Science Fiction

Perfect Arm

We had nothing but peace at the Lion’s Paw for as long as I can remember. Ted Parros was a connected fellow, and he looked the part, with matted white hair and a face that rarely smiled. He used to frequent the place, now and then doing business deals in the back poker room, and he didn’t want some punk causing a fuss and drawing any unwanted attention.

He never had to get physical with anyone, but he made damn sure that any troublemaker knew who he was. All it took was a sharp glance, or a tap on the shoulder.

Kenny Heachem was the exact type of guy Ted didn’t want around. He was a bit of a rowdy fellow, but not the loudmouth drunk type that I’ve seen over the years. On occasion, Kenny would wander into my establishment buying rounds of drinks and throwing money all over the bar. He’d place bets with strangers, which wasn’t abnormal at the Lion’s Paw, but he’d want people to put down their earnings for the week, and such a thing rattles the room with all kinds of commotion.

From what I knew at the time, aside from the bets at the Lion’s Paw, Kenny wasn’t involved in any illegal activities. But there was something peculiar about Kenny. He was a large, soft looking man, and he had a shuffle when he walked. The peanut shells on the floor would collect around the tips of his shoes. And whenever I served him drinks he’d give me a long look as if he was waiting for me to say a little more to him. I never let it bother me though. He was a generous tipper, polite enough, and I’d be fine with twenty more customers just like him.

I knew for sure that Ted didn’t care for Kenny. He was quite vocal, once saying, “That piece of shit makes any more noise I’m going to find a way to sew his mouth to his barstool.” Ted said it loud enough so that Kenny would hear it, but Kenny just turned around and looked back at Ted with a laugh.

And there was also that night in the spring, when Kenny sat at the bar drinking some scotch, watching baseball on the television monitors over the bar. A young patron, likely from the college just up the road, sat in the only empty seat in the house, which to his luck happened to be right next to Kenny.

“Do you care for baseball?” asked Kenny.

“I don’t mind it,” said the college kid. “I used to play in high school. I follow it enough I suppose.”

“What do you know about this game, Yankees and Indians?”

“I know the Yankees are going to win. They have Tamada pitching.”

“But the Orioles have this new kid dealing. Pichardo.”

The college kid shrugged. “I don’t know much about him, but his triple-A numbers don’t look all that impressive. They called him up because Crangle got hurt.”

“Well I’m a bit of a believer in this Pichardo. I’ll even bet you on it. Yankees are big favorites, but I’ll give you even odds.”

The kid tipped his head from side to side. “I don’t have all that much to bet you. Maybe a twenty.”

“A twenty? But you think the Yankees are a lock.”

“I do. It’s just all I have really.”

”You can’t dip into your college fund a little?” Kenny said, and he gave the kid a playful nudge on the shoulder.

“No, sir. I can give a call to my father. He likes playing the ponies, and he loves baseball. He might be willing to put up some money.”

“Well, sure. Go on and give him a call.”

“Like hell,” said Ted as he walked up to the bar between the two of them. He pointed a finger close to Kenny’s face. “You can go ahead and bet the kid twenty, but like hell you’re going to let the kid go on and tell his dad about it. His dad could be chief of police for all I know.”

“He isn’t,” said the college kid. “He’s a factory worker.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Ted keeping his focus on Kenny. “Don’t do it, and I’m not going to tell you again.”

Kenny nodded, but as Ted walked away he shrugged his shoulders and turned to the kid. “I’m fine with keeping it a small bet. I’ll even sweeten the deal. I bet you Pichardo throws a no hitter against these Yankees.”

The kid nodded with a smile as he put his twenty on the bar. Kenny put his twenty on top of it, ordered a beer for the kid, and a whiskey for himself.

I hadn’t paid much attention to the game. The bar started to fill with more people, coming in from the concert around the corner that just ended, and damned if my hired hand, Jen, didn’t call in sick to have me all by myself for serving the customers.

I really only noticed the change to the atmosphere when someone shut off the jukebox in the corner, and when all the bikers stopped playing pool to look up at the TVs.

“This bet still going?” I asked.

“Sure as hell,” said Kenny. “Bottom of six.”

“They’re swinging at bad pitches,” said the college kid.

The ballgame continued, and as it did, the bar got real quiet.

“Last hurrah for the Yanks,” said Kenny.

With two out, and two strikes, the Yankee shortstop ground his cleats into the dirt of the batter’s box. Pichardo dealt a perfect curve that arched through the strike zone, and down and away from the batter. The shortstop swung a big hack over top of the ball to end the game.

The silence and tension inside the Lion’s Paw broke and the room erupted with cheers. Everyone but the college kid celebrated with drinks. Kenny picked the two twenties off the bar, and the kid laughed, shook Kenny’s hand, and walked outside for a cab.

That’s when I saw Ted lean in and say something into Kenny’s ear. I couldn’t hear what, but Ted asked me to come to the back room after he returned from taking a piss.

When he left the washroom, I headed to the back poker room. “You stand guard outside the door,” said Ted.

Dust and Blue Smoke

Kennit Martin charged into the playground like a tumbleweed on a mission. “Hey Jeff!” he yelled, still thirty feet away from me. “Steenrud’s bought a whole gallon of gasoline!” He gulped air. “I was at the post office when the creeper came! He said he’s already put the wheels on!”

