by Ray Vukcevich
Because he wouldn’t understand, we left Mom’s German shepherd Toby leashed to the big black roll bar in the back of Ada’s pickup truck, and because Mom’s hands were tied behind her back and because her ankles were lashed together, we had some trouble wrestling her out of the cab and onto the bridge.
My sister Ada rolled her over, a little roughly, I thought, and checked the knots. I had faith in those knots. Ada was a rancher from Arizona and knew how to tie things up. I made sure Mom’s sweater was buttoned. I jerked her green and white housedress back down over her pasty knees. I made sure her boots were tightly tied.
The breeze sweeping down the gorge made the gray curls above her forehead quiver. The wind seemed to move the steel bridge a little, too, but that may have been my imagination. Even from up here, I could smell the river and hear its gravelly whisper. Black birds circled and complained in the clear blue sky above us. The sun was a hot spotlight in the chilly thin mountain air. Toby paced back and forth in the truck bed, whining and pulling at his leash and watching us closely.
“What about the glasses, Barry?” Ada tapped a fingernail on the lenses of Mom’s fragile wire-rimmed glasses.
“Please, don’t do this, children.”
“Shut up, Jessica.” Ada spoke not to our mother but to Mom’s interface with her nanopeople. When Dr. Holly Ketchum (Mom, that is) introduced a colony of nanopeople into her own body, it was seen by many as a bold new step. It had, after all, never before been done under controlled conditions. Nanotechnology held such promise — long life and good health, a kind of immortality, really.
So how did it work out? What one word would sum it all up?
Well, “whoops” might be a good choice.
The problem was that after a few generations, that is to say, after a few hours, the nanopeople became convinced that their world shouldn’t take any unnecessary chances. It made no sense to the nanopeople to let their world endanger herself. Jessica claimed that individually, nanopeople were as adventurous as anyone else. “But put yourself in our place, Barry,” she’d once said to me. “Would you let your world put sticks on her feet and go speeding down a snowy mountain at 60 miles an hour? Or swim with sharks? Be reasonable.”
Mom looked like a TV grandmother these days — plump, rosy cheeks, and translucent white skin. Her nanopeople could have fixed her vision easily enough, but they thought the glasses would make her more cautious in most situations. They could have left her appearance at its natural 48 years or even made her look younger, but they chose this cookie-cutting, slow-shuffling granny look to discourage relationships that might turn out to be dangerous. They could have left her mind alone; instead they struck her silly. A slow-moving stupid world is a world that takes no chances.
Jessica had been created to explain things to Mom. She was really a network of nanopeople working in shifts to produce the illusion that called itself Jessica. The nanopeople, invisible, sentient, self-replicating robots of nanotechnology, simply thought more quickly than big people. If Mom were struggling to access a multisyllabic word, there could be a week’s worth of shift changes among the nanopeople running the Jessica interface. In fact, a nanoperson could come into existence, grow up, get trained, find a mate, write poetry, procreate, rise to the top of a career, screw up a relationship, get cynical, and die in the time it took Mom to cook up a batch of brownies.
The real horror, I suppose, was that while individual nanopeople might come and go, as a society, they intended to keep Mom alive and stupid pretty much forever.
I plucked the glasses from her face. “I’ll save these for you, Jessica, just in case you ever need them again.” I gave her a look I hoped was menacing and let my remarks just sit there for a moment, then I sat Mom up and leaned her against the bridge railing. “There’s still time for negotiation, Jessica,” I said.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, Barry.” Jessica was doing what the nanopeople thought was Mom’s voice. I wasn’t fooled. Mom never whined. Not the old Mom anyway. At least we had the nanopeople’s attention these days. At first, Jessica had not bothered to even acknowledge our existence. Then we started pushing Mom into water over her head, and Jessica decided to talk to us.
I tied the big rubber bands to Mom’s boots.
“The word is bungee, Jessica,” Ada said.
My sister was becoming one scary chick, I thought, what with her horse tattoo and western hat and the ever-present toothpick in the corner of her mouth. It was almost like she was enjoying this. Or maybe she was just a better actor. I remembered how she’d cried on the phone the night she called me home from graduate school in Oregon, how she kept saying Mom had nothing on her mind but cookies, cookies and cakes and those little flaky things with sweet red crap in the middle, and I need your help Barry, I can’t do this alone Barry. I’d gotten verbal assurance from my advisor in the physics department that I could take a leave of absence and had bussed to Tucson the very next day.
