His wife shouted again as she pushed an antique vase from its perch on the curio cabinet, turning to leave before it shattered against the slate floor. Tiny shards of tin-glazed porcelain, blue and white, bounced up and then drifted slowly before settling down again, ballet dancers of debris in the 3/4 Earth normal gravity. The heavy oak door, imported at great expense, slammed behind her as she left. They could hear her, still ranting, in the hall before she exited the apartment’s hydraulic outer door, and was gone.
The other woman, perched on the edge of the couch, looked up at him with those pale blue eyes. The same eyes, and the same lips, and the same face, he had fallen in love with.
“At least she didn’t throw it at you,” the other woman said softly.
“Why did you have to come today?” he asked her. “Why couldn’t you have waited one more day?” He took a seat at the bar across the room, sighing as he settled into it, deflating.
“I wanted to know the truth,” she replied.
“But one more day, Lyssa. One more, and she would have been off world. I had a plan!” He put his fist down hard on the bar top, polished stone with faint outlines of fossil creatures, long extinct.
“You told me that you and she were done. That you were ending your contract.”
“We are. We were.”
Lyssa stood then and moved toward him, her boots almost noiseless in the thick carpet. He looked up and turned to take her in his arms but she stepped to the end of the bar and poured a drink instead, not looking at him.
“Can you hand me two cubes please?” she asked. He checked but the ice bucket was empty, and had to go into the kitchen to retrieve more. With a clink they fell into the glass, and she swirled it in her hand.
They stood for a moment, close enough to touch. Not touching.
She handed him the glass. “Breathe,” she said. “Drink.”
He did both.
She smiled a little then, a faint twitch at one corner of her mouth that only illuminated the sadness in her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” he told her, and meant it. The whiskey burned his tongue and scorched his throat as it trickled down. He started to tell her that he hated to see her sad but paused and said, “Thank you,” instead.
She nodded. “You told her that you were going to wait for her. That you wanted to be with her when she got back from the survey.”
Frank looked away. Outside of his window, the setting sun reflected across the backs of personal shuttles flitting over the city. The yellowing light glinted across the daily dust storm, exploding into bright clouds where the reflective particles of sand grouped together, pushed along by wind and by air traffic.
“I know. I know I said that, but I lied to her.”
“Why?” Lyssa asked.
He shrugged. “I thought it would be easier,” he answered. He moved his fingers along the smooth stone bar, another symbol of his wife’s fortunes. “I thought I could do it while she was on her next rotation out and then it would be easier on everyone.”
“Oh honey,” his lover replied. “This isn’t easier on anyone.”
“But she would have been gone,” Frank said again.
“And she would have been thinking that you were here waiting for her. And she wouldn’t have committed to what she was doing. She wouldn’t have been invested in settling that planet, or in finding anyone else, because she had you to come home to if she failed there. How is that fair to her?”
“I know,” he answered quietly, collapsing into his chair again. His head ached. “I can’t do this right now. I can’t think.”
“I came here for you,” she answered, crossing her arms against her chest, just under her breasts, and he thought for a moment about unzipping her jumpsuit and exposing her creamy skin and letting her take his pain away, as she had done in various hotel rooms and all the stolen moments in between for the last year. “Please don’t push me away,” she added.
“Can you just give me some time, please?” he asked her. “Just some space so I can figure this out?”
“I came here for you,” she repeated. “I don’t know anyone else on this rock. I don’t have any friends here.” She hugged herself tighter.
“Oh, no, our friends,” he wailed. “She’s going to tell all of our friends and then everyone is going to know what I did and no one is going to want to work with me again. Everything I’ve worked to build for the last six years, it’s ruined.”
“Can you just go, please, and give me some peace?” He raised a hand to his forehead, where little beads of sweat had started to collect. His eyes ached.
“I guess I can see about getting a bunk on the next ship out but I don’t know when I’ll be able to afford to get back this way again, Frank. I … don’t want to leave like this.” She moved toward him, and reached out with one hand to touch his face, but he shrugged her off.
“I have to get her on the com, try to sort this out,” he said. “I have to try to fix what you’ve done.”
She stood very still and tears welled up in her eyes but didn’t fall.
Chimes rang out, singing the door alarm.
“I love you,” she said one more time.
“I can’t,” he said. “I can’t feel anything right now. I just need you to go.” He touched a screen embedded discreetly in the wall.
“I got your message,” the man walking into the apartment said. He was tall, thin, with dust on his jacket and a thin pair of glasses clipped to the bridge of his nose. He let his bag slip from his shoulder to land with a heavy thump. “Is it really as bad as all that?”
“Worse, Manny.” Frank said. “She told my wife.”
“That is serious,” Manny replied, his eyes widening. “That’s taking the base affection to a whole new level. What did you do?
“What does he mean?” Lyssa asked, but Frank ignored her.
“I did what you said. I followed the scripts, I said all the right words.” He shook his head. “I wanted her to love me but this is too much.”
The other man nodded. He kneeled, unzipped his bag, and started rifling through the contents. Lyssa moved closer to Frank, put her arms around his neck.
“I don’t understand,” she whispered.
“I know, baby,” Frank said. He bit his lip against a rush of words.
“Hold her tight,” Manny said, and Frank did, wrapping his arms around the small of her back and pulling her to him, pressed against each other for the first time since he’d walked into his apartment that afternoon and found her already there. Tears spilled down her cheeks as she stared into his eyes, so she didn’t see Manny quietly step behind her with a syringe in his hand.
“What will you do to her?” Frank asked after they’d gotten the unconscious woman to the couch.
“She won’t remember you. I’ll build her a new set of memories and she’ll go on as someone else.”
“You’ll sell her to someone else, you mean.”
Manny looked up from the box, which monitored Lyssa’s vital signs. “That’s the business I’m in, Frank. I built her for you, but she doesn’t suit your needs. She’s still a product, and there’s always a market for a good product. I’ll grow you a replacement.”
“You’ll contact my wife?”
“Oh yeah, not a problem. Tell her it was a prank, sorry for the inconvenience, standard package. Can you help me get her up?”
Her hair fell across her face as Frank helped the other man lift her and he reached out to brush it out of her eyes but they were still closed so his hand hovered where it was for a moment. Manny saw but said nothing, and Frank pulled his hand back.
“I’ll bill you,” Manny said as he walked out, and Frank nodded silently.
The setting sun cast orange and reds across his floor and illuminated a sky full of dust and sand and empty of aircraft. Frank pressed his face against the cool glass and let the sight of the day dying burn into his brain. He breathed in and out for a while, alone in his apartment, watching the growing darkness overtake the city.
“One day, baby,” he whispered. “You only had to wait one more day.”
Outside his window, the dust swirled in the dark.
Carrie Cuinn is a writer, editor, book historian, small press publisher, computer geek, & raconteur. In her spare time she reads, makes things, takes other things apart, and sometimes gets a new tattoo. Learn more at CarrieCuinn.com