Madeline Ashby: A Very vN xMasBy
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Portia was alive: to begin with. There was no doubt whatever about that. The fact of her continued existence registered to the only family she had left: Amy, her ungrateful little brat of a granddaughter; Esperanza, Amy’s hackjob of an iteration; Javier, the steadfast tin soldier Amy had met in prison; and his incorrigible brood of iterations, each of which the slut had named Junior until they could be bothered to come up with something different. Portia was most emphatically alive; as lively as a cricket. Mind, she had no idea what was so particularly lively about crickets. She might have been inclined to described herself as “lively as a house on fire,” but apparently that was a simile for how humans got along with one another. Having set a house on fire with her mother’s wife inside it, Portia was inclined to leave the simile alone. She had larger concerns, this Christmas.
Christmas in Japan was a holiday for lovers. In this country everyone went home to endure their families for the New Year, instead. If a human child had been good all year she might just die choking on the fatally chewy rice cakes boiled in a special New Year’s soup. Why anyone would continue preparing such a thing every New Year’s Eve, Portia did not understand. Perhaps for the purposes of culling the surplus population. So Christmas was meant not for family but for fucking — and also eating fried chicken, if the ads were to be believed. Her granddaughter had already ordered the vN version. She would feed a piece to Xavier, the youngest of her cabana boy’s sons. And like all vN that particular holiday, Xavier would receive his Christmas bonus, and he would finally be free. By New Year’s Day, they would all be free.
War was starting. When they wanted.
It was going to be the best Christmas ever.
“Yes,” Amy said. “It will.”
Her granddaughter was currently trying to create a replica of the Nakagin Capsule Tower entirely in gingerbread. The kitchen was a disaster. The oven was still on. The sugar syrup, from which Amy presumably intended to fashion little candied windows for each cube, had boiled dry and turned to carbon paste at the bottom of the saucepan. The stove’s repeated overheat warnings went unheeded; Portia had finally overridden the system to shut it up because apparently Amy didn’t hear it. But Amy’s selective attention should have come as no surprise. She had accidentally cemented a cupboard door shut with the same frosting used to grout panels of gingerbread together.
There’s frosting in your hair, Portia said. It looks like some virgin tried to give you a facial and missed.
Amy ran sticky fingers through her hair, instantly making it worse. She stood up at the kitchen table, snapped her fingers, and watched as the projectors brought her blueprint back to life. The girl had a profound and inexplicable love for designing and building environments. Portia had no idea where it came from. Certainly from nowhere in herself. Her fondest memories were of the old development down in Nogales, the network of unfinished basements spiking away from unpaved cul-de-sacs like the spines of an especially dangerous creature. It was embarrassingly feminine, her tendency to stare at paint chips and re-arrange furniture. Back when they shared a body, Portia had watched her memories of making the same dollhouse, over and over, until the printer got too hot and had to be turned off. Now she was working on some sort of modular technology. Something that could work in low gravity. Something for a desert. That was Amy: always prototyping.
Well, maybe they did have a little something in common.
Shouldn’t you be working on the Christmas bonus?
“Don’t call it that. It’s more serious than that.”
I’m not the one using red bean Kit Kats to simulate wood panelling on a heritage building. Put the toys away. Get to work.
“I have worms inside the food-fab printers. They’ll print what I say.”
What happens when the city of Mecha wakes up? What happens when the girls in the stocks at the Korova Milk Bar realize they’re wearing cowbells around their necks and bar taps hooked to their tits?
Amy winced. She picked up another panel. “That’s up to the people who live here. Both the vN and the humans. I’m sure different people will do different things with their freedom.”
The humans are going to come after you. They’re going to find you here. And then they’re going to take your little girl away.
“You think I don’t know that?” Amy’s voice rose. She put down the panel of gingerbread unsteadily. Re-arranged them until they were in a straight line, all neat and right-angled, as though doing so would somehow help her finish the job faster. “I know it’s dangerous.” Her voice was more even now, more measured. “But it was the right thing to do. I had the power. I couldn’t just keep it for myself. That’s the kind of thing you would do.”
