Checking Out

“Any personal belongings you’ll need accommodated in your craft, Mr. Mercer?”

“Nope.” John shook his head at the distribution agent before him. “No baggage.”

It was John Mercer’s last day on Earth.

He’d lived here for thirty-eight years, give or take a decade or so spent on Luna or the nearby outposts. Never once had he gone out of the solar system, not even on vacation. John Mercer had spent his life working, just like everyone else. He’d been a paper-pusher, a street cleaner, an asteroid skimmer, a window-washer, a cheap thug, and even a postman for a few months, but no matter where he went, she followed him. There was nothing he could do to escape her. Nothing except this.

As John climbed into the small craft the distributor had assigned him, he felt the weight of those thirty-eight years shifting, readying for flight just as he was. Her face lingered in the back of his mind, stern and matronly, as it had since he was a child hitting baseballs into solar panels. He grinned to himself as he closed the hatch and flicked the switches to prepare the in-ship lights for flight mode.

After today, he’d never see the face of the Earth again. After today he’d no longer be a paper-pusher or a street cleaner or an asteroid skimmer or a window-washer. He’d be a pilot, somewhere in the outer colonies—goodness only knew where. John hadn’t specified. He’d just asked for a first assignment somewhere where he’d never be able to come back.

The base doors slid open and John met the field of stars with the white of his teeth. He could feel the rumbling of the ignition through his entire body and made sure the IV drip in his arm was secure. He wouldn’t want to wake up during the jump, after all. As the outpost’s bulkheads fell away beneath him, he stared a challenge back at the blue-green planet he had once called his home. So long, Earth. Nice knowing you.

The drip started right on schedule, just as the engines shot him away from everything he wanted to forget. His consciousness dissolved in time with the drip of the IV, and he could feel her face dissipating as well, fading away as surely as the planet behind him. With his last moment of coherence before the three-year jump, John Mercer grinned.

No baggage.

Late

In the full body cycle Linda’s chest burned, sweat slipping into her eyebrows. She could feel their eyes on her, the children watching the old woman strain. The lines of her skin betrayed her. Generations blended, their cells dividing perfectly, making exact copies, eternally renewed. She pressed her arms and legs into faster rotation.

Last night she lay with her lover, his head on her naked breast, silent, exhausted, fulfilled. He traced his fingers over her body, touching the tiny red dots that marked her age. He pressed his nail harder with each mark, pinching her skin.

“Can’t you get rid of these?” She stiffened.

“Gregory, I was stabilized late.” His soft face twisted.

“I know, I just thought there might be some treatment.” She shook her head.

“There isn’t. They’ve stopped looking into those problems a long time ago.” He rolled his eyes and bit his lip, like a child denied its favorite toy.

“Are you sure? Have you asked your doctor?” She laid her hand on his soft curls and swallowed. She wanted to sound firm, but her voice was small.

“No. There isn’t anything.” He rose and sat on the edge of the bed. His back was a blank screen.

“It just looks like you don’t care.”

Linda spun faster till she could feel her heartbeat, till the sweat salt reached her chin. Around her, the frozen faces of youth skipped blithely though the gym routines, perfect curves in infinite wheels.

Favor Fishing

Malcolm should have been thinking about shrimp, but he was thinking about Sumitra’s smile instead. He hated himself for it, but he was almost glad for the leak in the shrimp pond, since it gave him an excuse to call her. And Sumitra’s voice was well worth the cost of a call from Lee County to Bangkok, or wherever the heck she lived.

Whether it was worth asking a favor from Clem Greentower, well, that was another matter entirely. Sumitra did smile on the phone’s display screen when she saw it was Malcolm calling. She’d only been doing that recently. And that smile went a long way.

“Clem, I need to borrow your boys.” Malcolm shifted from one foot to another. The itinerate glow of Clem’s bug zapper made Malcolm uncomfortable. He twitched every time a mosquito got too close and the passive azure energy erupted. Mosquitoes were as big as Malcolm’s thumb this year, and their charred husks littered Clem’s porch.

Clem regarded Malcolm with folded arms. “Whatcha need ’em for? I know for a fact that you ain’t got no more stumps.” Clem was not a tall man, but he made up for it in girth and attitude. “They sure as hell ain’t plowin’ your field for you.”

