If you've been around a while, you know the deal. Once a year, I participate in National Novel Writing Month, taking a novel from idea to finished first draft within the month. Doing it my way, there's a twist: I post my first draft publicly here, a chapter at a time. It's a rough draft, full of flaws, but it's a fun way of inviting the world to ride shotgun with me.
This year, I almost didn't do it. But after having finished a NaNo novel for several years, it just felt like tradition. I would have been sad to skip it.
So let me introduce you to the Last Girls, publishing November second until, well, whenever it finishes. A chapter a day, remember.
When a camping trip with friends turns to a bloodbath, Kelly must face her worst fears- as well as those of the other Last Girls.
Thanks for coming on this trip with me! I hope you have as much fun with the Last Girls as I'm gonna!
Even after Ofelia fell asleep, Lisa slept badly. It was probably because Mae slept badly, and she'd seen enough of the woman in action to know that whatever was making her sleep fitful was worth worrying about.
At three in the morning, she was woken up by Anna. Or, more accurately, Anna woke up Dr. Dowling, and in the process woke up everybody else. “It's Kara,” she said, still trying to whisper. “She attracted extra attention coming into the city than we wanted. We're going to go get her. But she's hurt already, so you'll need to be ready when we get back.”
“What's going on?” Mae asked sleepily.
“It's good you're up,” Anna said, “because I need you to shoot some bastards.”
“Can I call the shooting very late-term abortions?” she asked with a slight grin.
“You can call it whatever you want, so long as you keep them occupied. Lisa?” Lisa winced at the sound of her name, and thought about pretending to be asleep. But Anna didn't wait for her to respond. “I hate to ask. I know yesterday was rough; it was hard for all of us- even a veteran like Mayday- but it was an especially lousy first day. But that firefighter kept your name out of his report to the cops. And it's possible we'll need someone on this who isn't known to them, or branded.”
Dr. Dowling finished buttoning her shit, and started out of the room, and Anna followed her, talking in hushed tones. Lisa was fairly certain she heard the word ‘gunshot.’
Lisa was still wrestling with pretending to be asleep. But this was what she had agreed to do. So she sighed, and opened her eyes. Lisa dressed beside Mae, but Mae was colder than the day before. Lisa had watched the other woman put up a front, trying to be boisterous and even cheerful, but she’d also noticed the quiet moments between, when the fire went out in her eyes, and her mouth turned up. She didn’t like showing how much Merril’s loss weighed on her, and perhaps she couldn’t, since so many of the women at the Shelter looked to her for strength.
That was why it made Lisa sad when Mae took her rifle and left through the side door. It was silly, thinking she could be there for her, that she could protect her, but Mae was what she knew of this place, and with the possible exception of Ofelia, the closest she had to a friend in the Shelter.
She was just finishing tying her shoes on when Anna came back into the room. “You ready to go?”
“No,” Lisa said, “but I’m out of reasonable objections.” She shoved herself off her bunk.
“You don’t have to go,” Anna said, her eyes softening.
“I don’t want to go,” Lisa replied, “but I think I do have to; I don’t think I could live with myself if I didn’t.”
Anna touched her shoulder and squeezed. “That’s why we’re doing this. We’re fighting for a world where we don’t have to keep fighting these fights anymore. Come on.”
Lisa followed Anna through a cellar door that opened up into a tunnel dug in the earth. They followed it for fifty feet until they hit the night air. Anna’s car, a red Volkswagen Passat, was parked in the dirt. They buckled in and Anna started driving, with the lights off. It was two minutes before they reached the top of a hill and hit pavement.
Anna sighed as she pulled the car out onto the road and flicked on her lights. “I never would have thought it, when we started out. I was angry. I was just a girl, a nursing student for God’s sake. I had a boyfriend, Tony, and the inevitable happened. He was actually really excited about it, though I think it was just because he hoped filling me up with a baby made me his. I felt bad for him; maybe still do, a little. But I had a career to think about.”
“I wasn’t very far along, so I got a prescription for RU-486, took it, and was violently, horribly sick for a couple of days. But those were still early days, and we weren't as discreet then as we learned to be, and a day or two later, these assholes followed me home from class in a big black pickup- obviously overcompensating for every inch of deficiency with an extra foot of lift. By the time I got home I’d gone down enough side streets, cut through enough alleys and backtracked enough to know they were following me.”
“I called the cops, and you know, they said I was being paranoid, and that without some reasonable suspicion of violence I was going to be a low priority. As it turns out, that phone call probably saved my life; police didn’t show for three hours, but they were the ones who found me, bleeding all over the place. And of course I had this,” she touched the W-shaped brand burnt into her forehead. “Kind of wish it was an A, so I could be like Captain America.”
“Yeah, but he was a he.”
“I think I remember seeing a chick Captain America. And she even had a costume that didn't showcase her tits or anything- aside from being form-fitting. But what I was starting out to say, was I had no idea how much the Shelter would come to run like a spy network. The women you’ve met so far, they’re the nerve center, and in the case of Mayday, our muscle, but I have informants, infiltrators, and the occasional black market smuggler on my, well, we don’t pay, exactly, so it isn’t a payroll, but who I organize.”
“It’s one of those we’re going to meet tonight- or collect, really. She got stopped, at a roadblock, and had to make a run for it. She got shot. We’re going to try to help her.”
“But because it was a police roadblock- or at least quasi-police, it’s always hard to fucking tell these days- but since they fired on her rather than pursuing, I'd put money on them being MRA. But whether or not they are, running a roadblock means the cops will be out there, looking for her in the city. That’s how we found out, initially; they’re questioning her known associates, and one of them is a mutual friend. But they didn’t know where she would go. I do. We have a bolt-hole in the city- an apartment set up for this kind of eventuality.”
Lisa shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Even not paying people- just covering room, board, gas, and the clinic costs- how can you afford all this?”
“I'll give you an example. Merril’s father is a pretty well known and respected dentist; he started giving regularly to us when his daughter got knocked up. Not that there was any quid pro quo; we’re not in this for the money. But that was when we became relevant to his world, when he became aware of our struggle.”
“But now that his daughter’s dead…”
“He’s pledged even more. I called him, told him about Merril, after it happened- that there was nothing we could do- that she didn’t suffer. And he told me there was more he could have done. I tried to talk him off that ledge; no one benefits from a Schindler moment like that. And I think I convinced him that more money wouldn’t have saved his daughter; I hated feeling like a traitor, for doing the right thing and talking him out of giving us more to assuage his guilt. But you know what he said? ‘Maybe not. But maybe I can help save somebody else’s daughter.’” Anna wiped her arm across her eyes.
“But my point, I guess, is that it isn’t just the people you’ve seen so far. We’re just the tip of an iceberg, or the spear, maybe.”
“The silent majority?” Lisa said with a smile.
“Nixon was a moderate, maybe even a liberal, compared to these clowns. At the end of the day, what it’s really about is freedom. People have sex. They always have, and always will. But contraceptive options, they let women have the same relationship with sex that men do: that we can control our bodies. Without them we lose that control, we lose the ability to count on our bodies not to be weighed down by a pregnancy when we’d rather be doing something to further our career, or even anything else we might want to do. It shackles a woman to her uterus in a way a man can’t understand, because there isn’t a male equivalent.”
“Child support?” Lisa offered with a shrug.
“In the vaguest terms it shackles a man’s wallet to his dick. But a man doesn’t have to give over his body for a full nine months, isn’t then stuck with the kid regardless of his feelings about child-rearing. Being affixed financially to a child is different; it might be the closest possible facsimile, but it's- it's not even a comparison worth making. I’m not criticizing you; I know you’re playing devil’s advocate, but it's a seriously weak argument that's usually made in bad faith.”
“Maybe,” Lisa said. “But a woman doesn’t have to keep a child. What about adoption?”
“You know how hard it is to get a job if you’ve ever taken maternity leave?” Anna asked. Lisa thought back to her interview at the school district. The question had seemed strange at the time, at all of twenty years old, being asked if she’d ever taken leave from another position. “It makes a woman a ‘bad risk,’ like having had a baby is a preexisting condition. But it seriously kills a woman’s ability to forge a career, provide for herself; it makes women de facto dependent on and subordinate to men.”
But the rhetorical exercise wasn’t distracting Lisa anymore, and Anna could tell from the way she slumped in her seat, so she backed off. The silence made Lisa even more nervous, so she asked, “What do you need me to do?”
“Hopefully, nothing. There’s a burner phone charged up in that apartment. If Kara answers it, and she’s able, she’ll come down to us under her own steam. And in that event, all you’ll have to do is get into the backseat. But she was shot. She texted me, in code, that she made it to the bolt-hole. But she isn’t supposed to call out- at this time of night that makes her easy to find if they just monitor the cell towers for activity. So we won’t know until we get there. But if she needs help, I may have to send you. If I do, knock four times, three times, one time- or she won’t respond.”
“You planned out a special knock, just in case?”
“I’m thorough,” Anna said. “She shouldn’t come right to the door, though- she should respond with three sharp knocks of her own. If she doesn’t, regardless of if a woman answers, say ‘I was looking for my cousin, Amy. This is 1002 south Lexington, right?’ If she’s alone, and it’s clear, she’ll tell you she was expecting her cousin Sherry. If not, she’ll tell you you’re at north Lexington, and made a mistake. There is an Amy in the phonebook, at 1002 south Lexington. She’s dead- of natural causes- but she’s still in the book.”
Anna slowed the car down to a crawl as they passed an apartment building with a brick façade. “That’s the place,” she said. “We’re going to make a wide circle; keep an eye out for anything suspicious.”
“Like that helped last time,” Lisa muttered, as Anna dialed her phone. She pinched it in the crook of her arm, then slid it under her chin as it rang.
Every single shadow Lisa saw was heavy with possibilities, every stray shard of light potentially a badge, or a gun, or even the eye of an overzealous cop. The sound of her own heart beating in her ears seemed to grow louder with every muffled ring from Anna’s phone, until they’d driven around the block. Anna pulled the car over by the side of the road. “Shit. Nothing,” she said, hanging up.
“That’s what I’ve got, too,” Lisa said.
Anna dialed again, but this time it was picked up instantly. “Are you in place?” she asked.
“Yeah, I’m at the roadblock. But there’s a complication. There’s a big dick swinging around the place.”
“A detective?” Anna asked. “Shit. Someone we know?”
“Not from Adam.”
“It’s your call, Mae.”
“He might be one of the good guys,” Mae said over the phone. “But the ones who were working the barricade- they’re fair game.”
“You’ll have your distraction in three, two-” there was the sound of a shot. “Godspeed.” Mae disconnected.
“She’s in a bad mood,” Anna said. “I hope she doesn’t play with her food.” At first that seemed in poor taste to Lisa, but then she saw Anna’s face, and realized it really did weigh on her; even if they were her enemies, she didn’t want them to suffer needlessly. But Lisa had worked with Mae- and she didn’t think she was capable of that kind of cruelty- not even upset as she was. “You should get in there. Apartment 2B.”
Lisa stepped out of the car, and slammed the door behind her. The night air made her shiver, but it had little to do with the cold; it made her feel vulnerable, isolated- that the change in climate was indicative of the space now between her and Anna. She was alone on that street.
And when she stepped inside the building, she was alone, there, too. It should have been comforting. Only a moment before, she’d pictured a stairwell swelling with cops, all aiming guns at her.
But instead, the emptiness put her in mind of Winston Smith from 1984, and his constant belief that he was never safe, only ever being given enough rope to wrap once more around his neck. She took the first step with caution, listening to every sound the building made, the rattle of the air conditioning, the creak of wood somewhere in the structure. A door closed abruptly somewhere upstairs, and she started.
She knew she couldn’t continue like that, one step at a time, waiting for annihilation. So she ran up the rest of the steps, not taking her eyes off the carpet for fear of what she might see. But at the top of the first flight she ran out of distractions, and was confronted by the second floor hallway. There wasn't a soul inside.
She took the first step onto the carpet, bracing herself, as if that was the moment her anxiety would have been apparent to even the laziest of policemen. But no one jumped out, or told her to freeze from cover. She looked at the first door on her left- 2G, which meant her destination was at the other end of the hall. Of course it was.
