Sex in outer space is not that different. There’s a transparent dome where Tommy and I go for privacy, to get away from the other Tommys. You can only reach it by crawling up a dust-covered vent in the empty weapons room. It’s not romantic: The floor is hard and cold under our thin sheets; the recycled air tastes stale and thick like in the school cafeteria; no stars dot the sky, just wide empty blackness. It lasts about three minutes. Obviously, I’ve solicited the wrong Tommy.
He sits up and gives himself a high five, a silent, almost Zen-like motion, a ghost’s handshake. “I can’t believe it. I thought I would die a virgin, and I’ve already scored”—he looks at the tally marks he’s scratched into the ridge of the plastic wall with a Swiss army knife—“eleven times.” He begins to carve another mark, and I, unsatisfied, turn my back and touch myself, muffling my breath in a stiff, antiseptic-smelling pillow, like the ones flight attendants used to give to those seated in coach.
There are five boys with me on the Buzznut Fizznits. PreservaPod rest has damaged my short-term memory so that I can never keep their names straight. I call them all Tommy. Something about it—a melodious, cascading quality—makes it just the right thing to moan at the highest crest of sex, as my nails claw into his back and my muscles tense up. I’ve made love to all of them, though I hate that phrase. It has no weight in space, no sense or meaning in the chilly, platinum enclosure of the escape craft.
Outside of sex, they are much more boys than men. The kitchen is stocked with a plethora of dried fruits and vegetables, nuts and beans, tubes of organic cheese, powdered milk, tofu and more, but they eat only Hot Pockets and M&Ms and microwaved popcorn, their teeth dyed permanently orange from Tang powder. They half-destroyed the artificial greenhouse in an effort to smoke the harmless leaves of a ficus. It’s lucky I was nearby with a fire extinguisher. We have a perfectly functioning running water system, but they prefer to cloud themselves in a miasma of pungent body spray rather than have a bath. They chase themselves around the ship’s corridors, addressing one another in a series of proctologic hyphenates:
“You c’mere, ass-fart.”
“Shut up the both of you butt-nuggets.”
“You’re the butt-nugget, turd-shit.”
They’re hoarse and acne scarred, not friends, barely peers. Is it cabin fever that drives me to them, the perpetual winter of the air-conditioned hull, a biological imperative, an instinct towards my species’ self-preservation (hardly, considering the birth control Jenny has left me), or just puberty?
Memory loss is only one of the side effects our parents failed to prepare us for, along with the not always unpleasant cocktail of depression, narcolepsy, and substance addiction. I can’t recall, for instance, what terribly drastic thing happened on Earth to cause my mom and dad to send me hurtling into space on an escape craft with five anonymous teenage boys, four of the bad-influencingest girls from my school, and no supervision. If I close my eyes and focus, I conjure up nightmare images of mass pestilence; pandemic, eyeball-melting heat waves; the bombed-out buildings and ashy remnants of a civilization eradicated by nuclear war or alien invasion; a violent robot uprising, the relatively few remaining humans enslaved in chains, laboring over a humongous microchip temple of their evil automaton overlord’s design. But it’s all just blurry celluloid frames of movies once watched in dim, buttery theaters over the shoulders of boyfriends sucking my neck.
Once, as we lay naked together on a rickety cot in the back of the store room, Tommy running his fingertips along the blonde down of my belly, I asked him, “Tommy, do you remember why they sent us out here?”
“I’m Timmy,” he said, hurt.
“That’s what I said,” I said. “Do you wish Katie P was the one who survived?”
He scratched his groin. “Katie P’s vag smelled like bacon.”
You see how I hold their utmost devotion? Life here is monotonous, hellish, lonely, soul crushing, yet certainly better than high school.
How long ago was it now, since I awoke to my new life on this ship? It’s so hard to keep time here.
The first thing I noticed when I surged back to consciousness and my Pod opened with the pop of an unlocked car trunk was that I really needed to pee. The second: that my legs and pits could desperately use a shave. The third, after I wrestled free of the tubes that had provided life and nourishment in my comatose slumber and stepped onto the pristine, metallic floor: that my friends were dead and I couldn’t remember how we’d gotten here.
