by Jay O'Conell
Was my name being shouted over the music? There came a knock, then my name again, louder this time. I’d been deep in the code and hadn’t slept in . . . days? But then my circadian rhythms are sketchy at best.
Figuring Papa was at the door I shouted back, “Busy!”
The door cracked open, a rivulet of hall light spilling over the threadbare carpet.
“I’m naked!” I lied. I had on underwear, but this stops Papa cold.
“Put on a robe.” I finally recognized Carlos’ voice with a shiver that tingled from head to toe. He was waiting off to one side, invisible behind the doorframe.
“Okay! Okay! jeeze!”
I looked at my hands to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. I pinched my cheek. It hurt. I’d been thinking of calling Carlos, but resisting the impulse. The boy from down the street who had been my best and only friend forever . . . until he hadn’t.
The usual ache ran down my forearms into my hands, pulsing in my fingertips. I rubbed my forehead and moaned as hard-won tendrils of logic evaporated from my forebrain like spilled acetone. Damn it.
I wriggled into a forest green political T-shirt that fell halfway to my knees. Even after I’d abandoned the radical greens, the Eco-Savior logo had bugged the hell out of Carlos. He’d have to deal with it.
“Gort! Music off!” I paused that quarter beat to avoid confusing the bot. “Come in!”
The door swung open as the music faded. A stocky figure stood silhouetted in the painful hallway light.
“We’re in the dark, Nayla.”
It wasn’t dark, it was dim, but he’d come out of the midsummer glare, and his eyes hadn’t adjusted. “Gort, lights up.”
The room brightened slowly. My space was the usual kind of functional mess. I knew where everything was, and Papa didn’t throw a fit about me tidying it up. Not like my mother used to. The state of my bedroom had driven her nuts, but then, everything about me had. Christ, I was twenty-six years old. Why did I even care any more?
Carlos hadn’t changed a bit in the last two years. jeeze. It had been two years and three months, but I wasn’t sure how many days, because I wasn’t counting. He looked like his crappy LifeBook profile, which was kinda old at this point. Wait. Was his jet-black hair receding already? His father had been bald at the end. I’d watched his hairline recede throughout my childhood, at dinnertimes with his Catholic family, gathered around their huge table. I’d daydreamed, back then, of what it would be like to grow up in a family with a boring religion. Nobody had harassed the Catholics much since Kennedy.
Carlos met my eye. “You look awful.”
He gazed around at the clutter, drinking it all in impassively. Strange that Papa had sent him up. My mother’s religious fervor would never have permitted a boy in my room.
Did Papa no longer give a damn?
Carlos picked his way through my laundry toward the blackout-curtained doorway onto the fire escape. I’d brought three of the pigeon drones up from my workshop for no reason other than I liked looking at them. One of each prototype.
Carlos inspected the birds. Their feathers looked real, but weren’t; that was a dead end in terms of masking their heat signature, which was turning out to be impossible anyway.
“Always wondered if you’d ever finish the things.”
“They’re still not done.”
The bird drones were the first piece of sequestered technology I’d liberated. I’d been sniffing around hinky recombinant DNA research linked to the Eschaton plagues at a consulting company that farmed out military contracts. They rented a lab a quarter of a mile away, on Commonwealth next to the New Frontier Café my father frequented. The partially completed effort I’d snitched I found in a folder titled “Effing Canceled Contracts.” Bio-mimicking drones had fallen out of fashion after that pod of autonomous dolphin drones scuttled the USS Kentucky.
“Your mother loved birds,” Carlos said softly. “I get it.”
She had, but he didn’t. Not really. He toured my room silently, as if he hadn’t just materialized out of nowhere after ghosting me for years. He squinted at the diagrams pinned to my lumpy plaster-lap walls.
He pointed. “There’s the flat Earth. That’s Pellucidar, right . . . ? The hollow earth . . . that’s the . . .” He leaned forward to read the small type. “Welteislehre?”
He’d mangled the pronunciation. I didn’t bother to correct him. “It’s Austrian pseudoscience, an inverted sphere universe. Celestial objects get smaller and smaller as you approach the center point, a forced perspective. Nazi cosmology. What are you doing here, Carlos?”
He ignored the question.
“That’s a Tesla tower. . . .” He nodded at the blueprint of a tall grid-work structure with a domed top, like the love child of the Eiffel Tower and a kaiju-scaled vibrator. His brows knit in a way that brought back our tragic year of Calculus tutoring. READ MORE
by Gregory Norman Bossert
The warden only braved the freefall link between the control and studio modules for two reasons: the arrival of a prisoner via orbital shuttle, or the departure of a prisoner via the incinerator, their ashes dumped to fall traceless back to Earth.
