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Another Generation’s Problems Bestsellers, by Proxy Corporate Dreams

TM Magazine - 1


Contributors Authors Kyle Aisteach TD Carroll Daniel Powell Managing Editor Daniel Friend Brett Peterson Layout Design Chris Taney Editors Andrea Jakeman Daniel Friend Lynnae Jackson Rachel Ontiveros Nyssa Silvester Savannah Woods

Credits Cover art by Chris Halderman. Creative Commons license, some rights reserved. Flickr.com /ChrisHalderman.

Table of Contents


Another generation’s problems

Forgiveness can take generations. Some problems need solving now.

40

“Publish this, fatcat.”

Bestsellers, by proxy

“You can’t put a price on a good night’s sleeep.”

Corporate Dreams

18

74


Flickr.com/mattwi1s0n


Bestsellers, By Proxy

I

Daniel Powell

awoke to a woman violently shaking my foot. “You idiot!” she hissed. “Do you have any idea what you wrote on that blog last night?” I took a deep breath and stifled the urge to bark scotch and stomach bile across my satin sheets. Been down that road before, friends, and it’s nothing but an expensive mistake. Sharon glared at me. A hundred percent ticked, this one. Her hair was mussed and she wore one of my dress shirts. Attractive, if you could look beyond that maternal scowl on her face. She showed me a sheet of paper. “You wrote, and I quote, ‘Do any of you immature scribblers ever stop whining about your pathetic lives on this site and write anything worth reading?’” She exhaled through her nose, her flared nostrils finishing the lecture off nicely. I rubbed my eyes and squinted at her. She was an excellent publicist. I had no idea she’d stayed over. “What blog?” She shook her head in disbelief. “What blog? What blog? You self-centered, ten-year-old cretin! You wrote that last night on The Rejection Gallery. Barry, this is bad. There are over four hundred responses to your comment! Do you have any idea how this is going to play in the national media? It’ll be the lead on Galleycat by noon!” I sighed and stared at the ceiling. “Well, I suppose you’ll have to earn your salary today, Sharon. That’s your job, right? Damage control?” She crumpled onto the bed. “Seriously, Barry, I just don’t get it! Why do you even care about what these people say? You’re a certified success. One of the lucky ones that made it. Why do you have to respond to every critic that gives you a bad notice? Why respond to every anonymous idiot? They’re goading you, Barry. They criticize the writing because it’s popular, but every one of them would kill to have success like yours. You need to let it go. This is the second flare-up in the last month.” We simmered in quiet for a few moments, and then TM Magazine - 5


I scooted over and pulled her into my arms. “I’m doing them a public service, Sharon. I don’t mind a little criticism when it’s warranted—and believe me, I can recognize it when it is. But these people! If they spent half as much time on their work as they did crying about the industry, the world of letters would be a better place indeed.” I slid my hands from her shoulders to her waist, cupping her dainty little hips. “Nope. Not a chance,” she said, an edge creeping into her voice. But even as she said it, I could feel her relaxing—feel her shifting backward on the bed. “You want to pick up where we left off last night? We can hit the IHOP when we’re finished.” She snickered, swatted me with the sheet of paper and scooted away. I had a brief glimpse of that lovely publicist’s tush as she sashayed toward the door. “You blew any chance of that, Barry. You’re right. I need to go earn my money. I have a feeling it’s going to be a very long day.” Sheesh—if only she knew . . . I waited for the centrifuge in my gut to slow a bit before hitting the bathroom, where I unleashed the mother of all pisses. Glenlivet rain, baby. Man, the nights were getting long around here. I pulled on a pair of boxers and shrugged into my robe. 11:15. Lourdes had already come and 6 - September 2012

gone. The kitchen was spotless, and there was a pot of cold coffee in the machine. She’d left a bunch of fresh lilacs in a vase on the counter. They were beautiful and seemed to brighten the morning a little. I warmed a cup of coffee and nuked a hot pocket in the microwave, then took my breakfast into the study, where I logged onto the internet and navigated


to the blog in question. Although I had been on blottopilot when I wrote that charming little nugget, it was only the twelfth post on the thread. I must have gotten in there early. And Sharon hadn’t been kidding. There was some serious vitriol floating around out there, and the discussion hadn’t slowed yet. There were 436 comments, the last one just three minutes old. I scrolled back to the top of the list and began the long march to the

end of the thread. It didn’t take long for the day to darken again, fresh lilacs in the kitchen or not. • I printed the most aggressive posts before calling my lawyer. “Let’s go over it again. What, exactly, did this guy write?” Ted said. Ted Wineman had been reviewing my contracts for over a decade; the man was a bulldog in

Flickr.com/Remi Appell

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the negotiation room. I cleared my throat. “He said, and I quote, ‘Barry Chessman is an utter abortion as a stylist. His plotting is derivative, his characterization wooden and twodimensional. Chessman is a hack whose canned drivel has been pumped up and packaged for mass consumption. You can read it, sure. But Chessman’s writing is the intellectual equivalent of huffing glue.’” “Wow. So edgy,” Ted mocked. “What’s his screen name?” “shadow_of_a_writer.” “Well, that just about says it, doesn’t it? Intentionally ironic, you think?” “Look, Ted—I wish I knew. I responded within an hour of reading that and it just blew up the thread. I’d say half of them defended my stuff. But the others. Well, it gets pretty nasty out there in cyberspace. This shadow fellow was the worst. Actually threatened me a few times.” Ted was quiet for a long moment. “Damn. Threats are a different ballgame. Anything specific?” “I’ll send you the link to the thread. Then you can tell me if they’re worth paying attention to.” “Will do. Hey, Barry? How’s the writing coming? We going to see anything soon?” “Two weeks. Three at the most. Won’t be long, Ted,” I said, the irritation plain in my voice. I’d gone a little off the tracks in the last year, 8 - September 2012

I’ll admit, but I was just about finished with my current project. “Good. If you . . . if you go out this afternoon, take a cab, will you please?” “Sure thing, Dad. I appreciate your concern,” We made our farewells, and I passed by the liquor cabinet on the way to the kitchen. I grabbed a bottle of Perrier and sat at the word processor, writing for over an hour even while the siren song of the internet beckoned from the tray at the bottom of my computer screen. The blog’s host had moved onto another topic, but not before posting a link to the previous message: Some call him a hack and some call him a prophet, but one thing’s become pretty clear, hasn’t it? Barry Chessman sure can get the conversation started. Thanks for popping in and honoring us with your presence, Mr. Bigshot . . . I scanned to the bottom of the post, which curiously concluded with the following admonishment: And for those of you who refuse to let the dead rest in peace—take your games somewhere else. Regular readers know what I’m referring to. This blog isn’t a place for creeps and headcases. Sheesh. Could have fooled me. A bit of conversation concerning my less-than-diplomatic post


continued in the responses to the new post, but it was losing its momentum. The storm was blowing itself out. I poured myself a large drink and put some Bruce Springsteen on the stereo. I took a sip, let the music take over, and when I looked up again two hours later, I’d written nine more clean pages, and the sun was beating a path out to the Oregon Coast. It’d been a pretty decent day after all. I logged onto the internet and checked my email. The first message in my inbox bore a curious subject heading:

you will be sorry that you didn’t, fatcat. i’m onto you. are you onto me? shadow_of_a_writer

I reached for my drink, but it was nothing more than amber-tinged water. My heart strained in my chest, and I retreated to the living room for a refill. The flamer from the blog had found my personal email address. How? I returned to my computer, printed my work, and saved it in triplicate before powering the machine down for the night. No you can’t write for crap, good would come from another fatcat . . . night on the internet. Now, I know a thing or two about I turned on the television and spam. I’ve seen all of the regular settled on Jeopardy! I was almost missives. Enlarge your junk. Find finished with the Double Jeopardy! out who’s searching for you. Click round when I noticed the blinking here to claim your share of an inter- light on my cordless phone. national fortune. Had the phone rang while I was That stuff rarely makes it into writing? It must have, though I my inbox, and when it does, I don’t didn’t have Springsteen on that

“I’m onto you. Are you onto me?” touch it. But this one. This one tweaked me a little, so I clicked on it. hey you can try to avoid me as much as you want but the truth is that you are opening yourself up to me more and more with every passing minute. you need to see that i mean business. i can show you that. help me or

loud. I keyed in my code and the automated voice told me I had a single message. I pressed one to listen. “I’m not asking for much, fatcat. Not the New Yorker. Not Atlantic Monthly. Not even freaking Ploughshares. Just get my piece into Weird Tales. Under my name. You want to make it out of this alive—don’t TM Magazine - 9


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mess with me. Place the story. I’ll send it along in the morning. I don’t think I need to tell you who this is.” It was impossible to tell whether it was a man or a woman. The voice was high-pitched, buzzing through the line with an unsettling echo effect. It sounded—it kind of sounded like an insect, to be honest. I pictured a six-foot-tall wasp chatting casually on the other end of the line. I pushed two to save it and the automated voice promptly informed me that the message had been erased. Piece of crap. Oh, well. I doubted very much that it was something the police would care to listen to. It seemed I had a situation on my hands, so I did what I do best—I raided the liquor cabinet. • The next morning, after unleashing another legendary piss, I logged onto my email account. I was still cloudy about the previous day’s events (a waspman?—had I really heard that?), and I only halfexpected to find an email there from shadow_of_a_writer. But there it was. The subject this time: publish this, fatcat! No accompanying text, just a document. I scanned it and opened it. It was a short story called “The Depth of Things.” I whisked the file off to the trash, topped off my coffee, and logged onto the internet. The Rejection

Gallery had pasted up another handful of dismissals—complete with the requisite belly-aching of anonymous writers and pissed-off editors in the comments section. I found the email link for the site’s host and clicked on it. Someone from your site has been harassing me. The username is shadow_of_a_writer. I don’t appreciate this abuse, and I’m willing to pursue any remedies available under the law. If you know this individual, I strongly suggest that you ask them to stop this abusive behavior. You probably view this as a case of attacking the messenger, but your site encourages this kind of crap. And don’t post this note on your site, unless you want a call from my lawyers. --Barry Chessman I deleted shadow_of_a_writer’s email and was just getting up when my computer threw a superior fit. Bee-Gunk! Bee-Gunk! Bee-Gunk! It made that stupid bell sound over and over again. Then the machine opened Internet Explorer. I wasn’t standing within three feet of that mouse, I swear. I watched as the arrow floated across the screen before clicking on my email inbox. It opened the folder and a message popped onto the screen in a grey dialog box. There were 2,683 new emails. TM Magazine - 11


Each of them contained a single

WARNING!

