by Ian Cordingley
The receptionist was getting on Ashley's last nerve.
"Number two six five."
Her tone was light and high pitched. The intention was to sound like a chirpy bird, but repetition made it uncomfortable to the ears.
Ashley checked her number. Two six six. The number was also displayed in red numbers above the receptionist's desk. A clipboard balanced on her knees. Some of the questions were inapplicable and thus had faded. But the ones she had answered burned back at her. Be truthful and honest, she had been told. Easier said than done.
Number two six five got up. The unspoken agreement was that everyone avoid eye contact, and two six five kept hers lowered as she walked up towards the desk.
"It's all right, you'll be fine."
Her perky, upbeat tone made the receptionist unbearable.
Ashley lowered her gaze to the floor. Try not to think about it she was told. Think of happy things. Whoever said that had probably never gone through their Stage Three, or had been on Earth long enough to forget it. Over a hundred people crammed into a tiny room, clad in paper and plastic. It was cold in here. The smallest indignity, but also the most profound.
"Number two six six."
Ashley's turn. She got up and went towards the desk. The receptionist was smiling. Was she a Stage Three who decided to remain on the moon and torment the young? The only explanation for her positive demeanor. Ashley handed in her clipboard. The receptionist made a note on it and gave it back to her.
"Then you." The receptionists smile was broad almost to the point of being cartoony. "You'll be fine. Number three."
Ashley told her what to do with herself. She had a small smile at the look on the stupid woman's face.
Just to the left. The door was open. The room was white, the margins between walls, floor and ceiling hard to discern. Her doctor was ready for her.
Her doctor held out her hand and Ashley weakly accepted it. Her doctor smiled. Ashley gave a weak nod. She wasn't her to start any relationships. Out of politeness she returned the doctor's greeting.
She tried not to look at it. Out of the corners of her eyes she saw the table.
In the books her parents gave her and in health class this was depicted as being almost a pleasant experience. The patient, calm look on their faces, the doctor with a thin line of a smile. A lot of it was condescending, some mature adult appearing more foolish that the youths they were trying to console by stooping to a level Ashley had abandoned long ago.
"Are you ready?"
Ashley nodded. She muttered, "Yes." The hardest word to pass through her mouth in her life.
"Okay. I just need your sheet."
The clipboard in Ashley's hand. She handed it to her doctor. The doctor studied it, nodding, while Ashley felt enraged. Just once did she have physical contact with a member of the opposite sex. The doctor seemed to enjoy finding that out.
"Go ahead, just hop on."
She walked over to the table. No chance avoiding it now. Ashley lowered herself onto the table.
It was vaguely warm. Her goose bumps remained in place.
They see all body types here. They're not here to judge.
"I just need you to take the gown off."
Easier said than done. It had been an act of courage just to put it on. Her flesh was riddled with goose bumps, her body obviously reluctant to part with the only covering it had. Not to mention her stubborn sense to retain the shreds of dignity she had.
The doctor was being patient. A relaxed posture but still an authoritative one. In her face Ashley saw patience. But there was work to be done. No time to waste.
Ashley slipped out of the paper gown. She draped it over the side of the screen. The doctor took it away. A nurse walked up, muttered something to the doctor. Doing their best to give Ashley the crumb of dignity by not looking at her body.
"It will be over before you know it."
The table folded over her.
"It'll be the easiest test you'll ever take!"
I look fabulous, she thought.
Ashley nodded, shifting her body and studying her reflection in the mirror. Naomi nodded.
A gang of girls descended upon the transit tube. All the way they laughed, watching as the rough hewn tunnels gave way to the surface. The calm, peaceful surface: grey and plain but still, its own kind of beauty.
The Earth, shiny and blue, as always overhead. The corrupted, unhealthy Earth. A temptation: blue and rich compared to the ever-present grey of the moon. A poisoned treat.
Well, they were young, and that was in the future. Closer than before but in the future. Tonight was special in its own right.
The first time tonight they would see boys since they were born.
Naomi and Kate were babbling about how exciting that was. Both of them had male relatives. Well, they all did. It would be hard to have been born otherwise.
"My mom said he was cute," Naomi said, "that he looked just like me."
Her twin brother. Allegedly Ashley had met him. Sometime when they were children. Behind special glass, touching each other with plastic gloves. Back when children were androgynous, before they could be separated with ease.
"Homely as a mule's ass?"
For a time they passed time talking about cosmetics. Mostly the face altering creams of benign (always emphasized on the jars: benign, to assure their terrified parents) machines to smooth and colour with maximum efficiency, and under what circumstances the novel effects that would make their evening entertaining. They discussed unique skin colours: purple, blue, green.
Ashley and Naomi and her friends had conversations like this before. As little girls, passing jars of play clay around, smearing it on their faces and pretending. Now the real stuff was passed around the car. The girls messed with the lighting levels and had brought flashlights with variable colour LEDs to measure the effects in what light.
Ashley accepted a thin smear of the stuff. Rubbing it on her face, checking it in the mirror: green swirls on her face. Perfect.
