by Alexander Jablokov
My potential client, Mirquell, played it safe. I had to find a specific woman, who, if I seemed suitable, would then tell me how to get to Mirquell. But when I found that woman, after struggling through a maze of unfamiliar streets between two hills that made up the neighborhood of Drur, instead of telling me where to go, she tried to put me to work.
“Look, there’s another one!” A woman darted out right in front of me, almost knocking me over, squatted down over a ceramic drainage grate, and peered down into it. “Kiff! Another one.” She paused. “Did you hear me?”
“I heard you, Jaenl,” a man’s voice answered from inside the panel house that hung off the wall above us. “What do you want me to do about it?”
“I want you to care. There are more of the damn things every day. They’ll be coming out of the toilet next.”
Jaenl was an Om—human, if you prefer—female, like me, though smaller, older, and bonier. The lining hung out of her nightgown.
“Excuse me,” I said. “My name’s Sere Glagolit—”
“Well, you can help me.” Jaenl gestured for me to get down next to her.
“You’re supposed to show me how to get to Mirquell.”
She squinted up at me. Suddenly I was conscious of the fact that I was dressed more for a party rather than an interview with a potential client. That was probably because I was dressed for a party. Not one that had been as much fun as I hoped, but the dress was red, hit my curves right, and glinted in a way that made it nicely mysterious by Umberlight. No one had persuaded me to take it off. Instead I’d hit home just before Actin lit the streets, and, rather than dig around in my mess of a room for something more appropriate, I’d just brushed my hair down in a way I hoped looked more conservative and had headed over here. And I was still late.
I really should have thrown on a jacket. Of course, I would have had to find one first.
“If you really want to find Mirquell . . .” Jaenl seemed startled that anyone would actually want to do that. “But do you see it?”
I couldn’t get to my “if you can’t find me, why should I hire you to find anything else?” prospective client without this woman’s help, so I squatted down next to her and stared into the sewer.
It took a couple of seconds before I saw it: a segmented bug, maybe four inches long, with pinch-grip legs that had trouble getting a purchase on a rusty pipe. “Yes. Now what?”
“Get it out! Can you figure out how to get it out? Damn things . . . they’re making me crazy.”
It was a small-scale problem, one I could maybe solve, unlike most of the issues I had to deal with. My boyfriend had dumped me and taken our business along with him, I couldn’t make rent, I owed money, and my behavior in the wake of the breakup had pissed a lot of people off. Because there isn’t any problem that you can’t make worse, right?
But this little puzzle . . . the one thing I’d paid attention to that morning was my hair, but now I reached up and undid the dark red ribbon I’d used to tame it.
“Hold one end,” I told Jaenl. “If we lower it down, maybe we can get that thing to grab onto it.”
Jaenl grabbed the ribbon. “So you know what that thing is?”
I shook my head. “Just guessing.”
Our city, Tempest, was filled with refugee intelligent species but had an even bigger supply of the pests, vermin, and parasites that always accompanied them. There was no way to even guess what world this one had originally come from. But I could see the pincers were made to hold onto something smaller than that pipe.
We lowered the ribbon together, keeping it level.
“Come on,” I said. “Come on, you bastard!” Now that I was doing it, this was all that mattered. I wriggled the ribbon against the thing’s legs. That just made it grab onto the pipe more. I tried again. It ignored me.
Now I was irritated. Nothing was cooperating. I pulled the ribbon’s edge against it, yanked . . . and one of its pincers came loose. It flailed around and encountered the ribbon. Reflex led it to grab on.
I stopped wiggling. The bug seemed to like this new object. In short order, it surged forward and grabbed onto the ribbon, dangling underneath it in what was clearly its preferred orientation.
Without exchanging a word, we lifted the ribbon up and out.
“Put it down, put it down!” Jaenl jumped up and, balancing on one foot, pulled off a house clog.
by R. Garcia y Robertson
Rule number three of the Family:
(3) Don’t do no felonies for free.
(“Here comes Strider,” said the Slaver to the Pimp.)
Almost home, Amanda stepped off the slowpoke slidewalk into full view of the park playground cameras. She wore a white top, and a short red pleated skirt, not to show off her legs, but because she liked to move freely, and red and white were her colors. Her only ornament was a single earring, a mini YIELD sign. Head down, long blond hair half-hiding her face, she cut across her neighbors’ neat green lawns, beneath a clear blue sky. Another perfect New Bellingdam afternoon. School was out for the day, and noisy children played in the park, watched over by tiny cold glass eyes, but Amanda knew any dedicated perv could hack into a Parks and Recreation 3V feed. She hated coming home on display.
