Service to women only
That signpost…it gave me the hovers. That’s what my mother called it when I hovered, unable to take the final step over the precipice and into my decision. I had it bad; my feathers were quivering something awful. It was a horrible childhood habit but even mother wouldn’t flash her perpetual look of disapproval right now, especially considering the magnitude of the decision I had to make. My indecisiveness was justified for once.
The DNA-shaped building rose tall, proud and daunting into the gold-strewn sky. Women of all shapes, colours and styles flowed in and out of the brushed metal doors as fluidly as water. I was so busy gawking at the astronomical difference between the women shuffling in and those waltzing out that it took me a moment to realize that I’d been spotted.
I almost thought I’d imagined it but then I saw it again. The four doorwomen greeted everyone that walked through the Genesis Building doors. As soon as she had a free moment, the one closest to me zeroed her almost black eyes in on me.
Mxii. She wasn’t meant to notice me from here. I didn’t know Genesis had increased their Potential Customer Detection Radius.
The doorwoman beckoned me over with one gloved hand, full lips curved into a frighteningly realistic smile.
Some people might be fooled into thinking she was organic, or even demi-organic, but I knew better. The smile of an android, even one as detailed as her, couldn’t fool me. I had to admit though that she was impressive for an android produced by men– almost as good as Venusian work. I’m sure thousands- maybe even millions- of women had been coaxed into the building by that charming demeanor. But not me. My feet wouldn’t budge. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would come out as perfect as her if I went in there.
I averted my eyes. What was I doing? What was I thinking?
“Um…Maybe some other day.”
I walked away.
I made my way to the heart of the city, pondering how Martians had improved their androids so soon after their last disastrous update. The dusk traffic flowed seamlessly around me. No one paid me any attention- exactly how I liked it.
Usually, when I am in this part of town, I spend time marveling at the sheer beauty of Tilapia Harbour. Designed and built by some of the best architects in the world – a good number of whom were native Malawians – many would agree that the only thing that outdid Tilapia Harbor during the day was Tilapia Harbour at night. The open-chambo-shaped city built on the second-largest fresh water body in the United Countries of Africa started to come alive in a whole different sense when the sun began its glorious descent towards the horizon. As God’s artwork faded with a final burst of colour and light, dusk ended and the city picked up where He left off.
As night time fell, the walkways lit up, revealing exotic fish living their days peacefully beneath the glass roads. A collage of scents from the stalls lining the pier carried on the breeze, dancing together in a medley of spices, meats, fish and fruits. But even the aroma of flame-grilled chambo couldn’t tempt me away from my thoughts. A woman selling colourful wax zitenje from Tanzania State and an android child waving a holo-newspaper depicting increased female trafficking cases in the UCA both tried and failed.
Something caught my eye and I looked over my shoulder again. I couldn’t ignore it anymore; the feeling that someone was following me. I was probably being paranoid but I sped up anyway.
I was so focused on my routine evasive manoeuvres that I walked right into him. How he regained his balance- and mine- is beyond me. I expected a Terran to be weaker.
“I’m so sorry,” I said quickly, my palms up in surrender, demonstrating that I didn’t want any trouble.
He began to respond but his partner cut him off.
“You should watch where you’re going!” the woman snapped.
I hated her voice. Whoever had given it to her had done an amazing job but Venusians aren’t easily fooled. My perfectly tuned ears picked up a faint graininess, the inevitable result of voice generation bio-software-unnoticeable by dull Terran ears.
Her perfectly shaped eyebrows were drawn together over eyes so huge and blue that the contrast with her onyx skin and platinum blonde 20th century haircut almost made me reel back in surprise. There wasn’t a blemish in sight on her person. I couldn’t help but hate her perfect little tummy, her perfect hips and bust, and her perfectly fake reaction. One of those supermodel types. Her husband must be quite shallow.
“I said I was sorry,” I retorted, my wings twitching. “Besides, if you hadn’t stopped so suddenly, this wouldn’t have happened.”
The woman kissed her teeth. “You Venusians are all alike. All you care about is yourselves.”
“You Venusians? My, aren’t you loyal to your species. You traitorous dolls are alike, too – about as natural as breast implants and as friendly as pit vipers.”
Angered, the biologically-enhanced woman stepped forward, hand lifted high in preparation to slap me. Suddenly, a police officer appeared.
And, just my luck, the officer was Terran; an organic human man.
