CHARLIE

Author: Suzanne Borchers

CHARLIE had found itself leaning against a trash bin in a nearby alley—alone, jobless, and needing shelter. Its owner had abandoned the retail store to run away with his clerk to parts unknown. It had rained for a week and its once pristine joints now scraped together. CHARLIE needed oil! It needed help!

CHARLIE noticed a collection of humans loitering on the corner. It eyed each individual with its glassy orbs: One man about 50 years old, dark-skinned, powerful shoulders, taller than CHARLIE by almost three feet (CHARLIE stretched up to his full four foot height at this observation.); another man about 70 years old, pale, stooped, with his mouth drawn down; a pinched-lipped woman, wearing a business suit with hair neatly in place; one boy, pale, short, poking the younger boy standing next to him, making him hop up and down, squealing; and a small girl holding onto a wriggling giant puppy which threatened to spill out of her arms.

CHARLIE had been programmed for character-analysis years before its occupation as a bookkeeper at the socks & shoes store. It creaked closer to study the eyes of the humans. The young girl’s eyes softened each time she adjusted the position of the puppy in her arms; the younger boy’s eyes were large and moist; the older boy’s hard eyes shifted to and fro; the woman’s eyes narrowed toward the boys, the old man’s eyes were closed, and the younger man’s brown eyes gazed down the street. No one would help.

The puppy leaped from the girl, knocking her backward and down onto the concrete. Tears welled up in her eyes and she sobbed, “Daddy!”

The dark-skinned man scooped up the dog. “I told you he was too big for you to handle, Joanie. Put your hands down. I’ll hold him.” The dog kicked and wriggled in his arms.

The woman murmured to the old man and then grabbed the older boy’s hand. The younger boy snickered. The young girl held the woman’s skirt.

The public transit vehicle arrived and the six humans climbed inside. It transported them away. The corner was empty. CHARLIE was alone.

Except—

The giant puppy whined, lifted his leg on a straggly tree, and afterward sagged down onto his bottom. He whimpered. He drooped.

CHARLIE felt a pain in its motherboard. How could it leave the puppy there? It was a logically hopeless situation. CHARLIE had no credits, no shelter, no food or water for the puppy and little to no chance to get them. But it had to comfort the puppy and try to help. It limped to the puppy and patted the silky head. It leaned over, careful not to overbalance, and picked the puppy up into its arms.

The puppy relaxed and licked its hand.

“CHARLIE will take care of you.” It looked down at the puppy and up into the eyes of the dark-skinned man.

“Thanks, fella,” the man said. “I got him now.” He gathered the puppy into his solid arms.

CHARLIE floundered for appropriate words and then settled on, “CHARLIE could babysit him for shelter and some oil?”

“Nah.” The man turned and walked away.

CHARLIE stood alone.

Oxygen Isn’t Love

Author: Irene Montaner

I was never good at holding my breath underwater. So the moment the doors closed I knew I only had seconds left to live. Seconds left to think of Luna, alone in that escape pod.

One Mississippi. Two Mississippi.

I used to play that game on hot summer days. We would dip in the lake and hold our breath until we could not hold it any longer and the last to emerge would win. I never made it past ten Mississippis. One day Jack grabbed my leg when I was swimming upwards, struggling for air. He pulled me downwards and kissed me. We were fifteen.

Three Mississippi. Four Mississippi.

Jack made it into the spaceflight academy. I enrolled at a state college and studied applied maths. One day he casually mentioned the station in Pluto and the special missions going on there. He had already been accepted for the brand-new Oort Cloud patrol. I wanted to run away but he said we’d be fine. We left earth together – he as a junior pilot, I as a data scientist. We were twenty-four.

Five Mississippi. Six Mississippi.

Life in the station wasn’t easy. Jack was often away, releasing probes to gather material from the rocks floating in the Oort Cloud. I was stuck in the lab analysing said materials. My days were lonely, long and dark, in spite of the fluorescent lights that were always lit the common areas. At night I often toyed with the blue pill that we were given for emergencies but I never dared to swallow it. I was on my own when I turned twenty-seven. And twenty-eight. And twenty-nine.

Seven Mississippi. Eight Mississippi.

We would fight about anything, Jack and I. Whenever he was around, we spent the day quarrelling about everything. And yet every time he said that things would be fine again and every time I believed him for a short time. It was during one of those truces that we made a baby. Nine months later I gave birth to a girl, a genuine Plutonian. We called her Luna. And things were really okay for a while, until the accident happened. I was thirty-two.

Nine Mississippi. Ten Mississippi.

Sirens hooted and lights blinked. People ran and screamed. No time to think. Jack was out in space and I took Luna with me and rushed to the spaceport, hoping that an escape pod would still be available. All the big ones were gone. I jumped into an individual one, holding Luna tight, and off we flew. The alarm sign went off immediately – not enough oxygen. I tried to calm down in order to reduce my oxygen intake but that wasn’t enough. It was Luna or me. I am thirty-two, she’s only a baby.

