Widows in the World
By Gavin J. Grant
14 February 2011
Part 2 of 2
She'd never liked her mother's houses. Even when she'd cracked the codes in order to program her own spaces, she had always known the deep programming wasn't hers. She'd been forced old so fast that by the time she was twelve she wanted her own place. Many of her friends lived in dorms, but her mother had bought a space near the Army and Navy School in Greater San Diego so that the Granny had no choice but to live with her. Her mother's house had smelled like the myths her mother lived by: lilac, charcoal, anti-aging crap, plastic surgery.
The car wasn't shielded and the Granny was still talking to the house. She had missed a couple of debates and her income had dropped to a trickle as the parliament noticed her absence. Her coalition would disenfranchise her if she didn't get back to it. She partitioned her mind and went to work on three different cases. Three times twenty minutes work, their ETA to Malik's estate, was nothing to be sneezed at. The husband hadn't earned anything since retiring at the Hague-approved age of sixty-nine. He'd gone on and on about his continually surprising survival and the benefits (to everyone, of course) of his retirement for so long that the family had finally given in. Everyone in the house, except the husband, had regretted it even though occasionally one of his old intellectual properties was licensed and earned the house a pittance. A few years ago the Granny had set up the accounts to copy the house balances to him every week but she was sure he never as much as scanned them. She didn't want to give him the opportunity to pull out the mortality tables again and "prove" he should be dead and therefore couldn't be expected to work. Sometimes she agreed with him.
He leant over, whispered something about her mother, but she really didn't want to hear it. His skin was coming up all blotchy. He hadn't been outside in months. Since Vienna, the snob. The scrambling among the rocks on the Aberdonian Isles didn't count, she thought, ignoring what the house wanted to tell her. Instead she had the house run a virus/phage/bacteria scan and add a light antiviral to his blood. He hardly ever checked himself. She didn't think he would notice. She really was over-reliant on the house.
There was a ghost of a note from the house and she traced it back until she could open it. "Sarah," her mother said. She erased it. If she survived this visit to Bute there'd be time enough for reconciliation with the bitch afterward.
The farmers had done well. They'd only lost one of their number to the haggises and the others were already building a replacement. They'd found a mutation in a mink which, crossed into the local sheep, would move the sheep closer to the Hague's Machine-Manufactured Protein status. In the meantime, she began negotiations with a couple of food processor factories to see who would take the meat during the pre-approval status. She sold short on the sheep and dog harvest and made twenty days of house expenses. The rest of the meat was frozen and shipped—some for revivification, most for butchering—back to one of the smaller combines in the NorthEast Kingdom. She hadn't done so well on seeds, but she hadn't expected to.
The Somalis had isodomed Mount Stuart, an estate south of disappeared Rothesay. Once under the dome, the driver slalomed lazily through a minefield and stopped outside a huge sandstone house. When she stopped, she motioned for the Granny and the husband to get out, then drove around the back of the house.
The children were trying to call.
The Granny thought there was a generation shock, rather than a gap, between those who had lived through the famines and those who came after. The children weren't convinced of death yet. Despite their mothers' deaths and being surrounded by death and memorials, mortality was only an intellectual construct. Disappearances still a rumor.
"Sarah." The whisper again from her mother.
She asked the house to check itself, herself, the baby, the children, the husband, and anything else it could think of to see where her mother's ghost was hiding. The footstool. The coffee machine. Maybe her mother was in the damn dog. That could complicate matters with Malik.
A quiet, middle-aged woman met them at the back door and led them through a marble-columned hall to a large, almost empty room. The Granny's house was pointing out details, the tops of some of the columns were unfinished. The door hinges shone and were decorated with vines, oaks, acorns. The room was built using the Golden Ratio. The Granny took the husband's arm, pointed to the hinges. He shook his head, impatiently. He was listening to the house, too.
Malik was sitting by a wood fire. He'd let his hair grow white. He reminded her of someone and she decided it was his younger self. Her head ached and she was happy to sit down. The husband was admiring the prospect from the window. Twat, she thought fondly.
"Is there peace?" Malik said—the traditional greeting.
"There is peace and there is milk," the Granny said.
The two of them had always smelled right to one another, she thought. Maybe that's all it was. But she worried that she couldn't read Malik's mood. Maybe he knew something. Maybe it was the something she knew she didn't want to know.