The most recent arrival had been fourteen months ago—the former Vice Chairman for Mergers and Acquisitions whose failure to subdue New Zealand on schedule had led to his disgrace—and the most recent departure had been five weeks after that, when that same worthy had choked on a chicken nugget. The commentators who covered the livestream from the studio module 24/7 debated for a week on whether the cause of death had been stupidity or gluttony. The other prisoners knew a suicide when they saw one; the vice chairman had had neither the purpose-of-will nor the perseverance to survive the humiliation of being broadcast round the clock as an example to the entire world of the cost of disappointing the board of directors.
That had left only four residents of the studio module, and as they were all sitting around a table playing California high/low, it was a sure bet that the rumble of the large intermodule lift meant a new arrival was eminent. The commentators on the livestream were probably already gossiping about the incoming prisoner, but Nhe’eng had cut the audio feed again, which meant reduced rations for a week but a few hours of peace from the constant blather.
Max drew three cards, sighed theatrically, and said, “I’ll bet it’s that VRogger with the crazy siski, what’s-her-name, Mouche! She’s been really getting in the board’s face with those songs.”
Nhe’eng said, “Pig. Face it, you just want another Russian to jabber at.” She shoved a microdrone out of the way and took a card.
Max said, “Idiot, she’s French! Though certainly I wouldn’t mind a jab.”
Nhe’eng tilted her head, a gesture that meant both, “All you Europeans are alike to me,” and “Remember those times I stabbed you?”
The Sasquatch held up one finger, took his card, and said nothing.
Madame X waved off the cards, and said, “It’s Bangus Shi.”
“Fignya,” Max said. “Nah, he is laying low in the bush of Tasmania, last I heard.”
“‘Last you heard’ was six years ago,” Nhe’eng said. “And wrong. Bangus Shi is a collective, that was the word on the dark boards. No one person could have pulled off those subversions.”
“Subversions is not a word,” Max said. “Pranks. Stunts.”
Nhe’eng tilted her head again.
The Sasquatch tapped the table, slid in two of the pill packets they were using for both chips and cards. Bets went around.
Madame X laid down her hand, a six flush that scooped the pot, and said, “If you paid attention instead of bickering like children, you would have noticed that mainstream reporting of Bangus Shi’s, hmm, subversive art has been increasing for the last two months. Even our own dear commentators mentioned the hack on the treasurer’s teleprompter three weeks ago. The board would only allow that coverage if they had something with which to answer it.”
Max swept up the cards. “My money’s still on Mouche.”
Nhe’eng said, “Last you had money was also six years a—”
The Sasquatch grasped the two of them by the backs of their necks and lifted them out of their seats. Madame X was already standing, one foot forward, one hand resting on the back of her chair, facing the door. The other three lined up at her side. Microdrones swarmed in front of them, some with cameras turned to catch the door’s elaborate unsealing, some turned to cover their reactions.
First through the door was the guard (Large), anonymous in their matte black armor, haloed by their own cloud of drones, these armed not with cameras but with implements designed to incapacitate a prisoner through a variety of painful and humiliating means. Then the warden stepped in, smoothing her jacket and looking around with feigned indifference at the scene that she, like the population of the planet below, usually saw only through the livestream.
Behind the warden was a woman, well into her forties at the least—shorter even than Nhe’eng though in proportion to that height almost as wide as the Sasquatch—with skin halfway between Max’s pale and Madame X’s deep. Apart from the prisoner-standard jumpsuit and buzzcut, she could have been a schoolteacher, or a supermarket manager. Even with the prisoner-standard jumpsuit and buzzcut, she seemed an unlikely addition to the most exclusive prison on or off the planet.
Max whispered, “Maybe she’s here to clean the—”
Nhe’eng said, “Finish that sentence, pig, and I will stab you in your sleep.”
The Sasquatch clamped a meaty hand onto each of their shoulders in warning.
The warden looked toward the livestream commentators on the silenced monitors and frowned. She muttered something into her wrist. After a few seconds, the audio spluttered back to life.
“—and it looks like we’re ready now for Warden K’s announcement live from orbit. Over to you, Warden!”
The warden turned toward the Studio drones and said, “Thank you, Rolf. Hello, Susan, and of course, all you loyal viewers. It’s always a delight to introduce a new ‘star’ to the show . . .”
Chuckles from the commentators. READ MORE