TWENTY MILES AWAY AND thirty levels underground in a luxurious apartment with a delivery code only one digit different from Bill's, William N. Wood, age 104, studied an invoice and punched out the phone number of the New York offices of The Girl of the Month Club. When the prosthebot answered, he said, "Hiya doll, we got some kinda fuckup here, I got the bill but not the merchandise, lemme talk to a human, okay? Yeah, I'll wait."
He knew it would be a long wait for a real human. William N. Wood owned Albuquerque, New Mexico, through a quirk of the Urban Homestead rules, and he made a comfortable living by sifting through the homes and stores and factories and warehouses of Albuquerque and removing valuables and transporting them to Los Angeles for sale.
He had to do the work himself, or at least supervise it, because unsupervised labor would simply remove the stuff for their own profit.
There was no local labor to be had in Albuquerque, of course. Nobody lived there, not since World War III. Vast expanses of American urban area had been wiped clean of life by neutron bombs, but the cities themselves were virtually undamaged. Several parts of the continent were devastated, true, but there was so much property left over, and so few people, that everybody was rich. Sort of.
IT WAS A LONG ride down the elevator to the offices of the Megalithic Corporation. At ground level I was the only person in the elevator. The elevator stopped about 20 levels down and another passenger stepped in. He looked like another 'moner to me, but he must have had a good job if he lived 20 levels down.
I thought about The Girl of the Month Club package. Back before the turn of the century they thought Virtual Reality would be peddling the whores of the future. Virtual reality had TV eyeglasses and earplugs and handgloves: that was it. No tactile feedback devices. They assumed a breakthrough in which a brain/computer interface is developed that allows people to "jack in" and experience full-sense transcription. That breakthrough never surfaced, but genetic engineering blossomed and made possible the sale of living, breathing, moaning fuck dolls.
Hey, maybe I could sell it to some Oldie. It had to be worth a megabuck. Sure, it was some screwup and they'd catch me eventually, but I could jolt the apartment and be 50 miles away in another unregistered apartment, and what could they do?
The elevator stopped and two people got on. They looked at me disdainfully as we started down again. I have a real stupid job, and I guess they could tell. Megalithic Systems Optimization, Inc., has the federal contract for the moon mines. Six hours a day I sit in front of a video plate and control a boreworm in Mare Serendipt on the Moon. All day long I sit in front of a flat video screen and control the flow and interaction of complex colored shapes, according to the instructions of the day, using the various controls. It paid the minimum wage, a hundred bucks an hour, and there was virtually no hope for advancement. But it paid the rent.
And it was an underground job. If you want to be a player in L.A., you have to be underground. Skizz works above ground, and makes big cash, sure. His brother Rovar also makes big money salvaging from L.A. homes and businesses, but he has a secret gasoline cache and how can you plan to find that?
Surface work is a dead end, that's what I think. The real world is Downstairs. So I was enduring the minimum wage life while trying to get a clue for advancement.
The elevator halted at my floor and I stood up. I felt the 'mones starting to come on already. There was a glittering edge to everything, and motion and time seemed to be slowed down. The door opened and I stepped out into the giant underground mall. Many stairways led to levels further below. I got on the slidewalk, and rode it about half a mile to the Megalithic offices.
At the office they were having some kind of ceremony. I was embarrassed at being late, but hardly anybody noticed when I came in. I saw a couple of my pals, but the only person I really noticed was Mandy Feather, the best-looking woman in the company. She's a year younger than me but she's already assistant manager of the process implementation department. I was embarrassed to be thinking about Felina in front of Mandy. She has really nice tits and today she wasn't wearing a top: instead she had a new fur job, short blond hair that covered only her breasts. "Hi, Mandy," I said, waving; she smiled bleakly at me and sat down next to Mr. Gardner, the Oldie in charge of my department at Megalithic. He whispered in her ear and rubbed her fur job, and she giggled.
Hair cream is easy to get if you have enough money -- just rub it on and it changes the DNA in your skin cells and hair starts growing. It's awfully expensive -- but Mandy made a lot more money than I did.
Then the ceremony was over, employee of the month awards or something, and Mr. Gardner was helping Mandy stand up, and I pushed forward past them and let the crush of the crowd make me collide with Mandy, and I gave her a hip thump as we touched and she caught my eye just before I surged away.
I don't know if it was the 'mones, but it seemed like she was staring right into my soul. I had this big urge to bite her on the back of the neck.
