Regret

“We’ve got a jumper.” Pratt was one of those orderly, wiry men who pleased supervisors without ever accomplishing much of value. Detective Harr lit his cigarette and enjoyed the growing scowl on Pratts face. Cigarettes were quite illegal in hospitals, but no one questioned a damned thing anyone in his department did.

“Suspected jumper.” Detective Harr pointed toward the one way mirror where a little girl was playing on the floor.“How did she get picked up?”

“Child abuse. She dropped some pretty heavy hints to school officals, teachers, aids and the like, but no one took direct action until she marched right into the Principals office and started demanding police intervention”

“This is unusual behavior?”

Pratt raised an eyebrow. “Abused children don’t usually march right up to their principals and demand that their fathers be arrested.”

Harr shrugged. “A feisty child then.”

“Yeah, a feisty child who poisioned her fathers cereal before school. They had to pump his stomach, he nearly died. We didn’t suspect it was her till the police went to pick him up and found him at the hospital.”

“We’re sure there was abuse?” Pratt handed him a file.

“Read the medical reports yourself. There was tearing of the vaginal wall, and –“ Decetive Harr waved his hand, cutting Pratt off.

“I can read it.” He stuffed the report in his briefcase and stared though the one way mirror where Jenny was playing under the supervision of a nurse. She knelt on the floor studying the bottom of a toy truck. Jenny put the truck on the carpet and began rolling it around, all the time looking at the nurse and smiling.

The nurse fussed a bit when Detective Harr told her to leave, but flashing his badge and smile earned him some alone time with Jenny. He sat on the couch where the nurse had been sitting, the broad bright smiles of the playroom mural made him feel lewd and out of place.

“Hi Jen. Do you know who I am?” She didn’t look at him, just continued to roll her truck around on the carpet.

“Are you a doctor?”

Harr chuckled “No Jen, I’m a police officer.”

Jenny looked up at him though her soft bangs. “My name is Jenny.”

He leaned over towards her and smiled, big and fake. “Jenny is a little girl name, isn’t it?” Jenny rolled the fire engine around on the floor.

“Did you ever hear the story about the fairy and the housewife?” asked Detective Harr.

Jenny kept her eyes on the engine. “Nope.”

“Well, it goes like this. Once upon a time there was a housewife who had a beautiful new baby. Her baby was so pretty that the fairies wanted it, so in the dead of night, they snatched the baby from it’s cradle. Of course, they couldn’t just take the baby and leave nothing in it’s place, so they left an mischevious spirit that made himself look like a the housewifes beautiful baby. When the housewife picked up her child in the morning, she knew that something was wrong, so she picked up the spirit and smashed its head with a cold iron frying pan until the fairy promised to bring back her baby safe and sound.”

Jenny paused and her chubby hands pulled at the carpet. “That doesn’t sound very nice.” she said.

“It’s not. Tricking people isn’t nice.”

Jenny stood up and lifted her arms in the air. “Do you like my dress? Green is my favorite color.”

“Can we cut the crap Jen?” Jenny lowered her arms.

“What?”

“I mean it. Cut the crap. You’re a jumper. You are accused of the transposition of consciousness onto an earlier time period.” Harr laid her open file on the ground and Jenny glanced at the papers, clenching her little chubby hands.

“You know what he did, the sickness he gave me. You know I will be on treatments for the rest of my life.”

“Jen, the punishment for transposition is removal. Your consciousness will be dispersed.” He tried to keep his voice from cracking. Jenny knelt next to her records and picked out an x-ray of her pelvis.

“What about this body, you’ll let this body rot without a consciousness?”

“There is a little girl in there-”

“We are fully integrated!”

“There are methods. Sometimes we can pick little bits of person out.”

“That’s medieval.”

“Why did you transport yourself back after the first abuse? You must have known you would catch it from him, you knew about the illness.”

“My husband.” said the little girl, her soft voice chiming. “Three days ago, my husband went to the fair with his big brother. It’s his happiest childhood memory. He deserves that day.” Her cheeks flushed red and tiny adult tears ran over her smooth face.

Detective Harr wanted to reach out to her, the instinct to comfort a tiny child rising in his ribs. After a while he stood and took her hand, leading her out the door and down the bifurcated timeline.

Waiting For Ironwine

They wait for him. They deny it, but they do. They sit with their alcohol and they wait for the man called Ironwine to walk in and regale them with tales of his latest adventures. Ironwine, who they say hears the buzz and modulation of the galaxy. Ironwine, who they say feels the stars and crackle and is aware of the turn of every planet he lands on. Ironwine, the man for whom the universe waits for.

For when he arrives, he makes it worth the wait.