I threw my boomerang down by the climbing frame. Across the playground, kids dropped bats and balls, put VR glasses and dolls into backpacks. Our lazy summer afternoon had just come into focus.
Old Mr. Steenrud had the only car in town. Sure, there were some biodiesel tractors and electric carts, and the big cargo creepers that crawled slowly along the rough roads. But those weren’t exciting, not like a real old-fashioned car.

It was a Chevrolet, red as blood, and about fifty years old. It lived inside his barn, up on blocks, wheels stacked beside it like giant checkers, and every kid in town was in awe of it. Its speedometer went up to a hundred and fifty miles per hour, ten times as fast as a tractor. Twenty-four hours… I did the multiplication. Why, in one day, it could go anywhere! Minneapolis, Chicago, Winnipeg… maybe even Alaska or Oz!

In ones and twos, kids left the playground, all heading past the drugstore toward the Steenrud place. Soon there was nobody left but me and Luther Petersen. “Come on, Luther!” I said. “Bet he gives us all rides!”

He scuffed a shoe in the dust. “Can’t.”

“C’mon, it’s not far!”

“My mom’d kill me, Jeff. She hates cars. She says they’re why the climate’s in such a mess today.”

“You could come and just watch.”

“Better not.” He turned and walked off towards his home. I felt sorry and relieved and guilty all at the same time: I’d been wondering if being a real friend might mean staying and watching with Luther instead of riding in the car myself, and I didn’t think I could do that.

Outside Steenrud’s barn, it was almost like the county fair had come early. Not just kids, grownups too. Horses tethered everywhere. People had brought plates of cookies and pitchers of lemonade. Oranges and lemons were big crops around there in those days; now they grow most of them up in Canada. I got a gingersnap and a glass of lemonade, and joined the long line. I thought of putting my VR glasses on while I waited, but didn’t. This was better than any of my games.

Mr. Steenrud was already giving people rides, circling the dirt track around the edge of his big field. I stood there, sipped the thin tart lemonade, and watched. There was no wind. Dust and blue smoke hung in the air, harsh and exciting.

Behind me, Ms. Steenrud was talking to somebody. “Never thought I’d see it again, Angie. Six years back he bought some gasoline from somebody, and next day he was swearing fit to bust. Crap wasn’t gasoline at all, it was some kind of cleaning solvent. Gummed her up so bad it took him three months to fix. He swore, if he couldn’t get proper gasoline anymore, he’d just leave her on the blocks. ‘Let the old girl rust in peace,’ he said. But looks like he’s found some. Still won’t tell me what he paid for it.” She laughed, but she didn’t sound quite happy.

Finally it was my turn, with the very last group. The car rolled up and stopped where we were waiting, the red paint gleaming in the warm March sun. Up close, you could see where it had been touched up with paint that wasn’t so shiny, and the front window was cracked. The doors creaked open, and the other passengers lingered for one last moment, then climbed carefully out. They were a few yards away from the car before they started chattering again.

And then we scrambled in. I’d imagined sitting in front, but Amie Telford got to do that. Paul Hartshorne’s dad got in back, in the middle, one foot straddled on each side of a big bump in the floor; I got one window and Paul had the other. Inside, it smelled of straw and horse manure, like the barn. We closed the doors. Mr. Steenrud turned around with a grin.
“Seatbelts all done up? It’s the law!” We fiddled with the awkward metal buckles. He nodded approval. “That’s right, that’s how you do it.”

I reached out to touch a little silver switch on the door. He shook his head.

“Better leave those windows down, the air conditioner hasn’t worked for years.” He grinned and faced forward again.

He pushed on the black steering wheel, and there was a loud honk, just like in the videos. He did something, water squirted onto the front window and two skinny black arms wiped it off again, leaving clean semicircles on the dusty window. The car coughed, and started to make a long, low purr, like a giant cat. And then we started to move.

It felt cooler almost immediately. We went faster and faster. I strained forward to look through the gap between the front seats. The red needle of the speedometer pointed to twenty miles per hour. I couldn’t imagine what a hundred and fifty would be like. We rattled over the bumps in the dirt track, and I was James Bond or Arnold Schwarzenegger or somebody, in an old action video. And we hung out the windows, and pointed our fingers like guns, and felt the wind in our faces, and tried to forget what we’d heard about cars making you sick to your stomach.

We went all round the field twice, and partway round again. Then the engine started to hesitate and stutter and went quiet. The car slowed and stopped.

“Sorry, kids!” said Mr. Steenrud. “Think the gas just ran out.” He tried the starter again, but it just coughed. He bent down and did something else, and the red metal lid ahead of the front window jumped a bit. He got out, walked around to the front, and opened it.

We couldn’t see anything with it up, so we climbed out too, and came around to look. Inside, the front of the car was full of strange shapes in shiny metal and black plastic. What he was looking at was a metal gallon can, with a hose rigged to it with a pipe clamp.

He shook the can; there was no sound but the dry whack of the hose against one of the metal parts. “Yep, that’s it. She’s out. Nothing left. Ride’s over.” His voice was quiet, as if we weren’t there and he was talking to himself.