Then I was in my cubicle and the Lunar substratum was rushing toward me at 30 feet per minute and I opened the inhalers when properly dense rock appeared ahead on the sonar/radar plate and I steered toward denser rock further ahead and I kept a lookout for patches of water to gobble.
I made the minimum wage of a hundred dollars an hour and there wasn't much chance I'd ever make more than that -- I graduated from high school but that didn't count as a credential any more. I've got my skills but they are equivalent to pool-hall skills. Playing pool takes mathematical insight, but not mathematical training. Intuitive mathematics. I control the moon robots by shuffling shapes and colors on the screen. When I touch an outline on the screen I can change its size and color and shape; if I drag my finger across the screen, the image will follow along.
A pulsing yellow barrier line appeared on one edge of the screen. It represented a bunch of hypothetical dimensions that I didn't know anything about. In the rules it meant I couldn't go in that direction with a blue cube or a rotating dodecahedron.
I felt the 'mones roaring up in me. I could sling those cubes and dodies easy as can be. Then the break signal chimed, a tone signaling the first break. I put my controls in neutral and got a cup of coffee and went to Fred Metz's carrel.
"Hey Fred, did you see Feather's fur job?" I said.
"Yeah, please don't ask me to stand up."
"Maybe you should ask her if you could borrow some hair cream," I said.
Fred was caught outside during a Stage 1 radiation alert last summer, and all his hair fell out. He was too cool to wear a rad suit until then.
I liked Fred because he was like me -- he grew up in the Midwest and came to Los Angeles because that's where the action is. We found out that every young man in North America had the same idea.
"Skizz has some great thyroid, panther thyroid. You should try it. Sharpens your senses."
Then when I was looking at Fred's screen I suddenly saw that his screen was just like mine except the barrier line was on the other side. "Hey, Fred, our machines must be right together, we're both in lOO-meter diversion."
"I wonder what the mining robots look like," Fred said.
"Hey," I said, "wouldn't it be cool to drill into each other's tunnel and see what we look like?"
"We might get in trouble," Fred said.
"Oh, I bet I can turn the robot the way I want without using any blue cubes or rotating dodies. That's all the rule is about."
"Okay," Fred said. He studied the screen. "I'll bet I can cross in front of you."
"Oh yeah? Okay, loser buys 'mones."
It wasn't that hard to do. I went back to my carrel and slapped and tickled my screen and made my miner cross into Fred's path. I programmed for a visual simulation. At first it was normally boring, nothing but a dark rock face and a jumble of broken rock, but then the rock face shattered apart and I saw Fred's miner, face to face. A fifty-foot diameter of lasers and a central structure for grinding and conveying the ore. Big deal. It looked just like the pictures.
I shrugged and returned my miner to the right path -- just in time because Mr. Gardner and Mandy Feather came back in, and Mr. Gardner was preeny and stalked around finding fault with us.
Near the end of the shift I saw Mandy standing alone by the transmutation monitor and I stepped up behind her. "Mandy, we're going to Hauser's after work for a couple of drinks,would you like to join us?"
She whirled around and gave me a disgusted look and stalked away without answering.
There was a radiation alert at quitting time, so I was able to take underground transportation home for free instead of bicycling. When I got to Hauser's Bar after work, Skizz and Fred had a table and I got a beer and sat down with them. Hauser's is near my apartment and is one story underground, so it's fairly safe, even if it's a cheap and sleazy joint.
Fred and Skizz and I were part of the Boy Imbalance. A few years before I was born, they invented a way to make sure your kid was a boy or a girl, and my mom and dad decided they wanted a boy.
So did everybody else. It was just a couple of years after the Fuckup War, and as in every previous era of human history, parents favored the production of male children. When cheap, reliable methods of determining the sex of your offspring came on the world market, suddenly only boys were being born. In some countries 85% of births were boys at the height of the fad. I was born late in the cycle, when the oldest of the Boy Bulge were 16, and then the Big War started when I was 6, and is still going on, although not in the fearsome style of the early days. Today it's a worldwide armed truce, but we still average five or six nuclear incidents a year.
I had a lot of friends. They were all guys. Oh, there were lots of women my age, too. Somewhere. But it seemed like they were all taken by Oldies. "The one I want is Mandy Feather," I said. "That girl over in the Throughput Implementation department."
"Yeah, I'd use my implement and give her some throughput," said Fred Metz.
Then Skizz's brother Jim showed up.
Jim was a surface worker -- a guy who harvests material goods from the ruins of the old world above. He had a heavy radiation tan. "You should have seen what we found today," he said. "We cracked open this office building and every skeleton was wearing a Rolex."
