by Edward M. Lerner
His time doth take.
—William Shakespeare, The Tempest
The most I’d hoped for out of that day was a bracing morning stroll. It’s a two-mile hike to the office across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan. On a clear morning, the walk is pleasant. On the sort of stormy evening in the day’s forecast, it would pretty much have sucked. I planned to walk home anyway. Rent was coming due, and I begrudged even the subway fare.
Good weather or ill, I seldom took that walk. I am—no, make that was, although I’m getting ahead of myself—a superstringer. In the news biz, that’s like a freelancer on steroids. Only news was a stretch; The National Truth was as fact-free as you would imagine.
Freelancer was equally hyperbolic. I was a pieceworker, cranking out articles (called content in the biz) for a scandalous few bucks per. I mostly keyboarded away anywhere but the office, so that the Truth, calling me an independent contractor, could get away with not providing any benefits. Biweekly pitch meetings for candidate stories sufficed to remind me and my ilk who was boss and who were the ungrateful, readily replaced, no-talent hacks.
So. I was in the office that day, arrived early to camp out at one of the too-few desks, seeking inspiration before the meeting. Bermuda Triangle? Rumored celebrity peccadillo? Elvis sighting? Elvis love child? Our readers wouldn’t care he’d be in his eighties. We’re talking about the King. Bigfoot sighting? Bigfoot love child? Elvis love child with Ms. Bigfoot?
An addiction to regular meals had driven me to writing such things, but that sort of drivel never appealed to me. (The topics, that is; the meals appealed all too much.) I started surfing for fresh ideas, using office WiFi instead of burning through my own precious cell gigabytes. The rocketry company SpaceX was still flapping around, seeking an explanation for their latest explosion. “ET Destroys Rocket!” perhaps? Not enough. A classic headline in Truth improbably connected several dots. “ET Destroyed Challenger and Columbia; Takes Aim at SpaceX Rockets?” Workable, if wordy, but I wanted at least one fallback pitch for the meeting. I’d just thought to warp a minor climate-change item, the thawing of an obscure German WWII weather station deep within the Arctic, into “Secret Nazi Base Discovered Near North Pole!” when, outside our bullpen doors, an elevator chimed.
And my life ran off the rails.
* * *
Chatter. Laughter. The clicking of stiletto heels. These weren’t the normal sounds of the office. Then again, neither did Deirdre Olivia Knowlton—bubblehead celeb, and the publisher’s estranged daughter—and her entourage routinely drop by. In Reginald Knowlton’s cluttered inner sanctum, blood pressure would be soaring.
The young women, loudly gossiping, fanned out across the bullpen. None of them could have been older than thirty. Deirdre herself, on impossibly tall heels, in a cloud of perfume, flounced toward me. She was beautiful: oval face with finely chiseled features. Pouting lips. Wavy, honey-blond hair cascading well below her shoulders. Short, black, leather skirt riding up her thigh as she half-perched on an edge of my desk.
But I digress. The point is Deirdre was way out of my league, not to mention that my taste didn’t run to celebrities, much less to the vacuous sort famous for being famous, or to women a decade or more younger than me. Much less to the daughter of my loathsome toad of a boss.
“And what do you do, Mister . . . ?”
“Markson,” I provided automatically.
“Mr. Markson. Are you one of father’s reporters?”
Similar vapid conversations were transpiring all around. What the hell?
“That’s so exciting,” she repeated. “You must meet the most interesting people. I’d love to know more about—”
A familiar voice boomed out. The boss, the big vein pulsing in his forehead, had burst forth from his fortress of solipsism. “That’s enough, Deirdre. You’re disrupting my staff. I suppose you came to see me . . . ?” He pointed to his den of inanity. “And if your friends would wait outside?”
“Oh, pooh, Father. You’re no fun. I was just getting to know Mr. Markson.”
“In or out, Deirdre,” Knowlton said. “The professor has work to do.” The glower directed my way, as unsubtle as the dig, added, “If he knows what’s good for him.”
“The girls and I were in the neighborhood. I wondered”—and she gestured vaguely, to encompass her posse, I inferred—“would you like to join us for lunch? There’s this new Asian fission place.”
“Fusion,” Knowlton said. “I can’t today. Next time, call ahead.” He gestured toward the exit.
