“I’m not complaining.”
“To answer your question,” I interject, “no, we didn’t decide on anything.”
“Oh. Well, what are we going to do?”
“Whatever we want,” I say with a shrug.
“What are our options?” Erb asks.
“Honestly, whatever we want. Short of something patently absurd like, ‘Enjoy a feast of tenderest human flesh while our vat-grown superintelligent octopus sexually pleasures you,’ I don’t think any one indulgence is out of our price range. Especially if we pool our money. Or we could split up for a bit, do our own things for a while, and meet back up later for dinner.”
“But, like, what can we do?”
I don’t see how this isn’t sinking in amongst my friends yet. Either they’re too repressed and unimaginative to embrace the possibilities that being flushed with cash in the Meadows afford us, or I’ve embraced the absurdity and impossibility of our situation far more quickly than is reasonable or healthy. Or both.
“Guys,” I say after taking a deep breath. “We can do pretty much literally anything. I mean, Hell. We’re so rich we could probably pay to murder someone just for fun.”
The room goes silent. Nobody says anything. Papa Chub coughs.
“You’re thinking about murdering someone, aren’t you?” Googe finally asks. I recoil in surprise.
“Like, considering it or wondering what it would be like?”
He grunts in disgust and turns away.
“Because now that you mention it, yeah, I’m definitely wondering what it would be like. But I’m not seriously considering it.”
“I bet we could get a synth to kill,” Papa Chub says to no one in particular. He’s staring at a spot on the wall, his mind somewhere far away. Possibly thinking about murdering a synth.
“Killing a synth’s destruction of property, not murder,” Erb says thoughtfully. “The pilot would survive the synth’s destruction.”
“Yeah, but it’d still hurt,” Papa Chub says, his focus being gradually drawn back to the conversation at hand.
I blink in surprise at that. “Whoa, hold on. I don’t want the person we murder to be in pain.”
Monk frowns. He glances from Erb to Papa Chub to me and back again. “Wait, is this actually what we’re doing? Are we really going to murder someone?”
“What about a clone?” Papa Chub asks me.
“Well, then that’s murder,” Erb replies before I get a chance to respond.
“Yeah, but murder is the whole point of the exercise.”
“What about a clone grown specifically to be murdered?” I pose. “Like how they clone and raise animals specifically to be eaten.”
The room is silent as we all consider the ethics of this newest twist. “That still seems, like, morally wrong,” Monk finally says.
“What if they’re into it?”
The room fills with humming and the drumming of fingers on the tabletop and the squeaking of mental wheels grinding away at the dilemma.
“You mean,” Papa Chub says slowly, choosing his words with the careful consideration of an amateur legal expert, “they’re okay with it and they’ve signed a contract that pays them for their services and reanimation and such, or into it sexually?”
Monk’s nose twists up in disgust. “That seems viscerally wrong.”
“I meant the legal thing, but if they’re into it sexually, what’s the harm?” I say with a shrug. “At least they’re dying doing something they enjoy.” A pause. “Literally.” Another. I frown. “Shit, I wish my life had that kind of teleological clarity.”
Googe clears his throat. As a group, we turn to look at him. He makes eye contact with each of us in turn, clears his throat yet again, and bellows out, “Why the fuck are we sitting around having a philosophical discussion when we could be out spending this money and living the good life?”
We are all silent as the weight of Googe’s words sinks in. He is right, of course. The silliest thing we could do with our time here would be nothing. If we were sitting around talking and gaining something from our discussion, that would be one thing, but as it is, we’re paralyzed. Inertia binds us. We are trying to go somewhere, and because we cannot collectively decide on a direction, we’re going nowhere at all.
It is entirely unacceptable.
I set my hands on the table, fold my fingers neatly together and calmly ask, “What do you propose?”
“Anything! Let’s get drinks! Let’s go buy a bar! Let’s go see a show! Let’s rent a club and kick everyone else out! Let’s go to a strip club! Let’s get an army of hookers and make them reenact battles from the Second Civil War! Anything! Anything but sitting around talking! Anything at all!”
Which is not, of course, a suggestion. More of an unfocused demand. Still, it sparks an idea. My lips curl back in a smile, and I say softly, “Hey, I know what we can do.”
