The majority of the stories in Space Western fiction are male dominated or from a male point-of-view. I’ve put out a call for more female oriented work, and have received some response. Here’s a quirky little tale that’s neither here nor there, and yet both places at once. — ed. N.E. Lilly
The Clone-Wrangler’s Bride
by Camille Alexa ©2007
“Thirty-two non-planetary standard seconds to critical impact.”
Matty Johnson swore as she pounded the control panel in a windmilling motion of frustration and rage, her fists and long red braids flying. “Star‑blasted piece of spaceturd! Avoid! Avoid, dang you!”
“Unable to avoid asteroidal collision due to prior damage sustained. Recommend life pod launch. Pod launch sequence activated.” The ship’s computer voice paused. It made a sound like a hiccup, or a tiny electrical sob with no emotion. “Nineteen seconds to critical impact.”
Matty swiveled to face the mandroid sitting in the next seat. “You!” she said. It turned its expressionless silver face toward her. Its unblinking eyes were like large golden marbles. “You! Do something. You’re supposed to see I get safe to Mars Dometown Eye‑Vee! Do something!”
“Fifteen non‑planetary standard seconds to critical impact. Pod launch in ten...”
Matty and the mandroid stared at each other.
Until then, the Echo 3000‑Series Fully Automated Mandroid had moved with a shuffling, gangly slowness that had driven Matty to the verge of several verbose rages. Now, its right upper appendage moved lightning‑quick, flashing like a hopped‑up muleskinner’s knife, slicing through her seat harness as though it were butter.
“Oof!” said Matty as the Echo 3000 flew past her seat, taking Matty with it in a tackle that would have earned any steer‑wrangler back home his rodeo buckle.
“Wait!” screamed Matty as she and the mandroid sailed through the air into the open life pod behind her and the hatch began to spiral shut. “My dowry! I need my dow—”
“—ry!” She jabbed a slender finger repeatedly in the direction of the velvetite satchel slung over the back of her chair by the control panel.
The Echo 3000 cracked its left upper appendage like a telescoping whip. It lashed through the diminishing pinwheel opening between the life pod and the small ship.
The Echo 3000’s appendage, wrapped around the small velvetite bag, whipped back through the opening just as the hatch swirled shut and the life pod’s shields locked into place.
“Dang‑it‑all to a wormhole’s anus! My best hat’s back there on the floor by the control panel. Dang!”
The mandroid and the woman stared at each other, one’s lash‑fringed brown eyes with the nigh‑permanent scowl above meeting the smooth, golden, mercury‑cool orbs of the other.
Matty barely had time to press herself hard into the auto‑molding foam behind her and grip tight the straps on each side of her head next to her red braids.
“Dang,” she said, as the whole world went blacker than a wormhole’s anus.
Matty opened her eyes to hot, dusty, and red.
The Echo 3000 sat nearby on the rocky sand, its two lower appendages folded in the spot that would have been its knees had it been human. Without speaking, it reached over and dabbed a damp, neatly‑pleated cloth onto her forehead.
“We made it,” said Matty, though her voice croaked out of her like a bull‑frog’s after an all‑night rut.
The mandroid unclipped a canteen from the belt slung low across its chest‑box. It unscrewed the top and held the thing to Matty’s lips. She slurped a few slurps, letting the water slide down her throat. “Thanks,” she said, but the mandroid simply stared, then recapped the canteen and clicked it back onto its tubular middle.
Matty struggled to a sitting position. Beyond the temporary emergency bubble‑tent lay the mangled, blackened wreck of the life pod, the trail of its landing stretching back as far as the eye could see like a big lumpy scar on the rusty plain.
Matty snorted. “Well shoot; this don’t look too different from back home, excepting it’s a tad redder, and my arms and legs feel like they got little balloons in there, ’stead of blood and bone. And double‑dang, but my head feels sore: feels like my cranium met the business‑end of a prize bull.”
The mandroid sat on its folded appendages and met her gaze with its unwavering globes of gold. Silent, it offered her the small velvetite satchel.
