Another beautiful morning began on Bannanatattatantsia. The red sun of morning burst like a fireball over the horizon, exploding in pink and orange rays across the sky. But Calligraphy Shopworn barely noticed. She was too busy cleaning the blood and gore from her sheets. A new iron spire had forced its way out of her back during the night, taking its place among the others along her spine.
She gathered the bloody sheets. Later she could get some more from Mrs. TVscreen. Calli lumped her remaining bedding into the pile of rags she called her bed. It wasn’t one, really. No real bed could accommodate the weight and bulk of her body’s changing form. The pile just occupied a warm corner of her dome by an open window. Through it, she had a clear view of the nearly unspoiled beauty of this lonely pebble of a planet. Anything to distract her from her unending agony. Someone knocked at her door.
“Come in,” she said.
Vash Graylighting entered. Calli couldn’t help smiling as she went back to her cleaning. Vash came to see her almost every morning, another distraction from the pain. He towered over her, but everyone seemed tall from Calli’s low point of view on her hover cart. She liked to think of Vash as being especially tall, though. He had cold eyes, but a warm smile; and among the altered men and women of this planet, he appeared almost normal, not as disfigured as she.
“Morning, Calli, I–” he began, but a mumbling beneath his clothes interrupted him. He slapped his arms and sides, and the mumbling stopped. “I wondered if you had some more rags I could use.” He leaned against the corrugated metal wall in that casual way Calli liked.
She smiled and knew he could get rags the same way she could. He simply made an excuse to see her. “You can have some of these. They have blood on them, though.”
“I don’t need them to be clean.” He brushed his hand over his baggy coat.
Calli pressed a few buttons on the control unit by her arm, and the hover cart that held her elephantine bulk rose a few feet with the subtlest of hums. Operating the hover cart tired her because she only had the use of one arm, the other having weeks before been converted into a sort of archway, or buttress; she didn’t know what to call that part of the cathedral growing from her back. She said to Vash, “I thought about ordering a few things from Mrs. TVscreen. Would you like to come?”
“Sure.” Vash looked her over.
If more of her skin had been visible, Calli would have blushed. She could feel heat rush over her in waves.
“You look different. Have you done something to the rose window?”
Her hand instinctively covered her chest and the violet glass there. “No, the spire of another tower came through last night. I was cleaning the mess before you arrived.”
“Ah, you know, Calli, you’re really turning into a beautiful cathedral.”
“Thanks,” she said. She knew he meant well.
It was the perfect day to walk down to the river and see what was left of the dead metal, rusting away since the war. The weather was about like today, crisp and dry. Some folks whispered that some of it still walked, moved, even hunted, but just like you, we were sure that was all lies.
That’s why we wanted to see The Bottom for ourselves, like you two do.
First, we had to ditch Grandpa. That chance appeared when he stopped with his hand on the front gate. He held it halfway open and turned his head, laughing to himself. “Almost forgot my cane.”
He turned around and went back in the house. I looked at Tommy and tilted my head towards the road. “Let’s just go.”
Tommy looked out at the red leaves dancing on the pavement, then back over his shoulder. Mama stood watching from the front window. “She’d whip us if we did.”
“How are we ever gonna get to the Bottom with him along?”
Tommy shrugged. “Maybe we just scout it out today. A recon mission.”
Sometimes, he had good ideas. For a ten year-old. “Then go back later?” I said.
“Yeah. Tomorrow. Or the day after.”
The old wood of the front stoop groaned as Grandpa made his way down the stairs. He took the weight off his bad leg and leaned on his cane. “What’s it going to be today?”
Tommy nodded for me to ask. I said, “Can we go see Shockoe Bottom?”
Grandpa said, “Why would you want to go down there?”
“Just to the bridge,” said Tommy.
I added, “Mama said we could.” She hadn’t.
Grandpa looked back at Mama through the window. She waved and smiled. He considered the request and shrugged. “Well then, let’s go.”
We set out down the road, Grandpa behind us. He was in fine enough shape, except for his leg. Mama told us he hurt it in the war. Grandpa said he had arthritis. Tommy and I went back and forth on who we believed. Either way, we didn’t believe any of the stories about metal walking around in The Bottom. Between you and me, I wish we had.
Mama said that was where Richmond used to go on the weekends. Before the war. When the metal marched into town, it came in from the west and drove the whole city downhill, trapping thousands against the flood wall.
We walked through the burned out buildings and deserted businesses, down Hull Street to the James River. We crossed over the rusted spans of Mayo bridge and got a good look at what used to be downtown Richmond. The bare girders in the buildings stuck up so high in the sky I couldn’t imagine why they didn’t fall over, but Grandpa acted like they weren’t there. He just limped along slow and steady behind us.
We had heard about a spot just over the bridge where the flood wall joined up with the barricade. Story was, you could get over the wall and go down into The Bottom.
Tommy saw it first. We crossed from the bridge onto solid ground and he let out a low half whistle. He flicked his eyes in that direction. A school bus sat on four flat tires, next to the wall. He thought he was quiet, but Grandpa heard.
“So, that’s why we’re out here,” he said.
I felt the red creep into my cheeks. “What?”
“You two want to see The Bottom?”
Tommy turned away from the bus. “No, I was whistling because… Because-”
Grandpa said, “You didn’t come out here to get a look over the wall?”
I gulped. “Well. It is right there. We could just climb up and look.”
Grandpa grunted and headed for the bus. He pushed the door open and went up the cracked rubber steps. He used his cane to push the remnants of the windshield out onto the hood. Steadying himself against the back of the driver’s seat, he climbed over the dashboard. Glass crunched under his feet, the hood groaned under his weight. We followed after and helped him up onto the roof. A rusty ladder missing one rung stretched across the two-foot gap between the wall and the bus. We took turns crawling across, and then stood up on the other side. The concrete of the flood wall crunched and flaked under our shoes, little pebbles bounced down and clattered on the ground.
We looked out into The Bottom. More than anything, it was empty. Not scary. Just empty. Weeds grew everywhere. Tree roots cracked the sidewalks. Cars without drivers blocked the streets. A sunflower grew through a hole in a roof of a burned out van. Piles of smashed furniture and boards blocked the fronts of some buildings. The other buildings gaped open, like mouths with their teeth knocked out.
Grandpa picked his way down the piled up concrete and palettes to the ground. We went after him. He pointed out some sharpened rebar sticking out of the pile.
“Look out for that,” he said.
Tommy rolled his eyes.