Back by the barn, a bunch of the others had noticed that the car had stopped. A straggle of grownups and kids were on their way across the field to help.

“Something wrong, Bill?” one of the men asked, when they got there.

“No, she’s fine. Just out of gas,” Mr. Steenrud said. He was still smiling, but he looked tired from all the driving, and his eyes were red from the dust.

Gently, he lowered the lid down. It clunked softly into place. Then he climbed back behind the black steering wheel, and closed his door, and we all pushed the car back to the barn, like a parade.

Robert Dawson teaches mathematics at Saint Mary’s University in Nova Scotia. Apart from math and writing, he enjoys hiking, cycling,
music and fencing. His stories have appeared in Nature, AE, and other publications.

Bioluminescence

I am running.

I am running down a hallway.

I am running down a hallway and they are chasing me, but they won’t catch me.

I don’t know what I am, but all of a sudden, I know I’m fast.


The doctor was in on it the whole time. He pretended to be interested, maybe concerned. But not scared. Not worried. He talked about bioluminescence, about algae that makes whole stretches of coastline glow in the dark. He said “perfectly rational explanation” several times.

Then he told me to relax. He told me I could lie down. He even adjusted the bed for me. “I thought only nurses do that,” I told him. I don’t know if he even heard what I said; the tissue against my nose muffled my words.

He smiled absently, said, “I’m gonna switch out the light so you can rest,” and left the room.

An hour before, I thought I’d never sleep again. But it’s amazing what a dim room and cool air can do.

I slept.

I dreamed.

Murphy’s Traverse

“Murphy, wake up.” The soft female voice seemed distant.

-Beep-

-Ch-click-

-Hsssssst-

“Murphy …”

He tried to roll and found himself restrained.

“Let us disconnect those,” she said.

He cracked an eyelid. The gray, curved interior of his hibernation chamber crowded him.

Awareness returned.

“What?” he croaked.

“There is a problem,” responded the voice. It represented the collective colony-ship Caretaker Programs.

“Why did I take this job?” he muttered.

“You are the Chief Mechanic,” she said.

He groaned. That wasn’t it. He’d wanted to prove himself. But to whom? His idiot engineer stepfather? His snooty, middle-management-drone ex? “It’s a long-term commitment,” they’d both warned with identical mock concern. As if he couldn’t think for himself. As if this was just another big mistake. Well to hell with them and everyone else that made it possible to feel lonely in the midst of twenty-billion people. He didn’t need them.

Here, he had purpose. He was Chief Mechanic. On Aberdeen Ceti Four he would be needed. He could start over without the muddle of uncertainties. He knew his job. No more mistakes. No more regrets.

Murphy flexed and released his muscles. They ached, but otherwise responded well. “How long did I sleep this time?”

“19 years.”

“Seriously?” The mission was only 126 years old!

He cursed the company and its corner-cutting bean counters. Cheap bastards.

Soft pads released tender tissue and retreated into protective compartments. He punched the yellow easy-release panel. His tube hissed open.

“I envy you,” he said, stretching against post-suspension fatigue.

“Please explain.”

“You don’t tire.”

“All systems suffer entropy.”

“But you don’t feel it.”

No response.

Fine.

“What broke this time?”

“Primary thruster one’s containment field is failing.”

Murphy shuffled to a console. The thruster reading was 42%.

Seriously?

He refreshed.

No change.

Murphy toggled to the containment readings—15%. The ship trailed a wide path of radiation.

Jeez.

“What caused this?”

“The south receptor failed to operate to specifications. The field collapsed.”

“So switch to backup.”

“The present unit is the backup.”

“They both failed? Show the analysis.”

The numbers suggested a materials failure—a problem that could not be repaired en route. Murphy returned to the emission display. A huge radiation cone fanned from the thruster.

“Can we increase the others to compensate?”

New calculations appeared. “Not for the entire flight,” she said.

He studied the figures. They could handle the extra load for about 240 years. “Show dispersal if thruster one operated at 100% without containment.”

The cone brightened, but the acceleration kept the ship safely ahead of it.

“That looks okay,” he said.

“It is prohibited to use a containment-free thruster at that power level.”

Murphy rolled his eyes. “Containment regulations are for in-system flight … to protect nearby populations and intersecting ship routes.” You moron.

He examined the hypothetical thruster wear. Removing containment actually increased its longevity. Not that it was enough. At mid-journey the ship would pivot to decelerate, placing the entire payload—cargo, passengers and crew—smack in the middle of that lethal cone. He couldn’t use thruster one for deceleration, but the remaining thrusters alone would wear out before the end.

He considered waking the flight engineer. But an idea struck. “What can we get from thruster one if it only has to last another 360 years?”

The screen displayed an output range with corresponding probabilities of catastrophic failure at year 360—half way. Until then thruster one could operate at 160%.

“If we choose 160% for 360 years, and the remaining thrusters are conserved proportionately to maintain standard acceleration, what is the probability the surviving thrusters could handle deceleration to target, considering the reduced wear?”

The screen changed again. He smiled.

“Perfect,” he said. “Here’s the new plan: remove one’s containment entirely, take it up to 160%, and—”

Three quick tones sequenced the standard “error” signal. “Without containment, thruster one cannot exceed 30% of its standard operating output.”

