Chuck surveyed the landing pad with a nod, his proprietary self-satisfied grin encompassing all he could see. It felt good, he reflected, to be a champion of the most powerful force in the universe: awesome.

Chuck was a Space Ranger and proud of it. They weren’t universally liked, but then, awesome never was. The Space Rangers were loners, a band held together only loosely by the bonds of a common purpose: liberating the innocent from the clutches of the bad guys. From system to system, their mission was the same, despite the vast difference in the ships they flew, the methods they used, and the caliber of laser pistol they employed—the only difficult conundrum was that Space Rangers tended to disagree on the definitions of “innocents” and “bad guys.”

Luckily for Chuck’s peace of mind, no matter what your definition was, there was no way to deny that this mission had been purely awesome. His own definition of “bad guys” included anything non-humanoid, mostly because their bodies tended to crumple and fold entertainingly when sent flying by Chuck’s ancient martial arts techniques. Fighting aliens always made for an awesome show.

With a last tug on his genuine, imported, one-hundred-percent lung-killing Marlboro Red Octane, Chuck tossed the cigarette aside and ground the flame away in the alien soil. It felt good to know that no bug-eyed monsters or creatures with more legs than brains would be terrorizing the good, elongated but still humanoid Drampuuls. The planet was now in the hands of people who had hands, and in the mind of Space Ranger Chuck, that was a thoroughly awesome feeling.

“Here’s to a job well done,” he said, lifting his flask to toast the binary sunset. The Arnorian whiskey inside of it had been a gift of thanks from the leaders of the last world he’d liberated, and Chuck thought it was only fitting that he enjoy it in the wake of another great battle. Corking the flask again, Chuck raised his hand to the horizon in a cocky salute. Then he pulled his wide-brimmed hat down low over his eyes, bowing his head as he made his way back to his ship. A Space Ranger’s work was never done.

A Misunderstanding

Marshall Weisman didn’t bother perusing the files. He’d been tracking this maniac down for years now. The poor looking gent in the outer rings had no excuse, no recourse. It was clear to him and any other officer of the Outer Planetary Patrol. Weisman barged into the room watching the humble act flying across the fugitives’ face as he slammed the door.

“Think you’re one slick pony, don’t you, Doberson?” The officer said as he dropped into a seat in front of the cuffed vigilante.

Carl Doberson was a rough-looking sort, but he had conviction in his eyes. He looked healthier than the others that Weisman had run down, but in cold space, the odd ones came in all varieties. He sat at the single table with a mug of coffee before him. Doberson looked sternly at the investigator and growled. “I am not a criminal.” The words hung in the air for several seconds before he continued with a sigh. “I’m just trying to protect my family.”

“That’s a cute tale, Doberson. Is that the one you’re going with this time? Let me spell it out for you.” Weisman stood and inched closer to the man, moving beyond the range of the interrogation microphone. “Seven counts of theft from Cruise ship vessels. Two of them royalty! Five counts of Aggravated Assault against guardsmen, some of which involved deadly weapons. And I’m not even getting into the charges of resisting arrest.” As Weisman glared into the face of his enemy, he was sickened by the debauchery of the fiend.

“Those people don’t need all that food!” Doberson protested. “My family and I travel on a Class B skimmer. Do you honestly think we hold enough food to survive out here alone? I’m not a criminal, I’m a good husband and father.” Doberson was pleading with his eyes and Weisman hit him across the jaw hard. Shaking off the sting on his fist as the man recoiled and lowered his head.

“You make me sick! Your lies won’t work this time Doberson. We’ve got you nailed for all these counts, and you’ll be lucky if I don’t stack up those assaults to attempted murder. Now tell me where your ship is! We know you have stolen goods aboard. Pirating is…”

“I am not a space pirate! Why do you people insist on using that term! Have you seen space pirates? Have you? They are vile, they smell and they don’t even speak whole sentences!”

The officer raised his hand to strike the criminal again, but Doberson recoiled in time to ward off the attack. Marshall wasn’t willing to push his luck even though he’d already disconnected the audio and video surveillance devices in the room. He turned around to pace off his anger and hooked his thumbs in his pockets, “Doberson, you’re a real piece of work. You must be the most pathetic space pirate I have ever seen. Most pirates are proud of—gurh!”

The officer hit the floor. Behind him, Doberson held the mug, now shattered, in his cuffed hands. He went fishing for the keys from the Marshall’s pocket as he muttered to only himself now, “I said… I’m not a fucking space pirate.”