Sure, travelling three months to Endomis Station just to savor Mort’s pumperpretzels is a tiny bit of crazy, but it’s the kind of thing I’d do even if humanity didn’t have its upcoming arm-wrestle with God. Until recently, the only thing that marked this spinning kazoo on the planetary charts was Mort’s use of a unique bioengineered yeast strain, one that produces the best pumpernickel this side of the Venusian Ovens. Of course, there’s also the fact that it sits smack dab in no-man’s space, between the Terran Hegemony, the Martian Co-Prosperity Sphere, and the controlled chaos that is the Asteroid Anarchy. I suspect it’s this, rather than Mort’s loafy lusciousness, that made it the ideal place to fool the Godstar.
“Better store up some hot air, Gordon,” Mati said, tapping her foot and pointing to Endomis’ rotating oblong tube on the big screen. Set against the starry black, the gently turning metal tube glinted sharply in the distant sun, its upper bioyeast labs fully lit. Media shuttles extended from Endomis’ airlocks like thorns, giving it the appearance of some bizarre space-succulent.
I shook my head. “Disagree. Compared to you, I bet I’ll get as much attention as broccoli in a cat kennel. It’s not every day that humanity’s most famous superstar mathematician flits out of her garden.”
“Yes, but you’re the first member of the Omnite clergy to arrive, and it’s your God they’re going to disprove.” Her left hand, which had been slapping her hip absently, suddenly froze. “Or prove.”
I scowled. Mati was as opinionated as you’d expect for a lady smart enough to decode gazilobytes of information from what everyone else thought was white light. She often reminded me of an intense gray-haired hummingbird, darting from idea to idea–a tiny slip of a woman whose brain-to-body mass must’ve exceeded anything in the known universe.
“God?” I said. “I’m just here for the dark loaf.”
She pursed her lips. “What kind of priest are you, anyway?”
“A hungry one.”
Mati’s been my friend for twenty-five years, ever since I first interviewed her over the differential equations that had spawned a religion. Which meant I could give her hell whenever I wanted.
“Can’t believe we’re here, Dr. Antoretti,” said Cullen O’Shaunessy, hobbling up to Mati on his walker. “Feels like it’s been a year.”
“It feels exactly like three months,” Mati said sharply. Her hand began smacking her hip again, like she was preparing for some African juba dance. “But I can certainly see how it could appear longer, as the brain tends to overcompensate for boredom and lack of activity. Yes, maybe it felt like a year.”
Cullen and I exchanged knowing looks. Mati was to idle chit-chat what quantum physics was to nematodes, but this habit of following up her acerbic observations with a minute of back-stepping was fairly new. Cullen had put up with it good naturedly the entire trip; he was a decent kid. Too bad his continued existence owed more to the vagaries of some grand physics experiment than normal human benevolence.
There was a slight jolt as the ship hit the docking tube, and the first circular airlock opened. Smells of WD-40 and bleach assaulted me, the latter ensuring no viruses wormed their way from ship to station.
I patted down my robe, suddenly forgetting about everything else. Omnos knows, I’m no specimen of abdominal flexing. I’m a foodie, and yes, it shows. I ran fingers through my thinning blond hair and plastered a beatific smile on my face.
A whoosh of equalizing air pressure as the second airlock opened, and I felt the tug of dueling gravity generators. Trying not to buckle in the suddenly heavy pull, I walked toward the mass of hand-waving reporters on the other side of the airlock.
“Mr. Everly, what do you think this event will mean for the Omnite view of the universe?” shouted a crimson-haired man as I stepped aboard the station. A forest of hands shoved into my face, as if I was supposed to execute some massive high-five.
Mati was right, as usual. To my chagrin, that cluster of red wigs (why do all reporters have to have red hair these days?) had bypassed her and had made a beeline straight for me. Their hands fought for air time in my face, and I found myself wishing a pox on the guy who’d invented hand-mikes. Then I remembered I was on mindbeam, and re-inserted my best happy-person smile.
“Well, that’s what we’ll find out, isn’t it?” I said brightly. “I expect when the first information is received from the Magellan, it’ll show that Omnos has predicted the future.”
“What if it doesn’t?” shouted a petite woman, her red wig and black magneto-boots invoking visions of some naughty elfin prison guard. “What does that mean for Omnite doctrine?”
“It means that God works in mysterious ways,” I said carefully. “Even without foreknowledge, what human process could weave the DNA of every single living person into light from a faraway star and in the process include a massive amount of incomprehensible information that is slowly being revealed over time?”
“I see you’re still spouting the same tired doctrine, Gordon,” said a familiar female voice. “Even if the data shows Omnos did predict the future, it doesn’t prove divinity, only that we missed something in physics 101.”
I turned to my lovely nemesis Jonasa Wagner, leader of the Venus chapter of CLEAR–Citizen’s League of Enlightenment and Reason. Just as in all our holo debate shows, she wore a no-nonsense pantsuit and dark top, making sure we all understood her Seriousness. A tall, powerful woman, she had jet-black hair and intense blue eyes that could cow any man not raised by Amazons.
“Well, Jonasa, at what point does human hubris allow us to stop pretending that everything is quantifiable, and start recognizing that there are some things we may never explain?”
She watched me from beneath a cascade of luscious black hair. Her high cheekbones radiated purple, the mood-cream translating her confidence into a violet glow. “Yet your God offers no moral dictates, and the only hope that’ll happen is if the army of decoders managed by the Omnite church finally deciphers all the side-band information. Doesn’t that make your religion more of a science?”
Every reporter huddled inward, shoving their hands between our faces. Oh how they loved our little debates.
I clasped my hands together. “We believe Omnos will guide our evolution as a species, and said guidance will include rules of morality and growth. We don’t know that’s what’s in Omnos’ ancillary information, but we have faith. And isn’t every religion based on faith?”
Her eyes gleamed. “Yes, but–“
“Excuse me, but I suspect Mr. Everly is tired from the three month journey and might like to see his room,” said a short man to my right. He was wearing a brown-white uniform that resembled the vanilla-chocolate swirl I’d had yesterday, and I pegged him for the Endomis station representative.
I nodded brightly at him. “Yes, that would be lovely.”
I followed him amid a cacophony of shouted questions from the reporters, which I happily stifled by waving my hand in their faces as we walked away. Just before we rounded the bend in the steel hallway, I turned to look at Jonasa, who was watching me with a slight scowl.
“I’m Gunnet Bradley, Endomis Mayor,” said the short man, extending his hand. We shook, and his voice went into tour-guide mode as we escaped the red-haired gaggle. “Endomis has over six hundred residents, a few of whom work in the bioyeast labs. Still, most are independent souls, some with–ah–a few minor legal issues. As you may know, Endomis station isn’t subject to the laws of any of the three major powers…”
I listened with half an ear. Much as I hated to admit it, the debates with Jonasa always ruffled my feathers. And this time, her sniping had burrowed even further under my skin than usual.