The upper reaches of the Meadows are a spider’s nest of aerial walkways and cables of indeterminate purpose. The Meadows’s more lighthearted and novel attractions, the roller coasters and the jet pack and the aquariums and the museums and the genetically engineered creatures you can ride for a small exorbitant fee are all up here. It seems like the higher you ascend, the hotter and more humid it becomes, almost like moving up through some kind of a canopy ecosystem in a jungle. You expect to see monkeys swinging from fiber optic cables, lizards and snakes draped and coiled over concrete branches, the air thick with the buzz of exotic insects and arachnids. The atmosphere, the sense of hot sweaty oppression, is never unbearable, but just uncomfortable to the point where every gust of cool air that escapes from an open door feels like an invitation to come inside and see what wonders and souvenirs there are to behold.
It’s probably deliberate. “Being outside is terrible. Come in, come in! Come, spend money!”
Even if it’s not a proper jungle, the walkways do have their own indigenous wildlife. There are amateur buskers playing guitar, flute, sousaphone, electronic instruments of all stripes and sorts, as well as professional performers hired by the hotels to promote their various shows and attractions. It’s an interesting contrast, the kind of thing that makes a person given to wondering wonder how it is that the buskers came to be here. Are they the men and women who lost it all at the bars and the casinos and now this is their only hope of ever leaving? Are they trying not to leave but to work up enough funds to give their dreams another go? Or did they come here following their dreams, convinced that that if they showcased their talents in the right spot someone would notice and lift them up out of the streets? For that matter, why were they allowed here at all? In an environment as tightly controlled and regulated as the Meadows, one would think that having a sizable homeless population would be something to be avoided. Or any homeless at all. It seemed like the kind of problem that could be solved by paying to send them back to Earth.
Maybe it wasn’t cost-effective. Maybe it was cheaper in the long run to just pay to clean up after them and provide them with the occasional goods and services. Maybe the cost of the bad press from rounding up a beleaguered people and shipping them off to parts unknown was greater than the cost of just tolerating their presence, although that seemed unlikely. Whatever bad press might arise from such a decision, it couldn’t possibly deter anyone who actually intended to go to the Meadows. Whatever else one might think of the place, there truly is nothing else quite like it in the solar system.
Or maybe they’re supposed to be here. As curated as the Meadows is, does it really make sense to think that they can’t control this one little aspect? It’s easy to examine the whole situation with a certain cynicism and suspicion that borders on the paranoid. The buskers seem to be distributed according to a set pattern, albeit one that I can’t identify. They’re actually fairly entertaining, playing their instruments competently if not sublimely, providing surprisingly insightful observational comedy about the people who pass by, and most important of all, they’re non-threatening. There’s no cursing, no incoherent rambling about the end of days or government conspiracies, no catcalling, no flagrant display of genitalia. In a world that’s just dirty enough to seem real but not grimy and gritty enough to be upsetting, is it really a stretch to think that even the homeless here in the Meadows are supposed to be here? That somewhere there’s a researcher slowly but surely determining the optimal amount of vagrants per capita in an oversized theme park?
The mind reels at the possibilities, at the possibility that such an interpretation is right. At the possibility that one’s crazy for even conceiving of looking at the world in such a way. At the near certainty that you’ll never know one way or the other.
“You know, this whole layout seems really unsafe,” Erb says, drawing me back to reality.
“Like, the walkways are pretty crowded and the safety rails aren’t very high and there are no nets or anything. What’s to keep some body from falling off or jumping?”
I point towards a sign, black text against a white background, the font plain and tasteful, the print size sensible. There are many like it posted at regular intervals where the walkways would be easiest to hop off of. It reads in bold letters, “PLEASE DO NOT ATTEMPT SUICIDE. THANK YOU!”
“Oh. Okay, then. Mystery solved.”
“Hey, why are we doing this?” Papa Chub asks.
“I told you. It’s a secret. You’ll see when we get there.”
“No, I got that. I mean, why are we walking? We have tons of money. We can afford a shuttle. We can afford a lift in a private elevator. We could pay people to carry us on their shoulders.”
