Norman Nebula and Golden Bowl of Mystery

Author: Richard M. O’Donnell, Sr.

Norman reached across the Golden Bowl of Mystery and tugged Saffron’s blindfold down over the corner of her eye. “No fair peeking, you can only touch the objects inside the bowl to guess what they are.”
Saffron pouted her lips.
“Sulking won’t work this time. I’m immune to your charms.”
“Oh, all right,” said Saffron. “No cheating.” She reached into the bowl until she felt something round and surrounded by icy rings. She lifted it up. “This is a planet.”
“Correct.”
Saffron ran her fingers along the edge of the rings. “Too easy, this is Saturn.”
“Right again.”
She held the planet out to Norman. Every time she thought of Norman’s fiery orange nebula with its jet-blue corona, her heart quivered. “Quick,” she said, “put it back before the humans miss it.”
Norman plucked Saturn from her hand. However, instead of returning it, he slipped it into his pocket. “Try again.”
Saffron reached into the bowl and pulled out a cluster of six astro-bodies mutually tidal-locked together with her other hand. She caressed each on in turn. “Let’s see… Two dwarf planets and four moons… Mmmmm.” She smiled, triumphantly. “Pluto and Charon, and their moons Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra.”
“Right again! I didn’t think you’d get that one.”
“Most earthlings still don’t.”
“They’re learning.”
Norman put the double-dwarf planet into his pocket.
“I’m sensing a theme here.” She dipped her hands into the bowel again. “Ice, Titan. These pebbles are the asteroid belt. This big one must be Jupiter.” Then she felt water and she squealed with delight. She tore off her blindfold with one hand and lifted the Earth from the bowl with the other. The planet sparkled like a blue gem with white swirls. “Norman, you’re too sweet.”
“I remembered earth was your point of origin.”
“I was just a tiny particle when I left.” Saffron leaned over and looked inside the golden bowl. “The whole solar system is here!”
“I bought it just for you.”
“You mean I can keep it?”
Norman nodded.
“But how could you afford a planet with sentients on it?”
“They’re on the brink of extinction, so they’ve been put in the bargain bin.”
Saffron cupped the Earth in her hands. “You poor thing. I’ll hang you in a remote part of my nebula, far away from black holes and exploding stars. Maybe you’ll heal.” She kissed the thermosphere. “Even if you don’t, I’ll always treasure you.”
“There’s more.”
“More!”
Norman pulled the Sun out of his pocket and dropped to one knee. He held up the bubbling yellow-orange orb to Saffron. “I selected this because it matches your nebula perfectly. Saffron, will you merge with me?”
Saffron sunset corona beamed like a lighthouse in space. “Yes, of course I’ll merge with you.” She held out her hand and Norman slipped the sun onto her ring finger.
They embraced and the Milky Way seemed to spin just for them.
“I love you so much,” Saffron whispered. “I would have merged with you even if you hadn’t given me the world.”

Thirteen

Author: Russell Bert Waters

The restraints dig into my wrists as I awaken.
“Have you ever truly smelled this city?” a man asks from behind.
“Where am I?” I ask.
I try to look around without moving.
There is an aquarium full of cockroaches on a shelf nearby.
“With its architecture, modern transportation, this city wants to be special, artistic even” my captor continues, “but I submit that it is rotten. You can smell it.”
“Why do you have me? Where am I?” I continue, ignoring his chosen subject.
Everyone has a story, especially crazy people.
I need him to focus on me and my needs; my need to get out of here, for instance.
“You’re down below, in the true heart of this city, where the future is.”
I hear sounds of medical tools being clanked around on a metal tray.
“What are you doing?” I ask, trying to steady my tone of voice to mask my growing terror.
“Preparing you for the future” he replies.
“You get it, you don’t know that you get it, but you do. You understand poison, garbage, filth. You understand the toxic underbelly of this city, this world. You may not understand it as fully as I do yet, but you understand it. Where you and I differ is this: you see it as a bad thing, and I see it as the wave of the future.”
He pauses, and I hear another clank, “there are twelve of us now who intimately understand, you will make it a baker’s dozen.”
“Are those roaches?” I ask, feebly.
“Yes! And these are German Cockroaches. They’re the only ones, so far, I’ve been able to truly work with. They are why we can now move to the human phase of our project.”
I’m not going to be able to hide the terror much longer, and clearly, I will not be able to reason with him. I scan my surroundings, pull against my bindings, trying to find some weakness in this situation that I can exploit.
He moves into my field of vision.
I recognize him.
I was in line at the store after a jog.
He was in front of me. Next to him sat several cases of soda.
“Those things will kill you,” I said.
He regarded me, and I could see his left eye twitching on its own, independent of his right eye.
He smiled “These cans represent the wave of the future. The sugary, poisonous wave of the future.”
I kind of laughed, but I didn’t get it.
Now I get it. I had become a target with that exchange.
“German cockroaches” he continues, bringing me to the present day, “respond well to our manipulations, truly binding to the nervous systems of humans. For now, I have to introduce them to their hosts in a surgical manner. Eventually, they will seek hosts independently, while people sleep perhaps. Their programming will become part of humanity’s overall DNA. Mankind will evolve into human versions of the ultimate survivor: the cockroach.”
Suddenly, he darts out of sight and a needle jabs my neck.
I feel the pressure of something being forced into me, but I’m unsure if it is going into a vein, under my skin, or even into my spine.
The cockroaches abruptly turn toward me, crowding against the glass.
“When you wake, you will have a headache” his voice feels increasingly far away.
“You will need sugar. I recommend soda. It’s fast and effective.”
His eye twitched again, as though something just behind it was moving.
While blacking out, I hear “welcome to the future, number thirteen.”