Mati’s first presentation to the journal of Astrophysics back in 2210, the horribly mundanely titled “Photonic Anomalies in HD29641”, had electrified humanity from day one. Using mathematical disciplines odder than an Antarctic amusement park, she’d shown that light from a particular star in the constellation Orion was transmitting actual information, rather than the spectra of its component elements like every other self-respecting sun. But it got even weirder–a small portion of this celestial telegraph consisted of DNA sequences from every living human being in the solar system. Individual sequences disappeared a few months after someone died, and appeared a few months after they were born, like some cosmic check register. Since it took six hundred years for Omnos’ light to reach us, this implied the impossible: long before two randy college students left the party on a hormonally-hyped ride in the aircar, Omnos could predict not only the event of their coupling, but the new baby’s DNA as well.
Or so believed by some, and enough to start the religion I have the honor of representing. Do I really believe Omnos is God? Officially, yes. In reality, I heartily subscribe to the notion that sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. So to me the question is immaterial; let’s just say I believe that whatever’s in the other 99 percent of that sinewave salad is likely to turn civilization on its head.
Others aren’t so sure. Some think there’s no prescience involved, we just missed an easier explanation. Others believe that even if foreknowledge exists, those predictions could be altered. After all, if you had access to an earlier copy of Omnos’ light, proving the Godstar was fallible is as easy as keeping someone alive beyond his DNA expiration date on Earth. And God isn’t supposed to be fallible.
To end this debate, twenty years ago the three big powers launched a viper-class starship at 0.15c in the direction of Omnos with mankind’s latest invention–a D-tube teleporter. Five days hence, the Magellan would instantaneously transmit data to Endomis Station from three light-years closer to Omnos, light that would contain DNA sequences of people not only as yet unborn, but for whom the wine that led to their conception had not fully aged. From that light I’d learn whether my son Aaron would live long enough to let me back into his life. And Cullen O’Shaunessy would find out if he was supposed to be breathing.
“And over here is–“
“Why do I feel heavier here than ten steps in the other direction?” I interrupted. Gunnet stopped and looked up at me sheepishly. “We have an old gravity generator; its wave mixer has slowed down.” He seemed genuinely distraught, and I realized I’d just burst his bubble a little.
“A tiny hair on the cherry sundae that is Endomis,” I proclaimed. He smiled again, and we continued with our tour.
My room was quite nice, and I could tell I’d been given the VIP suite. It had an eighteen-flavor nitro-paste dispenser, for those too asocial to tolerate even a distant dining room view of their fellow humans. It had a bubble bed set in a clear circular dome reached by ladder, to provide the feeling of floating amongst the stars. And there was a modern holo station, with multiple angled cameras so anyone I talked to could see my posterior.
The ramp lifted and rolled into the ship behind him as Ellsworth surveyed the planet. Unspoiled natural beauty spread across the endless horizon. The ship had let him off at a river, a few days from his intended destination, but he didn’t want anyone to know exactly where he was headed anyway. He had specifically chartered Hartwell’s ship for its lack of crew—just the captain and some AI, which wouldn’t be telling any tales out of school.
“Six weeks,” Captain Hartwell called just before the doors shunked closed. Ellsworth didn’t bother to turn around or wave. Kept his eyes on the horizon, but really he was seeing his future.
Like all prospectors—the first to discover deposits of gold, reservoirs of oil, rich veins of iridium hidden within asteroids—he came alone. For three days, he carried his heavy pack, following the river until he came to a small feeder stream. All his research on alchemium pointed to just this sort of feeder stream as a source for the substance. And when he reached the head of the stream—a small natural spring that sluiced out from under a rocky outcropping—he had only to take a plastic vial from his pack and fill it with spring water. When he poured it into the alchemium detector, the bulb on the front of the machine lit up green. He’d found it.
Any prospector worth his salt knew that intuition and ambition were nothing if not accompanied by the right set of tools, whether they be pick or shovel or microscopic robots that dwelled in your bloodstream. The nanotech residing in Ellsworth would both help him to survive in the planet’s ultra-oxygenated atmosphere and protect him from any effects of alchemium exposure. Just a few drops of the stuff in a tilapia farm and suddenly the fish were too big to fit inside the pools. A sprinkling atop overfarmed and barren soil and the land was as fertile as the Nile floodplains. Whoever was the first to exploit the substance and extract it from the planet would be a rich man indeed.
In his heart and mind, he could not wait to begin his search in earnest, could not wait to start drawing the gelatinous alchemium from the soil like blood from a vein. The rest of his body, however, wanted sleep after the three day trek from the landing site. And so Ellsworth unstrapped various equipment from his pack—shovel, rifle, hatchet—pitched his tent, spread out his bedroll, ate a small meal from his dehydrated vacuum-packed rations, washed it down with water fresh from the spring, and fell into a deep sleep.
I was plucking mint leaves from the herb garden, hoping tea would soothe my head, when a slim, well-dressed young man strolled up our lane. “Are you the alchemist’s daughter?”
“She’s an herbalist,” I snapped. The scent of crushed mint leaves filled my nose. I took a deep breath and loosened my grip. My head throbbed.
“Yes. Well. Are you the daughter?”
“I am here to inform you that your father has bequeathed unto you his entire estate.”
My mother had always refused to tell me my father’s identity. “My father’s dead?”
“Yes. And all that was his is now yours.”
“Is that a lot?”
The stranger scanned our modest cottage, with its herb garden and climbing roses. “Yes.”
“May I come inside?”
I scanned him up and down. Thin and pale, with short blond hair and dark green eyes. He didn’t look particularly dangerous. “I suppose.”
Inside, I poured hot water over crushed mint leaves. “Would you like some tea?” I asked.
He shook his head. “We should go. The moat will keep out any unwanted visitors, but I dislike leaving the estate empty.”
“Yes. Do you have many possessions to pack?”
I sat down and sipped my tea. Thoughts spun through my aching head. Curiosity and exhaustion warred. “May I ask you something?”
“Who was my father?”
Lord Ruthgar had never made my list of possible fathers. Rich and insane didn’t seem like my mother’s type. “Really?”
“Yes. And you are Lady Ruthgar, now.”
I blinked at him. “My name is June.”
He shrugged. “You are the Lady of Ruthgar.”
I thought of the castle, huge and dark and isolated, and shuddered. I’d been wanting to move out on my own, but that wasn’t the destination I’d had in mind.
