17 May 2013
DOWN TO EARTH
By Curtis C. Chen
"They have telescopes," Perry said. "They've all got telescopes. Some of them are tracking you right now, feeding live video to public web sites. We can't shut down the entire worldwide amateur astronomy community. You can't de-orbit."
I hated not being able to see him. Several of the meteors—the smaller ones—had impacted my helmet, knocking out the heads-up display embedded in the transparent visor. It was weird, hearing Perry's voice in my ear without seeing his face, and I wondered if it would have been better if one of the bigger rocks had smashed into my head. At least then I would have died in an instant, instead of now having to choose a terrible public demise.
"You think it's going to be better if I yank off my helmet and suffocate?" I asked. "Then the whole world gets to watch my corpse circling the planet for centuries. At least if I burn up, it's over in a few minutes."
"Do you want your husband to see that?" Perry said. "Do you really want your immolation broadcast live, in high-definition 3-D?"
"Fuck you, Perry," I said. "Lamont's smart enough to turn off his TV. You're worried about how this is going to affect the stock price."
There was a long pause. I stared down at planet Earth, huge and beautiful and still. I wondered how many people were observing me from the ground. They probably couldn't see my face through the polarized helmet visor—unless somebody was using a wide-spectrum receiver. Never underestimate the ingenuity of bored graduate students.
"We have another option," Perry said at last.
"Does it involve me not dying?"
He hesitated before answering. "I wish I had better news, Kayla—"
"Just tell me."
"Your spacesuit thrusters still have eighty percent of their reserves," Perry said. "We can give you a procedure to overload the primary fuel cell cluster."
I kept my face calm and hoped nobody watching from the ground could read lips. "You want me to blow myself up?"
"Just let me finish," Perry said. "It'll be quick. Over in less than a second, and any debris gets incinerated in the atmosphere before hitting the ground. We can program in a random delay, so you won't even know when it happens."
"You're so kind," I said. "And then the company gets to cover up the whole thing, pretend my suit was damaged in the meteor shower, and call this entire 'incident' a terrible, unavoidable tragedy."
"I'm on your side, Kayla," Perry said. "I'm sorry, but this is your best option now."
I squeezed my eyes shut, holding in my tears. "I want to talk to Lamont."
"I want to talk to my husband."
"You get my husband on comms," I said, "or I start waving my arms in semaphore and spelling out exactly what happened for the whole damn world to see. You've got thirty seconds, Perry."
"That's not enough time!"
"Okay, okay!" The line beeped and went dead.
"Fucker," I muttered.
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10 May 2013
By Curtis C. Chen
The day Michael's dead wife wrote back to him was the day the world started to end.
Michael had written to Barbara every day since the one after her funeral, when he'd woken up, bleary-eyed, to face a house full of the assorted stationery she loved to collect.
There were notepads of all sizes, and letterheads from fictional organizations like "The Watchers Council," and whimsical cards featuring original, hand-drawn cartoons. Michael couldn't bear to throw any of it out, but he also hated the idea of packing it away. Either one felt too much like he was making an effort to forget her.
Then, while sorting through a pile of note paper made from strips of recycled concert posters, Michael started writing down a grocery list. Maybe the long, narrow format of the paper influenced him. Maybe his subconscious had decided that since he wasn't going to get rid of the paper, he might as well use it.
Partway through the list, after "eggs" and "milk," he didn't know what came next, but his hand continued moving the pen. What emerged was a series of questions that Michael would have asked Barbara: do we need more cereal? what dishwasher soap do we use? does the spinach really need to be organic? why don't you just subscribe to that magazine?
He filled the rest of that page and several more, until his tears made the ink run.
After that, he wrote a new letter every day, using a different type of paper each time. When he finished a letter, he sealed it in an envelope and packed away the rest of that stationery. After sunset, he started a fire in the living room and burned the letter, watching as his words became glowing flakes and spiraled up and away.
One morning, three months after the funeral, Michael brought his mug of coffee into the living room and dropped it on the hardwood floor.
He stared at the envelope which sat on top of the ashes of last night's fire. It was not the stationery he'd used; that had been lavender-colored, with ponies prancing around the border of each page. This was a plain white number ten envelope.
Michael fell to his knees and crawled through a lukewarm puddle of coffee to reach the envelope. He poked one shaky finger under the flap, tore open the seal, and pulled out the letter.
It was a single sheet of paper, eight and a half by eleven inches, folded in three parts to fit inside the envelope. On the paper was written a single word, in Barbara's delicate script, without capitalization or punctuation:
Michael turned the paper over, then held it up to the window, trying to see if anything else might be written or watermarked or scratched there. There was nothing. He went back to the kitchen and placed the letter and envelope on the counter.
As soon as he let go of the papers, they crumpled themselves into balls and disappeared in two flashes of green flame.
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03 May 2013
By Curtis C. Chen
"No," Hailey said as soon as Mark dropped the brochure on the table. She didn't need to read past the title: MECHANOID DEVELOPMENT EXPO, rendered in shiny chrome letters above a photo of an automated sentry unit guarding a little girl.
"Come on," Mark said, sitting down and unwrapping his sandwich. "This is the perfect opportunity for us."