She started walking, trying to count the alphabet on either of her hands backwards to figure out whether it would be on her right or left. She was still fumbling with that when she noticed 2B on her right side. She stopped, and looked at the door. It didn't look like it had been kicked in by cops.
Of course, it was entirely possible Kara had never made it- or perhaps worse, that Kara had been taken in, and that a female officer might be laying in wait inside.
She knocked eight times, four, then three, and one last crack of her knuckles on wood. She closed her eyes, and tried to listen for the sounds of voices or footsteps inside, but couldn't hear anything over the speeding of her breathing.
Then the door opened, without a knocked response. Lisa tensed, and on its own her body turned her towards the stairs. She saw a man coming up the stars she didn't know, old, fat, with a graying moustache; he smiled at her, beneath it, and shambled towards 2G, and started fumbling in his pocket for keys.
“Shit,” Lisa heard beside her. “Was supposed, to knock. If you're looking, for Amy, she lives on south, Lexington, and this is north. That happens, all, the time.” Lisa turned back towards 2B, eying the woman suspiciously. Her face was pale, her eyes glazed. Lisa knew, to save herself, she should have just kept on walking, and ignored the woman. But she could also tell that if that was Kara, walking away would kill her.
“Were you expecting your cousin?” Lisa asked.
“She couldn't make it,” Lisa said. “But she wanted me to make sure you got in all right.”
“Thank fucking, Christ for that,” Kara said, and turned back inside the apartment. By the time Lisa made it through the door she was already lowering herself down onto the edge of the bed gingerly. Lisa was surprised to see that she was easily eight months pregnant.
“Big as a houseboat, and twice as pretty.” She rubbed her belly over her shirt. “So where is Sherry?” she asked. Lisa hesitated. She listened to the apartment, waiting for a telltale sound of someone else. But she wasn't satisfied when it didn't come, so she walked back to the bathroom, pushed the door open. Then she looked in the closet.
“We'll have to go to her,” Lisa said. “But first, I need to see the gunshot wound.”
Kara narrowed her eyes. “Why?”
Lisa sighed. “If I'm who you fear I am, then the others will just come in, cuff you, and look. But if you're not who I hope you are...”
“Okay. Sorry.” Kara rolled up her shirt. “Either you're risking your life for me, or mine's already over...” She had a hand towel duct-taped to the side of her chest, just under her left breast. She pulled it back to reveal a bullet wound. Kara dabbed at it with the cloth, and it sopped up the blood long enough for Lisa to see dangling, shredded meet, and bones, before blood filled the hole back up. “Satisfied?”
“That is gross.”
Kara taped the cloth back in place. “It's a gunshot wound.”
“Well, it's my first close look at one. And it's gross.”
“Help me up,” Kara said, putting out her arm. Lisa helped her stand, and braced herself against Kara's right side.
“You don't have a gun, do you?” Lisa asked.
“If there are cops out there, it won't matter.” Lisa opened the door into the hall, and peered out.
“Looks clear,” she said, “and I noticed that wasn't a no.”
“A girl has to be able to keep some secrets,” Kara said with a smile, and they started down the hall together.
They made it most of the way down the hall without incident. But 2G unlocked as they walked by, and Lisa started. Kara grabbed her arm and squeezed, and they both watched helplessly as the door opened. The old man with the moustache poked his head out, squinted at them, then his eyebrows went up. “Ah!” he said, then he smiled. “I don't care what anyone says, I think it's beautiful for a child to be reared in a home with two parents who love it.”
“Oh,” Lisa said, “we're,” Kara squeezed her arm before she could say anything else. “Thank you.”
“You're very welcome. It's nice to have such pleasant neighbors. You girls have a good night.” He closed the door and bolted it.
They made their way down the stairs, then through the lobby, and out onto the sidewalk. Anna had the engine running, and was subtly watching her mirrors for movement. Lisa opened up the passenger front door, and helped Kara lower herself into the seat. Then she popped into the back.
“What did you do, Lis?” Anna said, her breathe barely a whisper.
“What?” she asked, beginning to panic.
“That's not Kara,” she said, her voice building towards a scream. She reached back behind her, then turned towards Lisa, and the shock on her face became a grin. “I'm just fucking with you.”
“Oh my God,” Lisa said, “that's not funny.”
“I don't know,” Kara said. “I'm gunshot, and I still thought it was a little funny.”
Anna started up the car, and eased it away from the curb. “The car?” she asked Kara casually after they drove a few blocks away.
“Ditched it ten blocks that way- far from anything of ours.”
“Good. The supplies?” Kara's eyes got wide, and Anna nodded. “Good. And how are you holding up?”
“I don't think I am...” she said, sighing as she fell back in her seat.
“I lost a lot of blood,” she said, the words melting like butter in the sun. “And I'm definitely losing consciousness.”
“Kara?” Anna asked. “Kara! Goddamnit.” Anna sped up the car, and started dialing her phone. “Ellen? Yeah, we've got her, but she just lost consciousness. We're still a few minutes away. Have Mitchell meet us at the front door to help us get her inside. And be ready.”
Anna was nearly doubling the speed limit. “Slow down,” Lisa said from the back seat. “If you get us pulled over we're all dead- and that doesn't do Kara any good.” Anna met her halfway towards legal.
Lisa still didn't recognize anything on the road. But Anna started talking to her with a hushed but rapid delivery, “Usually women have to work with us a lot longer before they get to see where the Shelter is. But we don't have time to be taciturn about this. So we're going through the front door. We're going to have help carry her inside. We'll want to do it fast- because we don't want to be on the street for very long. So as soon as we park, meet me on the passenger side.”
Lisa nodded furiously. She thought she recognized a tree or two that they passed, and then Anna pulled to the side of the street. “Go,” Anna said. Lisa was out her door in an instant, but somehow Anna still beat her to the passenger side door. They rolled Kara out of the car, but she was heavy, and awkward, and they were in danger of dropping her until Mitchell appeared behind them. He got his hands beneath her armpits.
“Get the door,” he said, and dragged her towards it. Anna ran to the Shelter front door and held it open, and he pulled her through, dragging her heels along the sidewalk.
Lisa followed him inside, and into the first room on the left, where a makeshift operating room had been assembled. Lisa helped him get Kara up onto the table, and Dr. Dowling began examining the body.
“She's got a gunshot on her left side,” Lisa showed on her own torso where it was. “She had it stopped up with a hand towel.”
“It's not the blood coming out of her that's the problem,” Elle said, “it's all the blood that didn't.”
“What?” Anna asked from the doorway.
“Internal bleeding. Putting a washcloth over the hole doesn't do a goddamned thing to stop the bleeding inside. I need everyone who isn't a trained medical professional out of the room. Right now.”
Mitchell slammed the door behind them. Ofelia was standing on the steps from upstairs. “What going on?” she asked.
“The gunshot's bad,” Anna said. “Dowling's dealing with it.”
“Should I tell the others anything?” she asked.
“They can pray, if they want. But right now, it's in God's and Ellen's hands.” Ofelia shook her head, and ran back up the stairs.
Anna walked down the hall, and Lisa followed. She grabbed two wooden chairs from the table and carried them into the hall. Lisa sat in the one farthest from the door, but she couldn't just sit there silently with her thoughts. “What kind of a doctor is Dr. Dowling?” Lisa asked.
“So changes to women's insurance-”
“Pretty much ended her career. But she was for the cause, long before then. She turned patients our way, donated, money, supplies. The occasional procedure when one of our doctors needed the help. But cutting reproductive health out of women's plans... that was the final straw for her. She could have gone back to school, or maybe done another residency, but she went into medicine because women needed her help. So she wasn't going anywhere.” Ellen kicked open the door. Tears were streaming down her face, and she collapsed against the wall. “Ellen?” Anna asked.
She let her head roll back and smack into the wall. “I'm just... I'm tired of not being able to save anyone.”
Anna locked eyes with Lisa, but she pushed the loss aside. “It's a bad run. But things will get better again. You know we're better, having you here.”
“Really?” Ellen asked, her voice turning angry as she pushed herself up off the ground. “Because it seems like all I'm doing is enabling you. Having me here means you can play at spies and soldiers, because you can expect me to fix you up.”
“I know you're upset,” Anna said. “And that you're probably not done yelling at me. But you aren't done with Kara, either.” Dowling glared from behind her glasses. “I can do it myself- but I'd prefer for her family to be able to have an open casket at her funeral.” Dowling stomped her foot, but went back inside the improvised OR.
Lisa wondered what there was left to do with Kara, though it sounded like maybe she wanted the doctor to close up the wound to make her presentable. However, she didn't get long to contemplate it, because Mae emerged from the same tunnel they'd used earlier to sneak out.
Mae was covered up to her chest with mud, and Lisa realized it was from firing prone. “How'd it go?” Anna asked her.
“Killed four cops, about half a dozen cop cars. But tell me it wasn't for nothing.” Anna couldn't look her in the eye. “Damnit!” she yelled, and punched the frame of the doorway she was standing in.
Anna put her hand on Mae's shoulder, and for the first time Lisa saw the two in close proximity, and how Mae was four inches taller and six inches broader, and how much smaller and skinnier Anna was. “Did we at least get her home?” Mae asked.
“Yeah,” Anna said.
“In one piece?” Mae asked.
Anna winced, as if it were crass to even discuss it. “Yeah.”
“Then let's go see if it was worth it,” Mae said, but from the bitterness in her voice Lisa could already tell she didn't believe it could be.
Lisa was the last one in the room. Dr. Dowling looked over her shoulder at the gathered crowd, and wanted to be angry at them, but didn't have the strength, so she went back to making an incision in Kara's belly.
Kara's shirt had been sliced up the middle, and her bandage lay discarded on the floor. Lisa's mind lingered on how vulnerable the body looked lying on the table, exposed and motionless.
Dr. Dowling widened the incision, and Lisa realized what was happening. It seemed like a perverse way to honor the dead, carving out her child post-mortem; the lack of urgency told her the child definitely wasn't alive any longer.
But then she pondered if that had been the deal, that Kara was muling whatever for them in exchange for her abortion- so this was just rendering payment due. The thought turned Lisa's stomach, and her fists balled in rage as Dowling reached inside the incision.
What she pulled out wasn't a baby. It was a condom, but inside Lisa could make out strangely-shaped devices. She stared at them, half-remembering them from sometime before.
“IUDs, and implants, smuggled in from Canada,” Anna said.
“We don't import the pill anymore,” Ellen said, shoveling out another condom of contraceptives. “This is five years of birth control for dozens of women. The pill for just one would take up the same amount of space.”
“It looks like contraceptives,” Anna said, “but it's lives, lives she saved. Because the implant procedure for any of those is discreet enough we can do them in the field, without having to drag a woman to one of the clinics. And that means not having to drag them there for abortions, too. Kara was a hero; and it's a tragedy of our world that heroes end like this. But she gave her life trying to help us. And what she brought us was the most precious gift of all: freedom.”
When they reached the station, they were finally greeted by a friendly, human face. “Good afternoon. I'm Dr. Maria Wesley.” Clod looked from her to Paul. “Yep. Some of you may have put two and two together- and even if you didn't, I'm sure Speedy would tell you unprovoked within a few seconds, but I am the former Mrs. Paul Wesley. Awkward, right? No, actually. We divorced on good terms. And more than that you can ask him about, or buy me a drink and try to talk me out of- but we're otherwise moving along.”
“Welcome to the Lunar Station. It's a joint venture of ours with the European Space Agency and the Russians. It was the hope at the time that this would be the next step in a unified space program after the ISS. And as you all undoubtedly know, that plan's going about as well as the common European currency did in the 2010s.”
“On the bright side, we were stubborn enough to forge on ahead and pay for it out of pocket. Pardon any nationalistic sentiments; but the fact is upwards of 80% of the building and operating costs for this station were covered by the U.S.”
“Which you afforded in part by refusing to pay your U.N. dues,” Martin said.
“Touché. But I wasn't trying to start something. Just pointing out that this place is less international than advertised. However, with the Mars mission, we're finally seeing the kind of cooperation the Lunar Station was always supposed to encourage. Our budget for the next year is being split 60-40. In fact, in a day or two, we're expecting the arrival of our first Chinese astronaut.”
“Ang?” Paul asked.
