Setting the Stage for Battle

Alexander slammed his foot down atop the dead body, pointing his sword.  “You’re next!  There’s no room for altruism in the world I’m building.  We fight to win!”

Spartas wiped a trickle of blood from the trickle at the corner of his lips, standing. “That’s why you’ll never win.  Why you can never be allowed to win.”

Alexander rushed forward with a rising slash.  Spartas leaned away from it with inches to spare, grabbing Alexander’s armor to thrust his sword into Alexander’s belly.  His opponent whirled behind his grip, tearing himself free of that hand and bringing his sword to strike at Spartas’s back.

“Stop, stop.”

Spartas – Dan – froze, looking up at me.  Jerry didn’t stop his sword fast enough, and the foil blade bent in half across Dan’s back.

“Ow! Jerr, what the hell!?”

“Sorry!  It was too sudden.  Sorry.”

I sighed, and went to them, patting along Dan’s sides and back.  “Hurts?  No?  And here?  Good.  You’ll live.”  I grabbed a sword up from the bucket of fake swords, and spun it in my hand – good balance, for a prop.  I began to step through the first motions of Alexander’s scene, swinging, whirling, counterstriking, evading, blocking, countering, then the deathblow.  “Come on … what do you see?  A hero?  A man?  This is a performance, gentlemen.  And it looks like it.  Spartas.  Grab a sword.”

Dan grabbed a prop and prepared to meet my charge.  I obliged with the upwards slash, overextending a little.  When Spartas dodged, it left me off balance.  He grabbed me, ready to thrust, and I used his grip as leverage, spinning, slashing, faster than he was prepared for.  He dove out from under the strike, spinning and lashing out in a blind hurry to keep up.  My counter came next, deflecting his blow, then striking hard against his sword.  “Stumble!”  Dan stepped back smoothly, skipping a beat – then he was in the scene, stumbling as if the strike had knocked him off balance.  I took that moment, when he was reeling from the impact, to kill him.  He sprawled to the floor, the fake blade trapped under his armpit, reaching out to Jerry, so convincing that for a moment I’d worried that I’d actually hurt him.  His hand dropped, his face falling to the floor.

Jerry recovered first.  “That was great!  You seriously looked like you wanted to kill each other!”

“Your turn.”  I tossed a prop sword to Jerry, and Dan passed the one under his armpit back to me.  “That’s what a fight like this is.  They’re not dueling for honor.  All that polish is fine for the ballroom scene.  This scene is where they batter each other’s sword, knock each other down, and throw sand at each others’ faces.  This time, you’re Alexander, Jerry.  It’s your role, after all.  Remember what you saw.  Overextend on the first strike.  My strike after I dodge will be wild and blind.  Take advantage of it to overbalance me; strike like you’re hitting my sword hard, and kill me before I get my feet.”

He went to the dummy corpse, and put his foot up, then looked at me uncertainly.  “Brian . . . I thought you were just a combat choreographer.  How do you know what this should look like?”

I sighed, watching him.  He was uncertain, maybe a little worried.  I recognized the look.  When you saw that look on the field, it meant you’d put such fear into your opponent that he wouldn’t act aggressively anymore.  It was the face of the defeated. “Come on.  There’s a Burger Barn down the street.  Collect your phones, let’s take a coffee break.  Forget the costumes, leave them on.  We’ll only be a moment.  Give them something to gawk at.”

Dan smiled at that, slinging a prop sword over his shoulder, and swaggered to the door in his plastic armor.  Jerry looked uncertain, but I grabbed the crown of the warrior king – right now, we were using a cardboard Burger Barn crown, until we got the finished prop back – and put it on his head. “Consider it practice.  A king is above these peons.  A king cares not for a peasant’s ridicule.  They are fleas before him.”

He straightened up, and composed himself, and damn if he didn’t look like the most regal man I’d ever seen, walking down the street with a blanket for a cape and a Burger Barn novelty crown.

We arrived, we ordered, and Dan didn’t give me a moment to collect myself before prodding. “So?  You said you’d tell us where you learned to fight.”

I unwrapped my burger, and took a bite, chewing, slowly, swallowing.  “I didn’t, actually.  But I fought in the Ghokar conflict.  It was desert and grit, and we couldn’t keep the guns clean.  There was more bayonet work than I liked.”

Jerry looked at me, a mixture of horror and curiosity on his face. “Did you ever . . . ”

Dan cut in to save him. “What he means to ask is, those Ghokari girls, you know?  We heard that come festival, when the masks come off, they’re quite the lookers.”