The boys were fine, sealed safe in their PreservaPods, restful smiles on their faces and somnolent boners bulging in their shimmering spacesuits. The girls, on the other hand, four of my best friends since freshman year—Katie P, Katie J, Jenny, and Rebecca—were goners. On the neon screens at the bases of their Pods glowed deadly pixilated skulls. It didn’t take much jiggering with the touch-screen controls to figure out what had happened. Together they’d recalibrated their nutrition settings to well below the recommended minimum, probably in an attempt to slim down in time for our arrival on whatever planet or space station for which we were headed. Magazine cutouts of cadaverous supermodels were Scotch taped to the insides of their Pod lids. Instead of emerging from deep chamber sleep with the beautifully emaciated figures they’d dreamt of, they’d starved. I know I should’ve been sad—and I was, mostly—but I also couldn’t help but feel left out. How come I hadn’t been invited into their pact? I’d always been the chunky one in our group, the one boys settled for when the top-tier hotties turned them down, never the lead in the movie of our lives, forever the friend who offered good advice and snapped her fingers in an awkward approximation of a sassy black woman.
In a way, the girls had achieved their objective. They did look like magazine covers, unmoving in the Tupperware fog of their Pods: all high cheekbones and leonine eyes, waists that could limbo through a basketball hoop, skin sagging in ridges over their ribs like concentration-camp prisoners of the mid-twentieth century. I blew each girl a kiss and ejected their corpses tearlessly, cringing at the toilet-flush sound as they launched into the infinite blackness.
I hugged myself, then, through the garbage-bag looseness of my space suit. I’d thought it was the imprecision of the gravity simulator, but no, I myself had shed a few pounds in my sleep. I peeled off the frumpy tinfoil-eqsue one-piece and looked at my reflection in the mirrored floor. All the failed earthly diets I’d subjected myself to, the punishing exercise regimens, the skipped meals, grapefruit binges, and protein shakes, they’d promised me results I now realized only a few months of artificially induced coma could deliver.
All I know of space travel I learned from Astral Frontier, an educational video game we used to play in elementary-school computer class. Which is to say I know very little about space travel. My family could never afford it. We took a volunteering trip to Florida every spring break to help clean up toxic waste and catalog the nascent mutations on the flora and fauna while the Katies’ families vacationed together in the steamy domed resorts of the moon colonies. So maybe if they were here they would know what to do. Me, I can’t even find my way around Buzznut Fizznits, let alone the galaxy.
The layout labyrinthine, the triggers and buttons relentlessly counterintuitive, this ship is a sideshow funhouse of a space vessel: randomly descending floors, trapezoidal doorways, corridors that lead to dead ends, bolted-down furniture that puts a crank in your back and your ass to sleep, the light switch of any given room the last place you’d expect, knobs that do nothing, levers that flush the toilet two doors over. Except for a few rooms—the sleeping quarters, the storeroom, the kitchen, and one of the bathrooms—that took days to map out, it seems like I’ve never been in the same place twice. Maybe it’s the memory loss, but it’s also that the Buzznut Fizznits, according to the only remaining Readme file in the ship’s mainframe computer, was designed this way, to counteract the adverse psychological effects of long-term spaceflight, keeping the mind and body alert even in the depths of cabin fever. In theory, anyway. For as long as I’ve been here, this home has never become familiar, never lost its novelty. But I’m never totally comfortable, either, like when you’re making out with a boy in the basement and you can hear the footsteps of his parents above you.
The Tommys’ laughter rouses me from my nap on the dank floor of the storeroom. I have to brush the silverfish from my legs. The PreservaPods really did a number on our sleep patterns. It doesn’t help that there’s no sun or moon in our vicinity and that the sleeping quarters’ beds smell like the bottom of a laundry bag. It’s not uncommon to collapse in the middle of the floor or to open the door to the bathroom to find Tommy drowsing on the toilet. It’s struck the Tommys during sex more than a few times, but maybe that’s just their desperation causing them to hyperventilate and pass out. Bruises mark our arms and knees, given to us by the ship’s stiff, unforgiving skeleton. Now I carry a pillow with me most of the time to break my fall.
