Story Excerpts

The Last Biker Gang

by Wil McCarthy


Alan Szcyltz—aged eighty-four years, zero months, zero days—rolled on the ancient Harley’s throttle and gunned it to one mile per hour for every miserable year he’d been alive on this miserable planet. Eighty-four mph fast! It wasn’t easy to do; I-25 was clogged with colorful trains of robot cars and trucks, “platooning” ten to a group almost bumper-to-bumper at 65.00 miles per hour. Navigating through them was a matter of spotting the gaps well before he got to them, of plotting his moves in advance, of weaving sharply in and out and back, ignoring the astonished faces of passive “motorists” in their mobile living rooms.

The Harley’s engine roared. The highway’s wind roared back. His own heart roared with the thrill (yes, thrill, despite how bad he was feeling) of moving so fast when he damn well wasn’t supposed to. Take that, society.

He’d been in one of those driverless monstrosities this very morning. Bought it for himself as a birthday present, to replace the “real” car Rebecca had filled with her possessions and driven away, after fifty-three years of wedded bliss. Was it so bad, being married to him? She’d seemed to think so, once the normones and senility reversal treatments had really started kicking in. Back from the dead, from the very brink of death, and in a matter of weeks he’d gone from changing her Depends to defending his right to stand or sit or drink a beer. Everything he did, or tried to do, not only wrong but also somehow inflammatory.

“I spent one lifetime putting up with you, Alan. I won’t spend another.” Yeah.

The Harley’s tires squealed alarmingly as he dodged a pair of buses and squealed again as he nearly lost it on the on-ramp to I-70—a long loping curve that suddenly tightened near the end, just before it squashed down from three lanes to two. They used to call this the Mousetrap, and despite almost a century of engineering and reengineering, it still basically sucked, and would have been one of the deadliest chokepoints in the city if people still died in traffic accidents.

He let out a roar, a scream, just because. Just because it was easier than not screaming. It was fear and rage and humiliation and all the frustrated ambitions of a lifetime, all compressed into a single, simple emotion—perhaps the only one he needed anymore.

He thought he’d lived his life pretty honorably, hyah? Done what he was supposed to, what he was able to. Let her spend most of the money, let her mostly tell him what to do, mostly didn’t get angry and shout about things, mostly just smiled and nodded and sometimes bought her flowers. Right? And for what?

Approaching an ominous wall of trucks, he had to back off the throttle a bit, and finally even downshift into fourth gear, before he could actually drop behind and merge with the eastbound traffic on 70. More platoons, although a few actual motorists were puttering along as well, weaving like drunks among the razor-precise robots.

It was a hot day at the tail end of May—eighty-nine degrees by the real thermometer, but with his knees and elbows in the breeze, he was actually almost chilly, because he couldn’t find his old leather jacket and finally wondered why he was even bothering to look for it. What did he have left to protect? Why not roll out in just a T-shirt and, yes, a pair of sturdy old blue jeans? Now, situated on the highway proper, he let his speed creep back up again, wishing he could kick out the tail lights of every damn robot he passed.

Oh, he’d bought one of these beasts all right. Infiniti Q200, not cheap but worth it, hyah? But the moment he drove it off the lot, the first thing it did was lock the doors and start driving him in the wrong direction.

“Warning. The driver of this vehicle has an outstanding arrest warrant. Per state and federal law, this vehicle is required to report directly to the nearest police station. Please remain in your seat.”

It wouldn’t even tell him the charge, although he imagined it must be unpaid parking tickets. What else had he ever done wrong? So as it rolled to a halt at one of the city’s dwindling number of traffic lights, he’d blown the escape bolts on the driver’s side window, and then crawled out and walked away while the car’s alarm system blared and whooped. If the cops were too lazy to come arrest him themselves, if they needed a talking car to do their dirty work for them, then it was their loss. He was damned if he’d play that game, or any game. Or maybe he was just damned, period.

So he’d walked home twenty miles, pulled the canvas cover off his old Softail Deuce, slam charged its lithium (yes, lithium) battery, poured in a gallon of Stabilized Benzoethanol Blend, and fired her up. Who gave a shit if he was too old for motorcycles? He was also too old for work, too poor and dull for his oh-so-grown-up kids, too young to die of natural causes, and too chickenshit to put a bullet in his brain.

And apparently, too ornery for marriage. Rebecca’s final words still stung in his ears. It seemed like they might just echo there for the rest of his stupid life: “I’m leaving, and you’re not going to pester me out of it, Alan. Stop talking. Stop trying. You’ve got the jerk gene, and that’s never going to change. You’re never going to change.”

Never going to? Well, well. He’d just have to see what the fine people of I-70 had to say about that. Taking his left hand off the clutch, he felt for his chinstrap, slowly undid it and, shrugging off this last tangible piece of the give-a-shit world, flung his helmet as hard as he could at the windshield of a passing Fiat.

The glass didn’t break, and the Fiat didn’t waver in its course, and that might have been the end of it except the helmet bounced off and hit the pavement and rolled and flipped and then a highway full of autonomous vehicles didn’t know what it was or what to do about it, and all started swerving and braking and even knocking into each other a little, and even though nobody was probably going to get hurt, Alan realized he had caused what might well be Denver’s greatest traffic disaster of the calendar year.