“Sure it can. The radiation spreads away from the ship.”

“Those performance specifications cannot be attained. They are outside operational parameters.”

“No, they’re not. You’re enforcing a stupid safety rule. It’s got no application here. We’re deep in untraveled interstellar space. It doesn’t matter how much crap we leave in our wake.”

“We cannot exceed established parameters.”

“Override.”

“Safety override requires approval of a majority of administrators.”

“What?”

Murphy folded his arms as the Caretaker Programs repeated the statement like a dimwitted child. He considered his options. The Caretaker Programs would follow rules unfailingly—into the heart of a supernova if that’s where it led.

“How many administrators are there?”

“There are currently 12 administrators.”

“And a majority of them would be …”

“Seven.”

Crap. Murphy rubbed his neck. Despite a 19-year rest he felt exhausted, and the thought of waking six crewmembers to outvote a computer amplified his fatigue.

“You said currently?” he asked. “Has it changed?”

“There were four at startup.”

He strummed his fingers on the console. “Can I add or delete administrators?”

“Yes.”

Bingo.

“How many can there be for a majority of one?”

“There can only be one administrator for a single administrator to be a majority of administrators.”

He tightened his jaw. I hope the Captain doesn’t review this log.

Murphy straightened. “Fine. Delete as administrators each of the following …” He touched the screen—one name at a time—except his.

“Done,” she said.

Murphy whistled softly. He was not a praying man, but he felt the urge now. If he keeled over with a stroke, the colony would be in sorry shape. What lame-brained designer thought it was okay to risk administrator abuse, but not okay to override inapplicable safety protocols? Of course, in Murphy’s experience, engineers and management shared one trait unfailingly: an appalling lack of common sense.

“If I die,” he whispered, not praying, per se, but the closest he’d come in many long years, “bring me back.” He drew a deep breath, and then raised his voice, addressing the Caretaker Programs. “Now, override safety protocol governing thruster power without a containment field.”

“Please specify limiting parameters.”

Really?

“No limiting parameters. Override every such protocol.”

“Done.”

“Bring thruster one to 160%; drop its containment entirely; lower thrusters two, three and four to 68%; maintain those levels until you start halfway procedures.” He cleared his throat and spoke with deliberate care. “Now listen carefully—before you turn the ship around, turn thruster one off! You got that? And shut it down permanently. It is not to be used during deceleration. Put the deceleration load entirely on thrusters two, three and four. Do you understand?”

“Yes.”

He regretted his condescending tone. The Caretaker Programs were not idiots. They were state-of-the-art artificial intelligence. But they took things so literally.

“Now,” he said, relaxing. “Before I hibernate again, give me status of all major systems, and make me a snack.”

Most systems were well-within spec with only minor problems on the horizon. He walked the ship and visually inspected the pumps and actuators showing signs of premature fatigue. His best guess was that at least two of them would fail in the next 100 years. Everything else looked fine.

“Okay. Don’t wake me if you don’t have to. But no matter what, make sure we get there safely.”

“Please specify limiting parameters.”

He shook his head. He had already been over this. “No. You don’t understand. Are there any living things within twelve parsecs of our location?”

“No.”

“—or within 12 parsecs of any point along our path?”

“No.”

“Right. We’re in the middle of nowhere. Safety protocols that do not involve the safety of this ship and its crew and passengers don’t matter. They’re dangerous and unnecessary limitations. Override all of that.”

“That would include the Von Neumann subsystems.”

“That includes every system. This ship and its mission—that’s all you need to worry about. Get us there safe and sound. At all cost. Don’t cut corners. Okay?”

“Yes.”

“Good night.”

The Knack Bomb

When the bomb hit, I was almost inside the ladies’ clothing store where I work. If I hadn’t paused to check out a cute bicycle courier I would have been safe. The bomb detonated silently, coating the street with a brief yellow burst like the mother of all paintball hits. As far as I could see, everything and everybody bloomed yellow, the cars, the houses, the early shoppers. In the next eye blink, the yellow became patchy, and the passers-by, still frozen from shock, wore it like partially melted slickers. The last of the yellow goo evaporated and I was left standing in the doorway with the strangest tingling in my right hand, from the elbow down. The only sound was the scooter accelerating in the direction of the Rijksmuseum. The messenger’s helmet was as yellow as the goo had been.

A knack bomb hit. I’d never been this close before. I’d been two blocks over from the balloon lady who made a mess of last King’s day, filling the whole of Dam Square with orange balloons in the shape of the king’s head and apparently scaring people a lot. It might seem like a fun knack to have, but she had ended up in Detox Camp. What would I get?

It looked normal. My hand. But what I knew about other knack bombs warned me that anything might happen. I closed the door with my left hand, holding the tainted one aloft like it had touched something nasty. I shouldered through to the bathroom, rinsing the evil hand twice and rubbing it dry until it turned red. One eye on the clock – only 10 minutes until the arrival of the Alpha Bitch.

