Special Delivery

Author : Kathy Kachelries, Staff Writer

“I think mine is a girl,” Anju said as she stretched her legs out over the sofa in the resting room. Her hands crossed over her round stomach, which was covered by the stork-printed flannel shirt Special Delivery issued to everyone in the compound. A larger embroidered stork rested over her heart, carrying a swaddled infant in a sling. Most girls were horrified by the logo when they first arrived, but an aide explained that it was simply an ancient myth. No children would actually be dropped from the sky.

“You can’t tell what it is,” Jahnavi said. Her shirt hung around her stomach, deflated, but the next few months would change that. Even with an empty womb, she carried herself as if in her third trimester. Jahnavi had lived in the complex for seven years.

“I can tell,” Anju said. “She feels like a girl.”

“You’ve never been pregnant before,” Jahnavi pointed out.

“I know.”

Shaila listened to the conversation with mild interest, though part of her attention was directed towards the television. For weeks, she’d been trying to teach herself to read by watching American sitcoms with subtitles on, and sometimes, she thought she was getting close. Special Delivery didn’t allow anything but light comedy in the facility. A healthy mind makes a healthy baby, they said. Shaila’s dark eyes drifted to the other two women. “If she thinks it’s a girl, let her think it’s a girl,” she said. Her voice was a quiet warning. “They won’t let her see it, anyways.”

Anju’s hands pressed more firmly against her stomach, but she did not argue. For long moments, the only sound in the resting room was the laugh track of the television and the quick, poorly-dubbed dialogue. Shaila bit at her fingernail as she studied the rapidly moving words at the bottom of the screen. In three years she’d be too old to work for Special Delivery, but she didn’t intend to go back to the factory like most retired surrogates did. Shaila was going to move to the city and get a real job, the kind that she saw in the sitcoms.

“They really won’t let me see her?” Anju asked quietly.

“Why would they? It’s not your baby. Let the real parents worry about it.” Jahnavi waved her hand dismissively, though there was a hint of derision in her voice.

“I’d just like to know if it’s a boy or a girl.”

“Yeah, well. You’ll get over that.”

Another long silence. Shaila rubbed her stomach, which was just beginning to swell. This would be her thirteenth birth. “They look like that,” she finally said as she lifted her hand to the television. “Like those people. Blue or green eyes, red or blond hair. They get named things like Courtney and Jeremy.”

Anju looked at her intently, then fixed her eyes on the screen. “All of them?”

“Most of them. It’s what the parents want.”

Anju looked down at her belly, then back to the colorful television. She seemed to consider the statement carefully. “I hope she has blue eyes,” she said.

Jahnavi grunted. “It’s not your baby,” she said again.

“I don’t care. I hope she has blue eyes and black hair and I hope they name her Madhuri.”

“No one is going to name their baby Madhuri,” Jahnavi said. “No one. You ever seen a Madhuri on TV?”

The silence was tense, and after a few seconds, Shaila turned up the volume on the television. “It’s a perfectly good name,” she said, her words almost drowned beneath the laugh track of the television. “Just save it until you have a kid of your own.”

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Next Season's Hottest Flavor

Author : Kathy Kachelries, Staff Writer

Nine days after receiving the transmission from Claudia, Jisuk found himself sitting in a corner booth at the Leaping Cow pub, grateful that the iciness of his beer disguised its stagnant taste. It wasn’t hard to keep something cold on Luna Mal, where the school uniforms included heavy coats, but until this visit he’d never realized how well the temperature complimented (or disguised) the flavor of the region’s cuisine. When Claudia finally sauntered into the bar, ten minutes late, she unwrapped her scarf and yanked her hat from her head before dropping into place across from him. Her blond hair was a mess, and she smelled like damp wool. Jisuk had been annoyed since leaving Earth for the three day journey to Luna, and his contact’s tardiness didn’t help matters. Unfortunately, Jisuk knew he needed her.