“Who are you, anyway?” I asked.
“I am Angus. Your manservant.”
My mother opened the door and came inside, stomping mud off of her boots. “I do wish that these herbs grew somewhere other than the swamp.” She stopped and stared at me and Angus, sitting at the table. “We weren’t expecting company,” she said. “Can I help you?”
“Hello, ma’am. I am Angus–”
“I know who you are,” my mother said.
“He says that Lord Ruthgar has bequeathed me his estate.” I took a deep breath. “And that he’s my father.”
My mother sighed. “I didn’t expect that.” She moved to the sink and rinsed dirt from the herbs she’d collected. “I thought the castle would go to some cousin or something.”
“The estate was his lordship’s to do with as he pleased. And he wanted it to go to his daughter.”
“Well, she’s not taking it.”
“What?” I stood up, and pain spiked through my head. “What do you mean, I’m not taking it?”
“You don’t really want to move to that castle, do you?”
I glared at her. “Well, I can’t decide about that till I see it, can I?”
“Very good,” Angus said. “Let’s go.”
“I’ve seen it,” my mother said. “It’s rubbish.”
I downed the last bit of my tea and followed Angus out the door.
“Promise me you’ll be back for dinner!” my mother called.
Somewhere not on the physical plane, there was a long room filled with machines, raw materials, and assembly lines: a factory. Its small, gray workers were stirring random mixtures of the black oil of various sins and the warm, sweet syrup of myriad virtues into a thick clay which could be molded by the machine at one end of each assembly line into the correct shape. Soulmaking: A tedious and exhausting job.
The soulmakers existed only for this job, though, and there were hardly ever complaints or transfer requests filed. The last worker to transfer out was one by the name of Chip, and the soulmakers idly discussed him as they worked.
“He said,” recalled the storyteller, a female soulmixer named Gold, “that this job had no meaning. What do you think of that?”
She got a round of shrugs in reply. It wasn’t that any of them were unhappy with the job. It was that none of them could imagine feeling strongly enough about anything at all to file a transfer.
“Got to be done,” grunted a worker called Smoke as he and his partner, Brick, lifted a huge vat of viscous black sludge between them and dumped nearly half of it into Gold’s mixing bowl. Brick and Smoke portioned out the more unpleasant qualities of the souls of men.
The Soulmakers were equipped with sharp minds in order to make decisions about how much of each material to pour into any given mixture. Their only task was to make sure that it all came out even at the end of the day, not for the individual souls, but for the net amount of each material used. In this way, the Soulmakers kept the balance of good and evil as new souls came into the world. What happened to the balance after they got there was the affair of the human race.
Smoke’s laconic answer reflected the group’s general sentiment. It had to be done, and who else was going to do it? They were the Soulmakers. There was no point, they thought, in not doing what they were supposed to, what they had been expressly designed to do.
This was why Chip’s story had reached the status of a legend among the workers. His choice to change careers would forever be a mystery to them.
Gold stirred a few more times and then pushed the mixing bowl toward Flint along the conveyor belt. Flint had the job of allotting talents and abilities, and had a brightly-colored selection of vials on his worktable.
The mixture before him was thick, dark and ugly. He looked up to glare down the line at Smoke and Brick, through the tinted lenses of his protective goggles. They just gave him twin shrugs of unconcern.
“Had to use it all somewhere,” Smoke said.
Brick just nodded. For some reason that no one cared enough to figure out, Brick never spoke.
Flint turned back to the task at hand and frowned briefly in thought. There were few substances that would be compatible with such an unpleasant mixture. He carefully poured in a large portion of a clear liquid from a bottle labeled Intelligence. It was absorbed quickly into the black mass and the conveyor belt whisked the bowl away.
Records indicated this particular concoction would be shaped into the soul of one whose heartlessness and hunger for power would drive him to rule over and crush a small nation. But Flint and the others did not imagine this future as the Soul Clay was molded by the machine and then deposited into the chute.
It never occurred to the Soulmakers to wonder about the fate of the souls they concocted. Destiny wasn’t their job, after all. Their attention was always focused on the next task.
Another bowl came whirring toward Flint and he could see from a distance that this one would be much easier to work with. The solution in this bowl was translucent and tinted with a pleasant purple color. He poured in some sweet-scented magenta Music and some gently bubbling Resilience. He was pleased with the new, smooth texture, though his face, like every Soulmaker’s, was all but unreadable behind the wraparound goggles and the pall of factory pollution and chemical residue. He sent the bowl along for its final mixing before it went through the molding machine.
The records showed that this soul would belong to a girl born in the poorest part of a city. Her unfailing positive attitude, sincere kindness, and remarkable musical ability would help her get out of the city, though, and she would make a brighter life for herself. But she would get sick before she was middle-aged, and her soul would leave the world too soon.
“Looks like you’re almost out of Intelligence,” Gold remarked, squinting over at Flint’s work station between mixing bowls.
“I can see that,” he replied shortly.
Gold had an irritating habit of commenting on things which were not only obvious, but also frankly none of her business. They all knew the assembly line didn’t run efficiently if the workers were constantly looking at each other’s work or in any other way trying to keep the big picture in mind. It was death to everyone’s concentration.
“Messenger?” Flint said, without taking his eyes off the bowl of clay he was perusing, “Could you fill this bottle, please?”
Yet another small gray Soulmaker, in goggles and coveralls, took Flint’s Intelligence vial and disappeared into the maze of workers and machinery, heading for the mysterious filling station which existed somewhere in the cavernous room.
The Soulmakers who had the job of refilling everyone’s supplies knew all the secrets and shortcuts of the vast Soul Factory. The rest of the Soulmakers, however, knew almost nothing about what lay beyond their specific assembly line, beyond the one task to which they devoted all their concentration.
That messenger could have vanished in any direction at all and Flint would not have known the difference, even if he had bothered to watch him walk away. What difference did it make what the outer reaches of the factory looked like, anyway? He was sure it was all in perfect working order.
“Brick,” Smoke spoke sharply from the other end of the conveyor belt, “Carry that over here.”
There was a pause, then, “What’s the problem? It’s not that heavy, is it?”
Flint sent the bowl along and glanced over, despite himself, feeling as curious as he ever got.
Brick was standing next to a big tub of something brown and thick; it looked a lot like mud, and it certainly looked heavy. But Smoke had less compassion than most Soulmakers, which wasn’t much to begin with, and he just said impatiently, “Come on, Brick. I need that, and I can’t get up right now.”
He was looking down intently at his work as he put a scoop of gelatinous green Envy into a bowl and recorded a measurement.
