Originally posted on Escapepod.org, May 23rd, 2019
“O’Brien,” the captain’s voice snapped across the net, interrupting Nuala’s conversation with her husband, demanding her attention. “We’re moving on to the last block, but there’s one holdout at number three-thirty-seven. Arjun Sivaloganathan. He’s refusing to evacuate. Go down and dig him out, by force if you have to.” His voice came through Nuala’s implant, syllables dropping out — some kind of interference from the bombing. It was disconcerting; in her entire life, the net had always worked smoothly. If the net wasn’t reliable, nothing was. Everything was changing, and not for the better.
“Yes, sir.” She signed off, to find that Michael had already cut their connection too. She couldn’t be sorry that the captain had interrupted that conversation – it had been a miserable one, her husband calling to tell her that the bank had refused their request for a medical loan. Until one of them got a promotion to a better-paying job, there would be no way to afford the gene-modding they needed. No way to have a child.
She parked her flyer on the weed-choked lawn, climbed out, taking a moment to catch her breath. The government had grounded all non-essential flyers for the moment, but police, of course, still counted as essential. Nuala had been flying for almost a dozen hours, evacuating block after block after the terrorist bombing. On her own for the last three hours, since her partner had gotten into it with a gang of teens and taken a bottle to the head. The bombing had unleashed a hunger in the streets, deep-laid frustrations that set poor against rich, natural humans against modified. For too long, Kriti’s laborers had been promised that a better day would come, that they were all working together for a brighter future for their planet. It got harder to swallow that story when you saw wealthy humods in the streets, the beautiful marks of their profligacy written on their faces and bodies. Widespread frustration was finally spilling out into violence.
Nuala had managed to stun the teens – her partner, too – and contain the situation, but not before getting a kick to the ribs. She’d ignored it at the time, packing Sujee off to the hospital and insisting she could finish the shift on her own. But her ribs were still aching hours later – probably cracked – and she hadn’t had time to eat or drink or even relieve herself. Nuala’s bladder was aching, and she was tempted to drop her pants and take care of the problem right here, on this ridiculously broad lawn. She wouldn’t, of course, but what a waste of water this expanse was! How had the owners even gotten permits to allow it in the first place?
The house had been beautiful once, in the old colonial style that so many of Kriti’s original South Asian settlers had loved, a many-windowed mansion framed by long colonnades of white pillars. New styles had evolved in the generations since Settlement, but houses like this still remained as proud markers of that initial arrival. But this house was in desperate need of a coat of paint, and the once elaborate landscaping was thoroughly overgrown. Nuala was no expert gardener – her mother had firmly believed that all available land should be given over to fruits and vegetables, practical planting that would serve the community’s needs. There had been no room for ornamental flowers, no matter how beautiful, and certainly no lavish displays of topiaried greenery. But even Nuala could see that the gorgeous roses had become a thicket of brambles, and that no one had taken clippers to the hedges in years. What beautiful forms might hide within the wild overgrowth?
She rang the doorbell and chimes echoed inside and out. Nothing. Nuala rang again, and then tried the door, prepared to break it down if necessary. Thankfully, the antique doorknob turned smoothly under her hand.
“Hello? Is there anyone here?”
A figure shuffled out of the dimly lit far end of the hall, a tall brown-skinned man dressed in the most traditional of clothes, a white dhoti wrapped around waist and legs. Nuala had grown up surrounded by men who dressed this way – her uncles, her grandfather. Descendants of Scottish-Irish laborers who had worked their way here on the South Asian colony ships, generations of men had found that a South Asian dhoti made for practical garb when working in the humid confines of the algae vats. This man, who looked to be in his early forties, carried no signs of such hard labor. Instead, he bore the marks of luxury genemodding.
He’d been modded in the fashion of sixty years ago – gaunt, almost skeletal thinness, great height, large silver eyes, and skin darkened almost to black. A faint tracery of silvered feathers on cheekbones and collarbones and chest – entirely unnecessary, serving no function except to proclaim his wealth. Given that, he was probably older than he looked – in his sixties at least, modded to a health and longevity Nuala and her relatives could only dream of. Despite the humble dress, this must be the owner of the house.
