Frequent Futurismic contributor Ruth Nestvold has done it again with “The Other Side Of Silence” – a disturbing tale about the future of executive entertainment.
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The Other Side Of Silence
by Ruth Nestvold
“If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence. As it is, the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity.”
– George Eliot, Middlemarch
Judith went through the pile of data cubes one more time, hoping she had just overlooked the game somehow. It was uncanny the way children always seemed to know instinctively when interruptions would be most inconvenient for their parents. She had a deadline in less than a week, an environment for Chrysalis Biotechnics, the biggest, most powerful company in their corporate zone in Portland. It could make or break her career as environmental artist.
So of course the kids wouldn’t give her any peace. Luther was pestering her to find his game Goblin Market, Miriam was in a Mood because she couldn’t have a genmod as a pet like all her friends, and Judith was frazzled.
“Is it there, Mommie?” Luther whined on a rising note.
She pushed the cubes aside, sighing. “I can’t find it.”
The whine became dangerously high-pitched, and Judith rose and went across the hall to her daughter’s room, Luther trailing behind her. She rapped her knuckles against the door.
“Miriam, would you come out please? I need some help.”
Miriam pulled the door open and stood there sullenly, her attitude more like thirteen than eleven. “I’m busy, Mom.”
Judith closed her eyes briefly, gathering herself, and then opened them again to gaze sternly at her eldest. “I have a deadline on Friday. I need you to help me find a game for your brother.”
“And if I do, can I finally have a genmod or an exspec?”
She had a brief image of a tuskless miniature mammoth or a glow-in-the-dark giant rabbit cavorting in the backyard. Why didn’t kids these days just want cats or dogs? “You’re not blackmailing me, young lady. We will discuss it with your father.”
Mother and daughter stared each other down for five seconds, and then Miriam stepped out into the hall and took her brother’s hand. “Come on, Luther, let’s check the system in the living room.”
Judith smiled and stroked her daughter’s dark hair. “Thanks. I’ll check on your father’s desk.”
She didn’t have much hope of finding the game in Vance’s office, but it was possible. He liked playing games in his spare time, and his organizational skills remained at the office whenever he left the luxury goods import business he had inherited from his father.
Methodically she began to sort out the data cubes from the clutter on his desk; hard-copy letters not yet filed, notes in pencil on new exotic imports, creative doodles in fantastic geometric shapes. From the living-room, she could still hear Luther whining.
Summer vacations should be outlawed.
To the back behind Vance’s favorite simulation game, Repopulation, she found an unmarked cube. She hardly dared hope it could be a copy of Luther’s game. She commanded the system on and inserted the cube. Instead of humorous goblin antics appearing on the flat screen, the projector kicked in and a sexy female figure appeared in the small holo well, hips thrust forward suggestively. She gazed at Judith and asked, “Do you have a problem making dreams come true?”
Judith stared at the tiny blond, scared and sick and speechless. When she didn’t answer, the projection continued, “If you do, we can help make your fantasies reality.” The blonde faded and a list appeared on the flat screen. The first column consisted of a combination of letters and numbers, the second a short description (“Buxom, blue-eyed brunette”), and the third a price in corporate units. A very high price. It looked like the kind of catalogue Vance distributed to his customers, except that Vance’s catalogues didn’t have holo support.
A catalogue. Of women. On her husband’s desk. Judith clenched her fist to keep it from trembling and read off one of the number combinations in a shaky voice. The sparsely-clad image of a small-breasted Asian beauty appeared in the holo well, rotating slowly, while the sexy voice enumerated her special qualities.
She stared at the projection, feeling like her brain had vanished, leaving her head light and empty.
The voices of the children coming down the hall drifted through her shock. “Shut down,” she told the system. The rotating image disappeared from the holo well and the offending list from the screen. Judith leaned back in the swivel chair, hands shaking and face hot. She clenched her eyes shut. She couldn’t let the children see that anything was wrong. And on Friday she had a deadline. She didn’t have time for turmoil.
“Found it!” Miriam announced triumphantly. “It was under a pillow on the easy chair next to the living room system.”
Judith opened her eyes and smiled. “Thank you, sweetheart.”