“Oh, pooh.” Deirdre stuck out her hand, gold bracelets jingling. “Good to meet you, Mr. Markson.”
She was halfway out the door before it registered that a folded scrap of paper had been slipped into my hand.
* * *
We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.
—John F. Kennedy, September 12, 1962
by Bill Johnson
Walk, Walk, Tan—Go—Close!”
Roy Greenberg tripped over his own damned feet and stumbled again. This time he lay on the floor of the small gym and looked up at the ceiling. The practice ’bot stepped back and out of the way.
“You have a serious problem with the tango.”
“If I remember correctly, when the walking tango became popular I was in Vietnam, in Recondo school, on Hon Tre island.”
“Fighting to save democracy from the Red Menace.”
Cele sounded bored.
“I’ve heard the story before.”
“I was going to say, trying to figure out how to get off the damned island and find a bar.” Greenberg tried to sound dignified. “I was not learning ballroom dancing.”
“Technically, the tango is not ballroom dancing. It’s more of the street, of the man and the woman, both fully aware of their desires, of their aggressive pursuit of each other and of something more—”
“So why are you learning dancing, now, after all these years?”
“Someday, I’m going to need it.” Greenberg tried to sound dignified but it just came out as stubborn, even to himself. “Someday, I’m going to need anything I ever learn. Besides, what the hell else is there to do out here—”
“Code Green,” the carefully neutral voice said pleasantly from the room speakers. “We have a code green . . .”
* * *
Greenberg pushed himself to his feet.
“Turn that damned thing off.”
“I didn’t turn it on,” Cele protested, defensively.
“It’s your voice.”
“Dispatch is automatic. The signal bypassed me. You’ve got me programmed with so many priority options I can’t concentrate on everything at the same time.”
The voice cut off in mid-sentence.
“Who’s calling this time?”
“Stop nagging me. It’s encrypted. Give me a minute.”
Cele went silent. This was not a good sign. A minute for Cele was a few decades for Greenberg or any other bio.
Cele did not sound happy. Greenberg wondered if that was self-written code or something he’d put in. Probably him. So far as he knew, everything in Cele that involved swearing was something he’d written. Usually after a few beers or glasses of bourbon. And if he didn’t remember it, probably a few too many years ago.
“The outer envelope is from Version and Sudha.”
“Ignore it. I’m done with them, I’m done with Earth and the colonies and everything back there—”
“Shut up and listen. For once. Version is just forwarding something. There’s another envelope inside, with a message inside that. He can’t read the message. It’s a one-time cipher, and we’re the only ones with the key.”
“So how did your automatics know to call a green?”
“The inside envelope includes your Aljidat distress code in clear.”
“Not many people know jaddi.”
“And the envelope is signed with a jida pseudonym.”
“The format is valid, but it’s not in the database.”
“All right. Now I’m curious.” Greenberg looked at the dancing ’bot with distaste. “And I’m bored. What’s the message?”
An augment appeared. A woman, taller than average, dark blonde hair, in a skinsuit. Her forehead was cut and bleeding. One arm hung limp and crooked, her legs were twisted, and her eyes showed the glazed look of someone on painkillers. Behind her Greenberg recognized the scattered remains of the autodoc in an old-style dropship.
The walls were scored with shatter marks, as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to them and not quite broken through. Her breath came out in cold, white puffs.
“Roy. Roy?” The woman looked off-stage, over her shoulder. “Damn it, Zikri, is this thing working?”
“Yes. But talk fast. You’re running out of air. I’ve got to lock you down. Then I’ll send the message.”
“Roy, you can probably guess.” She smiled and glanced around her, then back into the camera. She blinked, as if she needed a moment to make the world stop spinning. “I need help. I found something, Roy. Something old. Something new.” She laughed and started to sing, her voice slurred. “Something borrowed, something blue . . .”
Her eyes glazed, her head tilted to the side. Her eyes shut.
“Wake up!” Zikri shouted frantically. His voice was male, almost familiar.
“He just gave her a cocktail of what’s left in her skinsuit,” Cele said. “Her numbers look bad. Internal injuries, broken bones, freeze burns.”
Her eyes fluttered open. READ MORE