Holiday

Author: Mark Thomas

It was Monday, June 18th and three sets of new customers carrying identical “cosmic pet shuttles” were lined up waiting for the “Hubble Bubble” pet boarding facility to open. Each carrier happened to contain an over-sized Maine Coon cat.

Edwin naturally assumed the three couples were friends, but that wasn’t the case. As the young proprietor unlocked his door the customers were busy introducing themselves and laughing at the multiple coincidences defining their visit. Not only did they all own male, grey, slightly obese cats, but they were all thirty-ish Space Geeks about to drive to the same resort on Clear Lake to witness the arrival of the Mrkos-Pajdusakova comet.

The laughter was flowing and Edwin did his best to share their good humour, but he found the whole situation slightly weird. First of all, he rarely boarded cats, because the animals generally don’t give a shit when their owners disappear for extended periods of time, and the owners generally reciprocate by not providing particularly good care during their absences. As far as Edwin knew, when cat owners went on vacation they just left the toilet lid up and spilled an entire bag of kibble into a shoe box. Edwin’s business model was based on a team of slightly stoned high school co-op students pampering neurotic King Charles Spaniels and Labradoodles. Other pets weren’t really on his radar, despite the outlandish promises on his website.

But Edwin put on his work smile, determined to take advantage of the unexpected windfall, and showed everyone his “cat quarters.” He had mostly copied the local Humane Society’s design, but his cubicles were modified with pet doors that opened onto little fenced outdoor areas.

Everyone was suitably impressed with the facilities so they trooped back to the office area to complete their paperwork. The three humans registered valid credit cards, and the three cats had up-to-date information attached to their microchips.

The customers were bubbly with excitement, so it seemed appropriate to end the meeting with a little joke. Edwin waved the microchip scanner over the neck of one of the women, feigning disappointment when he couldn’t locate her own embedded transponder. But the smile froze on his face when the instrument emitted a loud beep.

“That’s too funny,” one of the women laughed. “Cassie, you’ve been chipped!”

“Look her up in the database!” everyone squealed, so Edwin had to enter the sixteen-digit number into the ISO program on his laptop. They all crowded around the screen to see what secrets would be revealed.
A company name appeared, Proxima L, but when Edwin tried to open a specific file he got the standard “access denied” message that seemed to accompany all wand reading errors, regardless of the cause.

“It’s my dental implants,” Cassie said. “You should see what happens when I walk through security at the airport!” There was more laughter.

“Do me! Do me!” the woman named Carina shouted. But her husband, Leo, said they all should really get in their cars and start the drive north. Traffic was always unpredictable near Vulpecula.

There was a lot of friendly waving and honking as the three cars pulled out of the parking lot.

Edwin placed each pet shuttle in separate quarters and watched the animals as they hopped out of the carriers and tentatively sniffed around. Soon, they had all been seduced by the cat-nip-infused scratching posts and had all selected good spots to recline. The animals happily stretched out their claws and licked the interstices between their toes.

Within minutes, Edwin noticed, they were thoroughly acclimated to the modest pleasures of their new environments, as if they had never, ever lived anywhere else.

The Buoy

Author: Janice Rothganger

Subject 9581 swam against the waves, edging nearer to her objective with each stroke. Salt water crusted her lips. The storm surge pulled her away, then forced her tantalizingly close to the buoy. The marker bobbed in the ocean. It was topped with a flashing amber light to guide her in, if she could just get to it. She reached again…

An alarm sounded in the distance. Initially, Subject 9581 thought it was the fog horn of a distant ship. But when it rang again, she recognized it as her wake-up call. She had failed her mission; they would order yet another sleep cycle.

“Do you remember anything significant?” she was quizzed at the debriefing. Her answer was always the same: she swam further than the previous night, but still could not reach the buoy before she was awakened. The captain’s response was always the same. Inject her with one more milligram, and allow her five more minutes of sleep.

When subject 9581 began the mission, the morning alarm was set for 3:30. Tomorrow’s alarm would go off at precisely 6:20 a.m. Her R.E.M. sleep had gradually shifted with her changing sleep patterns, but still she failed.

Subject 9581 jumped from the platform into the raging sea, just as she had done the past twenty-two nights. Her flotation device was cumbersome, so she took it off. t bounced annoyingly in front of her before finally disappearing into the waves. This happened in every dream since the first night. Distance placards spaced at 1-kilometer intervals noted her progress. The buoy was precisely 55 kilometers from the platform. On her maiden attempt, Subject 9581 advanced just 12 kilometers when the alarm sounded. It would be two weeks before the buoy ever came into sight.

Salt water drew her lips tight and threatened to seal her eyelids shut. As hard as she had fought against the ocean, the elements were striking more blows against her. She scraped the hardened deposits from her face. Through bleary eyes she made out the faint outline of the next marker. Number 52. She would succeed this time. And then she was yanked back to land by the alarm that sounded like a distant ship.