"To embarrass ourselves?" Hailey shoved the brochure across the table. "No thanks, I can do that just fine right here at my day job."
Mark frowned, pushed the brochure back at Hailey, and said through a mouthful of roast beef, "You want to design robots. We both do. This is our chance to get out of the tech support salt mines."
Hailey sighed and put her sandwich down. She turned the brochure to face Mark and tapped a finger against the photo. "What's that?"
"A little girl."
"A little white girl," Hailey said.
Mark shrugged. "So?"
Hailey shook her head. "Boy, it must be nice to be a tall white guy from an upper middle class family."
"What the hell does that mean?"
Hailey pointed a finger at her own face. "What's this?"
"Your... face...?" Mark said.
"This is an Asiatic of indeterminate national origin," Hailey said.
"You were born in Oakland."
"And you can tell that by looking at me?" Hailey held up the brochure. "Every single robotics manufacturer depends on some kind of government or domestic defense contract for the majority of their income. They're not going to hire a non-white, potential security risk when there are plenty of 'real Americans' available to do the job."
"You're exaggerating." Mark bit off another hunk of sandwich and started chewing. "Besides, the prejudice works in your favor. Everyone thinks Asians are good at math."
Hailey counted to ten before responding. "Do I look Chinese to you?"
"Dude, your family's from Bangladesh."
"Forget that you know me," Hailey said slowly. "Do I look Chinese to you?"
Mark shrugged. "How should I know? You look Asian. Maybe a little Hispanic."
Hailey scrunched up her face in disbelief. "Hispanic?"
"I don't know!" Mark threw up his hands, sending a shred of lettuce flying over his shoulder. "I can't tell. You just look—normal."
"No," Hailey said, "you look 'normal.' People look at you and they don't have any preconceived notion of who you are or what you do. People look at me and they instantly think they know something about me."
"That's stupid," Mark said.
"It is what it is." Hailey dropped the brochure and stared at her sandwich. "But I have to deal with it every day, whether I like it or not. I'm not going to go looking for more of it to deal with, and I'm certainly not walking into a convention where everyone is going to be paranoid about Chinese spies stealing their secrets. Can we talk about something else now?"
Mark nodded. "You are good at math, though."
Hailey stood and jabbed both middle fingers up at Mark. "I'm going back to my desk."
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26 April 2013
HANG A LANTERN ON IT
By Curtis C. Chen
"I can't feel my legs," Trager said.
"Is every word out of your mouth a goddamn cliché?" Jamie held down the field communicator's power button until both her thumbs were numb. The screen lit up a second later. "What the hell does 'OPSEC' mean?"
"Operational Security," Trager said. "Need access code."
"What's the code?"
"Can't tell you." Trager's left arm twitched, then fell back into the dirt. "I'll do it."
"You're about to pass out," Jamie said. "Tell me the code."
"Can't. You're civilian."
An energy beam sliced past the bunker, making the ground sizzle. Jamie grabbed Trager's helmet and turned the other woman's head until their eyes met.
"Tell me the fucking code, please," Jamie said.
Trager grinned. "If I tell you, I'll have to kill you."
Jamie bit her lip. Trager's pupils were huge. Whatever painkillers and other drugs the battle armor was pumping into her system, they were working fast.
"I need the code to activate this beacon or we're both dead." Jamie pressed the communicator screen up against Trager's visor.
Trager pursed her lips. "Quid pro quo, Clarice."
"And now she's speaking in tongues."
Trager raised her right hand and unbuckled her chestplate. The seal opened with a hiss, followed by the urgent beeping of alarms.
"Whoa!" Jamie said. "Stop! That armor's keeping you alive—"
"I'll give you the code," Trager said. "But you need to do something for me."
"Sure, anything, just put your armor back on!"
Trager reached under her chestplate and yanked hard, snapping the chain around her neck. She held out her fist.
"No," Jamie said. "You're not dead. I'm not taking your goddamn dogtags."
"Not my tags," Trager said. "The other thing."
Jamie looked down at Trager's open palm. Strung beside her dogtags was a smooth obsidian ring, bulging on one side but with no gemstones or markings.
"Your ring?" Jamie said.
"Not mine," Trager said. "Found it."
Jamie picked up the ring. "Okay. I'll get it back to HQ—"
"No!" Trager clamped her hand on Jamie's shoulder. "Not the military. Give it to my brother."
Trager slumped forward. Jamie caught her.
"His name is," Trager slurred. "What's his name?"
"I'll find him," Jamie said, shoving Trager's chestplate back into place. The armor resealed itself and stopped beeping. "Don't worry. Now what's the code?"
Trager recited a string of digits. Jamie started typing them into the communicator. It was hard to work the keypad while holding the ring, so she slipped the black circle onto her finger.
"Don't do that," Trager said.
The ring bit into Jamie's skin, like a pinprick, then grew warm. It rotated itself around her finger until the bulge faced upward. Multi-colored dots danced beneath the surface.
"Holyshitwhatthefuck!" Jamie said.
"Told you not to do that," Trager said.
"You could have warned me earlier!" Jamie tugged at the ring, but it wouldn't move. Flickers of light appeared at the edges of her vision, then coalesced into clusters of unfamiliar shapes. "What is this thing doing to me?"
"Funny story," Trager said, and passed out.
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