Jake jerked his head up. He’d been drooling. He wiped his face on his sleeve, looked around, then saw the message flashing on the screen. The scanning electron microscope had finally finished pumping down. They really needed that new machine.

He groggily clicked thru the startup procedure, finally got an image of the sample. One am. He had 6 hours left till anyone else had the machine scheduled.

Zoom in, focus, zoom in, focus, Jake was reading license plates before it registered that he’d imaged a city on an antarctic meteorite. One of those meteorites that, mineralogically, seemed to have come from Mars.

Jake excitedly scanned the rock surface. The city covered a good part of it. This was incredible! Forget the thesis. Nature, Science, a Nobel prize!

Jake feverishly scanned and photographed streets full of dwellings, temples, public buildings, focusing in on smaller and smaller details. Fountains, park benches, things that could be statues or streetlights, even people. Hundreds of people, all froxen in place, the monochromatic SEM display reminding him of the ash people of Pompeii.

“This stupid machine,” Jake grumbled. No matter how he focused or adjusted the stigmation he could not resolve facial features. He became obsessed with getting the perfect shot. Backscatter electrons didn’t help. He tried an alternative view and suddenly, one of the faces swam into focus. It had a pair of wide-spaced oblong eyes, a thin, sharp nose, and a wide mouth. The martian looked up at Jake, beckoned with a finger.

Jake began to doubt, for the first time, that he was awake.

“I don’t know,” Sara said. “Jake was supposed to be on overnight. I unlocked the door, and the place was a mess.”

“Ew. His clothes are here.” Jili poked her foot at the crumpled jeans and T-shirt that lay on the floor between the chair and the SEM. The worksurface was littered with empty Mountain Dew cans, candy wrappers, and a spiral notebook, open to a blank page. “He doesn’t use a laptop?”

“No, and it doesn’t even look like he was working last night. He didn’t take any photographs. Do you suppose he ran out of here naked?”

Jili woke up the screen. “He’s got a sample in there, but at such a high power and so out of focus you can’t see a thing. Well, let’s clean up and get to work.”


Note: This story, while it stands alone, belongs to the Anan Muss series.

Anan Muss was careful.  While he still made mistakes (after all, a legion of King Ash’s slitters once sliced arc-blades at his head on every quantum-entanglement port),  Anan’s caution merely meant that it took longer to do simple tasks–as if his brain had rocketed to light-speed, slowing down his relative time.  Washing, ironing, and folding laundry usually cost him a weekend, even with robots. Cleaning his apartment required a week’s vacation.

Love was trickier.  In college he’d taken his time to talk intimately and walk around the hanging orchid gardens with girls he found interesting.  It took him a month to ask women out to the aquarium theater, another month to kiss beneath bridges by the canals, and a year later to fall helplessly in love.  The year after that might have been marriage, he supposed, but women rarely waited long enough for him to ask them out.

Luckily, the second-generation AI ladies appeared in Japan.  All the shy lads wanted one.  By design, quantities were low, demand high.  One would have cost his year’s accounting salary.

So Anan mail-ordered one of those borderline real phonies made in China.  His fingers trembled as he unwrapped her.  Her skin–a soft, off-ivory–accentuated her raven-black hair.  His heart wanted to gallop away, but he reined it in.  She accepted his hand and stepped out of the box, “Am I not beautiful?”

Caught off-guard, yet ever poetic, Anan sought the right words:  “Yes…. I mean, no…. I mean, you are beautiful.”

“Love me, and I will be whomever you want.”

“Being yourself is enough although we may shift a bit, like car springs over a new road.”

“And you will be whomever I want you to be.”

“I’ll try–within the limits of my present brain pattern.

She laid plans of their future together.  He said he hoped she would have patient understanding, be someone he could share words with, someone who’d sharpen him gently, someone who would challenge and accept challenge.  “That’s exactly who I am,” she said, mentioning her unparalleled poetic sensibility.

As he painted her a porcelain love poem, he spoke of this inane idea he’d had of dating women virtually–not for love per se, but to understand women better.

He handed her his poem:

Laxity in

love milks

the black

swell of

twisted minutes

into hours

She shattered the porcelain and stalked away.  “I have no time for words.”

Another Sunday promenade in spite of the heat, and Lill’s collar rubbed rascant lines in the skin behind her ears.
By the frost-stained fountain, amid the clatter of the icicle chimes, she heard him before she saw him, and he was saying, “Nevermind what he charges, he tensioned up the hopplag and the gears haven’t slipped since.” He had a striped coat, green-tinted googles, and an asymmetrical grin.
She turned to see him astride a blue metal ornithoptopede, chatting with another rider. He tipped his hat as she passed and she resolved to find some pretext for conversation on her next circuit of the slippery tile-walk. But he and his friend were gone by the time she returned. That thurtling in the treetops might have been them.
She got herself a cup of herb-flecked ice so she could loiter and watch. She chipped away with the tiny wooden spoon the vendor had given her. It was stoce. She hated stoce. She ate the whole thing, but he didn’t come back.
She walked home the long way, and found grim amusement in the most neglected corner of the sculpture garden, where the statues of a quartet of primly-posed town fathers were draped with an exuberance of flowering ullivaria. She thought she saw cracks in the stone under the tendrils’ coils.
Back home, she cut silhouettes out of cheap fetzbalk, sigils that would represent the day’s events when she pasted them in her diary.
When the light grew too dim for the fine cutting, she laid the book aside. Out the window, the sky above the courtyard was as widensh as she felt.

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