She cut her connections to the Hague, pulled all of her intellectual tendrils back in. Dealing with Malik would take all of her.
"Someone I know," she said, "has a little problem."
The husband was fiddling with the window, seeing if he could open it. He was never satisfied with where he was.
Neither of the two men said anything. The Granny tried to think when she had last been in a room with two men.
"My friend has," she said, "a little box that she would like to lose for a while."
"A box," said Malik.
"Twenty-two hundred kilos of various inert alloyed metals coated in stone and impervious to most physical hacks."
"Little," said Malik. This time there was a flash of humor.
At just the wrong time, the baby broadcast to all and sundry that she wanted out. Now.
Little shit, the Granny thought.
The house forwarded a message from the wives: "The baby, your baby, the baby!" The house wanted to send a vehicle out to bring the Granny and the husband back. She shut off their feed. Malik demanded her full attention. But so did the baby. And the baby had a hold of her hormones. She ran through mantras of curses. Picked up her pi calculation (thirty thousand figures along, she found it very restful to concentrate on). Her bladder twinged. She hated her body.
"Sarah," Malik said. For a moment she thought it was her mother's ghost and ignored him.
Malik's parents had flown into Glasgow and taken the UK citizenship virus before he was born. He liked the heat here, but he missed a country he had never known. He'd liked the Granny from the start because she embodied the feelings of alienation he wasn't allowed to have.
"I know people who could store this trifle," he said. "But these people are curious about the future. They are interested in new children. They would be grateful to talk to a house that traveled so much. Fascinated to access such a house's seed databases. Or they might prefer percentages of such various things as mink gene proceeds. Good dogs. Perhaps even a partnership." He looked at her, openly speculative.
Well, she thought, he already had the dog so perhaps that didn't count?
"You had a dog, didn't you, dear?" said the husband.
The Granny wasn't surprised. The husband was the conversational equivalent of a natural disaster. How had men survived themselves?
Malik's gaze went to the fireplace as he spoke to someone outside the room. The door opened and another of those quiet women brought in the dog the Granny thought of as her own.
"Here boy, here!" the husband said and the dog strained on its leash. Malik nodded. The woman said a word and the dog ran to Malik. The woman stationed herself by the door, slipped out of the conversation and into the background. The Granny was impressed.
"If we were to rebuild Rothesay," said the husband, "I'd like to work on the Winter Gardens. See if there's anything left of the gene bank at the old genealogy center."
"There may be vaults not on the public plans," the Granny agreed.
Now the baby was talking to her in undertime. She signaled to Malik to join the conversation with the baby while the three of them, the Granny, Malik, and the husband, continued discussing the possibility of rebuilding Rothesay out loud.
"We're very interested in the child," Malik said underneath. "And your choice to carry it in vitro."
The Granny showed him a gene chart to ensure Malik knew the baby was a girl and that the husband was the father. Malik gave a microscopic shake of his head.
"There are so few children born on the island," he said. "Yours looks to have a number of enhancements not available the last time there was a birth here."
The island Somalis wanted to make sure they were at the top of their game when and if they next had children. Also, he said, they had discovered the baby looking through their defense systems—which were supposed to be freestanding and unconnected so they were strongly interested in knowing how it had achieved that.
"How she achieved that," said the Granny.
"She," agreed Malik. His castle was prying at her house, using the husband and the Granny as entry points. She put the house on lockdown and cleaned up the husband's i/o ports. Later she'd get the husband back in some way for leaving himself so wide open. Maybe later she'd apologize and maybe she wouldn't and either way she wouldn't mind when he disappeared to sulk. He deserved it if he couldn't keep his own head clean.
The Granny and the baby had a conversation below her and Malik's.
"What were you doing in there?" the Granny asked.
"Who isn't curious?" the baby said. "No," she said at the same time on yet another level, "I don't want a name yet."
"Besides, their systems are wide open. Relatively."
"I wish you'd told me," the Granny said.
"You'd only have worried."
The Granny dropped the conversations with the baby. Malik and the husband were extrapolating near-future population growth versus potential carbon loading and possible weather consequences.
"Listen," she said, under, to Malik. "You number crunchers are just repeating old work and the baby says I don't have all day. Besides we don't need to be here for you to do this."