The Breadhead Boys

Author: Thomas Desrochers

This mess I’m in, it’s kinda my fault. You see, I was hanging down at Louie’s, yackin’ with the other breadheads in the back room, and Mack comes in with this smirk like he’s scored big. I asked him what the deal was and he took me aside and told me, “Hey, Vinnie, buddy, I cracked it, see? I figured out how to grab all of somebody’s information, history, secrets, details, whatever you like, I got it figured out. Total access!”

I asked him, “Mack, you jerkin’ me around?”

Mack just laughed, wrapped an arm across my shoulders. “Vinnie, buddy,” he said, “I’ve got it figured out, I’ve got the hardware, but you know as well as me that I can’t go puttin’ boards in my own head. Let’s make a deal, Vinnie. I test it on you, you get first access. Total information!”

Well. Sounded like a good deal, right? That’s the dream right there. Knowledge is power, like the boys in the chip shops on King Street are always saying, and Mack was offering me all of it.

“Alright,” I told him. “But you gotta take care of me, you hear?”

Mack clapped me on the back. “Vinnie boy, this is gonna be the coolest thing, you know that? This works, we’ll make billions.”

I mean, it really sounded good.

Too good to be true, even.

Well, I’ll give Mack credit. The thing worked flawlessly, and he’s a regular carpenter when it comes to integrating breadboards in the ‘ol cortex.

Well, one problem: I had no control over it. If I saw a person, Mack’s wonderboard would put their entire life in my head whether I wanted it or not. That stopped being funny when I woke up and saw Mack – and screamed. “Well, Vinnie,” he grinned, “Minor technical issues pave the way forward.”

I started to object, but he threw me out on the street. If Mack’s whole life was a little much, think about what it was like being on a crowded street still fuzzy from the anesthetics. Complete overload just about sums it up, instantly bombarded by… well, all of it. I mean, jeeze-louise – the things these people got up to!

I passed out, then came to in an alley. This cop was standing over me with this look on her face like I’d done something real smart.

“A little early for booze,” she said sweetly.

I shook my head trying to focus. “You know,” I said. “I don’t think it’s normal to spend that much on deodorant.”

She wasn’t too hot on me knowing her deepest secrets, but lucky for me her partner stepped into the scene. “He’s not wrong, Beatrice. You spend a ridiculous amount of money on deodorant. But… How did you know that?”

“And you,” I slurred. “Twelve cats in one apartment?”

Beatrice cackled, then tapped her beat-stick where Mack had been cutting. “He’s a breadhead boy, Claire. One of those hooligans always putting homegrown tech in each other.”

Claire narrowed her eyes, chewed her lip. “What sort of screwy thing did you put in there?”

I shrugged. “I can’t know everything, I guess.”

Lucky for me Claire and Beatrice knew a good thing when they saw it. They got me home, got me cleaned up. Every now and then they bring me to see a perp and we fix ‘em better than any black site. Their bosses love it, and the three of us don’t mind cleaning out these thugs’ stashes.

And Mack… Well, he’ll be getting a visit from some soon-to-be detectives. After all, competition is bad for business.

The Souvenir

Author: Hillary Lyon

Micah stood up straight, pushed back his hat and flashed his brightest smile at the tourist taking his picture. They always placed their family members on either side of him and made sure they got the heavily forested mountains in the background. Or sometimes they wanted Micah and their kin to stand before the large, weathered wooden National Forest sign. Being a personable, photogenic Forestry Service employee, Micah always obliged.

A picture is worth a thousand words, but even better, it is evidence that you were there—wherever “there” is. So Micah spent most of his days, of late, posing and smiling with strangers and their relatives. This sunny afternoon was no different.