“Man, being flush with cash will changes the way you look at the world, huh?” Erb asks, a note of mockery in his voice. “Give a guy a little extra money and sudenly he’s wondering why he’s a sucker doing everything for himself.”
“Walking’s a form of oppression,” Papa Chub mutters.
I blink in surprise. “Wait, did you say that last night? I thought I was the one who said that.”
“You know,” Googe says, “if you had cybernetic leg augmentations, you could basically just set them to walk for you and come along for the ride.”
“I don’t mind the walk,” Monk says happily. “It gives us another perspective on things, you know? Adds value to the trip. We’re actually seeing and doing stuff, not just sitting in some kind of air conditioned container the entire time.” He pauses for a moment, then thoughtfully adds, “Plus, I’m sure we could all use the exercise.”
“If you’re implying I live anything less than an active and healthful life, I’m offended,” I say with a snort. “But anyway, we’re almost there.” I raise my hand and point to the way ahead of us.
“Where are we… Oh, you have got to be kidding me.”
There are stores and attractions lining every inch of the walkways, people scurrying in and out of them like ants in a hive, but I am pointing at the largest and most garish of them all, the most ridiculous, the most cartoonish: NAC-1-28 Ted’s Firearms, Destructive Device, and Heavy Ordinance Emporium.
“Wait, the gun store? What are we–”
“Oh, my God! Do they have nukes?” Monk asks. The joy is plain to hear in his voice, written across every cell on his face, oozing from his pores and his various sweat and sebacious glands. Googe looks skeptical, Erb intrigued, Papa Chub disgusted. A woman clad in a bikini, cowboy boots, and a cowboy hat who looks suspiciously like Betsy, our waitress from back at the Commisariat, hears us talking about her establishment and steps forward to give us the hard sell.
“We sure do, pardners! Projectile firearms, nuclear weapons, kinetic bombardment, we’ve got it all! If it goes bang, boom, or doesn’t make any kind of a noise as it slips silently through the atmosphere and accelerates to lethal velocity, we’ve got it, and you can play with it!”
Without another word, Monk steps past the woman and disappears into the depths of NAC-1-28 Ted’s.
Papa Chub raises his hands in front of his chest, shakes them and his head both like he’s trying to ward off some kind of an attack. “No. Uh-uh. I’m out. Sorry. I don’t really feel like literally blowing up my money.”
“Yeah, I’m not really feeling it either,” Googe says. This surprises me a bit, but I say nothing. Instead, I just turn to Erb, at the conflict playing out on his face, within his soul and his heart, within his wallet.
“What about you, man? What say you?”
“I don’t know…”
“We’ve got three-for-one specials going on today, only!” the bikini clad woman helpfully adds.
“Yes, sir! When it comes to heavy ordinance, three can play when you have fun the NAC-1-28 Ted way!”
“And what if it’s just one or two?”
The woman’s smile stretches into a wide grin, her teeth straight and white and perfect. “Well, then the price doubles.”
Erb’s face twists in disbelief. “What? How’s that work?”
The woman shrugs, her smile returning to more normal proportions. NAC-1-28 Ted authorizes his employees to make special deals for customers as they see fit. And it seems to me like your friend really wants to try out our hardware. It’d be a shame if he didn’t get the very best deal around because his friends didn’t want to have fun with him.”
“It really would,” I say. Erb turns to look at me and glares. I just grin. “Come on, man. We’re already here, and you know your inner technophile-slash-antiquarian is going to love seeing all that outdated military hardware.”
He frowns, turns to consult Papa Chub and Googe, but they’re already walking away, waving goodbye and saying, “You guys have fun! We’ll catch up with you later!”
“Aw, son of a bitch.”
I put my hand on his shoulder, gently lead him towards the store. “Come on. You’ll enjoy it, I’m sure.”
* * *
The inside of NAC-1-28 Ted’s is just as silly and themed as tasteless as the Commisariat was, albeit in a wholly different direction. It’s largely a celebration of NAC-1 and NAC-1-28’s history, all cowboys killing NAC-1-IND, killing the people of NAC-2, killing foreigners of a thousand different complexions and facial structures. There are stuffed animals mounted from the walls, posters and signs advertising beers and liquors and soft drinks that haven’t been produced in decades, tasteless caricatures of people of color reducing humans to cartoons. There’s a yellow flag on the wall with a crudely drawn snake exhorting the viewer not to tread upon it.
