Jain sat on the floor in front of the telset, sheathed completely in shiny purple nylor, bending her head over one spread leg and then the other in imitation of the instructor on the screen. "Doing aerobex again?" her husband, Kroll, asked.
"My class was canceled tonight, I can't only do aerobex twice in one day," Jain said. "I've made so much progress this year."
Yeah, progress in turning yourself into a human greyhound, Kroll thought to himself. His wife, like every woman in Thinopolis, now had the body of a seventeen-year-old boy track star. But that was the consequence of a diet high in FlavKelp and the exercise regimen followed by every resident of the city; body fat had been almost eliminated. And he was sick to death of it.
He went upstairs and carefully removed the telset panel from the bedroom wall. It was no longer possible to watch old movies which showed women of the past-- they contained too much violence, stereotyping, fur-wearing and meat-eating and humor at the expense of others, your telset would detect violation of the digital human rights ordinances and shut down. But behind it he had wedged an ancient, yellowed magazine he had found at a demolition site in Slender City II.
He gazed at the woman on its cover-- Marilyn, they called her. Apparently she had been some kind of sexual idol, back in the mid-20th century, despite the fact that she had large round breasts and a soft face and, most shockingly, broad hips. She was nude in many of the pictures, and although she seemed to have been considered reasonably thin in her day, now her abundant curves and lack of muscle definition made her seem grotesque to most male residents of the urbcens, who would be grossed out by the thought of her eating hamburgers and, no doubt, enjoying the occasional cocktail.
Kroll thought she was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
He was sick of Jain, sick of her toned body, sick of her constant aerobexing, sick of her dieting and careful weighing of every protein slab and carbonugget. He wanted a woman like Marilyn or even, dammit, bigger, rounder, curvier. He thought about jacking off, again, to her image, but decided he needed the energy for what he was going to do tonight. He carefully slid the magazine back into place and then pressed the telset back into its spot on the wall. After tonight he wouldn't need Marilyn's image any more. Maybe eventually Jain would find it, after he was gone, and understand at last why he'd been forced to do what he was about to.
"This is the point where you go back," the slipper said.
"I'm not going back," Kroll said.
"It only gets ugly from here. First, I dig your transmat out of your neck. That's going to hurt like hell. Once it stops being connected to tissue, the chops are alerted. That gives you about 60 seconds to drop over this wall into the perimeter, then scale the perimeter and drop down to the exone. Once you're in the exone, you're gone from Thinopolis forever. Nobody knows you, nobody wants you back. You run and you hide, as fast as you can. That's the story of your life from now on."
"I have to scale the walls myself? I have to hide myself? What did I pay you all those skinnies for?"
"Because if you hadn't, you'd be jumping over a wall with a fifty-foot drop on the other side, instead of a ten-foot one, and there'd be nobody waiting for you in the woods on the other side, not that it would matter at that point anyway. But look, I'm gonna say it again, if you're not committed to going, don't go. It's a no-turning-back deal. I suggest you go back home, bang your scrawny aerobexed wife, and consider the skinnies I get to keep as the price you paid for some excellent advice about not throwing away a perfectly good lifestyle here in Thinopolis."
"I'm not going back," Kroll said again.
"Okay, then bite this towel, because this is going to hurt a lot," the slipper said.
Blood running from the bandage on his neck, a fire up and down one shoulder, Kroll landed on the foamwalk easily, by now it was impossible to hurt yourself in the city itself, Thinopolis took pride in its status as the world's first fully risk-free environment. It was the fall out of Thinopolis that might kill him.
He made a jump at the wall and just managed to get his hands up on the top. Years of mandatory aerobex had made him superbly fit, despite his own wishes, and so he was able to quickly get one leg up and pull himself onto the wall. In the distance he heard the whine of the chops, getting closer. This was it. It was jump down or do ten years-- after being degaussed. He jumped.
The instant he hit the ground the forest seemed to come at him. Figures covered in leaves and camouflage came out, grabbed him, and pulled him with them. It was as if the forest had swallowed him up.
They ran at almost breakneck speed through the forest, crunching sticks underfoot, barely missing low-hanging branches. The pain in his neck started to subside thanks to some strong liquid they forced down his throat once they were under protection of cover. They stopped just long enough for that, and then they ran and kept running.
He could barely keep up with his own feet, making sure they didn't trip and send him sprawling, but even so he couldn't help but begin to look at the group that had rescued him at the edges of Thinopolis. Big, sturdy people, rough-edged and red-faced and sweating, their muscle looked like it was worked for, not toned and shaped. Once he tumbled down and landed on one of the women and she had a sweet smell, a smell he remembered from childhood, not the grassy, chemical smell of FlavKelp and Soymulate eaters. His mother loved a good steak, bacon, fried chicken; that was how she had smelled.