Then an Oldie came in with two beautiful girls who couldn't have been older than 18. You can do a lot with cosmetics, and god knows the Oldies have been trying a long time, but there's still something about a girl who's really only 18 that is beyond the grasp of the cosmetic art, despite genetic engineering and all.
We watched them for a while and talked about Oldies. "Why can't that old fart join The Girl of the Month Club or something," said Fred, "and leave the real girls for us?"
"You have to have big cash to join The Girl of the Month Club," Skizz said. "And you can't just join, you have to be nominated."
"How do you know?" I asked,
"Hey, I make money, I tried to join once."
The Oldie got up and went to the Men's room and I said, "You can have your Girl of the Month Club, I'm going to try some live flesh." I went to the Oldie's table. "Hi, girls, I'm Bill Wood, and I wonder if you'd like to have some company more your own age."
They looked at me the way you look at radiation blisters. The big runny putrid ones. "Grav out, goldless one," said the redhead. The brunette with the full-body scintillation film said, "Oh, please tell us all about processing," real sarcastic, and then they acted like I wasn't even there.
I went back to the table and Fred and Skizz and Jim razzed me for a while. That's when this Oldie woman sat down and started hassling us. She had these wrinkles you wouldn't believe and her ears and her nose were so big and hairy, eck. She tried to buy us drinks, offered us some psychotabs -- Skizz was interested at first but I think he just wanted to buy them for resale, not use them.
The Oldie put her arm around me and tried to pull me toward her and her breath was awful. "Come on, honey, all I want is your cock for a little while, okay?" and she reached down and grabbed me.
"Hey!" I said, and that made Skizz and Fred laugh, and I jumped up and ran out and went home to my Cube.
The shipping shell from The Girl of the Month Club was still there. "Fuck it," I said. I pulled the release tab and the shell whooshed and a waft of chill air came out as the internal suspended animation circuits shut off. I put a meal in the microwave and looked through the instruction manual.
It took about an hour for the shell to cycle through. I sat nervously waiting for the girl to start poking through the shell. I'd been looking at the brochure and using my reader to listen to the words but it was awfully complicated and there was a lot of writing. I was starting to worry... the brochure warned about how expensive the girls were if you damaged them, because they had to be returned at the end of the month. You had to feed them a special nutrient syrup or they would die.
I decided I would just keep the girl one day and then call in and let the mistake be known. That would be the right way to do it.
Suddenly a circular piece of the shell popped loose and a girl's nose poked out and inhaled deeply. I hastily thumbed through the manual and found the picture of the nose coming out and when I looked at it the rest of the shell in the picture peeled back like artichoke leaves. "Be sure to save the leaves for return shipment of your girl at the end of the month," said the reader.
I pulled the leaves off. There were twelve of them and after just three were off the girl's head was exposed and I could see she was beautiful, half asleep but fearful and anxious. Her hair was wet and matted and her skin was covered with fluid -- as I pulled back more leaves a quart or two of liquid gushed onto the floor. When I pulled the last leaf off she opened her eyes and looked right at me and moaned and darted her eyes around and struggled to move. I touched her hand and she flowed onto me, a huddling frightened girl hugging me for life, wet and bawling.
According to the manual this was the "imprinting" time. They'd grafted duck DNA into the clones so that they bonded with their owner as baby ducks bond to the first moving thing they see after hatching. The bonding was pheromonic: the girls were imprinted by the owner's smell factors, and no embarrassing incidents would result if a non-member were to encounter one of the girls.
The girl was dripping wet and naked and clamped herself against me, burrowing through clothes to press her flesh against mine. The manual suggested that I sit and hug and soothe her for an hour while she adapted to her new environment and absorbed my pheromones. When the pheromonic imprinting was completed, she would be ready for whatever sexual gymnastics I had in mind.
But the way she was sobbing and moaning and clinging to me... she wasn't even 5 feet tall, and couldn't have weighed 85 pounds, but with tits that wouldn't quit and a tiny waist and the cutest ass. All just as advertised.
I was really turned on but I followed the instructions and just held on to her. I was kind of afraid of her, actually. She was wet and I tried to pry her off so I could get a towel, but she fretted and clung to me. I stood up to get a towel and she rode me like a leaf plastered to a windshield by the rain.
I toweled her back but her front was clamped against me. I had a hard-on that was starting to be uncomfortable, but after a half an hour she began a sniffing ritual, nuzzling against my chest and licking me and crawling up my body to lick my face -- it wasn't really like kissing -- and then she moved down and sucked me in and after long bliss I gave her the final pheromonic imprint: a long jet of my own personal DNA files. The rest of the night was an endless exploration of orgasm, and I didn't have any moral qualms.