“Is something the matter here?” he asked, looking from her to me.
He lingered on me, eyes narrowed in brazen suspicion.
“She walked into my husband,” the woman said, pointing at me and scrunching up her nose. “She’s probably broken his rib or something. Venusians are such brutes; they don’t know their own strength- or the meaning of decency for that matter.”
Bite me, you racist cow!
“I see,” said the officer, completely ignoring her blatant racism.
He reached for the slab of black glass strapped to his belt, right next to an electromagnetic stun gun. For a split second, I think he truly considered taking it out.
The officer started tapping away details. Then he asked the man if he was hurt in any way.
The victim looked me over, probably deciding how he wanted to twist the officer’s ear and make things even worse for me. To my surprise, he smiled and said he was perfectly fine. Liar.
Why was he defending me? Martians, the men who settled on Mars, weren’t very fond of Venusians, women Venus settlers. We had, at most, a seething tolerance for each other. Most preferred the bioengineered women. The only way they took up an imperfect Venusian was if she had those imperfections genetically scrubbed out of her. Most of them, like Terrans, wished all-natural, temperamental Venusians like me would scrub up or perish.
So what screw was loose in this one?
“Miss, you should apologise to this man and his wife,” the officer said, pulling the emergency brakes on my train of thought.
“You’re joking me, right? I did. Besides, she’s being a racist tart. She should apologise to me.”
“You seem quite irritable, Miss.”
I snapped my mouth shut. Whoops.
The officer narrowed his eyes further.
“Sorry, but I am obligated by law to ask you.” He paused to wet his lips, his hand slowly reaching for the handle of his weapon. “Have you taken your calming pill today, Miss?”
I tensed. “Yes, Officer.”
“…I’ll be double-checking that in the system. What’s your name and how old are you?”
“My name’s Hope Livuza and I’m old enough to make sure I regularly take those foul pills you force on my kind.”
“Please just cooperate, Miss. How old are you?”
“Miss, you’re only making things harder for yourself. Show me some ID. If you fail to do so, I am within my full rights as an officer of the Malawi State Police Force to restrain you by any means necessary.”
He squeezed the handle of his gun for emphasis.
With a groan of ill-concealed annoyance, I pressed my palm against the tablet he held out. This is harassment.
A neon light illuminated the handheld, followed by a tinny female voice. The tablet was definitely Martian-made. That’s the police for you; even toddlers have better gear than they do.
“NAME: DR. HOPE LIVUZA. AGE: CLASSIFIED.”
The officer looked at me with a semi-exasperated look. The voice continued.
“INTER-PLANETARY CITIZENSHIP: FIRST GENERATION TERRA-VENUSIAN. INTRA-PLANETARY CITIZENSHIP: MALAWIAN. OCCUPATION: INTERSTELLAR MECHANIC. CRIMINAL RECORD: …CLEAN.”
“Well, that’s a surprise,” said the bio-woman, arms folded across her inflatable chest.
“Calm down,” said her husband, placing his left hand on the small of her back.
His wedding ring made contact with the small metallic plate fused to her skin. The woman jerked, as if touched by an electric shock, and then melted into the crook of his arm. She almost seemed pleasant when she shut up and smiled like a good little biologically-engineered trophy wife.
“Very well, Dr. Livuza,” the officer continued, butchering the pronunciation.
“Don’t call me that.”
“Have you undergone any sort of genetic surgery in the past?” he continued as if I hadn’t interrupted.
“No.” Then I added, since he was going to ask anyway, “I follow my prescription strictly. This sassy disposition is just my natural state.”
He didn’t seem convinced but I don’t think he cared. If this issue got any bigger, he was going to have to file a report. Nothing irked the law enforcement more than doing Venusian paperwork. Designed to make Martians’ lives miserable, they said. Ugh, men! Everything’s always about them… not to say they were incorrect.
Mr. Tall, Dark and Mostly Silent chose that moment to jump to my rescue.
“Officer, this issue seems resolved to me. I’m fine and she already apologized. Now, if you’ll excuse us, my wife and I have a dinner reservation.”
The pair walked away down the pier. If he were Martian, I would understand why he covered for me but a Terran defending a Venusian? That was unheard of. Once upon a time, we had gone to war with them about gender injustices and taken all their women away from the planet to force them to change the living conditions of female population. Generations later, Martian, Venusian and Terran alike lived on between each other’s planets but still hadn’t forgiven each other.