Nuala kept her tone tempered, professional, giving no trace of the revulsion she felt for him and his kind. “Sir. You need to come with me.” The Compact that the original settlers of Kriti had signed had been meant to ensure that all contributed to the terraforming of the planet, to their joint well-being. But corruption had crept in. Now her own people, the laborers who had worked their way here on the colony ships, were starving for lack of decent food, as more and more resources were shunted elsewhere; you could only live so long on algae. And yet this man’s people wasted resources, playing God with the very genes that made up their being. “We’re expecting more attacks in this area, and we’re evacuating the neighborhood to a safer location.” She would do her job. To serve and protect.
“Oh, no.” The voice was soft-spoken, precise. “I’m afraid I can’t do that. You just go ahead. I’ll wait here.”
Nuala stepped forward impatiently, her hands clenching into fists involuntarily. She deliberately relaxed them. “Sir, please come with me.” The words snapped out, louder than she’d intended, not really softened by the please, but it had been a long, miserable day, and in truth, it would be something of a pleasure to force him out of this house, this testament to hoarded wealth. What would those feathers feel like, crushed beneath her hands?
He straightened to his full height, a solid foot above her own five foot ten. “Well, that’s not going to happen, young lady, and I’d appreciate it if you’d lower your voice. Now, would you like a cup of tea? I just finished brewing a pot.”
It would be so easy to take him down. He might be tall, but he would be soft like all of his kind, and untrained. Her fingers twitched, longing to reach for the gun at her belt – the first setting would only stun. Her captain had said to use force if necessary. Yet Nuala could almost hear her mother’s voice saying, Everything’s better with a nice cup of tea. Fine, mother. Not that her mother liked the gene-modded any better than she did, but Catharine O’Brien did take pride in her family’s tradition of policing. They were good cops, the O’Briens, and had been for three hundred years. Nuala wasn’t going to be the one to break tradition.
The sound of small feet running echoed down the stairs, followed by a giggle of girlish laughter. There was a child here? The captain had only mentioned one man.
She checked the net — the situation wasn’t acute, not right now. Although that could change in a moment, and there were other, less obdurate, people who needed help.
Nuala said firmly, “If you don’t come now, sir, I’m going to have to use force.”
“Well, that’s not going to happen.” And he turned, and started walking down the hall. Nuala’s hand drifted to the handle of her gun, rested there, through one deep frustrated breath, and then another. Then she sighed, releasing it, and followed him, her boots thumping on the polished wood floor.
He sat down at the kitchen table, a broad workhorse of a thing. Big enough to serve a large family, and servants too. A house like this would’ve had servants – a dozen of them, probably a mix of Irish laborers and South Asians that had slipped down the social ladder since Settlement. Nuala had three cousins who were in service, in the city; they said it was better than working the vats. This kitchen itself seemed almost unused, a thick layer of dust on most of the shelves. Sunshine poured through a large window that overlooked the wide back garden, thick with overgrown roses. Roses! What a ridiculous extravagance.
The tea was steaming from the mug he’d poured. The man added milk and sugar with deft hands, and pushed the thick stoneware mug over to her. Nuala wasn’t about to sit; it would only encourage him. But the tea did smell good, redolent with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. The hours since the bombing had been frenzied, a jumble of shouted information and screaming red alerts blasting through the implanted chip in her head; her nerves were scraped raw. The man showed no inclination to rise, despite her looming presence. Nuala sighed, giving in to the inevitable, and reached out for the mug. She curved her fingers around it, taking a brief pleasure in the warmth of the mug, the ritual. The first sip was, as always, delicious. God, she’d needed that. She gulped down the rest, quickly, letting it sear her throat.
Nuala put the mug down again. “Mr. Sivaloganathan — ”
He interrupted, “Please, call me Siv.”