"I'm enjoying your husband's way of thinking. He's smart. For a scientist. Brainstorming is different in person."
"He's not so bad. Better with the past than the present."
The baby kicked, said, "It's time!"
"Maybe we can talk more," the Granny said to Malik.
"My house is always open," Malik said, sending her a pass to get her by the haggises.
The Granny called the house for a car.
"The baby belongs with her mothers," the Granny said to Malik, under. Malik said nothing. Neither did the baby.
"We've got to go," she said out loud and the husband surprised them both with a smile. She let it go. He rarely needed to know what was really going on.
What Malik wanted, herself and the baby, was impossible, the Granny thought. But no more improbable than her needing a quiet place to inter her mother. Temporarily, she had told the husband. Permanently, she thought. She was pleased to see her little wheeled buggy at the castle gate. Once she and the husband were in, though, the car netted them to their gel-seats and rocketed over the hill to the house. At least the house had moved into a more sheltered position. The last thing she noticed before she passed out—drugs, G-forces, the baby's insistent pushing; she didn't know which—was the last of the hunter-farmers returning to the house from the hills. She noted they were pulling good loads and was checking on their productivity index and then she was gone.
When the Granny woke she asked about her mother before her baby. The house told the Granny her mother had Von Neumann ghosted herself. It had discovered two hundred (and counting) uploaded iterations of her mother's personality which dated from many years before her mother's death up until only a day or two before it. The Granny must realize, the house said, that there was no absolute method to ensure her mother would remain dead. It might, the house suggested, be better to allow her mother to reconnect with the body in the basement before her mother did something unspeakably illegal and messy.
"Say what you mean," the Granny told the house. But she knew of the opportunities, the bodies for sale, the possibilities of stored clones. She wouldn't give the order to disinter. Instead she changed the quarklocks from strangeness to charm, knowing this wouldn't hold her mother back for long. Looked into hiring a charterjet to take her mother's body somewhere far away from here. The arrival point was a problem.
The Granny had been ignoring her newborn, her worn out body, and the mumbling people surrounding them both—the efficacy of the house's drugs was not to be sneezed at. So much for plans. So much for peace and quiet.
The baby was crying outside of her and all the while peppering her with questions: Where was her grandmother? Why was the world cold? Who were all these people? Why did her stomach ache? These cloths were constricting, rough!
Everything merged into the baby's wail. The Granny was trying to open her eyes to see the baby, her own girl. She struggled to stay awake, to stop the torrent of wives spinning around her, the incoherent pleased roar of the husband. But they'd all be there when she woke. She could escape many things; she couldn't escape her damn family.
The house listed possible new locations. Flashed images of its best angles in sunny climes, sailing the East Anglian sea. She ignored it.
She opened her eyes. The children, in full painted regalia, were at the end of her bed looking after the baby. The husband was there, too, cooing at the baby. The baby was ignoring the husband. The Granny could hear her discussing, underneath, memorable security systems with Malik.
If the Granny just didn't look at her family, maybe they'd ignore her? She checked the house schedule. Wasn't it one of the other wives' turn at embodiment by now?
The wives had been leaving her alone with the baby. It was nearing Lenkya's time to reach back into a body and they all wanted to be with her. It was a time of mixed feelings. They loved embodiment but they also enjoyed disembodiment—circuitry-situationalism, as named by Gray—slipping through the house seams, gliding out to ride the farmers, looking after the children.
The wives had seen her querying the house schedule. "We're not the mother, the new mother," they said. "We are lost here too. We would love to shepherd the children, the lovely children. But we cannot, cannot. The child, the baby, the little one demands your body, you. You."
She cursed at them. When had they gone Greek chorus? All she wanted was a soak and a back rub. Maybe more. Was she horny? Hadn't she just had a baby? Damn Malik's pheromones. She leant over, made to grab the husband's ass.
"Carpe gluteus maximus," she said. He didn't notice. She thought about Malik. What if she had spent her whole life on this island? She found it hard to imagine and realized she had no regrets for not doing it. She wasn't looking forward to the children digging through the mess of her present memories.