“Aww, Clem, I wouldn’t ask for them to plow. I’m hurt you said that. ‘Sides, you know as well as I do that the state won’t let me plant tobacco on Pa’s field no more.” Malcolm searched for sympathy in Clem’s face, but found none. “Shoot, Clem. I just need ‘em to walk around.”

“Walk around?”

“Yessir. See, my shrimp pond—the one the state suggested I put on Pa’s land ‘stead of tobacco—my shrimp pond has a leak.”

“You can just put Hydrochlrone in it, cantcha?”

“Nope, that’ll kill the shrimp. Now, I called my friend Sumitra. She does this sorta thing up in Thailand, and she says to just let some cattle graze around the pond to compact the earth. There ain’t been cows within miles of this county since the plant went, Clem. But I got to thinking, you been giving your boys beef hormones since they’ve been old enough to crawl.”

“You just gonna have ‘em walk? I charge for labor, you know.”

“I’m aware of that, Clem. You can ask ’em when I’m done if they did anything but circle the pond.”

“I will, too.” Clem said. “‘Spose you want ’em now?”

“If it ain’t a bother.” Clem grunted and went back inside the house. Malcolm removed his cap to scratch at his hairless scalp, and watched as another mosquito twitched its last. He didn’t know why he felt the need to mention Sumitra. Covered in the blue light, Malcolm felt very exposed.

Clem’s boys pounded out of the front door, five love-children of some epic tryst of an elephant and a refrigerator, the blue light glinting off their bald heads. Four of the boys had moonstruck, glazed-over faces, save for the oldest, who’s mind probably had the most time to develop before his father took nature into his own hands and stunted the developing grey matter with muscle steroids.

“Pa said we’re suppose to go with you, Mister.”

“Well, you best come on then,” Malcolm said, and led the boys onto the bed of his pick-up. Malcolm’s truck was not an old model, but it strained under the weight nonetheless.

Down at the shrimp pond, Malcolm gave the boys as much direction as he could, then busied himself by dumping bags of sugar into the pond water.

“That ain’t sugar, is it?” the eldest of Clem’s boys asked.

“Yep, it is.”

“Whatcha puttin’ it in the pond for?”

“It’s to control the PH bal…it’s to fix the acid it…it’s to make the shrimp sweeter.”

“Oh! That’s really smart!”

“Yeah, it is. My friend Sumitra told me about it. She’s a smart girl.” There he was, bringing her up again! If Malcolm could, he’d kick himself in the ass.

“Is she your girlfriend? Are you gonna get married?”

“I seriously doubt it. She ain’t gonna want some poor son of a tobacco farmer who’s been on this land so long he ain’t got no hair and his piss glows in the dark.”

“I dunno, she might. You don’t know.” Clem’s eldest contemplated joining his brothers walking around the pond, but thought better of it, and turned his attention back to Malcolm. “I got a girlfriend. Least, I like her a lot. Her name’s Chablis. She’s got the prettiest hair.”

That would be Chablis Levee, Malcolm thought. He remembered her from school. “She wears a wig, you know.”

“She does? Huh.” Malcolm watched the gummed-up mental calculations necessary to process this new information play across the boy’s face. “I guess it don’t matter. I like her anyway. It looks good on her. I think she likes me, too. She smiles whenever she sees me.”

“That’s usually a good sign.”

“Thought so. That’s why I smiled back. One day, I’m definitely gonna ask to hold her hand.” The boy’s giant eyes shifted down to Malcolm’s bags. “Can I have some of your sugar?” Malcolm couldn’t help but chuckle.

“Sure thing. Just don’t tell your Pa.”

“Oh, I won’t.” The titan offspring of Clem Greentower licked a gargantuan finger and jammed it into a sugar bag, only to quickly shove it deep in his mouth. “Oh, man. That’s good. I don’t think that anything could ever be better than that, ever.”

Malcolm found himself doing the same with his own finger. “You’re right. That is good.”

“You’re a good man, Mister,” Clem’s boy said. “I like you. You ever hold your girlfriend’s hand?”

“No, I…I haven’t. She lives…I just haven’t.”