Your e-mail inbox is filled to capacity. Please eliminate some of your files to ensure optimum performance.

file: depthofthings.doc. I hit the switch on the power strip and the screen went blank. I finished my coffee, dressed in a rush, and headed for my Mercedes. • The Multnomah County Library sits inside of a beautiful building. The largest library in a city simply filthy with them, its cavernous dimensions, high ceilings, and intricate design make it a favorite field trip destination for the local schools. It’s also a cherished haunt for Portland’s (not insubstantial) homeless population. I was seated at the row of public work stations when a homeless man in a tattered coat took the vacant seat to my left. I was back in my email account. The flood of messages was gone— deleted. All but one, that is, with the attached short story. “The Depth of Things.” That sucker was haunting me. I was reading the story—it wasn’t half bad, actually—when the computer chimed and I saw a new message in my inbox. Weird. I don’t know what to tell you, Mr. Chessman. The 12 - September 2012

handle you referenced earlier belonged to a young man named Brian McLane. I didn’t think it was possible, but someone must have found a loophole and registered that username. It’s a sick joke, is what it is. But, long story short, I don’t know the poster that was flaming you in that thread. There are some jerks that frequent the website, but I didn’t think anyone would stoop that low. I hope he/she leaves you alone. It was The Rejection Gallery’s host. I hit the “respond” button: I don’t appreciate your vague response. How do I get in touch with Brian McLane? It only took a moment for the reply: Oh, shoot—you must not know. Brian McLane killed himself a little over two months ago. I just assumed you had visited the site before. There are a few posts memorializing Brian in the archives. He was a good guy and a good writer. Had a novel deal fall through and never placed any of his short fiction in the magazines he really admired. That’s what makes all of this so disgusting. That’s the first time I’ve seen his username (shadow_of_a_writer) since


he passed away.

contributor to the website. There was a PDF attachment I was in the process of re- beneath the subject heading. I reading the message when the man opened the obituary and settled in next to me began to chuckle. It was for a little bit of reading. a rattling, low-slung laughter that echoed in his chest. I turned to • meet his eyes and found him starI was back in my home office when ing at me—unabashedly so. He wore a week’s growth of beard. I got the call. I’d finished reading Sores in various stages of healing McLane’s story and contacted Alan clustered around his mouth. Slowly, Kennerman over at Weird Tales. his lips spread in a wide grin, and I Alan and I knew each other pretty saw the rotting nubs that were his well, having rubbed elbows at a remaining teeth. His pupils were filled handful of horror conventions. “It’s a solid story, Barry, but it’s not with an odd yellow light. He kept his the type of thing we need right now eyes trained on mine as he spoke in in the magazine. I’m sorry to say it, a low voice. “Publish the story, Fatcat. but I just don’t think we have a slot Weird Tales. That’s all I ask. You think for it.” you can do that for me?” McLane’s piece focused on a well The smile faded and the light in that slowly fed on the creatures of his eyes vanished. a rural Ohio farm. It started with “What did you just say?” I whispered it, but my tone drew a few frogs before moving on to birds and cats and dogs. The conclusion feastares nonetheless. tured a toddler bumbling through a “What? Hey. Hey, mister. Could meadow of undulating cheat grass, you help me out? Anything helps . . .” I went into my wallet and drawn to the well by a haunting pressed a five into his hand. He melody wafting on the breeze. Pretty scary stuff, actually. smiled again—this time a much “I understand that, Al, but I could different smile. Much more really use this favor. I’ll owe you big genuine—more . . . human. He got up and shambled out of time on this one. Just name your the library, and then my computer price. I’m being serious here.” Kennerman was quiet. I bit my chimed. lower lip, the breath still in my Bee-gunk! Here’s Brian’s obituary. Like I chest. After roughly two eons he said, he was a decent guy. A little sighed and agreed to publish the ticked that his star hadn’t risen the story. “But you’ll need to do a short way he would have liked, sure. But, story for our Halloween issue. None on the whole, he was a thoughtful of your trunk stuff either, Barry. I’ll be contacting you when we settle TM Magazine - 13


on a theme.” We made small talk for another fifteen minutes before Kennerman assured me that Brian McLane’s piece would be featured in the August edition of Weird Tales. “I hope this is important, Barry. I’m going to have to bump a deserving writer for this.” “Oh, it is, Al. It surely is. Thanks so much. I appreciate it.” I hung up the phone, my heartbeat screaming in my chest. I was in the process of pouring myself a scotch when I heard the response. Bee-gunk! I opened the email. There. All is well. I always knew that this business was about who you know. That wasn’t so hard, was it, Fatcat? With a shaking hand, I brought the drink to my lips and tossed it off in a swallow. • Everybody loved the story. I endured two months of jittery writer’s block, a condition I’d been dead certain was a myth, while the piece cleared editorial, but when they learned that Brian McLane had taken his own life, interest went through the roof. There was enough demand that Weird Tales went to press a couple more times on that issue. And so it was, on a cool autumn day in Oregon, that I was finally able to bust through that infernal mental 14 - September 2012

roadblock and get some work done on my long-overdue project. Seven pages. Seven clean pages. Never again would I laugh at the poor souls that moaned about their writers’ block. It had been so long since I had written anything I thought was any good that I almost wept when I finally leaked those words onto the page. I was on my second celebratory drink


when the phone rang. Alan Kennerman. “I don’t have to tell you what an amazing windfall this has been for us, Barry. I really think that . . .” “You still need that favor?” I interrupted. I was ebullient. The words— they had come back! “Favor? What are you talking about? I’m the one that owes you a favor, Barry. So, I’m actually calling about . . .” “The Halloween story. You said

you’d publish the McLane piece if I gave you a Halloween story. I’ve got a real dilly of an idea percolating, Alan. I think I can get it to you by the end of the weekend.” There was silence on the other end. “Oh. Oh jeez, I remember now! No. No need for that, Barry. I think we’re fine for the Halloween issue. But, actually, in a roundabout way I suppose I could use another favor. We’d love another McLane story. Something in a similar vein,

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but still fresh. What else have you got?” It was my turn to provide the silence. I was stunned. “Barry?” “Yeah. I’m here, Alan. You want— let me get this straight—you want another Brian McLane story?” “Absolutely, Barry! Readers can’t get enough of him. We’re getting fifty or sixty letters a day on that story you gave us.” “But you don’t understand, Alan.

he had time to respond. The phone rang immediately and I let it go to voice-mail. Bee-gunk! What—you don’t answer your phone anymore? It rang again and I put it to my ear. It was the wasp thing. It spoke to me in simple terms. Very simple, very graphic, very specific terms. It outlined my instructions. It covered my consequences. “Look, I won’t do this, McLane!

Very simple, very graphic, very specific terms I don’t have anything else by this kid. He was just some…some random poster to an internet blog that wanted me to pass along a . . .” Bee-gunk! I put the phone down, a horrible fire raging in my gut. I walked over to the computer. The subject line read: “Here’s the rest, Fatcat . . .” I opened the compressed file. There were stories in there. Dozens of them. And two larger documents—both over 800k. Novels. Man, was I in over my head. “. . . Barry? Hey, you still there? Barry?” “I’ve got to go now, Alan. I’ll call you soon,” I said, hanging up before

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I won’t! I did what you asked of me, and I have my own career to worry about. Do you realize…do you realize how hard it’s been for me to write anything these last two months? Why, I—” The line went dead. He’d hung up on me. I sat heavily and stared at the photographs on my desk—family and friends whose names that creature on the telephone line had just hissed at me from whatever dark place it now called home. My gaze fell upon my manuscript, those few pages that were the only things I’d written in months that were worth anything at all. Screw it. I’d keep working on it. I wasn’t trading my writing career to represent work for some


dead kid, and I sure wasn’t going to be blackmailed. I put some Rolling Stones on the stereo and jumped back into my story. I wrote until my stomach told me it was time for dinner, and when I looked up I had another eight pages. The phone rang and I glanced at it warily. The number on the caller ID was a familiar relief, and I took the call. “Hey, Tina! Yeah . . . it’s good to hear your voice, too. What’s shaking on the fairer side of the Chessman family tree?” My heart was racing, but I think I was doing a pretty good job of disguising my anxiety. “We just had the strangest visitor, Barry. A man came to the door—he wasn’t anybody we knew—and he said that you held some sort of a key. He said it was important. What’s he talking about Barry? What key—” there was a commotion in the background, a clamor of anguished voices, “hold on a second. Barry. That man—he had blood on the cuffs of his shirt and . . .” I heard my sister making her way through the house, and then she was shrieking in my ear. “Oh God, Barry, it’s Gus! Somebody . . . somebody killed Gus! Who was that man!” “Tina, listen to me: are the kids okay? Is anybody else hurt, Tina?” “No—just the dog. George is still

at work. But who would do this, Barry? What’s going on here—?” “Hang up and call the police, Tina. Have them contact me immediately. I’m so sorry about Gus. I’ll . . . we’ll get this sorted out. Call the authorities.” I disconnected and ran to my desk. Again, I studied the photographs. There was my brother with my niece—she just a toddler wading in the Pacific on the beach near Florence. There was my sister and her husband and children, resplendent in an apple orchard on a vacation near Seneca, Gus sitting obediently at Tina’s feet. With a sigh, I placed my manuscript in the bottom drawer of my desk. I replenished my drink as my inbox swelled, then rummaged through my things until I found my list of contacts. The flurry of messages became a digital hailstorm, a narrative avalanche of all the rejected work of a depressed writer who had never found an audience in life. All that seemed about to change, though. As the files poured in, two things became abundantly clear to me: Brian McLane was about to become a very popular author, and I was going to be a very, very busy man.