Last year, Claudia had secured an exclusive contract for Mercurian saffron, and the spice had given his menu an advantage over the hydroponic dishes offered by his competition. Now, the rest of the gourmet world was beginning to realize that Terrans preferred their cuisine pulled from the soil—a kind of nostalgia, he imagined—and if he didn’t come up with something new, he risked losing his prestige as an innovator.

Claudia yanked the drawstring of her bag and withdrew a dull metal box slightly larger than his palm. A portable refrigeration unit, he realized. She placed it on the table with a quiet thump and motioned for a server to bring her a glass of water.

“Joraberries,” Claudia told him with a broad smile.

Jisuk’s expression of interest showed a flicker of reservation. “Berries?”

“Not just berries. Joraberries.”

“If this is some kind of Frankenstein fruit, I’m not going to violate-”

“It’s not,” she interrupted. “It’s not engineered at all. All-natural and organic, fresh from an ice cave on Triton.” Her thumb rubbed the box’s fingerprint reader, but she didn’t lift the lid.

“Berries. From an ice cave.”

“The colonists have been living on them for years, but no one on this side of the asteroid belt has heard of them,” Claudia continued. “They’re seeds. Unfertilized, preserved by the nitrogen pools. Aged at least five centuries old. Since the plants are extinct, they’re a limited commodity. And I just bought the cave.”

“Show me,” Jisuk said. The lid of the box flipped open.

For a second, it was impossible to see the contents through the pale fog floating over the surface of the liquid nitrogen. After several seconds, however, the denser gas spilled over the edges and onto the table and revealed several clusters of translucent beads, each seed the size of a large marble and containing a black pit smaller than a sesame seed. They were submerged in the clear fluid, but Claudia retrieved a pair of plastic tongs from her bag and pulled one free, then dropped it into her glass of ice water.

“Like I said, I own the cave,” she said as the berry frosted to an almost opaque white, “and I’ve contracted two groups of migrant workers from Io. If you’re not interested in them, I’m sure Kerry Jenson will be.”

The mention of his main competitor caused Jisuk’s eyes to narrow. “If they’re any good, I’ll buy them,” he said. “If they’re not, it’ll be Jenson’s loss.”

Claudia shrugged. Seconds of silence passed before she fished the berry from the ice water with her tongs, then motioned for Jisuk to extend his hand. He complied. The skin of the seed felt like frozen leather. He touched his tongue to the berry, then popped it into his mouth and bit hard, hard enough to pop the thick coating. The inside was gelatinous but shot through with ice crystals–a fascinating texture, one strong enough to feature the betty prominantly in desserts. The taste developed a second later: sweet, but with an acidic tinge. Versatile, excellent for marinades, and he could already imagine a martini flavored by its extract.

“They’re good,” he said. He swallowed the gel and chewed the skin, which dissolved almost immediately into syrup. “Excellent.”

“It’s what I do,” Claudia said. She waited before continuing. “Thirteen credits a pound,” she told him. “Including shipping. They’ll come like this, in nitrogen.”

“Write up the contract,” Jisuk said after running his tongue across his teeth to lick away the last of the berry’s juice.

“You’ll have it within the week,” Claudia said, grinning before pulling her hat over her head and rising to her feet. “Pleasure doing business with you.”

Jisuk nodded. He reached for her tongs, taking another icy sphere from the liquid and dipping it in the ice water to thaw.

“What about the colonists?” he asked as he lifted the berry to his mouth.

“What about them?”

“You said this is what they eat.”

“Oh, they’ll manage,” Claudia said. “They’re a resourceful people.”

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In Remembrance

The Lethe was plastic, white. It bore the black logo of Mnemoprises and a large yellow caution sticker that warned ebayers and Chinatown chopshop owners that it was illegal to use without proper company-granted certification. None of them listened, of course. The list of warnings was seemingly endless, but Xiu knew that most of the threats were empty. Permanent neurological damage. Wasn’t that what the machine was for?