She could never know what might have been. She could still choose what would be. The husband was saying something and his tone was warmer, deeper. He was slow to warm up. His culture was all in his thin, slow-moving lips. Waiting for him to open his mouth was a venture into undertime every time. Malik, the other Rothesay boys, her Army and Navy friends had all been more open, more free. But they had always stayed behind and she had always gone on. She had survived the Stupidity and the Shortages, met the husband, his family, the house.
The Granny had always been careful in her dealings with Malik. She had always left everything exactly equal. He had been her unacknowledged failsafe and she knew he knew it. But she could never allow him to have any power over her house or family.
If the Granny left her mother here, Malik would not only own her: he'd also have a hold on the family. She couldn't do that. She had married into this house and family with no strings attached. She couldn't tie them to the Somalis, to the Free Island.
But here she was, eighty-three years old and still dealing with her mother. It wasn't what she wanted. She wanted to talk about baby names with the husband. She wanted to compare bone loss with her friends. She hadn't kept up with the obits—who knew who might be dead? Instead it was her mother, always her mother. Dead, but not taking it. Imagining reintegrating two-hundred-plus iterations gave the Granny a headache. Maybe it would keep her mother busy for a while.
The children were trying to pick up the baby and she knew they'd drop her. She told the house to take the kids away. The baby said, "Wait! I was enjoying that."
"Early lesson, kid," the Granny said. "Nothing lasts."
When she woke again, she wanted to get up. The Granny felt happier than she had been in a long time. Damn her hormones. Perhaps there was nothing for it but to okay her mother's return. After feeding the baby, the house opened a new door to the kitchen so that the Granny and the husband could sidestep the children.
The house provided the Granny's porridge in a rough bowl with a wooden spoon and she walked slowly as she ate: feeling unfamiliar pains; enjoying her buttery-peppery meal. She selectively muted her nose to cut out the smell of the husband's sugary, milky porridge.
The baby was quieter now that the wives had taken possession of the blankets and the crib, surrounding her and talking to her. She wanted a name now in a way she hadn't before being born. She liked the control she had of her body out here. The Granny wasn't going to force the baby to grow up as fast as she had had to. Neonatal augments were much improved since the Granny's childhood. There were still a few unpleasant ones that were best done straight away. The baby became less happy.
The husband visited but the Granny knew the baby still wouldn't speak to him. He left quickly. The Granny tried to remember if he had always been so swift to take umbrage. "What about my grandmother?" the baby asked. None of the wives said anything.
Malik was calling the Granny and she told the house not to let him through.
The Dead Mother was calling but the Granny was in bed, not answering. She had her worn and comfy woolen blankets tucked up around her and the baby. The baby was gurning away and the Granny was experimenting with a soft jolting rocking that calmed both of them. Iterations of her Dead Mother were calling, trying to re-up to the frozen body. Which was still in the basement, not yet transported to Malik's.
The house wanted to tell her something but the Granny knew she'd asked the house not to tell her whatever it was. The house could signal all it wanted. She wasn't listening.
"Sarah?" The Dead Mother whispered through the house.
The Granny heard a heavy arrhythmic hammering on the front door and had a presentiment that her life as a new mother was about to become even more complicated.
The house showed her what was waiting outside the front door. It was woman-shaped and the Granny got an impression of wetness, of solidity and fluidity Dopplering back and forth into one another. The Granny was entranced but unhappy as she watched one of the wives flow into and then open the door.
It walked in. It was a she and she was a selkie.
She was at least as tall as the Granny and here, in the middle of nowhere, she was dressed to kill. The Passive Wave Imager scans showed the selkie's land-musculature meant she could follow through on her red dress's promises. The wives were leading the selkie into the house, shaking umbrellas, toggling switches, riffling papers, leading her into the front room which the house was quickly redoing in hard, waterproofed, sea-colored chairs.
The house wanted to update the Granny's blood to counter conjectured infections from the selkie. The Granny shooed away the needles and sprays. She asked the wives to look after the baby and pulled a midnight blue suit and a pair of black flats from the closet. The chimera wasn't the only one who could dress up.
The Granny should have been suspicious a month ago when her mother helped the selkie. Her mother wasn't known for her selflessness.
As she dressed, the Granny watched the selkie. She was fascinated by the selkie's large, strong-looking teeth. There was more space between them than in a human woman's mouth.