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Flickr.com/h.koppdelaney


Corporate Dreams

I

TD Carroll

hardly ever dream on my own anymore. It’s a phrase we’re supposed to watch for in our customers, a warning sign of dependence. We bar them for a month and offer the names of counseling centers that can help them identify what their real issues are. When we say it to each other at the watercooler, no one cares. We work here; we’re not paying for the privilege of having our dreams overwritten. Every day I go home to change and eat, perhaps watch the odd television program, but I sleep at the Morpheus Center. I keep an apartment the way other people keep a cat. It’s there. I’m responsible for it. Our relationship beyond that simply doesn’t exist. I am the addict that I’m supposed to throw out. Perhaps management wants us this way. When I first started working here I questioned everything. I adopted every argument against dream printing even as I kept going to work: it’s unnatural, often pornographic, habit forming, and possibly dangerous to a natural sleep cycle. After a month with the company I stopped fantasizing about leaving. Within six I stopped sending out my résumé to other companies and started trying instead to become a section manager. By the time the anomaly showed up, I had essentially resigned myself to being a dream tech for the rest of my life. All the word “anomaly” really means is something out of the ordinary. It’s kind of a sinister way of saying it, but then again something different is generally more than enough to terrify most people. At the center, “anomaly” meant that someone gave the wrong answer to “How’d it go?” It never happened. Mostly people loved the dreams we gave them. Every once in a while someone would say that he didn’t get what he expected, and in those cases we noted it on the customer’s profile so that when he came back we could give him a more appropriate recording. That evening I woke up looking confused; I could see it in my tech’s face. Sandra had only been with the company for four months, but I already got the impression TM Magazine - 19


that, like the rest of us, she hadn’t picked this as her first career. She was serving up dreams with a side of fries, waiting for the break that would get her out of here. Now something had gone wrong on her shift and it was plain that she was afraid that that break had just come. “What happened?” she asked, pleading with me not to let it be an operator error. “Nothing,” I said, and in my nervousness I couldn’t help repeating myself. “Nothing. I just noticed something I hadn’t before.” Sandra’s knuckles were white as she gripped the pen over her clipboard. “What did you notice?” she asked, a tiny squeak in her voice. I tried to laugh to put her at her ease. It came out as a strangled chuckle. “It’s just—have you ever noticed that when you fly in a dream, the wind doesn’t actually blow on your face?” Sandra scribbled this on the page. I’d read one of her reports before; my first thought was that she had written it in Arabic. I don’t know any other women with bad handwriting. There’s something weirdly appealing about it, like finding out your favorite actress always goes to bed with her socks on. Maybe that’s why I had so much trouble talking to her. Maybe it was the fact that four out of five techs were men. Maybe, at the moment, it was just that she was dealing with something that I had never run into after working 20 - September 2012

here for almost eight times as long as she had. I glanced at her notes. Most techs didn’t even do reports on other techs—we used the machines more often than we were supposed to, and it tended to raise questions. The form on her clipboard was one that I’d never seen before, and the only word that I could read that she had written down was “Wheatley.” She pulled the clipboard protectively against her chest and backed away. “We’ll make a note of it,” she said, quoting the manual. “I can assure you, we’ll check the source code and—” “It’s a perception problem,” I said, wishing that I had had enough time to wake up before having this conversation. “You don’t have to tell me it’ll be all right. I’m not a customer. It’ll—it’ll be all right.” Please, God, I thought, let it be all right. Of course, it wasn’t. In the time it took me to go home and take a shower, my caseload evaporated. Sunday nights were the busiest of the week, the working populous trying to make up for a weekend of hedonism in a single night’s perfect rest, but I only teched two dreams. Both times Mr. Drake poked his head in to see how I was doing. Drake wasn’t my section manager; hell, he wasn’t my boss’s boss’s boss. He owned the company, the patents on every piece of equipment in the building, and probably every filling in my teeth, if he


wanted them. I’d worked for the center for two and a half years, and I’d only ever seen him half a dozen times. He was back again just before sunrise at the door to the glasswalled broom closet that I called my office. I had given up on catching up on my paperwork after finding that all I’d written on one form

fact. Unfortunately, the only part of it that I had at the time was “sir” in a questioning tone. “Don’t sweat it,” he said, adding to my list of worries that the fan might be blowing my BO all over him. “I’m sending you down to R and D. The program down there is expanding anyway, and I think that your

Have you ever given any thought to a transfer? was “Wheatley” over and over with a thousand question marks. Now I was staring at my desk fan, idly rubbing my fingers down my cheek. Maybe the dream had affected me a little more than I tried to let on. “Good evening—ah, good morning, Mr. Drake,” I stammered. “What can I do for you?” “How long have you been with Morpheus, Brian?” he asked. My entire digestive system caught somewhere in the vicinity of my lower mandible. “Two years. Two and a half years. Sir.” “Have you ever given any thought to a transfer?” “Actually, sir, with a master’s degree in computer science and a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, I’m uniquely suited to be a dream tech. Furthermore, I find your insinuation unnecessarily menacing, and I demand to know why my caseload was transferred away from me.” That’s the cleverly defiant quip I finally decided on hours after the

unique experience might be helpful to them.” “I’m going to be a researcher?” I gulped. I wasn’t even sure if it was a promotion; I’d never even met anyone from R and D. They might as well have worked on the moon. “Not exactly,” said Drake. “What happened to you in the machine is kind of a rising problem for us. We’re hoping that you’ll agree to be a test subject for us. We’ll pay you for your time, of course . . .” The conversation kept going for a short eternity. Drake could have just poked his head in and said “Report to D-building tomorrow” and I would have done it. Instead he opted to stand there and pump me full of buzzwords and promises and reassurances until the end of my shift. I wouldn’t have argued if he had told me that I was fired and that the company was going to harvest my organs before I left. Instead, he personally collected my dignity so that he didn’t TM Magazine - 21


have to feel like a bad boss. •

Flickr.com/mattwi1s0n

I had expected D-building to look like some kind of movie prison, or perhaps a nuthouse. There should have been iron doors and armed guards wearing identical black jumpsuits with the company logo on the chest. They would have gotten extra points for wearing ski masks or gas masks or even those iron samurai masks. Instead,

22 - September 2012

everybody dressed in buttondown shirts. I’d bet that there wasn’t a single gun in the building. One of the casual scientists led me to my cell. In fact, it looked like a fairly nice living room with a bathroom, two walk-in closets, and two comfortable-looking chairs facing a television set. Two chairs that looked far less comfortable faced desktop computers. For a split second I wondered where the beds were before remembering


what I’d been doing for a living for the last quarter decade. The scientist left, and perfectly on cue, my roommate walked out of the bathroom. He was thin and had the kind of posture that we all end up with after a while: the look that says that he’s still sitting at a keyboard somewhere even as his body wanders the halls. He sported one of those stubbly beards that give a man that Chuck Norris action-star look if he’s got the right hair type.

On me it would look like some kind of bar code, stripes of hair growing out while other parts obstinately refused to. “I’d ask what you were in for, but since we’re both in the lucidity study, it’d be a little pointless,” he said. I was mortified. I’d known him for all of three seconds and he was already cooler than I could ever hope to be. He finished up the statement by thrusting out his hand and saying, “Brad.” I took the hand and tried not to wince as he grasped it. Men who grunt their own name by way of introduction tend to have crushing handshakes, those who only give first names doubly so. I wasn’t disappointed. Brad’s grip would have turned coal to diamonds and then to diamond dust. Still, I managed to proclaim myself “Brian” with the air that my receding bones pushed out of my lungs. “You a tech?” he asked, flopping sideways into a chair in a way designed to pry the arms off of it with time. “Yeah,” I said. It was all I could manage; the rest of me was fighting the urge to massage the life back into my fingers. “What did you notice?” “There’s no wind. No wind when you fly,” I said, sitting down on one of the computer chairs. I don’t know why I didn’t move to the other armchair. Maybe I didn’t deserve it. Brad laughed, or maybe hiccupped TM Magazine - 23


quickly. His body certainly moved like he was laughing, but his mouth didn’t open and all the air just kind of rushed out his nose. For all I know he could have been silently crying. “Idiots,” he said. “They should have kept observing you in a natural environment. You’d have reported every change, even if no one asked you to. Perfect for a control group.” I was eager to change the subject away from myself. “So what’s your—um, how did you, um—” I managed to stammer. “At ease, soldier,” said Brad. “I’m a mad scientist. Worked in R and D until I got worried about the

programming, probably. Anyway, there were side effects. I’ve got a solid theory on what’s happening to us, but the company’s still going to spend millions testing it.” He was begging me to ask what his theory was, but there was too much I didn’t understand in what he said. Mostly, I wanted to know what the list of suggestions had been, and how he had managed to come up with a hundred commands to give himself that he didn’t actually want to follow. By the time I jumped this mental hurdle, there was another coming up. “Organic and synthetic programming?” I asked. It was the wrong question.

It was the wrong question. potential for subliminal suggestion. Decided to run a little experiment on myself. Wrote a hundred subliminal commands, fed them into the computer, told it to give me one at random every night.” Part of me wondered if one of his suggestions had been to hack the first word off of every sentence, but aloud I asked, “How did it go?” “Didn’t work,” he said with a one-shouldered shrug. “I could make myself crave certain foods, provided that I already liked them, but that’s it. Couldn’t even make myself want to take my shoes off at work. Incompatibility between the organic and synthetic 24 - September 2012

Brad’s face froze, but his eyes moved almost too fast to follow, taking in every part of me. “I don’t think I should tell you,” he said. “Why not?” I asked. I’d already ruined our first conversation, and probing into what he didn’t want to talk about was a natural solution for getting it back on track. “You’d get the wrong idea.” There was a right question and a wrong question here, and my roommate had already admitted to being insane. I asked the only thing I felt brave enough to put a voice to. “Um, should we watch some TV?” We’d watched about two hours


of bad reruns before the scientists came back for us. They told us to put on our pajamas and then follow them to the observation rooms. In our line of work, good pajamas were essential. They had to be comfortable enough to sleep in, but durable enough to walk around in. Prints and stains both invited comment, and it was absolutely vital that the crotch didn’t have one of those easy access flaps. As with any office environment, if you did something embarrassing in your first year, it would probably be retold until your retirement party. The researchers separated us and led me down a hallway into a bedroom with an observation window. The first time I tried to sleep in one of these was a disaster, but by now I didn’t know how to sleep anywhere else. My arms yearned for the padded arm cuffs and my head for the cushioned helmet. It would have made a great study, I’m sure, but I’d apparently learned a much more valuable trick as a lab rat. I had already secured the headpiece when the tech came in. I about jerked the wires out of the wall when I realized that it was Sandra. She made a big show of reading the clipboard in front of her before speaking. “Hello, Brian,” she said, pretending to be the stranger that she actually was. “I’m sure you already know these questions by heart since you’ve worked here for so long, but I have to ask. On a scale of one to

ten, how relaxed are you right now?” About negative thirty, I thought. “Three?” I decided, though the question mark at the end of it didn’t make it sound like much of a decision. “I’ll start the primary waves at fifty percent, and we can ease it up from there,” said the operations manual through the convenient speaker of Sandra’s mouth. “Can I ask what’s on your mind before we put you under?” She’d already turned on the machine, which was a maneuver that wasn’t in the manual because they didn’t dare put it in. Start the machine too soon and the customer might nod off before they tell you. Then there are holes in the paperwork that would call down a flock of middle managers squawking for answers. If a person turns the machine on at just the right time, though, the customer gets too sleepy to lie. It was probably valuable to a researcher; to a tech it was just entertainment. Fifty percent turns out to be a lot of primary waves, and I was losing it quickly. I heard my own distorted voice murmur, “What are organic and synthetic programming?” Almost instantly I was in my favorite dream. There was a castle on a hilltop surrounded by rolling green hills and canyons. Always I jumped from the highest tower, except that it really wasn’t a jump. My feet just left the ground and stayed up, and I soared down TM Magazine - 25