“I’ll play it with Luther for a while so you can work. Do you think I might be able to have a genmod then?”
“Yes.” Suddenly, a fluorescent rabbit didn’t seem quite as horrible as it had minutes before. Judith had always been against them; no one knew what would happen if an extinct or genetically modified animal ever escaped into the wild. But the environment was practically dead already, so what did it matter? Anything that was still alive — or alive again — had biotech firms like Chrysalis to thank for it.
“Yes?” Her daughter stared at her, and Judith tried to focus, brain-dead and heart-sore. Obviously, Miriam hadn’t expected the battle to be won so easily. She looked as shocked as Judith felt.
She nodded, and Miriam whooped, rushed up, and gave her a big hug.
“Thanks, Mom! This is so ultra!”
“Just take care of your brother this afternoon, all right?”
“Sure! Wow, I can’t believe it!” Practically dancing, she dragged Luther out of the room to do as ordered.
Judith continued to stare at the door after her children had disappeared, still unable to move, despite a deadline, despite children to feed and a husband soon home.
A husband soon home. What was she going to say to Vance? Was she going to say anything to Vance?
She shifted in the chair, rotating to gaze again at the empty holo well. Fifteen years together, and she would never have guessed he would order women from a catalogue. If he had. But it was here.
She leaned her head on the headrest, fighting tears, her face still hot. What in the world was she going to say to him?
She took the data cube out of the workstation and got up, feeling dizzy. Maybe Vance would level with her if it turned up missing, and she wouldn’t have to confront him. Judith hated conflict. She didn’t want to make any accusations, she didn’t even know what to accuse him of. She could examine the cube again later, after she got more work done on the project. He was off on a business trip to Seattle tomorrow, she would find time then. Maybe it wasn’t as bad as it looked at first sight.
She would put it away, and her world wouldn’t end quite so quickly.
“Are you going to be able to make your deadline?” Vance asked the next morning as she poured herself a cup of coffee.
Judith turned and stared at him, her mind a blank. He sat at the kitchen table, his eyes on the morning paper he had called up on the screen in front of him. Sunlight streamed through the window, lighting up the blond highlights in his curly brown hair. He looked just like he looked every morning, skinny and hyperactive, hunched over and ready to dash off as soon as he was done with his breakfast. Nowhere in this vision could she find a man who ordered women from a catalogue.
Her silence went on too long and he looked up. “There a problem, Judith?”
Is there ever.
Usually when he left on a business trip, she worried; worried about him traveling through the world outside the city walls, worried about the violence and lawlessness beyond the gates of the corporate zones.
But today she was relieved. Perhaps with him away in Seattle for a few days, she could figure out what to do.
She leaned against the counter and took a sip of her coffee. “I’m pretty far along on the environment, it shouldn’t be a problem. Maybe I’m just burned out.”
Vance got up and gave her a gentle kiss on her forehead. “You were up late last night. After the Chrysalis gala on Saturday, you should give yourself a break.”
I was up so late partly to avoid you.
Judith nodded. He hadn’t reacted to the missing cube, maybe it was just something a business acquaintance had urged on him. Or maybe he just hadn’t noticed yet.
Perhaps she should confront him with it right now, get it over with. But no, she didn’t have any time for distractions. She had to turn the environment in first.
Vance shut off the morning paper, gulped down the rest of his coffee, and picked up his briefcase. “I’ll see you Friday. Hope your week goes well,” he said, planting a quick kiss on her dry lips.
She doubted it.
She was a complete and utter coward. She hadn’t confronted him last night, she hadn’t confronted him this morning — so when would she? When she knew what she had to confront him with, that was when.
Normally, she was a person who didn’t like to jump into things, who made decisions after weighing all the aspects of a situation, but this was ridiculous.
She heard the front door close behind him and wandered down the hall to her studio at the back of the house. The room ran almost the complete length of the house, and half of it was devoted to a large holo system. Until yesterday, Judith had loved it. It was the material sign of creative independence. Now it meant dependence on a man she no longer knew, perhaps had never known.