“My dowry! Thanks, erm...do I call you Mister 3000? Manny Droid?” Matty regarded the mandroid as she stretched out first one leg, then the other, massaging the muscles of her calves with hard‑knuckled fingers. “I’ll just call you Echo, then. Thanks, Echo; for my bag and my life and all.”
The mandroid’s appendage reached behind its silver body and brought forth a breathing helmet for Matty’s pressure suit; standard life‑pod issue. It handed that to her as well. She nodded her thanks and set both things in the sand.
Matty stood as much as she was able within the confines of the tiny clear dome, scrunching her neck down onto her shoulders. Reaching her arms out to her sides, she could almost touch her fingertips to the smooth surface of the temporary plasti‑shield. Sighing, she plopped cross‑legged onto the ground in the dust next to the helmet and the velvetite satchel. The bottom edges of the dome hummed where the barrier fields met the surface of the planet, their emergency seals decaying by the minute.
“So, Echo. What’s next? How do you plan to do what my Daddy bought you for and get me to my wedding day?”
The mandoid sat; silent, rigid. The life‑pod medi‑kit and the bit of damp gauze the Echo 3000 had used to wipe Matty’s brow lay beside its folded lower appendages. The dust around the gauze formed a little ring, as the dry soil sucked the moisture from the fabric.
Matty sighed. “Look, Echo, I’m going to need your help if’n we’re going to get me to the altar. I know, I know,” she held up a hand as though to halt any forthcoming argument, “Daddy done arranged this whole thing his own self and neither you nor I had not a hoot nor a holler to say about it. We both been bought and sold; me to wife for some back‑planet clone‑wrangler and you to get me delivered to him like a sack of planting‑potatoes. But Echo, we got to make the best out of life, and I plan to make the best out o’ mine. So can you help me?”
Silence fell heavier in the tiny dome than a boulder off a cliff into a dry gully. Matty sat. The mandroid sat. Matty sighed.
“Echo, if you can’t talk, this is going to be a long, long, sad‑long day. Can’t you speak to me? Can’t you say anything? Anything at all?”
A noise like the sound of tiny tin butterflies fluttered in the chest‑box of the Echo 3000. The noise got scrabblier and scrabblier, like that bunch of little butterfly feet and butterfly wings were scrabbling against the insides of the metal man. The noise rumbled from its chest‑box, up through the cylinder of its throat and into the region of its smooth metal mouth. Finally, it spoke.
“Yes, Matilda Johnson.”
Matty turned to look back the way they had come. The slug‑like trail of her shuffling, big‑booted footsteps and the jagged ridges left by the mandroid’s appendages sliced back across the dusty plain, clear and sharp and almost painful in their singularity upon the vast empty sweep of red desert and dust and rock. The mangled pod and its landing trail were far behind them now, not visible as even a fly‑speck on a bubble‑dome.
Matty lifted her gloved hand to scratch at the rim of the helmet where it fused onto the neck of her pressure suit. The best she managed was a couple bangs on the plasti‑matter near the rim‑seal. The dome of the helmet rang when she rapped on it, dull and thunky like the sound of a cracked church bell. “Dang it!” she said. She half‑turned to look at the mandroid trudging beside her. The suit and breathing helmet made her motions stilted, difficult.
“I mean, it’s great the pod had all its breathing equipment and stuff, ’cause we sure didn’t plan for no crash‑landing, right? But Echo, I tell you, this mother’s itch‑freakin’‑y. It’s itchier than a wormhole’s—”
“Yes, Matilda Johnson.”
“Echo! I told you eight million times; Matty. M‑a‑t‑t‑y. A body can’t help what her parents name her, but she sure can dump the parts she don’t like, if she’s a mind to. If you’re so set on the Johnson, well I suppose I can live with that, though you’ll have to get it through your thick metal brain‑pan my name’s probably going to change when I get hitched for good. I know my suit‑com’s working, so I know you hear what I’m saying. Cantrell: I’m going to be Missus Matty Cantrell by this time tomorrow, and don’t you forget it. You hear?”
“Yes, Matilda Johnson.”