“Yep. Your nearly crewmate will be doing a tour on the Station. But far more interesting than staffing is the research this station has allowed us to pursue. The hydroponic systems that your mission will depend on to grow your food were perfected right here. In fact, our hydroponics wing could support a workforce of over 400- and eventually may, if it ever becomes cost-effective to keep that many people up here.”
“Our current population is just over a dozen workers. Most of the busy work, janitorial, mining, and otherwise, is automated and done by robots, ranging in scale from the Buick-sized mining drones to the nearly-nano- but the very same kinds of robots that some people expected to be taking your places on the Mars mission.”
“Only the US was contemplating a robots-only first mission,” Martin said again.
“I'm as human as you are, and I wasn't looking to start a philosophical discussion. But robots were the original choice.”
“Which makes sense,” Paul said. “Robots don't require oxygen, they can be 'fed' electricity from solar panels, so fewer supplies are necessary. They function fine in prolonged zero gravity. Basically, they require way less effort to remain functional.”
“Which is why the Station is kept up by a force that is composed twenty to one of robots- and that's not counting the teensy ones, mind you, that's all the drones that are roughly human-sized. We're not technically on the lunar surface; compartments designed for human use are all underground, to help shield against cosmic radiation.”
“But you're scheduled to be here for about a week. The Perseus is basically assembled, but the drones that put it together are going to check your pressurization in all of the compartments, do weld-tests, basically make sure you're not driving off the lot with a lemon. In the interim, you've got crew quarters set up in the barracks downstairs. I scheduled a maglev for you in the morning, to take you to the pole, to have a peak at our water-collection operation and the solar arrays at the Peaks- the Peaks of Eternal Light.”
“I've got my regular work to keep up with, so I won't be able to tour-guide you around, but Speed can multitask like nobody's business, so he'll be fully capable of answering whatever questions you might have, and can throw enough trivia at you to choke a Parker Brother.”
“Most of us have been up for twenty hours or more,” Rica said. “Could you show us where our rooms are?”
Maria sighed; it was a passive-aggressive little noise that only Paul caught, and only because he knew it well. She didn't like being a tour guide. But she also knew it was a small courtesy, so she said, “Sure.”
The barracks were down a set of stairs.
Everything in the station was modular. Paul recognized a bay of chairs that was identical to the seats on the lunar elevator. Dorms were actually pods that connected to larger areas by way of universal joints.
As they passed, each door lit up with the name of a crewmember, first going through those working on the station itself, and then including the crew of the Perseus. Alisa, Rica and Clod all stopped at their doors and went inside. The doors scanned for biometrics, and when they recognized their owner standing outside, opened.
The men stopped outside their doors. Then Rica and Alisa's doors opened, and discreetly, Alisa pulled Rica into her room.
“That was fast,” Levy said. “And then there was one,” he said, looking in the direction of Clod's room.
“Why are you so concerned about it?” Paul asked. “You have enough True Fidelity 3D porn that it'd take you four exceptionally long lifetimes to watch it all.”
“How do you know what's on my hard drives?”
“Ken told me. Mostly because he wanted me to make sure you didn't get any repetitive stress disorders,” Paul said, and pantomimed jerking off.
“Well, at least you're the only one he told,” Levy said. “And we've got doctor-patient confidentiality, right?”
“If you're talking about your pornography,” Martin said from behind him, “Ken told all of us about it. We had a briefing special for it. I think it was supposed to be for something else, but then you didn't show, so he made it about you and your porn.”
“No,” Martin said with a grin, “what's lovely is you organized your pornography by type of sex act, and the lubricant used. You’re the Melvil Dewey of pornography.”
“I hate you,” Levy said, and went into his room.
I'd submitted my report the day before, after talking to Peter, suggesting we close the file on Deborah Gladstone. It was my first case, so it didn't surprise me when the chief of detectives asked to see me the next morning.
“That's nice work. Good police work. Thorough. Gottfried could learn a thing or two from you already. Of course, he's mostly just there to keep you and Campbell's seat warm overnight- and on the off chance there's something gender crimes that won't keep. But that happens even less frequently than you'd imagine. The only real problem I see, is it's missing something.”
My mind raced, and in between swearing at myself for screwing up my first case I was scouring my brain for what it might be. But I couldn't think of anything.
“She's going through with it.”
“Excuse me?” I asked.
“We've got an informant. Reliable, well-placed. Says that Gladstone is on the schedule for this afternoon.”
“But she told her fiancé that-”
“Women lie. Men, too; but due to biology we can't lie about our disposition towards our pregnancies. Maybe something changed. Maybe she was stringing along the boyfriend, and planned to 'miscarry' sometime later down the line. I don't know- nor do I give a fuck. I'm not blaming you, Harmon; these cases are tricky, and I meant what I said about the file: it's good work. And the only bit of advice I'd give you: don't try to predict people. They will surprise, and disappoint you, every time.”
I wanted to kick myself; I wanted to kick Deborah, too.
“But on that note,” he said, “of closing out your first case successfully, SWAT are preparing for a raid. Seeing as your plate is now empty, they asked if they could borrow you. They've got your report, the address and the apartment number. But it ain't easy stealthily inserting a SWAT team- especially since sometimes one of the officers gets twitchy with the ram and knocks in the wrong door. And these abortionists, often they're armed to the teets. So it's crucial for SWAT to get in quick, before they get dug in- otherwise we end up with a domestic firefight on our hands.”
“Yeah,” I said, “that'd be fine. Happy to help out.”
“Good. That's what we like to hear. And it'll help to have you there to make an ID on Gladstone. To make sure we've got the strongest case possible against her, you'll want to wait until she's in the clinic. It's best if you can interrupt them midprocedure. But I wouldn't wait too long, either; there's the life of a child at stake. And I'd rather let a thousand baby-killers go free, than lose a single child.”
“I'll keep that in mind, sir.”
The docking procedure was almost boring. Everything was so routine, now, after hundreds of hours of simulations, and drills. But one thing they hadn't trained for was the dock.
The dock looked like a piece of shale, which was close to the truth. It was an asteroid attached to the end of the lunar elevator as a counterbalance. The construction inside the asteroid was basic, just one module that attached to the Perseus. The rest of the station was inside the rock, which functioned as a natural radiation soak, which sat at the top of the elevator. But the elevator was different.
A small conventional elevator delivered them to the climber. The climber was massive, a warehouse on wires. And on the far side of it were chairs, and a large monitor, attached to a massive window. The lunar surface looked close enough to touch.
“Greetings, Perseus crew.” The voice came from the monitor, and a swirling, morphing color-changing object began to move against its black background. “Come closer.” They started walking, and the human-sounding voice waited until they were only a few feet away.
“I am Speed, a prototype reading and contextual reasoning platform.”
“Speed Racr?” Levy asked. “Love it.”
“I am descended from a long line of technological marvels, including Deep Blue and Watson.”
“I remember Watson kicking Ken Jennings ass at Jeopardy,” Paul said.
“How old are you?” Levy asked.
“Dr. Paul Wesley is thirty-seven years, forty-eight days, twelve hours and twenty-six minutes old. But to answer the philosophic portion of your query, he is quite a bit older than you, and shows his age by recognizing antiquated cultural landmarks.”
“That monitor really put you in your place,” Clod said.
“Maybe. But can you tell me every movie Kate Winslet has been naked in?” Levy asked.
“Holy Smoke, The Reader, Jude, Cleanflix, Little Children, Iris, Quills, Hideous Kinky, Titanic, Hamlet, and she was also nude in the Mildred Pierce series.”
“I’m in love. Can we get one for our ship?”
“It’s a little late to requisition equipment,” Martin told him.
“Then can I steal this one? I promise only to have sex with it in my own room and never in the commissary while people are eating.”
“Please don’t let him steal me or use me for sex,” Speed pleaded. “I don't believe I have a compatible port for that.”
“You will stop harassing the computer, Levy,” Martin said. “No means no, even in binary.”
“Thank you, captain. The lunar elevator you are currently riding in is comprised primarily of M5 fiber, polyhydroquinone-diimidazopyridine, a high-strength synthetic developed by Dr. Doetze Sikkema at Akzo Nobel.”
“The elevator was completed as part of a public-private partnership between several space agencies and a collection of business interests. As its counter-weight, the elevator harnessed the unused remains of 617 Patroclus, the asteroid brought into lunar orbit using the Interplanetary Transport Network.”
“The ITN is a series of gravitational trajectories around the solar system, and uses planetary orbits to redirect an object’s path allowing for long-distance travel at minimal fuel cost. 617 Patroclus was specifically chosen for its high water-content. Menoetius, its companion comet, accounts for over thirty percent of the water now in use in the Lunar Station below.”
“We’re going really slow,” Clod said, staring down at the surface, which hardly appeared to be moving.
“We’re moving at speeds approaching 200 kilometers an hour,” Speed told her.
“Yes, but we were moving at speeds several times that,” Clod said. “And I’d like a hot bath before I’m blasted yet again into space.”
“Regretfully, I must inform you that it’s still another 18 hours to the lunar surface.”
“I’ve climbed glaciers faster than this.”
“I have no information on glaciers capable of those speeds, and that is nearly an order of magnitude above human top speed. I presume you were utilizing hyperbole to make the point that you are not pleased with our current speed.”
“Oh, my God,” she said. “This thing is why they wouldn’t let me carry a gun in space, because I would shoot it, and then myself- but only because I can’t possibly do it in reverse order.”
“Incorrect. Guns are not allowed in spacecraft because their discharge in the confined spaces of a vessel or station would present undue danger to the crew and equipment. Further, there are also concerns in the literature that ready access to firearms increases the incidence of violence.”
“Can someone help me open an airlock? I want to die. But I want to take that thing with me before I go.”
“While your hyperbolic threat of violence is amusing, I feel bound to inform you that the object of your irritation is merely a monitor and interface; my processes are carried out remotely, spread across several server towers on the Lunar Station. I could not possibly be damaged in the manner you describe.”
Lisa was full of energy that night. And fear. She had always liked going to bed early, and getting up around the time the sun did. But it was already long past her preferred bedtime. That was likely because her preferred bed was a smoldering little pile of ash, and even within prodding distance of Mae, she couldn’t feel safe.
She also heard noise, movement. Someone else couldn’t sleep, and it kept her on edge. Lisa wondered if she could fall asleep on the couch downstairs, and threw herself off her mattress angrily, planning to make a go of it. But it made Ofelia start.
She could see it in Lisa’s face, that she was frustrated. “Sorry,” Ofelia said. “I’m fidgety. And I can’t sleep. And I know I’m keeping you up. Everybody else has learned to put up with me, but,”
Lisa felt bad for being angry, and worse for letting it show. “What’s wrong?” she asked, sitting down on the edge of Ofelia’s bed.
“Merril and I were close,” the younger woman said.
“Like, close?” Lisa asked, nodding towards Mae’s bunk.
“What?” Ofelia asked, then turned red. “No, not like that. Just friends. She was the closest to my age. And I was the one who first brought her in. I spend time hanging around doctor's offices and clinics, not recruiting, exactly, but letting people know we're here to help, if they need it.”
“But I... I always thought she'd make it out, you know, and that she'd have a life...” she sighed. “Most of us won’t. I didn’t begrudge her that; but Anna, Mae- they couldn’t go back to the normal world, not even if they wanted to. And I made my choice,” she said, and looked down at the brand on her arm, but there was sadness under her expression, too, that Lisa hadn’t seen before.
“You made your choice?” Lisa asked.
She held out her arm, showing Lisa the ‘OFELI’ tattoo, that ended in a larger ‘A’ burnt into her skin. “I did this myself.”
“I thought maybe it was a Margaret Atwood thing.”
“No. Though you're not the first to think that. My boyfriend at the time was named Ian- though I guess that’s close enough for some people.”
“It started pretty simply, really. He came to live with us because his mom was a terrible meth addict. He nearly got expelled from high school because he was constantly missing classes because he was taking care of her, or filling in when she missed her shifts at the KFC. That still seems ironic to me; forbidding someone from coming to school for not coming to school.”