But in the morning I did. I woke early and couldn't go back to sleep. She looked cute snoozing in my bed... but she wasn't human, she was just an artificial construct cobbled together from dog and cat and kangaroo DNA.
She was so sleek and trim. Part of the reason was that she didn't have much in the way of internal organs. In order to make a clone with the narrowest waist, the bioengineers had left out intestines, for the most part. I looked through the brochure again until I found the "FEEDING" section. The girls needed a couple ounces a day of nutrient solution -- a half liter flask had been included inside the egg.
I poured her a little glass of it and shook her awake. She drank it with a slobbering gratitude.
We did it again before I went to work.
WILLIAM M. WOOD DIALED The Girl of the Month Club again. "Dammit, you said I would have my shipment by today, and there's no sign of it."
"I'm sorry, sir," said the prosthebot. "Our records show your shipment has been received."
"Let me talk to a human."
"I'm sorry, sir, all humans are out of the office at the moment. May I help you?"
"Look, I'm leaving for Albuquerque. I wanted to take this month's girl with me, but now you've wrecked it. Now you make sure she's here when I get back, you understand? The shipment hasn't arrived. I don't care what your records show. Send it now." He broke the connection, then programmed his computer to repeat the complaint.
When the realtime clock in William Wood's computer dialed The Girl of the Month Club and repeated the message, it was three in the morning in New York. Just at that moment in Times Square in front of the offices of The Girl of the Month Club, a mugger slipped up behind a pedestrian and pressed a gun into his back. "Gimme your dough or you're dead," he said.
The pedestrian whirled and pulled an ion gun. The mugger fired two shots from his .44 Magnum into the pedestrian's chest, to no effect.
The pedestrian pulled the trigger of his ion gun once, and then again.
One charge from the ion gun went through the office wall into the computer of The Girl of the Month Club and scrambled several memory banks during William M. Wood's call.
The mugger slumped to the ground without a mark on him: the ion gun's charge coagulated the flesh in a three-inch wide path through his body, like hard-boiling an egg.
The pedestrian plucked two slugs from his bulletproof vest, put his ion gun away, and walked on.
IN THE MORNING IT was raining sulfuric acid and I had to wear my pH 10 raincloak. There were cops all over the freeway where a freight van's mag field transducer had failed and left a 30-foot crater and only one lane of traffic was trickling through, and I couldn't grab a ride and had to pedal all the way. I was really tired -- I hadn't slept more than two hours. I looked for Skizz at work, I wanted to get some more panther thyroid, but he wasn't out there in the rain. I probably didn't need anything. Hell, my testosterone levels were on a natural high and my cock wouldn't go limp all day. I could hardly wait to get home again.
I churned the colors on my screen half heartedly most of the morning thinking about Felina. I didn't even notice if Mandy Feather was there. Well, I hardly noticed.
Later Fred and I snuck away and he had some dreamazine -- a zappy 'mone that triggers a REM state while you're wide awake. Cool.
Then the pulse alarm sounded. Any time there's an atomic explosion a big electromagnetic pulse blasts away and it can wreck a computer and zero the magnetic memory in a blink. So when the EMP alarm sounded we were all supposed to shut down & protect our assigned machines, and we were three minutes later than anybody in the company. If there had really been an H-bomb all our files would have been gone.
Later in the day they called me and Fred in to get chewed out. I sat in the Big Boss's waiting room and hoped I wouldn't get fired. I didn't know what the big deal was about because it was just a drill and there hadn't been any detonations for two or three years in orbits that were dangerous to us. We were in a nuclear war, of course, but not nuclear war in the way the Oldies grew up dreading -- the massive exchange between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., thousands and thousands of H-bombs going off everywhere on every land mass on the planet.
After the breakup of the U.S.S.R., nukes became a commodity on the world black market. Once a state owns a nuke, though, it becomes impossible to use them except in defense, or as a terrorist weapon.
The only thing nukes are really good for is to nullify an army in the field. Massed troops at borders are the handiest targets, and satellite surveillance in a free market gave every nation information about its neighbors' troop movements.
Today the United States has a population of 62 million -- about the same as in 1890. Foreign immigrants are welcomed, except there aren't many -- the rest of the world is a smoldering ash-heap and there is little international travel. Incongruously, there is plenty of space travel.
Rather than buying raw materials from third world countries, the U.S. now mines most elements on the Moon, and nanoassemblers in orbit are making more and more of the goods used on Earth.
