The nurse held Jeremyâ€™s left arm with a practiced gentility that would have been motherly if it wasnâ€™t so detached. His real mother was in the waiting room, wearing the kind of plastic smile that adults paste on when theyâ€™re the most upset. Jeremy was used to that smile. People did it a lot around him, especially his mother. He was getting really sick of it.
The nurseâ€™s smile wasnâ€™t like his motherâ€™s. She wasnâ€™t upset on the inside; she just didnâ€™t care, which Jeremy figured was part of the job. Doctors and nurses couldnâ€™t go around caring about their patients or they wouldnâ€™t be able to do their work. He watched her gloved hands carefully lower his arm into the vat of softening solution. As usual, it tingled, and he winced.
â€œI know this hurts,â€ the nurse cooed, â€œbut if you just tough it out weâ€™re going to get you all fixed up, okay?â€
â€œIt hurt more when I made them,â€ Jeremy muttered, but he didnâ€™t take his eyes off of the scars on his arm. The marks were still pink around the edges, new and raw, but they were already softening. In ten minutes theyâ€™d all be gone again, washed away with the rest of his failed attempts to make his mark in life.
â€œAll right, you can take that arm out now.â€ The nurse turned aside to pick up the smoother, checking its power before turning back to Jeremy. Her eyes were on the clipboard in her off hand. â€œIt says here youâ€™ve had this procedureâ€¦ seven times before? So this must be old hat to you, huh?â€ She smiled at Jeremy, who stared back at her sullenly. â€œI guess you donâ€™t need the restraints, then.â€
She pushed aside the soft straps that were used to hold patientsâ€™ limbs in place for their first or second scar removal and put the clipboard down, taking Jeremyâ€™s wrist in her hand. The other hand brought the smoother down and turned on the power. A low hum was all that came from the device, but as she pressed it down and ran it slowly across the marred skin, all of the imperfections smoothed beneath its tip. Jeremy could feel the scar tissue breaking down. The sensation was distinctly different from making the cuts; while that was a sharp pain, bright and alive, this was the dull sting of conformity.
â€œSeven times, huh? So this is number eight?â€ She was smiling again, trying to make pleasant conversation. â€œYou must get hurt a lot, huh?â€
Jeremyâ€™s eyes never left the slowly diminishing scars. â€œYeah. I do.â€
Harold adjusted his tie, and gritted his teeth at the futility of the situation. “This is preposterous. I can’t be the embassy envoy to this–have you heard them talk?”
Harold’s short, somewhat fastidious companion, Maud, was reading a magazine as they both walked down the aquatic corridor. The walls were thick and layered, but transparent, revealing the ocean around the facility.
Maud glanced up with that crude lifting of his right eyebrow. “The chief of Interstellar Affairs has assured me that communication with the Achidae will be taken care of, sir.”
Harold’s grimaced. He didnâ€™t agree. “But have you heard their language? It’s… it’s not even words! I can’t talk to an alien embassy if I can’t understand a goddamned thing they say, now can I?” Haroldâ€™s irritation only made his nervousness more obvious.
They stood silently as the hull door began to depressurize. Maud stuffed the magazine underneath his left arm and waited while holding half a breath. Harold finally decided to straighten up, arms flat to his sides. But he displayed a genial look, one fitting of the Republic of Interstellar Affairs.
The room on the other side seemed to be used more science than politics; both men wondered why they had been sent down in the first place. This was not how they expected to meet the envoys for the Achidae. A man in a long lab coat walked up to the two bewildered men from the surface and smiled behind his round glasses.
“Gentlemen, glad you could make it. I am Dr. Philandro. The envoys will be here momentarily. Allow me to show you how this is going to work.”
Dr. Philandro escorted them towards the main viewing port. He put his hand on a younger researcher’s shoulder, gently telling him to back away from the console. The good doctor smiled towards the thick glass and spoke in a soft tone, one that resembled shrieking or whining at a somewhat low pitch.
Maud and Harold exchanged awkward glances. They were beginning to doubt the authenticity of this meeting. Yet, as they watched, a shadowy form came over the view. A pod of dolphins swam and stopped before the portal. His smile growing, the doctor pushed his hand towards the glass and raised the volume of his shrieking.
“Doctor…” Harold said.
