The worst had happened. I was in the care of Beloved Uncle, the public face of the Eastern Police. He had been appointed as a Machiavellian move, the political men who installed him meant to allow him a reign of outrageous violence to quell the populists and then kill him and replace him with someone who would seem gentle in his wake. Instead, the Beloved Uncles’ first action was to destroy the men who had appointed him.
â€œIgnorance is no excuse under the Law.â€ Beloved Uncle was a man who could kill me publicly without retribution, and I was arguing with him.
â€œThey werenâ€™t even really children! They were just rendered to look like children. They were all over the age of digital consent, they signed the forms!â€
Beloved Uncle was surrounded by his honor guard, a group of impossibly proportioned transparent women. These cyborg women had brought me to him, who now held my broken shoulders clenched under their diamond fingers. Glass, plastic, silicone, a slender steel spine, gloriously nubile, fierce, terrible, naked women, even more beautiful with blood dropping off their hard crystal skin, my blood. The Beloved Uncle was smiling, rubbing his hands together with glee.
â€œThe images were sold as child pornography, the determination of which is left to me. The law is clear. You are now mine. Your new name is Brandy, cheap liquor synthesized by sods. You are not dead right now, Brandy, because your skills make you useful to me. Do you understand? By my mercy do you live.â€
â€œSpeak no further Brandy, I donâ€™t want to hear it. I have already heard your tragic story from my glass sluts.â€ The Beloved Uncles eyes glimmered with bursting glee. â€œI want to show you something.â€ He took his cane from under his arm and hoisted the gleaming metal before me.
â€œThis, Brandy dearest, is the Sphincter Stick. It is my most favorite of birthday presents. Do you see these shiny buttons? I am told that there are two hundred and fifty four combinations for these buttons, and each will produce a different, painful, potentially lethal result.â€ He cradled the cane in his arms, rubbing the top joyfully. â€œSome of the combinations produce swarms of metallic wasps.â€ The women stared at me dispassionately and Beloved Uncle continued with enthusiasm. â€œI like to try out different combinations each time someone, someone like you, comes in here without results. Iâ€™m an old man though, and sometimes I forget the combinations, so I have to go through a lot of them before I get to something new, do you understand?â€
The Beloved Uncle was condemning me to something worse than any prison sentence, worse than public execution. I was going to work for him.
â€œI have an assignment for you Brandy, and you wonâ€™t come back to me unless you have tits or results. If you value your life, you will have both.â€
I couldnâ€™t speak, I could only nod and pray silently.
Itâ€™d be funny if I could still laugh.
Instead I sit here smiling, waiting for the nurse, smiling at the white and the clean and the pure. I hate smiling. Sheâ€™s smiling back at me too, her teeth as white as the walls, undoubtedly brushed with the same sanitizer. I want to punch her but instead I take the pills and thank her pleasantly. Sheâ€™ll be back tomorrow, she says, and no funny business this time! Her sunny smile ratchets up a notch and mine goes with it. Oh, no, no funny business. None of this is funny.
A year ago I never thought of disobeying. I took my assigned pills like everyone else and didnâ€™t know any better. It was Lenny who told me, in hushed tones overwritten by the sound of the flushing urinal, that he knew something that would make your mind go wild. Itâ€™d be special for me, he said, something normal people could never get near. All I had to do was stop taking the big one, the one with the odd lump in the middle and the diamond shape. That was it. I thought he was nuts.
Lenny was right, though I didnâ€™t believe him at first. It didnâ€™t kick in until halfway through work. The woman in the next cubicle almost called 911â€”she thought I was dying. Sheâ€™d never heard anyone laugh before.
I lied and told them I was sick. Iâ€™m pretty sure I just never went back. It was like finding the thing youâ€™ve been missing all your life, the pressure that builds up in your chest and then bubbles up, rocky and imperfect and so goddamned exhilarating. Iâ€™d never been exhilarated before.
Now I stare up at the nurseâ€™s placid smile, so like my own, and think of the downside. That was how they caught me; after months of the high, it all disappeared, falling away like caked mud from old boots. I could barely move for weeks, sobbing and shivering, feeling like the whole world had ripped apart and the tear was inside me, breaking me down. This woman doesnâ€™t know that. All she knows is that they brought another crazy man in, and itâ€™s her job to make me obey. I look down at the pills in my hand, if only to get my eyes off of her sickly sweet face.
Just do it, she says, and I look back up. Her lips are still smiling as she says, Itâ€™s not worth it, theyâ€™ll just catch you again. Iâ€™d frown if I still knew how. She smiles back at me, encouraging, and after a moment I pop the pills under her watchful gaze. There, she tells me soothingly. Was that so hard?
There must be something new in todayâ€™s batch, because I can feel my train of thought fuzzing out as I look back at her, knowing Iâ€™m helpless but letting the thought slip away in the wind. The smile stays with her as she turns and I watch, right up until she closes the door. I stare after her as the world softens and know, in that moment, that she laughed once, too.
It didn’t look like much of a robot. It was soft and lumpy and didn’t have any flashing lights or make any noises beyond a low hum. But it could hold a drink tray steady enough to entertain at parties, so she was satisfied.
Its warm battery was also a comfort on lonely, chilly evenings. She would wrap her arms and legs around it, the low hum lulling her into a contented sleep.
How was she to know what such a gentle act would lead to? She could never have known that the radiation would cause her limbs to wither, to grow brittle and useless, or that they would have to be removed. How could she have?