the canyons and over the hills and sometimes so far out that I reached the sea. But the wind never blew on my face. My perceptions were dim, but somewhere down in myself I knew that there was a lot to this world that I was missing. I’d never seen the inside of the castle, for instance. I almost doubled back, but another curiosity caught my attention: I had no idea how fast I could go. I swooped low, so far down that I could see every blade of grass and the rocky soil beneath it rushing by. It would hurt to touch it, I knew, but I didn’t know how I knew it. Maybe it wouldn’t hurt here. This was a dream, wasn’t it? When someone got hurt in a dream, weren’t they supposed to wake up? My fingers ran across the grass and the soil and the rocks. At first I felt nothing, but then it began to tingle, and then to hurt. It was the good kind of hurt, the hurt you feel when you climb a tree for the first time and you scrape yourself on the bark and push too hard on your fingertips but never quite break the skin. I breathed in and felt sharp air in my lungs. The dream ended before I knew it, and Sandra was leaning over me, removing the monitors. “Did you notice anything new this time?” she asked. Her hair, long and light brown, 26 - September 2012

tickled my nose and turned my brain into some kind of carpenter’s putty. I somehow managed to report my observations to her, but not until she had completely detached me from all of the machines. She picked up a clipboard and filled it with obscure hieroglyphics. As she somehow read her own writing, a nervous frown crossed her face. I immediately panicked. “Is there something wrong with my results?” I asked. “Was there something else I was supposed to—” Sandra suddenly broke into a smile, and even giggled a little. “Sorry, I was just thinking,” she said. “It wasn’t about—I mean, I’ve just got a lot of work to do.” I stood there stupidly for a moment before I turned to the door with a noncommittal grunt. I was almost back in the hall when I heard her say under her breath, “It’ll be an hour and a half before I can get to the commissary for dinner.” It was a simple enough statement, but I somehow got the impression that she was reprimanding herself. It was another mystery that my overworked brain refused to let go of. I didn’t know what I was there for or what was happening to me. My roommate had dropped some kind of nonsense technical term on me, expected me to recognize it, and then acted like he’d just leaked a state secret when I


didn’t. Sandra shouldn’t even be in this division, but the only thing I could think about was what made her angry about dinnertime. Brad was in the room, bouncing a ball off a wall like Steve McQueen, if McQueen had had to get up every third bounce to find the ball. “Let me guess,” he said, reaching under my armchair. “You noticed a couple of new things in your favorite dream, and they took some notes and let you go.” “Yeah,” I said, watching him almost break one of the computers with the ball. “Is that normal?” “For our condition, yeah,” he said. He had the ball again, but he put it down on his desk, eyeing it as if

familiarity makes our minds hungry to explore. We become observant, we realize we’re in a dream, and soon we can control our surroundings. You’re just at an early stage, which is still kind of weird. I mean, it took me six months of watching the same dream every night to do this to myself. What were you doing, trying to set some kind of record?” “No, I mean, I didn’t watch the same dream that much,” I said. “Maybe once or twice a week.” Brad looked at me suspiciously. “For how long?” “Two years,” I said timidly, hoping that if I was quiet enough he might stop questioning me. Instead he

“We pick a favorite dream and keep coming back to it. The familiarity makes our minds hungry to explore.” wondering whether it might get up and bounce on its own. “Never liked that movie anyway.” I exulted. I had actually caught him trying to be cool instead of coming on it naturally. I skipped asking a stupid question and instead took a stab at answering it. “Lucidity?” “All in line with my theory,” he confided, if confiding is what you call telling someone what you’re desperate to tell anyone who will listen. “We pick a favorite dream and keep coming back to it. The

exploded. “Who works as a tech for two years?” he demanded. “Shouldn’t you be a programmer or a manager or something by now?” I had just woken up; I didn’t need this. “You never worked in the commercial department, did you?” I said, my voice suddenly low and dangerous and cool. “They’ve expanded it three times since I’ve been here. There are hundreds of us down there, all of us overqualified. I’m working with people who have their doctorates TM Magazine - 27


in dream analysis, for Christ’s sake. Dream implantation is the next big thing. Everybody knows it, and Morpheus holds all the patents. I’m still at the bottom because I can’t make myself push hard enough to get to the top, okay?” I’d been rehearsing that speech for years, yelling it at the bathroom mirror every time I went to shave. Poor Brad had simply asked the wrong question at the wrong time. I decided that it was best not to explain myself any further and went to my closet to change. Through the door, Brad asked, “Commissary for breakfast?” “No,” I said. I only knew two people in the world anymore, and I’d humiliated myself in front of one of them enough for one day. “No, I thought I’d wait a bit.” Maybe an hour and a half. • There were all kinds of tables at the commissary. There were the impatience tables between the door and the food line, for those that didn’t want to waste the few extra steps it took to get deeper into the room. The eightperson party tables were where the younger employees held contests to see which group could be most disruptive to everyone else. Discreetly hidden behind a forest of potted plants were the two-person workplace-romance tables. The distinctions were mine and 28 - September 2012

mine alone, but that made them no less accurate. I found Sandra at a two-person table next to a window: a depression table. It was my favorite place to sit; they might as well have set them for one. In my most debonair voice I said, “Can I um?” indicating the never-used second chair. Sandra looked up at me in total shock, but indicated the chair as eloquently as I had. The awkward silence began the instant I sat


Flickr.com/Cia de Foto

down. We looked at the other tables and out the window and at our food, anything to avoid acknowledging that the table was too narrow by at least a quarter mile. “How did you end up working on a study in which I am a subject?” I asked. “What are you always so afraid to tell me? Why were you pissed off back in the imprinting suite?” Sadly, I only asked these questions in the silence of my own

mind. “I’m sorry,” said Sandra, finally. “For what?” “You got put in the study because of the report I wrote on you,” she said. “It’s like I threw you under the bus to advance my career.” “How did they even read it?” It was the first time my mouth ever operated before my brain, and I was shocked at what it had come up with to say. Sandra blinked. Her lips pursed. TM Magazine - 29


A hissing sound came through her nostrils, and suddenly she was laughing. Stranger still, I was laughing with her. “You know, no one’s called me out on my handwriting since I was in high school,” she said. “It’s

turn out to be bad?” “I don’t know,” I said again. “It depends on how bad it is.” Tattle, I thought. Tattle my brains out. Turn Drake in and hope for a suspended sentence for myself. Ask for my job back afterward, in all

“He’s got the answer.” like they’re afraid of hurting my feelings.” I didn’t know what to say to this, so I remained silent. Sandra was smiling at me, and I had no idea what was supposed to come next. Fortunately, she knew. “Why do you want to know about organic programming?” she asked. “It’s just something I heard somewhere,” I said, trying to protect someone that was a friend by virtue of being the only other person I knew in this frightening new world. “But when I asked about it, it—he—people— Nobody seems to want to talk about it.” Sandra looked puzzled at this, then looked out the window. “Does that bother you?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “When people don’t want to talk about something, it usually means they either feel bad about it or they think they’ll get in trouble. I don’t know. I’ve worked here a long time. I don’t like to think that what I’ve been doing here is, you know, bad.” “What would you do if it did

30 - September 2012

probability. “Maybe that’s good enough,” she said, almost entirely to herself. To me she said, “Alan Wheatley. He���s got the answer.” It was a hell of a way to make an exit. • I had thought that as part of a dream study, my only job would essentially be to sleep. Of course, life is never that simple. During the day I was a test subject, but at night I went back to work imprinting dreams. There was a formal letter in my email explaining how valuable I was to the company and how important it was that I maintain a regular routine so as to prevent unaccounted for changes in my mindset. The center had successfully collected every moment of my daily life and stamped the company logo on it. An ordinary Monday caseload sat on my desk in the glass closet. I sat in an observation booth and monitored brain wave levels and asked routine questions. I fitted


cuffs and helmets. I could almost forget about the fact that I now well and truly lived here, except that now every time I looked up at the security camera in the corner of the room, I could feel it watching me. There are some jobs that most people think are fun but aren’t, and other jobs that people think are terrible but turn out to be okay. Mine is a job that no one thinks about at all. I put people in a bed, attach things to their arms and head and leave the room to start and monitor their experience. I sit and watch people sleep all night, ready to spring into action when a machine beeps at me; for this I need two degrees and a bimonthly performance review. The advantage to this kind of life is that I am provided with a computer that must face away from the security camera by law because it shows sensitive medical information less than two percent of the time. Feeling like a spy, I punched the name Alan Wheatley into the company database. It came back

some kind of children’s hospital with the same name. I skimmed past these sites, looking for an actual person, but by the end of the third page, it seemed that this was all that I was likely to get. People loved the hospital and hated it, bubbled and prayed about it, couldn’t shut up about it and yet still said nothing about it. Clicking the top link told me why: it was a hospital for children with terminal diseases. I looked over at my customer; I don’t think I’d ever done that before. Someone came in, placed an order, and then lay down on a bed like a hunk of meat on a slab. As far as I was concerned, the customers weren’t even people; they were just a job. Now the portly gentleman snoring in the other room was a consumer of something that I had provided, and suddenly I wasn’t sure of my supplier. Children were involved in this: sick ones. I didn’t have a clever little mental quip to throw at that. Clicking back to the search

Children were involved in this: sick ones. with nothing, so I tried the web. In less than half a second, I had access to over a million sites, but that meant nothing. I had made up words that had come back with more than that. Most of the first page concerned

screen, I reentered Wheatley’s name and added the words “Morpheus Center.” This provided a link to our company website with the heading “Are you eligible for the Alan Wheatley Grant?” Adrenaline flooded my veins as I clicked over.