Philandro shrieked again, in a more rapid fluctuation of tones then cleared his throat and oddly came back to a human voice, “They will translate.” His hand came up to adjust his glasses as he turned back to the pair staring in amazement at the scene.
It was Harold who spoke first. His skeptical nature was still present, working furiously behind his speechless manner. “But… that isn’t the Achidaen language, Doctor. The Achidea don’t sound like dolphins.”
The doctor, still smiling, took his glasses off to polish them. “I know. Their language is entirely different than ours, or the dolphins. Are you ready for the kicker? But they understand the Achidae, and they tell me in their language what is said. In essence, we will both be translating for you.”
It was then that a bubbling and cracking came from behind, as a huge figure lifted up on three slimy tentacles with sockets pocked throughout its half-gas, half-flesh body. Harold’s eyes went wide as he stepped back and looked to Philandro, this time a more desperate look for understanding.
The sounds of the dolphins began, chirping and squeaking, entirely opposite of the creature standing before the human ambassadors. The doctor laughed and then looked to Harold, “He says… he likes your suit.”
Carmina Claypool didn’t look much like a madam. She looked more like a fishmonger, which, Allie had to admit, was awfully appropriate. She was a powerfully large woman – soft and muscular simultaneously – and her clothing seemed to make her even larger. The gargantuan galoshes, the voluminous apron, the immense rubber gloves, all of these increased her already imposing stature. She seemed almost out of place in the lobby of the hotel, what with it’s gilded detail work and red velvet trim. Almost, but not quite.
“Haven’t seen your face around here before, have we?” Carmina bent at the waist to bring her eyes closer to Allie’s level. Though the gesture was meant to make her feel more comfortable, it only succeed in making Allie feel smaller.
“No…I…I haven’t been…it’s my first time here…”
Carmina smiled. “A virgin, then?” The word wasn’t said with any malice, but it stung just the same.
“No, I’ve…I’ve done it, I’ve had…you know.” Allie found herself unable to make eye contact.
“Not like this, you haven’t. Trust me, deary, this is like nothing you’ve ever had before, But then, you already knew that, didn’t ya? Otherwise you would have come. Well, step in the parlor and we’ll see if we can’t find a companion for you.” Carmina waddled off, leaving deep indentions in the rich red carpet.
Allie began to wonder if perhaps this was a mistake, if she should leave, right then and there. She’d only just walked in; she could go out again, quick as you please. It wasn’t like she’d paid yet. Her inexperience shamed her. Allie had read stories of this sort of thing, erotica. She was now suddenly aware of the difference between reading about something and actually doing it.
Allie looked down at the scuff-marks her sneakers had made in the carpet, the only evidence of her presence. She then turned toward the room Carimina had gone to. The parlor. She could see an edge of back tarp covering the red capet just inside the doorway.
She had to see the parlor. She knew she couldn’t leave until she did.
The parlor was decorated much the same way the lobby was, with old Victorian woodwork and velvet curtains. There was no place to sit in the parlor, for it was filled with aquariums of various sizes. The Plexiglas tanks lined the walls, larger ones on the floor, smaller ones on bookcase. Inside each one could clearly be seen an octopus, each one different in size and color from the one next to it. It was the most beautiful room Allie had ever seen.
“Do I get…any one of these?” Allie was slightly dazed, allowing her fingers to drift across the clear tanks walls.
“That depends on how much money you’re willing to spend.” Carmina motioned to collection of small aquariums in a converted china cabinet. “We usually recommend these for the first timers. Rosa there is particularly easy-going, very giving. Wanda looks a bit stand-offish, but she’ll warm up as soon as you touch her. They all do, the lot of softies. Wanda just puts up a front. Now Bernie, here…”
Allie cut her off. “What’s in here? She was kneeling beside a tank nearly as big as herself, it’s cloudy water swirling ominously.
“That? That’s Leroy. Oh, no honey, you don’t want him. He mainly services our male clientele. Which is a shame; Leroy’s got a beak like satin. But he’s a bit more than most girls are willing to take on.”
Allie wasn’t sure why, but she placed her hand in Leroy’s tank. She felt his movement, first gently across the back of her hand (“His head,” she thought as her pulse quickened), and then more brusquely against her palm. She gasped a little as one powerful tentacle lashed out and wrapped itself around her arm, it’s slick tip sticking up out of the water.