“I’m Officer Fionnuala O’Brien.” Still harsh, impatient – she could see him flinching away from the snap in her voice. Nuala took a quick, deep breath, and gentled her tone. “You can call me Nuala, Siv. We need to evacuate you and whomever else is in the house. The child? Is that your daughter?”
“There! Can you see her? She’s in the guava tree.” Siv gestured out the kitchen window, and when Nuala turned, she did catch a glimpse, for a moment, of a laughing girl. The girl was perhaps twelve or so, hanging upside down from a tree branch, before she flipped herself upright again and disappeared into the leaves. For a moment, a trick of the light, the girl had looked a little like Nuala herself, like the daughter she and Michael might have had, if they’d had better luck. Nuala’s heart constricted. But then the impression disappeared – the girl’s skin was brown, after all, her hair black. She didn’t look anything like Nuala at all.
“Tharani loves guavas. Can’t get enough of them.”
“Siv. We should really get going. Can you call her inside?” Nuala could go out herself, but the child would respond better to her father. Now Nuala was glad she hadn’t stunned the man – it would have upset the girl.
He shook his head. “Oh, I couldn’t do that. She’s a headstrong child, you know. Tharani won’t come inside until she’s good and ready. My wife always said children were more trouble than they’re worth, but I haven’t found that to be the case. What do you think? Do you have children?”
Nuala’s gut clenched. “Not yet,” she said. “My husband and I hope to, though.” Hope that had been dashed, time and time again. If only they could afford the genetic interventions… The Pope still said that good Catholics shouldn’t genemod at all, but every priest she’d heard of was willing to look the other way when it came to having children. It was just a question of money.
Siv sighed. “My wife didn’t want children. She left me, when I said I really had to have one. But she gave me some of her eggs — wasn’t that nice of her?”
“Yes, very nice.” It was a generous gift, and not one that Nuala would be willing to make herself. Though it wasn’t unheard of, to give someone your eggs, let them grow a fetus in an incubator — expensive, but rich people did it, for all sorts of reasons. Siv must have wanted a child very much, to go to all that trouble on his own. She supposed she could sell her own eggs – if she sold enough of them, she’d make enough money that she and Michael could have the procedures they needed. The thought made her throat tight, her heart beat faster. To have children of hers, out in the world, sold away from her – could she stand it? Would it be worth it, to have a little girl of her own, with bright eyes and bouncing curls?
The sound of feet running down the upstairs hall again, and more laughter. Was there another child upstairs? Nuala cocked her head, confused. “Siv, how many children do you have here?”
“Please. Have some more tea.”
It would be hard enough corralling one man and dragging him to her flyer, even if she were willing to stun him. Nuala didn’t want to run around this house and grounds, trying to find an indeterminate number of children too. How many kids could she squeeze in her flyer, anyway – two? three? She wasn’t even sure she ought to use her gun on children; there’d been something in the training manual about children’s underdeveloped nervous systems, and the long-term effects of stun-level fire. She needed to get this man on her side — or call for back-up, which would be embarrassing. Nuala was never going to make detective if she had to call for help on the simplest of tasks.
“Siv, I’m going to have to insist now. Call your children and let’s get going. It’s not safe for them to stay.” She could feel her blood pressure rising, hear how her voice had gotten louder and harsher. For a moment, anger rose in her again, reddening and blurring her vision. Her captain said she had a problem, that she was too quick to anger, to violence. After the last incident, she’d promised him that she’d work on it. Nuala took a deep breath and deliberately gentled her tone. “You want them to be safe, don’t you?”
“That’s all any parent wants,” he said, sadly. “You say you want them to be happy, and you do. But more than anything, you want them to be safe. I think it starts when they’re babies, and you wake up in the night, and you think they’ve stopped breathing, so you go and check, and they’re fine, they’re always fine. But your heart feels like it’s going to jump out of your chest. And then, when they’re a little bigger, and they’re learning to walk, they climb on things.” His voice started to rise, the clipped inflections giving way to a higher pitch, a more agitated tone. “Tharani was the most terrifying little daredevil — well, you saw her, in the tree. She was like that even at two. Always climbing on things, falling down, and I’d run to her, try to catch her. She broke her arm twice, and I thought Services would blame me, but they could see, she was just a spirited child. They could see I had my hands full. I did everything I could to protect her.”
