I pulled up the tent flap and whispered, "Hi, Cherry, Mommy's home."
Long thin fingers squeezed mine. "Hi Mommy. Hilary Hippo is eating your flowers."
The tent door slipped shut, the lacy data display material sounding like two palms rubbing roughened skin together. I twisted onto my back and looked at our world, holding Cherry next to me. She was right. The electronic hippo was finishing off the last of the spindly yellow flowers I'd completed just before going to work.
"Gramma took good care of you?" I asked.
"She visited me twice. She came in real person for lunch." Cherry's lips were tight against her face, stretched long and thin, somewhere between smile and frown. Mother must have stayed longer than usual; Cherry's fine red hair twisted in a neat braid, its ragged end curling near her waist.
Cherry narrowed her eyes at the hippo, a swirl of brown pixels with yellow flowers hanging from the sides of its smile. She laughed and waggled a finger at her creation. "Hilary -- don't eat Mom's flowers!"
I laughed at her delight with the hippo's misbehavior. "All right Hilary," I threatened, still laughing, "I'll fix it so you stay away from my flowers!" I opened a maker window on the opposite wall so I wouldn't disturb Cherry's view. We had a rule that we didn't watch each other create. I dragged a salty taste onto the deep gold stamens. Simple, elegant. "Look out, Mommy's coming to garden!"
I rolled Cherry on top of me so she giggled while I slapped the world stopped, suspending the smile on Hilary the Hippo's round face, freezing the frame in a moment when one hippo eye looked in each direction. I changed the soil elasticity so the flowers would pop up and spray virtual dirt if Hilary went for them.
The maker window slipped shut, opening the world, and this time, when Hilary yanked up flowers, dirt flew into her face. She hopped back and bellowed, the flowers dropping to the ground. She trampled them underfoot as she trotted to Cherry's river to clean off the dirt.
We'd made this world with my Mother's money and Cherry's focus. The huge data tent was designed as a playground, but Cherry lived in it. She lost herself in our world the whole time I was away, every day. She knew the biology, the physics, and all the nested intricate rule sets of our world like I knew English. It frustrated my Mother; she didn't understand our world at all. She visited Cherry and made her lunch every day, but otherwise she wasn't around much in real.
A communication window dropped open. Mother. "Kelly? How was work?"
"You came home early."
"I finished my calls." She hated it that I ran for home, and Cherry's tent, the minute I squeaked out of the homeless shelter I was sentenced to. Mother thought I should go out clubbing, or networking, or dancing, or anything but tending Cherry. Like that way I'd meet the right guy and have a white beaded wedding dress and wear her grandmother's pearl necklace. Like that way Cherry would cease to exist.
I wouldn't have left Cherry at all, except I was still working off my community service debt for eating Rapture rev. 9 and making Cherry so allergic she had to live in a tent with controlled air and an electronic jungle for habitat.
Before I could touch my daughter, at the end of every day, I had to take a decon shower and pull on an ugly jumpsuit. I had red jumpsuits, and blue ones, and Cherry's favorite, an old purple suit with blue buttons. That should be enough penance. Both the purple suit, and needing one at all. But I had to do community service too, and leave Cherry every day. Community service is like being beaten for falling down a cliff and hurting yourself. Mother picked up Cherry's med bills. Even money wouldn't buy me out of community service.
"Are you going out?" Mother asked.
I hadn't gone out for three months. "Not tonight."
Her image disappeared. She hated it when she couldn't control me. I turned back to Cherry, who was already changing Hilary's salt intake parameters so she'd like the flowers. Just watching Cherry draw her lips up and pull her brows together and ponder solutions was happy entertainment. I turned and tried to sweeten the flowers before she caught on.
Hilary polished off the flowers in moments.
We came out of the world to eat chicken, crawling out the tent door into the huge sterile room. I promised Cherry ice cream to reward her for winning "The War of the Flowers." I cooked chicken breasts in a ten-thousand-dollar mini-kitchen, caressing the smooth lines and hard surfaces, touching the perfectly scrubbed metals the nanobots maintained. Mother bought the kitchen to keep toxins from Cherry, who was like the princess and the pea with food.
I'd twisted something in her DNA when she was the size of my little fingernail, hanging inside my womb. I filled Cherry with love and desire and drugs, before I knew she was there. I remember the day I did it -- my heart smashed open by the Rapture, lying on a bench in Discovery Park, between a cedar forest and the vastness of Puget Sound. I was in love with the trees and the robins and spring, part of them all, a grain of soul that was part of the park, of Seattle, of the world. A brilliant rainbow split the sky, dripping color from the cedars into the sound. I felt safe, deep in Rapture. Then I learned I was pregnant. Three weeks along, somebody I'd met clubbing. I didn't even try to find him. No one knew that rev of Rapture had been badly engineered until just before Cherry's birth.
