Variations on a Theme

Author : Lauren Triola

In Universe A, you meet as children. You become high school sweethearts. You live happily ever after.

In Universe B, your family moves out of the country before he moves to town. You never go back. He marries your childhood friend, only knowing you through pictures and stories.

In Universe C, you meet at the grocery store in college. You both pick out apples at the same time. There are enough for two. You part ways, never speaking.

In Universe D, you had to use the bathroom before shopping. You get there a minute later than he did. You never meet. You always feel something missing.

In Universe E, you live on the Moon. He lives on Mars. You’re pen pals.

In Universe F, there was a run on apples. You both go for the last one. You both laugh. You chat. You get dinner. You get married. Sixty years later, you die within a week of each other and are buried together.

In Universe G, he had a bad day. He yanks the last apple free and stomps to the register. You flip him off. You never speak.

In Universe H, your friend meets him instead. She sets you up on a blind date. It doesn’t go well. You marry the waiter.

In Universe I, there are lizards. Humans do not exist.

In Universe J, your friend marries him. He’s your friend too. You don’t tell either of them about your crush.

In Universe K, they get divorced. You stand by your friend and never see him again.

In Universe L, you see an obituary in the paper. You don’t know the man, but you think it’s such a shame when people die so young.

In Universe M, you have super powers. He is your nemesis. You destroy New York.

In Universes N through T, everything is perfectly normal, but you were never born.

In Universe U, you’re allergic to apples. You meet at the cash register instead.

In Universe V, he breaks your heart. You still love him, and you hate yourself.

In Universe W, there are zombies. He does not exist. You rule Australia.

In Universe X, you work at a coffee shop. He visits frequently, but neither one of you musters the courage to do more than flirt.

In Universe Y, it’s you who has the bad day. You steal the last apple. You never speak to each other.

In Universe Z, you meet as children. You become high school sweethearts. You both plan to go into physics together in college. He dies in a car crash on graduation night. You cry for weeks after the funeral, tinkering with theories to try to distract yourself, wondering what life would be like if things had been different…

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The Rich Can Have All the Lemon Tarts They Want

Author : Janet Shell Anderson

Black holes can now be rented. Aliens may arrive! That’s the headline on everyone’s App.

“The rich can have all the lemon tarts they want.” Another headline. Giovanna Romanova Baldwin said that three days ago, then disappeared.

If Aliens landed, would they steal one of the best looking women in south Florida? She’s what divorce lawyers like me privately call the young second, third, fourth, blond, very good looking wives of older, successful men. Lemon tarts. Giovanna’s my cousin’s fifth wife, to be precise, who could very possibly become a First Lady.

I’m Eudora Pennifer. My cousin’s the ninth richest man on Earth, Perry Austrian Baldwin, a living legend on Wall Street, corporate head of Birnbach BirnBach, Austrian and Meese, United Micro Inc., and BalMart. Ninety-six but on regen, he looks twenty, has the energy of a teenager, is considering a run for the White House. Rich men have done it before. People who know him like him, he says.

I know him.

I know Giovanna too. Now she and her personal trainer Jordan Somebody have disappeared. Giovanna hasn’t been well received by the press since pictures of her on a bearskin rug appeared on everyone’s App. She’s actually a sweetheart.

So she’s an old man’s honey, a lemon tart, a beauty from Bulgaria, married, her big mistake, to my cuz in DelRay, Florida, in his huge house on the waterway. The mansion looks like a flying saucer that made an emergency landing. It gives me the fantods.

You have to drive through a cutout tree, some kind of evergreen that can live in South Florida, to even see the gate. Two miles down the very private lane, the monster residence looks like the White House and the Sydney Opera House, mated by drunken Martians. Wild Squirrel Monkeys slip into windows so high no one can close them properly. It rains in on Carrara marble floors. The monkeys spring across candelabras, hide in high niches with priceless vases. An alligator called Lazarus, because no one can kill him, favors the infinity pool. Maybe he’s eaten Giovanna. If Lazarus got her, he choked down all her designer gowns, Jimmy Choo shoes, and seven alligator bags. Giovanna’s black pug’s missing too.

What has been discovered so far is that two secret service agents assigned to Perry and Giovanna tried to film her in the bathroom, smuggled in three Hungarian prostitutes, swilled seventy bottles of beer. One agent was spotted dead drunk by the pool with Lazarus emerging from the foliage. There was a shooting; the alligator smirked, slid calmly into the waterway. A threatening note was found in the second largest dining room with a crude picture of Perry on it, but it was just written by his mother. She often writes threatening notes as well as novels, political commentary and new wills. She has her own reality show.

