Where Did You Go? by Greg Beatty

SFReader 2003 Story Contest
Honorable Mention

“Did you have enough to eat? Are you wearing that? Are you ready?”

“Dad!”

“I’m sorry, honey, it’s just that with your mother gone, I feel responsible–”

“I’ll get it!” Helen slipped out of her chair with balletic grace and ran to answer the door before the bell had stopped ringing. Her father followed more slowly, arriving after Helen had let the boy into their parlor. The boy looked nice enough, he guessed, but they were both so young.

“You’ll have her back, and in, by ten?”

“Dad!” He knew every nuance in his daughter’s voice. The first “Dad!” had been mere impatience; this one was mortification, with an admixture of betrayal. To his credit, the boy nodded and stepped forward.

“I couldn’t ask for more on a first date, Mr. Fisher.” He shook Fisher’s hand solemnly. “I’ll set my alarm, and have her back by ten. On the dot.”

George Fisher let his hand be shaken, then retreated up the stairs, to give the illusion of privacy. Alone with her date- John? Jack?- Helen seemed younger still. Her hands picked at her skirt, then smoothed it flat again. “We have a porch swing,” she offered.

“I think the couch will be better,” John-Jack answered. George heard the ancient springs on the parlor couch squeak as the couple sank into its cushions. A pair of hollow clicks, and they were off.

***

The gardening robot lurched as Jack’s mind entered it, throwing a small clump of turf into the air. The first sign that Jack was in full control was an increase in the speed with which it funneled slugs and mulch, its fuel, into its biocybernetic gullet. The resulting burst of energy gave it enough power to break away from the sidewalk it was edging, and stitch a crude heart in the grass.

From her vantage point in a toad, which she had made leap atop the ceramic garden gnome, Helen clapped her approval in moist, amphibious delight, squatting into her haunches three times in quick succession.

The garden robot completed the heart and slowed to a more standard pace. When it retracted its edging wheel and started to make its way back towards the sidewalk, Helen knew it was time to abandon the frog. She cast about with unfamiliar vision until she saw something flutter by in an ungainly manner. Dimly she recognized a sparrow, out long after its rhythms meant it to be, and fighting a cellular terror of the dark.

Helen jumped to a bat that flew serendipitously near. Circling Jack, she emitted high pitched screeches of delight as she drove the terrified bird nearer and nearer to system collapse. It settled to the ground, and she was alone in the air.

***

By 7:30, George couldn’t take it anymore. He left his comfortable chair in the former den, and crept back into the parlor. He touched his daughter’s cheek. It seemed a cool, so he covered her, then both of them, with a blanket. It was an ugly blanket, but it was the first thing he’d ever knit. He’d started once his wife was gone.

***

Bats don’t hover well, so Helen began to sonar map the lawn. It took her many times longer than it would have taken a pure bat, but Helen relished the task. She eventually found a cat, sitting in shadows that would have made it invisible to human eyes. When her sonar blast hit it, the cat stalked into the moonlight.

Helen cast about, and located a mammalian nervous system. A jump, and she too was a cat. Slinking out of the shadows, she let her consciousness retreat to passenger status, and felt a surge of predatory instincts. She knocked Jack’s cat to its side with a yowl, and then she was on it, gender reversed and pumping clumsily. The cat twisted in protest, but Jack looked out through its glinting green eyes and Helen knew they were there together.

Overwhelmed by the tom’s intense orgasm, Helen abandoned the cat. Jack followed her into George Fisher’s turtles on the parlor windowsill, where they paddled in slow, reptilian circles until their date was over.

***

Come 9:55, George Fisher crept halfway down stairs again, then stopped uncertainly. He didn’t want to make it seem like he was waiting for them. A gentle beeping resolved the situation. After three beeps, John-Jack’s eyelids fluttered. On the fourth beep, Helen joined him, both safely returned to their bodies. They slid the transfer bands from their temples, setting them on the end table until the boy could clean and store them in his belt pouch. Once free, Helen reached out to tap the glass tank that held George’s pet turtles. She smiled fondly.

Whistling, George descended the final few steps with a hearty “You’re back!”

He fooled no one, but at least he allowed them to save face. Both seemed shy, now that the date was done. Helen murmured, “Call me?” She walked the boy to the door, holding the little finger of his left hand with the little finger of her right. The boy promised he would, then slipped out into the night.

“So,” George said brightly. “Where did you go?”

“Out.”

“What did you do?”

“Nothing.”

“You must have–” George swallowed the rest of his protest, and allowed his daughter to escape to her bedroom.

He watched her go, then walked into the next room, the room that had been his den. He went to the overstuffed chair in the corner, and touched the recall button on the transfer band that pressed his wife’s curls to her skull. Almost time to cut her hair again, he noted. The band beeped until he shut it off, leaving him alone in an even deeper silence. As he always did when the beeping stopped, George checked his wife’s IV. That, at least, was fine.

“Where did you go, Janice? Where did you go?”

He didn’t get an answer. But then, he never did.

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