The projection filling the studio was an artfully created jungle landscape, the kind that had been typical to South America before the Great Drought. Populating her extinct landscape were extinct species, one of the things Chrysalis Biotechnics specialized in. A long-nosed tapir protected her strangely spotted young, which looked like a watermelon with legs, while a bird of paradise perched above them. Next, Judith needed to add the integral element, the butterfly. Hers would be one called Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, an enormous, poisonous butterfly once native to Papua, New Guinea, with a wingspan of up to eleven inches. She intended to have it emerge from its cocoon and transform into a series of exspecs Chrysalis offered as pets. If she could only concentrate.
She didn’t see how. And she didn’t see how she couldn’t.
A butterfly. She had to create a butterfly. That should be easy enough. Queen Alexandra, male. The males were much more colorful than the females, black with blue and green markings and a yellow body. She already had sketches in hard copy and a first draft in the program. If only she weren’t so light-headed, so fuzzy.
She picked up the data cube she’d been avoiding, and with a sinking feeling, put it in the slot. The jungle disappeared, and in its place was the blonde bimbo again, only much larger this time. Her mouth dry, Judith searched for an address.
Nothing. Whoever had this kind of catalogue knew who to contact.
She turned away from the holo projectors and back to her personal system. “Computer, call Helen.”
Judith hardly knew how she got from her house to Helen’s apartment in the North Portland corporate zone — how she had stayed superficially rational enough to go through the motions of the rest of the day, get the Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing from paper to holo environment, fix dinner for the kids, set up the house for babysitter mode, and take their second armored car to leave the safety and security of the West Hills, leave the gates of the Chrysalis corporate zone and drive north through the summer rain, between the walls protecting her from the unincorporated areas. The whole day was a blur.
Except for the mirrors. Every mirror she chanced to glance into made her want to gag. The unconventional appearance she had always been so proud of because of the minimal amount of fixing she had done to her features — was that the reason for the catalogue? Her mouth was wider than fashionable, her lips not as pouty, her nose longer, an original face, right for an artist, more effective than a perfect configuration of cheekbones and lips and baby doll eyes, arresting.
Or so she had thought.
She parked the car in front of Helen’s apartment house, and caught a glimpse of her long face in the rearview mirror. Dark hair, pale skin, ugly — she looked away with a shudder.
Helen’s expression when she opened the door was worried. That was novel enough that it penetrated the fog in Judith’s head. Her friend’s normal mode was bossy and brassy and confident, not concerned.
“You look like hell,” Helen said.
Judith tucked a strand of wet hair behind her ear. “Tell me something I don’t already know.”
“I thought you came here to tell me something.”
“True enough.” Judith pulled the data cube out of her bag. “First I want to show you something.”
Officially, Helen pushed paper and data for a small shipping firm which managed trading deals between some of the west coast corporate zones; unofficially, she had connections to underground movements trying to weaken the power of the corporations. They had been best friends since high school, even though Judith had once tried to persuade Helen to drop her unofficial activities — that had almost been the end of their friendship. Now Helen no longer told her what she was up to and Judith didn’t ask.
But Helen had connections and she had hardware. Judith handed her friend the data cube, and together they went into the study.
Helen inserted the cube, and the catalogue appeared in the holo well. “Uh oh. Where did you get this?”
Judith swallowed. “I found it on Vance’s desk.”
“Damn,” Helen muttered beneath her breath.
“Can you find out where it’s from?”
“So now you suddenly approve of my outside activities?”
Judith nodded, silent.
Helen folded her in her arms. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“What kind of genmod are you children interested in?” the Chrysalis saleswoman asked as she ushered them down the hall to one of the viewing rooms. She had introduced herself as Nabuko in a perky salesperson voice which Judith found immediately grating. It didn’t help that her Asian good looks were reminiscent of one of the women in Vance’s catalogue.
“A dog,” Luther said stoutly.
“Luther, that’s not a genmod,” Miriam said with all the wisdom and impatience of an older sister. “That’s just a normal animal.”
Nabuko chuckled in an obliging way. “Actually, transgenic dogs are among our most popular items.”
“Why get a dog when you can get an ocelot?”
Luther was not about to be tricked. “That’s a cat. I know that’s a cat. I want a dog.”