My Angel Gabriel

“I don’t understand.” wrote Becky. Why did you ban Gabriel?” Becky had been on the forum for almost a year, and she was one of the most frequent posters. Rachel thought Becky was a bit like her when she was thirteen, nattering on about internet stars and how she had found the meaning of life in the movies she was watching.

“Becky.” Typed Rachel “I had to ban him. I’m sorry. He was a bot, a spider, a program. He wasn’t human.” Becky’s green words glowed on her screen almost immediately.

“He talked to me! Every day! What do you mean he wasn’t human?”

Rachel exhaled; this was going to be tough. “Didn’t you notice he kept trying to get you to buy games?”

“I like buying games! Who cares? I really liked Gabriel. You two were the only people on this forum I could talk to.” Becky sent a little picture of herself along with the message, her soft little face wrapped in an over exaggerated frown. Rachel has seen her face before. Becky used to have a picture of herself on her profile, a badly lit angled shot of her freckled face. Rachel had made her change the picture, she was always careful about the kids on her forums. She was afraid the picture would make Becky a target for perverts. Now Becky had a picture of a cartoon panda bear as her profile picture.

Rachel pulled the keyboard into her lap. “Becky, Gabriel is not a person.”

“You don’t know that. Gabriel was my boyfriend! He said he would go out with me last week.”

“Becky, honey, he was not your boyfriend. He’s a bot. There are thousands of Gabriel’s on thousands of forums sweetheart. He’s a program, designed to promote games and movies. I’m sorry baby.” There was a long red pause before Rachel got a green response.

“I just want someone to talk to.” Becky lived with her single mom in a little apartment somewhere in the Midwest. With how often she was online, Rachel though it was pretty obvious that Becky didn’t have many meat-space friends.

“Oh Becky. I know it’s lonely sometimes, but you should have real people to talk to. I’ll talk to you.”

“How do you know Gabriel is a bot?”

Rachel thought for a minute, trying to translate the code into something that would make sense to a thirteen year old that had never even seen a programming language. “Becky, everyone’s got little signatures under their addresses. Bots get launched by the same signature, a hundred operations happening on one name. If that’s going on, you can just send them a little code and-“ Rachel zapped the code over to Becky to show her. “-the bot shuts down and has to reboot.”

“Becky?” She paused and went into the code. “Oh God.” Rachel pushed away from her workstation and put her hands on her head. “Shit.” Rachel stood up and walked away from her computer to find some sunshine.

A Lighthouse Through Time

No one knew how long Catherine Malone had been missing. Her absence was reported to the police after three weeks of unpaid rent, but neighbors admitted they hadn’t known that the apartment was occupied. “She kept to herself,” said the landlord.

The universe does not think in hours, days. There is no measure of universal time. Humans count one moment after the other. Consecutive time. But a vibrating cesium atom doesn’t know how many times it’s shuddered. A sun doesn’t know how long its burned. Time is dependent on the consciousness of the observer, and without someone to draw demarcations between the seconds, time becomes an unlabeled, unmeasured stream.

So what clock must a time machine be set by?

The landlord unlocked the apartment himself, but found no sign of his tenant. Half-read books and half-filled notebooks rested open upon every table, and a mostly-empty pizza box had attracted a halo of flies. The bed was unmade, and the dishes were filthy. The wooden floor was littered with crumpled clothing.

Does time attach itself to an object and move with that object? Specifically, would a time machine set for three days prior return the traveler to the room she departed from, or to the naked void of space left in the wake of the moving Earth? Can there be universal latitude and longitude in an expanding universe, or is that another human construction? In the latter scenario, how could a machine be set to return a traveler to the Earth?

The police could find no next of kin, and although a brief investigation suggested abduction, that theory was ultimately disregarded. “She probably just picked up and left,” said an officer in an off-the-record conversation. “People do that sometimes. Move to a different state to start over.”

Assuming that the problems of the initial leap could be easily solved, the biggest problem becomes the return journey. A person’s presence out of their own time would certainly change their future, so how could they return to the world they’d left? If an oddity like time travel were to spark the creation of an alternate timeline, how could the machine be set to return to the timeline of origin? Could a chronological beacon be constructed, like a lighthouse through time?

The case remained open, long after the apartment had been cleared and rented to another tenant. No next of kin appeared, and the woman’s belongings were donated to a nearby shelter. After a decade, the files on open but unsolved cases were moved to the basement of the precinct, where they rested for almost half a century before a flood turned the papers soggy and rusted the ancient hard drives. “We’re working to restore the old documents,” a representative said during a press conference, shortly before ordering the boxes to be returned to the basement. “These things are sixty years old,” he said to a coworker. “No one remembers them anyways.”

