High Life

Author: Julian Miles, Staff Writer

To our right, there are five rows of aircars just hanging there. In addition, there are six layers below and five above. All sleek, shining, and not moving.
“Look at it. Six by twelve, going nowhere.”
Tish’s right. We picked the wrong time to leave and are now stuck in M25-7-1. At least it’s an edge lane, so we’ve got a view over Croydon Hub toward the lights of the City Wall. It looks kind of tranquil: all the twinkling lights on buildings and shops and whatnot. Everywhere has light all the time, like being unlit is some form of failure.
“You’re sidescreening again.”
I bring my attention back within the Skaelan and smile at her, taking in the patterns playing across her bodystraps.
“Tone your content down: that’s nearly pornographic.”
She pouts and her straps turn black, ceasing dynamic displays and holographic panels.
Swallowing hard, I whistle: “Just the displays, not the privacy stuff, and did you mean to come out without underwear?”
“Stop pretending you don’t like it.” She looks down at herself and smiles: “S’pose it is a bit sparse. Hang on.”
She pulls a wad of lacy cloth from her purse and I look away. Putting complex underwear on in a car is inelegant and she’ll get embarrassed if I watch. The Skaelan moves a whole car length before she speaks again.
“Lingerie and privacy on.”
I turn back and she appears to be in a minidress with inset video screens and a high amethyst collar that curves into a tiara.
“Better.”
“What are you actually wearing, oh arbiter of modesty?”
“Leggings, utility belt, tabishoes.”
“Huh. I’ll let you off. Wish I could go topless.”
“I wish you could, too.”
“Pervert.”
The car moves forward half a length. At this rate, we should arrive fashionably late for tomorrow night.
“The way the salesman talked, I thought traffic just parted for the awesome Bentley Skaelan.” She grins. The salesman had just started to make my skin crawl when Tish said she’d probably like it if they did it in white. I’d stopped idly browsing the options at that point and told him to get us a white one and we’d have all the extras.
All the extras-
“Tish, I’m an idiot.”
She grins at me: “I know that. What’s the reason this time?”
“A fully loaded Skaelan. Like on ‘Kyrie P.I.’”
“V-Jump!”
The Skaelan responds: “Active and linked. Specify destination.”
We settle back as our seats recline: “Tuckersen Lounge. Party of Trudi Hammond.”
“Target venue requests ID.”
“Permitted.”
There’s a momentary whirling mass of colour, then our holographic avatars are standing in the vestibule of the Tuckersen.
Trudi looks up as we appear: “Traffic that bad? Come and mingle until your physbods arrive, then you can get down to it.”
Tish’s voice sounds in my mind: “Should we tell her we got the pharmacy option in the Skaelan, so we could arrive drunk and high?”
I run a scan over the throng and identify no IDs of interest.
“Gods, no. Did you see the size of her pupils? She’ll demand we bring the Skaelan in to impress the mob.”
Her avatar nods: “Point.”
Trudi looks up: “You say something?”
V-Tish smiles: “Nope. Bandwidth hiccup.”
Trudi turns away and Tish’s voice comes through again.
“Why do we bother?”
“Keeping up appearances. Give this lot two hours and they’ll all be off their heads, so we can fade out and leave. I expect the Skaelan will still be nearer home, anyway. Everyone will simply assume we partied as hard as they did.”
“Good plan. Let’s do that.”

Ruby

Author: Richard M. O’Donnell, Sr.

To: Four-Eight-Nine
From: You Know
Subject: Last Request

Dear FEN,

Pour my ashes under the face-down headstone.

You know the one. The one we pushed over that night and danced on, the one in the Last Woods on the forgotten farm we all remember because it is still green.

Bribe the West Gate guard. His designation is Two-Two-Five-Four. Follow Dignitaries Trail to Real Pond, where water is still allowed to evaporate. Standing next to so much potable water is in itself worth the risk, but don’t touch it. This will set off an alarm. Don’t linger. The pond is patrolled. Just enjoy the moment. Feel the humidity. That is what Two-Two-Five-Four thinks you are there for. An old soldier’s reminisce of the Time of Water.

Crawl behind Executioner’s Rock. Wear gloves, jeans, and hiking boots. The prickly brushes still snag, a place no finely dressed bureaucrat would tread. Beyond, under the oak boughs fifty-five years older than last time, you will find the headstone where we left it, covered with twigs and leaves. The other markers are gone, pulverized like the ones we helped the Party to destroy worldwide.

I know all this, because yesterday after I used my last vial of insulin, I visited the site. I lifted the headstone up, scrapped the dirt from the letters with my trigger finger, exposed the name, and defied the Party by documenting it here:

Ruby
2198-2201

The other people we killed were anonymous cords of wood stacked in mass graves, all records deleted, but not our first kill. She rests near the Party’s most sacred spot, safe from excavation. Her name survives.

As you know, last week the Party Elders voted unanimously to deny health care to anyone too selfish to commit suicide “for the good of the State”. The young people partied in the streets as if it were Purity Day. Out with the Old! In with the New! An old slogan reborn to rid them of the last generation to have read a bible, a history book, to know propaganda is not the same as truth.