Allie was not prepared for this. It was a muscle that was entwined around her. No, it was many muscles, pulsing and flexing. A symphony of pressure working in harmony up and down her arm. She could feel the grip of each suction cup, the creeping clammy calm of the arm itself.
She let out a low moan, barely aware she was doing it.
“This one,” Allie said, gazing lovingly into the murky water.
“Are you quite certain, honey? Leroy isâ€”” Carmina was unable to speak, stopped fast by Allie’s hard look.
“The one I will be using,” Allie said. She flexed her forearm slightly, but it was enough of a signal that Leroy let go.
“Far be it from me to dissuade a customer.” Carmina removed a small phone from her apron pocket. “Juliet? Can I get an extra tarp in Room 14?” She smiled at Allie “I have a feeling the two of you are going to be a little messy.”
There was a young lady at the door. They were always sending young ladies.
She rang the doorbell again. Mzee looked at the screen for a few more minutes. She was very pretty, well groomed, her hair black and shiny, like India ink. She was holding a bouquet of flowers, a wildflower bouquet. One of the flowers was tucked neatly in her hair. When he opened the door, she bowed.
“Good morning Grandfather,” she said, smiling politely.
“Go away,” said Mzee. She bowed again and walked right past him into the house. Mzee grumbled. “I’m not your Grandfather.”
The girl smiled politely. “My name is Sophia,” she said, walking directly to his kitchen. “May I prepare your breakfast?” She reached under his kitchen fountain and took out a crystal vase. All these women always knew where everything in his house was. She clipped the ends of the flowers and arranged them artfully in the vase on the dining room table.
“I would like bacon,” said Mzee.
Sophia–in all likelihood not her real name, probably had a name he couldn’t pronounce–bowed again. “I will prepare you a salad and a vegetable omelet,” she announced, her hands folded. She bowed again and went into the kitchen, clattering about with his generator.
“I don’t like to eat salads,” said Mzee. “Salad for breakfast isn’t right.” At no time during Mzee’s five hundred and thirty years of life was salad at breakfast an acceptable norm. Sophia nodded, smiled and bowed again. She prepared him a salad and a vegetable omelet, using fresh, not synthesized products. Mzee wanted to hate her and the breakfast, but all these girls were good cooks, and none of it was really awful. Maybe the food was a little bland, but not bad.
“Grandfather, after breakfast, would you like to go for a walk?”
“No.” There was a time when Mzee would have loved to go for a walk with a pretty girl, when he was only home to sleep, always out, moving in the world.
“There are some school children who would like to meet you,” said Sophia, as she waved a glowing globe over his dishes, shining their porcelain surfaces.
“You are a great man.”
“I’m not a great man. I was a truck driver. I worked in dock, unloading things from ships. I had a farm. I grew things for people to smoke.”
“I’m sure the children would like to hear about it.”
“I don’t want to go out.” Outside was always strange. In here, he could keep things just the way he liked, in a way that made sense. The world had become incomprehensible, at once lewd and bound by etiquette he didn’t understand.
“Grandfather, you are a living record. You have a responsibility to the young people. The children should hear from you what tobacco plants looked like, how people drove cars, what people wore.” Sophia knelt next to his chair and put her smooth hand on top of his dark wrinkled one. “You spoke to me when I was a child, and it meant very much to me. It inspired me to pursue a degree in 21st century history. Please, allow these children the same gift you gave me. ”
“Get off the floor, girl, everyone’s gotten so god damned formal nowadays. Whatever happened to ‘just do it, ye old bastard’?” Sophia stood and bowed.
“Then you will go? You will speak to the children?”
“Yes, yes. I’ll go. I can’t do whatever it is people do with those vehicles nowadays. You’ll have to drive, or ride, or whatever it is you do.” Sophia smiled brightly, her grey eyes dancing with excitement.
“Of course.” She bowed and placed excess food into his Filter. Sophia helped Mzee out of his chair and ran around his house getting his hat, coat and Lift. She attached the little metal disc to his belt and suddenly it felt like he was floating and moving was easy again.
“Here’s the deal,” said Mzee. “I’m not going to follow any young woman around. I’m escorting you, alright?”