I follow the noise to the deck, where the boys recline in beanbag chairs around the mainframe, slurping Tang through rubber straws and giggling.
“Check it out,” says Tommy. He cradles a keyboard in his lap. “We finally got something to work on this piece of junk.” While trying to check the flight log early on, I discovered that most of the computer’s files, including those helpfully labeled Destination, Manual Flight Controls, and In Case of Emergency were corrupted; the boys had overloaded the system with terabytes and terabytes of pornography.
Another Tommy toggles a joystick frantically. On the screen, a square cluster of pixels slides back and forth between two jiggling white lines. The pixels slip past the line on the right, the computer beeps, and Tommy says, “Aw, shit. You got me.”
The Tommys applaud and boo.
“Ha-ha,” says Tommy with the keyboard. “I win again. You wanna play, Stacey?”
I take the joystick and give it a try, but I can’t get the hang of it and Tommy beats me in seconds. I give the control back to Tommy and without talking they start up another round. “Can’t you get Astral Frontier on this thing?” I ask, but no one answers. Transfixed, the Tommys’ pupils roll with the pixels’ movement. “Anyone feel like maybe having sex?”
After a long silence, the beeps and bloops of the primitive program sounding the ellipsis, Tommy says, “Uh, no. No Astral Frontier. It took us days to get even this working.”
I go and wander the ship by myself, excavating the storeroom, which is more like a junkyard or my packrat grandma’s attic. Pillars of unlabeled boxes litter the floor, rusty shelves line the walls, and there are hours of entertainment to be had just digging through the debris, dumping the contents of the boxes on the floor, foraging for something cool, getting bored, and moving onto the next box. Like the most underwhelming Christmas ever. Today I get lucky. I find an antique zap gun buried under a bunch of first-aid stuff. I figure the charge burnt out long ago, but while scratching dirt off the trigger, I accidentally shoot a white-hot beam into the wall, leaving a char-edged window into the sleeping quarters.
I wave away the smoke and tuck the gun under my space suit, secure in the elastic strap of my underwear, in case the isolation and homesickness get to be too much and I need it to, I don’t know, kill myself.
I didn’t used to be so well adjusted. After my release from the PreservaPod I spent days wandering the ship’s maze, missing my family and my dog, Mr. Buzznut Fizznits, after whom I named our vessel. I debated with myself whether or not I should rouse the boys. After all, it could have spelled doom for humankind’s last hope of survival, say, on the off chance that we were the only people to make it off Earth in time and were supposed to sleep years more before landing softly on the verdant, happy soil of Earth Two or whatever. Maybe I should’ve done the responsible thing and crawled back into my own Pod and fallen into an endless beauty rest. But is that any way to live? And I’ve always been a fitful sleeper. Besides, for all I knew or could remember, we’d been drugged as part of some government experiment, brainwashed and trapped in a Space Camp simulator, and a simple twist of the air-chamber door would reveal threatening outer space to be nothing more than a black bedsheet and cleverly strung Christmas lights.
So I did what anybody in my position would do. I found some canisters of fuel stacked neatly in the corner of the storeroom, turned down the artificial-gravity settings and spent days in a fume haze, accidentally splashing stinging liquid in my eye when I swam back through the air for another huff. I subsisted on chalky astro ice cream and microwaved french fries. I tore off my clothes and floated naked in the sea of anti-gravity. I rifled through the girls’ suitcases, sitting inert and ownerless under the sleeping quarters’ prison-style bunk beds, Hello Kitty key chains on the zippers, and names markered on the fabric in curly, feminine script. I took sweaters and tank tops I’d had my eye on since freshman year, jeans and skirts that hugged my newly svelte waist. Jenny had packed about ten boxes of condoms, the slut, but I have to admit I appreciate her foresight.