Mom made me a pie when I got home.
I took Mom under the arms, and Ada grabbed her feet. We swung her like a sack of laundry, and on the count of three, tossed her over the side of the bridge. Toby went crazy, barking and pulling at his leash, in the back of Ada’s truck.
We put our hands on the bridge rail and watched Mom fall and fall toward the river, the long bungee bands trailing behind her, and listened to her scream — well, listened to someone scream, anyway; when it was Jessica, it was a howl of frustration and terror, but when it was Mom, it was an exuberant whoop! Or maybe I was imagining things. Maybe I didn’t have the faith Ada had in this plan to get the nanopeople out of Mom.
We watched Mom bounce like a yo-yo on the end of her bungee bands, her housedress hanging down over her head. We decided to let her swing awhile. Ada unpacked our picnic lunch and we settled down on the bridge to eat.
As we munched and sipped, I heard a small voice calling, “Help, help,” but I decided to ignore it.
“So, Ada,” I said. “How come Mom’s nanopeople don’t transform her into something that can climb up the rubber bands? A giant spider, say.”
“I call the answer to that my King Kong Theory,” Ada said. “I’ll bet the nanopeople can see in Mom’s memory that picture of Kong on the Empire State Building with all the airplanes buzzing around and shooting. Or some other picture like that. The thing with these guys is safety first and always.”
Those far away cries for help were getting to me. I gave Ada a sidelong glance. I didn’t want my big sister to think I was wimping out on her. “So, shall we pull her up?” I tried to sound casual.
“I suppose.” Ada took another bite of her sandwich then tossed it into the basket.
We pulled Mom up.
“So, Jessica,” Ada said. “You want to do that again?”
“Let’s talk then.”
Jessica let Mom’s chin fall to her chest and was quiet for a minute or so. Then she raised Mom’s head. “What do you want? How can we make you stop this?”
“Get out of Mom!” I shouted, and Ada gave me a sharp look. I had no talent for diplomacy.
“That’s pretty much what we want, Jessica,” Ada said. “We need to discuss the terms of your eviction.”
“That is an absurd notion,” Jessica said. “Each one of us lives a life every bit as important and significant as yours, Ada. You just move more slowly. You’re just bigger. None of that signifies. Have you no empathy? Holly is our world. This is the only world the People have ever known. Just where do you suppose we could go?”
“We have an idea about that.” Ada signaled me with her eyes.
I got up and walked to the truck and untied Toby’s leash. With a great leap of joy, he bounded out of the bed of the truck. Tail wagging, trying to look everywhere at once, nose to the ground, nose in the air, he dragged me back to Mom and Ada. I convinced him to sit down in front of Mom. Taking advantage of the fact that she was tied up, he licked her face. I often wondered whether the dog knew this was Mom. He seemed to like this dowdy little person, but this person was always around these days, and it seemed to me his enthusiasm for her was somehow of a lower quality than the worship he had always had for Mom. Maybe he’d just gotten used to Jessica.
“We want you to move to Toby,” Ada said.
Toby’s ears stiffened at the sound of his name, and he looked up at Ada.
Jessica was quiet for a moment. Then she made Mom’s soft grandmother mouth a hard line. “You want us to move into a dog?” She sounded incredulous.
“You got it,” Ada said.
“You want an entire civilization, billions of us, each with definite ideas and hopes and dreams, to just shuffle off to another world? You think that generations of tradition and deeply felt religion and philosophy can be tossed aside? You think we’ll move into a dog?”
“I think she’s got it,” Ada said.
“We won’t do it,” Jessica said. “And we won’t discuss it further.” She closed Mom’s mouth and squeezed Mom’s eyes tightly shut.
“Hey! Wait a minute!” I yelled.
“Never mind, Barry.” Ada grabbed Mom’s feet and gave me a sharp look.
I got the message. I took Mom under the arms, and we tossed her over the side again. Toby just sat there for a moment like he couldn’t believe his eyes, then he jumped up and put his front paws up on the railing and watched Mom bounce.
When we pulled her up this time and propped her against the bridge railing, I looked closely into her wild eyes, hoping, I guess, for a little momness. Not a chance. It was clear we’d finally pissed off her little friends. Big things were happening in Mom. Her face twisted into a horrible grimace, her cheeks puffed out and her eyes bulged. She suddenly spit a huge stream of green stuff at us. We jumped out of the way.