“Holy God,” Ed hisses behind me. “What kind of freakshow did you bring us to?”
“Have you not seen pictures from NAC-1-28 back in the day? This is basically what it looked like.”
He sniffs. “Everything about this place offends me.”
I gesture towards another model dressed in the same outfit as the one that led us into the store. “Even the employees?”
Erb pauses for a moment, considers his answer carefully. “While I respect her right to work in the field of her choosing and her right to the ownership of her own body and sexuality, I resent that this establishment is cynically trying to cash in on her appearance. Women are more than just sex objects.”
I glance around the shop, taking stock of its employees and its clientele. “Would you feel better about this whole thing if they had some half-naked dudes in here, too?”
Erb’s face contorts in disgust. “What kind of question is that?”
Before I can respond, Monk comes rushing up to us, child-like grin on his face. “Guys, I bought us the three-for-one package! Come on, they’re waiting for us!”
“Wait, how’d he know to buy the three-for-one special? How’d he know Googe and Papa Chub weren’t going to be joining us?”
“Inductive reasoning? Come on, man. Don’t think about it too hard.”
We follow Monk over towards the airlock where another bikini-clad woman is waiting for us with a smile. “Right this way, boys! Just a friendly reminder, neither NAC-1-28 Tim’s nor its employees are liable for any injury that may result from your time here. You’ve all seen the required safety demonstration, right?”
“Yes!” Monk says louder than necessary.”
“Great! Step through the airlock, throw on the space suits, and Little Boy will assist you once you’re outside!”
“Outside?” Erb asks. The hesitation is plain to hear in his voice, and the woman’s smile falters for a moment as she realizes that maybe he hasn’t actually seen the safety demonstration.
I clap him on the back and smile at her. “It’s his first time. He’s a little nervous. City slicker, you know?”
Her smile returns. “Oh! I remember my first time. I was seven years old, and it was just a thermobaric weapon. Not a nuclear one.”
Before I can respond, the airlock door opens with a hiss. “Have fun, boys! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask Little Boy. He’s one of our best!”
We step through the airlock and it seals shut behind us. Erb casts an angry accusative glance at me, but I just shrug. We throw on the suits, soft fabric first and then the padded layer wired with electronics and finally the heavy armored layer. “Jesus,” Erb says, his voice crackling in our headsets as we lurch towards the other airlock and whatever awaits beyond it. “What the Hell are these things?”
“RAH-59!” Monk says excitedly. “Older military models from the Unification Wars. Common on the secondary market. Probably overkill for what we’re doing, but they’re built like brick shithouses, they’re cheap if you buy them in bulk, and they fit the whole atmosphere of this place pretty well, don’t you think?”
“Monk with the answers! Come on, let’s get this show on the road.”
Monk activates the airlock. We wait in silence as it cycles. Suddenly it opens, and that’s just it. We’re on the outside of the Meadows staring into the void of space with nothing to keep us from floating away but the magnetized boots of our space suits. Somewhere a thousand miles away, Earth floats above us, emerald and sapphire and topaz. I raise my arm, stick out my thumb, and imagine the planet covered entirely by it.
I feel very small.
I don’t like it.
“Come on,” I say, my voice so much static in my friends’ heads, in my own, in the universe at large. “Let’s blow something up.”
There’s a skinny android next to a cache of weapons a short walk ahead of us. We move towards it on unsteady legs, our movement hampered both by the suits’ safety systems intended to keep us from floating away and from the greatly reduced gravity outside the Meadows. It waves at us as we approach, it’s head a thin oval, its body little more than a collection of cylinders. There’s a speaker in a half-circle shape on its head where a human’s mouth would be, a perpetual smile to go with its bright green LED eyes. “Howdy, pardners! The name’s Little Boy!” it calls out in a mechanical drawl, its voice coming through our headsets. “Welcome to Captain Colonel’s Thermonuclear Shooting Range. Cindy Lou May Summer tells me you fellas picked the three-for-one ‘Remember the Alamo’ special. Is that right?”