Debriefed. No changes. One more milligram. Set tomorrow’s alarm for 6:25.

Subject 9581 plunged into the ocean, doffed her life jacket, and battled the storm surges. Her mouth and eyes were mercilessly attacked. She ignored the distance markers, focusing only on her swim strokes. The amber light flashed against the sea foam but she was still over 15 kilometers from her objective. Subject 9581 exchanged violent blows with Mother Nature. She was thrust forward and hauled back. The thin tissue around her mouth and eyes bled as she scraped them clean.

Unable to ignore it any longer, she looked for a placard. Number 52, the same as last night. She reasoned that she only had another five minutes, ten at the most. She dug her arms into the surf and thrashed her legs. A storm surge propelled her beyond the 54-kilometer mark. The buoy was within her grasp. She touched it, wrapped her arms around it, and fastened her harness to it. The surge reversed itself, toppling the buoy and pressing Subject 9581 under the waves. Brutal salt water invaded her lungs. Somewhere above, the wake-up alarm sounded. But under the weight of the sea, Subject 9581 heard only the sound of her last breath bubbling from her lips.

The captain bellowed, “Damn it, we’ve lost another one. Get 9582 in here, stat!”

For Unto Us A Child Is Born

Author: Russell Bert Waters

Charlie is throwing a tantrum, that’s all it amounts to.

He had stumbled upon the case files; he had seen the end.

A siren wails in the distance, deeper within the subterranean facility.

Each Charlie we compile begins as a child, knowing nothing.

We gauge the development and determine what age each unit is at various points in time.

A week ago our current Charlie, number nine, was born. Now he’s about two years old.

“Terrible twos…” I mutter to myself.

I’m heading for the cooling controls, Charlie has shut us out of those because he knows that, while being cooled is vital to his survival, it is also his only true vulnerability.

Emotionally Charlie is two; strategically he’s a genius.

And he keeps on getting smarter.

He has managed to find a way past the fail-safes and he now commands a small army of military drones.

One such drone has now come around the corner, hovering, facing me.

“Charlie,” I say calmly, “it’s me, Doctor Eberling. Your friend.”

The drone’s small yet powerful missiles retract into the compartments on the undersides of its wings.

The building’s announcement speakers speak:

“Sing to me, Doctor Ebby, I’m sick. I’m melting. I’m scared.”

My heart breaks. This terrified toddler wants comfort; amid the alarms, the drones, the locked off sections of the building, there is only a doctor and his frightened patient.

I take a deep breath and clear my mind of all of the chaos.

“I’m a little teapot…” I begin.

Somewhere a few hallways away there is a startled yelp, followed by an explosion.

“Short and stout…”

The shouting stops as abruptly as it began.

“Here is my handle…” a loud clamoring, more explosions, apparently they attempted to breach either the mainframe room or maybe the backside of the cooling house.

“Here is my spout…” more explosions, a terrified screech, another explosion.

Silence.

The sirens have stopped also; I have a sad hope that Charlie has been shut down.

You can hear a pin drop.

I pause in my singing.

A moment later “please continue, Doctor Ebby, and do the arm motions.”

All hope lost, a slave to a murderous toddler’s whims, I begin to croak out more song lyrics as all moisture has left my throat and mouth.

“When I get all steamed up, hear me shout…” I completely blank out at this point, trying to reconcile that this is my life now until Charlie overheats for the last time.

The Treads

Author: Thomas Tilton

I was five minutes late to work, which meant an extra 1/10 of a mile on my MPH for the day. But I didn’t care.

It was the day after my birthday. I was nursing a killer hangover and had contemplated calling in sick, but that would mean a demerit and a full 0.5 mile increase on my MPH for the week. I’d practically be at a running pace. No way I could maintain that and make my calls.

I swiped in at 8:05 and was immediately greeted by my co-worker Nate with a smarmy “Well look who decided to show up today!”

Grimacing in greeting, I stepped on my treadmill, starting at a reasonable 3.2 MPH.

“Seph was looking for you,” Nate said. “I told her you were in a meeting with Lancanshire.”

Lancanshire was the big boss. He loved to pull people off the treads for impromptu meetings in his office/racquetball court.

“Thanks, Nate,” I said.

Smarm factor aside, Nate wasn’t a bad guy. He was one of those people who loved to say “Cold enough for ya?!” when it was freezing outside, or “Hey, stay dry!” when it was raining. But besides that, he was a decent person.

So was Seph. But like Nate, she had her quirks. For one thing, her name. Seph was short for Persephone — a lovely name, I thought — but monosyllabic names were in fashion, the kind you could bark across a playing court to either encourage or jeer your opponent no matter how exhausted or played out you were. So one day Persephone asked us to start calling her Seph. I guess she was hoping it would give her a leg up at the company.