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I’d been a detective for less than twenty-four hours and already I was making astounding progress. The questionnaire that followed was also about sick children. It wanted to know age and gender, place of residence, and economic status. I filled it out with garbage and moved to the next page. Next it wanted to know if my child had a disease of the brain. My hands froze on the keyboard. I looked up at the tub of lard in the other room. A lot of the questions on this page were familiar; I’d asked them every night for years. Damaged brains reacted randomly to dream printing, and we weren’t allowed to serve them. I scrolled down through the list as the computer asked me what organs were functional and what weren’t, how responsive the patient was and how long he or she had been this way. It gave a litany of possible diseases. It asked if I knew how long my child had to live. I took a deep breath and straightened in my chair. None of this proved anything, but it looked a lot like Morpheus was actively seeking out dying children to put them into the machines. If Sandra hadn’t asked me what I would do if the company had been up to something bad, I probably would have found an excuse for that. For just a moment, I was the most contemptible person at the center, just like everybody else. There was another story 32 - September 2012

unfolding here, one only incidentally tied to this Alan Wheatley, whoever he was. Sandra knew a lot about all of this, but how could she? She had only just been transferred to the research division from being a daytime tech, and she’d only been that for four months— I looked up at the elephant in the room. I had no idea what the credentials for a researcher were, but I was fairly certain that if I applied to be one I’d probably be laughed out of the office. I racked my brain for the names of the techs that had worked with me over two years of sleeping at work and punched them into the company directory. The old names had mostly quit or been promoted, but everyone that had teched me in the last six months came back with an ID number but no department. I had never taken martial arts, but television and movies had told me all I needed to know to compare it to computer science. There were certain things that they taught you that you simply weren’t supposed to use: that one punch that could kill a man in an instant, that one punch that made the world a more dangerous place because you knew about it at all. I’d punched through the company firewall before I finished the thought. The techs from no department were all researchers. No wonder they ignored the safety protocols when it was the


staff being wired up: we were test subjects. No, there was something wrong with that. I’d been working here for less than a month before someone asked me why I wasn’t being implanted more often, before they had stopped logging my dream hours and giving me the questionnaires. We were all just like Brad, turning ourselves into lab

paranoid around here without drawing attention?” I’m not sure it would have had the desired effect. Brad was at his computer when I came in. I wondered if they put him back to work the same way they had me. What does a researcher do when he’s caught making unauthorized tests and becomes a research subject himself? Maybe his job was just to observe me. It kind of made

There were certain things that they taught you that you simply

weren’t supposed to use.

rats without thinking about the consequences. I refocused. Sandra was a researcher, but she was also feeding me information. Now I really felt like a spy—not some twit running around in evening dress all the time, trying to get the precious microfilm back to headquarters, but a real spy looking for real secrets. Someone had put herself at risk by trusting information to me, and I needed to find out what to do with it. This wasn’t fun; it was terrifying.

me feel sorry for him. I had choreographed this next scene in my mind on the way back. I nodded to him as I entered, sat in my chair, and turned on the TV. It was one of those car insurance commercials designed to give society at large clinical depression. I don’t remember why turning it on had seemed important at the time. “Can I ask you a question?” I asked. “You just did,” said Brad, smirking at his own joke. “Want to try again?” “Why did synthetic programming • fail?” Calling it a shot in the dark would be charitable; it was a neeEven the trip back to my room dle thrown, hoping to hit a movfelt like a journey through pirateing target in a vital organ as the infested waters. Were there more people in the halls than the day target danced a fast flamenco in a before? Did more people look my crowded room. All I really knew way? I wanted to shout something after a full day of research was that like “Can’t a guy be ridiculously our company had built an entire TM Magazine - 33


hospital having something to do with organic programming and that at last count we had a team of four assigned to synthetic coding. Brad’s name had been on that list. “Damn,” he said, turning his chair. “You’d have made a hell of a researcher. Just don’t let anything go. It didn’t completely fail; we can make dream images by hand on the computer, they’re just not convincing. The test subjects didn’t sleep well, they didn’t imprint their own elements, and God, when they wandered outside the parameters. Pun intended: that was a nightmare. Besides, it’s a lot simpler and cheaper to record someone’s dreams into the computer and let the dreamer imprint it than to hire a team of programmers to build the same thing. People just don’t like to know about it.” It was the kind of the answer that I had expected, more a confirmation of what I already knew than anything. Even as a detective and spy, I was still asking stupid questions. However, while my brain gave itself the official reprimand, my mouth decided to take advantage of its absence. “Why would anyone have a problem with it?” I asked. “Are you kidding me?” said Brad, almost explosively. “Have you seen the crypts?” • I doubted that the map of the Morpheus Center would have a 34 - September 2012

room marked “crypts” on it, even if I could bring it up on my personal computer. Frankly, I wished it would. That would make Drake a supervillain and me a minion, and the world would make sense. I did have some time before my observation started, though, and I had memorized the location of the organic programming facility. I made an excuse and left. Walking down the hall, I had


to fight the urge to hide in doorways and shield my face from security cameras. I was still in my work clothes: a button-down shirt and slacks, not unlike everyone else in the building. I didn’t even have to change my name or position if anybody asked. As convenient as this situation was, it scared me even more. Things got a little better when I arrived at the organic programming wing, and by better I mean

worse. I could see from down the hall that the door had a pass-card lock. I tried to envision myself picking someone’s pocket or knocking someone out and stealing their key. Both were unlikely. I seriously considered disguising myself as a trash can as an alternative. In the end, it didn’t matter. As I got to the door, a friendly-looking little Asian woman came out. I gave her the apologetic smile that

Flickr.com/h.koppdelaney

TM Magazine - 35


was the universal code for “I don’t feel like getting out my key,” and she held the door for me. I didn’t know whether to feel like a super spy or just a clown. The hall beyond looked like it had been transplanted directly out of a hospital. It smelled like antiseptic. Men and women in lab coats and scrubs compared clipboards. There were techs as well, trying to stay out of the way by scurrying from one door to another and then closing themselves into the rooms beyond. I peeked into a window on one of the dozens of doors that I could see. My daily life sat on the other side: it was a programming booth looking into a room where someone unseen slept in a bed, wires leading back to the wall. There were two techs in there instead of one, but I wasn’t terribly surprised. These guys clearly made more money than me, so by basic corporate logic, it would take twice as many of them to do the same job. The next window went into the room that the techs were monitoring. In the bed lay a child, perhaps nine years old, wearing a set of pink hospital pajamas. Her head inside the helmet didn’t have a single strand of hair, and she was bone thin. I walked across the hall and looked into the window on the door there. A little black boy lay in the room, very much the same as the girl: bald, gowned, 36 - September 2012

emaciated and rigged up. I could see people looking at me in my peripheral vision, and someone called out, but I didn’t care anymore. I checked another room and another, finding only unconscious, sickly-looking children. Someone in scrubs tried to grab my arm, saying, “Are you authorized to be in the crypts—er, organic programming division, sir?” I batted him away, my vision clouding with hate at everything in this God-forsaken building, especially myself. Two more people went to tackle me, but I was a demon of rage. No, not a demon, an avenging angel. I had been working for a beast that fed on sick children. My hands were stained, and nothing could stop me until I washed those hands in blood. Nothing, until the security guards appeared at the other end of the hall. • It surprised me a little to be taken directly to Drake’s office. The man himself was sitting in the most comfortable-looking chair that I had ever seen. He looked almost as pissed off as I was. The security guards slammed me into the expensive-looking antique chair across from him. It had to be an antique; it obviously predated comfort. “Just what the hell is going on, Mr. May?” he demanded. I wasn’t Brian anymore. A boss has to


make his employees feel good; a jailer has no such obligations to his tenants. “I could ask you the same question,” I snarled. “Why do we have a building full of dying kids? What does the organic programming do to them? Who the hell is Alan Wheatley?” Drake blinked. “Alan,” he said, and then apparently decided that he couldn’t do this sitting down. As he stood, my eyes fell to his desk, where a gold-plated letter opener lay casually on top of a pile of mail. I could tell from where I was that it wasn’t remotely sharp, but I would bet that it was sharp enough to do the job I had in mind for it. “Just what are you accusing me of?” asked Drake, looking away. “I had a professor in college that said anyone who said that there’s no such thing as a stupid question is either a liar or a moron,” I said. “Stupid questions are the ones you already know the answer to, or should if you take half a second to think about them.” “You think I’m stealing children out of the hospital—” he started, but I couldn’t hold back any longer. I launched myself out of the chair and reached for the letter opener. My fingers closed a fraction of a second too early and knocked the blade off the desk. I could feel the security guards lurching toward me, but Drake got there first. His arms were around me, and he was crying

softly into my shoulder. “Twenty-four hours,” he said. “You work here for two and a half years, hear that something might be wrong with the company, and within twenty-four hours, you’re willing to murder me to avenge a child you never met. God damn it, Brian, why have you been keeping your head down so long?” I don’t remember how we ended up back in our chairs or when the security guards left. All I know is that we were there. “Alan was my nephew,” Drake was saying. “He was hit by a cab crossing the street. It severed his spine and left him paralyzed. I had just started researching dream printing at the time. He had to sleep a lot, because his little body—anyway. He called me every day to tell me about his dreams because he wanted to help. He was actually the one who suggested reversing the helmets to allow us to monitor and record dreams.” “And he was your first subject,” I said, hollow now that the rage was gone. “Your castle dream was one of his,” said Drake, smiling a little. He looked about a thousand years older now. “Why children, though?” “They have more vivid dreams,” said Drake, with a shrug. “We seem to lose the knack as we get older. The dirty ones we generally pick up from kids in their midtwenties, just in case, but the good ones rarely

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come from anyone over thirteen.” “But only sick children?” I asked. A bitter look crossed Drake’s face. “What do you think would happen if I made an open casting call for this? Ridiculous parents would troop their kids out here trying to make a quick buck so that they could afford SUVs and home entertainment systems. Instead, I give the money to the kids themselves so that they can spend it on what they really need: another chance at life. It costs a lot more, but as our commercials say, you can’t put a price on a good night’s sleep.” I sat silently, out of questions for the first time since I could remember—all the way back to sometime the day before yesterday. Drake looked at me pensively. “Of course, I’m not sure what to do with you now,” he said. “Now that you know where your specific dream comes from, you’re useless to the study, and I was clearly wrong to hire you as a tech. How does overseeing the organic programming division sound to you? We need someone with your kind of passion down there.” It was full daylight by the time I staggered out of Drake’s office. Something flew at me from out of

38 - September 2012

the shadows, and I tried to shield all the bruises that security had left on me. Unfortunately, the only thing I had to shield them with was other bruises. I looked up when I realized that whatever it was wasn’t there to kill me. It was Sandra. “I’m so sorry!” she said. “This wasn’t supposed to happen!” I gave her a questioning look, but that didn’t seem adequate. “Just what was supposed to happen?” I managed. Sandra blushed and looked to the corners of the room. “It was a stupid idea. You sounded like you were working on a mystery, so I figured that if I gave you a hint, maybe you’d come around again, you know, looking for clues.” Her voice went through a steady diminuendo, until she didn’t so much stop talking as leave the realm of human hearing. The last missing pieces fell into place, but by now I was too tired and too beat up to do anything about it. My brain had shut down the instant I realized that I hadn’t been fired, but promoted. I gave up and let my mouth say whatever it wanted. “It’s okay, baby. Just take me to bed.”