“That’s right!” Monk says.
“Excellent choice, pardner! That means today you’ll be firing the Dubya, the Ricky P., and the Cruz Missile at a variety of hard light projections. Today, we’ll be using Ionian Space Mites! Now, who’s going to be firing what?”
Erb waves his arms before his face, a gesture made all the more awkward by the bulky suit he’s wearing. “None for me. I’m just here to watch.”
Little Boy’s eyes flash to a cool blue and its mechanical shoulders slump. “Oh. That’s too bad.” It instantly perks up again. “We’ll go one at a time and if you change your mind, you just let me know! You can also purchase more shells if you decide you boys are just having too much fun to quit.”
“Good to know, thanks. My buddy here would like to go first.” I push Monk forward. He stumbles for a step or two before catching himself.
“That’s great! What do you want to shoot, pardner?”
“Uh… How about the Dubya?”
“Excellent choice! The Dubya was developed in response to the old United States’s engagements with nuclear-capable non-governmental organizations in the late 21st century. It’s inspired by the Davy Crockett project of the 1950s and 60s. That weapon’s most dangerous aspect was the extreme radiation hazard they posed the enemy soldiers around the detonation, but with the rise of drones and robotic warfare…” Little Boy pauses here and stands up a bit straighter, as if he’s discussing ancestors he’s proud of, “more physically devastating weapons became necessary. Engineers and researchers set about the task of making a man-portable tactical nuclear weapon capable of rapid deployment, and so was born the Dubya!”
“Thanks for the history lesson, Little Boy!” I say, grateful that robots are generally terrible at detecting and responding to insincere compliments.
“Now, how do we play with this thing?”
Before Little Boy can respond, Erb raises his hand and asks, “Isn’t this dangerous?”
I snort in irritation and dismissal, a sound that comes through remarkably well across our headsets. “Please. We’re in space. What are we going to nuke, all the nothing around us?”
“What if some nut,” Erb asks, ignoring Monk and pointing square at me, “were to turn around and blow a hole in the station?”
The robot emits a burst of static that is probably supposed to be the sound of it clearing its throat. “Excellent question, Sir. If I may, you needn’t concern yourselves with that possibility. There are a variety of security measures in place to ensure that the station is never in danger from NAC-1-28 Ted’s or Captain Colonel’s Thermonuclear Shooting Range. To begin, all visitors’ identities are scanned upon entry to the store itself. Anyone with a history of violent crimes is politely turned away.”
Erb raises his hand again, no doubt to inform the robot of my own youthful indiscretions, but I slap it down before Little Boy notices. “Second, visitors are watched at all times. Any visitors exhibiting unsafe tendencies are politely restrained. Third, our hardware are fitted with a variety of mechanisms that prevent them from firing if they are aimed in an unsafe direction. Additionally, any visitors aiming the launchers in an unsafe direction are politely tackled to the ground. Finally, the nuclear device itself picks up a signal from the station that prevents fusion. Fusion will only occur at a safe distance from the station.”
I clap Erb on the back, a precarious gesture that needs to be hard enough for him to feel it through the suit but not so hard as to knock him off balance. Unfortunately, I fail and he stumbles forward a few steps, although he does not fall over completely. “See?” I tell him. “It’s perfectly safe.”
“If a visitor were to somehow fire the device in the direction of the station, the only possible outcome would be the impact of a seventy-five pound projectile traveling at approximately 650 feet per second. In the case of such an event, the visitor in question would be politely subdued via electrical and chemical non-lethal weapons, arrested, and deported from the Meadows.”
Erb turns to look at me, and somehow through the polarized lens of my own helmet and his helmet and the reflectiveness of the surrounding surfaces and the million things that interfere with the light, I can see him arch an eyebrow in skepticism at me. I grin, hoping he can see it as well as he can see my own expression. Monk is already fifty feet away from us, setting up the Dubya launcher and getting ready to hoist the thing, intended to be set up on the ground and fired from a stable platform, onto his shoulder. “Yep. Perfectly safe. Now, come on. Let’s go blow up some fake meteoroids.”
“Ionian Space Mites,” the robot corrects me.
Word Count: ¯\(º_o)/¯