The world stank. Ava knew of it but did not know it.
Five airlocks with abrasive scrubber baths and deionizing fogs erased the world’s stench from Ava’s nude body. She bore the discomfort until the last spit her back into Seattle’s Entry Port #2 where her jumpsuit and boots waited.
She dressed in the empty metal chamber. Her thoughts settled on a cold drink, a toasty bite to eat and a luscious night in bed snuggled up against Julia.
She reached for the door latch, thumbed through messages on her link and froze. Like a bad omen, Hargrove’s high priority task squatted unread at the top of her inbox. With a long sigh, she picked it.
Tidal intake down 2% yesterday, 4% today. Go back out tomorrow & resolve.
Same measurement as last month. Likely, it was the same manifold fouled by the same slimy seaweed that had taken hours to banish. Her fingers throbbed at the thought of all that plucking, tugging and yanking. Again.
Instead of a week off, as Hargrove had promised, she went back on duty overnight. Julia would be pissed.
A block from her apartment, Ava hopped off the mover and dipped into the corner bakery long enough to pick up sticky cinnamon buns — Julia’s favorite.
“Do they smell good?” she asked Eric, the baker.
“Heavenly. And they taste scrumptious, better than they smell.”
According to Julia, Eric’s nose never faltered.
In the apartment doorway Ava received a homecoming kiss worthy of a two-month work assignment instead of the two days it had been. Each curve on Julia’s body was right where she’d left it.
“Should I shower?” Ava asked.
Julia’s button nose crinkled. “I’m used to you smelling like bathroom cleansers. Maybe before bed?”
“Deal. What’s for dinner?”
“Lasagna. Give me ten seconds to zap it. But first,” Julia nodded at the bakery bag. “Talk.”
“You love them and I love you. Here.”
“Love you too.” Julia snatched the bag. “Try again.”
“I go back out tomorrow.”
“Assholes. What about your week off?”
“I’ll get it. Soon.”
Julia slowly ground her teeth.
“I will,” Ava said. “After this next job.”
“Something else will happen. Then, something after that.”
Ava brushed past her and tossed her link into a glass bowl that wobbled on the antique curio stand, an extravagant gift she’d given Julia for their three-year anniversary. Precious few of the apartment’s furnishings weren’t standard issue. Their combined earnings ensured that wouldn’t change in their lifetimes.
“They’re abusing you, Ava. I don’t like it.”
“I can handle it. I’m a big girl.”
“I have a real problem with the Seattle Outside Maintenance crew. It’s supposed to be a crew, yet yours is the only name on the duty roster. Why?”
Ava stiffened. “You know why.”
“Yes!” Julia barged back before her. “They need respirators and full biosuits. You don’t.” Her hand reached up and stroked across Ava’s nostrils. “You’re special. Stronger.”
“It’s a birth defect. Not a super power.”
“It’s an excuse for them to cheap out.”
Ava closed her eyes under Julia’s caresses. “Risk mitigation.”
“The world outside is perfect, except for the smell. It’s been unbearable for decades. One whiff makes… normal people… violently sick. That often happens during decontamination unless you’re fully unconscious. Which I’m about to be.”
A kiss brushed across her lips. She opened her eyes to a scowl.
“And when you stop going outside… what then?” Julia asked. “Mitigate that risk.”
Later that night, Ava curled against Julia’s back and traced a finger along the slight undulations in the taut flesh of her lover’s arm. Homecoming Part Two had been more delightful than Part One in the doorway.
“If you didn’t have to go outside, would you still want to?”
She frowned. “What for?”
“Oh, the sun. The sky. Trees. Birds. Mountains. The ocean.” Julia drew a deep breath. “Perfection. You could have it all to yourself. You know?”
“What are you saying?”
“This artificial city with its synthetic air, synthetic food, synthetic… lives. Can’t compare to roaming the real world. Like a god.”
“You’re forgetting something.”
“I’m your world,” Julia said with a soft purr. “Aren’t I?”
“The only one that matters.”
“That’s nice. Though I wish….”
“I wish I could experience it just once, somehow, without the horrible stink sickening me.”
Julia’s breathing became slow and measured. Ava traced her lover’s contours well into the still night.
The next day, as she had feared, loops of stringy seaweed blanketed the grill on the south Puget Sound manifold. Ava plucked and scraped as fast as possible before the surging tide drove her to safety on higher ground.
Muted lights from Seattle dome flickered behind her as she nursed her aching fingers under clouds streaming through a smattering of stars. All around, the evening chorus of forest dwellers began their nightly program, accompanied by a tepid breeze that hinted the warmer season’s end.
When she finally dozed off in the maintenance shack, she dreamed of strolling hand-in-hand with Julia through the forest. They climbed to a high bluff that unveiled the world’s expanse in every direction where, at the center of all that majesty, they shared a long, perfect kiss.
Ava barely noticed the cramps in her hands when she finished cleaning the manifold the next day. Job complete, she hummed while hiking the trail back to the Entry Port.
She took a detour and emerged into an ancient orchard. Some of the trees bore so many succulent apples, the fruits anchored the branches to the grassy carpet.
Sunlight winked through fluttering leaves as Ava picked an apple, bit off a thin wedge of flesh and tossed aside the rest. She clamped her mouth shut and held the morsel firm against her tongue. Apple juice lightly stung her, but she could not taste or smell it.
Julia would though. A special gift with a risk mitigation bonus.
After all, who knew what desire might erupt from one, tempting slice of perfection?
In the micro-slices of free time permitted by his high-tech job, Todd Thorne tries to be a decent family man and a writer of dark, disturbing tales.
This story is sponsored by
Adamar, book one of The Hennion Chronicles — Adamar and his friends race to save an alien world, humanity’s future and the woman he loves. They must unlock a secret from the dawn of creation, now used by an emperor to enslave his people, so they can stop his sadistic rule and open a portal to home.