There haven't been any actual nuke attacks on L.A. for a long time, but there's plenty of fallout from nukes in the Far East. World opinion says using nukes is okay as long as you're striking massed troops, or other acknowledged military targets. But nuking cities isn't cost-effective for anybody. The news reports a nuke attack a couple times a year. Nations are using nukes for engineering purposes -- Thailand blasted a 50-mile-long sea-level canal from the South China Sea to the Bay of Bengal at the Isthmus of Kra, and took away a lot of the shipping business from Singapore.
Anyway, the automatics would have shut down my work station in time if there'd been a real pulse. And there hadn't been a real pulse, so there was no damage. But that's not the way the company saw it.
If I lost this job I would be in big trouble. I didn't want to have to live on the surface again.
Fred and I sat there and waited, and waited. The only good part was that Mandy Feather was called in there, too. "What were you doing when the alarm went off?" I whispered to her.
"Hmph!" she said.
"Fred and I were doing 'mones in a secret place we know. Maybe you could come up and do whatever you were doing with us, huh?"
Instead of giving me a snappy answer, she turned bright red and wouldn't say anything. Then they opened the door and took me and Fred in front of the Boss and I had two REMS added to my radiation tolerance ration. Fuck. More extra duty whenever there was a radiation hazard, and I wouldn't get hazard pay until I was two REMS higher. Oh well, radiation work gives you a nice tan and you get used to it. The more radiation you get, the more you can stand. They've proven it.
After work, Fred and Skizz wanted me to go to Hauser's again but I wanted to go home. "I've got a big date," I told them. I got into a crowded elevator and took the long ride to the surface -- by the time we got to the top, I was the only rider. I got out of the elevator and climbed onto my bicycle and headed home.
The radiation tolerance thing has to do with underground transportation. There is a very little subway system in L.A., and what little is there is privately owned and very expensive and jealously guarded. During Stage 1 radiation alerts, I could use whatever subway was available, for free, as long as my radiation badge showed I was exposed up to my ration.
I'm forced by penury to travel on the surface, and so I'm exposed to more radiation than undergrounders. There's never any sunshine in southern California, it's perpetual fog or rainstorms; it's the old Seattle climate moved south. Redwoods are prospering despite the radiation, and that's what's kept Los Angeles alive: the healing rains have swept the radiation away time after time.
Radiation turned out to be not as lethal as they thought in the 20th century. Sure, hard radiation kills, but it also toughens. It's bad for individuals, but it hardens the species. It's Ma Nature saying, "Oh yeah? Well just try that again and see what happens."
When I got home there was another thermoplastic shell from The Girl of the Month Club at my door.
I couldn't help myself. I'd always wondered what it would be like to have two girls in bed at once. I pulled off the seal and the shell began to cycle. I took Felina into the bedroom and dallied with her until it was time for imprinting.
When the nose circle fell out of the shell I went back to it and pulled the leaves off and there was another perfect Felina. She clung to me and trembled for an hour and then repeated the sequence of the night before.
I was a bit disappointed; she was exactly like the first Felina and there was no sense of having had a different girl, there wasn't a cunt's hair difference between them. But then later when the two of them were in bed with me together they were kittenishly competitive in trying to please me, trying to be the one who received my sperm. According to the manual, they were programmed to desire sperm above all else, to hunger and lust for it, and the Felinas certainly proved it was true.
I drifted out of consciousness surrounded by hugging flesh.
The next day Skiz was outside as usual but I didn't buy anything. Then as soon as I sat down in front of my video screen, Mr. Gardner appeared on it. "Woods, report to Systems Analysis immediately."
Nuts. It sounded like they weren't going to be satisfied with just giving me the extra radiation units. "What's wrong, sir?" I said.
"Woods, report to Systems Analysis immediately." It was just a recording.
This time they had Mandy Skizz as well as Fred and me in the same meeting, and we were questioned by Mr. Gardner's boss. "Woods, I understand you were consuming drugs in unauthorized cubic yesterday during the EMP drill."
I gave Mandy a gigavolt burn with my eyes. She looked away.
"Oh yeah?" I said. "Well, I wouldn't have been away from my station except Mandy Feather was sucking off Mr. Gardner in the Gigahertz Fourier department again. If he was there supervising like he should I couldn't have snuck away."
Now I didn't know anything of the sort but I always figure a good offense is the best defense.
"Bill, you don't seem to understand," the Boss said. "This isn't about the pulse drill per se. We reviewed all tapes after the drill and we discovered the reckless game of 'chicken' you and Fred played."