The chicken tasted garlicky, and I had Cherry guess what went into it. She twisted her face sideways and said, "Garlic . . . basil . . . red pepper," her eyes clamped shut like little stars. She put another shred of chicken breast against her tongue, "and lime juice?"
"You missed the rosemary," I teased.
She took another taste and nodded.
At five, I wouldn't have noticed the difference in the taste and smell of any spices more complex than salt and pepper.
We finished the chicken and licked our fingers, and Cherry nibbled at her vanilla ice cream, rolling her eyes back in her head as the cold touched her tongue. I always worked hard to get her to eat, and she never finished everything I made. She just wanted back into the tent.
After dinner, I called up an old version of The Jungle Book, and we watched Mowgli and Baloo and the Monkey King until the last gasp, and Cherry fell asleep with her back curled against my chest. I'd unbraided her hair, and it fanned across the cushion away from me in red waves. Her eyelashes were light brown strings resting on her cheek.
The next day, on my way home, Dr. Barton called me. "The first human tests worked," she said. I knew what she meant. There was a gene-therapy trial to fix broken immune systems. The feds funded it specifically to reverse drug-induced systemic deficiencies like Cherry's. Part of the renewed "War on Drugs."
"How long?" I asked.
"Maybe only months."
"Who do I talk to?"
"Me. And, and Kelly, you don't have a choice. Cherry needs the therapy."
"I know," I said. "Why wouldn't I give it to her anyway?" What was Dr. Barton thinking?
"Cherry needs an opportunity to be a normal girl. This therapy may give her one."
"So, like, you think I don't want to help her? Of course I want Cherry to be normal."
"That's good, Kelly," Dr. Barton said. "I'll call you when it's Cherry's turn. Remember that you need to do this."
Like I didn't hear her the first time? Why didn't she think I wanted Cherry to be well?
I'd have to do at least a year of community service to pay for the therapy. More time away from home. I shivered. The feds would make Cherry get the therapy, but they'd also make me pay for the procedure, even though Mom would just hand them the money if they asked.
It wasn't only months before Dr. Barton called me back. It was three years. I finished the community service, even the extra for Cherry's therapy. Cherry and I traded Hilary Hippo and the whole jungle ecosystem for an urban setting. We made city parks and little stores and stuffed animals to sell in the stores. Cherry designed a fiddler, Lonesome Jack, to sit on the corners and busk for money. I made a dancer, Serena. Sometimes Serena danced to Jack's fiddle, other times they competed for money from the other virtual townspeople, winning or losing based on how we'd programmed their desires for that day. Cherry started experimenting with supply and demand economics.
Mother gave up on getting me to go out, and I turned twenty-five three days before Cherry turned eight. We made a cake. Mother decontaminated and came in and had a piece of cake, exclaiming politely when we showed her the data wall rips we'd printed for her. She was leaving that afternoon for a season in France, so she spent a whole half-hour with us, and I sighed with relief when she finally left.
The next day, Doctor Barton called to give us our appointment. She would come here; you don't take people with immune deficiencies outside. "You remember you have to do this," she said.
That made me mad. "I want her to have the therapy," I snapped, and hung up.
Cherry and I spent the whole day arguing about what rule sets to use for behavior in the park, and she finally looked up at me and said, "Mom -- what's wrong with you? You're all jitters."
"I'm sorry. Doctor Barton is coming today." I swallowed. Why hadn't I told Cherry? "She says some scientists found a way to change your blood so that you can go outside, and go to a real park."
Cherry looked as if I had said something in a foreign language. Then she blinked, and grabbed my right hand with both of hers. "Don't let her in." The top of her head hurt as it thrust up into my shoulder.
I stood blinking on the drive. I'd ordered food brought in lately, and a whole season had slipped past. City sounds whispered at the edges of our property, past the rows of trees and the huge lawns, barely audible. A car horn, a call of one man to a dog, a snatch of loud drumming. Above me, birds sang. The wind felt cool, and smelled of rotting leaves and smoke. I rubbed my hands together and blew on them, shocked that it felt like a dream to just stand outside.
I watched the empty driveway, pacing and stamping. An hour passed.
She came up the long drive in a silent little blue two-seater hydro-car. Dr. Barton climbed out of the tiny car, a tall blond with a deep tan. She stood for a moment, looking at me as if I were a patient. "You've gotten thinner," she said.
"I'm healthy," I replied.
She looked like she wanted to argue, but she said, "Did you tell Cherry why I'm here today?"
I swallowed, my tongue as big as a softball in my mouth. "She isn't ready."
Dr. Barton smiled. "Remember Doctor Smith? I told her that you'd make it, that you'd be the parent Cherry needs."