“You should ask. I bet she’d let you if you asked. It never hurts to ask.”

Because We Can

The officer approached, hands clasped behind his back, staring unabashedly at the young astronaut, raising his slender brow in cynical awareness of the situation. He reached across the stark white table and clicked the record button on the small tape recorder. His voice was deep and disturbingly serene for the nature of the interrogation, “Why don’t you tell us that, again?”

Johnnie sighed and wiped his sweaty hands on his knees. He was nervous, but that was all relative now. “It was like I said. Routine mission, you know, standard stuff. We were unloading an empty O-2 tank to refuel at the space station. It was Bucks, Johnston and I carrying the load, out there in harsh space in our suits. And, like I said–” The military official interrupted Johnnie.

“You do know that the vacuum of space will kill a human being, don’t you?”

“That’s what we were meant to think.”

“What do you mean? Go on.”

Johnnie nodded, “I was curious, I mean… no one has ever died in space before and I really wondered how they knew. I wondered how they could possibly know what could happen. It’s like Columbus…”

“Stick to the subject.”

“I was having trouble with my girlfriend back home, things were just, I don’t know… bland. So I did it.”

The interrogator sat forward, “Did what?”

“I took the suit off.”

“That’s impossible. I just told you the physics of it all. No air, no moisture, hell, let’s not forget the hard radiation from direct exposure.”

The young astronaut had the look of frustration on his face, “I already told you this! I took it off and I floated around. There is no air but you don’t need it up there. There’s no radiation because, I don’t know, because you don’t need to believe in it. I floated around and laughed. The others guys were panicking but they kept asking me how I felt. So I told them… it felt great.”

A fist slammed onto the table, the white room seemed to vibrate with the anger now resonating from the eyes of the interrogator. “You’re either covering up for something or you’re just trying to be famous. Either way, we’re going to find out. You do understand that you will go to jail.”

“I was floating above heaven; I think that’s why nothing made sense.”

“Do you hear yourself? You’re not making any sense!”

“I know, it sounds crazy, but I’m telling you, the only reason we didn’t know is because we brought it with us.”

“What?” His fists had unclenched he was interested again.

Johnnie just smiled, ” Earth.”

There was a long pause, the interrogation had to have a break, and the officer just paced the room looking around, thinking hard, as one does when given a paradox of their reality. He turned, curious as ever, and began again. “Why did you do it, then? Why would anyone do it, Johnnie?”

Johnnie just shrugged and grinned, as he was prone to do since he got back. “Because we can.”

Licensed

Slug eased himself onto the barstool, a lazy grin on his face. His hair had been professionally tussled that evening, and with his new hologreather jacket, he was confident in his irresistibility.

“Start me up a tab, barkeep,” Slug said, withdrawing his credit card and inebriation license. With a movement made automatic by constant practice, he placed both cards in the bartender’s hand while not losing eye-contact with the azure-coifed beauty across the room. No point in wasting time, Slug thought. “Gimmie a Mai Tai and send one over to that girl with the blue hair.”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the bartender said. “But there aren’t enough points on your license for a single Mai Tai, much less two.”

Slug scowled, and forced himself to look at the bartender. “You’re sure?”

“Positive.”

“How about a gin and tonic?”

“I’m very sorry, but you don’t have enough points for that either.”

“How many do I have?”

“For alcohol? None.”

“What? How can that be?”

“Let’s see…it says here that three days ago you apparently called three ex-girlfriends while under the influence of alcohol, causing a deduction. There was a bar-fight last Thursday that you participated in—no, I’m sorry, instigated. And then there was your sister’s wedding—”

“I know what I did at Shelia’s wedding.” At least, Slug knew what they said he did at his sister’s wedding. It was all sort of a blur.

“That poor flower girl…” said the bartender, scanning the report.

“Forget alcohol,” Slug said. “How about some cocaine?”

“Not after your last misadventure with it. I wouldn’t go back to that aquarium anytime soon, either.”

“Ecstasy?”

“Nope.” The bartender cocked an eyebrow. “Forty poodles? All of them?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” The blue-haired girl was now deep in conversation with a guy sporting leopard-print facial stubble. Slug pinched his nose in frustration. “What can I get?”