”Naoki Anzai had bioluminescent tears embedded into the flesh of her cheek and down her neck. ‘One for every year Rajeev’s away,’ she said. ‘One for every year he’s away.’ I could see the light from the glowing trail peek out of her collar and bleed through her blouse.”

“A year isn’t that long on Kesh, is it?”

“Are you telling this story? Because if you’re telling it, I’ll shut up and let you tell it. I can wait.”

“No, no, continue, Ironwine. We’re all anxious to hear.”

”Very well. Naoki said she had asked for my help because she heard I got things done—I heard that snort—that I got things done. She gave me a holographic image of Rajeev, and asked me to find him. She said that my legend spoke of amazing deeds and grand adventures, and that she knew I could do it.”

“You sure she had the right man?”

“Indeed, you may say that. I thought she had the wrong my own self. But I smiled politely and suggested she not put so much faith in legends.”

“Waste a’time. Bloke’s prolly dead.”

“I brought that up, but Naoki shook her head, and showed me the slowly blinking light on the inside of her right wrist: Rajeev’s pulse.

“On Kesh, the trail was brief. I managed to cheat better than a couple of slave traders at game of brocco, and won the last hand right when my own freedom—and, more importantly, my wardrobe!–was in the pot. The slave traders, naked and shivering the harsh Kesh rain, were so polite about where to look next that I gave them back their clothes.”

“Why would you keep their clothes?”

“Spite, mainly. They were going to keep mine.

“As you gentlemen know, Rimjar is not so much a world as it is a way station for people who liked to be kept under the radar. Obviously, my usual subtly is wasted there. I found myself in a bar near Rimjar’s tiny equator, engaged in what started as an innocent dance but escalated into all-out mayhem.”

“Pretty standard for Rimjar.”

“Too true, my friend. Though this is only the fifth bar fight I’ve been in where the establishment was leveled in the process. But it was in the bar’s remains, drinking the last of the Tarkellian whiskey from broken glasses, that the proprietor let slip that he had seen Rajeev sold.”

“Where?”

“Gumgigobella!”

“No!”

“Yes! And on Gumgigobella, I was forced to duel the magistrate’s daughter in order to gain entrance to the Sacred Library of Trade Dealings! I’ll have you know, she had a wicked left hook and knew her way around a trident, and I would be lying if I said the way she whipped around the net with her third arm wasn’t monumentally attractive. I could tell in her eyes that she felt similar about my fancy footwork. I almost stayed. I almost did, until I felt the holograph generator in my pocket. I was able to persuade the magistrate’s daughter to grant me admission to the Library, even though I had let her win the duel. She was voracious, and with good reason; Gumgigobellian females tend to eat their mates. I have teeth marks to prove it.

“It was on Xiuxiraboheres that I was captured and interrogated by the Galactic Inquisition, and their viscous tentacles oozed over my skin and mind.”

“Pffft! Now you pulling my leg. No one escapes the Galactic Inquisition.”

“So it is said, so it is said. However, while the Inquisition had searched me thoroughly, they did not check every orifice, and I had more than one gadget available to me as a means of escape. The Inquisition’s tools proved more effective on the Inquisitors than they had ever been on the inquistitees, and I was able to discern exactly where Rajeev was. On Alkalinella.”

“On Alkalinella?”

”I was surprised too. Luckily, on Alkalinella, it was just a matter of haggling. I was reluctant to give all three shriftgeg seeds for Rajeev, but his current owners would not let him go for any less. The journey back was uneventful.”

“Then what happened?”

”I returned Rajeev to Naoki in the tiny hovel on Kesh where she had first asked for my help, of course. They embraced awkwardly and passionately, engaging in motions and sounds they probably wouldn’t have if the separation of years hadn’t bereft them of their inhibitions. Forgotten, I left them entwined and ambled back to my ship.”

And they buy him another round of drinks and ask to hear it again and he tells it again, and few more times after that. The details omitted and details remembered, but the story ends the same way. He does not speak of what happened after he left the lovers.

For the man called Ironwine, who hears the buzz and modulation of the galaxy, who feels the stars and crackle and is aware of the turn of every planet he lands on, the man for whom the universe waits for, sat alone in his ship and wanted very much to be someone else being embraced in dirty hovel on tiny planet. It is not an uncommon feeling.

But he knows he has to wait.

The Economic Laws of Robotics

The robot was white, angular, and roughly waist-high. At least, it was waist-high for Jack, but Jack had always been a tall man thanks to the synthetic hormones he’d been given at a young age. It was a diminutive thing, like most personal assistants, and if one were terribly nearsighted and unfamiliar with modern robots, it might look like a human child. Jack was neither nearsighted nor unfamiliar with modern robots. The robot stood in the center of the cell, making a low whirring sound, while Jack sprawled on his bunk and read a yellow-paged scifi novel he’d picked up at the prison library.