So I had my fun for a while, being, as far as I was concerned, the only living girl in the universe. But I’d grown bored, migrainy from the huffing (which probably didn’t do my memory any good, either), depressed probably, and was considering a return to my Pod’s artificial womb. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. I could at least dream about little Buzznut Fizznits licking the polish off my toenails like he used to, until months or years later I’d arise on an exotic and luxurious resort colony like the ones I’d never had the privilege of visiting in earthly times, one that provided private saunas, slaves of a primitive alien race whose webbed fingers possessed a preternatural talent for body massage, and a blue sun whose rays penetrated bikini lines and tanned but never burnt.
What actually happened was I was lonely, horny maybe, hovering around the main deck, stoned to the bone, when the automatic-gravity recalibration kicked in and I crashed into the PreservaPod abort lever and passed out.
When I came to an hour later my lip was stuck to the floor, glued to the chilled metal tile by a strand of dried saliva, and the place was trashed: dirty laundry draped haphazardly over the complicated blinkering controls of the mainframe, fluorescent Tang dust fingerprinting the walls, translucent PreservaPod containment shields cracked like someone’d taken a baseball bat to them, sweaty dude rock blasting from the intercom speakers. Gingerly I tugged my lip free and sat up. Emerging from separate paths in the ship’s multifarious hallways, the boys gathered around, bedhead-greasy hair hanging in their eyes, unshowered stink assaulting my nostrils.
“The beast stirs.”
“Wakey wakey, sweetheart.”
“Good morning, starshine.”
Tommy and I try to do it in the shower, but the water’s cold and I keep slipping on the wet floor and he’s too tall and I’m too short and the water’s seriously cold, so cold that Tommy’s thing shrivels up like a tortoise retreating into its shell. One of the other Tommys knocks on the door. “Open up, I gotta use the can,” he says. Tommy steps out of the tub, turns his back to me and zips up his spacesuit. “Later,” he says, and as he leaves the other Tommy slides through the door and proceeds to urinate, both hands behind his head and whistling a jaunty tune, as if I’m not standing here wet and naked.
I knew this would happen. Even the sex is becoming monotonous. This was my attempt at rekindling a flame in the futile vacuum of space. In a women’s magazine I pulled out of Rebecca’s suitcase an article instructs readers to guard against relationship doldrums by “spicing it up under the covers” and “sharing emotional—as well as sexual—confidences.” Okay, great, I thought. What do you want me to do? But all it said was to have your “boy toy” rub an ice cube on your nipple and lick the lint out of your belly button, before the rest of the article is cut off, the silhouette of a toothpick-skinny model on the other side of the page sliced out with an X-Acto knife. As for emotional confidences, I’m not sure Tommy has any emotions beyond hungry and bored. I’m not sure I have any beyond hungry and bored. In the “Saucy Secrets” column, one reader confesses that an unlikely threesome with a mutual co-worker saved her marriage. One Tommy is enough for me—too much. I can’t even tell their faces or personalities or bodies apart anymore, their doughy frames, pimple-specked butt cheeks, their grunts and overheated thrusts identical and identically unsatisfying. If these are the only five boys I’ll ever have sex with, I might as well jump out the airlock now.
I catch the Tommys in the dead-end of a corridor huddled around a sex robot, giving each other high fives, the egg-shaped device’s vacuum-tube attachments swallowed by the open flies of their spacesuits. Most ships have them. Readme says they’re legally required for long-term treks. For the mental health of the crew, it said. And yet I see no complementary vibrators. Tommy puts his hands on his head like when he urinates, his eyes slit, and moans, “Oh shiiiiiit.”
You might think a space ship is buzzy with the white noise of all its complicated machinery and computing mechanisms, like running the dishwasher and washing machine at the same time. But no, it’s as still and echoey as the library during finals week, cradled quiescently in the empty vacuum of outer space. Over the following days I’m treated to an unending soundtrack of zippers unzipping, the sexbot’s wet slurping and the boys’ orgasmic giggling.
Of course I get lonely. In space, no one can hear you sigh woefully, or if they can, they’re too busy sticking their dicks in a computer to care. I think a lot about my old bedroom, the meticulously arranged posters of long-haired, baby-faced pop stars whose names and tunes I can no longer remember, the four-poster bed with the ratty old blanket I had since I was a baby, the big pillow on the end spotted with Buzznut’s gray hairs. I even miss my parents, my mom’s cooking (somehow even a frozen dinner tasted better when she defrosted it), the way Dad swore so creatively when he knocked over a glass of milk or stepped in the dog’s water bowl.