The selkie ignored the chairs in the front room. She stood at the window looking out at the sea. She appeared used to waiting.
The Granny put on a bracelet, picked up the baby, and sent a message to the husband telling him to meet her in the front room.
She didn't wait for his reply. As soon as she entered the front room the selkie spoke.
"I want my body."
It was the wrong rhythms, but it was the Dead Mother's voice. The Granny sat, too startled to introduce herself to something that obviously already knew her, too mesmerized to attempt politeness. She'd seen film of selkies in the water. In her heads-up display she overlaid images of a selkie's water body onto the one standing in front of her. She wanted to see how the change worked but there were no images publicly available. She felt as if cold lights were sparking in her throat. She was allergic to the thing. The house reminded her of the blood update and she okayed it. A needle popped out of her chair into the underside of her arm. "Ach!" she said. With the baby around she was trying not to swear.
"Burial means nothing," the selkie said.
The Granny told herself this wasn't her mother. Her mother had just dropped an iteration of herself into the selkie with a compulsion to come after the Granny if her mother didn't send a regular update. The Granny thought about how the selkie had gotten to Bute. The land in between. The water.
There was a peremptory knock and the husband came in. He looked flustered.
"I am wanting my body," the selkie said to the Granny, showing her well-developed canines.
"Pleased to . . . " the husband said, and put out his hand. The selkie looked at his hand, turned back to the Granny.
"Well," he said. He sat on the arm of the Granny's wingbacked chair and she slipped her arm around his waist.
She leant in and smelt the hot soup of sweat on him. She loved him: it reminded her that she didn't love very many people. What this baby was doing to her. She'd be asking the house for pink walls and doilies under the tea cups next.
"Look. I am your mother," the selkie said.
"I—" the husband started. He slipped a hand around behind his back and wrapped it around the Granny's thumb. He was very uncomfortable. In his professional life he'd managed to avoid the chimerist work groups, preferring to concentrate on the never-ending interactions between gengineered crops and the human body.
The selkie ignored him; watched the Granny.
"If truth be told," the Granny said, "she drove me crazy. But I suppose I'd rather be driven crazy or be not talking to her than missing her." Did she really miss her mother? The house was still trying to tell her something and she could feel the baby trying to get into her head. Now that she'd been born, the baby found it harder to communicate.
The Granny found herself studying the selkie's huge knuckles.
The house showed the Granny a house schematic as it squeezed the children's playroom smaller and smaller until they ran out screaming. It generated noise that cancelled out their wailing protests as it shepherded them up the stairs and into the front room. When they tumbled in, the house immediately trapped them in bright, puffy seats it popped up from the floor.
The selkie looked at the children. They froze.
Then the house produced tea, lemonade, Battenburg and sultana cakes, shortbread, ginger snaps, Arbroath smokies. The selkie took the cakes and scones, passed them on. Kept the fish.
"Dear," she said to the husband. "It's your house. I suppose you should decide."
"That's very kind." But he thought she was talking about the cakes and took the last piece of shortbread from the tray. "Just like my mother's, you know," he muttered. She doubted the house could replicate anything that bland.
The Granny's mother had always been distant, but everything she'd done could be interpreted as kindness. The selkie was a different beast. Her shoulders were broad; the hard winter fat made her sleek in her dress.
She had finished the smokies.
"I am she and not the dead," the selkie said. She pointed her big forefinger at the husband.
"He is the dead."
The world emptied out for the Granny and then rushed back in: this is what the house and the baby had been telling her and trying to tell her and she had been refusing to know.
She remembered waking this morning with the baby near and the wives cooing from the wallpaper. The construct was in the bed next to her as it had been for weeks. A construct she had asked the house to make. And she had asked the house to alter her perceptions until she could feel it beside her and not know it for what it was. It had been real enough to argue with her, drive her crazy the way he used to, and to spend the night in his office if need be. All the wives were grieving but she had been so angry.
"A sister of my other sister's sister I would not trust told of eating his bones," the selkie said. "I did not eat. I did not see."
He had left a long and heartfelt message. He was old, felt alone, could no longer see his place in the world. He had spent a long afternoon searching out and erasing his backups. He was tired.
"I knew when he came into the water. He was a god apart from the gods who made us. But we sisters knew him. We would not eat of him."