“She’s mine.” The voice was deep and male, a truly scary demon voice. “You can’t have her.”
“Ah, Jessica,” Ada said. She took off her cowgirl hat and used it to swat Mom on the side of the head. “We’ve seen those movies, too. If you’re not going to be serious, we’re going to throw you over again.”
“You don’t know what you’ve done,” Jessica said in her usual Jessica voice. “There have been uprisings since we talked last. People have died. Listen to me, Ada. Barry. People have died. People every bit as real as you. Good people. How can you continue this?”
“But you’re destroying our mother!” I said.
“One person for the good of billions! And besides she wouldn’t be destroyed.”
“This one person is our mother,” Ada said. “And that’s where you’re in trouble. We won’t quit. Mom would rather be dead than stupid. Let’s throw her over again, Barry.”
“Wait!” Jessica said. “That’s not true. What you just said. You forget we’re inside here. We have access that you don’t have. We talk to Holly all the time. We’re not monsters. Holly is our Mother World.”
“Then why do you keep her stupid?” Ada asked.
“Not stupid.” Jessica sounded sincere, but I didn’t buy it. “Content. Holly is our mother, but she is also our child to be guided, much as you mold and guide your own world.”
I could have told her a thing or two about how well we molded and guided our own world, but suddenly that seemed as if it might work against us. I kept my mouth shut.
“Our solution is perfect,” Ada said. She put her hand between Toby’s ears and scratched. “What do dogs do but lay around all day anyway? You could keep him as fat and lazy and silly as you want.”
“That will simply never happen,” Jessica said. “We will never be able to convince all of the people. In fact we will be able to convince very few. If you throw Holly off the bridge again, you could cause a war in here. I want you to think carefully. It won’t be nice if there is artillery shelling going on in your mother’s lungs. Hand-to-hand combat in her stomach. Swordplay in her heart. There will be cell damage. We are fighting for our very world. Would you destroy an entire people, an entire world, for your Mother?”
“Yes,” Ada said at once.
I was glad I didn’t have to answer that one. I didn’t even want to think about it.
“And what will you do, Ada, if you force our society into a state of primitive savagery,” Jessica said. “How do you think Holly will like having little bands of hunter/gatherers roaming around in her liver?”
“If her mind is free, she’ll be able to handle her liver.”
“We won’t move to a dog,” Jessica said, and then she was quiet.
Ada took her feet. “One more time, Barry.”
“But what about all those people?” I asked.
“Shut up.” Ada dropped Mom’s feet and wiped tears from her own eyes with a big blue-checked handkerchief from her back pocket. I shut up and took Mom under the arms again.
We threw her over the side. Jessica didn’t even scream this time.
We pulled her up after only a few bounces. Ada looked grim, and I feared that this whole business would fail. All those people. I could be honest with myself, at least in little short bursts. I understood how entire lives could be lived in minutes. I knew that Jessica was right when she said the nanopeople were as real as me. I understood that some of them were dying. We rolled Mom over. She looked dead herself, but when I grabbed her wrist, I felt a pulse. Ada sat her up and gently slapped her face over and over again. I scooted back and grabbed a soda out of the picnic basket and poured a little in my hand and flicked it at Mom. No response. Toby pushed his way in between Ada and me and licked Mom’s face again.
Some time passed.
Then Jessica opened Mom’s eyes.
“So much has changed.” Jessica sounded weak, diminished somehow. “But one thing is still firm. We will not abandon our world.”
Ada sighed. I hoped she wouldn’t want to toss Mom over the side again.
“We propose a compromise,” Jessica said.
“We’re listening,” Ada said.
“We propose to let Holly have more control over her life,” Jessica said. “We have combed through her memory and found a set of activities that we feel prepared to tolerate. Ballroom dancing, for example.”
Ada’s face got absolutely purple. Her hands closed in fists and opened in claws, closed and opened. When she spoke her voice was steady and cold but coiled like a spring, cobra tight. “You’re telling me that you will allow Dr. Holly Ketchum, a respected physicist and leading authority on nanotechnology, a woman so full of curiosity and life that some people simply have to step out of her light or get burned, a woman vibrating with sexual vitality and gentle innocent love and openness for almost everyone–” She jumped up and shouted, “A woman who thrives on the adrenaline rush of white water and rock faces and free fall– you’re telling me you’re going to allow this woman to do ballroom dancing? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“Well, yes. Among other things.”