Alpha Bitch, Angelique Roussignon, was the owner of the shop. She loved dressing me in purple satin party dresses to entice the customers. She says. She knows I like minimalist styles and plain dark colors, and I say she just likes torturing me. I don’t call slapping sequins, tassels, lace and embroidery on synthetic taffeta designing, but knowing better won’t pay my bills, so I eat crow and do her bidding.
The shop door ding-donged. Angelique. She wore canary yellow fake Chanel. She sailed through to the back with a garment bag over her arm.

“Look Inge, darling, especially for you, from my Christmas line.” She whipped out something red and sparkly and boned; with white fake fur trim everywhere trim was remotely possible.

I forced down the bad hand, which I was still holding up as if it was contaminated. I kept sneaking peeks at it, but it looked normal. Maybe the knack bomb had been a hallucination. Nothing might have happened, except too much to drink last night and one too many stiff espressos on the way here. Could be.

I didn’t know how to check if I actually had a strange new knack. I wanted time for myself so I could experiment and freak out in peace. I could have slipped off to the bathroom again, but knack couldn’t be washed off anyway. The only thing I could do now was put the freaking-out off until six o’clock.

Angelique tapped her shoe, her red lacquered claws carefully held away from the satin fabric. She never snagged it, I have to say. I didn’t like being touched by her slippery, over-moisturized hands, but I sighed and slipped out of my black sheath, into the red monstrosity. Angelique zipped me up, one hand on my shoulder.

The fabric seemed to tighten around me. I gasped for breath. Black dots danced before my eyes, like when you’ve stood up too fast.

Angelique looked at me oddly.

“What?” I said.

She gestured along my body. “I think this is my best work to date,” she said, awe in her voice. “Incredible. You look – fabulous. Here.” She stepped aside to let me look at myself in the mirrored shop wall.

Wow. I did look fabulous. I looked down at the dress. Still synthetic satin, still overdesigned and overdecorated. But my mirror image showed someone utterly magic and fabulous, like one of these pre-war actresses seen through Vaselined lenses. A glow hung around me and my suddenly hourglass shaped figure. A magic dress.

A knack dress! My eyes flicked to mirror Angelique, staring rapt at her own creation. She didn’t look that different, except maybe a little fuzzy around the edges. She gave me a blood red lipstick to match the dress.

“Get some shoes, will you? I think the red sequin Jimmy Choos.”

The fuzziness of her outline sharpened a bit. Hm.

I looked back at myself. Definitely not me. Still hourglassed and fabulous, though. A slow suspicion trickled through me. Angelique had come in only minutes after me. Maybe she had been caught in the knack bomb. And her newfangled knack was glamouring her own ugly dresses into fabulous creations. When I looked at them, my critical faculties just shut up. I tried thinking about the dress with my eyes closed, and managed to muster something like, derivative. Under normal circumstances I could have written a thousand words why every fashion designer and consumer ought to hate the dress.

I tried to take a deep breath but couldn’t. The dress held my waist and ribs in their unnatural wasp shape. I felt a great desire to rinse my mouth, but the tingle of the shop bell warned me about an early customer.

I turned to walk towards her, and caught a glimpse of grace and elegance in the mirror I’d never possessed before. Sheesh. The fake satin draped like silk.. Old Hollywood meets Valentino. It would have looked right on Queen Máxima.

I waited all day for sirens and policemen in white hazmat suits to show up, but nothing happened. Had none of the good citizens reported the bomb? Maybe the Knack Bombardiers had more popular support than the papers suggested.

The Hands That Coded Heaven

Thursday, December 23, 2044

It was on the seventh day of Rachel’s disappearance that I finally left the house. I felt like the broad whose husband goes out for a pack of smokes and never comes back. I tried to lose the feeling in an afternoon ski amidst the mountains surrounding our cabin, in the graveyards of birch, in the skeletal branches grasping towards the still-hidden sun. We’d camped in the trees here just a year ago, though it seemed an eternity. Time flows strangely up in the mountains, it’s passage bent and slowed by ancient ridges and slopes. I wondered if Rachel was out here somewhere– camping under snow-pregnant pines or down and dying cedar. She loved camping as much as I loved skiing.

I lit a cigarette then, a blend of perique tobacco that I grew myself during the long summers, Rachel hated it, but she was gone and there was nothing for it. The wind picked up, and I wiped tangled threads of snot from my beard as howling gusts pulled hungrily at my exhaled smoke. A final glance at the stand of birch, and I tugged my balaclava back on, chipped a piece of ice off a binding, clicked into my skis, and stripped my sodden cigarette, pocketing the filter. I wished briefly that I’d worn goggles, then set my shoulders before starting a strong stride back home. It felt like a storm was coming, lightning and snow. I kicked off, racing down the valley’s curves, stomping back up the sloping hill of her white belly. My lungs burned, and my breath froze in the mountain air. I was old, out of shape.

An hour later, just as the sun began to hide its face behind the mountains, I crested the final ridge overlooking my little world. I lived in a secluded valley, with a single road winding down the south side. There was a small grove of maples surrounding the house, which was set into a small mound in corner of the valley.

There was also a gleaming black snowmobile purring out front. A man garbed in a parka stood outside. He looked like he was about ready to scale Everest. Maybe he was lost. I took the downhill slowly, savoring my last breath of solitude. I rarely had visitors. That was kind of the point.