“I’m sure you did,” Nuala said. The man was working himself into some kind of hysterics, for no good reason that she could see. There was something wrong here, but she couldn’t figure out what it was. Why did he live without any servants, in this great big house? Why weren’t his children listed in the registry? Why was he so insistent on not leaving?
A scream came from the front of the house, piercing, and a loud crashing tumble, as if someone had fallen down the stairs.
Nuala ran out, noting even in that panicked moment that Siv, oddly, stayed in the kitchen, his fingers laced around his mug, eyes fixed on the cooling tea.
“Hello? Is everyone all right?” She blinked, in the shadows of the hall — her eyes needed a moment to adjust after leaving the sunny kitchen. Her pulse was racing, responding to the cry, the sense of danger. There was no one there. But Nuala had heard the sound of a falling body, distinctly — a falling something, anyway. She did a quick scan of the hall, the rooms off the hall — nothing. They were empty. Then upstairs — empty master bedroom, empty guest room, empty study. And then here, through a blue door decorated with silver stars, a child’s room.
The room was full of children. A baby nestled in a crib, snug in a soft grey sleep suit. An older girl, perhaps five, kneeling at a dollhouse, intent on whatever game of pretend she was immersed in, talking softly to herself. Another girl, eight or nine, sitting in a rocking chair, reading a brightly-colored book. A slightly older girl, lying face-down on the rug, drawing a picture of a rocket ship heading into space. All of them alike enough to be sisters, with thick black hair, brown skin, huge black eyes. All ignoring each other, and ignoring her. It made no sense.
“Hello?” Nuala took a tentative step into the room. She blinked, once, and then again. There was something wrong here — and then, finally, it came clear. Now that she had enough time to stop and look, she could see the telltale thinness of the images. Her pulse and breath finally began to slow. Nuala put out her hand, needing to know for certain, and it passed right through the shoulder of the girl in the rocking chair. No one was here; they were all holos.
There must be at least four different emitters set up in this room, which was impossibly expensive. Enough money to buy three months’ worth of fertility treatments; everything in Nuala’s life was run through that same cruel calculus. These were all the same child. Tharani, he’d said. The same child at different ages, with the images set up in different locations. Where was the actual girl — out in the guava tree? Or was that a holo too?
When Nuala re-entered the kitchen, she found Siv washing up the mugs.
“Where’s Tharani, Siv?” she asked.
He shook his head, not meeting her eyes. “Tharani’s gone. Long gone.” The man’s voice was low, soft enough that Nuala took a step closer, afraid of missing words. “She was playing, doing cartwheels. She’d just learned how to do them, and she was so proud. I told her not to do them in the house. I told her and told her, but children don’t listen. You’ll see, when you have yours. Children don’t listen. They don’t hear you. She did cartwheels down the hall, and wanted me to record it, to see how good she’d gotten. So I was recording, and she went spinning, like a star. And then she slipped, and fell down the stairs. Bump bump bump.”
Nuala’s throat tightened; she could fill in the rest. Siv’s child had died, and he’d spent all of his money on holo emitters. He’d set them up everywhere, everywhere Tharani had been, everywhere she’d been happy. They’d be looped, maybe on a timer, so that he could glance out the window and catch a glimpse of his little girl, playing in the guava tree, running across the lawn. He could go and check on the baby, make sure she was still breathing. He could even watch that final cartwheel, hear her falling down the stairs. Was that a last gasp of sanity, an attempt to remind himself that the girl was gone? Or deliberate torture, a punishment for the moment of faulty judgement? Nuala didn’t know. Did it matter?