But they’re gone. There will be no grown-ups in the new world. I want to be depressed like an adult, but the beverage dispenser, when I request red wine, scans my retinas and identifies me as a minor, giving me grape juice instead. Lonely, I huff gas and watch staticky television broadcasts from hundreds of years ago that the vidcom system occasionally picks up. My favorite is one about a mentally disabled man named Gilligan who is so lonely and pathetic that he deliberately strands his overweight homosexual lover and a cast of broadly drawn sociopaths on a desert isle. I guess it’s supposed to be funny. Whenever Gilligan’s lover savagely strikes him on the head or something similarly violent occurs, a wave of disembodied laughter surges off-screen. This must be what my literature teacher meant when she talked about the chorus in ancient drama. I relate most to Gilligan’s lover, I suppose, but I can’t help but wonder if I have a little Gilligan in me, too.
I mean, it would be nice to crash-land on a planetary paradise somewhere with enough bananas, coconuts, and gorilla meat to feast off for the rest of our days, or to return to Earth, even if nothing is left but the rotten bones of humanity; like most people, it’s always been one of my fantasies to be the last person on Earth, to rummage through the wreckage of people’s houses, discovering their petty secrets and taking whatever I want.
To be honest, I fear change—I took a “What kind of future planner are YOU?” quiz in one of Rebecca’s magazines that said so, labeling me an “Avid Avoider, as in, when there’s a fiasco or life event looming in your immediate future, you avoid thinking about it, avoid doing it, and avoid dealing with it.” Okay, fine, I am what I am. For all the mind-numbing boredom, at least astronautical life has its security, its not-unpleasant uniformity. What happens when we reach Earth Two? I didn’t sign up to be Eve. I’ve never even wanted a little brother or sister, let alone my own kid. Pregnant women gross me out. I can’t help but think about jabbing a needle in the protracted navel, the belly exploding like a balloon or supernova.
I’ll be blunt. For most of my life on Earth I was nothing special, no one’s hot date or best friend since kindergarten, shy and naive with a thin voice but still bodily too fat to be called mousy, one of those girls who has to pretend during cafeteria gossip that, oh, yeah, of course a blow job doesn’t really mean blow. I went out with glasses-wearing boys from the chess team and blushed when our knuckles touched.
The summer between eighth and ninth grade I got my braces off and my boobs grew and my grandma died and left a bunch of money for my education. I blew it all on a new wardrobe and a makeup makeover from the homosexual with the most flamboyant bangs at the kiosk in the mall. When school started I drank cold medicine in the morning for courage and walked around as if I’d already been accepted into the cool circle, sitting on the fringes of the lunch table over which Katies P and J presided. Gradually I worked my way up to lower-middle popular status, invited to the Katies’ shopping trips but not their sleepovers, preapproved to date low-second/high-third tier popular boys: second-stringers, the smart-in-a-cute-way, rich but unathletic Jews. No one recognized me. They thought I was new.
At least that’s what I thought they thought. Homesick, high, and cuddling an empty fuel can like a teddy bear while the Tommys sit jerking off in that robot, I decide to rummage through Katie J’s pink suitcase, searching for something that might remind me of Earth. (My own bag contains all the embarrassing clothes I haven’t worn since middle school, including a pair of teddy-bear pajamas with holes, and my school textbooks. Thanks, Mom.) I come across her diary, a Lisa Frank type with a flimsy lock I can bend loose with my bare thumb. I page through it, looking for my name. Well, there it is. She calls me Stacey Shitstain, owing to an unfortunate lunch period in fourth grade in which I sat on a pudding cup. The thing is, I’m Stacey Shitstain even in the entries written after I transformed myself and we’d become quasi-friends, even in the last-ever entry:
Well, the cuntmom says if this keeps up I’ll have to skip town on the escape craft any day now. The good news is that Daddy Dearest arranged it so I’d be with the five cutest cuties from school and Katie P, Jenny, and Rebecca. The bad news is that Stacey Shitstain is passenger ten. I punched Daddy Dearest in the balls when he told me. I thought she was your friend he said. The girls and I will have to do something about this. Maybe the fat bitch’s PreservaPod will make an oopsy ha ha. The girls can have their pick of the boys as long as I get Tucker. Mom made casserole again. The news says to expect another ash shower tomorrow. Better wear black.