“Gah!” Matty kicked a large pebble with the rim of her over‑sized boot. It spun from the rounded toe and glanced, hard, off the thick lower appendage of the mandroid. “Matty!” she said. “M, a, t, t, y!”
“Don’t you dare!”
The Echo 3000 fell silent. So did Matty, though her silence was broken by the huffing wheezes of her annoyance and by her periodic grumbled curses, too low to be adequately relayed by her suit‑com’s pickup.
Another hour passed in silence and dust.
Matty slurped on the recirculation tubes of her suit, drawing her own stale fluids back into her mouth. “I just got to pretend this is plain old water, Echo, or I’ll just go crazy with the gross‑out. So, I’m drinking pure fresh Earthside mountain water from the tube in this suit, right, Echo?”
The mandroid seemed to hesitate. It slid a golden‑orbed glance at the woman by its side. “Yes, Matilda Johnson,” it said.
Everybody walked on and nobody said anything. Another hour passed in more silence and a whole lot more dust. The landscape gradually began to change. Every once in a while, a huge, flat‑topped boulder rose from the edge of a rocky dune. In other places, the ground was riddled with holes; some smaller around than a woman’s clenched fist, some big enough for a mandroid to fall into if it wasn’t careful, and all of them deep enough to show nothing but the darkest blackness; like little wells of hot tar, or puddles of starless space.
“Echo?” said Matty. The mandroid turned its chest‑box and head to face her, but neither slowed their forward motion. “Echo, you sure this is the right direction to Dometown Eye‑Vee?”
“Yes, Matilda Johnson.”
Matty scowled out past the smudgy clear curve of her helmet’s breathing dome. “And you’re sure we’re not nearer to Dometown Eye‑Eye, or Dometown Ecks? Eye‑Vee is the closest one?”
“Yes, Matilda Johnson.”
“Well. Well okay, then. If you’re positive. I just thought maybe—”
A rubbery tentacle, supple as the whip‑like attachment of the mandroid’s upper appendage and just as quick, shot from the hole nearest Matty’s foot and wrapped itself about her ankle. A quick tug, and Matty toppled heavily to the ground. She clasped the velvetite satchel to her chest with one hand and began to beat her suit‑gauntleted fist against the tentacle on her ankle with the other.
Tentacles of varying thicknesses and shades of dull, oily green began to emerge from the holes littering the ground, which looked like a giant, rusty‑red prairie‑dog field.
“Get off! Get off me you dang, you dang—”
Matty’s curse ended in a sound most approximated by the phonetic utterance “eep”, as a larger, oilier tentacle slapped and slimed its way across the field of her vision. Inches from her face, held off only by the thin plasti‑matter of her helmet, the underside of the soft‑suckered tentacle undulated and writhed, as dozens of tiny, rubber‑like rings spasmed repeatedly against the slick surface, trying to gain purchase.
Whip‑like tentacles shot from at least a dozen more holes. The soft wet plopping sounds of tentacles sucking at the surface of the Echo 3000’s metal shell gave way to high‑pitched squeals, as the mandroid unsheathed its blades from the ends of its upper appendages. The blades twirled in circular motions, faster and faster, slicing like sawblades through the green gristly limbs and the rubber rings of suckers, which flew to all sides from the mandroid like coins tossed to bare‑breasted revelers at Venusian Mardi‑Gras. Dark, oily ichor rained to the red dust in splatter patterns like so many broken strands of gaudy beads.
“Get your dang‑dunged sucker‑punchers offa me!” roared Matty. One‑handedly, she beat at the largest tentacle until it slid from the face of her helmet with an audible hiss. Kicking, she managed to bring the heel of her boot down against the tentacle wrapped about her other ankle sharply enough that she heard the wet, slick splosh—pop! as the thing ruptured under the force of the blow.