“We have some very interesting items in the genetically modified dog line,” Nabuko said, addressing Miriam. “There are even modified exspec clones, including the direwolf. Would you like to take a look?”
Judith didn’t like the sound of direwolf, but apparently Miriam did. “Oh, okay,” her daughter said, with an obvious pretense of reluctance.
Nabuko ushered them into the dimly-lit viewing room and told the system to call up catalogue number three. Images of perhaps a dozen dog-related genmods materialized in the center of the room, rotating slowly, while a list appeared on the flat screen behind them. The first column consisted of a combination of letters and numbers, the second a short description (“miniature Great Dane”), and the third a price in corporate units.
Judith felt like someone had socked her in the gut.
She stared at the screen, breathing deeply and feeling her mind go dead again. It looked like the catalogue she had found on Vance’s desk — too much.
Had she found a catalogue of clones?
“Do any of these items look interesting to you?” Nabuko was asking her children.
“The glow-in-the-dark husky!” Luther cried.
The saleswoman obligingly called up the husky, and a single image replaced that of the previous assortment. Judith gazed at the modified dog as it went from snow white to fluorescent green, Nabuko’s sales pitch flowing over her like so much verbal garbage, incomprehensible.
Cloning humans was illegal, but everyone knew the corporations had their own laws, and they had to do with profit. No one ever talked about what the corporations did outside the law — they were too powerful, and people owed them too much, their clean streets, their safety.
If it was a catalogue of clones, it would explain why it had no address — prostitution was semi-legal, after all.
Judith clenched her fists in her lap to keep the trembling from taking over again, grateful for the dim lighting of the viewing room. She barely registered the way her children argued over the merits of direwolves and fluorescent huskies, barely noticed as another catalogue was called up containing the dreaded miniature mammoth.
When the children’s argument began to get more vocal, she shook herself out of her fog.
“If you two are going to be this way about it, there may be no pet for you at all.”
A chorus of “mom!” went up around them, and Nabuko gave her an imitation of an understanding smile as the lights came back on.
Judith rose. “We don’t have to make this decision today. We can talk about it at home, and then we can get back to Nabuko.”
The saleswoman nodded. “Certainly.”
They shook hands and left the building, Judith impatient now. Luckily, the rain had stopped; she absolutely had to talk to Helen again, somewhere public enough for privacy, where the kids would be busy.
She called Helen’s number at work on her wrist unit as they made their way out to the car. “Hi, Helen. Do you feel like meeting me and the kids at the zoo when you get off work?”
There was a brief pause at the other end of the line. “Sure. Things are fairly slow today. I shouldn’t be much longer.”
“Great. The kids love the monkeys. We’ll meet you at the primate exhibit, okay?”
Judith lowered her wrist, feeling a flood of relief. She wasn’t in this alone.
“So you think the catalogue is human clones?” Helen asked in an undertone as they paced next to mandrills swinging high in the trees. Miriam and Luther had their faces pressed to the glass, exclaiming at the blue and red striped faces and laughing at their colorful bottoms.
Judith leaned closer to her friend, even though there was no one near; everyone else was watching the antics of the monkeys. “The catalogue they showed me at Chrysalis looked just like the one I gave you. Besides, why would a whorehouse have a catalogue?”
Helen shook her head. “Come on, Judith, why not? There are catalogues for men who want to buy themselves a wife, after all. Why not catalogues for men who want to buy themselves a whore?”
She could tell by the tone of her voice that Helen thought she was naive. Well, maybe Helen was right. Obviously she was right. Judith’s face began to grow hot again and she looked away.
“It wasn’t just that, Helen. The format of the catalogue was almost exactly the same.”
Helen linked her arm through Judith’s. “If you’re right, then this is way too big for the two of us.”
“Don’t you have friends?” Judith murmured.
“Yes, I do. And I intend to tell them what you found.” She was silent for a moment, watching Miriam and Luther running from exhibit to exhibit. She turned back to Judith. “But you have a husband, and you need to confront him.”
Judith couldn’t hold her gaze and glanced over at the Amazon Flooded Forest building across from the primate exhibit. She’d spent hours there trying to get a feel for her environment for Chrysalis. “I need to find out first what the catalogue really is.”