“But I didn't really know him. I didn’t have any classes with him, or anything, but my dad was a janitor at the school. And Ian ended up helping my dad as punishment for his attendance. A bunch. The principal joked that it was vocational training for him. But one day he begged my dad to let him go early; the manager at the KFC said he'd fire him if he was late for his shift that day- a shift that began 45 minutes before his detention was up.”
“They had talked before about Ian covering for his mom, but it's one thing, covering when she was too sick to show, and another knowing a whole day in advance that he had a shift to work. So my dad asked what had happened to his mom. And Ian told him that his mom was in jail. She got caught tearing the copper out of a house that was being remodeled. Ian had been trying to keep her job, and keep paying her mortgage, and buy food, because he couldn't stand the idea of spending his last few years before adulthood in the foster system. So my dad took him in.”
“That sounds... decent,” Lisa said.
“My dad is, about most things. And so was Ian. But I was young, and gawky, and he was a couple years older, and handsome, and troubled, and sweet. I didn't stand a chance.”
“We snuck around about it for a while; we were really concerned what my dad would think, and, you know, if he had the typical dad reaction, Ian would be out on the street the moment he knew. But one night Ian kind of accidentally slept over in my room. And the next morning my dad was sitting at the breakfast table, with a clear view of my bedroom down the hall.”
“When we woke up we freaked out, and made plans for Ian to sneak back into his room, and then wait twenty minutes before coming to breakfast. But when we saw him there, we knew we were caught.”
“There were two plates with pancakes set for us, and he waited for us to sit down before he said anything. But what he said was what we never would have expected. 'Ian, I've considered you family since the day you moved in. And I'm happy my daughter feels the same way. But family isn't all fun,' he made a dramatic show of picking up his reader to reveal my grandmother's engagement ring, 'it's responsibilities, too.'”
“It was kind of a shotgun engagement. Not that he was holding a gun, or anything. But my dad had that kind of... threatening presence. And to Ian's credit he did not freak the fuck out. But we were both young enough and stupidly in love enough that an engagement seemed like the right thing for two still fucking teenagers to do.”
“But we really fucking loved each other. In slightly different circumstances, we'd probably be married, now. Ian graduated ahead of me, and my dad got him a part-time janitorial job at the elementary school. It was a little eerily like I was dating my dad, but I loved them both, so, you know, it wasn't the worst thing in the world.”
“But then they started talking about babies. And I'm a tiny little thing; the idea of squeezing a watermelon-sized football of a kid out of me scared the crap out of me. In that way, my sex education really worked. My dad loved the idea, said we were going to have the most beautiful grandkids for him. And Ian... well, Ian's family sucked, so he was in a hurry to have a family that didn't. I think because he wanted to prove that it wasn't his fault that his other family sucked.”
“But the more they talked about babies, the less I felt ready to have one. I think part of it was it was always them talking about me having babies; even when I was in the room I was the subject of the conversation, never a participant, and never really allowed to be one.”
“But I wasn't ready, physically, emotionally. And, I mean, I hadn't thought about it too much, but I wanted to have a job, too- a career. I didn't want to be a stay at homer, and even though I cared about Ian, I didn't want to totally depend on him- not financially. And the more I tried to talk to them about it the more apparent it became that my opinion on the matter didn't, um, matter.”
“I felt like a womb on legs- or, in Ian's case, a womb and a vagina. I felt dehumanized, depersonified. And one day, coming home from school, I figured out how to get my, power, I guess, back. I had to do something, for me, something that I didn't ask Ian or my dad about- something they didn't even get to think about until it was done. I feel kind of stupid about it, now, since I know how very clichéd my rebellion was, but I decided to get a tattoo, nothing flashy, just my name down the inside of my left arm- where they'd have to see it and know I wasn't always their obedient little girl. But it was a small enough town where I lived that before it was finished, word of it got back to my dad and Ian and they came and got me.”
“It was Ian who pulled me out of the tattoo parlor. You can't see it, anymore, but there used to be the outline of the 'A' in Ofelia, and just the lightest smudge in the corner of it where the artist had started filling it in. And it was a small enough town that the tattoo artist didn't call the cops when I was dragged out of his shop. My dad was waiting in the car. And they didn't talk to me on the way home.”
“That was where my dad beat the hell out of me. And Ian just watched. He didn't hit me; but he didn't stop my dad, either. My dad was bigger than Ian, and scary, but he didn't even object. Maybe he was pissed, and at the time he wanted to see me hurt; I think he regretted it later. I think Ian was... more evolved than my dad was, so on some level I think he understood what my dad did was wrong- no matter how upset they were.”
“Ian wasn’t… he wasn’t a bad guy. That’s, it was just the way things are in Missouri. My dad was the same, though… him I won’t defend. But Ian, if he’d lived somewhere else, or had a better upbringing… I loved him, is what I’m trying to say. I loved him, and in his own fucked up way, he was just trying to love me.”
“But we didn't have enough money for a tattoo removal, not right away, anyway; one night when I couldn't sleep I overheard them discussing burning it off. It had the desired effect on them. But having that tattoo only partially filled in... it just felt to me like my life was like that, that I wasn't really a whole, complete person. I felt like I had no control, not over my body and not over my life. And I think there's a point in that cycle, where you either learn to accept victimhood, or you reject it. And for me that was a breaking point.”
“I didn't dare go back to the tattoo parlor. But really the tattoo had been a half-measure, a rebellion designed to take some small amount of control over my body- to claim just one little stretch of territory on my arm. But that wasn't enough, anymore; the evil I was rebelling against was more horrible, and so I thought my rebellion needed to be more full-fledged- and, ultimately, more practical. So I went to a little Planned Parenthood clinic- this was the last one in the state, before it had to close, too. I got checked out, and I got a prescription for birth control.”
“But outside, there was this guy, just staring. He was standing in the direction I needed to go to go home, but he was sinister enough looking that I went the other way. I figured it was worth a few extra blocks to go around him. But he started following me. And I realized he had something in his hand, what looked like a fireplace poker, but it had a glowing red end on it. I'd heard of the brandings- I mean, before that moment I thought they were an urban myth, but I'd heard of them.”
“I ran. I made it several blocks, but he was keeping up with me, so I tried to dodge down an alley. But a big truck was parked in it, blocking my way. I screamed, hoping the driver would hear me, but he wasn't around. No one was.”
“And just as I was starting to dispair, this redneck with the brand shoved me down. I think he was going to rape me, because he started to undo his pants. I kicked him in the balls and he dropped his brand. It had been a poker at one point, so it was thick, and I bashed his fucking skull in with it. He went down, and was bleeding all over- the wound was open, like a bleeding vagina in his temple.”
“But something about that moment, with that poker in my hand, I finally felt like I was in control, like, like I was really me. I wasn’t just who my dad wanted me to be, or even Ian. But there was one thing left, one thing that I’d wanted to do for myself, but been stopped from doing: the tattoo. And that ‘A’ brand was exactly what I needed.”
“Hurt like fuuuck, and, in retrospect, I should have got toasted, first, or at least been near some antiseptic. But it was worth it. Because now, anytime I feel like I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life, or I feel like I’m losing track of who I am, I just look down. ‘Who am I? Ofelia- that’s who the fuck I am.’”
“After that, the redneck started moving around, and moaning and I realized he wasn’t dead. And that was when I went from feeling empowered to being pissed off. I got down his trousers and tried to sodomize him with the brand. I didn’t even get it past the cheek- I still kind of regret that- because that was when the nurse from the clinic got there. They'd had trouble with that guy before, so when she saw him follow me off she called the cops, who of course gave her the run around. So she came after me herself. She was already involved with women's movements like the one here at the Shelter, and they underground railroaded me up here all the way from Missouri.”
“I thought I recognized your accent,” Lisa said. “I had an aunt from there.”
“I suppress it, best I can, but it’s there.”
“Why? I thought your whole girl power 'this is me' thing-”
“I never liked it, though. And the accent makes me feel like the powerless little girl who almost went along with letting two men plan out my whole fucking life. But talking without it... it's just another part of choosing who I'm going to be. If that makes any sense.”
“But smuggling underage girls is a thing we do?”
“It’s a pretty regular occurence. Girls- young and old- especially with brands, they encourage them to leave town. It keeps the local cops from harassing them as bad. You know, if you’re in the same town as your family, or whatever, they can get at your roots, and your past. It just gives them more things to hurt you with.”
“And smuggling is the only way we can get medicine, and supplies. Women's health equipment isn't quite contraband, since the upper class still get their care just fine, but it's near-as-damnit illegal. So most of it comes from Canada. Or when we get desperate, Mexico.”
Ofelia frowned. “They watch the border more closely. And there's always a chance one of the cartels is trying to sell phoney or cut medication. The risks are just worse. In Canada we buy from doctors; in Mexico, we usually have to deal with gangs. That's the main difference. If you're careful- and knowledgable- you don't get screwed, because even the shadiest druglord wants repeat customers. But it just... adds to the dangers.”
“I often think about going to Canada. But it always felt like... like it'd be abandoning the country, and all the other women here, to the bastards. And it's our country, too. And I think fighting for our rights, including the right to stay here and be treated right, became an important part of me, too.”
“That's why I'm glad you're here. Anna's cool, but she's so driven, so focused. And Mae is... well, Mae. And Jeanine is old. A lot of the other women here are practically ghosts. But it's nice to have new blood, here. I hate feeling like the baby.”
“I'm quite a bit older than you,” Lisa told her.
“Oh, I know. But having someone new, you have no idea how much that helps stop people from thinking of me as the child this village has come together to raise. It gives them something else to do, someone else to focus on. And it gives me someone I can, well, be friends with. But now that we're friends, you have to just promise me one thing, okay?”
“Okay,” Lisa said hesitantly.
“Don't die, okay? Because I,” she choked, “I don't think I could handle that right now.”
“I won't,” Lisa told her, and hugged her, and hoped it was true.
Clod had been up for most of a day. She wasn't enough of a mathematician, or a navigator, to know exactly when they would arrive at the Lunar Station, and she was too proud to ask.
But she did know that by the time she could see the lunar docking station they were nearly there. Her eyes were blurry, so at first she didn't even see the station, a ball at the end of a long, thin cord. “The lunar elevator. And I can see the Perseus,” Clod said.
It was the first time she'd seen her ship assembled in one piece. It had been launched in a dozen separate modules over the last few months.
“It's sticking out of the dock at the tip,” Levy said. “It’s like, the moon has an erection- and that erection has an erection.”
“And does all that give you an erection?” Paul asked with a grin.
Levy cupped his crotch. “Half-stock.”
“Originally,” Martin said, “they wanted us all to pilot part of the ship up here in six pieces, and then we were going to assemble it in the atmosphere.”
“Like a low-tech Voltron,” Levy interrupted.
“They abandoned the idea as soon as someone pointed out that spreading us out like that also meant each module would have to have life support- that, and it would give us a whole slew of redundant thrust systems. It would have nearly doubled the cost of the mission.”
“I didn't know any of that,” Paul said.
“I've been with this mission since the beginning, back when it was a European endeavor. The Americans had given up on the idea of a man-first Mars mission; your people wanted to send more robots- a whole crew of drones. And then they cut even that consolation prize out of the budget. It wasn't until the British built an engine that made the mission feasible that you got back into the pioneering game. Of course, I wasn't captaining the mission, then, I was just the pilot. That's how long ago that was.”
Clod looked at him out of the corner of her eye. “Touch my stick and you die,” she said, hovering protectively over their shuttle's controls.
“I’ve said much the same thing to Levy,” said Martin with a twinkle in his eye. “We were in the shower at the time, and he would not stop staring.”
“He has salt and pepper pubes. I'd never seen that before. It was an oddity.”
“All right,” Clod said, “we're on approach.”
“We need to sit?” Paul asked.
“Seatbacks and tray tables up,” she said. “And buckle in.”
“You mind if I?” Paul asked, gesturing towards the captain's seat.
“Knock yourself out,” Martin said, and stepped around him.
Clod touched the stick, adjusting their trajectory somewhat to align with the station.
“Do we need to slow down?” Paul asked.
“Marginally,” she said. “But just enough to match the speed of the docking station. Objects in orbit are, basically, traveling away from the planet at enough of a speed that it cancels out the force of gravity pulling it towards the planet's surface. Relative to the planet, it's staying still, but it's still moving really fucking fast through the air- or the vacuum, or whatever.”