Perry’s newest girlfriend, Cynthia, a yoga teacher who’s twenty-one, is lying low in a little-known guesthouse deep in the shrubbery. Her skin’s gilded, her mouth a fuchsia dream; she can wrap her knees around her neck and often does. She’s either from Slovenia or Altoona; no one knows. A lemon tart-in-waiting?

Well, my money is on Giovanna. I think she’s rented a black hole and popped Jordan Somebody, her personal trainer, her designer dresses, Jimmy Choo shoes, alligator bags and herself into it.

Good luck, Giovanna, and remember to feed the pug.

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Song’s Next of Kin

Author : Morrow Brady

Following hospital sedation, Song Jai’s medical file displayed next-of-kin as MAC 1500t, Song’s Mechanised Automaton Companion.

With no legal reason to deny such a request, the hospital duly summoned Mac, Song’s robot assistant.

Mac’s tungsten humanoid frame eased alongside Song’s ward bed and requested access to Song’s medical vitals and history.

Like all robots, Mac’s core Asimov code meant it couldn’t injure a human by action or inaction, couldn’t disobey orders and must protect itself. No-one fully comprehended how the interpretation of these three laws would impact Song’s final order for Mac to be his next-of-kin.

For Song, the outlook wasn’t good. Sepsis had ravaged his body, causing spectacular collapse of his vital organs.

Within the first hour, Mac reported the newly installed tier four nursing software enabled it to provide a higher level of nursing care than any of the current ICU staff. Once approved, Mac withdrew from his devoted perch and proceeded to carry out nursing duties including drug administration, dialysis maintenance, body manipulation and reporting. Live data feeds displayed Song’s condition as Mac whizzed around the hospital bed drawing a crowd at the observation window.

After two hours, Mac reported it now ran level 14 medical diagnostician software, along with a multi-thread live link to 24 key physicians across the world. His request to take over Song’s care could hardly be refused since Mac had now become the smartest doctor in the hospital and probably the country.

Song was not showing any signs of improvement. His vital organs were in a state of collapse and his heart rate and blood pressure monitors played a frightful tune. Song was in tiger country with danger at each turn.

The hospital catered to Mac’s various requests for drugs, equipment and tests, and then a series of strange parcels arrived. Bewildered staff watched as Mac systematically integrated the strangely shaped contents of each parcel into his mechanised form. By the end of day two, Mac had physically expanded by way of strange transformations around his enlarged chest cavity.

On the third day, Mac announced his masterplan to the Administrator, supported by an exhaustive list of integrated medical hardware upgrades. Mac was to load Song’s body into his own body, which now provided full life support.

Following extensive evaluation and consultation, the hospital accepted the proposal. There was simply no facility on the planet that could provide better patient care.

Through the observation window, staff watched Mac dutifully raise Song’s body from the bed and carefully insert him into the made-to-fit cavity. Mac was now nurse, doctor and hospital all in one.

Probes mechanically rotated to insert main arterial lines and a transparent carapace closed over to seal the internal environment from contagion. Filters buried in Mac’s silvery frame began to turn rhythmically to provide blood and oxygen support.

Slowly over 8 hours, Song’s degeneration began to slow and by the end of day four, Song showed signs of improvement.

Staff were witnessing a leap in medical technology.

By week’s end, Song’s improvement had plateaued. The prolonged septic attack had caused cranial swelling and irreparable brain damage.

Although Song’s prognosis was dire, Mac maintained life support and to the hospital’s surprise returned Song to their home.

As next-of-kin, Mac had the right to sustain Song’s comatose body indefinitely. To preserve himself, Mac had to preserve his Master indefinitely and did so for four hundred years until the remnants of Song’s mindless brain had decayed beyond recognition.

Song’s law was added after this event to prevent any non-human from ever again becoming next-of-kin.

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Aoyama has Left the Building

Author : Timothy Marshal-Nichols

It had been on all the news channels but that didn’t make it any the better. Today was the first visit of holiday makers from our nearest inhabited planet Narimiya. Simmons hadn’t been paying attention to those news reports and he’d been called in that very morning to cover at passport control. A right pain it was for him when he arrived and been given the uniform of someone two or more sizes smaller and he’d likely be itching all over for the rest of the week. And if he didn’t make any mistakes then there might be a permanent job in it for him. Never mind, here they were now. And hell, what a load of uglies they were, all misshapen matted fur, unblinking eyes, squat snouts, all clumsy oafs and all ridden with interterrestrial lice — and why the five stumpy legs? What about the one with three noses and stumps so short it could barely walk. Ugh! Never mind, he had a job to do, if he didn’t vomit first. But at least they seemed polite.

