â€œI see youâ€™ve done some pruning,â€ Margaretâ€™s therapist said. â€œI like what youâ€™ve done with the branches around your sternum.â€
â€œThank you,â€ Margaret choked out. It had been a trial learning how to talk with roots entwined around her larnyx, but she had muddled through. â€œI thinkâ€¦I think I made a majorâ€¦breakthrough. Other day. On the lawn.â€
â€œYes? Say more about that.â€
Margaret grimaced, forming words that sounded rough and hard. She toyed with the braches that jutted out from her left elbow as she spoke. â€œOn the lawn. I wasâ€¦in the sun. At peace. Feeling the grassâ€¦at the sun. It feltâ€¦wonderful.â€
â€œThatâ€™s a good thing, Margaret. A very good thing.â€
Margaret smiled at that, leaves tickling her cheeks. â€œWas thinkingâ€¦since had breakâ€¦though, I could getâ€¦a phone call.â€
â€œOr clothes!â€ The vines entwined in Margaretâ€™s hair shuddered slightly. â€œClothes? Iâ€™mâ€¦ready for clothes.â€
Margaretâ€™s therapist closed her book and folded her hands. â€œMargaret. You came here because you wanted to get away from all that. It was making you sick, remember? All the technology, all the information. It was overwhelming. It was making you sick.â€
â€œWhat would you do on the phone, Margaret? You can barely talk.â€ She reached out and stroked the branch around Margaretâ€™s collar bone. â€œI think youâ€™ve done some lovely work here, but youâ€™ve still got a long way to go. But you have made progress. Iâ€™ll talk to The Leader about giving you more time in the Orchard. You like working in the orchard, donâ€™t you.â€
Margaret had a great deal of trouble choking out a â€œyes,â€ so she settled for a slow, sad nod.
â€œThatâ€™s the spirit, Margaret. Thereâ€™s still so much of the modern world in you. But weâ€™ll cut it out yet.â€
“Swimming’s easy,” Aaron said as he tightened the foam ring beneath her shoulders. “There’s only one rule: keep breathing. If you can’t find a way to breathe, that’s when you’re in trouble.”
Leah nodded as her brother gathered her into his arms, lifted her from the chair, and placed her carefully at the edge of the porch. She didn’t feel her feet dip into the water, but she saw the gray of the ocean swirl across her tan skin. “Mom says not to,” she said, for the fifth time in the last ten minutes.
“Mom doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he said with a smile.
Leah watched the water, partially opaque with flecks of dust. The setting sun behind them soaked the light from the sky, and on the opposite horizon, the sky and the water seemed to merge into a thick band of black.
Her classmates called her a cripple: Legs McGee, to be precise. Sometimes, she thought of herself that way. Leah watched them swim to the edge of the schoolyard, hanging onto the edge of the net and daring each other to jump past it. She’d long since gotten over envy. In recent years, she simply watched them glide through the water with the ease of a native being. They were like fish, their shimmering skin glazed with saltwater.
“You can’t live on the ocean and never go swimming,” Aaron continued as he lowered her into the nearly opaque mass. Small circles of bubbles moved outwards from her skin and she clung to her brother’s arms as the sudden coldness wrapped around her waist.
“Don’t listen to them,” he said. The water was now splashing around the edge of the foam floater, and she felt it dip with her weight. Leah’s throat closed in silent panic. “Calm down,” Aaron told her. “Like I said, the secret is to keep breathing.”
He pried her fingers from his arm and jumped into the water, his black hair disappearing beneath the gray. “Aaron?” she called. There was no response.
The house was a silhouette now, cast against the watercolor sky. The ocean was completely silent. “Aaron!” she yelled. Leah slapped the water with her arms, trying to push herself to the point where her brother had disappeared. A loud sound erupted behind her, and beads of water met her shoulders.
“Boo!” he said, and she screamed. As her voice met her ears, Leah realized it was only partially terrified. She wiped the ocean with her palm, throwing water in his direction.
“You scared me.”
“I don’t know how to drown,” he said as he blocked some of the splash with his arm. Aaron wiped his eyes, then squinted. “Hey, how’d you get all the way over there?”
“I pushed,” she said.
“We call that swimming,” her brother told her with a deep smile. “Welcome to the club.”
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 employedâ€”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.
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 isâ€¦”
“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 saidâ€¦ I’m not a fucking space pirate.”
“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.
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.”