“Fast as in a bullet train, or fighter jet. Or”
“Just being in lunar orbit puts us in pretty rarified company. Basically, if you're not an astronaut, you never get to move that fast. And we had to go even faster than that just to escape Earth's atmosphere. So for us, this is easy.”
“It doesn't look easy.”
“Really? I was going for effortless.”
“You're not sweating it,” Paul said, “but in the little ways, the way your hand shakes just a little when you're not touching the stick, flutter in your voice, quickness in your breathe. But you're guiding a comet into a pinhole. If you weren't even a little nervous, I don't think I'd trust you. You know, not to kill us.”
“It might be psychologically intimidating,” she said, reaching over and taking his hand. She used it to push the stick, ever so gently, watching the monitor to make sure the angle was right. “But it isn't that hard.”
“Oh, sure,” Levy said from behind them, “he gets to touch your stick.”
“Shut up, Levy,” Martin said.
I knocked on the door. It brought me back to a few days before, when I'd first been on that doorstep. Peter opened the door, but seemed surprised to see me. “Detective?” he asked.
“I'm closing out the case,” I told him.
He sighed. “Thank God, for that. She told me, yesterday, everything that happened. How close she got to going through with it. And I was pissed. She hadn't even talked to me, you know? But she thought about our life together, and maybe having a baby, and... I'm just so glad to have her back.”
“She at home?”
“She's at work.”
“Then why aren't you?”
“I've been there longer, so they trust me to do my work from home. Unless there's a meeting, I usually telecommute- saves them on office space. That, and the boss is kind of... he's not sexist, exactly, but he's been through two wives, so he doesn't trust women as much. Honestly, if it weren't for the fact that Deborah has to go in every day but I don't, I maybe never would have noticed, but it's harder for a woman to get the okay to work from home.”
“That's people, mostly. We all have weird hang-ups- and most of the time we aren't even aware they're there. It sucks, for us... but I don't know, truthfully, if Deborah and I could both work out of the home and still be productive. It's one thing skipping out from work for an extra twenty minutes on our lunch to moon over some Olive Garden. But it's another thing when she's taking off all her clothes and offering to sex me instead of work.”
“Eve tempting Adam away from the drawing table?”
“It probably wouldn't be a problem. But if it was... I don't know how I'd solve it. She'd be so happy, having more time with me. But we could both lose our jobs- though I guess with the baby coming, we'll both be home, so that's a hurdle we'll have to jump soon enough.” Then he seemed to realize something. “Why'd you want to know if she's here?”
“I would have liked to talk to her. I'd have kept you out of it, but I could have asked her a few questions. And told her how much danger she was putting herself in. I may be a detective, but I'm a cop, too. My job isn't just to snoop and arrest- I'm also supposed to protect, and serve. But maybe I can call her, later. Just a follow-up.”
“Yeah,” Peter said. There was worry on his face. He wondered if calling me had been the right thing after all.
“Do you think me calling her would be a bad thing?” I asked.
“She's got a real... rebellious streak. I guess I just worry that if you try to put the fear of God into her, she'll go through with it, just to spite you, and God, I guess. She's a sleeping dog, right now; maybe you should just let her lie.”
“Maybe that's for the best,” I said. “And best of luck, to the both of you.”
He gave me a half-hearted smile, nodded, and shut the door.
Clod was sitting in the pilot's seat. Their shuttle was already on its trajectory, and she didn't have the steering systems active. But she had her hands on the stick, anyway, because it was where she was most comfortable.
Paul had developed a fast friendship with her, initially because she'd made a beeline for the inside of his pants. But it had progressed to something like a grudging, fraternal respect. That's why he was sitting in the captain's chair, just a little back from hers, but enough to the side that they could talk.
He was staring out at the stars, but caught enough of her reflection in the window to notice when she made a face. “Ulck,” she said, her nose twisting up. “I swear to God, Levy, you fart one more time, and I'm going to seal you back up in your suit. I don't care if we have to waste all of our O2 tanks, I'm done smelling whatever the hell you ate that makes that smell.”
“It wasn't me that time,” he said. “I swear.”
“After that,” Rica said timidly, “I'm kind of scared to admit this, but, it was me. And for the record, it was a calzone.”
“I didn't know hot chicks could fart,” Levy said, “especially not like that.” He held up his hand, and Rica slapped it. “Props.”
“I hate to disabuse you of that notion,” Clod said, “but I don't think it was going to last a two year voyage; I just can't hold it in that long. But we do.”
“We?” Paul teased.
“Like you weren't trying to look at my cleavage five minutes ago.”
“I've never seen someone cleave in a spacesuit.”
“Because you've never seen me in one.”
“Cool it, you two,” Martin said. “Because we have neither a hose to turn on you, or a room for you to get.”
“No worries,” Paul said. “Just having a little harmless fun.”
“It's always harmless until it isn't,” Martin said. “Just behave; I'm taking a turn on the cot.”
“But we were going to use the cot,” Paul teased.
“That's not nice,” Clod said. “Toying with a girl's emotions like that- getting my hopes up only to dash them.” Paul smiled.
“Go fish.” Rica said from behind them.
“I hate this game,” Alisa said.
“Then I don't know why you refused to play strip poker with me.”
“Because we're not nineteen year old boys, hoping to catch our first glimpse of real boob.”
“I am- at heart,” Levy said, leaning over the back of his chair.
“And it's not like we can get out of our spacesuits without help.”
“This is burgeoning on a letter to Penthouse,” Levy said.
“And there's him, leering as if he depended upon it to live.”
“Leering is an important part of our biology; maybe my life doesn't depend on it, but the long-term viability of our species depends on men wanting to sleep with women, despite all the potential diseases, or the cost and responsibilities of children.”
“So you're only now coming to understand what women have known going back to ancient Greece: that society depends upon the stupidity of men.”
“I don’t know that I would have nut-shelled it like that,” Levy said.
“So, strip poker?” Rica asked.
“It would just take that one word to make me believe in God and possibly an Easter bunny,” Levy said hopefully.
“Go fish,” Alisa replied.
“I don't know how I'm going to survive two years of this,” Martin said, and turned away from the crew, and covered his face with his arm.
Lisa wasn’t sure what to expect when she handed over a hundred and change. The man gave her a small parcel, wrapped delicately with a decorative ribbon. She walked it out to the car, which Mae was idling. “So what’s in the box?”
“It’s not Gwyneth Paltrow’s head, if that’s what you’re getting at.”
“But it is a head?” Lisa eyed her suspiciously.
“Nuh-uh; I’m not ruining the surprise.”
“Can I at least ask what’s with all the junk mail in the back seat?”
“All will be revealed, in time.”
“Yep. My mystique is how I pick up chicks. But I can start in on the background,” she said, pulling out of her parking spot. “Today’s the day ballots go out. Basically every state offers voting by mail, because it increases turn-out, by as much as 10%. And it increases participation in the elderly and other people for whom going to a polling place presents a hardship. Conservatives like it because it gets them more elderly votes, and liberals like it because it extends the voting franchise- and because they’re usually better at philosophy than math.”
“Women make up slightly more than half the population, because we live a little longer than men. Women make up about half of mail carriers, as well; it’s one of the rare careers with basic gender parity- so today women are delivering half the ballots. Women tend to get crappier postings- the ones that pay less and are in worse neighborhoods, which includes areas of women’s housing, so the numbers are even a little more skewed than that. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ll ballpark at 25% of the voting population who gets their ballots from a female mail carrier and are themselves female.”
Lisa swallowed. She could see where this was going. “It’s public knowledge when ballots go out in the mail. So the weeks before, men’s righters harass female mail carriers, stalk them, threaten them. That’s a whole quarter of votes that can be tampered with- and a full half of women’s votes. And because of the nature of mail, they get a chance to tamper with it coming and going.”
“But a mail carrier is basically a harasser’s wet dream; they keep a regular schedule and a regular route. And mail carriers know that it’s not hard for men’s righters to find a sympathetic woman in her area. So even if they try to be tricky about it, there’s really good odds they’ll get found out.”
She patted the revolver in the holster at her hip. “Normally, on a day like today, I prefer to carry the Casull .454, because for things like this, size does matter. We don’t want to shoot anyone. But if we have to, I want to leave a hole big enough for a rhino to screw. Because today is all about the message. But it’s gone missing. Nature of a shelter- sometimes the anonymity leads to sticky fingers; but I hope it’s just that someone wanted to feel safe.”
Mae pulled over to the side of the road. Lisa could see a woman mail carrier a few houses down. She noticed a few men hanging back, watching her. She caught sight of Mae, and nodded, and reached back into her bag for another envelope, brightly colored and stamped with the words ‘ballot enclosed,’ visible even from inside the car parked across the street.
“I want you to know something: today took a lot of hard work, and planning. I’ve been shadowing mail carriers several days a week for months. And we’ve had Jezebel and some others tracking down names, addresses. And then there’s getting other mail carriers to work with us. You want to hand me the first stack of junk mail and my bag? Oh, and I’ll need three cards from that box you picked up at the printers. But don’t look- remember, it’s a surprise.”
Lisa handed her the supplies. “You slide over into the driver’s seat, and stay in the car, lock the door until I say it’s okay. If anyone but me comes, you gun the fucking engine and get out of Dodge.”
Mae got out of the car, and the mail carrier delivered the ballot to a house practically covered in pink lace. The three men Lisa had seen started walking faster towards her.
Mae set her bag on the hood, and unzipped it. She pulled out an M4 carbine with an under-barrel M203 grenade launcher. “Fucksticks!” she yelled, to get the three men’s attention. They had just enough time to turn towards her and panic at the sight of the gun before she fired a grenade.
It spouted smoke at them, and after a few short seconds they dropped onto the concrete. The mail carrier nodded at Mae, and continued on her way. Mae signaled for Lisa to follow. Lisa got out of the car, and walked with Mae across the street to the unconscious men.
“The grenades contain Kolokol-1, kind of the Russian equivalent to Buzz; it’s an aerosolized opioid. Functions like a knock-out gas, but really I just gave those men an airborne overdose. It’s pretty fucking deadly in an enclosed space, but out in the open air,” Mae took in a deep breath.
She handed Lisa her phone, the bundled junk mail, and a knife. Mae retrieved an jet injector from her bag. “I’m going to give them naloxone, which should prevent them from dying.”
“I need you to capture their picture with the phone.” Lisa took a picture of the first man. “We’ve got an ap on there that will compare their image with a database of jackasses who we’ve spotted following mail carriers around, and identified.” Several other images of the man, taken from farther away, popped up, followed by a name, Roger Garrety. “The junk mail corresponds to the men in that database; it’s three weeks of it addressed to their homes. Match it to the men, and put one of the cards on top of the stack.”
Lisa used the knife to cut through the string keeping the mail bundled, and was finished with the first two men by the time Mae went back to her bag. This time she pulled out a nailgun. She positioned Roger’s mail over his crotch, along with the card, and nailed it in place. For the first time Lisa paid attention to the lovely brush script printed on the card, which read, ‘Respect your mail carrier.’
Mae nailed the second man’s junk mail in place, and saw that Lisa hadn’t finished with the last man, yet. Then she saw the questioning look on Lisa’s face. “They’ve been threatening mail carriers. We just want them to know we can find them where they live, too.”
“I don’t think they live on the streets; this is where they work. Unless you’re saying they’re all nomadic homeless people, which on a mail carrier’s salary might make sense…” Lisa finished confirming a match for the third man, and arranged the card and junk mail for Mae.
“Well pardon me for streamlining.” Mae said, and nailed the last bundle.
Mae packed up her tools, and zipped up the bag. Lisa led her back towards the car. She could make out Mae whistling the tune to Up on the Housetop. “You’re whistling Christmas carols- and that’s still months away.”
“I know. I feel like Santa Clause, only not fat, and my sack is full of ass-beatings and buckshot.” They got in the car, and Mae started the engine.
But one thing puzzled Lisa. “How’d we know those three would be first?” she asked.
“They aren’t bright. If they were changing things up, you know, different men stalking different carriers, we might have had to go through those bundles in the back, but like clockwork, it’s only ever the same few men. And hey, their sloppiness helps streamline our process.”