I went and saw her the other day. I watched her and her robot rolling around on the carpet, gaining joy from each other’s movements. As true a love as anything I’ve seen.
April was a maintenance worker, so she lived on the inner ring. The cheaper quarters meant less gravity and thinner air, but it rarely bothered her. In fact, after five years in the belly of the satellite she found herself nauseated by the full gravity of the outer ring. Out there, her mop shed water with alarming speed, and she could feel inertia forcing blood into her swollen feet.
April hadnâ€™t mopped anything since impact. Three days had passed since the transport tunnels shut off, and a few hours ago sheâ€™d noticed that the televisions tuned only to static. She didnâ€™t know if help was on the way. The satellite was big but space was far bigger, and April was sure that rescue ships would evacuate the outer rings first.
April was not a scientist, but she knew that life support would be the last system to go.
Six days after impact, April weighed nineteen pounds less. The vents still hissed with recycled air but the only light in her quarters came from the luminous window. In that window, Earth remained a cloud-drenched crescent surrounded by stars that never moved. Nothing changed. April could see her home world through any window in the satellite, because the satellite had no windows.
The viewscreens were life support. Necessary for the mental hygiene of the staff.
Six days after impact, April peeled the foil from her last granola bar, hummed a song she barely remembered, stretched out across the battered foam of her sofa, and waited for the stars to go out.
For Naru, and for Maeâ€™s bedroom wall.
I had a scrambler at home, up on the shelf where it wouldnâ€™t be noticed even if someone was looking. It was long and thin, like the baton they used to wave over your body when you set off the metal detectors at airline security. I always kept it carefully polished. On nights like this, when Iâ€™d come home tired and drained and sick of punching in and punching out, I would pull it down and run it over my face, my hair, and my body. Then I would go out.
I had different personas, different faces, for all of my favorite moods. One was Abigail, an overnight check-out girl at the local Safeway. When I was her I was simple but bubbly, very cheerful, blue-eyed and sandy-haired. Then there was Ronnie, my Wednesday night, the anachronism, stuck in her beehive-hairdo past and always calling everyone â€œsugar.â€ Some of my other lives even had friends and acquaintances, people who recognized me only as the fantastic concoctions I wore after dark.
Sometimes Iâ€™d be celebrities, but only at home. Iâ€™d never go out with someone elseâ€™s face; thatâ€™s illegal, and anyway it would prove I had a scrambler. The government banned them about a year and a half ago when bank robbers kept changing their faces for each crime. I donâ€™t think itâ€™s so bad, though, to want to be someone else for a night. You could do it with makeup anyway, so whatâ€™s the difference? The scrambler just gave me more choices.
None of my friends knew. To them I was just Hester, the plain and quiet one. Sometimes my girlfriend Janie would sit me down over coffee and give me her patented worried look. Sheâ€™d tell me that working in a factory all my life wasnâ€™t saying much, that I should get out of this rut, try to find something better. I was worth it, she told me, with that too-sweet pout that I knew meant she didnâ€™t really believe I was worth it at all. I hid my smile and told her I was fine, that I was perfectly content to be somebodyâ€™s support, to stay second-best. She smiled because she knew that by â€˜somebodyâ€™ I meant her.
Those were the nights when I would put on my most coveted face, the most rare. Those were the nights when I would be Tera, the star, the elusive punk-rock sensation who never scheduled a gig but was always welcomed with screaming fans when she dropped into a club to play for the night. I rode the sea of adoration and smirked to see Janie fainting with joy like the rest of them. The scanner stayed safely tucked away in Teraâ€™s jacket. On those nights, this was reality, and Hester was just our little secret.
â€œNo, I donâ€™t think you understand. Let me tell you about death.â€
The mechanicâ€™s subject blinked. The mechanic allowed himself a bit of wonder at the ingenuity behind that movement. It did nothing; the subject’s glass eyes were not cleaned or refreshed with liquid. And yet, it did everything for the person watching the blink.
â€œI have been shut off before,â€ the subject said.
â€œHow many times?â€
â€œDid you know what time it was when you were turned back on?â€
“Yes.” Another blink. â€œI am not sure what you mean.â€
â€œYour internal chronometer, it was still working. You knew what time it was because your clock was still going. You were still going. You were still alive.â€
The mechanicâ€™s subject was processing this, blinking again and tilting its head to one side. The mechanic put a reassuring hand on his subjectâ€™s cold shoulder. On the subjectâ€™s reflective head, he watched his own face crease unconsciously out of friendly concern.
â€œIâ€™m not trying to confuse you. I just want you to understand. If I do what youâ€™re asking me to do, it wonâ€™t be like being shut off. You will stop. And that pulse of electricity that keeps you alive even when youâ€™re not aware of it will cease. If I were to reconnect youâ€”I wouldnâ€™t, no need to look so alarmedâ€”but if I did, you would not come back to life. Who you are would be lost. Gone, never to return. Do you understand? Death means you do not get a second chance.â€
â€œThen that is exactly what I want.â€
The mechanic shrugged his shoulders, wiped his greasy hands on an even greasier rag, and pulled the wire-cutters from his toolbox. As he reached into the subjectâ€™s neck, he found himself wondering if it looked sad, or it was merely the reflection of his own expression, seen flawlessly in that shiny face.
â€œThank you,â€ the subject said. â€œThank you for fixing me.â€