“Of course, Grandfather.”
Outside, pink balloons floated against the sky, barreling towards their destinations, penetrating the liquid metal of the temperature-controlled domes. The young lady’s grey eyes turned black in the sunlight, her skin darkening to suit the atmosphere. “Ready to go, Grandfather?” she asked.
Mzee sighed. “Go ahead.” She touched a silver bracelet on her wrist and a pink bubble enfolded them, like the petals of a flower.
I know that Amy is in there. I can see her, in the smirks and smiles and the way she shoves her hair away from her eyes. She’s still the same person. She has to be. There’s no reason that this should feel wrong.
In a cinderblock building over the river, my fourteen year old body is submerged in a bath of pink nutrients. By the time I’m fifty, the body will be twenty, and I’ll be ready for transfer. Cancer didn’t wait until she was ready for transfer. Beside my fourteen year old body, the second chamber is empty.
Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with those tiny bones pressed against me and I don’t know how to feel. They’re Amy’s bones, I know. It’s Amy’s skin and Amy’s muscle and everything about her is Amy.
Most nights I push her away. I still love her, though.
I’ll always love her.
â€œMom! Mom, I wanna look at this one!â€
Stephen was pulling on his motherâ€™s arm, straining against it with that eight-year-old lean that kept him just within the bounds of parental supervision, since he wasnâ€™t allowed to let go of his motherâ€™s hand, but created the same effect as the puppy-dog eyes he was giving her now. â€œAll right,â€ Marie laughed, letting him half-pull, half-drag her over to the booth. â€œGo ahead and look, Stevie, but donâ€™t touch anything.â€
â€œHello there, maâ€™am,â€ said the booth owner, a grizzled, baseball-capped lug of a man. He smiled at Marie and then chuckled at Stephen, whose eyes were practically sparkling at the sight of his wares. The vendor wiped his greasy hands on a cloth. â€œLooking for a new piece for your son?â€
â€œMaybe,â€ Marie said, letting her eyes wander over the rows of gleaming black metal.
â€œMom! Look at this one!â€ Stephen was on his tiptoes, eyes alight and mouth open in a huge grin.
â€œThatâ€™s a semi-automatic flux rotating laser pistol,â€ the man informed them. â€œSpecial anti-shielding matrix that also works against adaptables. Changes frequency so fast they wonâ€™t even get a chance to shift.â€ He chuckled. â€œItâ€™ll take out a raid party of two at a thousand yards with auto-target turned on. Your sonâ€™s got a good eye.â€ He grinned at Stephen.
â€œI donâ€™t knowâ€¦â€ Marie was frowning. â€œIsnâ€™t he a little young for an automatic?â€
â€œMom!â€ Stephen protested, looking like he was going to throw a tantrum. â€œHe said semi-automatic! All my friends have them!â€
â€œStephen, shush,â€ Marie cautioned him, then looked up at the shopkeeper, an embarrassed flush on her face. â€œHeâ€™s eight,â€ she explained. â€œHe still thinks guns are just big toys.â€
â€œAll the more reason for him to learn early,â€ the man told her soberly. Marie looked shocked at this change of demeanor, but he continued before she could protest. â€œDid you know that eight is the minimum age for the mines?â€ Marieâ€™s mouth dropped open in a soft â€œo.â€ Stephen had already moved on to another gun model. â€œIf a raiding party gets him, theyâ€™ll ship him underground right away. Unless you live in a military base, itâ€™s best to get the boy a manâ€™s weapon. I donâ€™t need to tell you what will happen if heâ€™s captured by those monsters.â€
Marie shook her head, eyes lowering. â€œHis father was taken from us in one of the first battles, right when the war started,â€ she said softly.
â€œAll the more reason for his son to learn to fight, and learn early. If it was men we were dealing with, Iâ€™d say to let the kid live a littleâ€¦â€ The man shook his head. â€œBut these creatures arenâ€™t even human.â€
Marie was quiet, head still down, until Stephen interrupted with another excited burst. â€œMom! Mom, look at this one! Can we get this one mom? Please?â€ Marie looked from her bright-eyed son to the sober face of the merchant.
â€œLetâ€™s try it out first, honey. You want to make sure itâ€™s light enough for you to shoot.â€