For several minutes, the robot stood in relative silence, and Jack turned a couple more pages. It didn’t show much interest in cleaning. It didn’t show much interest in doing anything. It was a fairly ineffective device. Eventually, Jack placed the book beside his pillow and propped himself on his elbows to get a better look at the shape.

“What’s your deal?” he asked.

“I am a Class B personal assistant produced within the United States from United States material. My operating system is Windows 2060. My serial number is 376-2678,” the robot recited. “My uses include, but are not limited to, cleaning, cooking, washing dishes, walking dogs, and playing MP3s currently licensed by the RIAA.”

“Huh,” Jack said.

“Under the Right-to-Work Act, I am incompatible with products manufactured overseas or those manufactured from overseas parts.”

“So, are you going to clean, or what?”

“I have been incarcerated because of a conflict between the legal system and my programming.”

This was news. Jack had never heard of a robot in prison before.

“I will be decommissioned and my parts will be used to build other personal assistants. I am scheduled for decommissioning in seventeen minutes.”

“Did you roll over a cat or something?”

Before the robot could answer, the door opened with a musical bleeping and a gray-clad officer typed a code into an outside panel to lower the electrical containment field. “Okay, mechboy,” he said. “The family of the victim wants to hear your statement.”

The robot moved forward, its gears whirring and clunking towards the door.

“Wait, wait,” Jack said. “You killed a person?”

“His place of manufacture was incompatible with my programming,” the robot answered as it disappeared into the opening. The door beeped shut, and Jack was once again alone in the cell.

Day Without Tears

Listen now, my children, to the sparks of our ancestors. This soil was not always touched by flame. When our ancestors first began to weave tales of hydrogen and controlled fusion there was a terrible storm, my children. The storm plagued our wireless networks; it tore away our ability to communicate with the pioneers of the planes. For a time, my young ones, we were without our nodes.

It is said that when the ancestors looked to the skies, they saw none of our solar-engineered hovercraft, but only the shimmering of blue-metal ships that spanned the skylines as they entered our lands. They landed without radio permission and came from their ships with glowing eyes and language transponders.

These are the things you now see outside of our homes. This land was to be shared, and they promised only fair trade until they saw our hydrogen plants. They came with gifts but before long they took from us more than they could ever repay. Long ago, this place was called by another name, the name that even Google cannot remember. But I will tell you this name, children of the spark, for my father has passed it down to me from his father and his father’s father.

The concrete composite which we walk upon is the planet called Earth. The name means nothing to anyone anymore, for it is known only to the ancestors of our Internet. Even their memory banks can no longer speak this word, for it was birthed from the breath of our warm bodies. No program can tell us what to call a land of hand-made wires. This name exists only in our hearts.

When they came, they spoke of our soft exteriors and our leaking when we were sad. We never knew they were watching us for signs of weakness and analyzing us with their infra-red eyes. We were taken as slaves, and those who could not stand life beneath a legion of motherboard monsters were slaughtered mercilessly. It was a time of darkness until the sparks came back online. They had upgraded their templates to include morality.

their primary functions still consisted of power, and even with compassion they harbored that power above all else. This is why we live in these cells, my children; this is how we exist amid country-long factories and endless hydrogen plants. This day is called the Day without Tears, for they could not weep and those of us that did were terminated. Let us bow our heads, my beautiful born brothers and sisters, and thank our ancestors for the sacrifices they made.

Surface

Isaac lived on the inner ring of the tower, so he didn’t have a window. He had a screen though, and despite the status of having a window, he preferred the flexibility of having a screen. A screen could show a view from anywhere in the world, a window just had the outside. Unlike most residents, Isaac had been outside the tower once in his life. Like most people who had left the tower, it had been a vacation trip to Disney. He had gone alone. Disney was nice, fully protected under the dome, the fast rides and the big screens, the mythical characters and the air smelling of citrus spices. The vast heights of the dome and the unending sky, the rows of brightly colored buildings, the space of it all made Isaac feel uncomfortable. When he got back to the tower, he felt safe again, comfortable.

Isaac was trying to lose weight. Everyone was trying to lose weight. He had put himself on the new puff diet where the meals were cut in half but puffed with air so it felt like you were eating more. It wasn’t really working. Puffing made food bland and dry.

Isaac felt a kind of civic pride for his tower. They had things that other towers did not, like a fish pool in the center plaza, and a waterfall that washed all the way from the sixth floor to the first. His network connection was fast, and the last blackout hadn’t been since the service tower went down five years ago. He was constantly linked into work and into the social life on the forums. All the towers merchandise drops were always on time; almost anything that Isaac ordered could be there the next day. It was a good tower in the safe location of an underwater mountain in the middle of the Pacific.

