“Pretty too,” Armijo said. He slipped his arms out of his coveralls and tied them around his waist, his chest shiny from accumulated sweat. He tossed a Bedford up a cold soda. “She’s a 400 model.”
“A model, huh?” Bedford said. She cracked open her drink and took a long swig. “One of them toothpick bitches? I’ll never understand the Chief. I mean, havin’ us paint the hangar baby blue and wearin’ all those Hawaiian shirts, thems is one thing. But some spoiled brat paid to walk down a runway? Gimmie one of these hunks of junk over that any day.” She patted the giant robot’s knee-pistons affectionately.
Kruse scooted over on the Mule, the brakes squealing. “Funny thing is, so would the Chief, apparently. Give a fella one of them cans. She’s a 400 model, Beds. She’s a robot.”
Bedford took another drink, scratched at her armpit, then slurped another. “Chief married a mecha?”
“Well, sorta,” Armijo said. He leaned an elbow on the Mule’s handlebars, and shoved his grimy left hand into a similarly filthy pocket. “An android. Looks human. You wouldn’t be able to tell if you didn’t know.”
“Looks human, hell!” Kruse spat. “You tellin’ me I can work on the damn things all day, and I don’t know a robot when I see one?”
“Just tellin’ you what I seen,” Armijo said. “My brother’s got a catalogue–”
Kruse spat again. “You seen her? The Chief’s wife? Iffin’ you can call her that.” An oily rag smacked Kruse in the face. Both he and Armijo turned to Bedford, her tiny fists clenched.
“Listen at you!” she called down. “Ev’ry day I hear you agree with the Chief’s decisions, now all of a sudden you can’t accept a one of ’em? So he got himself a robot wife? What’s the problem? I didn’t hear you complain when we got the Mule.”
“That’s different,” said Kruse. “The Mule ain’t a wife–”
“Might as well be, the way you coddle it,” Armijo said. Kruze gave him a shove.
“All I’m sayin’ is, I wouldn’t hold to my son marryin’ one.”
“Chief ain’t your son,” Bedford said. “He’s the Chief.” Bedford looked up at the robot she was working on, and then past it at the bright-blue ceiling of the hangar. The Chief spent near a week off hours on the highest scaffold they had, painting white, fluffy clouds. Looking up at the painted sky made her smile.
“It ain’t normal, is all,” Kruse said.
“Mayhaps,” Bedford said, lowering her welding mask to return to work. “But neither is the Chief.”
Palkas’ autograph line had finally dwindled to nothing. They’d capped the line two hours ago and now, at last, the final gawkers and fans were being escorted out of the building. With a sigh and a stretch, Palkas stood and worked the kinks out of his neck. Signing autographs, while less taxing than his day job, didn’t seem to make him stiffen up the same way.
The bouncers were outside, as were his escorts, and Palkas took a moment to look around the room, taking in the posters and 8×10 glossies, all depicting his grinning face. There was the Morkark asteroid field, the one they’d claimed was too dangerous for any one-man ship to successfully navigate. There was the Ressi sun flare, said to be unskimmable. There was his latest triumph, the planet Argus VII, whose heavy gravity and atmosphere had prevented even well-suited humanoids from reconnoitering its surface for seventy years. To other men this would have seemed like a list of impossibilities, but to Palkas it read like a resume. They were all behind him now. He had conquered the unconquerable.
“Mr. Palkas? Sir?”
A face peeked from behind one of the entry doors and Palkas looked up, surprised. The security personnel were supposed to be keeping people out, not letting them in–but this was a young man, couldn’t be more than twenty, and Palkas certainly didn’t feel concerned for his personal safety. “Yes? What is it, son?”
The kid moved into the room, smiling nervously. He seemed a little star-struck. “Ah, I know I’m late–sorry about that–but I was wondering, um, if I could have your autograph? It’s for my sister,” he added quickly. “She’s your biggest fan.”
Palkas sighed. The bouncers definitely should have picked this one up before he got this far, but what the hell. The room was quiet, and he couldn’t head back to the hotel until the security men got back, anyway. “Sure,” he said, taking out a pen and pulling over the poster that the kid proffered. When given the name in a trembling voice, he signed in flowing script. “Here you are. Hope she enjoys it.”
“Thank you, sir. I know she will, sir.” The kid was beside himself. He gazed at all the posters with starry-eyed awe. “It’s amazing that one man could do what you’ve done, Mr. Palkas. All of the amazing feats that you’ve accomplished… there’s nothing left in this galaxy that man hasn’t been able to do. It’s a real treat to meet you. A real treat.”
Palkas smiled indulgently. He liked this kid. “No problem, son. The pleasure’s mine.”
The kid nodded and bobbed his head, moving towards the door. When he got there, he stopped and turned. “Just one more question, please? Mr. Palkas?”
Well, he had time, Palkas reasoned. One question was no big deal. “Sure, kid. What’s on your mind?”
“What are you going to do now?”