“Ada.” I grabbed her hand, and the look she turned down on me would have loosened the bowels of a biker. “Let me try,” I said. I thought she was going to say something to make me feel small or even hit me, but she jerked her hand away and stomped off to her truck instead. Toby and I watched as she kicked big dents in the door of her truck. When she stopped yelling and slumped to the ground, I turned to Mom and spoke to Jessica.
“If there is to be a compromise, Jessica,” I said. “It will have to be on our terms. Or if you think about that a little, it’ll have to be on Mom’s terms. You’re going to have to learn to live with what your world wants, not what you want for your world.”
“Well, we did come up with this list.”
“You’re going to have to let Mom come out and tell you want she wants.”
“But she takes such chances!”
“You’ll just have to learn to trust her,” I said.
Jessica didn’t reply, and I was suddenly at a loss. It seemed clear what must happen next, but I didn’t know how to convince the nanopeople. I felt a hand on my shoulder and jerked my head around in time to see Ada squat down beside me.
“Barry’s right,” Ada said. “You must turn inward. You must let Mom take care of the stuff outside. You don’t have what it takes to deal with things out here. We can keep throwing you off the bridge until your society is completely disrupted. If it starts to look like those of you who are left are getting used to bungee jumping, we can do something else. Access Mom’s memory of alligator wrestling.”
Jessica squinted Mom’s eyes for a moment then jerked her head to the right as if Ada had slapped her.
“Look at ultra-light stunt flying,” I said, encouraged again by Ada’s support.
Jessica jerked Mom’s head to the left.
“Do we need to go on?” Ada asked. “We won’t quit.”
Jessica let Mom’s shoulders slump. She sighed. “We’ll try it your way,” she said. “We’ll try it. But strictly on a trial basis!”
“No conditions,” Ada said.
Jessica rolled Mom’s eyes for a long time, then she said, “You win.”
A smile grew on Mom’s face, bigger and bigger, until she laughed out loud. “Ada! Barry!” She struggled with the ropes around her wrists. “I knew I could count on you two.”
I could see it was Mom, something about the way the body was controlled convinced me Mom was to some degree in charge, but how much Mom was it? I worried that the nanopeople would have her on a short leash.
Toby lunged across my lap to get at her. The entire back end of his body wagged as he licked her face, and he could not contain his joy to the point that he peed all over me. I didn’t know how Ada felt about it, but a Mom real enough to make a dog pee was a Mom real enough for me. I leaned in and kissed her cheek.
“Untie me,” Mom said, twisting her head this way and that to avoid Toby’s tongue.
Ada pushed the dog away and pulled the big blade from the sheath on her belt. She turned Mom around and cut her wrists loose.
Mom’s hair turned brown even as she stripped off her sweater. Her eyes cleared; her skin tightened. She pulled the dreary housedress from first one shoulder and then the other and wiggled it down to her hips. She bounced a little and pulled the dress along with her underwear down her thighs and over her knees. Ada undid the bungee boots and pulled them off Mom’s feet. Mom’s wrinkles disappeared and her bones straightened. When she stood, nude and magnificent and beaming a big smile at us, she was Mom in body again. Well, in a way. This was Mom, I thought, as she must have looked at thirty or so. Long reddish brown hair falling over slightly freckled shoulders. Pale blue eyes. Small high breasts. Long strong legs.
“Shall we go home, Mother?” Ada asked.
“Not so fast.” Mom sat down on the bridge and pulled the bungee boots on again. “I need to pin down just who’s boss in here.” She climbed up on the bridge rail, and with a wild scream of joy did a perfect swan dive into the abyss.
We watched the arch of her dive and listened to her yell and watched her bounce.
“Do you suppose we’ve just postponed things?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what do you think will happen to her when we’ve either got nanopeople of our own or we’ve died? How about then?”
Ada seemed to think about that as we listened to Mom whoop at the upswing of each bounce.
“Well, maybe we’d better pull her up and get some motherly advice,” Ada said.
from the collection Meet Me in the Moon Room
…a collection of 33 strange and wonderful short fictions
July 1, 2001 1-931520-01-1 $16.00
Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in 1992.