Mae caught up with the mail carrier as she walked away from another house down the street. Lisa could read the name Sue stitched onto the silver-haired woman’s uniform. Mae rolled down her window. “You owe me,” she said, and held two fingers on either side of her mouth and wagged her tongue.
“You are such a slut,” Sue said with a smile.
“You take care,” Mae said, and put her foot down on the accelerator.
“So, you and Sue…” Lisa said.
“God no, it’d be like banging my mom. Just friends.”
“I didn’t think those words were in your vocabulary.”
“I might be a sexual omnivore, but not all meats are created equal; I’m not saying an older woman’s bits go bad, exactly, but the meat isn’t supple anymore, it’s tough and stringy.”
“You seem fixated on meat,” Lisa said. “You want a burger, don’t you?”
She stepped on the gas. “You read my mind.”
“The Chinese like their big fucking shows of force,” Ken said, “like we used to, when we had the budget for it. Or maybe it’s their way of getting back at us for a century’s worth of little dick jokes. Either way, expect a Chinese wall- maybe even thick and throbbing enough to see from space.”
Dr. Pierce didn’t like being separated from his hive-mind; he also didn’t like representing medical. He was even less comfortable when they went through the doors into the conference room. There were thirty men and women crowded onto the opposite side of the table. Most of them had been flown over from China, just to show that they could afford the expense. There were a few seat-fillers from admin on the US side, but he was the only one Ken had specifically asked for in the meeting. Ken sat down, and he sat down in the open seat next to him. Dr. Pierce heard one of the seat-fillers whisper something about an ambassador, and nod at the middle of the Chinese side, in the chair next to Angwuo.
The Ambassador started to speak at a fast clip. Ken had specifically refused an interpreter; he spoke just enough Chinese to mess up his order at the Silver Dragon near his home. “Listen, you can Ching Dowdy Dodo at me until the moo goo gai pan comes home. But personally, I could care less if you can buy and sell my government. My concerns exist entirely within the realm of my program, my budget, and the safety of my people. And when one of your people is one of my people, that includes them, too.”
“Ang’s condition meant he wasn’t fit for spaceflight, especially not the long-term and possibly interminable. We put someone on the ship with his condition and we artificially put the mission on a ticking clock- your boy doesn’t get back before his insulin supply runs out and he’s dead. That reduces our ability to fine-tune based on conditions to nearly zero, and puts everyone on the crew at risk.”
“I like Ang, personally. I selected him for the team in the first place because he’s competent, skilled, and not the kind of showboating dickwad who puts himself over his crewmates. That’s maybe why I take offense, on his behalf, for you parading him around to win debate team points. I still see him as one of my own.”
“We are pleased to hear this,” the Ambassador said with a smile, and Ken knew he'd stepped in something. “Because we know there are openings for the Lunar Station. Given his aforementioned skills, and your personal liking of him, we assume you will have no difficulties in securing him a place on the Station.”
“You’re skipping over the vast expanse that was my middle point, between the inflammatory shit I said to start, and the man-hugging that made up the end. He’s got a medical condition that puts him, and those who rely upon him, at risk.”
“Ah, but as I understand it, your Lunar Station was recently made diabetic friendly, by the addition of bacterial reactors capable of synthesizing human proteins. One of them has been successfully batching human insulin with e. Coli for five months straight.”
Ken narrowed his eyes. “Medical?”
Dr. Pierce swallowed. “Uh, they’re correct. Bacterial reactors were installed on the Lunar Station eight months ago. There were a few kinks to work out, the low fluid shear environment of space, where liquids basically roll off cells without exerting much force, affects molecular genetic regulators, but, uh, the reactors are regularly churning out hormones, including insulin.”
“Well all right, then. Assuming everything sounds like it sounds right now, we ought to be able to clear a seat at the table for him. I’m not making promises; we got to make sure we cross our Is” the other man glared at him; “I said cross, not slant. We’ve been bouncing this ball back and forth long enough I’ve gotten used to your”
“inscrutable ways?” the other man offered with a smile.
“desire to paint me and my country in a less than favorable light. You are an oxen’s ass.”
“Oxen in my country symbolize patience, tenacity and steadiness. And much of an ox’s strength comes from its haunches.”
“Yeah, well you smell like an oxen’s ass, too.”
“There’s no culture in the world where that’s complimentary.” He swallowed. “But I didn’t come for platitudes. I want a timeline.”
“Next resupply of the Lunar Station is 8 weeks away. Unless you’re looking to pony up the dough to expedite”
“I’ve procured a sum large enough to cover the cost of the launch and the resupply.”
“We’ll be in touch,” Ken said, standing up, and he walked out of the room. It took Dr. Pierce a moment to realize he was being abandoned, and he scrambled to his feet and out the door. Ken was waiting on the other side for him. “What was that shit about a ‘low fluid shear environment?’”
“Some diseases are more infectious- and aggressive- in space.”
“I don’t know that we’ve tested syphilis.”
“Not in a lab setting,” Ken said, and smiled.
It was hard to reconcile my job and the realities of it with the world I'd always known. According to my coworker, a lot of women were dirty rotten scoundrels. I couldn't tell if that was the usual, jaded cop bullshit, or if she understood something innately that I had only just heard about- one of those hard truths it takes most of a lifetime to finally swallow.
I hoped she was wrong, because hers was a much darker, much bleaker world- and the one I'd always known was crappy enough.
I scheduled my shift so I could so I could shadow Deborah Gladstone at work, which after I parked outside her ad firm, I realized was an incredibly ill-conceived idea. She spent the entire time in an office cubicle; but I couldn't get close to her, couldn't monitor her conversations or her interactions or rifle through her things. Any of that would have aroused her suspicions- or at least required a warrant.
At lunch she did go out with her fiancé. They got sandwiches at a little walk up deli. His excitability from a few days before was gone, he was smiling, laughing with her, happy. I caught myself hoping he was a moron, whatever the crime equivalent of a hypochondriac was, that Deborah wasn't eyeing an abortion. For that matter, I hoped Candi was a moron, too, that there were other, better ways to deal with her than to toss her in jail.
I fell asleep more than once, trying to spend my entire day watching Deborah through a pair of binoculars. And I was pretty sure it was going to be a complete bust of a day. I watched her get in her car, and drive off, and I followed her.
I made a deal with myself. If she drove to the apartment she usually shared with Peter, I was going to go home, and collapse. Boss would be pissy I didn't write up my daily report first, but I'd spent all fucking day in a car, and my entire body from my upper lip down was alternatively asleep or being jabbed with pins and needles.
But she didn't go to the fiancé's. She drove to an address in Old Town. Most of the buildings there were smaller, cheaper, and less maintained.
But this one I recognized. They called it the Old Maid, because it was one of the women-only housing projects- rent-controlled and strictly for single females. There were more like it all over the city. Women who couldn't afford a better place, ended up places like it. It was a step up from the slums, but not a very big step.
The reason I knew it was because during my time riding along with the arson desk, somebody tossed a Molotov through one of the first floor windows. We all but traced it back to a men's rights group, but we couldn't get any evidence to stick to them. They did it- no question- but there's a big difference between what you know and what you can prove, and only one of them matters in a court of law.
I followed her inside. A woman was getting a package out of her mailbox in the lobby and she fixed me with a knowing glare. The name on the box was E. Kowalski. “They're very particular about male visitors,” she said.
“I'm going to be real quick, just taking my strictly platonic, lesbian coworker out for a movie,” I told her, and ran up the steps to catch up to Deborah. She stopped at the fourth floor, and went down the hall. I walked quickly behind her, pretending to be focused on a doorway down the hall as she went inside an apartment. I touched the door at the end of the hall, then walked back out much more slowly.
On the street I called Candi; her shift had just started. “I followed Deborah to that women's housing on Grant.”
“We've suspected for weeks that they set up a clinic there. But without more to go on, even the most pro-life judge in the county isn't going to give us a blanket warrant for the entire building.”
“Well, I followed her into the building, and I got a look inside the apartment she was going to, however briefly. And they've got an ultrasound machine inside.”
“That sounds like probable cause- and the successful end of your first case. In record time. I'm nearly impressed enough to ask you to dinner.”
“I wouldn't want it to seem like I'm throwing myself at you or anything.”
Deborah walked out of the building, in tears. “How long does the procedure take?”
“Well, if the fiancé can be trusted, then she's past the point of just taking a pill. So fifteen at a breakneck, reckless pace. But more likely an hour plus. Why?”
“Because she just walked out, after maybe two minutes.”
“Fuck. That probably drops a deuce on our probable cause.”
“There's nothing inherently illegal about owning an ultrasound machine- or even necessarily suspicious. But that, with the fiancé's testimony, and her spending enough time up the for either the procedure or at least a check-up... but it gets us an apartment number. It's several steps toward the finish line.”
Paul had worn the suit before, even underwater. But it felt heavier today. Every step was harder, and felt longer, than any step he'd ever taken. He tried to tell himself that the steps he was taking were little ones, even though the journey they were undertaking was a leap for the species.
But it was more than that. He wasn't alone, after all. His crewmates flanked him on either side. Since he'd returned, they'd been extra protective of him. They'd looked down the Russian barrel of the trip without him, and were happy to have him back.
They paused just once on the walk from the medical labs to their rocket, in front of a gathering of press and family, with a wall of glass behind them, and through that, their transport was visible. They waved, and smiled.
Paul tried not to look for Laura in the crowd, tried not to acknowledge it was the last time he was going to see her for two years, or how much that was kicking him in his guts just then.
He'd hoped she'd take the easy way out. He could handle being single. He'd done it before for what seemed like interminable stretches. But he wasn't sure he could handle a relationship at that distance. After all, that was why his marriage fell apart.
But before the smile the space program's PR team had trained into him could fade, their handlers waved them back on their journey. It was a crisp morning, cool for Florida, though in the suit Paul was still sweating.
“Don't worry,” Ken said over the comm. channel, “soon as the non-suited crew are clear the AC'll kick on. We don't want you drowning in your own nut juices- and cunt juices, respectively, ladies.”
“If not respectfully,” Alisa said with a smirk.
“Good,” Paul said, “thought it was just me.”
“I feel like a microwaving turkey, wrapped in foil,” Levy said. “And my giblets are very uncomfortable.”
The hatch closed and sealed. “Personnel are exiting the launch site. Here comes the AC, and with it, some pressure.”
“Pressure's holding at 1.2 atmospheres,” Clod said.
“No unexpected errors.”
“Then you are clear for launch. T minus sixty,” Ken said.
Clod and Martin started flicking switches.
“T minus nine,” Ken said.
“We have engine start,” Martin said.
“Eight, seven, six,” Ken continued.
“Ignition,” Clod said.
Paul was giddy, pressed into his seat; it reminded him of riding the Viper at Six Flags with his father. His dad used to tell him it was the fasted looping coaster in the world- though by then it hadn’t been for years. The Viper’s maximum G force was 4.1, while the launch was only around 3.
“We have mach 1,” Martin said from the captain’s seat.
His dad had died the year before of a heart attack. Paul wondered why he hadn’t caught the tell-tale signs himself, if that was because he had been too wrapped up in his own things, Laura, the space program, his residency. But he forced himself to put the thought out of his head.
“We have booster separation.” Martin said. “Second-stage engine start”
“Ignition,” Clod said.
Paul’s father had given him his love of space-flight, and before he’d been tall enough to ride the Viper, they rode Space Mountain together at Disneyland. He could still hear the recording from the queue, reminding him to stow his hat or glasses, and ending, “You are now ready for your intergalactic adventure, thank you and have a great flight."
The engines cut out, and a moment later they were in zero gravity.
“Holy crap,” Levy said, my first zero g boner. Krrrtk, Houston, we have an erection.”
“This is an open channel, dumbass,” Ken said. “And you don’t have to make the squawky sound.”
“Oh,” Levy said. “Are we there yet?”
“The trip to the moon takes four days.”
“Oh. Are we there yet?”
“Somebody, please, hit him,” Clod said.
“There’s no point,” Paul said. “In the suit, he wouldn’t feel it.”
“Damnit. NASA’s built a nerd I can’t hurt.”
“Trip to the moon takes a few days,” Ken said, “and it’ll be a few days more while they’re assembling the Phallus in lunar orbit.”