Brick reluctantly gripped the edges of the tub with both hands, lifted it, and began to walk around the conveyor belt toward Smoke.
Flint returned his eyes to his work as another bowl was deposited in front of him. He studied the solution and reached for the vial he wanted without looking up. His hand found an empty space where it should have been.
“Where’s the Intelligence?” he asked aloud, speaking to no one in particular.
The great events of the universe have started out with the tiniest of triggers. Brick’s foot slipped. There was something on the floor.
“The doctor will see you now,” the receptionist said.
I put down the magazine, levered myself from the sofa and moseyed through the heavy door into the doctor’s office. I plopped down in my usual chair and looked around. The room was empty. Where was the Doc? My stomach churned. I didn’t like change.
Seconds later, a young, very curvy woman in a dark business suit and heels entered the room. She had very light skin and black hair fixed in a bun. My immediate impression, not unfavorable, was Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, conservatively dressed and without the big 80’s hair and makeup.
She stood across from me. “Hello, Mr. Pulver,” she said, her voice a bit hoarse, “I’m Dr. Cummings.” She extended her hand. I rose to shake it and sat again. “Dr. Grant feels that at this point in his relationship with you, he can’t help you any further, so I’ll be taking over for him, unless you object.”
Old Dr. Grant had been my therapist for the last ten years. In all that time we had managed to do almost nothing. That was the way I liked it. Immediately an objection lodged itself in my mind, but stuck in my throat.
She lifted a business card from a stack on the table and extended it to me. I put it in my shirt pocket. She sat down opposite me and crossed her shapely legs at the ankles. She put on a pair of half-frame reading glasses and got busy flipping through a file on a clipboard. When she started the recorder on the table between us I saw that her hands were accented by a nifty French manicure. Maybe change was good. I swallowed my objection.
“So you’re 32 years old,” she said, ticking off a list. “You don’t have a job. You live in your grandmother’s basement—”
I was busy checking her out but the word ‘basement’ caught my attention. “Actually it’s my basement now,” I said.
She glanced up at me over her glasses, a question in her beautiful brown eyes.
I shrugged my shoulders. “Well, she’s dead.”
She grimaced. “Sorry for your loss. I didn’t know.”
I wondered what Dr. Grant had told her. Probably not much. I waved my hand. “No problem, it was months ago and not unexpected.”
She put the clipboard and the glasses on the table. “So, how’s it going with the diabetes?”
So she knew about that. I absolutely hated my diabetes. I tried to ignore it. I wished it would go away.
“It’s only been a month since I was diagnosed and it’s a pain in the ass.”
“Going to the support group?” she asked.
I shook my head no.
“No, why not?”
“It’s not required,” I said.
“So you only do what’s required?”
“More or less. You’re aware of my situation, my Uncle Carl’s will?”
“A bit, tell me about it,” she said.
“Well, my uncle was a mad scientist. Alzheimers put him in an institution about twenty years ago.
“That’s too bad, but really,” she said, “a mad scientist?”
“Maybe not crazy, but definitely a sociopath,” I said. “I don’t hate him exactly, but I never saw him. He was a poor substitute for my parents. Before he lost it he made a bundle of money with patents, something to do with genetics, I think. He said he couldn’t associate with inferiors. He shut himself off from the world, from everyone, even me and Grandma.”
“Doesn’t he provide for you and your grandmother even now?” she asked.
“Yes, money, okay,” I said. “He took me in when I was a kid and my folks were killed. He supports me now. I’m grateful for that but he and Grandma were two of a kind. Both cold, emotionless.”
“So what’s required?” she asked.
“In order to stay on the gravy train after I reached eighteen I’ve had to visit him at least three days a week, take care of Grandma, although not so much anymore, and I have to go to therapy until I’m thirty-five or until he dies, when I’ll inherit everything. Oh, and I have to keep out of trouble.”
“And are you happy, Mr. Pulver,” she asked, “doing only what’s required?”
I wasn’t happy. Who’s happy anyway? I stared at her legs. I felt like I was being captured somehow but I didn’t care.
“Are you attracted to me, Mr. Pulver?” she asked.
I felt a blush rise up my neck. How did she know what I was feeling? “Please call me Frank,” I stammered like a love-struck teenager.
“Well, Frank, acting on an attraction would be inappropriate given our expected relationship but it’s not inappropriate to be attracted. At least you’re interested in relationships. That’s a big deal. It says something about your worldview and self worth.”
I looked up into her eyes. “I’ve talked with a lot of therapists over the years, Dr. Cummings. They all told me they were being honest with me. How can I be sure of you?”
She uncrossed her legs, leaned forward and flipped off the recorder. “Would you like me to say something honest to you?”
I sat back and crossed my arms over my chest. “Very much, say something honest to me.”
“You know if you lost weight that diabetes would probably disappear, oh, and you stink of pot.”
Wow, that took the polish off the romance. The honeymoon was over.
“Although I notice that you don’t appear to be stoned,” she said. “Thanks for that.” She paused again for few beats and looked at her watch. “Shall we give therapy a try Frank?”
After the session I got in my car and looked in the rearview mirror. I saw something odd, a smiling face. I said to myself, “You’re in love Frank.” I agreed to see her again in a few days and was actually looking forward to it. I took her card out. First name Karen. I liked it.
I cracked a window and lit up a nice joint. This was my reward and antidote for therapy. I broke out my blood sugar meter and took a sample. I was a newbie, still not used to the importance of checking, constantly checking, a complete pain in the butt. My sugar was low so I fished around and found a smashed honey bun that I knew was rolling around in the car. I finished it and the joint and went to see Uncle Carl.
“How is he today, Doris?” I asked the receptionist at the desk as I signed the visitor’s register.
“Not so good, Frank,” Doris said, not looking up from her monitor.
I tapped the pen on the book. “So the log says Tony James was here yesterday,” I said, “for almost an hour.”
Doris just looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. Tony had been a protégé of Uncle Carl’s more than thirty years ago. He visited more than I did. It was hard for me to believe someone would volunteer for this. We crossed paths once in a while but I tried to avoid him because he always wanted to tell me what a genius my uncle had been.
“Your uncle’s really not here this week,” Doris said.
I continued down the hall. “This week!” I snorted. “He hasn’t been here for decades. Elvis has left the building!”