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T

Kyle Aisteach

he gravity comes back very gradually in the cavernous elevators that take you from the central docking core of Space Colony Reagan to the spinning habitation ring. You just realize at one point that you’re on the ground and you can stand up again. The elevators are designed to move transports full of people all at once, and I had it all to myself. With one hop I bounded over to the full-length mirrors on the wall, where I fixed my hair and adjusted my tan civil-service uniform. I needed to be composed if anyone would trust me to save the colony. Americans see me as a very small woman, which compounds the issue that even after fifteen years of America being a Chinese state, they generally resent our assistance. American-built stations tend to be crowded, having been flooded with refugees well beyond their design capacities in the last days of the war. I hate crowds. Every time I’m in a crowd I still expect an American drone to appear and unleash some horrific new weapon of mass destruction on us. Being surrounded by Americans only makes that phobia worse, even all these years later. Some wounds heal. Others leave very deep scars. The elevator doors opened before I even realized we’d gotten back up to full gravity. The governor stood just inside the customs check, throngs of people shuffling through the crowded arrival area behind the security doors. His uniform was standard-issue green, but his breastplate insignia indicated that he was a Japanese national. Japan is one of the states that resisted adopting any of the Chinese dialects, so I bowed in the Japanese formal manner and spoke in American. “I am Wu Xiu, engineer second class, civilservice civilian corps of engineers. I am here to conduct the feasibility study for the repair of this space station.” “Welcome, Miss Wu,” the governor said. He motioned to a tall man standing behind him in a black custodial uniform. “This is Mr. Smith, our senior maintenance engineer. I’ve asked him to show you whatever you need to see.” I nodded. Assigned to be escorted by the custodial TM Magazine - 41


staff. American mores had rubbed off on this governor. Mr. Smith smiled. He had incredibly dark brown skin that made his eyes and his wiry hair seem impossibly white, but his teeth seemed a more welcoming shade of beige. “How do you do?” he said. I forced a smile. “If you don’t mind, I would prefer to skip the formalities and get right to work.” Mr. Smith laughed and gestured toward the open elevator door. “In that case, Miss Wu, we’ll be going right back the way you came in.”

when I’m going to throw up. Visual inspections are next to impossible as you drift around. “Who did the repair work?” I yelled over the grinding of essential parts inside the one working engine. “We’ve all done this and that over the years.” Mr. Smith seemed perfectly at home in microgravity, easily spinning himself upside down to point at one of the expansion joints. “That’s the part that has us most worried.” The metal was fatigued so badly I could see it with bare eyes. “It should have failed already.” “That’s what we thought, too.” Mr. • Smith had a strong voice that naturally carried over the death cries The station’s rotational engines of the machinery. “We’ve been were in far worse shape than anyrequesting repair and upgrade as one could have imagined. Only one was operational, and it had long as I’ve been on the station.” “How long is that?” been patched together using “Fifteen years. At least.” parts from the other three, two of which were of a different gen• eration. Every time it kicked on to adjust the rate of the outer ring’s “It is important to your people that rotation, it roared and emitted a you live in this station?” I asked. rank black smoke. It was an odd, Mr. Smith had set me up in a old design, built when it was con- cubicle in the maintenance secsidered important for the central tion, in the lowest level of the core to remain stable for docking habitation ring. The ceilings and undocking. Newer stations were low enough that he had to were far more efficient, and only duck under conduits and pipes needed tiny thrusters to maintain as he moved around, but I had rotation. settled into the dingy space easI despise working in micrograv- ily. I had plugged my personal ity. I spend half the time wonder- data interface into the desk with ing what I’m about to bump into one of the adaptors I carry in my and the other half wondering suitcase, and I had the station’s

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design specs open on the screen. “What do you mean?” Mr. Smith said without looking up from the mop he was cleaning. “I mean relocation will be a lot cheaper than getting this station up to its original standards.” Beijing had flat-out refused the station’s

seconds. “Qingdao Technological University has recently developed rapid-deploying solar sails,” I explained. “My plan is to install four along the outside ring of the station—here, here, here, and here. When the station needs to accelerate to keep gravity nor-

“This is our home, Miss Wu.” requests to replace the rotational engines. The company that built them had gone out of business a hundred years ago. Developing new technology to fit into the existing architecture would cost hundreds of trillions of yuan. “This is our home, Miss Wu.” He stood up and shook out the mop, and then hung it on a rack to dry. “I don’t know about in China, but Americans don’t much like being ordered to leave the places they know and the people they love just because it would be cheaper not to fix a problem.” I nodded. It had been the answer I had expected. I brought up the design plan I had been working on during the shuttle ride up from Guizhou. “Then this is my proposal. You know the realities of the station better than I do. I would appreciate your input on its feasibility.” He sidled over to look over my shoulder. The station had a radius of just slightly over two kilometers. To maintain normal gravity, it had to rotate about once every ninety

mal, the sail that is about to catch the solar wind will deploy, and then furl again as it loses the sunlight. If the station ever needs to decelerate, they could do the same on the other side. The computer control is relatively straightforward, but the station architecture needs to be able to actually support the forces the sails will apply.” “Well, that’s not gonna be your problem,” Mr. Smith said. “I haven’t shown you the force diagrams yet.” “I don’t care how many times you cycle those sails,” he said. “This station was designed for the flex of eighty thousand people walking on it every day. Obviously, we should inspect those spots first, but you can install whatever damn fool contraption you want, wherever you want. But I’m telling you now, we need new engines.” “A new station would cost less.” “A new station built to current Chinese standards, and no doubt full of China’s favorite citizens before we even get a chance to enter TM Magazine - 43


the lottery for housing over there.” Mr. Smith folded his arms and made a guttural sound. “No, thank you, ma’am. China wanted to own this station. China owns it. China can fix it.” I turned in my chair to look up at him. I hadn’t noticed before, but he had freckles, which were only barely visible through his skin tone. “And you speak for the entire population of the station now, do you?” “I’m sure I speak for more than that idiot governor your people sent up here.” I laughed. There’s an old saying that if you want to hear the truth, ask the children and the servants. “And why, exactly, are new engines superior to my plan, then?” His voice suddenly became quiet and professional. “Because you’re forgetting about orbital mechanics.” I turned back and stared at my drawing. “In our orbit, we get about fourteen hours of sunlight for each ten of shade,” he said. “The variation in rotational speed you’ll experience when the sails won’t work is less than the variation you get between floors right now,” I said. “And the angular momentum is adjusted for by the deployment software.” “That’s not the problem,” he whispered. “You’re deploying a solar sail. Where are the forces from that going?” “Here,” I said, pointing at my 44 - September 2012

drawing of one of the deployed sails. “And that accelerates the station to make the artificial gravity.” “Okay,” he said, burying his face in his hands. “Let me ask this another way. You’re assuming the station rotates around the axis, right?” “Of course.” “So what’s keeping that axis where it is?” Suddenly, I realized what he meant. The solar sails, every time


they were deployed, would be pushing the station into an orbit farther and farther from Earth. I hadn’t calculated if that would destabilize the orbit or not. “So,” he said, taking over my interface and switching it to American, “you put that kind of force on only one side of the station, coupled with the fact that it’s rotating and has a good amount of angular momentum, and you end up with a walking

orbit, like this.” Faster than I could have, he had animated a simulation of the station drifting into an elliptical orbit that careened into other colonies, space stations, and the space elevator. “Gan,” I swore. “That won’t work.” “That’s what I was telling you,” Mr. Smith said. Engineering mistakes like the one I had made are very obvious when someone points them out, but notoriously difficult to spot on

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your own. “Where did you study?” I asked Mr. Smith. “Me? I’ve just been putting this station back together again for a decade and a half.” He moved back to his sink full of mops and began washing out another one. “You pick stuff up.” I had never heard of a case

war was barbaric to its core. But I was here to help them, and that is exactly what I was going to do. Not because I liked them, but because it was my job, and my duty, and in China we take those things seriously. And, after all, they were all Chinese citizens now, too. But I resent when people with-

And, after all, they were all Chinese citizens now, too. of someone “picking up” orbital mechanics. • In Guiyang, people of European and African descent are not uncommon, but they stand out. The strangest thing for me when I visit American cities or stations is the sea of diversity, the fact that I’m the one who stands out. As I walked through the corridors making my way to the upper deck, conversations stopped as I passed. People either turned to stare or deliberately looked away. Even the least informed knew there was a government engineer on board, and I didn’t look like the other Asian-descended people here. I looked Chinese. And Americans don’t like the Chinese. Fortunately, I didn’t much like Americans, either. Any nation that would do what it did to my family and claim it was fighting a “clean” 46 - September 2012

hold information from me. The top deck is all agricultural. The gravity is actually noticeably lighter there, and enormous windows crisscrossed with titanium beams cover the entire area. Sunlight slanted in from around the limb of Earth, constantly changing angles as the station spun around its axis. They’ve planted fruit trees in neat rows, with hedges and ground produce between them and along the footpaths. The biological services office sat in what gave the impression of a standalone building tucked under a canopy of apricots. I ducked inside before the sight of Earth whipping overhead one more time made me dizzy. A blonde woman in a teal sciences uniform looked at me suspiciously. I tapped my ID badge to signal identity confirmation to her and introduced myself. “What can


I do for you?” she asked flatly. I pulled a sample envelope out of my pocket in which I had secured a few strands of Mr. Smith’s wiry hair, collected off a chair he had used during his lunch break. “I need a DNA profile on this.” “How soon?” the biologist asked. The entire room shook. My feet went out from under me. Several more scientists emerged from the back and looked at each other, confused, as I stood back up. Dread came over me as I realized what must have happened. I ran back out the door and looked up through the trees. On the central axis of the station, rotator engine parts spilled out into space. A hole, its edges ragged, gaped at me from just above the one-hundred-meter-wide rotator joint. And the ground still shuddered. “I think we might be in trouble,” I said. The scientists said nothing. • The governor summoned me to his office as if he were in charge. Since I needed to speak to him anyway, I decided to go. The man still had never bothered to introduce himself. His secretary was a young man who appeared to be of Native American ancestry. He looked up as I marched into the office. “I can announce myself,” I said as I blew past the desk and into the

governor’s office. The governor smiled politely and stood up. I bowed. “Governor-san.” “Miss Wu,” he said. “I hope you’re aware of what happened.” “Frankly,” I said, “I’d be more up to speed if I was up there doing an inspection instead of here holding the local government’s hand.” He smiled and bowed slightly. “Ah, but see, we have been requesting repairs to prevent exactly this accident since the end of the war.” I bowed again, too. “Ah, yes, but the deferred maintenance clearly predates China assuming responsibility for the citizens here. We do our best when we inherit other people’s problems, but cannot always work miracles.” My personal data interface buzzed at me. It was the biologist, sending me a DNA sequence off the hair sample. I forwarded it to our government identification databases, not really listening to the governor’s polite accusations that Beijing was planning to let the Americans living on Space Colony Reagan suffocate in the vacuum of outer space. I smiled politely and bowed again. “Governor-san, you have my personal assurances that if the station ceases to be habitable, we will evacuate each and every former American before I leave the station myself. Now, I will be needing your full cooperation if we are to determine how long momentum will maintain an acceptable gravity in TM Magazine - 47