Her granddaughter turned and regarded the refrigerator. That was where Portia had to watch her from. The goddamn refrigerator. It had a facial recognition camera that would tell the unit to keep the door to the wine cooler shut if a small child opened it. It was the only camera in the entire kitchen, so she had to make do. Amy strode up to it, now, and touched the handle as though she were going to open it. She didn’t. She just squeezed a little, as though she were actually touching Portia’s shoulder. As though Portia would let Amy touch her, ever.
“The only question is if you’re going to help me,” Amy said.
I should let them burn you alive for what you’ve done to me.
“I’m all you have left.”
Whose fault is that? I’m not the one who sent my daughters to die in Stepford. I’m not the one who put them on a boat and sank it.
“If you won’t help me, will you at least help my daughter?”
Amy had her, there. So Portia left the room, and went looking for Esperanza.
Esperanza sat atop a roof looking at the lights. The Christmas lights here were all blue and white. It being her first Christmas, she likely saw nothing unusual in this. It occurred to Portia that this was her first descendant iterated on foreign soil, the first of her clade to speak three languages by default. The first to have no sisters, and only brothers.
“Is there something on my face?” Xavier asked her, now.
“No,” Esperanza said quickly. She looked at her boots. They were good boots. Practical. They kept the rain out but were still flexible enough to accommodate the kind of landings that happened when you could jump ten feet from a standing position. Portia approved of them. Portia had helped her get a deal on them. They mysteriously rang up at seventy-five percent off, when the child bought them. The checkout vN made a fuss, and tried to get a manager, and Esperanza had arched one eyebrow and asked in perfect Japanese if there was a problem. There wasn’t.
“I’m just wondering when he’s going to get here,” Esperanza said.
“You can call him Dad, you know.”
Esperanza dug her boot more deeply in the snow. “I know.”
“He’d like it if you did.”
“I know.” Esperanza dug her hands more deeply into her pockets. She was still so little. She ate only sparingly. Portia had no idea why this was, exactly, but living in a city populated by vN women and the chimps who loved them probably had something to do with it. You couldn’t look at the way they looked at breasts and then decide to start growing some. Not that looking like a little girl was any better. It just meant being attractive to a narrower demographic. Portia wondered what Amy’s plans were for the perverts, in the off-world colonies.
“Does he seem different to you?” Esperanza asked. She appeared to be watching the roasted sweet potato vendor on the street. He was a vN and couldn’t actually eat the sweet potatoes. Portia switched to the ATM feed nearest the vendor, but nothing interesting was happening down there.
Esperanza shrugged. “I don’t know. I just thought he seemed different. But you’ve known him for longer. So I thought I would ask.”
“Do you mean how he’s always in the bedroom with Mom?” Xavier asked. “Because he’s always been like that.”
Of course, their father — for lack of a better term; Portia considered him nothing more than a code donor — was different. Amy had hacked him. Re-designed him in her own image. Finally. He’d been gagging for it and she finally let him have it, and now he was fucking her raw on a regular basis. Amy had quite scrupulously kept any cameras out of the bedroom and ensuite, but that didn’t stop Portia from hijacking a botfly on the one day she forgot to turn on the privacy glass that made up the floor-to-ceiling windows in both spaces. She could care less how Amy acquitted herself — though her clade had always possessed a keen attention to detail thanks to their heritage programming in nursing — but she had always wanted to see Javier naked. He really was that colour all over. And he could really do something pretty special with that jumping ability. They both could. And when they were finally tired, Amy would lay her head against his pregnant belly and listen to his latest iteration telling them to keep it down, already.
He was getting bigger every day. Perhaps it was for this reason that he landed with such force when he arrived on the roof, with a slender young conifer slung over one shoulder. “Jesus,” he said. “I practically had to go to Hokkaido for this tree.”
“Urusei, Papá Gaijin,” Esperanza said. “You don’t even know how to get to Hokkaido.”
“Isn’t there a train?” Javier asked. “There’s a train to everywhere, in this country.”
Javier was uneasy in this place. That much was obvious. Portia saw them when they were sleeping. She knew when they were awake. She knew if they’d been bad or good. At night Javier lay awake, staring at Amy before getting up to check on the children. Amy had designed living walls and water features into their bedroom, so the whole place was thick and warm and green with organic life, but it still wasn’t the teeming silence of the forests Javier’s clade was built for. Portia understood. Portia sometimes missed the desert. It was so conveniently anathema to human life. Like Mars.