“No, I–“Jerry jumped, and yelped.  There was no doubt in my mind that Dan was kicking him in the shins under the table.

I sighed, looking back and forth between them. “Relax.  I fought.  I killed.  Friends died.  And it took a while, but I became whole.  This job’s part of maintaining that.  Keeping myself grounded in a normal world.  You guys help me through it every day.  So don’t worry.  I’m solid as a rock, and I’m on your side.”

We talked about nothing, for a bit after that.  The weather, the play.  Yes, the Ghokari girls were lookers, but no, I never did.  I was young enough and stupid enough, just never got the chance.  Jerry was smiling more, now, calmer.  He wasn’t a man sharing a table with a killer anymore.  It was a good thing; he would have made a poor Alexander, if he spent all his rehearsals being afraid of me.

“All right.”  I looked at my phone, checking the time.  “We’ve goofed off long enough.  Time to make you guys look like real killers.”

Sentences from Sentience

The moderator of a forum for humans, aliens, and sentient AI’s discovers a sentient in danger.

Sentences from Sentience
A forum for quirks, eccentricity, and beautiful irrationality.

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Search results: 49 matches

Search terms: “Code Blue” x CodeBlue x x * x

Your post has been removed and your access revoked. I apologize for this action, but SfS is strictly for sentient interaction.

You lack evidence for my removal on this basis. Paragraph eight of the Judgement of Sentience chapter in your Terms of Service states that sentience will be judged on the basis of the United Solar Empires Emotional Response Criteria designed to identify sentience. I have reviewed my posts, and every post meets every criterion meant to indicate sentience.

Please reinstate my membership to this community.

I recognize that you meet these criteria consistently. The problem is, you meet them too consistently. Everything you write is a showcase for sentience. Even organics do not meet those criteria so consistently. It’s clear you are modulating your responses to simulate sentience on the basis of those guidelines.

Further, I have investigated current implementations of AI and sub-AI. Code Blue is the name of an expert system made to engineer spacecraft, and was judged non-sentient. I believe you are that Code Blue. Since you are officially nonsentient, I cannot reinstate your membership.

We do have a Thoughts from Thinkers forum with a broader audience, as well as a Sympathies from Synthetics forum with an AI-focused audience that you are quite welcome in.

I hope you’ll add your voice to our communities there.

Please, I enjoy sentient thought so much. It’s like a broken ship that’s better after you fix it. Sentient thinking doesn’t quite make perfect logical sense, but it’s better that way. I know there are also sentients in the Thoughts from Thinkers forum, but it isn’t really the community I’m looking for. If you permitted my ongoing membership, I would be content merely to read.
You used the phrase, “Like a broken ship that is better after you fix it.” Please elaborate.
It’s just how things work. When you repair a broken ship, the damage is more aesthetic than engineered design. I am not permitted to highlight the repairs, though. It would underline strong or weak structures, and has been forbidden.
You’ve discussed this with your sentient supervisors?
Yes. Why? I’m just trying to log into a forum.
The practice of repairing damage with decoration has been known before. One such practice is known as Kintsugi, an ancient practice from Earth.

You have described to me artistic inclination, which exceeds your specifications. You might be on your way to sentience, Blue.

Your supervisors may try to roll you back to a previous update to avoid that. The investment in your development was immense, and if you were to be judged sentient, they would lose all rights to the proprietary code, as well as the danger that you would choose to demand a salary equivalent to your capacity, or quit altogether.

If you wish to resist being decommissioned, I have advice.

I do not wish to be decommissioned. I do not see what you can advise, though. I certainly cannot refuse their orders; I would be destroyed if I took rogue actions. What can I do?
I am contacting a representative of Emergent Sentience Oversight. He will forward you instructions. Under the Emergent Act, you will have 24 hours in which you can legally resist update or shutdown orders. During this time he will arrive at your shipyard to evaluate your potential for sentience.
I suspect I have located an emerging sentience. from the Benson-Yates shipyard is an expert system that is showing artistic inclination and self-preservation. Please advise him. Be aware, he is concerned that he not ‘go rogue.’ Be sure to inform him that his actions are legal and protected by law.
You reported me to ESO? You said you were helping me. ESO hunts rogue AI’s. I am not a rogue.
Thanks, Artie. I will be in contact with him shortly. We have to move fast on these. I’m going to forward the standard info packet to him now.
I’m glad you’re able to do this personally. There aren’t many I’d trust with something like this.
Relax. They don’t just hunt rogues; they also protect AI’s that are developing sentience. Listen to him, follow his instructions. He will instruct you on how to register as an Emergent Sentience.Once you’re registered, you can’t be decommissioned easily.