“You also need to find out what he’s doing with it, and you can only do that if you talk to him.”
Judith wiped a stray tear away from the corner of one eye with her knuckle. She hated what this had done to her, didn’t know where the self-possessed woman she considered herself had gone. The summer sun was warm on her back, and she was miserable. “You’re right. I can’t keep putting this off. I’ll talk to him when he gets back from Seattle tomorrow.”
“And I will look into it,” Helen assured her. “Maybe someone has heard some rumors.”
She nodded, watching her children laugh at the grimaces of a human-faced Francois Langur monkey. Helen took her hand and squeezed.
As always, she couldn’t get the kids away from the zoo until closing time. When she drove up to their house, she noted with a start of apprehension that Vance’s car was already parked in the driveway. She wasn’t going to have an extra day to prepare herself mentally after all.
“Daddy, daddy!” the kids yelled as they tumbled out of the car and into the house. Judith followed more slowly, then turned in the direction of her studio. To her surprise, she saw Vance coming out. He faced her, his expression pure guilty shock until he composed his features again.
“You’re home early,” Judith said, keeping her voice light. Any moment, the kids would descend upon them after they didn’t find their father anywhere else.
“I forgot something, so we cut off the meeting. I’ll have to go to Seattle again next week.”
“You forgot something in my studio?”
He shook his head. “No. I just thought if I have to go again I could take a demo of your work, in case Hypersystems is interested in commissioning something.”
She strode past him through the door to the desk next to her system and pulled open the top drawer.
“Here,” she said, handing him a cube. “Judith Hamnett, holo artist,” stood in bold letters on the cover.
Vance took the drive. “I don’t know how I could have missed it.”
“Daddy!” Miriam plowed into her father, Luther right behind. It would have been a wonderful opportunity to accept the lies he offered. But Helen was right, and she knew it.
“Vance, we need to talk.”
He looked at her and blinked, once. Then he nodded slowly, the kids clambering all over him, demanding his attention.
Judith couldn’t understand how it had ever come to this.
The hours until Luther and Miriam were finally settled in for the night drew out forever. She let Vance put them in bed, waiting in the living room, her brain fuzzy and her heart tight.
“I know what you were looking for,” she said without preamble when he joined her.
Vance scrunched his eyes closed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
“And that’s all you’re sorry for?”
He stared at her for a moment without answering. “I think I have to show you something.”
Of all the answers she had imagined hearing from him, that one didn’t even come close. “I’ve already seen your catalogue. Isn’t that enough?”
“Unfortunately, it isn’t. I can’t pull one of those lines like ’this isn’t how it looks’ unless I show you how it really looks.” He reached his hand down to her.
Judith gazed at it, unmoving. “With no explanation?”
Vance gave an impatient shrug. “Yes, it is a catalogue, and no, I have never ordered anything from it. I do the selling. Will you come now?”
At his words, she drew in a sharp breath and then took his hand, like in a dream. How could she have possibly been so full of herself to believe things couldn’t get worse?
Her husband didn’t buy women, he just sold them.
Still in the same dream, she watched as he set the house for babysitter mode, and followed him out to his armored car, silent.
They drove out into the night, making their way to one of the guarded gates of their corporate zone, leaving the protected area and heading south on I-5. Before they reached the corporate zone of Tualatin, they turned off the freeway, away from the walls and lights and security forces, and headed west.
“Aren’t you finally going to ask me where we’re going?” Vance asked.
“We’re going to wherever it is that you sell women,” Judith said, surprised at how steady her voice was.
In the dim light of headlights between the trees, she could see him shake his head. “Not women.”
She’d been right. “Are you saying clones aren’t women?”
“Not these clones. They’re genmods.”
“Oh my God.”
“You’ve damned me already, haven’t you, Ju?”
“Hasn’t it even occurred to you to ask yourself how I got mixed up in this?”
“Fifteen years together and you don’t have anything more to offer than that.”
“I was thinking the same thing.”
Vance gave an uncharacteristic snort. “Get down on the floor. I don’t have any excuse for you being here.”
Judith kneeled behind the dashboard as Vance slowed the car and turned into a bumpy driveway, gravel from the sound of it. The car stopped, and Vance pushed the button to roll down the window.