As soon as all the diabetics like me and those on dialysis die, it is only a matter of months before the blue-shirts will purge the rest of the seniors. You remember how excited we were when the Chairman turned us loose. We couldn’t get to the farm fast enough.

Maybe I have always known the State would demand the ultimate sacrifice, but to let a pureblood like me wither on the vine is a betrayal of the revolution. I wonder if we were wrong, that the infallibility of the State is a myth. I don’t know anymore.

Let’s let time decide, old friend. Let’s leave Ruby her name. I’ll be the anonymous ashes in her grave, the cord of wood, an offering of my regrets to their dead gods. After all, the humans were here first. No one will notice if we let one name slip by.

Inhabiting Jolene

Author: Franco Amati

It took nine dates for Jolene to let me inhabit her mind. With a woman as intriguing as her, it’s tempting to sneak in without permission. But trust me, it’s always more enjoyable with permission.

I snuck into the head of the last girl I dated, and boy did I regret it. When you’re uninvited, the experience is so much darker and more intrusive. No one wants to be wandering around in a place they’re not welcome.

But this girl Jolene. Her mind is luscious. Her thoughts reverberate with richness and clarity. She’s self-conscious, sure. And she dislikes a lot about herself, especially her body. But the incisiveness with which she perceives other people is extraordinary. It’s almost as if she can see into them as well as she sees through them.

In the time she gave me to explore her depths, I borrowed her amethyst eyes. I used them to view my own friends and family in a new light. For the first time, I was able to dissect them and expose their superficiality. From Jolene’s perspective, I could see how selfish they all were. What a revelation it was to unveil their true intentions.

Jolene was five feet, four and weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds. But when I looked in the mirror using Jolene’s eyes, I saw exaggerated proportions. Her breasts, which I had come to know quite well after our first date, were much smaller from Jolene’s point of view. And her hands and feet, which had the finest digits I’d ever seen, looked knobby and grotesque.

The longer I inhabited Jolene, the more I learned about her fears and worries. Jolene’s father abandoned their family when she was four years old. He chased another woman across the galaxy, leaving her mother insecure and alone with two children to raise. Jolene saw how loneliness destroyed her mother. And she was afraid it would crush her too.

But Jolene, being the perceptive person that she was, knew that chasing other people wasn’t a cure for isolation. Instead, she examined others, learned about them, analyzed their motivations, and so rarely let them in without the deepest of scrutiny.

Call it a shield or a buffer. But I admired Jolene’s skepticism of other people. Unfortunately, the side effect of developing such a critical eye for others is the incidental turning of that critical eye onto yourself.

Jolene may not have my ability to inhabit other people’s minds. That cognitive talent doesn’t exist in her people. But she is wise beyond measure. And I’m thankful that she’s allowed me to get this close. I’ll be lucky if she allows me to love her. And it’s a relief to me that I won’t have to make a good impression on her father.

END

Life Sentence

Author: Marlin Bressi

Souls don’t have asses, but the courtroom has wooden benches just the same because God likes it that way, likes things just so, and in His Infinite Wisdom has decided that this place ought to look like the set of a Perry Mason rerun.

Like the others gathered here, I was a bad soul.

Not as bad as the one before me, who took the punishment like a champ (not a single tremulous whimper) and was sentenced to seventy-five years as Stanley Hopper, who would someday become a Jersey City cab driver and succumb to cirrhosis of the liver.

All I did was poke fun at an archangel’s golden, gauzy raiment. I’ve been here twenty-six thousand millennia and had no idea that such a thing was against the law. Frowned upon, sure, but not illegal. Color me shocked.

The first soul sentenced today had it even worse. Eighty-seven years in Milwaukee as Delphina Owens, destined to become an illiterate scrubwoman with arthritis, bad breath, and chronic vaginitis. Even the defense attorney winced as the sentence was pronounced.
I had taken my attorney’s advice, plead guilty and waived the preliminary hearing, hoping for a slap on the wrist. Aside from a few snarky comments I’ve made through the ages, my record is pretty clean.

Sixteen months in Vancouver, He finally decreed. I would be named Veronica. I would pass away in my sleep. Suddenly. Painlessly. Softly and mysteriously. A very lenient sentence indeed, and I don’t want to sound ungrateful or anything but come on now– just between you and me– don’t you agree that Uriel’s new raiment is pretty damn tacky?

Awake Afterwards

Author: R. J. Erbacher

I was oppressed by the constraint of the unyielding humidity and the dust which coated every inch of this installation despite the scrubbers working full time. Outside the dull sodium lights that lit up the hallway seeped in through gaps in the privacy covering with enough luminescence to give the cavity a sorry glow.

The room was reminiscent with the faint echo of desperate groans and a creaking bed cradle. Sweat and discharged bodily fluids scented the night with sluggish desperation as if someone really didn’t want to tidy up. And no one really didn’t. The sheets were tangled at the foot of the bed, kicked off during the scuffling into a frustrated pile of laundry. I stared at the colorless canvas of the ceiling that was draped across the steel grating of the box.