(“Who’s that?” asked the Pimp, sounding interested.)
(“Just a pretty nobody,” replied the Slaver. “Noticed her in the park camera downloads, striding by on weekdays about this time.”)
Amanda could not shake the feeling she was watched. Pure paranoia, but even paranoids got kidnapped and raped. Ever since the Vote, she had seen her hometown attracting unwanted attention. News bloggers, naysayers, commentators, virtual tourists, psychologists, and other psychos, all wanted a look at the hippie space cases of “New Bedlam”—the home of the Damned.
(“She’s a looker,” the Pimp concluded. “Where’s she headed?”)
(“Home to Mom.” Wise to the ways of pretty young females, the Slaver summed up her life, “Amanda James, seventeen, born Bellingdam, Washington. Lives at 1099 Fairhaven Drive, high school dropout, no job, no boyfriend, no arrest record. No life at all. We’d be doing her a favor.”)
(“Total NULL,” the Pimp agreed, “not likely to be missed much.”)
(“Except by her mom,” the Slaver noted. Both men laughed. Moms were always the last to give up on lost girls.)
Crossing the last lawn, Amanda ducked into a blue door that opened for her. Happy to be home, she called out, “Hello House.”
“HELLO MANDY,” House replied, closing and locking the door behind her, resetting the security alarms. Only House called her “Mandy,” a glitch in the housekeeping program that Amanda never bothered to debug. Mom was hopeless at reprogramming, despite living a digital existence. Amanda was an October child, the only kid of an aging untrained single mom, and at seventeen already ran the home. She asked, “House, where’s Mom?”
“IN THE LIVING ROOM,” House answered, “HAVING A VIRTUAL VISIT WITH THE HOWARDS.”
Boring. Aunt Jessie and Uncle Frank were serving time on some god-awful prison moon. Speed-of-light delay turned Visiting Day into disjointed, dual monologues. Mostly Mom cataloging the lives of relatives not currently in custody. If you want a real home life, stay out of jail.
(“Keep me informed,” requested the Pimp. “Can’t say for sure, until I see her naked.”)
(“Soon,” the Slaver promised. “We’re working on that right now.”)
Amanda went straight to her room, sealing the cybertight door behind her. Safe at last, she relaxed. No one could access her bedroom, not even House. Running on internal fuel cells, behind shielded walls, her bedroom had no connections to the greater cosmos. Not everyone respected her privacy. Half dissected on her desk, a plasti-metal dragonfly sat under a microscope, solar cell wings spread wide. Amanda had caught it outside the kitchen window, spying on her and Mom. Dragonflies were the Washington State Bug, but she did not think the Nanny State was watching her, not after the Vote. Deep space Slavers used the dragon symbol, but that seemed a tad extreme for sleepy, boring Bellingdam. More likely it was some boy, better at building bugs than meeting girls, trying to snoop or scare her. He could just message her through House’s 3V. That would be scary enough.
Crossing her bedroom, she unsealed the closet, which contained Amanda’s sole connection to the cosmos, a fully equipped work station, including sense surround couch, recycler, NET navigator, and comhelmet. Slipping into the form fitting couch, Amanda put on the comhelmet and jacked in, plugging the NET navigator into the socket at the back of her skull. Instantly, she was in another, and better, world. She was in Conway Castle by the banks of the river Con. Her castle, her cyberfortress, where she was an older, taller 3V princess—raven-haired Princess-Regent Katherine of Conway, Sultana of Slutsk, Mistress of the Mongols, and Crown Princess Rylla’s ambassador to Down Under and the Damned. She sat in her throne room, wearing a black silk gown, trimmed with tiny silver bells that tinkled softly, making music whenever she moved. Since it was all 3V, she had literally ignored the expense, decorating her high-towered castle with fine fabrics trimmed in silver lace. Above hung her two shields—the black and silver shield of the Princess-Regent, black Bellingdam bells, quartered with the silver dagger of a Queen’s Champion, and alongside it her personal shield, white trimmed in crimson, with her bold challenge to the world writ in big scarlet letters, YIELD.