She operated out of a small room in the back of a tourist dump, and every day she had to brush past curtains of t-shirts (“3 for $10!” the handwritten sign informed) and “Vacation souvenir’s!!!” (punctuation intact). The store had belonged to her father, and his father before him, and now it belonged to her brother. As the oldest, it should have gone to her, but they were a traditional family. A woman couldn’t be trusted to run the business. This didn’t bother Xiu, who made more money from one appointment than her brother made in a week. They were different businesses, tourist dumps and memory holes. People paid more to forget than to remember.

Her appointment book that day was filled with the usual: witnesses who didn’t want to take the stand, thieves who didn’t want to know where their money came from in case the feds mindmined them. She was an expert, though she lacked the certificate Mnemoprises offered. The man who had sold her the Lethe had taught her the subtleties of memory. Her first appointment wanted to forget a night in Atlantic City, where he’d gambled away half of his child’s college fund. “I’m going to claim I was robbed,” he told her. Implausible, but it wasn’t Xiu’s job to question. She used the device like a surgeon, precise and cool as a sharp scalpel. There was no collateral damage.

The second was a love story, a woman whose husband had left her for a history teacher. A male history teacher, no less. “How could I have known?” she sobbed. Again, the scalpel.

The last client, the one at the end of the day, was a woman with straight brown hair and a child in tow. He couldn’t have been older than eight. Xiu motioned to the chair in front of the Lethe, but the woman nudged the boy forward. He sat on the stool. His eyes were red and he sniffed, rubbing his nose on the sleeve of his sweatshirt and leaving a sparkling line of mucus. Xiu gestured the woman back into the tourist dump.

“I don’t do this on kids,” she said.

“It’s nothing bad,” the woman told her. “He just needs someone to help. I’ll pay well.”

Xiu needed to be paid well. “What’s the case?”

“It’s my husband’s father,” she said. “His grandfather. They were very close.”

Xiu frowned and tugged at the hem of her shirt, suddenly nervous. “He died,” she said. It was more of a statement than a question.

“Yes.”

Xiu considered this, silently weighing her options. “His mind is still growing,”

“He’s been crying for months.”

“He misses his grandfather. It’s natural.”

“It’s not natural to cry for months.”

Her fingers knotted around the elastic hem. “And you need him wiped. Everything.”

“Can’t you just make him forget that he’s dead?”

“If he knows he had a grandfather, he’ll wonder where that grandfather went. Wiping’s the only solution.”

The woman was silent for a long time. Slowly, she reached into her purse and withdrew a thick envelope. Only cash had value here. Xiu accepted it with a subtle bow of her head. “He’ll regret this,” she warned. “Never knowing his grandfather.”

“He won’t know to regret it,” the woman told her. Somehow, the woman knew more about this procedure than she did.

Xiu led her back into the room and sat down opposite the boy, whose eyes were dark and pink from endless rubbing. “Give me your hand,” she said, and placed his small palm against the larger palm outline on the Lethe. Xiu turned on the machine and it hummed to life, ready to swallow the past.

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The Delicacies of Zombiekind

Author : Kathy Kachelries, Staff Writer

That Halloween, the ship decided to be a ghost.

The ship itself wanted to use an oversized sheet, but Tommy laughed at the artificial intelligence and pointed out that there was no way his mother would be able to find a sheet that big. It was a small ship, the kind most kids in his middle school got when they turned twelve, but even a small ship would require at least three or four king sized sheets, and besides, where would they put the eyes? It was a terrible idea. Being a ghost was fine, Tommy said, but the ship would have to be a ghost ship. Tommy himself would have to be the ghost driver.

Tommy placated the ship by allowing it to have a ghost flag, which was a pillowcase with a ghost drawn on it with permanent marker. He hadn’t asked first, but his family had plenty of pillowcases. He only used one pillow; his sister used four. He felt justified in his decision to give the ship what it wanted.

The ghost costume itself (the ship’s, not Tommy’s) was accomplished with a lot of dark tempera paint, the kind that most kids used to paint names, sports logos, and witty comments on their ships during the school year. He smeared it over the white plastimetal surface as the ship sat contentedly on its three landing feet, humming a popular tune through its speakers. The paint didn’t go over quite as well as he hoped. Rather than looking like soot or rust from outer space, it looked like fingerpaint, like a prank gone very poorly. Tommy didn’t tell the ship, though. He didn’t want to hurt its feelings.