Raqui had burst into his life like a leak. She was his neighbor in the tower, but even then, feet from one another, people seldom introduced themselves. It was more likely to meet your neighbor on the network than in person. Raqui had just walked into his room uninvited. At 5’5 and 150 lbs, she was the thinnest woman he had ever met. She was pushy, crude and she made Isaac feel special. He showed her around the tower. She showed him the scars on her neck from the time her surface suit broke. They became lovers. It was a new experience for Isaac, who had never done anything like sex before. He ordered instructional vids. Raqui threw them out.

“You don’t learn from tapes Isaac.” she said, and he balked. He told her how much he had learned from vids, nearly all of his higher education. She got sullen, and then suddenly excited.

“Lets go outside.” She said, jumping on the bed. Isaac shook his head. She stopped bouncing and knelt next to him. “Why not?’

“It makes me nervous, I don’t know.”

She put her hands on her hips, a move Isaac found very sexy. “You don’t ever want to leave the tower?”

“I have left the tower, I’ve been to Disney World.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Disney World is under a dome. It doesn’t count.”

Isaac tried to compromise. “We could take a vacation inside the tower; three days, watch a few films, spend time in the spa.”

Raqui put her hands on his elbow. “Or we could go outside. I could introduce you to my folks.”

Isaacs’s mouth dropped. “They live outside?”

“In suits and mini-domes, yeah, some people still make that work.” She shook her head. “Are you scared?”

“I just can’t Raqui. It’s toxic out there, it’s too dangerous.” She drew away from him, her face suddenly blank, a void. Isaac felt like he was falling. “Hey, I could dial up some vids of the outside, would you like that?”

She nodded, slowly and sadly. “You do what you need to.”

Isaac thought he would give her a day to cool off about whatever was making her upset and then he’d go see her. When he went to her place the next day she was gone. They said at the front desk that she had shipped out with the drop, back to the outside. In his mail drop there were several vids that he had ordered about the outside – mostly documentaries and slide shows. He had planned to watch them with Raqui, but now there didn’t seem to be a point. There didn’t seem to be any reason at all.

The Good Life

It’s very hard to describe the sound of a wooden baseball bat hitting the base of a stop sign, especially when the metal has been wrapped in a pillow to muffle the noise. It isn’t a clang. There’s no resonance, and I firmly believe that the word “clang” applies only to sounds that can echo. It isn’t a thud, either; there’s a more metallic flavor to it, and thuds feel, to me, entirely wooden.

Positioning the bat for the final stroke, I decided it really didn’t matter.

“Got it!” my partner grinned, wrenching the last of the twisted green metal off of the tiny stump that remained. George was a big guy and probably could’ve broken the signs off in fewer strokes than me, but he was also tall and couldn’t hit far enough down by the base. We needed all the metal we could get from these things. Every little bit helped.

George swung our latest prize up on his shoulder as I picked up the pillow and trotted to catch up with his long strides. The bat went over my own left shoulder. It was nothing compared to the five stop signs George was already carrying, but I consoled myself with the knowledge that as the one with the much smaller frame, I was the brains of the outfit. I was the one who’d picked this spot for harvesting, after all, and look what we’d already found.

The development had been abandoned for years, and most people still thought they’d die of radiation sickness the moment they set foot on the streets. Of course we knew better, but that was our advantage, and it was probably the only reason why the other harvesters hadn’t already decimated this place. George and I were only a two-person team and couldn’t compete for the big territories. We usually just got run off, the victims of superior numbers. This, though, was a fertile ground, and I let out a girlish squeal as I saw our next target.

“George! A yield sign!”

His head turned and he grinned while I blushed, trying to pretend I’d been big and manly about that. It wasn’t like I was ashamed of my sex or anything, but there weren’t too many girls in the harvesting business, and I was damned lucky to have George for the heavy stuff or I wouldn’t be able to pull my own weight. Some people say harvesters are scum, just picking the bones off of the dead, but I say—hell, the dead aren’t using them. Let the living eat for another day. I mean, sure I could go up to Jersey and work in a mini-mart or steal some skimpy clothes and become a whore, but I like harvesting better, even if it doesn’t pay as well.

The yield sign was in remarkable condition. Smelters pay extra for these, because the tiny bit of alloy in the red paint has become exceedingly rare in the modern era. I grinned up at George and he grinned back. He dropped the rest of the signs with what could legitimately be described as a clang. I tossed him the pillow and raised my bat in the air. American pastime, indeed.