Well, that didn’t matter now.
“See, Officer? It sorted itself out and I have a squeaky clean record. Now can I go? I have to catch an aeroshuttle back to Blantyre in a few hours…”
“Look…you’ve already acquired dual-citizenship. If you’re tired of taking your prescription, just fill the necessary paperwork and get scrubbed. Don’t get yourself killed.”
Was that a hint of concern? Nah. Two Terran men being kind was two too many for any Venusian’s lifetime.
“Don’t patronise me. You wouldn’t have treated me like that if I were a Martian, would you-?”
I turned around ve-ry slow-ly.
Sean stood a few stalls away, one tattooed arm laden with compressed shopping bags. He cocked one eyebrow, and looked back and forth between the two of us.
“Uh, hey…Babes,” I mumbled.
He scowled. I was in big trouble.
After a brief cheerful conversation with the officer, Sean grabbed my arm and half led, half dragged me home.
The feeling that I was being followed came home with us but I didn’t dare mention it.
“Sean, how long are you going to keep this up?”
When he’s in stereotype mode, Sean can keep a full-blown sulk on for weeks. Right now we were on hour two and I was already going mad with the suffocating silence. Why couldn’t he be more like us super-repressed Venusians when he was mad? Emotional constipation wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.
He continued to ignore me, instead on fitting our belongings into travel-size compression bags. Every few seconds he looked out the window, stared, then went on.
He was stressing me out so much that my feathers were starting to fall out. There was only so much coaxing I could do before I reached my limit. Hello, Limit, my name is Hope.
I flopped onto the bed, switched on the motel holo-vision and ignored him right back. It didn’t take him more than five minutes to burst. How ironic that he can’t handle the taste of his own medicine.
“You almost got arrested!” he barked at me, smashing his fist against the coffee table.
A spider web of cracks fanned out across the surface, each line converging underneath his fist.
“You know what happens to Venusians that get convicted on Terra,” he growled. “Malawi may be one of the safest places in the UCA for you guys but the prison system is just as harsh. Are you crazy? Do you want to die?”
“It was a rhetorical question!”
I take it back. I liked it better when he was brooding.
“And you still didn’t go to Genesis? Hope, we talked about this-”
“-No, you talked, I listened. Hardly the same thing.”
“Are you seriously getting technical with me right now? I dare you to say something like that again.”
Just like that, he’d switched from his mild, mellow Martian father to his wild, pig-headed Venusian mother. I didn’t challenge him. Challenging an irate Venusian- even a half Venusian- is asking for trouble.
Sean closed his eyes and took a deep breath, kneading the space between his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.
“Hope, we’re engaged. I know we haven’t known each other for very long but I do care about you.” Liar. “It’s our culture and neither of us really had a say but I think we can agree that we’re not that bad a match. All I asked was for you to get scrubbed.”
“You say that like it’s simple.”
“Isn’t it? You do it all the time. You went to the salon just the other day to get your hair altered. Come on, even Venusian hair doesn’t change color on its own,” he said, gently tugging at a lock of my hair.
It coiled back into place, a snake ready to strike.
“I don’t see what the big deal is. You’re just doing it to the rest of your body this time. How hard can that possibly be? Life will be much easier for you this way. I’m only insisting because I’m trying to protect you,” he said, cupping my cheek in his hand.
And there it was – that foolishly misplaced Martian heroism that gets on my last nerve.
I smacked his hand away.
“I’m from Venus, I literally don’t need your protection; you’re not nearly strong enough,” I hissed. “Is genetic rectification easy to you? You’re only asking me to change my very genetic identity for you, to give up the ability to go home for you. But I guess it’s no big deal because I’m a woman and have easily manipulated DNA.”
“That’s not what I-”
“Yes, it is. Hurray for us; we learnt to alter our DNA just to survive on our manless planet. Great for you that you had the resources to build technology that does everything for you. Did you even do any research on scrubbing? God knows you Martians are so lazy, you probably had your AI assistants gather the information for you.”
It was his turn to be offended.
“I did it myself.”
“Oh? Then did you know that once Venusian DNA is altered, it can never be changed back?”
Sean recoiled as if he’d been slapped in the face. I smirked.