They arrived. Their car pulled into a notch. A dome had been erected around a crater, one of a few luxuries the exiles had permitted themselves.
A small lake surrounded by trees. Large, spindly trees threading into wooden strands.
All the old people were cleared out. Nobody to grouch and mumble about the young. Every time one of those geriatrics passed by Ashley she dreaded a lecture. Something about ingratitude. About how they built the shafts and tunnels out of sheer willpower. A glare of contempt from the corner of their eyes. Perhaps it was not so much contempt as it was envy.
Stage Twos and lower. Conspicuous. But if they were walking around kids Ashley's age there was no risk of contamination. But the geezers had to be endured until they time ran out, while they looked up at the Earth with sadness and envy.
Tonight was theirs.
Naomi and Kate and Lindsay and Ashley walked down towards the lake. A throng of youth was pouring from the walls of the crater. Hard to believe there were so many young people on the moon.
The thing was that the crowd was becoming mixed as they walked down the crater's slopes. Not without notice or fanfare. But they seemed to blend together, and it was appropriate.
Free at last from fathers or mothers. Crammed with their families, their armies of siblings, in their respective habitats.
Scrawled beneath the amphitheatre: Stage Three or Better!
Many people groaned at that lame joke.
Music was playing. Bouncy and energetic to induce the crowd to come closer.
"Oh! There he is!"
Three boys approached them. Tall, brown hair, almost uniform in appearance.
"My brother," Naomi said. The girls walked up to meet them. How should Ashley react? Naomi and the others were almost embarrassing. Ashley gave a smile and a wave. Good enough.
Naomi led the girls in conversation. Eventually Ashley found herself standing face to face with one of the boys.
He smiled. Ashley smiled back. She brushed hair not out of place back.
They shook hands.
Ashley felt warm and light.
"We should do something together sometime."
"Sure," Ashley said. She would make sure she would keep her word.
The celebration began.
"I think I will meet him."
So Ashley took the appropriate transit route to Jon's habitat. It required several blood samples: certain habitats were more infested than others. On the map it was easy to discern which ones, rising from green through yellow to angry orange and brilliant red. Best not to ask about the ones that had gone all he way over into black.
She walked into the station. A mixed crowd, an older crowd. Mixed crowds usually were. Younger people were present, people Ashley's age. Precocious kids: if they were let free at that age they were probably safe. Probably went through the Table already.
Ashley decided not to think of the Table right now.
Brian was there. He smiled and waved. They walked into a habitat, almost another world. At least to Ashley.
"Nice to see you," he said.
They walked through the decontamination arches. Eliminating any traces of nanites on their skin. Whatever mild cosmetic nanites were purged from Ashley's skin; they could go feral very easily, and depending on what stage a particular individual was, it could completely ruin their life. It pays to be cautious.
So many boys. Yes, a few girls. Perhaps like Ashley they had met boys at the celebration and were visiting. Keeping to the common areas: concerned guardians keeping everything under control while they still could.
Almost another species and there were so many of them.
They talked. Common interests, recent events and movies and books, which they were delighted to find they shared. Every second with him felt like it was made of gold.
"What about climbing?"
"I love it!"
"I love it."
"We should do it together sometime."
"See you again? Soon?"
Ashley felt fantastic. Her life was taking a turn towards the fantastic and wonderful.
"What are your plans?"
Ashley sighed. Her mother sat across from her. Her mother was turning grey and pale. Perhaps for the best: if she was a few millionths higher or lower on her blood count she would probably disintegrate, and at her age her aging body would be taxed on Earth. Her thinning bones would be at ease in lower gravity.
"I've already told you."
"Tell me again."
Fair enough: sixteen children to look after was taxing mentally.
"I'm going out tonight."
Her mother nodded. "Seeing him again?"
Only two other occasions had passed when she could be with Brian again. Short and unsatisfying. Spending a whole day with him was probably not enough. She wanted to do so much. More than just coffee or food.
"Be careful. It can be rough there."
Ashley's inner voice groaned. Her mother assumed every centimeter of the moon was somehow compromised by evil.
"Not just that."
"Mom he's fine."
"I'm sure," her mother said. Ashley could sense the insecurity.
The old days on bad old Earth. An Earth saturated with the rapidly multiplying nanites: the cheap stuff. In the western world they could rely on safe, disposable, easily contained nanites. But large parts of the world were impatient. They took what they could from whoever sold it
Which was why Ashley had spent her whole life on the moon. Whoever could leave did, in massive numbers. The Great Panic it was called, mostly by those who remained on Earth, who had to pick up their ears and noses when they fell off and stapled on whole sheets of skin to their eroding frames.
"Mom," Ashley repeated, "he's fine. He's healthy. So am I."
"I'm sure. But we must be careful."
"I am." Ashley's voice grated at the unnecessary concern. Her mother could be quite the hysteric.
"We need to talk," her mother said, leaning across the table. Making eye contact with Ashley. "When do you want..."
"You're at the age when you should go."