"So we paced along side each other, so what?"
"You ruined one mining robot and seriously disabled another."
"What? How?" I said.
"The damage has been repaired and the units are now back in functional order," the Boss said, "but it was very expensive. This meeting is about your future employment career, and how you're going to repay the $28,000,000 your little game cost us."
Half an hour later I was on the surface and out of a job. They didn't fire me: they told me that I was now locked into Megalithic, they would deduct from my pay until the debt was paid off, which would take approximately the entirety of my working life. Instead, I quit.
Well, there was more than one place to work in L.A., I told myself as I biked home. Megalithic had competitors. West Hemisphere Molybdenites, for instance. They ran robot mining machines at the bottom of the ocean. I knew guys who worked at WestHemis. I was confident of finding a new job -- I'm skilled, and labor in L.A. is a seller's market.
When I got home there was another thermoplastic shell in front of the door. I stared at it a moment. A neighbor walked by and said, "What's that, Billy?" and I said, "None of your business" and hauled it inside. My two Felinas were curious about the new shell but they were more eager to taste me again. I pushed the shell into a closet and took the two Felinas to bed. I wasn't tired but I sure was horny.
The Felinas were just as intoxicating as they'd been the night before, and they turned out to have several tricks I'd never expected. I didn't watch a bit of TV and I hardly ate a thing.
I poured each of the girls a glass of nutrient, and they gulped it down, and they looked at me so pleadingly that I gave them another glass, and then they were pleasured and sleepy. There wasn't another glass of the nutrient left for them.
The next morning the manager woke me with another jangling message: "There's a package here for you."
I was confused and muzzy from sleep. I sat up and gently moved a sleeping Felina so I could sit up; I said, "I picked it up already,"
"It's another one," the manager said.
I went to the door and got the new shell and put it into the closet with the other unopened one. I stared at the shells a while before shutting the closet.
I looked at the two Felinas. They were starting to seem a little eerie. I decided not to wake them up -- I needed to go out and find some work. But they woke up while I was dressing and they clung to me and begged mutely for more nutrient, but there was none left.
I didn't know what kind of nutrient the girls drank. It was probably some highly tailored broth -- the girls were crudely engineered and needed a specific set of chemicals as fuel. Unlike natural life forms, they were unable to synthesize their own needs out of random forage the way real animals are able to.
Well, I had to buy another jug. The smart thing to do would be to look for some in the black market, but that would take time. For now I'd just buy some at an Oldie market at the retail price.
But first of all, I should look for another job. Rent was more important than nutrient for the Girlclub clones. Sure, I could have my pick of 100,000 vacant apartments, free, as long as I didn't care about water or electricity. You could get phone and cable service anywhere through satellite links. But surface housing had no protection against radiation and no connection to the underground majority.
The cause of the separation between underground and aboveground was economic. My apartment building was on a subway path. All I needed to ride an underground slideway to Megalithic was a gold dime each time I crossed into the Under. This time I thought it might be worth it if I went Under to look for work. Also, only Oldie stores carried clone nutrient.
So I went to a supermarket in the Oldie part of town. I'd never been in an Oldie market before, and when I asked for nutrient fluid they all looked at each other and I said, "It's for my grandfather," and I was sure they were going to call the cops but instead they gave me this one liter bottle of clear pinkish stuff.
I felt funny standing in line with all these Oldies staring at me... God, they must have all been over a hundred years old. A bunch of them were in wheelchairs or powered walkers and they all were bald and wrinkled. It made me feel sick.
Then the cashier robot said, "That will be $2250."
"What?" I said. "For one stinking liter?"
"Plus tax," said the robot.
I thought about just going home and calling The Girl of the Month Club and ending it right there. Hell, for $2250 I could have bought ten cases of beer and a six quarts of Wild Turkey. But then I thought about the way last night was, and I used my credit card even though it wiped out my credit limit.
Then I saw Mandy Feather come into the store and all I could think about was hiding from her. What would she think if she saw me in an Oldie place like this? Later I started wondering what she was doing in an Oldie place, but at the time all I could think about was my two Felinas.
They were awake and anxious when I got home, but after a couple of ounces of the nutrient they were all smiles and we did it again before I went out looking for work.
I found Skizz's brother Jim and found some surface work for a day. Jim and his crew harvested a highrise in Encino and I discovered there's a lot less gold on the old corpses than you'd think, despite all the stories. The guys who made out on highrise intrusions were guys who had zoned out their own turf on the infonet. Any boob could smash open doors and ransack skeletons for gold, but there just wasn't that much gold around, no matter what you heard, no matter if you crack a virgin building. But there are all kinds of other things in the rooms, and we collect them.