Yeah, it was a room. A privilege because of my seniority, my second tour in this pit, now a crew lead. But there wasn’t much to the space. A mattress in a bracketed housing that was slept on by a slew of dirty and drunk past occupants. A footlocker for my few personal belongings. A portable toilet in a chair, like the kind the used in old folks’ homes but even that was a luxury so you didn’t have to crap in a communal tomb with pissing troughs and two dozen bowls without separation walls. Oh, and a mirror so I could gauge the descent of my weather-worn face.

The work was hard, the pay was good, the conditions were deplorable. The off-world mining colony was in perpetual motion, shifts around the clock, every goddamn day. There was a wealth of useful ores being scooped out and shipped back to earth and somebody back there was making a hell of a lot of money. That left roughnecks like me sweating our balls off. But one thirty-month tour was all anybody ever did. Except for guys with no family, no social life and no money. So…me.

Tonight though I decided to spend some of my hard-earned pay. My one day off every fortnight was tomorrow and I could sleep in. I had showered, but still not clean, and was dog-tired and I didn’t want to waste money on beer that would just sour in my stomach and probably wind up regurgitated in the chair-o-potty. So, I spent it.

On her. Twisting my throbbing neck, I stared at her supine form.

I watched a bead of sweat track down a mound of her flesh as it slowly rose and fell in blissful sleep. It came to rest in a depression of her body that was simply perfect. And all I wanted to be was a bug-sized man walking across the desert of her skin to reach that oasis, that sublime semi-sphere of moisture; to leap into it, bathe in it, quench my eternal thirst with it. And then I was dazzled by all the other pools of perspiration that dappled her chest and I thought ‘what better way to die of exhaustion then to try and visit each and every one of them.’

She was way too exquisite for this rock. She belonged on the deck of some sheik’s yacht soaking up the sunshine and the cool Mediterranean ocean mist and not here moan-acting, trying to please some broke down nobody like me. Yeah, she was that beautiful.

And I truly wanted to know her name.

I turned back to the mundane tapestry above me as a drop of sweat dribbled out of the corner of my eye.

Please, No More Space-Dog Walkers

Author: Delvon T. Mattingly

For weeks, all I did was listen, my eyes closed. My body grew numb months ago, down to my fingers and toes, unable to recall the last time I saw my phalanges, or my body at that matter. But I wasn’t going to stop until I found my person, even if it meant sacrificing parts of myself.

Short intervals of attributes crammed my ears. The Matchmaking Artificial Intelligence, or MAI, coagulated empty qualities into whole characters. MAI tried to find something beautiful in everyone while maintaining a degree of veracity.

I liked to picture MAI saying something like, a vibrant, intelligent, gender-fluid person who enjoys surfacing asteroids and taking artless photographs of nebulas, about me—well—without sounding pretentious. MAI gave us hope. People were scattered all over the galaxy, giving the phrase, finding a soulmate, a whole new meaning.

With MAI, everything functioned via neural pathways. If I liked someone, MAI already knew. If I disapproved, MAI would try to present a better candidate. At least MAI knew to no longer propose the overt cishet male feminists to me. Seriously, having to acknowledge the latter suggested the contrary. This wasn’t the early 2000s anymore.

Or the persons who opened with a banal quote from their favorite television series; or the persons who preferred to meet over coffee on Mars. Who the hell wanted to meet up anymore when we could mingle through interwoven energy? That way, we’d inhibit the spread of STDs, and I wouldn’t have to look someone eye-to-eye while giving them the ‘you’ve-got-to-go’ spiel.

When MAI began, its voice soothed with crisp articulation. “Today’s first suggestion: Submissive, well-endowed person who claims to find pleasure in giving rather than receiving—”

Well-endowed? What lies? For the love of Neptune, next.

“Second: A multi-racial male who loves taking their dogs on space walks—”

Dogs in space? Please, leave them on your planet…

“Third: This person identifies as a woman. She openly practices polyamory, likes to write poetry. Just turned 150 years old—”

MAI, way too young!

I knew I wasn’t going to find someone, but the slightly promising candidates kept my glimmer of hope alive—to one day not have to chase the stars alone. MAI continued running, and I sunk into an abyss lonelier than any black hole.

* * *

“Your time is up. Please wait while I prepare your consultation with an available representative.”

Really? That was fast…

“Your space pod will open shortly. Please adhere to the guidelines previously provided to you.”

MAI revealed my physical body. We were advised to keep our eyes closed and remain still, especially if we wanted to purchase another week of service. It facilitated the sedation process.

I heard the footsteps of one individual. By that time, I was able to distinguish who worked a shift by the way their feet met with the floor—their frequency of steps, how big their strides were, what types of shoes they wore.

“Titus, it’s you,” I mumbled, struggling to move my mouth, imagining them sealed with the crust of excess skin and dirt accumulated over weeks, bonded as the most powerful adhesive in the universe. “I’m surprised you still work here.”

“It’s been months, Storm. Most people choose partners by now. MAI only does half the job. It won’t provide the perfect match.”

“Tell me why you think I’d want to travel the galaxy with a damn space-dog walker?”

Titus remained silent.

“Exactly.”

“Well, if you’re willing to pay for another week, then—”

“Just refill my pod, Titus.”