Young, literate, and Earthborn: female Six-Four-One is a perfect match for Muldoon, the casino tycoon. Things are about to get dangerously hot in the Ice Orbit.
Originally written for NYCM Flash Fiction Challenge 1, July 2019, where it scored fourth in its heat. Genre: Science Fiction; location: a casino; object: a paper shredder. 1,600 words.
The metal chair is freezing on my bum. The girls, they warned me about this. I should’ve listened, should’ve worn another layer. Or maybe stashed a flask in my bra, like they do. A nip would sure help right now.
“Muldoon? You there?” The Keeper sighs into his earpiece. He looks me over again. “She’s young, fit. Earthborn, for heaven’s sake. An excellent match, sir.”
I nibble my lip and cross my fur boots.
“Great, sir. We’re all set, then.” He removes the earpiece and turns to me, smiling. “Good news, female Six-Four-One. It’s a match.”
Muldoon. Of course, I’ve never met him, but we all know he’s a prick. Back in the dorm there was a portrait of him in the entryway. Eyes jeering, jowl spilling out of his collar. One hand resting on his bulbous belly. Amber-tipped cigar parked in his mouth.
I liked that portrait, not for its subject but for its background. For any hint of what it was like there. Earth. Because it had to be a portrait from Earth. That cigar. Even for someone as powerful as Muldoon, combustible tobacco products are strictly forbidden in the Ice Orbit.
The Keeper leads me down the gambling hall, long and cavernous. I can barely hear the click-clack of my boots on the ice over the banter from the booths. I catch snippets as we pass.
I’ll raise you eight on her.
You’ve lost your mind, mate!
Going once, twice…
Behind each booth is a girl wearing a short beige dress and fur boots just like mine. They stand still, their expressions blank. Living dolls.
As if reading my thoughts, the Keeper says: “Be grateful you weren’t matched that way.”
I gaze at the ice-floor as we walk, avoiding the eyes of the booth girls, which I can feel following me from under the curtains of their plastered-on lashes. Word spreads fast here.
“Or even worse.” The Keeper gestures toward some men crowded around a table. “Be grateful you weren’t won in a game.”
One of the men looks up as he slaps down his cards. He leans back in his chair, tilting his chin at me as we pass, his grin gray-toothed and leering.
“Enough!” The Keeper’s stunner whirrs. The man crumples.
The dealer starts to protest, but the Keeper growls, “Get control of your louts. This one’s Earthborn. She belongs to Muldoon.”
The dealer nods.
It’s true. I am Earthborn.
My mum delivered me in a barn, or so I’ve been told. I used to have a photo of her in a green field, wildflowers waist-high.
That was before they made the ice that destroyed Earth. Sometimes I think I remember mum, or even remember Earth, but they tell me that I’m only remembering that photo. I wish I still had it.
My mum gave me a name. Genevieve. I can’t remember who told me that, either, but whenever I’m called Six-Four-One, the word Genevieve flickers somewhere in the depths of my skull.
Somehow, it got there.
Take pride in our Ice Orbit, Mr. McCarran, our schoolteacher, used to say. It’s the future of humankind.
And I do. The Ice Orbit is all I’ve ever known.
They were trying to fix Earth when they made the ice. This, too, we learned from Mr. McCarran. They needed to patch the vanishing polar caps. They needed a shit-ton of ice and they needed it fast.
(We always giggled when Mr. McCarran cursed. He only did that for us, he said. We were special. His last class of Earthborn.)
But the scientists thought they could outsmart nature. Earth’s seas couldn’t rise, they figured, if ice couldn’t melt. So they created a new “ice” that captured carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. It was hard, cold, and held up under all but the most extreme temperatures. They installed it at both poles. And it worked for a while.
Their research was rushed, Mr. McCarran explained. The ice caps were disappearing so much faster than they’d projected. They rammed it through global regulations. They had to; Earth was flooding. But if they’d taken more time to test, they would have uncovered a big problem: their new ice was volatile. Flammable.
There was another problem, too. They made way too much. The extra had to go somewhere.
“Sir, she’s here.”
Muldoon seems nothing more than a blob at first, flesh heaped in a chair at the far end of the huge room. “Oh, bother.” He heaves himself up.
“Sir, this is female Six-Four-One.”
My name is Genevieve.
“Don’t sound so pleased with yourself, boy,” Muldoon grunts. “It’s just a match.”
I shiver. It seems colder in here. How can that be? Everything is made from the same ice.