Paul exhaled. He’d been weightless before, for the handful of seconds the trainer jets allowed. But this was different. Every problem he'd ever had, ever insecurity and negative emotion, it fell back to the Earth, yanked away from him by gravity. He was free.
Lisa had never climbed up a fire escape before. And she’d certainly never done it following a muscular woman holding a rifle nearly as long as she was tall. “So what’d you do before this?” Lisa asked.
The top few rungs of the escape leading to the roof had been broken off with bolt cutters, and Mae stopped. “I was a housewife,” Mae said.
“Oh,” said Lisa.
“And a designated marksman in the Corps,” Mae grinned, and handed her the rifle. Then she jumped for the roof ledge, and caught it with her fingers.
Mae grunted as she kicked her legs, trying to do a pull up with just the first knuckle's worth of her fingers barely clawing over the ledge. Lisa leaned her shoulder into the wall, and Mae put her foot on it to get a better grip, and pulled herself up.
Mae reached down for the rifle. Lisa handed it to her, and she set it down on top of the roof. Then she reached back down for Lisa, and helped pull her up.
On the roof, Mae kneeled down by the ledge facing north. “You should stay down,” she said. “They call these buildings the Wall; it’s not hard to see why.” The buildings were close enough for nearly a mile that you could easily move from rooftop to rooftop. Those that weren’t close enough to simply step between had pieces of sheet metal or boards between them.
She ejected the magazine, checked that it was full and that the rounds were properly loaded, and slid it back into the rifle. She chambered a round, and slid the safety off. Then she loosened the bolt on the Weaver mount of her scope, and slid it off the Picatinny rails on top of the rifle. She held it up to her eye like a telescope.
“Sometimes those mens’ rights assholes set up counter-snipers up here. Doesn’t hurt to be careful. You got those binoculars?”
“Yeah…” Lisa said quietly, but she was distracted. Mae noticed.
“Yeah, I’m just…” she sighed. “No. Not even remotely. Two days ago I was a secretary at an elementary school. Yesterday I failed to save my neighbor from a fire set by the cops. And today…”
“Today you’re trying to help.”
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“Support, mostly. We’ve got another clinic set up, outside the city. This one we’re pretty sure they don’t know the location. But the girl, Merril, had been consulting with Dr. Gerson, so it’s possible the cops have her flagged- hell, it’s likely. That’s why we’re being extra cautious.”
“I’m sorry,” Lisa said. “You’ve been living with this, but for me it still doesn’t feel real. Everything is just so… fucked up. I didn’t question it, when I had trouble finding co-ed housing. But it was there, all along. How did we get this fucked up?”
“I’ve been calling it the ‘Lezistrata.’ I figure it started as a ploy by some lesbian to beef up the ranks of prospective mates by turning all men into predatory dickbags. And it worked on me. Just like men aren’t gay in prison, ladies aren’t gay in wartime- you just do what you got to do.”
“So you weren't always a lesbian?”
“I was married, to a fellow Corpsman. He once broke a man’s jaw for intimating there was something he could do that I couldn’t. When I protested that I could have broke the man’s jaw myself, he said he knew I could have, and would have, but that my hands were too pretty to mangle on some jackass’s face. I loved that man even more than his fabulous dick- and that’s saying a lot, because he had a really fucking fabulous dick.”
“What happened?” Lisa asked.
“He died at the beginning of the war, helping me escape. But the fucked up thing about that is, he would have fought with me. No question. If I’d only asked him to. But instead, I thought I could be all Vietcong, harangue the Dick Army but go back to our home every night and fuck his brains out. But it's men's righters who are the VC. They're cops, firefighters, doctors, they blend back into the population, and you never know who they are until they fuck up your entire world.”
She sighed, and Lisa could sense that Mae didn’t want to talk about it anymore. “So what are we doing up here?”
“That road leaves town. The cops know we use it to get to our clinic. But they don’t know where it is. It’s about the only one road that gets you there- about the only other way is a four hour, circuitous drive. But if Gerson's patients were flagged, a meandering country jaunt is nearly as likely to get them caught in a roadblock as the straight run.”
“But if they know your route, isn't it only a matter of time before they find the clinic.”
“Yeah. And we want to move the clinic, but it’s a tactical problem, and one whose solution is complicated, since it’s hard to move that much medical equipment without drawing attention.”
“But if they know the spot, and they might be watching the girl, isn’t this too risky?”
“It's less risky than her holding off. Her pregnancy is ectopic. She’s in real danger of Fallopian rupture, which is serious- go into shock and die, serious. And that's why we're being careful. And why she's meeting Clint down there.”
“We typically use male escorts. For one, it makes it harder for them to profile- they can't just harass every group of women leaving town by that road. And most of the MRAs are old-school misogynists; two women who knew nothing about our clinic got raped on this road two weeks ago; we're pretty sure they were targeted because the men thought they were with us.”
A little of Lisa's rage from the previous night came up. It was still impossible for her to deny that Anna and Mae were at least provacateurs. “Doesn't that bother you? Women are getting raped because of what you're- we're- doing.”
“Of course it bothers me. But it also makes it more important that we do what we do. They're willing to use fear, and violence- even sexual violence- to cow us. That's why we can't yield. If it's this bad while we still have the will to resist, imagine what they'd be like if we let them win.”
“They might just leave us alone,” Lisa said.
“They might. Until you did something that didn't particularly sit right with them- say, not cooking his dinner quite right. And then you get a pop in the mouth. And that's not so bad, right? But it gets so he's beating you two or three times a week- a misplaced slipper here, a stubborn mustard stain there- and we might as well be back in a cave waiting for a man to bring us a mastadon steak.”
“You can't think it'd get that bad.”
“I never seriously thought a woman's right to choose would be taken away, our that access to birth control would be curtailed. And I never thought women's healthcare- and I'm talking pap smears and, and fucking mastectomies- would go the way of the back-alley abortionist. Or that we'd go back to back-alley abortion. But we're past the edges of the map, here; that's why I'm less surprised now that we've found monsters.”
“You keep talking about men's rights, but it was the police who shot up my building, and it was they who set it on fire.”
“Men's rights activists- the term's a perverse joke at this point, because its not even a kind euphemism for misogynists, anymore- are everywhere. It doesn't take a wild leap of self-centered logic for men in authority to be swayed to the idea that gender equality is a zero-sum game. And in a way, it is. Because to get to equality, that means removing privileges from men, and giving rights to women. I mean, it's good to do that, but I get why it pisses some men off. I just wish they would take it in stride- my husband was that way; they were born lucky- but that doesn't entitle them to keep that luck the rest of their lives. You synched your watch up, right?”
“Yeah, this morning, with Anna.”
“What time is it?”
“Fifteen after two.”
“That gives us ten more minutes- which in sniping is crunch time. I want you keeping an eye out through those binoculars. We're more concerned about trucks and vans. They usually arrive in force- like they're worried if they didn't we'd start a firefight in the streets. But keep an eye out for men in uniform, or armed; also let me know if you see a glint of light coming from cover. That could mean there's a counter-sniper out there after all- or at least that they've got someone spotting.”
“And if there is, I introduce them to my lanky friend, here.” she tapped the side of her rifle. “It fires one of these,” Mae handed her a round longer than her hand was wide. “This is a Raufoss. It’s a .50 caliber anti-materiel projectile. It’s classified as such because using one on a human being is against all kinds of treaties, because it produces unnecessary suffering. That’s because the Raufoss utilizes an armor-piercing tungsten core, and an explosive and an incendiary component. The bullet will penetrate about a foot before it goes kablooey, so against an unarmored human, it’s basically a normal round. Through the side of a vehicle, or somebody wearing some extreme armor- it'll blast their spine through their backs like shrapnel, and leave a burning crater behind.”
“We're using the Raufoss because as a sniper in a support capacity, you never know what you're going to need to kill in a hurry- it's versatile. It'll kill people just fine, but it's also effective against vehicles and other materiel.”
“.50 caliber is also interesting domestically, because it's the maximum allowable bore before a firearm became considered a destructive device under the National Firearms Act of 1934- of course, that was before it was repealed- ahem, sorry, something in my throat, I meant replaced- with absolutely nothing.”
“You know, they’ve talked about taking all of our guns away? I mean, Anna, Jeanine, maybe even Ofelia, by dint of having the brand, they’ve de facto already lost their right to bear arms; there’s no one who will sell to them, not even at a gun show. And women carrying guns they didn't buy legally have started getting charges they used to reserve for gangs and traffickers. But the ‘Congress,’ if you can hold back the retching long enough to call them that, they’ve been talking about removing the right to bear arms from all women, making it only legal for them to have a firearm owned by their husband or male benefactor, and only legal to ever use to protect their ‘virtue.’”
“It's un-fucking-believable; they still refuse to close the gun show loophole, years after the preeminent terrorist organization in the world publically stated gun shows was their preferred way for terrorists to get their guns. Because of a weird politcal cross-sectional thing, the people who attend gun shows are mostly men's righters, or at least sympathizers; gun shows are basically traveling men's rights rallies. It’s straight-up dangerous for a branded woman to go walking into a gun show, let alone try to walk out with a firearm.”
“It used to be, MUPOF and their splinter groups, they’d just brand a woman and set her loose. That was all they had to do. You think a woman with an ‘A’ burned into her eye gets a call back after a job interview? You think a woman with a ‘W’ scar healing over her cheek can keep her job for longer than the week it takes her boss to get up the courage up to fire her for a pretext?”
“And it isn't even that all men agree with this shit. But it's a reminder to them, of how bad things have gotten, and the fact that they can't protect the women in their lives. It's emasculating. And you know how fucking catty women can be; they look down their noses at us, because it could never happen to them.”
“But those fucks decided it wasn’t enough to turn women into outcasts who can't feed themselves. We still weren’t properly fearing them, so they started raping women they caught. But it’s gotten so that we look back with fondness on the days where you’d just get raped. The militias have started abducting women. They can’t just brutalize them in one go; no, that was too humane. So they beat them, and rape them, over and over again. The goal is to utterly break the woman, so they can send her back, so that women who buck the system can see what's waiting for them. I'd rather not come back, than come back like that.”
“But that's what this whole thing is about: quality of life. If you just want to survive, hey, you can hold that aspirin between your knees until you're married, then give your husband as many children as he wants- or more likely, spread for him as often as he wants which results in more children than probably anybody wants. Your only real mortal threats there are an abusive husband or hemorrhaging. But it also isn’t living, except in the most rudimentary sense.”
She slid her scope back onto her rifle's rails, and tightened down the bolt to keep it steady. “We just want what the Founding Fathers wanted, what slaves wanted, what the sufferagette movement took the first step towards; we want control over our lives, and sovereignty over our bodies. That’s a life of quality.”
Lisa didn't know what to say to any of that. But she didn't have to figure it out, either, because a voice came over her radio. “Mayday?”
Mae keyed her radio. “Everything looks clear from the nosebleeds.”
“I'll send him out, then.”
Mae set her radio down. “SOP is to let the man come out, first. Again, it's because he's the least likely to get any flak. When the girl spots him she should come- there, running out from behind a tree. She must have had a good spot, since I didn't see her before now.”
“And there's our mystery man, coming out of the” Mae stopped watching through the scope, and raised her radio. “It’s supposed to be Clint. What the fuck?”
“She didn’t trust him. Something about his face. So Mike’s taking her.”
“And nobody thought to tell me?”
“I thought you knew.”
“Well, obviously not. Things are otherwise Kosher?”
“As a circumcised wang.”
“God do I envy Israeli women…” Mae said; she hadn't keyed her radio for that last part. “Though I can completely see what she means about Clint. With that little half-beard, his mouth looks like the first rug I ever munched, back in college.”
“I'll take that as a compliment,” he said from behind them. Lisa dropped her binoculars from the surprise, but they swung harmlessly along the leather strap around her neck.
“You little shit,” Mae said.
“When Anna said last minute, she meant just a few minutes ago. I was supposed to meet her inside one of the buildings, and did, but she was spooked, and said she wouldn't go with me. Mike stepped in, which is mostly luck, since it was beyond short notice. It's also... a little more dangerous, since it's a meet out in the open.”
“You just had to jinx it,” Mae said, her finger resting on the trigger.