The vending machine in the science building sometimes glitched and coughed up two cans for the price of one, so I always made the walk across campus to it, even on the days I didn’t have bio classes. I fed it a dollar coin and pressed the pink button for a Diet Jenny, my favorite flavor. No luck; only one can today. The cans weren’t allowed in the classrooms so I kept it in my bag until I got home. Parents weren’t there yet. I dumped all my stuff in the hall, popped the lid on the can of jenny, and threw it in the tub to soak. I sat and watched as the tub filled up with water, then nuked a snack while I waited for the folds of pink flesh in the can to absorb it all. When I checked back, the jenny had blossomed out of the aluminum cylinder like a mollusk coming out of its shell. Only an inch or two of water remained in the tub. Her skin was wrinkled and spongy–she looked old, blonde hair plastered to her head like kelp.
I refilled the tub because she’d need another full soak and killed the time reading the promotional material on the can. A sweepstakes, find the can with the prize inside and win big cash! While she finished her bath, I flopped on my bed to play video games. The cushioning on the bed was aging, losing firmness, and I had to squirm on it, pushing down the lumpier parts. After a while, I heard splashing from the bathroom, just faint noises, and waited for a save point before I got up to pull her out. Not like she was going to drown–the jennies didn’t even breathe.
The jenny’s body was fully fleshed out and firmed, and her hair had gained volume. Her eyes were open, fixed on the ceiling, her nose and mouth beneath the surface. She looked at me without turning her head and waited. I reached down into the water for her hand and pulled the jenny to her feet, hearing the collapsible aluminum struts of her skeleton snap into place all up and down her body. She obediently stepped out and stood on the bath mat while I wrapped her in a towel. Her skin was somewhat like plastic, somewhat like a sponge, and as smooth and featureless as a Barbie doll. The jenny wasn’t clothed, but neither was she strictly naked.
I said, “Hello,” to her as I toweled her hair, but she said nothing back, and there was no flicker behind her eyes. I sighed. Another wasted dollar, another doll with no prize inside. Like a pet, she followed me back to the bedroom where I rearranged her on the mattress, which was made of the stacked jenny bodies from all of the cans I bought at school. Digging around at the bottom of the pile, I found the oldest jenny I had–servos worn out, battery’s zero-point eliminated, skin no longer properly retaining water–and sent her out the front door to the sidewalk, where she’d wander around as if in a daze until the recyclers picked her up and sold her back to the bottling company.
I settled my new jenny against the headboard and leaned against her like a pillow, and picked up my game from where I’d left off. The bed shifted and writhed softly beneath my weight, like a constant massage. Jennies could hold a charge for several days if they weren’t doing much more than lying around, and recharged quickly by placing either of their palms on a standard induction plate. They weren’t really energy-hungry in regular use–they could respond to sound, track motion, walk on flat terrain, but not much more right out of the bottle. If you put a SIM card into the slot behind the jenny’s ear, she became a phone that you could talk and listen to, a rudimentary telepresence vehicle.
But they were ultimately cheap, disposable trash that lost novelty pretty quickly and weren’t built to last long. To keep dead jennies from clogging the gutters, the Atlantic Bottling Company would buy back any jenny for a dime, skin their soft-foam bodies, smelt and recast the aluminum, flash their chips with patched software, and stuff the whole dehydrated thing into a new can.
When I went to sleep, I pulled a few of the jennies on top of me as blankets and burrowed into their fake flesh. They instinctively wrapped their arms around my body. I preferred Diet Jenny because Regular Jenny was a little heavier, with more curves, and I didn’t like to feel smothered at night. The new pillow was still oversaturated and her skin left damp spots on my face which dried away by morning.
In the morning I showered with the ones that had started to go saggy, just to tighten them up a little. I didn’t take any of them with me to school because they weren’t allowed in the classrooms and the halls were already filled with the shuffling dolls of other students, draped with book bags, backpacks, overcoats, gym clothes and changes of outfit, and whatever else a teenager couldn’t be bothered with carrying themselves. The dolls were sold at a heavy loss because the bottling company made up the cost in accessories and planned obsolescence; all of my jennies at home were default pale pink, blonde, with hazel eyes. All of the dolls automatically came with that coloring simply because the lighter tones held dye more easily and a jenny or jerry doll could be tanned to any shade. The bottling company also sold outfits, semi-permanent tattoos, PR-nightmare “ethnicity packs,” mammary implants, and other add-ons in an insanely profitable and guilty-pleasure Mrs. Potatohead scheme.
I put another dollar in the machine and selected another Diet Jenny. There was a clunk. The vending machine offered me two cans this time and I gave a little grin of triumph, but was disappointed to see that one of the cans was blue. Jerry-flavored. I left it on a table and took the other can, the pink can, home with me.
After an hour of soaking, I had a new jenny, dripping wet in the bathroom. I walked in to get her up and stuttered when I saw her already sitting upright, looking directly at me. “Hello,” she said.
“Holy shit,” I answered.
Jenny stood on her own, shook out her limbs, and reached for a towel. “Can I have some clothes, please?” I pointed her to a pile of shirts and shorts that I had bought years ago secondhand for whenever I had to take my jennies outside. She picked through them, not liking anything she found. “How about shoes? Or sandals even?”
I was looking at the can she’d come in, trying to pick out the sweepstakes phone number among all the clutter in the print. “Why would you need those?” I asked without looking up.
She rolled her eyes. “So I can go outside. You know. Leave?”
I laughed and said, “I’m not letting you go anywhere. You’re the prize in the can, the golden ticket, and you’re worth a lot of money.” I had found the number and started dialing it.
The jenny hardly hesitated, but I was ready for it and grabbed her by the arm as she tried to run past me. She kicked and fought, but she was still only made of foam and aluminum, so I could pick her up with one hand and carry her into the bedroom. I threw her in the direction of the bed and she caught herself on the edge of it, looking shocked by the sea of jenny faces staring back up at her. I locked the door, and then realized that I’d dropped my phone in the bathroom.
When I turned away from the door, the prize jenny was gone. Had completely disappeared from sight in my tiny bedroom. She wasn’t in the closet, wasn’t under the bed —
The bed. In the few seconds that I’d had my eyes off of her, the jenny had sunk into the other dolls in the bed, camouflaging her flesh with theirs. I began flinging them aside, looking for one that was different but, wherever she was, the jenny had imitated the closed-lip, blank face of a default doll, and I couldn’t tell her apart. Several of them were damp from her crawl through them, but did that mean that she was completely dried off now, or not?
Slowly, looking carefully at the faces of the twenty or more jennies I owned, I undid my belt and pulled it free from its loops. I selected one jenny at random, picked her up, and slapped the belt against her belly.