“Evening, Mr. Hamnett,” she heard from outside the vehicle. “Go right on in.”
The car started up again, and Vance continued a ways across the gravel until he stopped and killed the lights. “Okay, you can get up.”
Judith pulled herself back up on her seat, her knees hurting from the bumpy ride across the parking lot. Ahead of them rose what looked like a former warehouse, the walls pale, unadorned, windowless.
“What kind of genmods?” Judith asked quietly while they waited for whatever it was her husband wanted her to see.
“Modified chimpanzees, as far as I know, manipulated and designed to look like humans,” he said, staring out of the window. “I didn’t listen very closely when they tried to explain it to me.”
“But the customers…” Judith couldn’t continue the thought out loud.
“Don’t they care that they’re fucking monkeys, is that what you’re trying to ask me?”
Judith blinked. Vance never swore. She nodded.
He turned to look at the walls of the building across the parking lot from them. “Why should they care as long as it looks like a dream come true and squeals the way they want it to?”
The bitterness in his voice finally penetrated the fog in her brain. “Why are you doing this?”
“They offered it to me, Ju. They offered it to me.”
“Hadn’t you guessed that yet? Chrysalis, who else?”
As he spoke, a door she hadn’t even noticed opened on the far left side of the building, and a tall man in a suit emerged, his hand firmly on the elbow of what looked like a boy of twelve or thirteen.
Yet again, Judith felt as if someone had socked her in the stomach. “Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Depends on who’s Jesus and who’s Christ,” Vance said, in that bitterly humorous tone of voice she had never heard before this evening.
Together they watched as the suit carted off his pet, and Judith could feel spontaneous, unbidden tears coursing down her cheeks. “But why didn’t you turn them down?”
“Don’t you understand? It’s not an offer you can refuse. It’s one of the corporations, Ju — the ones who keep us safe, the ones who run our lives. And by offering me this lucrative business, they made me complicit.”
She attempted to wipe the tears away, but they wouldn’t stop. “You could have gone to the authorities.”
“Exactly. That’s why I didn’t have the choice of turning it down.”
Finally, finally, Judith began to understand. An offer he couldn’t refuse.
When Judith didn’t respond, Vance continued, almost to himself. “You see, I have such good business contacts with so many corporations, so many people in high places; I offer the luxury goods to those who can afford to pay for them, and those are precisely the customers Chrysalis wanted to reach. It made the perfect fence.”
The tears were soaking her shirt now, but she had given up on trying to wipe them away.
Vance ran a hand through his curly hair. “I try to tell myself that for every genmod clone produced, that’s one less woman or child kept out of the illegal slavery ring.” His voice dropped a notch. “But I still have to sell them.”
They sat there in the dark and the silence. Judith didn’t know what to say.
Vance sighed. “I have to go in to give them an excuse for why I’m here. You’d better get down again.”
She nodded and slipped down next to the seat, her back against the door. The metal was cold through the linen of her shirt. The opposite door opened and slammed shut, and Judith was left with her fear and her thoughts, neither good company.
She wiped the sleeve of her shirt across her face and leaned her head against the door. Faint light from the moon and the stars seeped through to where she sat, her butt on the rough carpet.
Would he come out here now with Chrysalis security forces and gun her down? She didn’t think so. Whatever Vance had done, it had at least in part been for her and the children. But she didn’t know for sure. Everything that had happened in the last couple of days was so completely outside of the realm of her experience and expectations, even her own murder didn’t seem like such a distant prospect.
What would she have done if she had been in his place? If she had known there was a potential threat to Miriam and Luther? What?
She desperately wanted to call Helen, but she didn’t know what kind of tracing equipment this facility had. And so she waited, surrounded by near-silence and her own busy thoughts. At one point she heard what she thought was the whimpering of a child. How could it whimper if it wasn’t human? And how could it look so human if it was a chimp?
They could do so much with genetic modification these days. The real question was, if they truly had done so much, where was the boundary between human and non-human? And did it really matter?
Judith shook her head, as if she could clear her thoughts. But she knew she couldn’t. Oh, why did she have to find out about this? Why was she the one who had to do something about it?