“Mikkjal Turing Helmsdal?” They always ask for your name, solicitors and evangelists, like it’ll somehow make you friends right off the bat. He was smothered in layers of goose down and Gore-Tex. Funny. It’d probably never even gotten colder than twenty below up here. He definitely wasn’t a local. Probably an evangelist. I hoped he wasn’t a Neo-Christian. I was already well-acquainted with the faith.

“I don’t need saving, friend, if that’s why you’re here.”

He unwrapped his scarf, and slid off a pair of sunglasses. “I don’t know about that, Mickey. I seem to recall saving your ass on a number of occasions.” He grinned. “Remember when you were chock full of whiskey and Robitussin, trying to get away from Professor Wegler’s wife? You ran gasping into our room and hid under the bed for three hours. I thought you’d lost your marbles, until she came in looking for you. Sounded like a lovely evening.” He looked around. “Looks like you got that all straightened out though, eh?”

I smiled and grabbed the man in a bear hug. I’d met Harrison Yorke at Stanford. I’d doubled in computer science and cognitive psychology. He majored in gender studies, or something equally soft. I’d never really been totally sure. He’d moonlighted as a private detective, though, the old-fashioned kind out of hard-boiled crime novels. Our relationship was less academic than bacchanalian. Not that I mean to imply that we fucked. He’d always been a little thick for my taste.

“Thanks for coming, Harry. I didn’t expect you so soon. You got my letter, then?” I unclipped my skis. I’d sent Harry a message about Rachel’s disappearance two days ago, but I hadn’t thought he’d make it out to my mountain so quickly. My stomach grumbled. “Hold that thought. We’ll talk inside. I’m starved. Come on in. The fire should still be going, and I baked some cookies this morning. It’s deer for dinner, if you can handle that.”

My house warmed up quickly, and we wolfed down some cookies while we waited. I’d ordered a fancy wood stove just before moving out here. I loved watching the fire after it was stoked. I’d grown up in an old farmhouse before I moved to the States; I took an unseemly comfort in crackling flame.

After a pot of coffee and a venison meatloaf, it was pretty easy to catch up with Harry. It seemed he’d kept up with the detective business, and he was a veritable collection of mystery stories, which he shared vociferously.

“You look like you could use another coffee, Harry.” I finished my own, and got up to grind some more. He pulled a flask out of his hip pocket.

“Want to add a little fire to that coffee? I brought a bit of Bushmill Reserve.”

I paused, and eyed the bottle, then shook my head. “No thanks. I haven’t touched the stuff in 20 years. Seems a bit late to start again.”

“Suit yourself, I guess.” He looked surprised. I couldn’t blame him. My liver was the stuff of legends.

“Look, Harry,” I cleared my throat. “I’ll level with you. I do need saving. It’s Rachel. I haven’t seen her in three days. I’m worried.”

“You guys have a fight or something?”

“No, not at all. And it’s not like she can’t come and go as she wants, you know, but she’s never been gone this long, even when she goes into town for the Christmas service.”

He raised his eyebrows. “You remember the last fight you did have?”

I stopped grinding the coffee. “To be honest, I don’t know that we’ve ever had one. No arguments, no yelling, no throwing of plates or anything like that.”

“Really?”

I shrugged. “Really.”

He narrowed his eyes. “She still goes to church, though, huh? You guys never fight about that?”

“Hell, Harry, you know I don’t like it, but I’m not gonna tell Rachel how to run her life. She’s a grown woman, and I love her. I don’t mind it. Really.”

“Right.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Right, right. About the church, though- have you been keeping up with the Neo-Christians?”

“Not a chance. I’ve been out here in the mountains for twenty years. I don’t know shit about them anymore. I swore off it, you know, Neo-Christianity. If it’s got to do with Heaven, you’ve got the wrong guy.” The coffee dripped. I’d tried to swear off Heaven, anyway. Giving up eternal bliss is a hell of a thing. I sure hadn’t forgotten how it felt. You hear sayings sometimes, like: the grass is always greener on the other side, or pink, if you’re seeing it through some old rose-colored glasses, and it’s meant to help ground you and bring you back to reality but the truth of the matter is that sometimes the grass is greener on the other side, and taller, and full of manna.

I pulled my mug, and sipped, sitting quietly for a minute. Harry snorted.

“Oh, don’t give me that shit. You can’t give up Neo-Christianity. You wrote Heaven. You were the first one to jack in. You know it better than anyone.” He squinted at me. “Jesus, you’re scared, aren’t you.”

I snorted right back. “Of course not. You don’t get it. If it has to do with Heaven, I can’t help. It’s not mine anymore, if it ever was. It’s dynamic, to put it lightly, that’s the whole point. The program changes fundamentally every time someone jacks in. It works by reading individual neuron signals, then transcribing and recombining them. It’s like grammar, like a language. It constantly changes in response to new stimuli. That is how you create eternal happiness. Change. It’s not really heaven, you know. It’s a bunch of electric pulses. It’s a game.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Well, I’m no neurologist, but the Neo-Christians don’t think its a game.”

“Yeah, well, it’s hard to think straight while you’re jacked in to paradise.” I finished my coffee. “You’d know, if you’d ever jacked in.”