Suddenly a cluster of wooden buildings appeared, and at the same moment Kroll realized that he heard an unfamiliar, disturbing sound: animals. Pigs rooted and squeaked in a pen, dogs barked in excitement at their masters' return, chickens fussed and scratched. Zoos and pets had been outlawed not long after meat, it was demeaning speciesism they said, so Kroll had never seen most of these animals (and, indeed, many pet species-- gerbils, parakeets, goldfish-- had quickly gone extinct). But of course these were not merely pets; they were livestock. Living creatures kept alive to be fed upon. Even Kroll could not resist a certain revulsion at the thought.
The leader, a tall bearded fellow, stopped him and said "You're going with Sarah. She'll get you something to eat while we wait to see if the chops are going to try anything." He looked to see who Sarah was; a round-faced woman with reddish curls looked at him and smiled, dimples forming in her cheeks as she did. He noticed that her jawline was impossible to make out under the softness of her flesh, so different from his wife with her face like a blade. Kroll was happy at the choice.
Inside the wooden frame house Sarah led him to a table and he sat down, exhausted. She took off her parka and he got his first chance to look at her. The word that popped into his head, an archaic word, was womanly. Her rough peasant blouse held two large round breasts; under her skirt swayed broad hips. She wasn't fat, she was just filled out, well-upholstered. She was real. She caught him staring at him and she smiled. "It's okay," she said. "You can look, I know you haven't seen a woman like me in a long time."
She squeezed some apple juice for him, working an old metal juicer by hand, and then lit a fire in the stove. She opened the ice box and he gasped at what she pulled out. It was... it must be the slab of meat from which bacon came, fat and reddish meat stripes. She sliced off a half dozen slices and put them in an iron pan. Within a few moments the smell, the lushly greasy and meaty smell, had filled the house. Kroll was almost ready to swoon.
She came over to him while the bacon cooked and gently cleaned the wound in his neck as well as a few other scratches he'd picked up along the way. Her hand glistened with the bacon grease where she'd held it while slicing, and he instantly loved the smell. Woman and bacon. Heaven.
He was finishing the eggs and bacon and toast in a state of near-delirium, just gazing at Sarah's pale round face and fiery red curls in wonder, she smiling back at him like a nurse glad to see a patient starting to recover, when suddenly she jumped up. "They've tranked the dogs," she said.
He realized then that the constant low-level activity of the dogs had stopped. She pulled him up and out of the kitchen, pausing only a second to press a button on the wall. "Dammit, they cut the alarms," she said when nothing happened. She raced out the back and he could do nothing but follow as fast as she went.
She saw the pigs were still alert, so she opened their gate and started rushing them out through it, grabbing a couple of farm tools along the way. "The chops always freak out at the sight of animals running loose, this'll slow them down," she said. "We're going to the river."
They ran through the trees and then scooted down a riverbed to a hiding place. There was shouting up above, and he could hear horses thundering. "They'll charge them with the horses," she said. "The chops aren't allowed to harm animals, so we can usually chase them off that way." She looked at him and saw the dread in his eyes. "They usually only make one or two tries to get somebody back. If they don't get you the first week, you should be safe."
He looked at her, crouching in the river bed, a woman at home in the natural world, strong and resilient and-- kind. There was legally mandated gender respect in Thinopolis, but little kindness between the sexes. The thought came to him-- even if they get me, it will have been worth it just for these few moments with a woman like her.
They got up when the noise seemed to be over, and climbed back up the riverbed to start rounding up the pigs-- when a chop appeared from between the trees with his electroprod pointed straight at Sarah. "You can't hide from us, you fat cow," the chop leered, and gave her a short burst of electropulse which knocked her backwards like a fist to the face. Kroll didn't even think; he swung the hoe he had been carrying at the chop, cracking his helmet and sending him to the ground. Sinking to his knees, the chop tried to point his electroprod at them again and Kroll swung the blade end of the toward the base of his helmet. It tore through his throat, spraying blood onto the grass, and a little of it spilled onto Sarah's skirt and Kroll's hands, as well. He fell backwards, the blood streaming from his wound. In a moment he was dead.
Sarah was shaken, but more than that, amazed. "You killed for me," she said.
Kroll tried to think of something to say, but words didn't come for a moment as what he had done sank in. "You cooked for me," he finally croaked at her.
They rolled the body into the river, keeping the electroprod, and the dead chop quickly disappeared downstream; then they rounded up the pigs without speaking about it, about any of it. Kroll wasn't sure if he was still welcome in her house or if he was an outcast now, a criminal too dangerous to keep around. If that was how it was to be, he didn't regret it.