"I am. She's not ready. She doesn't want to go outside."
"Of course not."
I rocked back on my heels, looking up at Dr. Barton. She smiled but her eyes were hard. I reminded myself she wasn't much older than me. "I don't see why she has to. Her intelligence and creativity scores, even her math -- they're all over the 98th percentile."
"Let's go in."
"You can't force medical procedures. I know -- I looked it up."
"This is mandated by the government."
"I can keep you out. I can say the risk of her dying from the procedure is more than her staying like she is. It's true. For Cherry. She's in such a safe place that going outside will be worse."
Dr. Barton just walked right past me, opening the door to the hallway where the decon suits hung in neat rows. As she started stripping off her boots, I said, "I can turn you in." My voice trembled.
"Little rich girl gets away with breaking the law?"
She was right. I hated it. I followed her through decon.
I made it into the tent ahead of her. Cherry lay folded into the corner, arms and legs like sticks. She closed the world when I opened the door, freezing images of the city we had created all around us. Lonesome Jack had been caught with a silly smile as he watched Serena dancing. Serena's mouth was tight and round, her eyes squished shut with focus as her foot kicked up past her waist. Her skirt hung in mid-swirl, falling over her high leg, just barely demure.
I eeled around Cherry so that I was at her back. Dr. Barton slowly looked around the inside of the tent, her mouth open wider than Serena's. She had met Hilary Hippo once, when Cherry had just made her, and Hilary's mouth was a slash that pixelated when she smiled. "These . . . these are. . . ." She pulled her eyes away from the street to look at Cherry. "You made this?"
Cherry scrunched back even closer against me and nodded. "I don't want to go to a real park."
Dr. Barton didn't answer right away. Cherry even started to relax a little, the muscles in her back loosening and her elbows bending as her breathing slowed down. When Dr. Barton spoke, it was to me. "Kelly, this is wonderful. It's too bad that no one can live in such a place forever. Perhaps you can keep it, maybe even use it. I bet you could finance Cherry's college with these skills."
I tightened my arm around Cherry. Mom would pay for college, but Cherry couldn't go. Not the way she was now. I tried to picture her strong and beautiful and playing in physical parks. I imagined beautiful young men and women who wanted to sell her drugs or have sex with her. I saw Cherry distracted with the world, the real world, and I was afraid for Lonesome Jack and Serena. Cherry hadn't seen the real sun since her first year. I'd snuck her outside then, and she had almost died from the things she caught.
"You can make her well, and she can still stay here, right?"
"Until you're ready to go out."
"She isn't ready."
Dr. Barton smiled sadly. "You're the adult."
"Cherry?" I asked.
"If I can stay here." She pushed back even further against me.
Dr. Barton's voice had a sharp undertone. "Cherry, you're only eight. Your mom gets to make this decision, and some day, you may need to go outside."
Dr. Barton scraped a bit of Cherry's skin onto a medical slide, and inserted the slide into a palm-sized machine. "Your mother told me you haven't been out in a long time," she said to me.
"Someone has to be with Cherry."
"Someone will still need to be with Cherry." She stuck the tip of a syringe into the machine, into a hole I hadn't even seen, and sucked up some clear liquid. I held my breath.
When the doctor injected the liquid into Cherry's thin arm, I sat a little distance away, dizzy.
It took a long time for the doctor to leave. I wanted her to be gone so badly I heard a nasty tone in my voice, bordering on rude. Maybe I was rude, a little, since I helped her gather everything up and get out the door. When we got to the door, Doctor Barton turned around and looked right at me. "You'll have to go with her for a while and teach her about the world, so she can start school next year."
School? "I can keep teaching her here. She's already doing college-level math. I bet she's the best virt maker in town."
"That's exactly the problem."
The sound of the door closing behind her made me jump. I was crying when I took Cherry into my arms.
"Mommy, what's wrong?"
I shook my head. "I'm sorry -- I didn't mean to scare you."
"Can we make the rules for a real park?"
I turned off all the power in the tent, and lay in the darkness, holding Cherry close. "We don't have to find out just yet," I said. "Not tomorrow."
"Maybe we can go to a real park before your grandmother comes home."
"Do I have to?"
I waited until Cherry's eyes were closed and her breathing soft and even before saying, "Yes."
Copyright © 2003 Brenda Cooper
Brenda Cooper's collaborative fiction with Larry Niven has appeared in Analog and Asimov's. She has published solo fiction and poetry in Analog and The Salal Review, and short non-fiction at futurist.com. She lives in Bellevue, Washington, with her partner Toni, and is the City of Kirkland's CIO by day. For more on her work, see her website. To contact her, send her email at Brendaemail@example.com.