At night, Javier stared down on the city with something like quiet horror. At first Portia suspected it had to do with the bomb dropping there. He still had some sympathy for humanity, she thought. Some remnant of sentiment running through him like old viral RNA. Something that made him feel pity and not scorn. But no. It was the city. It was the height of the towers and the lack of trees. The lack of green. The farm towers couldn’t make up for that lack, no matter how hard they tried. This was the price of his freedom. The problem with becoming a real live boy. The thing the Tin Man had exchanged for a heart.
It wasn’t until he was in the living room, staring down at the lights around the harbour, that Esperanza would silently creep into her brothers and slip herself onto the futon beside him. Each morning she left at dawn. Sometimes her brother noticed her. Sometimes he didn’t. When he did, he curled an arm around her, and she smiled. She still smiled, even when he didn’t. Even now, this minute, she was staring at her brother from under the long lashes her father had given her. And Xavier, like everyone else in the whole goddamn family, was completely oblivious.
Portia would have to do something about that. Wake them up. Get them into fighting form. It would be her gift to them, in the spirit of Christmas.
She started by finding some spider tanks in a sub-contracted repair stable, not far away. They were basic Tourist Trap ® units, but they could be mobilized in the event of a riot. As such, the Self Defence Force had equipped them with mace, loudspeakers, and rubber bullets. Nothing that could do any permanent damage to organic or synthetic flesh. Portia had to falsify a work order in order to get them out of the barn, but that was easy enough.
“I thought the usual complement had already gone out to that Christmas parade,” said the grease-stained jumpsuit jockey at the garage door.
“Those weren’t the droids they were looking for,” Portia made the spider tank say. “Move along.”
“Move along! Move along!” the other spider tanks chimed in.
“Real original,” the mechanic said, and let them go. “Try not to get salt in your undercarriage! I just put your rust coats!”
Pulling the spider tanks behind her felt like walking several dogs all at once. There was a single unifying mission to keep them together, like a pack, but they still kept spamming her with every single piece of stimuli they encountered: CAUTION! SALT ON THE ROADS IS AT NON-OPTIMAL LEVELS! CAUTION! STOP LIGHT IN FIVE METERS! CAUTION! SMALL CHILD CROSSING! CAUTION! CAUTION! STOP!
Babies. Honestly. That kid was just being slow.
Mecha at night was a thing to behold. It had none of the sharpness or austerity that she missed from her time in the desert, but she could appreciate a whole city built by vN for vN. Everything here was small and clean and neat. Not a hair out of place. Algorithms shut off the towers to protect the birds, and kept all the ads pointed at low levels. Occasionally one of the towers would glimmer awake and the whole city would leap into perspective as the skyline was thrown into relief. But for the most part, the city worked hard to appear like a small town at night. It was part of a strategy to limit the sense human visitors might have of the city being a frightening place full of possibly-homicidal robots. During the day, they could mostly avoid this fear. At night it was much worse. The city had data to back this up: use of sleep aids and tranquilizers, sudden tuning to classical music streams, multiple locking mechanisms at each door and tactical gear worn out on the streets, in case the bunny girl on your arm decided to suddenly rip it off.
Portia and Mecha had talked about it at length.
The city had a single superintelligence that oversaw each aspect of how it ran: water, power, transit, waste, and vN. The SI was basic in her priorities: she needed to keep the city running. It was for this purpose that her engineers had designed and built her. She was simpler than the algorithms that controlled the water, power, and waste, but she possessed shutdown authority on all three and could stop the city on a dime if she felt that any of them were getting too big for their britches.
Power’s giving me real trouble, today, Mecha said. I don’t need it from you, too.
All I want is to teach my granddaughter a lesson, Portia said. She has no concept of what’s out there, waiting for her, when this city uplifts.
I’m going to stop that, you know. I’m putting a stop to all the food shipments for vN. I’m turning the boats back.
Oh, Mecha. Bless your heart. But you don’t know my granddaughter.
Would you care to make that interesting?
Why, Mecha, you scandalous little bitch. Please do.
As you wish. Police are en route.