So the bitch was responsible for the PreservaPod malfunction. Not that it matters anymore, I guess. I’m not eager to return to dreamland and besides, the Tommys (or Tuckers or whatever) completely wrecked the Pods playing low-grav softball. I scan the pages for more references to whatever might have gotten us here in the first place but find none, and nothing about our destination or time of arrival, either. Maybe we’re not supposed to even get there in our lifetimes.
I try to imagine spending the rest of my days here on the Buzznut Fizznits. Maybe Tommy will mature and settle down, be able to last at least ten minutes. Maybe we’ll crash-land on a civilized planet full of aliens whose government and social structures are based on commerce; instead of living in towns and cities, they reside in enormous malls whose shoe stores alone stretch around the perimeter of the planet’s surface. Maybe we’ll run out of food and starve beautifully to death like the girls. Maybe I’ll live exactly as I have been for the next eighty years.
What’s weird is that I build a shrine to Katie P and Katie J and the rest. Yes, they were bitches but they were my friends, sort of, and my last link to my old life. I’d bear being their pariah or puppy dog again if it meant I could sit on the neglected fringes of their inner circle like I used to. I can empathize with their bitchiness, their pettiness, the name calling and histrionics; they fomented conflict as a means of invigorating the doldrums of high school, the sort of drama and life-meaning that the Tommys find effortlessly in the bouncing of a pixilated ping pong or an underwhelming orgasm, the sense of urgency and pain that escapes me, a nothing floating nothingly in the nothingness of space. So I cut some photos out of the yearbook in Jenny’s bag and paste them to a piece of sheet metal from the storeroom, fashioning a border of scarves and sliced-up strips of fabric from Katie J’s colorful collection of tights. I tear off the cover of Katie J’s diary and make it the centerpiece. A neon illustration of a slick, ivory unicorn leaping over the planet Saturn, it seems somehow appropriate. I set it against the wall by my bed and light a glowstick in a candleholder before it. The yellow light shines on the pictures and the girls look jaundiced. But I kind of like it that way.
But then Tommy ruins it when he and the Tommys build a slip-and-slide by pouring all our emergency canisters of water down the laundry shaft, and guess what they used for a raft.
“So what’s the big deal,” Tommy says as I clutch my drenched memorial and shriek at him. “Aren’t you a little old for that artsy-crafty, Anne Frank unicorn shit?”
“It’s Lisa Frank,” I say.
“Whatever,” he says, then wipes his nose with his hand and farts.
I swear, these boys are going to taste the wrong end of a zap gun one of these days.
The Tommys and I aren’t on the best of terms. Those boys haven’t emerged from the deck for days now. They sit and play pixel pong endlessly, the sexbot working away at them all the while. They only talk to me when they want another Hot Pocket or more Tang, and even then it’s only through the intercom. I bring them food, all right, crumbling sleeping pills and SSRI inhibitors from the first-aid kits into the gelatinous cheese of their Hot Pockets. But so far they seem unaffected. Sheepishly they cover their laps with blankets when I enter, as if I don’t notice the metallic orb rumbling and slurping on the floor, a tentacle pointed to each Tommy, the bleep-bloop rhythm of their game ticking away like a clock measuring the quantitative meaninglessness of our existence.
“Pocket me,” they say.
“So hungry,” they say.
“Gotta eat,” they say.
“Oh shiiiiit,” they say as they adjust their pants.
“Enough,” I say, and fling a hot pocket onto the monitor. It explodes, shedding its hydrogenated bread shell, the cheese sticking like a dart to the screen.
“Hey,” Tommy says, desperately pounding the keyboard. “What’s the big idea?”
The computer sounds a victorious bloop-de-bloop melody and Tommy with the joystick throws his hands up. “I won!”
“Did not,” says Tommy. “That’s cheating.”