The Dead Mother rose up within the selkie, spoke again, "We are widows in the world. Sarah, Sarah, Sarah."
Outside of her, the baby was crying. The baby: another orphan.
The Granny accessed the house's backup circuitry, set apart from the house's mind, and sent a message to Malik. She wanted out, wanted escape, wanted a car—but only for her, not the baby. Malik had been expecting her call. He had known, too. He asked her again to bring her baby but she would not. They came to an understanding and later there would be contracts; later, codicils.
The Granny opened her memories and remembered her insanity when she found he was gone. The wives, the baby, the house, even her mother were grief-stricken. The Granny had ignored them. Before his body was located, when the house could only say that his vital signs had ceased, she had shone a DNA stick over every surface in the house looking for something, anything, she could use to build a new husband.
The husband had walked, simply walked, pockets full of stones, into the ever-rising sea. He had collected rocks and pebbles for as long as she'd known him. There were bowls of them in every room. He wouldn't let the house move until the farmers had gathered every rock he had marked for collection. She cursed the chips of slate, quartz, granite, soft sandstone, obsidian, basalt, andesite porphyry, foliated granite gneiss, biotite schist. She cursed the memories that persisted and the house sneaked a tranquilizer needle out of her chair. She pushed herself away from it and forced the house to bend to her will.
"Damn you," she said to the selkie, to the Dear Dead Mother.
The wives had gone into the crib the house had made for the baby, had wrapped her in the Granny's cape, were rocking her. "Never alone," they said to her. "One of us," one said. "Unnameable one," they whispered.
The house walked the simulacrum of the husband out of the room. The wives tried to show the Granny the funeral she had missed, but she ignored it. The selkie remained quiet.
"Open the box," the Granny told the house. "Let them do whatever the blue hell they want with my mother's body. Lenkya's in charge now."
She left the room, leaving her new baby (so easy to do: she was her mother's daughter) and her sister-wives, but the children appeared beside her.
"Ariadne, Perce, Ignored Girl. Poor little mice. Trapped here with no mothers and no one but the house to care. Lenkya will take better care of you. I shall miss you, little hellions."
"Granny, we want to go with you!" said Perce, and he was knuckling tears from his eyes. The Granny could see Ariadne twisting the skin above his elbow, making him cry.
"A," she warned. "Come on then, the three of you."
She led them to the kitchen and told them she would teach them how to make toffee. The smell of burning sugar brought back memories of her own grandmother. Her grandfather had died in the Shortages.
She sent the littlest part of herself to the Hague (she didn't want to miss a second of the baking) to wrap up what she could, to resign, and to recommend they hire someone from her own house to replace her. She would be on the fence at the best in Malik's house, maybe even on the other side.
She felt rich and foolish taking time to make this dessert. The house flipped the replicator on and she nudged it off. She knew the children would enjoy the house's toffee just as much as hers. But this was not about the physical making. This was memories and the future and the children looking at her and their own glassed memories and all of them remembering that the last time they saw the Granny, they had made toffee.
The house showed her an old Alfa Romeo floating outside the front door and Malik stepping out. The Granny was touched he'd come himself. Her ugly dog leapt out after him.
The children, faces smeared with toffee, hardly noticed her leaving. She whispered a good-bye message to the baby and told the house to deliver it later. She promised that her mother, the baby's Grandmother, would be a better mother than she, the Missing Mother, could ever have been.
The house opened the front door and she let herself out. She spat out the house's access keys, dropped them through the letterbox. Patted the door as she closed it. She'd miss her old house. She walked toward Malik but had to look back. The selkie was watching her from a window.
The baby was frantically sending her questions but the Granny forwarded them to the selkie. Her mother would be revivified by the day's end and would see that the Granny had broken. She would bring up the baby and take on the house. Once her mother was sure Malik was satisfied with the deal, she might bring the house back to the island.
Lenkya sent a good-bye note with attachments from the house and wives as well as a copy of her original house contract with the appropriate clause highlighted that showed the Granny now had no rights to access the house or its inhabitants. The Granny was reading it and getting into Malik's car when the house drew in its anchors and took off.
The Granny gave Malik a piece of toffee as he drove back to his estate. The toffee was good. Later, memory would say it had been the best the children had ever had.