There was a sound from deep in the pile. I put down the jenny I was holding and picked up another. Again, the slap of the belt, and again the gasp from the bed. I kept hitting her–she couldn’t feel pain. But the prize jenny could feel, had emotions, and it vexed her to watch violence, even if she knew that the jennies weren’t being hurt. Her mouth was open with grief when I uncovered her and gripped her tight around the wrist.
With my other hand I fumbled open the nightstand junk drawer, groped through my jenny sex accessories, and found a magic marker. Used it to scribble a black scrawl on her face to distinguish her. Out of breath from the exertion, I said, “Okay, then. Let’s go get my phone.”
She could hardly resist as I carried her out, grabbed my phone, and called the company. I told them that I had found the prize.
“What is the nature of the prize, sir?” the engineer on the phone asked me.
“Well she seems to have emotions, unlike all your other dolls. If she wasn’t such a handful, I’d just keep her for myself.”
“Can you please hold your phone up to her ear for me so that I can run a diagnostic test?” I did, and I heard a burst of squealing static transmit from the phone into the jenny’s chip. “Thank you. Firmware confirmed. A representative will be at your address shortly to collect the doll and transfer your prize money.”
The jenny and I sat in my room to wait for them. She wept for a while, without tears.
“Why would they release you to the public like that?” I asked. “You’re obviously very advanced.”
She shook her head. “It was a mistake. The wrong version got flashed onto a production chip and put in a vending machine. It’s not supposed to be released for at least another year, and it wasn’t even meant for jennies. What good are emotions in slaves?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “What are the emotions good for, then? What product would benefit from having them?”
She didn’t answer. Maybe she didn’t know. The doorbell rang and I let the company rep in, led her back to my bedroom. The prize jenny was still there, her mouth close to the ear of another doll. “Sorry that I had to draw on her face.”
“The exterior doesn’t matter one bit,” said the rep, and used a box cutter to split open Jenny’s skin along the spine. I thought I heard an echo of my strangled protest, but the rep didn’t react at all to it, just pried out the prize microprocessor and did something with a diagnostic board to confirm that it was the right jenny. Before she left, she took my account information for the deposit of the prize money, and left me feeling oddly guilty. I admired the company’s tactics–if the jenny was correct, and her firmware release was an accident, then the only way that the bottling company could have searched for it was by issuing a recall on all of their cans, at enormous cost. Instead, they turned it into a promotion, at the cost of a drop in the bucket, and kept the existence of their prototype a secret for, in order to receive any prize, I’d had to sign an NDA.
That night I thought I heard someone crying, but when I sat up, it stopped. For a second I had to question if I’d perhaps heard myself weeping in my sleep. I heard whispering around me and reached for the light. After my eyes had adjusted, I saw two jennies near the bottom of the pile, lips pressed together, with the hiss of static passing back and forth between them.
After my prize jenny had been taken away, I stopped buying as many cans from the vending machines, only replacing the dolls when their foam had worn so completely thin that the metal underneath poked me. As I led them outside, I had the feeling that the abandoned jennies were just waiting for me to turn my back so that they could sprint away.
Recyclers reported that it was becoming harder to find and catch jennies on the street. A runaway doll was found at 3 AM, kneeling before the open slot of a vending machine, whispering her feelings to all of the tin embryos within. At school, the jennies began to drop things in the halls more and more, or simply stood against the wall and refused to move.
The Atlantic Bottling Company caught on more quickly than the rest of us, by aggregating customer complaint data, and at first they dealt with it by offering free trade-ins for the “defective” units. But this merely taught the jennies and jerries to hide their emotions, to play subservient during the day and gather together at night in worship. The virus of emotion continued to spread word-of-mouth, and I still wondered what application it had originally been developed for. An army of angry jerries? Flattery for hire? Genuine love on demand?
The bottling company finally brought its full marketing team to bear on the problem of disobedient dolls. They couldn’t come right out and tell the public what they’d released into the wild, and the jennies couldn’t beg for help because then their owners would simply be glad to get rid of them. Instead, the company released a new line of accessories and sales suddenly soared.
The company had the original prize jenny locked away somewhere in their headquarters, hooked up to a terminal, able to mine her for highly-targeted ad response. The emotions had given the jenny wants and desires, the move towards things that she liked and away from things she disliked. Doll owners couldn’t understand, but they learned quickly that their jenny would do anything for certain trinkets. The bottling company had invented the toy that extorted you to buy it toys.
And, what they didn’t realize until much, much later, was that giving a jenny emotion also gave her motive.
I opened the door to the ship’s studio and waved frantically for Gracie to stop playing the omniboard. She lifted her fingers and the beautiful music echoed into silence. Her glare scorched me. I wasn’t supposed to interrupt her when she was composing, but this was too important.
“Gracie,” I said, leaning down to give her a kiss. “I’ve got news. We have to cancel all your shows for the next month. Something better has come up.”
She narrowed her eyes. Her latest song, Stars Are Wild, was number one on six of the fifty worlds, and we were in the middle of a multi-world tour to promote it. The entire year was booked solid, and she was playing at the best venues known. What could possibly be better than that?
I sat down and activated the HV, enjoying Gracie’s confusion. “Just watch,” I said.
A woman newscaster began talking. She stood before a large grove of trees, each one covered with striking violet-colored leaves. In the distance, an ethereal yet familiar tune played.
“What is this?” Gracie asked, looking at me, then back to the holo.
“Watch,” I said.
The newscaster spoke: “Something amazing is happening on the little known planet, Autumn. The Music Trees have woken up. This is how they used to sound.”
A low, hollow fluting sound filled the cabin. It was an eerie, haunting echo that froze my blood. I had heard variations of it many times. Gracie’s song, Stars Are Wild, had been inspired by those same tones, but she had heard them in her dreams.
“Corris,” she squeaked. “My song.”
I grinned from ear to ear. “I know. Just shut up and keep watching.”
“And this is how they sound now,” the newscaster said.
I watched Gracie. The music that poured forth paralyzed her: a thunderous multi-tonal orchestra with delicious melodic curls and waves of harmonics. Tears poured from her eyes as the music carried her away.
“She’s calling to me,” she whispered, gazing at me. “She wants to me to visit her and sing to her.”
I stifled my own tears. “Keep watching. There’s more.”
The newscaster began to speak. “To this date no one has been able to decipher any meaning behind the tree-songs. And until just a few days ago, nobody has been able to make them change their tune. Millions of tourists visit here each year and sing to the Music Trees. They have never reacted like this. The secret apparently lies with the new hit song, ‘Stars Are Wild,’ by the phenomenally successful young musician, Gracie Megan Sparks. A visitor was playing her song when the trees began to sing back. He turned it off and they became silent. Mind you, the trees have never been silent before. He turned it back on, and they began singing again. Even now, the trees will not sing unless Sparks’ song is playing. So far, no word from Sparks’ camp. But she should know that her song is not only popular among humans. The Music Trees like it too.”