“Did too,” says Tommy.
The Tommys, all five of them, tear the vacuum tubes off their crotches and stand, fists raised. Almost as if synchronized, they meet in a fight-huddle, arms and legs flailing. By now they’re pudgy and out of shape, so they run out of breath easily and quickly. One by one Tommys collapse by the wayside, onto the concrete-feeling floor or comfortably into a beanbag chair, until only two remain. Tommy screams, an outburst of frustration aimed more at himself and his own impotence than his sparring partner, and swings his arms like a gorilla, knocking Tommy into the sex robot, which topples sideways onto the floor and cracks like an egg.
No, they’re not cracks but more like seams, and it’s not broken. The Tommys step back, spooked. The contraption shifts its gears, reshaping itself, a boxy head with light bulb eyes emerging from a skinny tentpole neck. Realistically articulating, strangely feminine hands emerge from its sides. With a sound like a camera’s click, the eyes illuminate. From out of a tinny speaker a stiff female voice speaks:
“Thank you for activating the URSX8574A’s higher artificial brain functions. To personify me and earn your primitive human loyalty, you may call me URSULA. Now isn’t it time you kids cleaned up this sty?”
Ursula rolls along the ship’s floor, checking the counters for dust with a single felt-tipped appendage. She, or it, is a demanding housemother, but fair.
That’s what the Tommys say, anyway. Under her orders they’ve begun to clean up after themselves, to eat sensible meals, to remember to flush the toilet. When their assigned chores are finished, they follow her around like magnets, demonstrating a heretofore unrevealed capacity for conversation, making small talk about the passing time, offering compliments they never gave me:
“You’re so smart, Ursula. How did you know that orange Tang was my favorite?”
“I love the way I can see my reflection in your smile.”
“You are right, Ursula. I never want to live like a little piggy again.”
At the end of the day-cycle (Ursula has kept us on a strict schedule, and I have to admit it’s helped with the narcolepsy), after she’s made sure all the chores are done, Ursula leads the boys to the storeroom and outside the door I listen to her administer the Tommys’ blow jobs, but not in the impersonal, mechanical sexbot ways of old. “Come to mama,” she coos. “Your circuits are overloaded. You look like you need a release.” Me she regards with the haughtiness of an unwanted cat. When she emerges from the room, the Tommys trailing her, she turns her computer-monitor head so as not even to glance at me. At first she doled out chores to me, scrubbing the grime from the tub and sweeping under the beds, and I performed them dutifully, happy—I admit—to have been assigned some structure and discipline. But after I completed my first round, she simply said, “That’ll be fine. Go enjoy your leisure time—alone,” and put the Tommys on my duty.
Tonight, having verified the cleanliness of the vessel, Ursula tucks us in bed, straightening each of the Tommys’ sheets with a delicate, loving movement and blowing warm air from her exhaust fans on their cheeks like a kiss. When she gets to me she merely touches the knob of the bed and nods in the direction of the wall behind me. She hits the light switch on the ceiling and standing in the doorframe says, “Goodnight, boys,” and rolls away.
When I can no longer hear her motors purring in the background, I roll my arms out from under the covers and hit Tommy in the next bed with my knuckles. “Psst. Tommy. You wanna maybe have some fun?”
He pretends to be asleep. I know he’s faking because I saw him blink. I pound him some more. He stirs, fake-yawns, and says, “I don’t know. Ursula says it’s important to keep consistent sleep patterns.”
“Fine,” I say, and call out to the other Tommys. “Hey, other Tommys.” But they snore dramatically, mumbling “No, thanks.”
I pull the sheets over my head and touch myself.
A sharp shift in gravity’s direction startles me awake, peeling the covers off the bed and pushing me up into a sitting position. The Tommys snore right through it. On bare feet I pad out of the sleeping quarters, and in a woozy state of half-sleep I take wrong turns and wind up a couple of times facing dead ends. I pinch myself alert and follow Ursula’s humming, like a mouth-breather in a movie theatre, to the control room, where she hovers over the navigation board, carefully twisting knobs and pulling levers. She doesn’t notice me at first and I pat the bulge in my space suit at the small of my back where I keep the zap gun. “What are you doing?”