He waddles over, his face inches away, his breath moldy wool. “You uncomfortable, girl?” He trails a finger along my goose-fleshed shoulder.
I shake my head.
“Good.” Muldoon turns to the Keeper. “She’ll do.”
“Very well, sir.” The Keeper bows out.
Muldoon motions for me to follow him to another room, this one even larger. Stacks of paper surround a shredder.
I try to hide my surprise.
He chuckles. “You’re here to please me, aren’t you, girl?”
“Well, lucky you, money pleases me more than sex.” He picks up a stack of paper. “Earthborn, I see. So you can read?”
I nod again.
“Get to work, then.” He briefs me on his system, then pulls his teleporter from his pocket. I feel my eyes widen. I’ve never seen one in person before.
With a click, he vanishes.
I sort Muldoon’s papers, shredding as indicated. Invoices, contracts, ledgers. All related to his casino. It’s boring work, but better than the alternative. I shudder, thinking of the girls in the booths, the junkie with his gray-toothed grin.
I’m feeding a batch into the shredder when something catches my eye.
It’s a photo, a picture of a meadow. A tree sprawls over green grasses and tall wildflowers. Earth. I close my eyes, sure that I can feel the warm breeze swaying the tree’s branches.
There’s a letter stapled to the photo. I hold it close to my nose, reading the words that I know. Something about a building to be built on that meadow, some venture Muldoon is undertaking. Or was undertaking back in the day. The papers feel crisp and fresh, but these must be old documents. I start to fold them so I can stash them in my bra.
Then I notice the date on the letter. Last week’s date.
A couple years after graduation, I visited Mr. McCarran. I remember being shocked at how old he’d become in such a short time, how small and fragile he looked. A quiet desperation tugged at me. Couldn’t someone do something to make him whole again? Anything? Was this how it was for the scientists, the ones that had tried to repair Earth’s ice caps?
My dear Six-Four-One. He placed his hand over mine. I’m sorry.
Sorry for what? I asked.
I never finished the story. His parched lips disappeared, folding in on themselves. It wasn’t allowed.
What wasn’t allowed? I asked.
You were my last class of Earthborn.
I pressed him. What wasn’t allowed?
But his only reply was a pitying look.
I crumple the documents in my hand. The date must be an error.
The door creaks. I jump. But it’s just the Keeper.
“An envelope for you.”
An envelope for me? Sure enough, it says Six-Four-One on the front. As soon as the Keeper leaves, I tear it open. There’s a note. It reads:
My dear Genevieve,
I heard the news of your match. Please accept my congratulations.
As for our story, I’d like to help you finish it now.
This is a small gift, but one that can be used well. Take pride, but also be brave.
I dump the envelope and a little wooden stick falls out. It’s bulbous at one end. I study it, puzzled. A tiny magic wand? I close my eyes. Maybe it will grant me a wish.
“What are you doing?” Muldoon snaps from the doorway, his gaze locked on the stick in my hand. “You can’t have that. It’s dangerous. Illegal.”
I look at the stick. A deep memory surfaces. My mum, striking a little wooden stick on a rock. An orange flame.
“Give it to me.” Muldoon’s tongue runs across his overstuffed lips. His brow sweats. His eyes haven’t moved from the stick. His nostrils flare, wild and hungry.
I remember now. It’s a match.
“Put it down.”
I start to squat.
“Good girl,” he purrs. “Now on the ground.”
I close my eyes and say a prayer as I swipe it along my boot’s rough zipper. The match ignites, its little flame ducking and dancing. Sweet heat kisses my palm as I shield it.
I dangle the match over a pile of paper.
Muldoon’s eyes widen. “You wouldn’t.”
Flames tear through the stacks and lick at the walls. Unlike the crackling paper, the ice burns quietly, dissolving to vapor with a gentle hiss.
“You idiot!” he snarls through the steam and smoke. “You bitch!”
Fire gobbles the floor now, which is starting to warp. Muldoon tries to lunge toward me, but his feet slip out from under him. As he topples, the teleporter flies from his pocket. It skitters across the floor and stops at my feet.
With a final sigh the floor disintegrates, dropping the fat tycoon into the void. The Ice Orbit swallows up his screams as he disappears into the shady gulley between this wretched leftover asteroid and the one next door.
“Muldoon,” I call down after him. “It was just a match.”
Then, with a click, I vanish. Destination: field of waist-high wildflowers.