Yet it seemed so unfair, that she, wanting a child so badly, was denied one because of money, while he had been so careless with his own. Her stomach felt tied in knots of rage. Yet — unfair, her mother would have told her. Accidents happened to children of careful parents too. It wasn’t fair to blame him for an accident.
Right now, Nuala wasn’t sure she cared about fair.
Siv was still speaking, a low, guilty mutter. “I’d given her wings, you know. For her tenth birthday – Tharani begged and begged and finally I’d given in. All of her friends were getting them, going in for the procedure, coming out with these great filmy creations that unfolded from their spines. She wanted to fly so desperately, and you couldn’t quite fly with these, but you could sort of glide a little, and the girls loved it so. I thought wings would make her safer.”
Nuala hadn’t noticed any wings – but the younger girls wouldn’t have had them, would they? Only the last, the one who had fallen down the stairs.
Siv said, “They told me she probably hadn’t gotten used to them yet. They’d thrown her balance off, and when Tharani fell, she was too scared to think to use them. Nuala, can you see? She must have been so scared.”
He was crying now, the tears falling soundless, his body curved in on itself and his hands clinging to the soapy mug in his hands as if it were the only thing anchoring him to this earth.
Nuala wanted to weep, to scream. Siv had been lucky enough to have a child, and then had deliberately chosen some ridiculous, outrageously expensive affectation, and in the process, gotten the girl killed. He was just like every other rich man, focused on his own selfish pleasures, not paying attention to who was getting hurt. He deserved to be left here, deserved a terrorist’s bombing. Siv deserved the worst Nuala could do to him with her own bare hands.
She walked across the room and put her hands on his shoulders. Nuala had to reach up to do it, but they felt fragile under her fingers. Stretched thin by unnatural means, blasphemous, begging for fracture. She squeezed, and at first, it might have been taken for comfort, but as she pressed harder, Siv surely knew that the pain was meant as punishment. Nuala could snap these bones where he stood. It would be easy, and he would never report her. Siv wanted to be punished.
It would not bring Tharani back. It would not give Nuala a daughter of her own.
After a long, gut-churning, moment, Nuala took a deep breath and released the man. Her fingers ached, and a sharp pain had lodged itself in her breastbone, making it hard to breathe. Nuala took the soapy mug out of Siv’s hands, placing it carefully on the counter. She knew what her mother would have done, what Catherine O’Brien would expect her daughter to do. Nuala turned off the running water, her fingers cold against the metal tap, squeezing a little too hard. Then she released it, stepping forward, putting her arms around the broken man. Even though he was taller, for a moment, Nuala felt as if Siv were the child, shuddering in her arms. The feathers were soft under her hands. How he must hate them now.
Nuala released him, cleared her throat, swallowing down anger and sympathy and grief all together. Siv didn’t need her punishment. He’d been punishing himself for years. There wasn’t enough of the man left to be angry at.
As for her, for the little girl with bright eyes running away from her – well, Nuala would find her someday, somehow. They would beg or borrow or steal the money they needed, she and Michael. They would find their child, help her be happy, and try to keep her safe. Like any parent.
“We need to go now, Siv.” Nuala made her voice soft. Change was coming to their planet, flying fast, carried on the frustrations and fury of so many. Change probably needed to come, one way or another – a different path forward, a different future. Nuala wasn’t sure how, exactly, they would get there from here. But she knew that whatever choices she made would help shape that future. Much as Siv’s decisions had shaped his daughter’s life. “Why don’t we collect the recordings? You can take them with you.”
Siv shook his head, pulling away. “It won’t be the same. Without the house, the yard. If I set them up somewhere else. It won’t…look right.”
“Maybe that’s all right,” Nuala said, gently. “If you die here, her memory dies with you. But if you leave, you can take Tharani with you. You won’t forget.”
Siv said nothing for a long moment. But then he let out his own breath in a little sigh. “No. I won’t forget.”
They left the house walking side-by-side, Siv cradling the recordings to his bony chest, walking into the uncertain future. Nuala hoped it would be kind, to both of them.