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the station.” “My maintenance engineers are already working on that.” “I would have expected no less.” I tried to remember to smile. “But they are not, at present, including me in their communications, and I do not have an environment suit checked out to me on the station.” He smiled, and bowed, again. “Would you prefer I pull Mr. Smith off the survey to check out an

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environment suit to you?” I repeated the smile-bow routine. Just as I opened my mouth to speak, my personal data interface came to life with a priority alert. My blood ran cold. I completely dropped all pretenses. “Actually, it turns out Mr. Smith is a wanted war criminal. I expect him to be in custody by the time


I can get down to your police office.” past collapsing around me. And I could already tell grav• ity was holding me to the deck less It’s remarkably challenging to find than before. a private location to have a break• down on a colony station as crowded as that one is. The crowd jostled and Mr. Smith’s real name was Conrad elbowed me until I found my way to Leclerc. He’d been an American a stall in a public restroom off one engineer. He had been given the of the market corridors. And I sat Congressional Medal of Freedom there, trembling, crying, my entire for devising one of the cruelest weapons of mass destruction the Americans ever used against us. And at the end of the war, he was one of the people wanted for war crimes who had simply vanished. To the governor’s credit, when I found the police office, the officer on duty pointed me directly to an interview room, where Conrad Leclerc sat. He looked up at me, still speaking in his faux-affable style. “Care to tell me what I’ve done?” “One word, Mr. Leclerc. Osteoresonance.” His whole demeanor changed. His features fell and he sat more erect. His voice again became calm and professional. “You struck me as someone who had put the past behind her. I guess I was wrong.” I wasn’t familiar enough with this police office to know if our conversation was being recorded. I grabbed the metal chair across the table from him and sat down. “I grew up in Guizhou Province, Mr. Leclerc.” “I’m very sorry to hear that,” he said, “but right now there’s a very real emergency going on, and you TM Magazine - 49


and I should be out doing everything we can to stop it.” “You have no remorse!” I barked. “It was war, Miss Wu!” “That weapon was horrific!” I went off balance, and realized I had sprung to my feet instinctively but had not compensated right for the lighter gravity. “My parents screamed for twenty minutes while every bone in their body vibrated to dust. They lingered for hours after that. Everyone’s parents did. Children and people who were too old to walk were left helplessly to try to find if there was a doctor still alive anywhere in the province. A land of orphans and the forgotten elderly.” His jaw clenched and he folded his hands in front of his face. “You’re too young to remember this, but your country erased the line between combatants and civilians. Every able-bodied adult was a soldier. And they had you, the children, around them, as human shields. Thinking we wouldn’t dare attack. We had to find a way to target only adults. We were playing by the rules of war. China wasn’t.” “They gave you a medal.” “Yes, they did.” He folded his arms and leaned back in his chair. “I’m an old man, Miss Wu. I did what I had to do for my country. And if I have to stand trial for that, so be it. But right now, let’s you and I work on getting this colony

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station spinning again.” “This station is scrap metal,” I said. “I’ve already called for evacuation transports.” “Won’t work,” he said. I glared at him. “The docking area depressurized in the explosion. Unless you can get a hundred thousand environment suits in here, nobody’s going anywhere.” I hated the fact that he was right. “Well, since you no longer need to pretend to be ignorant, I’d be curious to hear your suggestion.” “I want to try your plan.” I stared, but he didn’t seem to be joking. “My plan?” “Well, a variation on it. May I have a personal data interface?” I handed him mine. He signed into the network and pulled up a set of drawings that were clearly modified from mine. “My grandfather used to sail,” he said, “like, wind on the water type of sailing. Old fashioned, recreational. But the principles of how a sailboat sails and how a solar sail works are basically the same. He used to be able to sail into the wind. So if we can articulate your solar sails on one more axis and tip the station thirty degrees, we can catch solar wind in both directions.” “Equalizing some of the forces,” I said. “It’s not solving the problem—it’s just slowing it down.” “Ah, but if we also move the station up into a polar orbit, then when we go into the walking orbit,


a tug can correct us before we start hitting the rest of the infrastructure.” “Why didn’t you suggest this before?” I asked. “When we’re spinning,” he said, “we’re essentially a giant gyroscope. Getting that thirty-degree tilt with us spinning at full speed takes more energy than all the tugs you’ve got in orbit can muster.” “But the rotation is slowing,” I said. As friction along the rotational joint slowed us down, not only did we have less and less gravity, but we also lost gyroscopic stability. If the tugs could move the station while we were effectively without gravity, it would be as easy as moving any other satellite. “How quickly can your teams do the install?”

even to use the restroom. And if I even think you’re trying to disappear into a crowd of evacuees again, I’m shooting you in the back, is that clear?” He leaned over and spoke in a low, clear voice. “Perfectly.” • That afternoon I discovered something I hate worse than working in microgravity: working overhead in high gravity. The government had managed to rush a prototype mounting plate for the solar sails to us, but we had to install it on the outer ring of the colony station. And as the station rotated, the mounting plate wanted to fly off into space. There were

“If I even think you’re trying to disappear into a crowd of evacuees again, I’m shooting you in the back.” He laughed. It was the same laugh, but I now found it creepy instead of affable. “How soon can you get those solar sails up here?” I grabbed my personal data interface back and transmitted the request. “I’m going to have a team down in Guiyang get to work on the programming. You and I are going to make sure the install goes well.” “Thank you,” he said, standing up. “This is not a release, Mr. Leclerc,” I said. “This is an emergency work detail. You are not to leave my sight,

nineteen of us working on it, most of us struggling to hold it in place as the same forces strained against our tethers, trying to hurl us off into space, too. To be of any use at all, I’d had to turn myself upside down, planting my feet against the station and tightening my tether enough to hold me there. I held my edge of the plate by pushing against the artificial gravity in a half squat, while one of the welders moved along the ten-meter edges, two others struggling to keep the welder’s TM Magazine - 51


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had assumed a right-side-up or upside-down posture for the job. The plate wasn’t settling back against the station properly. I did my reverse chin-up again. I grabbed two handholds with the tips of my fingers so I could look between my feet under the plate. My headlight illuminated several buckled joints where the alreadywelded end had warped the station itself when it fell. “There is damage underneath,” I reported. “Don’t force it.” “Do you want us to cut it and reseal it?” the welder asked. That would depend on how bad the damage underneath was. Before I could ponder further, the entire crew lost hold of the plate in a cascading failure. The station vibrated under me as the new weld alternately tore and removed hull plates. I reached out and grabbed ineffectually as the mounting plate flung past me. The welding crew tried to dodge, but the plate caught them. Tethers snapped. Three crew members and the precious mounting plate flew off into the blackness of space. • The tug that had delivered the plate had made a valiant attempt, but it had only managed to recover the crew members—two bodies and a man who would be dead soon. The mounting plate was lost for good, one more piece of space junk. Beijing had ordered a halt to the fabrication of the remaining

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tanks from tearing their hoses and falling away as well. “Tell me again why thrusters won’t work?” Conrad Leclerc grunted. I really wasn’t in the mood to chat, with all the blood in my body sloshing into my head and my sinuses threatening to explode. “This station has a stable core,” I said through gritted teeth. “No efficient way to pump the fuel.” “Heads!” someone on the other side shouted, and nine people lost their grip simultaneously. The plate fanned away from the station. The six people on that side shot away from the station until their tethers went taught and caught them. The welding crew secured themselves as the rest of us shimmied along to pull the plate back down, and those closest hauled the deadweight of their fallen teammates back up to within reach of the handholds. “This isn’t going to work,” Mr. Leclerc said. “If you are near a place that is already welded, move along to reinforce the other side,” I ordered. The crew complied. Moving for me involved moving one foot at a time, wedging my toes into the handholds, and then bending my legs in a sort of upside-down chin-up to move my tether. By the time I made it around the corner, the fallen crew members were secured again properly and alternately lifting or pushing on the plate, depending on whether they


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three mounting plates until we could work out a secure way of installing them. I ignored another summons from the governor and swung by the armory and checked out a handgun so I could make good on my threat to shoot Conrad Leclerc in the back if need be. I rejoined the crew on the maintenance deck, where a small group had been patching the torn hull from the inside. Atmosphere had been restored, and I could hear the arcing and smell the tangy flavor of welding before I rounded the bend to where they worked. Six men and one woman were buffing the edges of the repair job, with Leclerc supervising. “There is no need to make it pretty,” I said. Several welders shut off, and the team turned to look at me. “Well,”

‘completely destroyed.’” Leclerc looked at the others before he looked back at me. “Some debris came through the lower bulkhead and hit the shuttle that was parked there. It slammed into the #3 and #4 elevator doors, and its engines fired and took out the docking airlock, which is now open to outer space.” “So it needs to be completely rebuilt,” I said. “Yes,” Mr. Leclerc said. “Completely.” “What else is the central core used for?” I asked. “I mean that in the practical, everyday sense. Not what’s on the drawings and manifests.” “Zero-g storage,” Mr. Leclerc said. “And the laboratory?” I asked. “More storage these days.”

“That can be another generation’s

problem.”

Mr. Leclerc said, “we don’t have much else to be doing.” “You can give me an accurate report on the state of the docking bay.” A few of them chuckled. “It’s completely destroyed,” Mr. Leclerc said. “There’s no way to evacuate anyone through it without space suits.” “I’m not asking about an evacuation,” I said. “I need a definition of