Her mother had been very careful explained how the Table worked, every step of the way making sure Ashley understood that it was for her own good. Trying to answer any question that Ashley had. Trying to make her daughter to be comfortable and secure. Ashley understood. That was not the same thing as enthusiasm.
"When I'm ready."
"The sooner you go..."
"When I'm ready."
Her mother nodded. Ashley's voice was curt and low, growing louder as her mother pressed on.
"Well," her mother said, "lets at least talk about when you go home."
Home. Her mother's irreplaceable term for Earth.
Ashley plan's very vague. Like a child she had dreams of settling into some old castle or mansion or palace. She still entertained the fantasy. Though as she grew older she knew that something productive would have to take over. At least for a little while.
For now, Ashley just wanted to see Earth. To stick her toes in a sea or a lake. Climb a real mountain, walk barefoot on a beach. If Brian was involved, all the better.
But first she had to go on the Table. Ashley thought about it as little as possible.
Her watch beeped. "Going now."
"Have fun," her mother said.
They walked along Copernicus. One of the craters that had been covered and turned into a playground.
He showed her a picture. Mountains, castles. He flicked through the images to a city in particular.
"That's where I'll be," he said. Pride evident on his face.
"What's it called?"
Europe, old and historic and dignified. Her mother kept prodding her daughter if that was where she was intending to be sent. Perhaps her mother's desires were resurfacing. Looking at her daughter with expectant eyes, eyes that were trying very hard to brim with pride, but Ashley could see framed around the edges the subtle disappointment and shame her mother felt. It was not her fault. She couldn't help it.
It didn't help that her daughter escaped her fate. Something to be proud of, and at the same time, ashamed she was here and not there.
But tonight was the closest they could come. Green fields and flowers and warm sunlight. If they weren't Stage Two by now, if they had succeeded in being quarantined long enough for the machines in their blood to go dormant, then there was nothing in their path now.
"When we go down, we will see each other."
"Yes," she said. She had a wide smile and flushed cheeks. Not a confirmation, but affirmation.
It was a perfect scene. They drew closer together.
They parted in different cars. Ashley sat at the rear window, watching Brian's car race into the distance. Ashley had a wide, wide smile on her face.
The taste lingered for a few more hours.
Naomi was beaming.
Mountains blessed with thick, pristine snow; meadows, and beautiful old stone buildings.
The girls cooed. The native humans, rotting alive, had been shooed out of the picture. Simply beautiful.
The girls had met for coffee, and an idealized discussion of their futures. Naomi had walked in, almost striding on air, and sat down. A large smile was on her face. Other patrons turned their necks with annoyance at the sudden excited squeals when Naomi announced she was going down.
"A couple of weeks," Naomi said.
"That's so insane!"
Naomi beamed. "I know."
As a girl she had been the last to pass through the various rites of passage. Now, to the astonishment of her friends, she had beaten them. Now they would scramble together some superficial representation of their goals and objectives.
Ashley thought for a moment.
Ashley fumbled in her bag. She pulled out a crumpled brochure. The eyes of the girls widened.
Even Naomi was impressed:
Ashley grinned. She had been told it was a popular choice, though not desirable. But she fell in love with it at first sight. Hawaii. Thick green forests and wide skies.
"Just...one complication remains," Naomi said.
"You have gone?"
Naomi smiled, blushed. "It's nothing too bad."
Since this was an attempt to avoid embarrassment, the girls nodded at the assessment and moved on.
Ashley had her candidacy number. It was all downhill from here.
Her turn down, after her turn with the Table.
Ashley replaced it with thoughts of splendid white beaches, blue skies and blue seas and the liberating warmth.
About damn time.
"You can get up now."
She was handed the gown back. Ashley put it on desperate to regain at least some dignity.
"That wasn't so bad, wasn't it?"
Ashley restrained herself. The doctor meant well. Intention could compensate for so much.
Physically it had not been very difficult. For whatever reason the indignities they heaped upon her made the sensation of her body, currents of energy rippling along her contours, being probed worse. That was the worst part. The knowledge she was being probed and scrutinized in a way she would never have consented to were it not so damn important.
For Brian and Germany, for Naomi and Salzburg and Hawaii for her.
"We will need to see you again."
A knot formed in Ashley's throat.
"It's nothing serious. A precaution."
The doctor suddenly realized that she had misstated and tried to start over.
"We just need to double check an anomalous result. I sure you there's nothing to be worried about."
"What do you mean?"
"We need you to go through the procedure again," the doctor said. "Possibly more procedures if needed, but I'm sure that everything will be all right."
Ashley barely heard her doctor. Her mind was racing, asking dozens of questions at once. Was she contaminated? What was her blood level count? Were they eating her alive from the inside? How much time did she have -- could she even go down to Earth now? But Ashley put on a stoic face.
Ashley nodded. "It's nothing to worry about?"
"We'll know soon enough."
© 2010 Ian Cordingley
Bio: Ian Cordingley's work has also appeared in Bewildering Stories and Estronomicon.
E-mail: Ian Cordingley
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