Scrambling to her feet, she saw the Echo 3000 several yards away. All around, slick, rubbery, squid‑like appendages writhed, rising from the dozens of holes in the ground like enormous, rotten stalks of over‑cooked asparagus. They wiggled, soaring straight up, impossibly high. To Matty’s Earth‑gravity‑trained eye, they seemed to defy the laws of the natural universe. They looked like a massive, slimy forest of tubular Earthside seaweed, forced straight up through saltwater by the fiery heat of the planet’s core to dance by the glow of underwater volcanoes. At the center of the writhing oily mass glinted the ichor‑stained silver of the mandroid and its whirling gore‑slick blades.
“Echo!” yelled Matty, but as she stepped toward the oily‑asparagus forest, the tentacles began to recoil, whipping back into the black holes in the ground like so much slurped spaghetti.
In mere moments, Matty and the mandroid stood alone on the plain. The once‑dry dust and gently‑pebbled slopes seemed even stiller than before. The dark green fluid arcing in twisting splatters away from the mandroid began to congeal, to coalesce into little globs and rivulets and to slither toward the nearest holes.
Matty ran to the side of the solitary metal figure. With the hand not gripping the velvetite bag, she reached to encircle one of the mandroid’s upper appendages, exactly where the wrist would have been on a man. She carefully avoided the unmoving blades at the end of the segmented metal. “C’mon, Echo. Let’s blast out of here before those prairie squid get their turds together and come back for round two.”
Matty gulped the stale, recirculated breath inside her suit. She watched the slime on the mandroid’s chest‑box, which, like the stuff on the ground, seemed to seek itself out, running together in thicker and thicker rivulets as it trickled to the planet surface, until the holes scattered about them brimmed with pulsing arteries of living ooze.
“Echo,” said Matty again. The mandroid’s golden orbs rotated and clicked once, the mechanical equivalent of a blink, and the blades at the ends of its upper appendages slowly retracted into their sheaths. “Let’s go,” she said, gently tugging the mandroid’s appendage.
The Echo 3000 stumbled after Matty. With every step they took, little beads of gore and slime fell from their bodies like drops of viscous black rain and rolled, slithering in the gullies of their footsteps, back the way they had come. After Matty could no longer see the holes in the ground when she glanced over her shoulder at the plain behind them; after her chest stopped almost visibly thumping with the beat of her own heart; after she lost her initial gratitude for the flat, metallic, recycled water from her suit’s drinking tube; after all that, the mandroid halted, and Matty with it. It lifted its appendage between them, holding it aloft so Matty could see her own fingers still encircling it just above the telescoping digits at the end.
Matty reddened and dropped the appendage as though it burned her through the hyper‑metal of her pressure suit. “What? Never held hands with a girl before? Jeesh, Echo.”
Matty whirled as best she could in the stiff, crinkled confines of her ungainly suit. Her long red braids thumped against the inside of her domed helmet as they flopped outward with the force of her motion. She stomped through the dust and the red and the dimming light, not looking back to see whether the mandroid followed.
“Jeesh!” she muttered again, and then louder, “you are one kooky mandroid, Echo. You know that?”
The com‑speaker of her suit crackled, but Matty didn’t slow her march nor turn to look behind her. The sky ahead was deepening to a purple hazy glow, and the ridge she had been using as her navigational guide looked farther away than ever.
Her com‑speaker crackled again, and then: “Yes, Matilda Johnson.”
Matty and the Echo 3000 camped that night on top of a large, flat rock. “Find me a place to sleep with no dang‑dunged holes in it,” Matty had said, and the mandroid had complied.
Matty lay stretched out, back flat against the smooth, massive rock underneath. She clasped her hands behind her neck and pillowed her head awkwardly against the firm convex shell of her suit’s helmet.
“Echo,” said Matty, “I know it’s just my imagination, this suit being rated to stand four times this temperature up and down, but I swear; lying here, looking up at this big old wide sky with nothing for a blanket but a blanket of stars, and nothing beneath me but the surface of a living planet; I swear I can feel the warmth of this old rock leaching up into my bones. It’s just like when I was a little girl; there was a rock pert‑near exactly like this one at Old Man Miller’s pond.”
The mandroid, which had been standing at the edge of the rock facing the direction of their destination for twenty‑six non‑planetary standard minutes, turned its attention to the girl on the ground.