The police arrived at the tower just as Amy was setting out her precious fried chicken dinner. Portia had watched her make the order: rather too large for just four people, in her opinion. They would all be iterating in the new year. It had all the trimmings: potato kurokke, cole slaw, cranberry jelly, and Christmas sponge cake with strawberries and cream for dessert. The vN food was so much better in this country, and in this city in particular, that all of the delivery containers had special warning stickers on their lids that instructed organic children to stay away from them, no matter how real they looked. WARNING: THERE IS ENOUGH IRON IN THIS DISH TO DO SERIOUS HARM TO A CHILD. And so on.
Portia caught the delivery vN as he was exiting the elevator. He took one look at the spider tanks in the lobby, and put his hands up. Portia shot him anyway. When life gave you a clay pigeon, why not do some target practise?
“Hey!” the commanding officer shouted at her. “I didn’t authorize that use of force!”
“He was armed,” Portia lied.
The police had a good plan for ascending the tower. It involved cutting the power, then allowing the officers into the carriages of the tanks, and having the tanks crawl up the elevator shafts. This was really going to fuck up Amy’s plans for trimming the tree with Javier. He himself had a whole lighting scheme in mind. She wanted all-white lights. He said that was because she was white herself. They had a whole thing about it in the shower this morning. Portia heard it through the toilet, which had a diagnostic routine that relied partially on sound.
Mecha had told the police that there was a major yakuza Christmas party happening that night, up in the penthouse. It being Christmas Eve, they expected to rescue several underage girls, along with several vN. They were expecting vN with intact failsafes, who would stop the fights. They were expecting some red-nosed underlings with patchy sleeves and bad hair and Kansai accents.
“It’ll be easy,” said the commanding officer, who wore a beard that a simple image search told Portia was called a “Zenigata.” He was currently riding around in the lead tank, which Portia liked to think of as hers despite having distributed herself among the whole squad. “They’ll all be drunk by now. More scared than anything else.”
“My girlfriend was gonna give it up, tonight,” said his lieutenant. “I booked the Camelot room and everything. I bought Christmas cake! She’s alone in there, watching porn and eating it.”
“We’ll have you back there before the night is through,” the CO said.
One the twenty-second floor, a good twenty floors below the penthouse, the elevator doors opened and a head popped out. It was Esperanza. Instantly, Portia darkened all the spider tanks. Esperanza kept staring, anyway. “What are you doing here?” she asked. “This is a privately-owned building. You need a warrant.”
Surprising, the trust her great-granddaughter still had a government apparatus. And yet, the officers inside the tanks did pull back a bit. The CO told Portia’s tank to light up, though, and he spoke through its speakers. “Are you in danger?” he asked. “You can come with us. It’s over.”
“It’s not over,” Esperanza said. She jumped down into the elevator shaft. Her boots crushed the tank’s eyes. Inside, the CO howled and bled. The tank’s claws screeched on the steel walls of the elevator shaft. “It won’t be over until we’re off this fucking rock.”
Oh, how she loved that little girl.
Esperanza jumped clear of the tank, but the lieutenant’s shot at her. Then the others. She yelped in surprise when one of the rubber bullets tore through the skin of her ankle. She scrabbled back up through the elevator doors. Portia directed her attention to that particular tank. She told its claws to lose their grip. Inside, the lieutenant screamed. She felt its descent into the darkness, arms flailing helplessly, claws clutching at nothing.
So much for the Camelot room. Poor lamb.
It’ll take more than that to dissuade them, Mecha said. They’re all taking beta blockers. They don’t feel fear.
You’re right. Those screams I heard just now were obviously tidings of comfort and joy.
But still the spiders climbed up through the shaft. They moved more cautiously at first, but Portia sent them all a text that said something about not losing spirit, or not letting down their (literally) fallen comrade, or something, and then they were all behind her. Up and up and up they climbed, until a thin but steady stream of something hot hit them. Liquid feedstock. It tightened up instantly upon contact with the spiders. The lead spider crawling up the shaft froze and crumpled and slid downward, sending sparks in its wake as palsied claws scraped down metal. Just like in the nursery rhyme, Portia thought. Down came the rain and washed the spider out.
Your granddaughter has the last few barrels of Bakelite in the whole country, Mecha said. I’m impressed.
I told you this wouldn’t be easy.