“I thought so. Being Venusian is not easy. We’re born with the correct genetic code, theoretically, but only experience determines whether we live or die on that godawful planet. Some survive – barely. Most die. Our genetic sequence is tricky and can’t be copied, unlike Martian DNA. Everyone’s who’s tried to readapt died.”
I sighed and lowered my voice.
“Look, I didn’t want to marry you either. Giving up being Venusian means being a second class citizen for the rest of my life, just like the women of the 21st century. I intended to run away.”
“Then why didn’t you?” Sean asked, his voice small and riddled with bitterness.
“Because I thought I could convince you to let me stay Venusian. I like the genetic identity I was born with. I want to be able to go back to my planet. I love Malawi but I love Venus, too; perpetual storms and near unlivable conditions and all. I thought I could make you understand.” I lifted my head, looking him square in the eye. “Clearly, I was wrong.”
He didn’t answer for the longest time. Eventually, he came and sat next to me. He touched my hair, my cheek then my shoulder.
“I understand,” he said. “Thanks for making this easier on me.”
He injected something into my neck that first burned hot then freezing cold. I pushed him back, flinging him clear across the room. The impact broke a leg and his arm twisted into an odd angle but both limbs healed instantly.
I rolled off the bed and onto the floor. Venusians and freezing cold simply don’t mix. Any colder and I’d die. I wrapped my wings around my body in an attempt to keep me warm but it was no use. My feathers were too light. Malawi didn’t get this cold so my wings weren’t adapted to this temperature.
“What…?” I clutched at my chest. “What…did you…do…?”
“Just calm down, Babes,” he said. “You’re just going to take a little nap. My associates will take good care of you.”
The door to our motel room swung open and three Martians in dark outfits strolled in. One handed Sean an electronic cheque. Sean whistled appreciatively.
“As always, it’s a pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen. You’re worth a lot of zeroes, Babes. I could even buy a bio-woman of my own. I’ll make sure to tell your parents the sad news about your accident and organise a beautiful funeral for you. Where did you want to be buried again? Cape Maclear? Oh well, on to the next one.”
One of the men put me inside the last empty compression bag. It stretched out to accommodate my size then began to shrink. I had the vague sense of being constricted.
“You should’ve gotten scrubbed when he asked you nicely. Oh, and nice evasive manoeuvres, by the way. You almost gave me the slip several times back there,” he said, zipping the bag shut.
I flitted in and out of consciousness. If anyone thought my kidnapper was suspicious, no one stopped him. Terrans respect Martians. Partly because they’re both male and do this weird male bonding thing, but mostly because Martians were responsible for the technology that brought female company back to Terra.
Where would I end up? Venusians with African ancestry are exotic and rare. Most likely I’d probably be on the first subterranean-shuttle to the Eurasian Confederate and sold to the highest bidder. And here I thought I’d be safe in my home country.
I was just about to shed my first tear when I was unceremoniously thrown out of my abyss. I landed on a hard surface with a thud. Before I could orient myself, my ankles and wrists were strapped down and my mouth bound.
“Make it snappy. This is the last one to be shipped out then we’re closed for the season.” The voice sounded as far away as if he were at the end of a tunnel.
I was wheeled to another room. I looked up at the nurse through the haze.
“Let’s get you ready, shall we?” she said in a singsong voice.
She swabbed my skin then injected something into my bloodstream. I assumed it was a serum flooded with Nano-robots that would alter by DNA on command. The surgeon in charge read out the specifications but I could barely hear over the pounding in my ears. I never should’ve come back to this cruel planet.
“Alright. You might feel a slight sting-”
“Freeze! You there! Step away from the Genetic Splicer!”
Yelling, threats and gunshots erupted around me. A strong pair of arms lifted me upright. Someone supported my lolling head against his shoulder. Male…Terran…Familiar-looking…
“Dr. Livuza, drink this. It’ll help.”
“Please, don’t call me that,” I croaked.
He lifted a bottle to my lips. I started to feel better instantly. I glanced up at my savior.
“You…but weren’t you that…?”
“We meet again. I’m with Special Enforcement, my name’s Darren Phinda. I owe you an apology for using you as bait to capture Sean Jemusi and his associates. We’ve been after this Venusian Trafficking Cell for a long time.”
“Wha-? Sean was-?”
“But, you know, you owe me for bailing you out at Tilapia Harbour. How about we discuss it over dinner?”
I’m a genius yet I didn’t see any of this coming.