The tomb of the Empress has breath, and bone, and muscle. I can feel her shiver and moan beneath my hands, and though my fingers tremble I know the vibrations are more than my own weakness; they are a pulse that runs deep to the caverns of her far-off ventricles and atria. The tomb of the Empress lives, and we live inside her. There is one window before which the Empress’s coffin lies at rest. The coffin is gold, the only bright embellishment amid the hall of grays and silvers and coppers.
“The death of Fire Station 10 affected me deeply. She had not been the smartest building, but she had been a friend for as long as I can remember. She was one story tall, the sole holdover from a much earlier time in the neighborhood—a piece of cinderblock nostalgia, of high-maintenance wood and plaster from an earlier age. Her brain and smart utilities were a retrofit, cobbled onto the cinderblock building later, in a clumsy addition on the back. When she was built, buildings had no minds.”
It’s midnight and I can smell the new moon through the cracks in the concrete. This organism in my womb has heightened my senses in unnatural ways. I can hear the Council’s hushed arguments through the walls of my cell as they contemplate my death, their words carried by the night wind through the cracks in the concrete that constitutes the community prison. Old habits die hard. We’ve been on this planet for less than ten years and a prison was the first building we constructed.
The pink frost coating my face shield is, evidently, my own blood. The gas jetting from the pea-sized hole in my wrist spins me around, and for a panicked moment, I wonder if I have somehow been shot. I think I am screaming, but that would alert Station, and Ocampo is silent. Evidently, I am holding my breath, only wanting to scream, like the nightmare of being on the wrong side of the airlock. Now the hissing has stopped and pain nails me to the ice.
Two things were wrong with the Spasskaya assessment. The first was the painting: a tiny square in a simple frame, something I barely noticed at the time, but which would go on to cause us so much suffering. The second was the woman. Wailing greeted us when we arrived, almost at midnight. Assessment teams had to come without warning. Snow fell in great marching waves, helpless in the hands of the wind off the Moscow River.
It’s the lollipops that break you. The thought of your child sucking on one during a lockdown drill carries enough cognitive dissonance that your brain has trouble actually comprehending it. You know the purpose—the methodology behind it all—lollipops in their mouths will keep preschoolers quiet, and surely the sugar can’t hurt. But the fact that your preschooler needs to know how to behave in case there’s an active shooter is so disturbing that you wish there was a way to retreat into your shell, like a defiant hermit crab.
Tasha’s avatar smiled from the screen, a little too perfect to be true. That was a choice, just like everything else about it: When we’d installed my sister’s new home system, we had instructed it to generate avatars that looked like they had escaped the uncanny valley by the skins of their teeth. It was creepy, but the alternative was even creepier. Tasha didn’t talk. Her avatar did. Having them match each other perfectly would have been . . . wrong. “So I’ll see you next week?” she asked.
Hello, Sacrid Henn. I’m aware that you’re terrified. I’m also aware that you are paralyzed, deaf, and blind, your only sensory input being my voice. It is a voice that has been designed to be as comforting as these circumstances permit. Believe me when I say that you are in no danger and that my intentions toward you are that of a caretaker toward a vulnerable charge. Understand: Your insensate condition is the result of a neural block, administered to prevent you from injuring yourself in panic upon awakening.
They almost catch you in orbit. They almost slaughter you like the others. The airwaves are full of screams. Friends are dying. Loved ones are being lobotomized, turned into slaves. You hunker in the tiny spacecraft, your improvised last ditch escape, the lifeboat for you and the precious cargo you carry. The hull is as cold as you can make it, the systems running at the minimum possible to keep you alive and your children in stasis. You drift in orbit and play dead, hoping they’ll miss you.
My asiMom was okay. She was like a pillow, a walking talking pillow. But she gave good hugs and smelled right. They did a good job with her: Sometimes when she hugged me and I closed my eyes it felt like it’s supposed to feel and I forgot that she’s not my real mom. I saw her in the shower a few times. She didn’t care. She took showers every day exactly at 5:45 p.m., even if I messed up every clock in the house, because her inside clock was always right. She didn’t even need to shower because she was just a robot, but she did anyway. My dad said that that made her more realistic.