He shrugged and mimed a knife across his throat. “You know I haven’t. Epileptics can’t jack in. Might kill me. That whole recombination thing doesn’t work so well when you start tossing in random neuron signals.”

The Master’s Voice

Jeff yawned at Allison through the storm door and scrubbed a hand over his shaggy salt and pepper locks. A mahogany bathrobe draped around his ex-jock physique, a body she adored and anticipated great delight in watching him whip back into its former glory.

“Am I bothering you?”

“Never,” he muttered, letting her in.

With the front door sealing off prying eyes, Allison tasted his stale mouth and gummy lips. “Have I ever mentioned how utterly dashing you are in the morning?”

“Sorry.” He yawned again. “Boudica kept going out all night. Driving me nuts. This is a nice wake-up call though.”

“Normally I wouldn’t risk dropping by. Today is extra special. I knew you’d be particularly happy to see me.”

“I’m already way past happy.” He drew her up against him.

A woman’s voice droned from the kitchen. “In. In. In.”

“‘Scuse me,” Jeff mumbled, sliding from her embrace.

Seconds later the back door squealed.

“Eat. Eat,” came the woman’s voice again, followed shortly by the can opener’s dutiful grind. “Eat. Eat,” the voice repeated in lifeless monotone as blobs of wetness sucked loose and splattered.

Allison strolled into the living room to wait, senses tingling from this, her first time inside the Lang residence, though her second actual visit. Six months ago, she’d dropped off contract originals for Jeff’s records–a cordial, professional, totally innocuous appointment, at least to any prying eyes watching at the time. Now the house wove an enticing tale through her casual observations. She absorbed impressions like a thirsty sponge slurping up a puddle.

Dust and dirt accumulated on every available surface–the sign of a mind too preoccupied with matters far beyond mundane concerns like basic house cleaning. Books, magazines and papers lay sprawled, several of the latter bearing the logo of her company and some of those were adorned with hasty scribbles and crossed-out notes. Unopened mail peeked like Easter eggs nestled in stray places: between empty beer bottles, atop grease-stained pizza boxes, on the marble coffee table, beside the Sony plasma, amidst scattered throw pillows and the occasional sock. Allison drank in the trappings of a life she knew to be normally quite tidy and efficient, now screeched to a crawl in a tight holding pattern.

And she approved.

“Sorry I didn’t clean up.” Jeff shuffled in, this time bearing a cheery grin for her instead of a yawn.

“Your maid needs a pep talk.”

“Or maybe a pink slip–wait a minute–I guess that would be me. Anyway, where were–”

The phone whistled, snatching away his smile.

Jeff palmed the handset. “Hello? Who? Lieutenant Fischer…” Twin furrows gouged into his brow. “It’s Saturday, right? You’ve got either really good news or very bad. So which is it?”

A fly’s pesky buzz escaped the handset, the only part of the detective’s report Allison overheard. Behind the whine lurked a paunchy middle-aged cop, a man that, five seconds upon meeting, she’d dismissed in summary order as seasoned but moronic; just another stereotypical male unable to break eye contact off a high-dollar pair of sculpted boobs. Unfortunately her one true dream–not to mention she, herself–remained unfulfilled until Fischer managed to just do his job. No more or less.

Which was really odd.

Here she stood silently cheering on the oafish turd that could actually stink up her whole life forever, should divine intervention somehow inspire the cop to overachieve. Not likely though. Fischer was that stupid.

“Oh my God!” Jeff choked.

Could it be? Heart thudding, Allison drifted over to him, mentally crossing her fingers as she did before every traumatic moment she faced.

“B-burned? Where?” A pause. “No… not where was the car burned. Where was it found? In Brownsville? But no sign of her. Uhhhmm… uhhh. Well, w-what do you think it means?”

The Transceiver

A cold shudder runs through me as I look through the one-way mirror at the psycho in the orange jumpsuit who’s handcuffed to the table. What I’ll see in his head, what I’ll feel and experience first hand will be like living nightmares. I don’t know if I can handle them. I’ve seen some terrible things, but nothing like what he’s done.

The psycho raises a styrofoam cup of hot coffee to his mouth, but the chain connecting his handcuffs to the table is too short, so when he gets the cup halfway up, his arm jerks to a stop and the coffee spills onto the lap of his bright orange coveralls. He swears and frantically squirms in his seat to stop the coffee from scalding him. The pained look on his face tells me that he isn’t succeeding.

Good, I think. He deserves that. That’s fitting for a guy like him. That’s perfect.

He plunks the cup down in front of him and shakes the hot brown liquid from his hands, which sends his chains rattling and clanking over the table’s black metal top.

He doesn’t look like much sitting there, coke-bottle glasses, short salt and pepper hair, and so skinny he seems lost in those orange overalls. With what they told me about him, I imagined some beefy guy with tattoos of little spiders at the corner of his eyes and pipes the size of my head–not somebody who could have been my grade 9 science teacher.

Let someone else do this, my inner voice tells me. Don’t they have people trained to do stuff this? Why the hell does it have to be me?
Then I remind myself of the deal I made, a deal I’ll find nowhere else: get what the authorities need from this lunatic and then the agency goes back to working out how to shut off this mechanism in my head.