But he was way out in front of it, probably caught on a hundred cameras but with no license plates on the bike—smart or dumb—to identify him, and no kill switch to stop him remotely, and no navigation electronics to take him for an unsolicited ride. So he gunned the throttle harder and sped away, leaving it behind, moving on, moving forward, all giddy with innocence and rage. READ MORE


Hubpoint of No Return

by Christopher L. Bennett

David LaMacchia strode with purpose through the bustling communications center. To either side of him was a long row of cryogenic tanks containing quantelopes, the engineered creatures whose unique entanglement properties made them a vital lifeline for the thousands of worlds of the Hub Network. Each tank had its own interface station, and the diverse sophonts who operated these were vital in their own right, for quantelopes would only reproduce the speech of living beings. And David had earned the right to count himself among their number.

With a thrill of pride and wonder, David took his station, donned his headset, and initiated his first communication of the day. As always, he marveled at the thought that he was about to interact with a being thousands of parsecs away, perhaps even in another galaxy. When the purple, short-antlered rodent in the cryotank spoke in the voice of that sophont, confirming receipt of his signal, the young human stiffened with excitement as he delivered his message:

“How do you do? This is David on behalf of the Milky Way Research Council. You’ve been selected to participate in a brief survey of voter opinion. We know your time is valuable, so for your participation, you’ll be awarded a free eighty-two-hour vacation to the Ipqo Rosette—some local taxes and Hub processing fees may apply. If you’d like to begin the survey, please—”

The quantelope interrupted, relaying the speech heard by its entanglemate at the far end of the connection. “Survey?! How did you mate your quantelope to this bloodline? And just when I was settling down to devour my prey! Call me again and I’ll hunt you down and devour you!”

The quantelope let out a brief, bloodcurdling squeal and then fell silent, the connection broken. “Okay,” David muttered. “One more for the hard refusal list.” He signaled his quantelope to focus its attention upon a different entanglemate. “How do you do? This is David on behalf of the Milky Way Research Council—”

*   *   *

“You know it’s all a scam, right?” Nashira Wing asked David as they carried their lunch trays through Hubstation 3742’s food court. “You’re using this ‘miracle of communication’ to cheat gullible people out of their money.”

David clumsily attempted to handle his tray and a large shopping bag at the same time. “Most of them aren’t that gullible. Mainly they just yell at me.”

“Ah. My favorite pastime.” Nashira used one hand to steady his tray, her pilot’s reflexes letting her deftly balance her own in the other.

“Exactly. You’ve given me a thicker skin.” He smiled, and Nashira’s own tray started to wobble in response. She hastened to set it down on a vacant table, then helped David guide his to a safe landing.

“I don’t know why you needed a third job,” she went on once they were seated. “Quantelope maintenance and the day care thing pay well enough. Hell, you don’t even need to stay at the Hubcomplex to do your studies.” In most of the greater galaxy, a universal basic income was guaranteed, the fruit of the Hub Network’s endless wealth. But space in the Hubcomplex itself—the collection of ring habitats surrounding the unique dimensional warp through which all interstellar traffic passed—was at a premium, so it had to be earned.

“If I’d wanted to study the Hub from a distance, I would’ve stayed on Earth. This is where the action is. Besides, you hate your job, but you stay here.”

“It’s not like I have much choice. The Network needs all the scouts it can get, so they don’t make it easy to leave.” When Nashira had arrived illegally in the Hubcomplex nine years ago, she’d been too broke to book passage to anywhere else—and she’d burned all her bridges back on Earth. She could have applied for refugee status and possibly made her way to some Network planet where she could live in modest comfort. But one stint as a refugee, when her family had fled the inundated Hong Kong for Australia, had been quite enough for her. Hub scouting had been the only available job that she hadn’t found demeaning, but it was a relentlessly tedious chore—testing the vast number of untried Hub vectors one by one, never knowing where they would lead, all in the vanishingly slim hope of discovering something more profitable than empty space and less deadly than the inside of a star.

“At least there are things I’m actually good at,” she went on. “Which is more that you can say.”

“Well, that has to change. I tried depending on charity, and it didn’t work out.”

There was no arguing with that. When David had first arrived in pursuit of what the college dropout laughably considered a scientific study of the Hub, Nashira had warned him that his sponsor Rynyan was a dilettante interested only in boosting his status within the decadent and charity-obsessed Sosyryn civilization, and that trusting him would inevitably get David hurt. Two months ago, she’d been proven right—which was less satisfying than she’d expected. But at least the young American had finally started to develop the cynicism he would need to survive as a member of one of the newest, least important species in the Hub Network.

Although the fact that Nashira cared at all was, perhaps, a sign that a little of David’s idealism had infected her as well. This was a source of ongoing concern to Nashira, and she was monitoring the infection closely for signs of spreading.

David’s own idealism seemed incurable, though, for he quickly brightened. “Anyway, there’s a reason I needed the extra work. And here it is!” David removed the item from his shopping bag and placed it on the table.

Nashira stared. “You got a third job to buy a fish?”

That was putting it generously. The baseball-sized, bulging-eyed creature swimming languidly in the cylindrical tank resembled a fish about as much as a landfill resembled Victoria Peak. “It’s not a fish,” David replied. “It’s an engineered aquatic biocomputer.”

“Okay, but why aquatic?”

He shrugged. “All I could afford. It’s refurbished.”

Even as he spoke, the off-center third eye on the thing’s forehead irised open and blinked sideways. The creature emitted a succession of burbly noises, then spoke in a watery, piping voice. “Language settings accepted. Earth English. Input owner information.”

David cleared his throat. “Hi. David LaMacchia. I’m your owner.”

“David LaMacchia.” The hideous construct looked him over. “Biometrics accepted.” It swung around to gaze at Nashira. “Secondary user?” READ MORE