“Yessir, Echo. We’d go swimming in the millpond all day long, ’til our toes were ice and our lips were blue. And then, when we was so wrinkled up you might of thought our fingers was gen‑modified albino prune‑sticks, we would all lay out flat against that old limestone sun‑rock, and all the day’s heat would just soak into our skin like we was johnnycakes on a big, warm skillet. Yessir, just like that...”
The mandroid folded its lower appendages, positioning itself so one golden orb could swivel toward the horizon. The other orb swiveled to focus on the prone form of the girl, small and rumpled, her lightly‑freckled face glowing pale in the abundant starlight.
Matty sighed. Her eyes drifted shut. When she spoke, it was with the slow, dreamy drawl of a tired country girl on the cusp of sleep. Her accent thickened, as it tended to do in anger or stress, or in unguarded moments. “Yep. Haven’t been to Old Man Miller’s pond for years... Nope. Always thought I wanted to go pond‑dipping once more before I died. But there’s no ponds on Mars, that’s for danged sure.”
Matty’s glove‑clad fingers wriggled from their position beneath her head just enough to stroke the velvetite bag, the cord of which she’d wrapped about her wrist so she could grip it, even in sleep. She sighed, and the sound transmitted over the suit‑com like a rustling of summer leaves. “But Daddy needed the money; needed the money for them new gen‑modified cows they all got up out there these days. You know; them ones with the four‑hundred and sumpin’‑sumpin’ teats and all those udders? Those ones.” She opened one eye and squinted up through the star‑lit dark at the silhouette of the mandroid. “You know them ones I mean, Echo?”
Both golden orbs swiveled to fix on the girl’s face. “Yes, Matilda Johnson.”
Matty nodded and re‑nestled her head inside her suit’s helmet. “And tomorrow—wait, we get to Dometown Eye‑Vee tomorrow, right?”
“Yes, Matilda Johnson.”
The girl reclosed her eyes. “Good, ’cause I’m hungry enough to eat me some slimy old squid asparagus stalks.” She smiled, eyes still closed. “Well...maybe not quite that hungry yet.” Her smile faded. “So Daddy gets his cows, and the Eye‑Vee clone‑wranglers get their new power‑mod‑generator,” her fingers wriggled again against the velvetite satchel, “and tomorrow, I get me a new husband; youngest son of the youngest son of the richest man in the twelve Dometowns of Mars. I figure the youngest’s youngest won’t be so rich, but that’s just fine with me. There’s more important stuff than security and money‑credits and clone farms and over‑teated cows, Echo, you know what I’m saying?”
“Yes, Matilda Johnson.”
Matty’s face relaxed. The fingers of her hyper‑metal gloves curled slightly to accommodate the positions of the living flesh inside. Matty’s mouth looked soft and full, a little slack, like that of a sleepy toddler. When she spoke, it was so softly, the pickup of her suit‑com barely registered her words. “Echo...”
“Yes, Matilda Johnson.”
“There is more important stuff, right...”
Light snores from the suit’s occupant were transmitted to the mandroid’s receivers.
“Yes, Matilda Johnson,” said the mandroid, but not before turning its volume way down, so as not to wake the sleeping girl.
“Dang‑dung, Echo; that may not be the prettiest sight I ever seen, but it sure is the most welcome.” Matty shielded her eyes against the glare of full Martian day. The hyper‑metal of her gauntlets cast dark shadows across her face beneath the smudged plasti‑matter of the helmet’s breathing dome. Both girl and mandroid stood at the crest of the rise, staring down into the wide, shallow crater at the sprawling collection of dome‑covered buildings. Hamster‑trail plasti‑matter passageways connected the haphazard array of impermanent‑looking corrugated structures and rickety, bubble‑domed sheds. Grey, bilious smoke pumped through the semi‑permeable seals at the tops of the smokestacks, which rose like thick, dull church steeples from the roofs of the clone vats.
“I seen pictures of Dometown Eye, which everybody’s starting to call Dome City nowadays. It looked kind of nice, with hanging gardens and paved streets. But this...”