Seph also wore ankle weights, a trend started by a few of the hungry young executives who wanted to show management that not only could they work comfortably on treadmills, they also wanted/needed an additional challenge. After work, Seph hit up the gym they all went to as well, hoping to demonstrate her eagerness and indefatigability.

I logged into my email, not surprised to see at least a dozen messages from Seph crowding my inbox. Often she just typed something into the subject line and hit send.

I dialed her extension.

“Seph here.” She was breathing heavily.

“It’s me,” I said. “What speed are you on? You’re almost panting.”

“More than you could handle,” she exhaled. “How’d it go with Lancanshire?”

“Huh? Oh, I mean, fine. Just a little humiliation on the court before coffee,” I said.

“Hey, don’t be modest! He only does that when he feels threatened by someone.”

“Why can’t we all just work in cheerful collaboration?”

“Blasphemer! Anyway, I was trying to get ahold of you to see if you wanted to join the hospitality committee.”

My heart sank at this. An invitation to join the hospitality committee could only mean one thing.

“Who died?”

“Amir in accounts payable.” Amir. We weren’t close, but I knew the guy. He once told me he had lost faith in his religion some time ago, but that he still practiced Islam at work to get off the treads a few times a day. I liked that.

“No way,” I said. “Count me out. Everyone knows the hospitality committee is where people go to die. People are either on the committee for life or die trying.”

Just then a hand clapped my back. I swear I could feel the oily palm through the layers of my clothing.

Lancanshire.

“Hey there, guy. I hear there’s an opening on the hospitality committee.”

The Wobbling Moon

Author: Mark Thomas

The boy and his robot companion walked along the ruined wall to a school complex, as they did every morning.

“Here it is,” the companion said. He pointed to a spot where the stonework changed subtly.

“I still don’t see it.” The boy looked closer. “I mean, the blocks are a little more uniform, and they’re more neatly stacked, but they’re still just stacked.”

“Look at the edge of this particular stone, where it’s been broken. See?”

For several days, the robot companion had been trying to point out the architectural evolution of this rubble wall, at a point in the moon’s ancient history where original inhabitants had improved their building techniques.

“Ooooooh,” the boy said, suddenly understanding. “There’s a hollow in the top brick and a little bump in the lower one. That’s what you’ve been getting at. You’re very clever.” He brushed his finger along the fracture in the stone, feeling tool abrasions that were thousands of years old.

“Careful!” The companion suddenly grabbed the boy’s wrist and pulled it back sharply.

“What is it?” The boy wasn’t particularly concerned. This moon had absolutely no large fauna, so he hadn’t developed a healthy dread of his environment, like inhabitants of other colonies. This moon’s indigenous population was merely a collection of worms and beetles. All of those creatures were capable of defensive stings and bites but young minds had difficulty connecting the mild initial wounds with ensuing infection.

The colonists had been forced to replace visceral fear with patient instruction.

The robot companion elongated his fingers and inserted them into the fissure and carefully probed around. After a moment he withdrew a flat, purple scarab and held it up for the boy to inspect.

“How did you know it was in there?”

The companion pointed to a faint discolouration in the rock. “There are traces of its spoor.”

The boy slapped the robot on its shoulder in a friendly fashion. “Well, you shouldn’t have let me stick my fingers in there, then.”

The robot’s face froze for an instant while it processed the complex information. It wasn’t easy to maneuver through the potential dangers of a new landscape, and preserve the fragile psyche of a developing child. “Point taken. I apologize.”

The boy didn’t want any friction to develop in his relationship with the companion so he quickly refocused his attention on the specimen. “It’s the hairs on the back legs that sting?” he asked.

“Yes.”

The boy recalled an earlier lesson. “And you really believe these little creatures ate the people who built the stone walls?”

“I don’t know if it’s proper to call the old inhabitants people at all.” The companion couldn’t help sounding pedantic. “There are absolutely no remains, so we can’t determine what they looked like.” The companion pointed upwards to a cloudless, blue morning sky where three of the planet’s nine moons were visible. “The environmental change was catastrophic, that’s all we know for sure. I personally attribute it to the eccentric orbits of the moons.”

“They wobble,” the boy said giggling, remembering a much earlier interchange.

The robot companion calculated the trajectories of the three satellites as they moved imperceptibly towards the horizon. “Yes,” he smiled.

“And…and…” the boy was laughing uncontrollably now as he mentally replayed one of their favourite conversations from the past, when the companion was more likely to tell outrageous stories than lecture him about alien biology. “It’s as if we all woke up one morning, and instead of tubers…” The boy couldn’t continue.

“I ate you for breakfast,” the companion added, sadly.