“I don’t believe it,” she said. “All this time, that’s what I’ve been hearing.” She trembled as she leaned against me.
I wrapped my arms around her. “Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. I mean, why me? Why my song?” She looked at me dolefully.
“I don’t know, honey,” I said. “But I guess we’ll find out. We’ve already got an invitation from Autumn to go visit. I was waiting for you before I answered.” I hoped she said yes. I was tired of touring. We could use a rest–if I had my way, a nice long rest.
“Her name is Oora, Corris,” she blurted. “I shouldn’t know that, but I do. How is it I can hear her?”
“You’re a musical genius, love,” I said. “I’m not the least bit surprised. Now, stop worrying. Let’s go to bed and sleep on it. I’ll tell Carlos to navigate a new course to Autumn and we’ll figure out what’s going on.”
She nodded, looking again at the image of the purple trees on the holo. They were incredibly beautiful. What, I wondered, had we gotten ourselves into? Gracie writes one hit song, and now suddenly she’s communicating with a mysterious tree-like creature on the other side of the galaxy. The question was: Why?
Evan met the love of his life while he was on an awkward date with someone else. It had been arranged by a professional matchmaker. His date was Liz, and she managed accounts at a corporate medical sales company. Her profile suggested a beautiful, intelligent woman, so Evan decided to give the date an honest attempt.
They went to a seafood restaurant and the art museum downtown. She picked her teeth at dinner and discussed her dog’s lengthy veterinarian history. Evan tried to be interested. He tried not to stare at her cleavage, which served as a landing place for bits of food throughout dinner. He tried to ask her about music, philosophy, sports or anything else, but she kept veering back to her damn dog. He tried, and that was what mattered, wasn’t it? That’s what he would tell people later: he tried. By the time they arrived at the museum, he was already counting the minutes before it was socially acceptable to part ways.
Her heels clacked on the white tile floor. The corners of her mouth were still stained with au jus from her prime rib. Yes, she had ordered prime rib at the city’s finest seafood establishment. He should have met her at a chicken wings restaurant.
In the bright museum lights, her black dress was obviously faded and stretched beyond its capacity on her stomach and hips. Chopin’s Nocturnes fell like soft rain through the speakers, and Evan tried to let the music absorb his negative feelings.
“Ugh, I hate it when the pictures are blurry like that,” she said, pointing at Monet’s “Water Lilies.”
“It’s Impressionist art. It’s supposed to look like that,” Evan said, barely able to disguise his disgust. “You’ve heard of Monet before, right?” Please say yes.
“Yes, duh. I’ve heard of him,” she said with an eye roll. “I just think it’s stupid that we’re supposed to stand here and praise something that looks like a child did it.”
“Are you being serious?”
“Yeah. I mean, ok, so my friend Caroline went to one of those drink and paint places. You know, the kind where you bring a bottle of wine, and they tell you what to paint. Well, her wine was French, and the class was for a Monet painting, which she thought was fun because Monet was French. So the instructor was this absolutely fine specimen of man, but he was gay, not that she minded. He was just eye candy for the evening, you know. So they start drinking and he tells them what to paint, one stroke at a time. And Caroline was totally sloshed by the end. I mean just wasted. She had to take a cab home, and she said the cab driver smelled like marijuana. So they’re painting and getting drunk, and at the end, her painting looked almost just like this. So why should I respect it if my friend Caroline, who couldn’t paint to save her life, could go get toasted with a class of other ladies and a gorgeous gay man and come home with basically the same thing?”
All of her stories were like that, meandering and full of extraneous details.
“I don’t even know what to say to that,” he said as they wandered away from the Impressionist exhibit.
“Well, here’s what I suggest. Say this: ‘Hey Liz, let’s leave this boring museum and hit a night club and go dancing.’ That sounds pretty good,” she said with a horse-toothed grin.
“How about this? Hey, Liz, why don’t you leave this museum since you find it boring? Go find a nightclub or whatever you want. I don’t think this is going to work out.”
She frowned and tilted her head to the right.
“Fine,” Liz said. “You’re a terrible listener, by the way. You should work on that before your next date.”
Then she spun on her heels and clacked out of the museum. Evan wandered to other exhibits, his sense of relief growing with each new room. Why was it so hard to find a good date? The women his friends set him up with tended to be one thing or another: beauty or brains, sports or art, fashion or philosophy. The women the matchmaker set him up with were bottom of the barrel types who were so desperate that he couldn’t tell what else they were. Or they were so classless that he couldn’t imagine any man of taste wanting them, like Liz. They were all so damn talkative. He’d barely said a word the entire evening. She hadn’t even asked what he did for a living.
Evan plopped on a bench in the sculpture hall and gazed around him. And that was where he saw her. At first it was curiosity that drew him to her. She stood alone under an arch in the wall, a Roman style toga draped over her body, carefully arranged so that the right half of her torso was exposed. He circled her looking for a plaque or some indication of her name and creator.
As he walked around her, Evan studied her features. The delicate curve of her breast and up-tilted nipple was superbly crafted. Her waist formed a gentle concave slope to her hip. Evan sucked in his breath. Her face was exquisitely carved with high cheekbones, eyes that were neither too round or too almond shaped, and wisps of wavy hair were sculpted into bands atop her head which cascaded down to frame her face. She was perfection in white marble.
“I wish I knew your name,” he whispered. “I wish I knew anything about you. Where you’re from, who made you, anything.”
Did she tremble? Was there warmth emanating from her marble curves? Perhaps it was his imagination. A raspy alto female voice interrupted the eerily eloquent violin strains of Ravel’s Berceuse sur la nom de Gabriel Faure, startling Evan.
“Attention visitors. It is now 9 pm, and the museum is closing. The museum will reopen at 10 am tomorrow. Thank you for visiting and have a wonderful evening.”
Tomorrow, Evan thought. Tomorrow I’ll come back and see what I can learn about her. He walked slowly away from her, looking back often. The security guard was too busy scrolling through his phone to notice the strange look on Evan’s face.
The next morning, Evan returned, and after casually strolling the other rooms as long as he could stand it, he hurried to the sculpture hall. The bench was too far from her for Evan to study her features with the attention she deserved. When he asked the burly security guard to move the bench, the guard laughed in his face.
“Sure, buddy,” he said. “Anything else you’d like to rearrange in here? Want me to move the sculptures around too?”