Maybe one guy knows about books and magazines. Collectors pay big bucks for certain items. Other guys know about art, or kitchen items, or certain furniture. With so many neutron bombs used in the final flareup, thousands of square miles were sterilized without much damage to the structures. Now the sterilized areas were the lushest areas for wildlife: opportunistic scavengers were invading on every biological level, because biological competition had been destroyed at every level. Greater Los Angeles was the home grounds for giant new coyotes and mountain lions, for instance, battled by domestic dogs and cats mutating up in size. Giant parrots abound, too, partially because they're able to evolve into useful adjuncts in the human communications system.
Who or what are the prey animals feeding all this? I don't know. Chickens and cows are too stupid to survive without humans. Maybe it would be giant rabbits.
There's lots of stuff on the surface if you want to collect it. However, the pay isn't that great. Sure, you could make a living collecting Seikos off of corpses. But it's about like collecting beer cans back in 1982.
I looked for something extra I could sell, but there aren't many things left lying around in L.A. any more. Not above ground, and below ground everything is organized and neat and there's nothing lying around. The only thing that's valuable is your time and talent. You can barter with found goods, that was about it. Nobody was going to pay cash for ordinary stuff like diamonds or gold.
Not only that, all I had to carry stuff with was my bicycle. I pedaled to the ocean at Venice but there was nothing obvious washed up on shore. Leaden skies and vicious winds and houses tumbling into the sea. They say before the Fuckup War people would go there to stand on the sand wearing underwear. It doesn't seem possible. Of course, there wasn't any radiation back then.
Nobody I knew had any money. You couldn't find nutrient above ground, you couldn't barter for it.
The problem with surface foraging is that there is too much of everything. The only way to do it is to first have a client who wants something, and is willing to pay for it. Then you have to go out and find one. If the guy is willing to pay, that means the item is really hard to find.
Anyway, I spent two days on the surface and then I came back with substantial credit (although not gold). The girls were near death so I went to the Oldie market again and tried to buy another couple of jugs, but my credit had been intercepted by Megalithic.
I was defeated. I called the Club to turn myself in, but the prosthebot declined to speak to me because I don't meet Club criteria. Also, the penalty for not returning Club girls in good condition after 30 days is a million bucks. "That doesn't bother me," I snarled, "I already owe $28 million. Another couple of million mean nothing to me."
I switched off the phone, stood up and shrugged. Fuck it. I had three unopened shells, and each one had a full jug of nutrient. I rolled one of the shells out of the closet and pulled the tab. I didn't stay to watch it thaw out: I reached in and pulled out the jug of nutrient and poured a couple glasses for the active Felinas. The longer they were out of the shell, the more nutrient they needed. They were famished and they drank deeply now and then fell asleep.
There was a knock at the door, and it was the building manager. "Where you been, Bill?" He had two more thermoplastic shells in his golf cart.
"I want to refuse shipment on these," I said.
"Sorry," said the manager, rolling the shells into my apartment. "I have no storage facilities. Your deliveries are between you and your supplier. I still don't see how a punk like you can afford cross-continental special delivery." He whirled around on his electric cart and whizzed away down the corridor.
I put the two shells into the closet. Now I had two active Felinas, one more that would be peeling out of its shell in an hour, and four more still in their shells. Enough, I said.
More than enough. They climbed all over me as I put away the four new shells and rubbed and stroked me. They were revived by the nutrient. They were petulant: they were supposed to get fucked a lot, they were programmed for it, and I'd been away for two whole days.
They were starting to wear me out. I screwed both of them, or I thought I did -- there was no way to tell them apart -- and then I gave each of them a glass of nutrient.
The jug was two-thirds gone. How was I going to buy more?
After the third one hatched I herded all of the girls into the bathroom to make sure they took a shower, as the handbook suggested, and as I sloshed around with them I found myself screwing another time, but I couldn't tell if it was one I'd already done or not.
After I got them dried off they were still after me and I left for Hauser's Bar, where I found Skizz and Fred and Sam and Hindi. I also found that I was in a confessional mood: I needed money, and I told them the truth about what had happened. I didn't have enough money to buy nutrient for the girls.
I finished telling them. They stared at me. "Well, come on -- can you guys help me out, or not? "
I looked at them. They were probably astonished that I would be a sucker for the Oldie crap.
Then Fred said, "Come on."