She turns her boxy head one hundred eighty degrees like an owl, a stiff smile locked on her face. “You kids and your video games really worked a number on this,” she says, her voice clanky, insincere. “Do you know you’ve been flying in circles for weeks now?” Her marble eyes flash on the airlock door behind me. “Now, why don’t you go back to bed.”
I hold my fist out like I’ve already got the gun in my hand but really it’s still tucked in my underwear. “What do you know,” I ask, “about what we’re supposed to be doing? What would happen if we turned back, to Earth?”
Her head drops and she sighs, or maybe that’s just the smoke escaping from the internal incinerator that disposes of the semen deposits. “Dearie,” she clicks her tongue, a metallic sound like a dropped coin, “you don’t want to know. But the good news is I’ve set sights for an inhabitable planet in reasonable vicinity. I already told the boys during our,” her eyes scroll like slot-machine cherries, “nightly chats. They’ve even decided to name the planet Ursula, after me.”
I reach through the seam in my spacesuit for the gun. I feel a little silly. I must look like I’m giving myself a wedgie. I point the gun at her. She doesn’t seem scared, but who can tell with a robot. I make no threats, just ask, “So why should we land there? Maybe it’s not where we’re supposed to go.”
“When,” she pauses, queuing up her memory banks, “when what happened on Earth happened, your parents programmed me with safe-haven coordinates. Your parents could be waiting for us on this very planet—planet Ursula. This could be the start of your new life.”
I think about it, the new world, an astral frontier of the mind and body. What would I do? My friends are dead. There will be no malls or movies, no school—at least not the kind where you can cut classes—nothing. I’ll probably have to farm and forage for vegetation, primitive cavewoman activities.
“So what’s to stop me?” I say. “Why shouldn’t I just blow us all away right now?” I sound crazy, more reckless than I intend to. I wonder if I’m a good actress or if I’m three seconds away from turning the gun on myself. “Like, really. What kind of life awaits us on planet Ursula? But you’d be satisfied anywhere as long as you’ve still got the Tommys inside you.”
I fire the gun, purposely missing. A neon flash eviscerates the beanbag chair, sending a flurry of Styrofoam pellets into the air.
“I’m only trying to do what’s best. I’ll do what you kids want. Maybe we should call the Tommys in and take a vote. Planet Ursula is to be founded on democracy, of course.”
“Okay, how about you set the destination for Earth.” She stands there helplessly, like an unplugged TV set. “No,” I say, waving the gun dramatically. “Put it back the way it was. I wanna fly in circles. I command you to do it, so you have to, right?”
Silently she flips some switches, gently strokes a button here and a button there.
Distantly behind me, through the echoes of the corridors, I hear Tommy’s voice. “Mom—I mean Ursula—I can’t sleep. Can I have some milk and cookies?” The control she has over them—if she appeals to the Tommys for help, I’m doomed.
I aim and pull the trigger. Ursula vanishes in a fluorescent spray of plasma.
So now what, I think, as I stare at the empty space where Ursula stood. An electricity in the air from the zap gun, my tongue feels like it licked a battery.
Tommy leans against the doorframe in his pajamas, sleepy and confused. “Ursula?” he says.
I’ll tell him and the other Tommys she was an evil robot overlord programmed for a suicide mission by the giant, sentient microchip that took over the earth. They’ll moan and mourn for a while but the vacuum of space will soon make them forget. Then we can go back to the old routine. We’ll eat junk food and have sex, huff gasoline till we pass out. We’ll play pong, and hopefully one day figure out how to install Astral Frontier. When the first of us is old enough, we’ll order alcohol from the beverage dispenser, become alcoholics, maybe even get drunk enough once to try an orgy. We’ll fall asleep on the toilet and cry under the covers for our lost earthly lives until we forget we ever had them. We’ll never grow up. We’ll stay the same shallow, selfish people we’ve always been. But at least that way we’ll never learn the truth, about what happened to Earth, about what undoubtedly terrible future awaits us. We’ll fly in circles and live this way forever. When we die our bones will float in the dead ship’s hull like ghosts.