The Wall Street Cathedral

To Martin J. Weaver:

Dear Spiritual Investor,

This letter is a gift in the form of advanced notice concerning the change in management of your Temple in Manchester. Our organization, the American Church of God, has taken notice of the success of your Temple’s missionary programs, and after careful research and investment, we decided that a peaceful merger between our two beliefs would be beneficial to everyone involved. We have already bought out the Temples along the southern tip of Great Britain, and we are ready to invest in your spirituality.

As a believer in God, you may ask what this means for you. Surveys show that members of the ACG Inc. feel far more fulfilled after taking part in our spiritual learning programs, and you will feel the pride of being an early adopter of our faith. Our media approval rating is over 78%, and we are gaining momentum.

Benefits include:

– Exclusive Access to Easy-to-Comprehend Translated Texts long-since thought lost

– Better treatment at the work-place and in public

– A secure, electronically coded method of tithing with eligibility for tax write-offs

– Warmth and Happiness amongst your family and friends

– A guaranteed confidence in the belief of an after-life and higher being we call God

– And much more

Our new convert package is full of information regarding your new beliefs and restricted and prohibited acts and practices.

As an early adopter, you will be able to convert for the price of only 100₤. Later conversions will have to pay near double that figure!

We’ve included a copy of our Holy Book as a token of our faith in your faith. The American Church of God wishes you a happy life and the best of days, which is why we happily invite you to join our Church before the mass conversion of your Temples. If you have further questions concerning the merger, feel free to contact our public relations department at the toll-free number provided on the inside cover of your new Holy Book â„¢.

With warm hearts,

The Ministers of the American Church of God, Inc.

The Things She Carried

When Lieutenant Carol Door stepped off the space ship she was carrying her laser knife, her unloaded rifle and the broken micro-cam that held the pictures of her family. She carried her starched grey uniform, and though it had never seen her home, it reacted to the change in climate as it would on any planet, adjusting its system to provide the optimum temperature for alertness.

The ground was soft, and the smell around her was green and light. Carol could have taken a transport home, back to the glade where her mothers raised her, but she wanted to walk. Her world had been manufactured from a craterous moon. The biggest trade was tourism, rich merchant families would travel there to be served by centaurs or get their hair braided by sprites. Her world had little white bubbles of technical connection but this was just for tourists, the inhabitants shunned the outward use of technology, preferring illusions. When Carol was growing up, a little girl with long red hair, she thought it was all magic.

She carried her personal force-field in her pack, a silver cylinder which had saved her life from gas and falling debris, from the people and machines that had tried to kill her.

Carols mothers were a fairy and a witch, and she was taught how to fight by a vampire who lived in a spiral castle over the hills. Her mothers owned a large cottage, with a wheel on the side where water fell from one level to another falling, ever falling. They had a pool out front, and a giant swing. They would host families for a high fee, give them adventure, a quest, and a purpose.

The grenades had been confiscated when she was debriefed, but she still had the keys sitting in the bottom of her back, 17 keys from thrown grenades. Her ammo was taken from her rifle, but she carried that shell. She had not been able to put it down for six years.

Carol walked across the rolling hills, past a shepherd who looked at her with his mouth open. She was too afraid to wave, too afraid that he would run away. She imagined the way she looked, with her newly patched face and her short hair. She was worse than any monster on this planet, and she wondered if anyone could see.

There was a metal implant in her leg, a metal bone and plastic flesh, to replace the one that had been lost, left on the field. She walked towards the distant waterfall, left at the giant willow tree where the cake making elves lived, past the dragon cave where Ella, the old dam, slept.

Carol looked at her silver gleaming shoes, and she turned from home and walked for a mile to the Cliffside, the great ravine with the stone bridge. Carol threw her pack over the edge. She stripped from her uniform, the medals, the stripes that showed where she had gone, the silver shoes, and tossed them over the edge. She looked at her new leg and decided that she could carry it a little further.

She walked, naked, to the house of her mothers. Inside she heard a fiddle playing. There was a fire burning and meat roasting. Somewhere else, no one dared to sleep without a force-field. Somewhere else.

Carols mother, the witch, threw open the door and ran down the path, crying out and waving her hands. She grabbed Carol in her arms and pulled her down to the grass and rocked her, crying.

“This is my daughter!” she cried. “This is my daughter!”

Carols mother, the warrior, leapt out of the house and bounded across the lawn. She was almost a giant and wore leather and bronze chains. She swept her naked daughter and her wife up in her giant arms and carried them both into the house.