Skizz said, "Look, you want to borrow, you can borrow -- why this bullshit story?"
"I told you -- I have to get nutrient for these girlclub girls."
Skizz looked at Fred and Sam and Hindi. They looked at each other. Sam said "I don't think he's kidding, you know that?"
They came to a nodding agreement and looked at Sam. "Tell you what," said Sam. "You prove you have these girls, and we'll buy you a jug of nutrient."
They must have been convinced: they decided we should take fast underground transport to my apartment, rather than risking a trip to the surface. I didn't know if it was the radiation up top, or the time factor: these boys seemed eager.
Sam was the first one in and a Felina was on his neck as soon as he entered. Skizz pushed forward and another Felina enveloped him, and Fred and Hindi too. But within a few minutes the girls were pushing away from them and the party seemed to be over. "They're pheromonically programmed to respond to me and nobody else," I said. "It's a safety factor."
Fred had a frown of great intensity. "But you said there were four more shells -- four more that haven't been imprinted yet."
"Yeah," said Hindi and Sam. Skizz was only a few neural impulses behind the others.
Before I could forestall them the guys rushed my closet and pulled the seals off the four shells. Sam was sent out for booze and pizza and Skizz put credit into the TV for full satellite input. We drank and ate and Skizz had some smoking 'mones up for inhalation.
And then the girls started to hatch. We were too late: the awake Felinas were crouched over the nose-holes of the newly hatched ones, kissing them and helping peel the leaves off. The pheromonic imprint stage was already preempted.
The girls crowded around me and shrank away from the other guys. Eventually the guys grew disgusted and left. "But wait, you guys -- you see what it's like, I have to buy nutrient, you said you'd loan me money -- "
But they faded away and I was left with eight Felinas.
The next morning the girls were hungry again. I knew because there were two of them on my neck, two on my chest, two on my waist and two in my crotch. I struggled up away from them and they mewed in hunger. I checked their shells but their nutrient pouches were empty, and so was the jug I'd brought home.
And they were hungry. They clawed and sucked at me like voracious animals and I started to get scared. Finally I was able get into the bathroom and lock the door.
AT MEGALITHIC, MANDY FEATHER was talking to the boss. Mr. Gardner, gray-faced, explained to Mandy Feather that Bill Wood's escapade has uncovered a trillion-dollar lode of corium, and by the same rules that made him liable for damages, he was entitled to a significant share of the discovery. "He stands to be a billionaire. Important not to let him find out.
The path Bill's robot took went right through the middle of a mass of corium, the collapsed matter formed only at planetary cores and previously found only in the asteroid belt. This was the remnant of one of the big asteroids that collided with the moon long ago. The mass is only a hundred meters in diameter and would have never been found using standard search patterns. Bill's robot and the other guy's robot were at the closest they were allowed to be and the space between them would never have been inspected.
Unless it can be kept from him... The Company would never file in his behalf, of course, and would never notify Bill of the matter. Maybe he'll fall off a cliff doing surface work and this will all blow over," he said nervously.
She held him close and rubbed the wattled old skin on his neck. "Don't worry, don't worry," she said.
MY PHONE RANG AND it was the building manager. "There's another one a' them shells here for you," he said. "Open your door."
"I can't," I said. "I'm -- " I stopped. I'm locked in the bathroom and eight sex clones are in my apartment, that's why I can't come to the door, I didn't say. "I'm in the bathroom," I said, "just leave it and I'll get it later."
What was I going to do? The Girl of the Month Club wouldn't talk to me. My friends wouldn't help. My boss had already fired me -- forced me to quit, I mean.
I called Megalithic to talk to Mr. Gardner -- maybe he would know what to do. But when I called, Mandy Feather answered.
"Well, hello, Bill," she said.
"Mandy, I'm in trouble, I need some help. I know you hate me but please let me talk to Mr. Gardner. I need somebody to call a company in New York and have them reclaim some merchandise -- the company won't talk to me."
But Mandy didn't put me through to Mr. Gardner; instead, she wiggled the whole story out of me and I was embarrassed as hell. She said she thought she could get through to the Club.
Within an hour I heard my front door being opened and shrieks from the girls and calming voices and then there was a tap on the door and Mandy said, "You can come out now."
I stepped out and saw three technicians placing the sedated girls into their shells. They were gone in another half hour and it was as though they'd never been there.
But Mandy didn't leave. She just kept staring at me while the technicians were there, a funny glittery look in her eyes. She looked like she was on 'mones. She put her arms around me and said, "Show me what it was like with them."
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