Eleven Mississippi.

All I can think of is Luna. Her tiny body, her chubby face, her milky blue eyes, her pouty smile, her perfect everything. I think of Luna drifting alone into space, the escape pod aiming for a planet that might never be a home to her. And I suddenly think that gifting her our oxygen wasn’t love but mercy. And mercy can be merciless.

Rocket Man

Author: David Barber

“Hi, granddad. It’s Tom.”

His granddad’s puzzled gaze flicked between the brothers.

“Look, Corbin’s here. We’ve come to see you.”

“Christ,” muttered Corbin. “Probably keep them under the spell all day. Total immersion software is the new…”

Tom didn’t know how good his granddad’s sight was, so he scraped the plastic chair up close while his brother wandered round the room.

“Did you see the pictures from Zheng He?”

Seven years ago, the Chinese had sacrificed their Europa mission. A last-minute sling-shot round Jupiter flung its optics out into the Kuiper. Now we had snapshots of our peanut-shaped nemesis.

Corbin, peering through the blinds, turned to complain. “Thought we said we wouldn’t…”

Granddad had worked for the old NASA. As a child, Tom had watched him thumping Thanksgiving tables, ranting about the decline and fall of the space program. The family had learned not to ask. But somehow it had turned into nostalgia for an age Tom didn’t even remember.

Years later, Tom’s immersion software company had rode the retro wave with TIS Rocket Man: The future as it should have been, von Braun’s winged and shiny rockets docking with the Big Wheel, engineers in tin space suits, a Mars Fleet setting out.

Corbin went off to find somebody in charge.

His granddad had said Rocket Man should be more matter of fact. Like flying. That it wasn’t about heroes, just smart people doing difficult jobs well. Tom didn’t like to say nobody flew much anymore, but the thought lingered.

Corbin came back. He’d told people what they were doing wrong. Sorted things out.

He said Tom’s style was Reactionary. “You just wait for stuff to happen…”

Corbin bought and sold futures in global processing power. You jumped. You invented the parachute on the way down.

“Read an article said there was still a chance it could miss…”

“Only Deniers say that.”

It would sort itself out. Asia had all the money. Corbin admired and distrusted them. They’d zap it with a giant laser, nuke it, drag it away with solar sails.

“Point is, who knows…”

“…how that sentence ends. You do that every time.”

Take me outside, granddad said. It was like listening to birds squabble. He had no time for all that now.

“Over there,” he insisted. “Next to Max.”

Corbin’s eyes had screened over. They’d agreed to drop out the Net but he couldn’t wait. Tom parked the wheelchair next to the bench where granddad’s friend, Max, sat tucked under a rug.

Granddad beckoned Tom to lean down. “They cancelled Apollo, they cancelled Ares. Always cheaper to do nothing.”

Tom nodded vaguely. A whole generation had been careless of flying. They thought nothing of crossing continents, spanning oceans. With turbulence, night landings, air hostesses in tight skirts! There must be a market for a product like that. TIS Mile High.

“That rock’s a good thing, Tim. Forces us back into space, otherwise, we’re trapped here, and it’s gotten so small, so…”

Later, he explained it again to Max, about the space program, his grandsons, about the dread in his own heart. What sped towards him was incomprehensible, and there was nothing he could do to stop it. It would serve them right. Puzzling to think he wouldn’t be here to say I told you so.

Afterwards, his heart played up again and they wheeled him back for his medication.

“Or they’ll cooperate,” said Max out loud. “No one did before the Melt, but this time we’ll save the planet and feel good about ourselves again.”

Things would get better, he was sure of it.

The End

Joel’s Best Vacation Ever

Author: Tim Ulrich

The doors opened and the small throng Joel was standing with, moved to board the lift. They shuffled into the car, jostling against each other as they settled into an impromptu formation for the brief, but cramped, journey up to the Centerline Station.

He reminisced; so short, it had only been seven months, but it was his most relaxing break in ages. Everything was slower here, and not just emotionally. To get its 0.4g, Layer 9 spun at little more than half the speed of his home Layer, 4. The best part had been that both Layers were governed by the same species. That meant the day cycle was the same (in hours if not rotations); there were minimal cultural and language differences; and, very pleasantly, he didn’t need any additional modifications to breathe the atmosphere. It had been nothing like that disastrous trip to Layer 2.

A chime and the sensation of his boots pulling him to the floor as the lift decelerated, brought him back to reality. There was a chuckle in the cabin as a rider near him outpaced the slowing floor and floated toward the ceiling. Startled, the passenger pulled themselves back down and sheepishly toggled their boots. Better late than never.