Life will be worth living again without it.

Truth Banks

I stare at the gap between the mountain peaks of data. There’s been a break-in.

“Backups?” I say. Fresh snow crunches under our steps.

“Checked. Same gap everywhere.”

I picture the satellites containing the data of the Truth Banks, the supercomputers buried deep underground with backups and revision history, the top-secret security systems. If there’s one heist impossible to pull it’s this one, and yet the fifteen millisecond gap is right before me like a splinter in the holograms.

“Have you sent agents to verify?”

He flips the holo-generator’s lid back on and pockets the device. “Of course, Marcus.”

We turn right in a side-street. As a warning, he’s brought Lilly. She rushes ahead of us, spinning in the falling snow.

He says, “There’s a timer in the code, counting down. To what, we don’t know, but it’s unstoppable. You have until sunrise to find them.”

Lilly gathers snow with her purple gloves, throws the snowball at me.

“And after this?” I say.

Toothy grin. “You do this right, Marcus, and you get her back.”

Fists in my pockets. I nod.

Crouching to give Lilly a kiss on the cheek. “I am your daddy and I will always love you,” I say.

She giggles. “You are funny,” she says.

The agent pats her on the head, still grinning. “I think you’re right, Lilly. He is funny.”

I wipe my tears off with a sleeve, and fixing him a look of utter contempt, start my stopwatch.

The Opening

Vala glided over to the ganglion she was to be operating that day. It was always oppressively cold in the extremities of their Gracious Host, but she knew she would soon be warm, or at least oblivious, in her neural nest.

She was unpleasantly surprised to find that the Consecrated Pilot she was replacing was the survivor they had picked up, Drexel. The one who had an Opening when the Worm he had been piloting fell in battle.

She knew it was pointless to begrudge him his success, so she took a deep breath and then tapped his helmet to let him know she had arrived. His eyes opened slowly. His pupils were great black disks and seemed not to see her. What had those eyes seen? He nodded to indicate that he was sending a request for temporary CNS control of the ganglion during the shift change. He continued to stare at nothing for several moments, until his pupils contracted back into awareness, and his body shivered into life.

She carefully withdrew the terminal spike from his helmet and placed it in the sheath, formally severing his Communion with the nervous system of the Gracious Host. Then she grasped his forearms, planted her feet in the mound of neural flesh, and pulled him out of the morass. The zero-g inertia carried him to the opposite wall. He flipped around to plant his feet on it, and pushed off with just enough force to come lightly to a stop, floating just in front of her.

“Anything interesting during your shift?” Vala asked.

“Nope,” she heard his reply broadcast into her earpiece. “Smooth sailing.” Drexel clasped Vala’s forearm, and Vala reciprocated, inwardly cringing. He helped her up into the fleshy mound, and she soon found herself up to her chest in tissue.

Drexel removed the terminal spike from its sheath. Just as he was about to plunge it through the hole in Vala’s helmet and into her skull, she said, “Wait. What was it like?”

“What was what like?” he asked.

“The Opening!” she responded.

He smiled. “Like the brushing of cloth against your skin, or the scent of the meditation hall.”

“No, really, what was it like?”

He laughed, and his almond eyes seemed to glow. “Come talk to me in the mess after the ceremony. But for now, CNS is waiting on you.” Then he thrust the terminal spike into her brain.

She gasped, as she always did, as her normal sensory space was submerged in that of their Gracious Host, Mzee. Mzee was a massive space-faring creature dubbed a “Turtle” after the terrestrial organism it resembled. If a diamond-hard, jet-black photosynthetic sphere with a mouth stalk and eight limbs for grasping food and firing pellets to attack and maneuver could be said to resemble a turtle.

Once fully connected, the bland taste of empty space-time filled Vala’s mouth, but she could also detect the dim bitterness of the sun, vague pinpricks of flavor from the stars, and the mild sweetness of a distant asteroid. This was her brain’s synaesthetic interpretation of Mzee’s acute sense for space-time curvature. As for the Turtle’s electromagnetic sense, she soon heard her own voice chiming as Mzee emitted a radiolocation wave, and her body then warmed when the wave returned to tell her how far away they were from their quarry.

Sage Bindeen was personally directing the CNS today, and her voice sounded in Vala’s mind. We’re still pursuing the enemy Worm that killed ours. We’ve identified it as Tovian, but we don’t expect to catch up to it for quite a few shifts. It seems to be headed for the closest asteroid, which was recently ceded to us by the Nation of Tove. We’ve requested reinforcements, but we remain the only unit in the area and have been ordered to intercept. Hold the course.

Since today there were no changes in momentum to be made by firing pellets, Vala’s task, as on most days, was to focus on keeping her assigned extremity absolutely still and prevent any rebellion- “disharmony” was the preferred term- on the part of the Gracious Host, and in so doing hone her own mind through the exertions of Communion. Mzee didn’t seem to be putting up much of a fight today, but any lapse in vigilance might give the Turtle a chance to act up and embarrass her. She was determined not to let that happen again.

The shift was mostly uneventful, until at one point she had the eerie sensation that she was not in control of her body. It passed quickly, however, and by the end of the shift it was the continued failure of her ego to dissolve that still bothered her most.