Matty dropped the arm shielding her eyes. She looked up into the smooth, blank face of the mandroid. Both its golden orbs swiveled to meet her gaze. Matty turned to squint again at the squalid sprawl in the crater below, and she bit her lip. She bit so hard, a tiny trickle of blood appeared at the corner of her mouth, and when she reached to wipe it away, her gauntlet banged into the plasti‑matter of her helmet. She let her arm drop and licked at the corner of her mouth instead, and squinted some more at her future home.
Something tickled, tentative, at the wrist of her suit above the cuff of her gauntlet. Looking down, Matty saw the telescoping digits at the end of one of the mandroid’s upper appendages encircle her wrist, just as she had clasped it after the fight with the prairie‑squid. Matty twisted her hand to clasp the mandroid’s metal digits. Hand in appendage, they turned and descended to the town below.
At the fourth building Matty banged on with her fist, a face flickered onto the vid‑screen panel inset by the door. The man on the screen was skinny, and unshaven. He had the sallow cheeks and pinched features of a third‑generation clone. His ten‑gallon hat loomed over his bulbous forehead like a gen‑modified buffalo perched atop an unripe cantaloupe.
“Yeah?” said the man. “Where’d you come from? We don’t want none.”
Matty opened her mouth to speak, but the vid‑screen blinked off.
“Hey!” Matty let go of the mandroid’s digits and used both fists to pound on the door. ““Hey! I’m coming to marry the youngest Mister Cantrell. Hey! I think it’s my wedding day, so you better open up in there!” Matty kicked the base of the door and the vid‑screen winked back to life.
The clone in the ten‑gallon goggled at Matty from the vid‑screen. “Did you say you came for Mister Cantrell? You have the new power‑mod‑generator? For real and for serious?”
Matty lifted the velvetite bag and shoved it against the vid‑screen. “I got it right here, now open up.”
Matty and the mandroid waited for several minutes. Around them, figures scuttled through the tubes which connected the scattered buildings like piers in an Earthside wharf‑town. The plasti‑matter of the covered passageways was pitted and scarred; outsides abraded and made opaque by the basalt sands of the desert planet, insides smudgy from the oil and sweat of a hundred human palms, smeared across their surfaces a thousand times. The figures scuttling through them now sounded like giant cockroaches running from a kitchen’s overhead light.
When the door swung open, Matty and the mandroid stumbled into the airlock chamber. Matty turned and shut the massive metal hatch behind her, and the mandroid helped her crank the wheel until the green light appeared above the doorway. Matty scrabbled at the neck of her suit, but the Echo 3000 gently brushed aside her trembling fingers from the release clasps and removed the plasti‑matter helmet from her head.
Matty heaved air into her lungs. She bent over, hands on her knees, and vomited just as the youngest son of the youngest son of the richest man in the twelve domed towns of Mars stepped into the room. She only narrowly avoided splattering his shoes.
Matty heaved once more, then spat two or three times and steadied herself with a hand on the mandroid’s chest‑box. It stood, her suit helmet tucked under one appendage, the other telescoping appendage lightly holding the ends of her braids where they would be safe from her spew. She wiped the back of her gauntlet across her mouth, and for the first time tasted the salty, tangy, blood‑like flavor of the dust of Mars.
“I take it you’re the courier from Earth. You have the power‑mod‑generator?”
Matty looked into the pale, watery blue eyes of her betrothed. “Are you the youngest Mister Cantrell? If so, I’m your future wife. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” Matty wiped her gauntlet on the crumpled hyper‑metal of her suit covering her thigh and held out her hand. Her other hand rose to tip the brim of the hat she always wore, but encountering nothing on her head, smoothed back the red tendrils escaping from her braids, instead.
The youngest Mister Cantrell eyed Matty’s extended hand as though it were a rattle snake; only, as though it were the most boring rattlesnake in the universe. A rattlesnake so boring, even being afraid of it was boring.