Disembarking, the passengers broke off in various directions. The locals mostly heading to jobs in the station, while the outbound travelers made their way to the already packed lines for Inspector review.

The Inspectors always creeped him out. They were fickle; enforcing undocumented rules in a manner so inconsistent that it baffled even the most astute scientists. The Inspectors’ seemingly limitless power over reality didn’t help either.

The bump of an unexpected weight in his pocket distracted him from watching his line’s Inspectors. He opened the catch and felt around. His fingertips found something.

Presenting an unknown object to the Inspectors was not an appealing thought. He looked ahead again and saw a “Quintessor” being addressed by the Inspectors. He was surprised. Always among the last of their species and, as a result, almost as powerful as the Inspectors, “Quintessors” were extremely rare. Before he could decide if pity or awe was a more appropriate feeling, fear resurfaced, and he refocused.

He wrapped his hand around a hard, smooth orb. It was warm, as though someone had been holding it tight before him though he had no idea who.

The Inspectors were now focused on a heavily augmented traveler from Layer 2. The less said about that abomination the better, but Joel was confident they were distracted. Sneaking a glance at the orb he felt fear boil to panic as he recognized an item he had only encountered in stories. Glyphs under the enamel glowed and changed. He couldn’t read the symbols, but there were fewer of them every moment.

With great effort, he pushed the questions of who, how, and why out of his mind to focus on the only one that mattered now. What do you do with an unwanted bomb?

He frantically looked for salvation and locked his eyes on the Inspectors who were now confiscating and vaporizing packages from a unit of Layer 5 clones.

He broke free of the line and sped, yelling, toward the Inspectors.

….

The official report indicated that the quarantine protocols, (including the severing of Layer 9 from the outside world), occurred when a solo attacker charged the Centerline Station Inspectors before detonating an unknown device which demolished a cubic kilometer of the station, in Layer 9’s largest documented explosion.

Online Always

Author: Lance J. Mushung

I stepped onto the yellow and black transfer disk mounted on the gray deck of Delia Akeley and began bouncing like a child expecting candy. I’d be home in moments.

Mickie, the A.I. half of the crew, said through the speaker mounted on the bulkhead, “You may transfer now.”

“I hope my replacement enjoys the time with you as much as I did.”

“I hope you enjoy Earth of your future.”

Pioneer ships like Akeley traveled at high fractions of light speed to deliver transfer disks to habitable systems. Time dilation would make my six months onboard far longer back home.

In the blink of an eye I stood in the institutional-green disk room on Earth. A wall-sized screen showed a head with pale skin, green eyes, and curly auburn hair under a welcome home banner. It was me when I’d transferred to Akeley.

A holo of a dark-skinned dark-haired woman projected next to me. “Sharon McCrae, welcome. I am Isabel, the administrator of this facility. You have been gone 27 years, 137.52 days.”

I dipped my chin. “Thanks.” I resisted the urge to add it had only felt like six months, a quip Isabel probably heard all too often.

“Your billet is C237. A linker patch is on the desk. Place it on the back of your neck. It will link you to the Planet Wide Mesh and an online assistant will then bring you up-to-date.”

Once in C237, I sat by the desk and picked up a small square blue patch. I pressed it on my neck and closed my eyes. The assistant, an androgynous person with tan skin and close-cropped brown hair, appeared in my mind.

The assistant smiled. “Hello, Sharon. I am Claudia. A major advance in comm is people now have thought-controlled implants that replaced all handheld devices. The linker patch is like a low-fidelity implant. It puts you online with the PWM continuously and you can join the five senses of another person. Joining –.”

I interrupted her. “I can essentially be another person?”

“Yes.”

“Please join me with someone sharing something exciting.”

I bounced up and down on the wooden seat of a raft negotiating a river’s rapids. Excited whoops from other passengers and the roar of water almost deafened me while rocks flew past. Although I savored the smell and taste of the water pelting my face, oncoming motion sickness convinced me to stop.

I said, “Another, please.”

A lovely nude Oriental woman was lying on blue silk sheets. I moved closer.

I yelled, “Exit.”

Claudia reappeared. “You are surprised.”

“That shouldn’t be shared.”

“You interrupted me before I explained anyone can join a person without the permission of that person.”

I remained silent as the unpleasant ramifications sank in.

She broke the silence after several seconds. “Should I continue the briefing?”

“Can I have any privacy?”

“Privacy as you think of it does not exist.”

“Must I have an implant?”

“The government implemented them as a crime control measure. Only an insignificant minority do not have one. Those people are considered lunatic fringe and the government isolates them.”

“Can you get me on another ship?”

“Isabel has an opening on the Daniel Boone in two days. Boone’s current velocity means that six-months ship time is approximately 51 years here.”

“I’ll take her.”

They’d tossed a life jacket to a drowning woman. I yanked off the linker and told myself some sanity would return to Earth in half a century.