“What? What do you see?”
“Armed men, three of them, approaching.”
“Wait,” Clint said. “Could just be a random foot patrol or-”
“I know my job,” she told him. “I only fire if I think they're going to attack. Crap, gun!” Lisa heard the gunshot echo along the wall of buildings. “He shot Mike,” Mae said, “right in the head.” She took a deep breath to calm herself down. Then she exhaled, and while the breath was still trickling out of her she pulled the trigger.
Lisa watched as the man with the pistol's throat erupted in a cloud of pink mist. A fraction of a second later, the air behind the three men exploded, and fire leapt at their backs.
“He'll bleed out, eventually, but the dinguses with him will be focused on saving his life- after they put themselves out.” The man with the pistol fell to his knees, then on his face. His back was smoldering, and a large puddle was collecting under his neck. The others with him dropped onto the ground and rolled. “Now, run, Goddamnit,” Mae said, trying to will the girl to move. But she was frozen, staring off.
“It's an ambush,” Anna said through the radio. “Provide cover as long as you can, but I have to get out.”
One of the two officers went to help the gunshot man, but the other stood, and drew a revolver. He braced his arms to steady the pistol; Mae recognized the way his muscles were tensing as he prepared to fire.
“Godspeed,” Mae said, as she pulled the trigger a second time, and the man's chest opened up as the Raufoss punched a hole through his heart. This time the bullet's exit trajectory put it within a foot of the other two men before it erupted into a ball of force and fire. Ironically, the man who'd been trying to keep the throat-shot cop alive took the brunt of it- probably saving the other man's life. But it killed him, and without him to keep pressure on the other man's throat wound, he would be dead in seconds.
“Run, you goddamned idiot,” Mae said. Then she saw why Merril was frozen. A column of men were marching towards her down the street. They'd hardly sped up when the gunfire started; it was only then that Lisa realized only seconds had passed since the first shot had been fired.
“I love it when assholes bunch up like a soccer team.” Mae put a round through the first man on the left. It punched a hole through his forehead, and blew brains and skull into the man behind him; but he didn't have a chance to worry about it, because the bullet caught him in the throat, right before it exploded.
She knew she wasn't going to get another opportunity like this, so she fired the other two shots in the magazine into the center of the group, not even waiting long enough to target anything more specific than the navy mass of bodies. “Magazine,” she bellowed.
Lisa stared helplessly at the girl through the binoculars. Finally she ran, away from the buildings. “Type?” Clint asked, realizing that Lisa probably had no idea she was supposed to help with the reload.
“Regular's good,” Mae said. “Lots of flesh targets.”
Clint reached into the bag Mae had been carrying, and pulled out a magazine with a blue dot on it. She handed him the spent magazine, and he put it into a separate pouch in the bag while she loaded the fresh one.
The column of cops were hardly moving. At least a few of them would live, but they weren't Mae's concern, anymore, because they weren't even crawling.
“Shit, car,” Lisa said, pointing. “Cars. They're going to cut her off.” The cars came down the road from out of town, and slid to a stop so that they entirely blocked the road.
The girl turned back towards the buildings. But a second group of cops were spreading out towards her. They were deliberately keeping their distance from one another to limit the effectiveness of the Raufoss rounds.
Mae put a bullet through the door of the first police cruiser, and into the cop hiding behind it. That chastened the others in the cars- they weren't getting out, at least not for a few more seconds. And that gave her time to put a round through the hip of one of the cops advancing. But one of the others pointed up towards the rooftop where they were.
Clint noticed. “Mayday, we need to bug the fuck out of here.” She fired again. “You can't kill every man in North America. We need to go.” She fired again. “The new meat won't be able to make it out of here without you.” She fired again. And pulled the trigger again, but this time the hammer fell on an empty chamber. Mae sighed.
“Yeah. Spineless weasel though you may be, you're right. Living to fight another day is more important than going out slathered in the geysering spray from bullet wounded dicks. But I need one more.”
“Mae,” he said, but he was already in the bag for another magazine.
“For the girl,” she said, as she exchanged the old mag for the new. She slapped it in, slid the bolt back, and sighted her in. “I'm sorry,” she whispered, and exhaled, and while she did, she fired. “And for good luck,” she stood up, and fired a round each through the engines of the two patrol cars. “That ought to slow their pursuit.”
“Did you just kill two cars?” Lisa asked, a little impressed.
“Yeah,” Mae said, “and an innocent girl. Definitely not chalking today up as a win.” She handed the rifle to Clint, walked over to the edge of the roof and jumped down onto the fire escape.
Paul slept God-awfully. Of course, that might have had something to do with spending the last year sharing his bed. Or the fact that Ken wouldn't leave the room.
“I swear, I don't know how to sleep without her,” Paul said.
“You'll learn,” Ken said. “But NASA doesn't do conjugal visits. Not my idea, I'm afraid. But after one of the ISS astronauts caught a case of syphilis from a hooker that didn't show on his labs until he was on the station... well, that mistake cost us millions, because previously we didn't keep enough Penicillin G in space for the high dosage he needed. I suppose that’s moot, as we would have had to space taxi him down anyway.”
“Though we might never have known; he only got diagnosed after he gave a pretty hilarious lecture to an eighth grade science class. You ever seen a man try to explain evolution while in the grips of the advanced stages of syphilitic madness? I have. I'll upload the video to your drive on the Phallus.”
“So you're going to keep calling it that, then? You’re never going to call it the Perseus, are you?” Paul asked.
“It's not my fault our interplanetary ark looks like a dick. How could I call it anything else? And the preliminary drawings were even worse. It had balls.”
“They were storage pods, that could be ejected-”
“After they'd been used up. It's just a bit weird to me that our ground controller isn't going to even acknowledge the official name of our ship. Isn't that some kind of bad luck?”
His grin faded. “In my years, the only thing I've noticed as consistently bad luck is mentioning luck, period.”
“I'd knock on some wood, but our little love bungalo seems to be constructed entirely out of space-age plastics.”
“And asbestos. But only because I refuse to let them gut this place. And if you need some wood...”
“But it's hardwood,”
Paul sighed. “The sick thing is, I'm actually going to miss this.”
“Well, talking about your penis. Though saying that out loud, I'm not sure that's any better.”
“Everything's better with my penis.”
“I'm going to Mars in the morning. So why is it I can't think of anything other than the girl I'm leaving behind?”
“Because she has nice tits?”
“She does, at that, and I'm sure in the coming months, I'll miss them. But I really don't think it's as simple as that.”
“You know, I caught hell, when I first suggested we weed out candidates who were married. But when we looked at the stats, we saw an increase- basically, candidates with a lousy home life put more into the job, and performance showed it. Especially outside the atmosphere- people without a home don’t get homesick so easy.”
“Then we started weeding out people who were in long-term, committed relationships. That we had to be quieter about, using private investigators to dig into people’s trash and things like that. Had you been a thing with Laura when you joined up, we would have bounced you. Hell, if I’d found out before you made the primary team, I’d have personally told you to cut her loose or lose your slot.”
Ken sighed. “You aren't making a mistake,” he said. “Twenty-two year olds come and go, or, if they're at my place, they come and come and go. But space, she's the dream girl.”
“You've jerked off to space, haven't you?”
“You haven't? An astronaut who hasn't pleasured himself to mistress space? If anything's bad luck...” he trailed off.
“Knock on wood?” Paul asked.
Ken grinned. “I already was.”
“Go home,” Detective Campbell said, setting her briefcase down on the desk all of us in gender crimes shared.
“I’m only through eight of my twelve,” I told her.
“I thought you started midway through Gottfried’s shift so you could shadow him.”
“Yeah, but I needed to know about the job- not about the best chocolate-frosted chocolate-sprinkled chocolate donut in the metro area. So I asked the chief of detectives if I could work my twelve with four hours’ overlap onto your shift. I made a reasonable excuse for it; shouldn’t get Bob in any trouble. But I get the impression, maybe wrongly, that you’re the engine that powers this department, or this desk, anyway. That’s why I sent over my latest file for you to go over. I wanted your thoughts on it.”
She sighed, and pulled over a chair from an empty neighboring desk. “I’ve been telling the brass that what we need in this department is more women- no offense.”
“Getting into the female psyche- it’s difficult. They’re tricky, in a way that male criminals aren’t. I mean, there are, technically speaking, male gender criminals. But they’re few and far between. This is mostly an all girl school of crime.”
“I get that- in the same way that there are more men involved with vice- since there’s a much better than one to one ratio of johns to prostitutes, without even factoring in the pimps.” My hand brushed hers on the desk. “Sorry, not used to sharing the space,” and I realized at that moment I’d never heard her first name, “Detective Campbell.”
“That was awkward,” she smiled. “But it’s Candi, with an ‘I.’ Apparently my parents wanted me to become a stripper. But wouldn’t you know it, most clubs won’t let you carry a gun- and that was a real deal breaker for me.” For the first time, I paid attention to the fact that she was pretty, in the mode of a starlet from the forties, maybe Veronica Lake. She had blonde hair put up in a bun, and wore a pair of thick-framed glasses.
“If I had a dime for every man who came onto me with some variation on wanting to suck on me or eat me- well, I wouldn’t have enough to retire, but I’d finally at least be able to put in for matching funds on my 401k.” She smiled, touched my arm and squeezed it, and my heart beat a little faster.
I picked up my tablet, and opened up the file to try and give myself a second to calm down. “Deborah Gladstone seems like a nice American girl,” I said. “Good Christian upbringing, graduated college and is already most of the way through paying off her student debt. Excellent worker, clean habits.”
“So what makes a good girl go bad?” Candi asked, dragging her teeth over her bottom lip. But then she dropped the coy act. “Selfishness. She went to school to benefit herself. She’s paying back her loans quickly because it saves her money. Better work gets her better pay along the way, along with other perks. You remove the trimmings, and she’s just a girl asking how to make her own life better, easier.”
“That seems like a simplistic reading of the file,” I said, and winced because my critique was likewise harsh, since I was asking for her help.
“It is simple. A pregnant woman meeting with an abortionist is conspiracy to commit gender crime; her fiancé already suspects her of that. And she knew better. First offender, maybe she gets a fine and probation. But she’ll probably do time. When you’re at home, cracking a beer, it’s okay to sympathize, and remember that these are people, and they probably want mostly the same things you or I do. But when you get here, and step behind that shield, you’ve got a job to do. This is friendly advice, and I’d give it on any other desk: don’t question the job. Narcotics is going to keep putting away more brown people than white, and our desk is going to keep locking up schoolgirls. The system doesn’t change- it changes you. The sooner you wrap your head around that, the happier you’ll be, both here and in life.”
“I understand what you’re saying, completely,” I said, “and if you want we can drop it. But just once, before I stop caring, you’re a woman, and this is a mostly female crime, if only because they have motive, means and opportunity that men don’t- can’t, really. So I want to know how you feel about it.”
“Because you’re just a glutton for punishment?”
“Something like that.”
“I think they’re murderous whores. Deborah Gladstone might look like a good girl on paper, but her predicament is of her own making; if she hadn’t been slutting it up, she wouldn’t be pregnant. And now she’s thinking about killing an innocent child to get away from the consequences of it. Whatever kind of good person she might have started as- she isn’t that, anymore.” She was still pretty, but her red lips put me in mind of the apple from Snow White, beautiful, moist, succulent, but not just poisoned- damning- in the same way the apple had been for Adam and Eve. But when she smiled I forgot all about self-preservation, all about that pit of fear she put in my stomach. “I showed you mine…”
“I suppose turn-about’s fair play, but you’ll probably feel cheated. Because it’s not something I’ve really thought about. I guess I always figured… that it wasn’t my choice, or my place. I’m never going to be pregnant, so it’d be hard for me, in good conscience, to claim to know how or why or what should be done.” She raised an eyebrow. “Or maybe I’m just reluctant, as a white male, to start telling women what to do.”
“But I’m not asking you to play dictator and pass laws; I'm not even asking how you feel about the current laws, because they weren't always the way they are now. I’m asking what you think is right.”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s not a good answer. And living with it’s not going to get any easier on this job. You need to make up your mind.” She picked up her tablet and went to the coffee pot. I didn’t like being left with that much to think about.