His own costume was slightly more involved than the sheet would have been. Tommy used the leftover paint to smear over the only white pair of pants and shirt in the house, which he’d found in his older brother’s drawer, and after they were sufficiently filthy he went at them with a wire cutter, which was the only sharp thing he could find in his father’s workshop. When he came back outside, the ship whistled contentedly.

“I think we should be zombies instead of ghosts,” Tommy said. They looked more like zombies anyways. He drew a new flag on a new pillowcase, this one with a caption declaring a lust for brains, and he rubbed the last bit from the bottom of his paint jar over his face. They made much better zombies than ghosts, though he wasn’t sure if a ship could be a zombie. Either way, he again decided not to mention it. His ship was more sensitive than most, and often took things the wrong way.

Tommy’s mother took the usual pictures, and gave her usual lecture to the ship about its responsibility for the safety of the boy. “Braaaaaains,” the ship declared, and it plotted a course through the city. The year before, they’d charted out the best towers for candy and prizes, determined not to waste their valuable time in the wrong districts. By the end of the four hour window permitted by the city, the trunk of the zombie-ship was nearly full. Because his mother’s curfew was an hour later, the ship landed on a public pad atop one of the tallest buildings and they rolled to the edge as Tommy popped the front dome to look out over the twinkling city.

“Sorry you can’t eat candy,” he told the ship as he pulled the wrapper off a piece of caramel. The ship ate nothing, not even fossil fuels, sipping its power off of a hydrogen battery.

“It’s okay,” the ship said. Its internal lights flared with contentment. “I prefer eating brains, anyways.”

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The Last Question

The Sears catalogue offers dozens of models of BlogBots, but it claims that its most popular is the X451, used to conduct remote interviews. During an average three years of service, the X451 BlogBot will recite hundreds of questions posted to its forum and transcribe the answers of over 50 interviewees. Some interviewees are celebrities, and some are politicians. Many are general surveys, where the BlogBot is positioned in a public space and repeats the same question to a given number of pedestrians.

Once, the legend goes, a kid asked his favorite site’s BlogBot to interview another BlogBot, this one belonging to a fiction site, and provided it with a single question: “Why do you do it?” A BlogBot’s programming is rudimentary by conventional standards, and it’s considered slightly less intelligent than the average car. When the question was posed to the fiction BlogBot, it nearly crashed, but its adaptive software saved it by processing the question as an incomplete answer rather than an inquiry.

People say science fiction is prophetic, but that isn’t entirely true. Science fiction isn’t about the future. It’s about the world we live in now, which is constant and constantly changing. The specifics change, from hovercars and ray guns to genetic engineering and cyberspace, but at the center of every science fiction story there’s something alive, something human. And that never changes.

The first answer was not an answer. The second BlogBot coolly repeated the words it had been given, and the BlogBot conducting the interview lapsed into a similar state. For several minutes, the room was filled with two voices as the BlogBots recited the question over and over. Each repetition was classified as a follow-up question, and in accordance with its programming, nothing could be converted to text until a final answer had been given.

Of course, it’s difficult to come up with ideas sometimes. You get discouraged, or feel like everything’s been done before. Often, it has. Sometimes the ideas are wonderful, and sometimes they’re less than wonderful. But you do it anyways, because that’s what writing is about.

It took the webmaster over an hour to realize that something was wrong, and it took three days to find the missing BlogBots. When they were recovered they were still locked in battle, though their words were now slurred by dying batteries. Not a single word had been converted to text. The question was never answered.

When readers try to thank me for writing, I never understand it. On their own, words are nothing but lead and ink and pixels. Telling a story is a circle: the writer writes, the reader reads, and worlds are created. I’m constantly thanking my readers. Sometimes, it’s just more obvious than others.

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