“So, Ranger Mick, has there been an uptick in visitors since the deregulation? Speculation was places like this would be flooded with—”

“Flooded with friendly visitors, yes,” Micah finished for the pale, pudgy tourist dressed in fluorescent blue and yellow plaid. And those same visitors nearly drowned local businesses with their devalued currency, he added to himself. Deregulating time travel was one thing, but lifting restrictions on the number of travelers each month—that had wreaked havoc on the past. His present.

“And it’s Micah, not Mick,” he added delicately.

Tomorrow-landers—that’s how Micah and his friends thought of these tourists—they all wanted to visit the past, where there were still vast expanses of uninhabited, pollution-free land. Where they’d find clean air, fresh water, food that didn’t come out of a factory spigot, fit women, virile men, and real dogs. Micah worried what the future must be like if so many people there were in such a rush to leave it behind. These tourists were forbidden to talk about their own time, lest they alter the course of the future. But weren’t they altering that course just by being here? Still, the tourists couldn’t help but let details of their lives slip, and what Micah overheard was depressing.

“Treat them as if they are visitors from one of our urban coastal city centers,” the head of the Forestry Service Workers Union had instructed in a memo released last month. “They speak our language, so it will be easy to converse with them. They are curious, though not always polite. But you must be polite and accommodating at all times! Our future depends on it!”

“Hey, Ranger Mick, one more pic for the scrapbook,” the blubbery tourist demanded, raising his camera up to his little pig eye. “Yeah, now Bettina, how about you sidle up next to Ranger Mick, and put your arm around him. That’s great! Now, look into each other’s eyes—”

The young woman reached her flabby arm around Micah’s trim waist and pulled him closer to her. “It’s just like fate!” she said with breathless excitement.

“This is a bit much,” Micah said with nervous laughter, as he attempted to gently pry himself free of her surprisingly strong grip.

“Nah, not for the strapping buck whose going to be my baby’s daddy!” The young woman licked her chapped lips and pulled him in closer to her lumpy frame. “Vacation’s over, Papa—I found the one I want!”

“What?” Micah squeaked, sure that he’d misheard.

“Smile!” The camera snapped. “That’s one for the baby book!” the tourist in plaid sang out with unbridled glee.

Leaving Behind the Bright Lights

Author: E.M. McCarthy

I shop here.

There are better places to stop and shop, better prices, better inventory, but this place reminds me of the good old days, and they replicated the look of the old stores pretty well too. Same bright lights, same late hours, same rows of glass cases filled with pre-packaged foods.

As a kid, I’d stop by a convenience store and buy a can of soda pop, then on the way home, I’d pop the tab and drink it down, feet pounding the pavement, while sunlight streamed down onto my sweaty face. And I mean the real sweat, forced by heat from a strong sun.

A robo clerk stops by me, gives me an eye scan, then moves on. A bag of dried fruit is still out of my price range due to shipping costs. I settle for a pre-packaged meal, third time this week. We grow tomatoes native, so everyone eats sauce and noodles.

This particular store holds a special memory for me. It’s where I purchased my son. Right there in aisle three, I saw him in the newly installed embryo kiosk. I read his description detailing things like his eye color, his intelligence. There was something special about him. It was more than science. Looking through the glass, I fell in love with him. I knew that all I was missing here was a family.

I made the best decision of my life, to purchase him on the spot. The eight-month wait for him to arrive gave me time to file the appropriate paperwork. They don’t let just anyone have a kid. The usual questions had to be answered: job, education level, income, ability to pay. But, with a little luck and a large bribe, it worked out.

What’s missing here are the holidays. I know they don’t “do” holidays.

We need a holiday. It should be Christmas. Christmas has the joy we’re lacking. I can put up an LED image of a tree on our living room wall at least.

Manny would like that. He’s the right age for a train.

They’re selling trains on aisle seven. I need to think about it after seeing the cost. The computer program toy train is pretty realistic and the apartment is cramped.

I pay for my purchases using my phone, adjust my gloves, then push the button on my suit to close my helmet around my head before I venture through the two doors and leave the artificial atmosphere.

This store has no connector tunnel, so I walk outside. The charm of a brief walk to the shuttle ramp is something I cherish. Perhaps I’m old school, but all the indoor stuff gets old.

The night is dark. So dark I fear it. I leave behind the convenience store’s bright lights for the wilderness of Mars.

Then I see them, snowflakes floating in the air above the lighted store.

I replay a song inside my head about a silent night. For one moment, as I shut my eyes, it’s Christmas again.

A red glow from the space station forms above me. In the moment, I miss home. I miss the smell of leaves, the sight of trees. The next generation doesn’t even know what those are, or why they are important.

But I will tell my son. He’ll know. Maybe he’ll be the one to develop a method to grow a tree, and then he’ll see what Christmas can be again.