The hallway behind the youngest Mister Cantrell was crammed with man‑bodies. Lots and lots and lots of man‑bodies. Matty could smell her own self, her scent rising up from the neck of her suit, mingling with fifty‑times re‑drunk water and a thousand‑times re‑breathed air. She could smell the iron‑salt of Mars from the dust on her tongue, and she could smell the sharp tang of sun‑heated metal; her suit and the exterior shell of the mandroid. But most of all, she could smell the decades‑long smell of bored men, and the slightly sweet, artificial smell of the cloned tissue of the hundred bodies out in the hall. She only just then began to notice they all had the same dishwater eyes and unripe cantaloupe foreheads of the man before her.
The youngest son of the youngest son reached out, not to take Matty’s suspended hand, but to point to the velvetite satchel at her side. “Is that my power‑mod‑generator?” he said. “I believe it’s been paid for, with five hundred clones of the most current gen‑modified cows available, with a guaranteed minimum of four‑hundred and twenty‑one milk‑producing teats per.”
Matty’s hand dropped to dangle limply in its glove. She slid the satchel from her shoulder, lifting its strap over her head and handing the bag to her betrothed. “If we’re to wed, I don’t rightly figure how things between us have to be bought and sold,” she said.
The young man rolled his eyes. “That old‑fangled Earthside conceit? Our negotiator said he had to offer the generator’s courier permanent residency at the compound, though I don’t know what we’d do with a woman around here. Now that,” he pointed his chin at the Echo 3000, “we do have need for. A conveyer belt in section twelve needs some new parts, and I think that mandroid might contain a few bits and bobs we could use for repairs.”
Matty opened her mouth, but shut it again. The young man turned his attention to the satchel, and ran one ragged fingernail along the edge of the zip‑seal. He gingerly pulled forth a squat cylinder, its gunmetal grey glinting dully in the stifled light of the small room.
A collective sigh ran through the ocean of similar faces lining the hallway behind the youngest Mister Cantrell. Only the hats visibly differed from man to man. It was as though each tried to imbue his hat with all the individual personality of a living entity. Some ten‑gallons rode high and wide, like the prows of ocean liners. Some sat cocked to one side or the other. Some, ludicrously small, rode the crests of bulbous cloned foreheads like fishing lures bobbing on Old Man Miller’s pond.
“But I’ve come to get married. I’ve come to settle here, build a life...” Matty’s voice was small, soft.
The young man replaced the cylinder in the velvetite bag, and a collective groan ran up and down the edges of the long hallway behind him. “Yes, yes,” he said with a dismissive flutter of his fingers. “We’ve got the papers, and my law‑man already has all my necessary signatures. Once you sign, our transaction will be legally concluded, and you can do whatever you want. I’ll keep the mandroid for parts, if it’s just the same with you.”
Matty glanced out of the corner of her eye at the Echo 3000. It stood behind her left shoulder, rigid, silent. The tip of one of its appendages rested so lightly against her hip, she hadn’t noticed its presence until she looked down and saw it there.
“No, it is not just the same with me.” Matty clasped the end of the Echo 3000’s appendage. She felt its telescoping digits intertwine with her fingers. “In fact, this whole deal’s a bum...deal. If you’re not interested in me, I’ll just sign your dad‑gummed papers and Echo here and I’ll go set ourselves up at Dome City.”
The young man handed the velvetite satchel to the clone behind him in the perched‑buffalo hat. “That sounds like an excellent plan. With our new power‑mod‑generator, I’m sure we could spare some supplies, as a courtesy. And with your mandroid, you’ll have no trouble getting to Dometown Prime. Dometown Four and Dometown Prime are only two days’ walking distance.”
The crowd began to shuffle in the hall behind the young man. Their hats bobbled and jostled against each other and around each other like decorated tumbleweeds rolling around a melon‑headed desert.
“Wait!” said Matty as the young man turned away. “Maybe I’m at the wrong place? I’m supposed to be at Dometown Eye‑Vee, and I’m supposed to get married. And I can’t go back home, so I’ve got to make the best of things here, if this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Slowly, in a manner which clearly indicated his extreme boredom, the youngest son of the youngest son of the richest man in the twelve domed towns of Mars pivoted on one booted heel.