And then he saw the, in fact THE, most beautiful sight he’d ever thought possible. It wasn’t exactly human, he wouldn’t say that, it was more like the perfect embodiment of human desire, of female beauty. Sleek, the blue jump suit fitted so tightly it left little to the imagination, you could see the perfect curve of the belly, every ripple of the tiny breasts, every contour of the athletic legs. Even from across the hoverport reception bay he relished the vibrant glow of the jet black hair. Simmons had never desired anyone more so than he did at that moment.

This stunner had arrived a little after the others and — while he handed back a passport to some stump of matted fur and while he tried not to breath in the sulphurous odour this species gave off — he couldn’t believe his luck. The stunner had come to his desk.

“Name,” babbled Simmons.

“Aoyama,” said a melodious voice.

Simmons looked down the list on the computer screen and checked a box. He tried not to stare into the biggest, roundest, most liquid eyes. Then he whispered:

“I shouldn’t do this.”

“Go on be wicked.”

That voice sent a delicious tingle down his spine as he asked: “Would you like me to show you the planet?”

“That would be naughty.”



“Say eight?”

“Eight would be lovely. My hotel, The Carlton. Ask, you already know the name.”

Simmons hands, his whole body, quivered, a new world of possibilities was opening up for him. Aoyama was just about to walk off when Simmons remembered:

“Your passport. It’s my job, it’s what I’m here for.”

Aoyama reached inside a blue handbag, pulled out a Narimiya passport and handed it to Simmons. He noticed the pure white, slender hands and in a daze, still not able to believe his luck, he flicked through the passport just for formalities sake.

“Excuse me,” Simmons said, stumbling he could not think what he should say next.

“Anything wrong, my chickadee?”

“Not as such, not really. Just your passport, your passport… err…”

“Yes, my dear.” Aoyama smiled the sweetest smile and gently lifted the passport from Simmons’ outstretched hand.

“It says: male,” mumbled Simmons, “your not… are you?”

“Sweetheart, you’ve never been to Narimiya have you?” said the sexiest voice on the planet. “See you tonight then.”

Aoyama strolled voluptuously down the corridor and held open the door for the three nosed Narimiya who had such difficulty walking. “Ladies first,” he said.

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Author : Bob Newbell

“This is the Apollo Farstriker, signing off.”

Having completed my weekly report, I tap the transmit key and send my dispatch on its three year journey back to Earth. That being done, I go to the galley. Through the window in the galley, Proxima Centauri seems to slowly revolve around an imaginary circle, an effect of the Apollo Farstriker’s habitation ring’s slow rotation that creates centrifugal “gravity”.

I rub my eyes. I need a good, strong cup of coffee. No, tea, a voice in my head says. Chai tea? Iced tea? “Coffee,” I say out loud, trying to focus. Not as good as a cuppa Darjeeling, I think. How about an espresso?

I sigh. Seven years it’s been like this. And six of those seven alone on this ship. Alone, huh? I smile at that. It’s not an unattractive smile I see reflected in the galley’s beverage station’s housing. The face is rather nondescript and androgynous. There’s a genericism to it. Age, race, sex: You couldn’t make confident determination on any of them based on appearance.

What about a hot chocolate? That was Melinda’s favorite drink. How long has she been dead? Twenty-five years? I can’t believe it’s been that long. God in heaven, I miss my wife.

My husband was a lying, cheating bastard! The thought comes to me unbidden. Can’t believe we were married for almost ten years. And he was banging my best friend for the last three behind my back!

I take a deep breath. Focus.

I tap on my tablet and pull up the latest transmission from the base orbiting Hawking’s World, Proxima Centauri’s small, tidally-locked planet. The automated space station has worked tirelessly for many years, readying itself for my arrival. The report says the Dissociation Facility is nearing completion. Now it’s just a question of the retrieval drones gathering enough organic compounds from the carbonaceous chondrites in the tiny solar system. There’s more than enough raw material there for the Dissociation Facility to deconstitute me.

I look at Proxima again as it describes its little ring. I think of all those who tried to reach it but failed. Small crews, large crews, multigenerational ships, suspended animation. Too much can go wrong and too much did. The only viable solution was I. Was we.

It will be four more years until the Apollo Farstriker arrives at Olympus Station and the 372 genotypically distinct somatic cell populations that comprise me can be separated and reconstituted into 372 different people. And with all due respect to you ladies and gentlemen, I will not miss neuronal multiplexing. The different temperaments; the conflicting political, religious, and philosophical beliefs; the jumbled memories. The whole “gestalt persona” and “emergent metacognition” theories didn’t exactly pan out.

I turn back to the beverage dispenser and hope that some consensus has been reached. It hasn’t. I shake my head, sigh, and hit the control marked “water”.

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