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The young woman volunteered, “Sometimes a pickup game of zerog squash.” I nodded. “In that case, I want the six of you”—I indicated everyone but Mr. Leclerc—“to get in there are disconnect the gyroscopes that hold that section still.” They didn’t move, but instead just looked at one another. “Do it,” Mr. Leclerc said. “It’ll reduce the amount of friction


slowing the colony down.” Then they moved. I would have to have a word with the governor about discipline in his ranks. A moment later I was again alone with Conrad Leclerc. “Are you thinking this is a permanent solution?” he asked. “That depends,” I said. “Do you think the residents of this station would die of shame if Chinese-built shuttles served it instead of the antiques you’ve been using?” “You want us to lock off the rotator joint permanently.” Just then, the governor appeared, flanked by two body guards. I smiled and bowed. “Governor-san.” “There is no need for pretense, Miss Wu,” he said, smiling artificially. “I sent for you. You did not respond.” “I was busy,” I said simply. “I want to know what the hell is going on!” the governor snapped. And then he smiled again. Yes, he had been thoroughly Americanized. “I’m looking into implementing your Mr. Smith-Leclerc’s latest plan,” I said. “My plan?” Mr. Leclerc said. “Yes,” I said. “You were the one who said thrusters would be simpler to install. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to start drawing up the plans for where to mount the fuel tanks and to map out the best routes for the feed lines.” Conrad Leclerc laughed that irritating laugh of his again. “Yes, ma’am,” he said, and headed toward

his cubicle. I turned to glare at the governor. “I thought he was under arrest,” the governor said. “I judge people’s value by what they contribute to the greater good, Governor-san,” I said pointedly, and turned to follow Conrad Leclerc. “Don’t walk away from me, Miss Wu!” the governor shouted, and, as an afterthought, called, “Please!” I ignored him, and I ignored his next several attempts to formally order me to his office. • I knew they had gotten the rotator joint locked off because a shudder went through the station and I grew lighter again. Conrad Leclerc and I were surveying places to drop the fuel line for the new thrusters on the top deck. I looked up through the arched windows overhead and confirmed that the center section of the station was now rotating along with the outer ring. The chief arborist stepped up beside us as we stared upward. He was a wrinkled man, probably of Eastern European descent. “Wow,” he said. “It just looks wrong.” “How long will the crops survive if we lose gravity?” I asked. “It depends on the plant,” he said. “If we can find a way to infuse water around the roots, some plants do fine in low-g. These trees, however . . .” I looked at those trees. The set we were standing under had blossoms TM Magazine - 55


just peaking, and root systems that I knew must run down several meters. In a few weeks they would be alive with fruit to feed the colonists, unless we did something to kill them. “The polar orbit idea would’ve done a number on them, anyway,” Mr. Leclerc said. “If your plan works,” I said, “there’s no need to shift the orbit.” “To that end,” Mr. Leclerc said, “is there any reason we need to run the fuel line internally at this point?” He pointed to the nearest elevator shaft connecting the outer ring to the central core. “Run the line externally along the shaft, follow the contour of the mullions, down the side of the ring, and don’t breach the hull until we get down to the maintenance level, where we set up the arch over to the thruster. Maintains a good downhill flow the whole way, and it’s a much quicker install.” I thought about it. “Eventually, we’d need to install some sort of space-debris cover or your crews will be out there patching holes weekly.” “My crews are pretty good working outside,” Conrad Leclerc said. “So that can be another generation’s problem.” “I think that is an acceptable engineering compromise,” I said. My personal data interface bleeped with an alert. “Gai si!” I

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swore. “Problem?” Mr. Leclerc asked. “What is the name of your brainwasted governor?” I demanded. “Kenta Ine,” Mr. Leclerc responded. Typical of his Americanization, the family name was in the second position. “Mr. Ine,” I explained, “just put out an order for my arrest.” Conrad Leclerc’s laughter can only be described as hearty. • The most dangerous part of the installation was going to be installing the new fuel tank in the old rotator engine room. The destroyed engines were going to have to be cut free and jettisoned through the damaged docking area, the new tank then maneuvered carefully in, secured in place, and then connected to the four feed lines. Conrad Leclerc didn’t want anyone taking that risk but himself, so it would be the two of us doing the work. I hadn’t done brute-force construction since I graduated from university. We were just completing our inspection walk three-quarters of the way around the engineering decks, making sure the thrusters had been correctly installed through the floors, when the governor appeared, flanked by fifteen police officers. “Miss Wu,” he said, “you’ve ignored at least a dozen summons, and I’ve now got a credible report


that you’re armed and dangerous.” Conrad Leclerc stepped aside. “Don’t you get out of my sight,” I said. The officers blocked the way forward, but if I could move backwards before they could react I might be able to take cover behind the cubicles. The gravity, even down in the bowels of the station, was

drew my gun and leveled it as his torso. The police officers all also drew their weapons. “Chicken, I believe you call this?” I said. “The penalty for killing a government official is death.” I could make out beads of sweat on the foreheads of a couple of the police officers. They probably

I stared at him. The man who

killed my parents.

only about two-thirds Earth’s, so I’d be awkward if I tried it, and I couldn’t count on the officers to be as poorly trained as I liked to think they were. “I am the representative of the government here,” I said. “Please step aside and let us get back to work.” “Miss Wu,” the governor said, “I’m placing you under arrest.” “Anyone who attempts to detain me is guilty of treason,” I said matterof-factly. “Now step aside.” Several of the officers looked around nervously, but none moved. Typical Americans, only loyal when it came time to behave stupidly. “Mr. Smith,” the governor said, “come over here.” “Stay where you are, Mr. Leclerc,” I said. “Mr. Smith,” the governor said again. Conrad Leclerc began to move. I

wouldn’t fire. But I couldn’t count on them all not to fire. It only took one. “The Supreme People’s Court will not care which of you fired and which of you did not,” I said. “You will all be executed. Now lay down your weapons.” “Mr. Smith, come here,” the governor said. We all stood, not moving, for a long time. I kept my gun pointed at Conrad Leclerc. The police kept their guns pointed at me. Finally, Conrad Leclerc turned and took two steps toward me. “Now, young lady, I want you to listen to me very carefully,” he said quietly. I shifted the gun into firing mode with my thumb. “There’s effectively no way for me to get off this station without a massive conspiracy to pluck me out of

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someone of his background was on the station, they probably wouldn’t have dispatched me at all. Americans would have trusted an American more, anyway. And those Americans now stood here with guns pointed at me, as they had so many times during the war. It would serve them right if I killed Conrad Leclerc and made them kill me. The station would either spin down until it couldn’t support life any more, or they’d blow it up trying to get the thrusters working. “My life doesn’t matter,” I said. “No,” Conrad Leclerc said, “but this is a Chinese station now.” How had he read me so perfectly? He wasn’t just a war criminal. He was some sort of sorcerer, too. “Now let me have the gun,” Conrad Leclerc said. My instincts told me to shoot. My emotions told me to shoot. But my discipline insisted that he was right. I handed my gun to the man who had killed my parents. The police swooped in immediately to place me in restraints. “Remember that the feed lines use Chinese tolerances,” I called to Conrad Leclerc as he led me away. “Don’t overtighten them.” “I’ve been at this since before you were born,” he responded as the police led me away. • I sat in the holding cell as my body

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it in a space suit,” Conrad Leclerc said. “It took a massive conspiracy once before,” I said. The first time he had escaped justice. So many people had to provide him with false documents, to look the other way as he moved through checkpoints, to keep quiet about the man who knew more than a custodian should know. “Now, you’re a big believer in putting the needs of the community before the needs of the individual,” Conrad Leclerc said. “I’m going to ask you to walk the walk now. You’ve drawn up a good plan. I know how to follow it. You go cool your heels in the police office for a while, and let me finish saving the colony for you.” I stared at him. The man who killed my parents. The man who killed so many parents. How many children were there like me, orphaned so brutally by this one man? “You are going to stand trial,” I said. “You have my word,” he said. “I’m not going anywhere.” The word of a mass murderer counts for very little. The guns of fifteen police officers count for a lot more. And, unfortunately, Conrad Leclerc was probably the only other person on the station with the knowledge and training to execute the more difficult aspects of my plan. If Beijing had known


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weight came back unceremoniously. An hour later, Conrad Leclerc arrived at my cell door, looking exhausted. He stood behind the observation glass and clicked on the intercom. “We did it,” he said. “I figured, based on the gravity,” I said. “Well done. Were there any complications?” “The tug delivering the tank had a hard time matching the station’s rotation. I hope your shuttle pilots are as good at those spinning

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dockings as you say they are.” “They’re not usually lowering a tank full of volatiles below themselves on their way in,” I said. He laughed, and somehow it didn’t seem false this time. “I know Governor Ine won’t say this, but thank you. For the first time since the war, this colony is on the mend. I really appreciate you taking all this so seriously.” “I was only doing my job.” “You went above and beyond, or


you wouldn’t be sitting in there right now.” I looked around the cell. I wouldn’t be here for long. And if the governor didn’t pull off some very fancy talk when the military arrived to get me out, he would be taking my place as soon as they did. “Well, thank you for reporting. You were under no obligation to do so.” “Well, I figured since I had to come down here anyway, it wasn’t

a big deal,” he said. “Why did you have to come down here anyway?” “I wanted to get some sleep,” he said, “and I’m currently living in the next cell. I’m under arrest pending transport back to Earth to stand trial for war crimes, remember?” I’m sure I looked flabbergasted. “The governor is standing by those orders?” “No,” he said. “I am.” I stood up and walked over to the window in the door. “Thank you,” I said. “Now don’t get me wrong. I plan to mount a vigorous defense, and if there’s any justice in China, I’m going to be acquitted.” I smiled slightly. There was no chance he would be acquitted. Too many of us remembered. I touched the glass, and he touched it too. • I knew General Wong had arrived. Police officers scurried past my cell looking terrified. The officer who came to release me visibly trembled as she unlocked the door. I composed myself in the mirror, and then marched out of the cell. General Wong stood flanked by a team of soldiers in boardingparty gear in the main reception area of the police office. I stepped into the room and saluted. The general saluted back. “Miss Wu, I trust you are unharmed?” he said TM Magazine - 61


in American. Always considering the effect of his words on those around him, General Wong was. “Inconvenienced is all, General,” I said. “Though I was arrested only under threat of deadly force.” One of the police officers in the room had been present when I was arrested, and he visibly shrank behind the reception desk. General Wong was intimidating even when he wasn’t furious, and I imagine these officers had already felt his wrath once. “The governor has been relieved of responsibilities, and we’re landing a replacement in the next hour,” General Wong said. “I’m very interested in this war criminal you’ve tracked down.” “Conrad Leclerc?” I said. “Yes, of course!” General Wong bellowed. Even his own soldiers sidled to give him more room. I trembled. “I’m not sure it’s correct to say I tracked him down,” I said. “I merely determined that this is where he most likely died.” A few of the police officers glanced at me nervously. “What?” General Wong roared. “I worked with an ex-lover of his. She still had some hair samples. I confirmed the identity. Beijing must have misunderstood the nature of the request.” The desk officer’s knuckles turned

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white, and I knew exactly how he felt. General Wong bellowed and cursed in Cantonese. I stood formally, waiting to be addressed again. “All right. Come on,” he finally ordered. His soldiers pivoted and marched out in front of and behind him. I fell in at the back of the line, motioning for the police officers to keep quiet. “Oh, and General Wong,” I said, “the new governor could do a lot worse than to appoint Mr. Smith from maintenance engineering as liaison to the operations staff. I found him to be extremely knowledgeable and capable. Probably more so than even myself.” “Noted,” General Wong barked back without turning around. I glanced back at the police officers, grinning at the baffled expressions I saw. The crowds parted as we marched toward where the ship had breached the hull. The faces of former Americans stared at me with a mix of curiosity and hostility. But they were faces I would never see again, a crowd that need never acknowledge the debt they owed to China. If any crowd was going to swallow up the man who had killed my parents, this was as good a crowd as any. Let someone else deal with the next set of problems. I just wanted to go home.


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Emerald Sky, September 2012