“This is Dometown Four,” he said, pointing above his head to the big roman numeral on the wall above the airlock entry: IV. “After those papers are signed, you’re fee to go wherever you want.” He snapped his fingers and the law‑man at his elbow handed him a thick ream of papers, which he then handed to Matty. “I can hardly be blamed if you arrived here laboring under a misunderstanding of the nature of our transaction. I don’t have the slightest notion where you are supposed to be, and this is as good as things get around here.”
With that he turned, and the milling ocean of near‑identical faces behind him parted, then flowed shut in his wake as he passed. When every last hat‑wearing clone had filtered from the hall and all that remained was the law‑man and Matty and the Echo 3000, the law‑man handed her a pen.
Matty signed each and every indicated section on every single page of the four‑hundred‑and‑fourteen‑page document. (“What,” she had muttered mid‑way through the proceedings, “they got one page per cow teat?”) The Echo 3000 bent into a table so she could rest her arms against its solid back as she signed. When her hand cramped, the Echo 3000 slid it from her glove and gently massaged her palm until the pain melted and the tingling stopped. When the law‑man began to tap the toe of his boot in ill‑concealed impatience, the Echo 3000 fixed him with a beady, unblinking, golden‑orbed stare, until the man cleared his throat and looked away. And when Matty was done, the mandroid stood behind her and let her small, rumpled body lean against it. She sagged so low, she wouldn’t have kept upright had it not been for the firm metal chest‑box at her spine.
A clone arrived bearing two satchels of food and water and a bedroll. Matty didn’t look up as the Echo 3000 flipped open first one pack and then the other, inventorying food and water and the slender envelopes of Martian money‑credits.
Matty stood on her own as the Echo 3000 slid both packs onto its appendages, minutely modifying himself to suit the task. Papers signed, foodstuffs delivered, the law‑man turned to go.
“May I ask you something, Mister Law‑man?” said Matty to the departing back.
The man turned.
“Don’t y’all...well, don’t y’all need a woman around this old place?”
The man blinked. He removed his glasses and wiped them on the hem of his grubby shirt. When he put them back on, fresh smears streaked the front of the lenses.
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. I’m not sure what you mean. We are a fully self‑sustained community, with our own air and water and food recyclers. We have all the clones we can produce, all the man‑power we want. Why would Dometown Four possibly need a woman like you?”
Matty looked at the floor and nodded. The man exited the airlock and wheeled shut the door from the other side. The Echo 3000 helped Matty with the seals of her suit’s helmet, and when the light turned red and the airlock reopened, the woman and the mandroid stepped out into the dry and the red and the sunlight. Together, they skirted the compound and crested the rise on the other side of the crater. From there, the main road was clearly visible. In the distance twinkled the glint of sunlight, glancing off the curved surface of the bubble of Dome City.
For a moment, Matty seemed to crumple. She sagged in her hyper‑metal suit, falling to her knees. She looked like a wadded‑up ball of tinfoil discarded after a barbecue. But then the telescoping appendage of the Echo 3000 slid around her waist and helped her stand.
Matty steadied herself on the mandroid’s appendage and lifted her hand to shield her face. Not looking back into the crater behind her, she stepped from the shelter of the Echo 3000, giving its appendage a little thank‑you pat.
“Well, Echo, it looks like we’re moving to Dome City, just the two of us. It’s all right; we’ll make do. Got to be someone out there who needs a woman like me.” She squared her shoulders, took a deep breath, and stepped onto the main road, the mandroid beside her. Her suit‑com sputtered as the mandroid adjusted its transmitter.
“Yes, Matty,” it said.
Camille Alexa is a full member of Broad Universe and writes for The Green Man Review. Her fiction is forthcoming in Ruins (Hadley-Rille books), Black Box (Brimstone Press), Sporty Spec: Games of the Fantastic (Raven Electrick Ink), and the Machine of Death anthology. Her poetry will be appearing in the March 2008 Humor issue of Star*Line.