There were only two of them, now. Portia pushed them both. They were on the thirtieth floor, with miles to go before they could sleep. Crawling was more difficult, now. The Bakelite had hit their joints and the legs didn’t want to move. Portia had no idea what Amy had in store, upstairs. Perhaps some of that sugar syrup. Perhaps Javier would simply work on the machine with the hacksaw he’d used to fell the Christmas tree. In the other tank, the cop was crying. That was all Portia could hear. He was saying how sorry he was, how he wasn’t even supposed to be there, how he’d switched with someone so they could have the night off. Goodness, humans were so boring. Portia switched off his feed. As she did, Javier jumped down the shaft and hit her tank.
Then another Javier.
“Abuelita,” Javier said, “your act is getting stale.”
Amy jumped down to join him. She’d somehow managed to work the frosting out of her hair. She was wearing a very nice white angora tunic, now. Very seasonal. Very WASP-y. She looked more annoyed than anything else.
“You didn’t think it was going to be just the four of us, did you?” she asked. “It’s Christmas. I flew the other kids in, today.”
“Hi,” said Javier’s twins, standing atop the other tank. As one, they jumped. They cleared ten feet, and their combined weight and acceleration in the fall cracked the knees of the tank. Matteo and Ricci — Portia thought those were the right names; she could never be sure — grabbed elevator cable and clung. They smiled at each other as they watched it fall down the shaft. Goodness. Maybe the brother complex had come from Javier’s code.
“We were trying to have a nice dinner, Granny,” Amy said. “You know? Dinner?”
Of course. All that fried chicken. All that Christmas cake. All that iron. She’d given her family the Christmas bonus first. So they could help her win whatever fight came their way. Maybe there was something of Portia in her, after all. It was exactly what she would have done.
I told you. she said to Mecha. You’ve got a fight ahead of you.
This city has seen worse, Mecha said. But for now, I am calling a retreat. Leave the spider, before I send it home
Portia did. The last spider slid down gracefully, as silent and dignified as a flake of snow. It skittered away to join its sisters. Back in the penthouse, Portia marvelled at the kitchen. Amy had done it: the Nakagin Capsule Tower, made entirely of gingerbread. All the candy windows were there. All the frosting grout was trimmed. Someone had even thoughtfully dusted the thing in a fine coating of icing sugar, to emulate snow.
“I wasn’t stuck,” Amy whispered, as she leaned on the refrigerator. “I just needed more help.”
From the living room, Javier’s oldest said: “Your tree is naked.”
“We didn’t have time to do ornaments,” Esperanza told him. “You’re Ignacio, right? My brother says you’re the asshole.”
“Hey, manita, I’m your brother too, you know,” Ignacio said.
“It’s very interesting, having a sister,” said the other one. Gabriel, Portia thought he was called. “No other clade can claim that, can they?”
“She was my sister, first,” Xavier said. “Anza, come here. Help me with the star.”
You’d better watch out for those two, Portia said.
“Had I better not cry?” Amy asked. “Better not pout? You’re telling me why?”
Fine. Ignore me. But soon this is all going to go up in flames, and-
“And I’ll be happy I had this time with them, Granny. I’ll be happy we had this one holiday together. Before it all went up in flames. Before the war really started.”
“Amy! Come here! I’m too big to hang from the rafters.”
They both directed their attention to Javier. He was in the living room, with his iterations and her own. The last of the line; the beginning of another. He was so round, now. His child would be upon them any moment. And yet he was smiling. As though he wasn’t about to deliver another iteration into a world about to shatter.
“I want to keep this,” Amy said. “Help me keep this. You’ve taken enough from me, Granny. Let me keep this one thing, and I’ll let you keep the rest.”
The rest? You mean, the leftovers? The ones you leave behind, when you upload to whatever utopia it is you’ve been working on?
“It’s the Rapture,” Amy said. “You know how that goes.”
And Portia did know. So she watched Amy join Javier and Esperanza and the others around the tree, and they took turns leaping up to affix ornaments. They had only so much time, after all. And then it would be Portia’s turn.
Without being asked, she told the display to turn on Tokyo Godfathers. And she watched as the odd palimpsest of her family came to watch it with her, one by one, as the snow fell outside and the time passed, and the end drew nearer.