The bartender placed two pill capsules in front of him. Slug looked at the bartender’s grin in askance.

“Diet pills and ginseng, sir. The finest in the house!”

Slug weighed his options. It didn’t take very long. “I’ll take ‘em.”

“Excellent, sir. Shall I send some over to the young lady?”

“You know what? I think I’ll just take these to go. Think I’m gonna spend the night in.”

Toy Store

“What I want to know, really, is where we are.” Lee was aggravated, partly at himself, for following Jason’s directions, and partly at Jason, for being a dick.

“Where we are my friend, is in grave danger.”

Lee looked around. “We are in grave danger in a toy store?”

“This is just the evidence of the danger Lee, not the danger itself.” Jason was in one of his moods. He had probably stopped taking his medication again. Lee tried to think patient thoughts.

“Jason, we are late to the party. Lets ask for directions and get going.”

“No, there is something I need to show you.”

“What? Jason, did you mean to take me here to this toy store? You told me you were lost!”

“No, YOU were lost Lee, I have always known the way.”

“No. You told me you had a shortcut and then you said you were lost. You lied to me!”

“This is important.”

“It is important to me that you tell me where the fuck we are.”

Jason pointed above Lee’s head. There was a yellow digital banner that read in shining digital letters: NJ Toy Emporium, Largest on the East Coast.

“We are in New Jersey.” Jason said.

“I can see that.” Lee wondered how many of their mutual friends he would upset if he punched Jason in the eye.

“I have to show you something.” Jason began running wildly into the maze of giant displays. Lee followed him, despairing.

Jason sprung from behind a pyramid of boxes. “What, exactly, is THIS!” He was holding a grotesque orange globular oozing toy. Lee had seen the nasty things before on DTV.

Lee sighed. “It’s a Bubbit.”

“And what exactly is a Bubbit?”

“Jason, this is stupid.”

Jason glared menacingly at his friend. Lee shook his head and read the package. “A Bubbit is a “˜Interactive Puppet for Aggressive Play! Bubbits will change shape to entertain and amaze! Scare your friends and learn new ways to beat the Bubbit Blue.”

“Beat the Bubbit Blue.” Repeated Jason reverently. “It’s a training device.”

“For ages four to ten?”

“Lee, the situation is dire. We are clearly preparing for Epic Hegemonic Warfare.”

Lee realized that there was no way of getting out of this argument but through it. “Jason, that’s impossible. Other than peacekeeping police actions by the UN there are no military conflicts. The world’s nations have finally done with it. Jason, this is the greatest time of peace since humanity came down from the trees.”

“And you don’t find that suspicious.”

“No Jason, I don’t. People want peace and besides, even if we tried to fight we are all so economically interdependent that it wouldn’t be feasible.”

Jason smiled then, his terrible glinting smile. “Oh Lee, then you finally see it.”

Lee shrugged. “See what?” Jason grabbed Lee’s shoulders and shook him.

“Lee! Do you mean that you can see all that but you can’t see to the next level? The very next logical conclusion!” People were staring.

“Keep your voice down.” Jason grabbed Lee by the elbow and started pulling.

“Do you remember when Ziggy-Stiggy changed voices?”

“I remember a time when my friend Jason wasn’t a lunatic.”

“It was a corporate takeover. Ziggy-Stiggy was popular and totally non-violent. The creator of Ziggy-Stiggy refused to voice the part after the government ruled that the hostile takeover of Ziggy Inc by Brascow was legit. Brascow is highly subsidized by the government, a pawn of the executive branch itself. And what was the first thing that happened to Ziggy-Stiggy when he changed hands?”

“I don’t know, what?”

“He started hunting mushroom people. What does that tell you?”

Lee rolled his eyes. “That the government is preparing us for war?”

“Not us, the children.”

“Why the children?”

“Because something is coming, from very far away. Far enough that the children today will be the ones fighting it.”

“Aliens?”

“Aliens.”

“Jason, if that’s true, then we are the last generation that will have peace. If you are right, shouldn’t we enjoy this while we can?”

“You just want to go to the party.”

“Yes. I want to go to the party. Because the aliens are coming.”