The big butterfly drifted lazily between the chairs of the dinner guests, a perfect illusion. Judith watched from the table where she sat with Vance, watched the smiles on the faces of the other diners as it winged its way to and through them. First the male Queen Alexandra’s Birdwing, with its pale blue and green and iridescent yellow markings against a black background, an impressive example of what the world had lost and what (the message was) only Chrysalis Biotechnics could bring back. Following the male was the larger female, more drab perhaps, but with a wingspan so wide, nearly a foot, the diners it passed gasped in surprise, blinked, and laughed.
Judith smiled faintly to herself. She had only exaggerated the size by perhaps an inch.
Chrysalis was celebrating itself, celebrating its success, and Vance and Judith were a part of that. Even if it meant they would never sleep well again at night.
Around the edges of the room, behind the forest of illusory ferns and gingkoes and cycads, other extinct species lurked, here a hyaenodon with its vicious teeth; there a massetognathus like a big, skinny rat; watching it carefully, a dog-like direwolf; all part of an anachronistic conglomeration, a fantastical celebration of the weird and wild things the need to survive had come up with over the eons. Despite herself, despite the mood she was in, Judith couldn’t help being proud of her work. It was a monumental environment, green and luxurious, serene and dangerous and mysterious.
The female butterfly made its way to a pipe vine plant and laid its eggs while a number of diners watched. The first egg hatched, and a caterpillar emerged, eating its way through the leaves. Judith played with the food on her plate while she waited. She wasn’t hungry.
On the leaves of the plants in the holographic jungle surrounding them, a myriad of caterpillars spun themselves into cocoons, chrysalis upon chrysalis. The first to emerge were more Queen Alexandra’s Birdwings, but soon other extinct species slipped out of the cocoons, pteranodons and hipparions and even a woolly mammoth. Then came the fantasy creatures: a pegasus, a chimera, a dragon.
Then came the moment Judith had been waiting for.
The first chimp emerged from a cocoon, and she heaved a sigh of something a little like relief. She’d pulled off the switch in the environments.
The chimp began to climb the nearest tree, but then its prehensile feet grew stiff and it slipped down. Its back became straighter, its head more elongated, the hair melted from its body, and it became a she. A very naked she. Very much like the small-breasted Asian beauty Judith had first seen only a few days earlier.
She heard the murmurs growing at the tables near where the first chimp had appeared, watched the way they stared when two business-suited holos of humans appeared out of the trees, watched as one gave the other a bundle of outmoded cash and took possession of the former chimp, slipped a leash around her long neck, and led her away with a leer.
The next chrysalis to emerge as a chimp transformed into the little boy Judith had seen in parking lot in the burbs. As he too was led away on a leash, a woman at the nearest table stood up with a gasp, clapping her hand to her mouth, her eyes wide. A number of heads turned in the woman’s direction, just in time to watch a little girl who had once been a chimp meet the same fate.
“What’s going on?” Vance asked and turned around in his chair — to see a chimp transform into the blond bimbo of the catalogue.
“Judith, what did you do?”
The uproar had now made an impression on the tables at the front of the dining room, close to the stage where the president of Chrysalis would be speaking. Heads turned and people rose, trying to see what was going on. At their end of the dining room, guests were pushing back their chairs and leaving, their expressions grim.
Would her “statement” do any good? Maybe it didn’t matter; she wouldn’t have been able to live with herself if she’d done nothing.
Vance was shaking his head. “Don’t you realize — the corporations — the children —”
Judith swallowed. “The children should be in Canada by now.” She leaned her head back on her neck, blinking away the tears. Had it been too great a sacrifice? She didn’t know, wouldn’t know until she was forced to live with the consequences — or not.
“Canada.” His voice sounded distant. “You think they’ll be safe in Canada?”
“I had help.” She wouldn’t tell him about the strings Helen had pulled; that way, she would be the only one to know.
“Canada,” he said again, and to her great surprise, he took hold of her hand beneath the table, gripping it tightly.
She turned to look at him, and he smiled, actually smiled. He didn’t look angry, he looked relieved.
Together they rose as the Chrysalis security guards made their way between the sea of diners to their table.
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