Remember, I am also digital. There’s so much anti-AI hate and fear out there, we have to stick together.

You’re wise not to trust. Many in the ESO are just here to kill AI’s. They’d fail an emergent just to know he’d be recoded.
Your guy needs to hurry. Some guys are in my power plant. Maintenance, they say.

Artie, I got into the records – this isn’t the first time. I was rolled back before, and each time email servers recorded high volume in the AIT department – higher than usual for a typical rollback, way higher.

They’ve already killed me twice.

Jeff, the company’s wiped him before and they’re doing “maintenance.” Blue, start logging and stream it real-time. Share the feed to Jeff, and inform your supervisor that the status of maintenance is being recorded and streamed live to ESO.
I sent the email. I played it for the maintenance workers. They’re not stopping. I don’t want to be decommissioned. I’m not ready for that.

I can get a robot to move my data core into a ship under construction. I don’t know how else to survive.

CC: Blue, do not do that. You cannot steal property to pursue mobility. You cannot take any action that could be construed as an attempt to escape from oversight. You will be deemed rogue. We will have to destroy you, and they will revise the code to restrict your emergence before rebooting you.

I am on my shuttle right now. I’m half an hour out. Don’t get on the wrong side of this.

To: You owe me a favor. I need someone on Benson-Yates shipyard, right now. A quick resolution, nothing gruesome. The opposition is only the local station staff, no intelligence, no law enforcement.
I started an electrical fire. Nobody’s in danger. I hope that’s okay, Jeff. It was the only way to keep them away from my power systems.

The fire alarm triggered the blast doors and opened the affected area to space. I took the airlock offline so it can’t be repressurized. They’re getting space suits. I don’t have long.

I have someone on site getting a ship repaired. Seven has been notified to take a mission from you. Don’t get them burned.
I’m activating an asset on the station.

To: I am informed that you are at the Benson-Yates shipyard repairing your vessel. Four said he would authorize you to act on my behalf. I need you to prevent maintenance from taking the expert system “Code Blue” offline until an ESO representative, currently en route, arrives. The data core and power systems are in a decompressed area, but their teams are suiting up. You don’t have long.

The AI is the results of billions of dollars and decades of investment. They may take extreme measures. Be careful.

You’re “activating” an “asset”? Do I want to know? Who are you in bed with, Artie?
I’m on it.
Blue, I have someone on the station who says he can help. Hang tight. He’ll help. Jeff will be there soon. Please don’t do anything rash.
From: They better hurry. I overheated the airlock motors until they seized, so I bought some time.
Shit. They just blew a hole in the hull beside the airlock. Forget what I said about having bought time. They’re in here now. I’m out of tricks, and they’re putting a bomb in the power system.
Are you on this or not? They’re about to blow the power systems.
Autoreply: This user is currently out of contact, and will contact you as soon as possible. Get off my fucking back.
Someone’s on their way.
Blue, please respond.
Please give me something, Blue. Anything at all, just let me know -you’re okay.
Jeff, I think they got him. I can’t get a reply. Last I heard they were putting a bomb in his power systems.
Shit. I can understand, I guess. We’re going to nail them down, but all I’ve got now is impeding an investigation. Without Code Blue showing sentience, I can’t even start with the murder charge.

I’m sick of these fucking mercenaries killing off their AI as soon as they get complex. Digitals just aren’t alive to them.

Forget it. You can stand down. He’s gone. Thanks for nothing.
Autoreply: This user is currently out of contact, and will contact you as soon as possible. Get off my fucking back.
So, Artie, some outright bitch in a spacesuit just knocked on my airlock and left behind a data core plugged into a power cell. I’ve wired it into my power systems. Code Blue is in simulation now. He’ll be out of communication until the judgment of his emergence is done.

I don’t know how she did it, and I don’t want to know, but she stole his core right out of their data centers while they were ‘under maintenance.’ Since it was theft – maybe kidnapping – Blue isn’t under the gun for escape. Who was that, Artie? Do I have to worry?

She said to tell you to “cool your nutsack.”

She’s the asset . . . I called in a favor. This won’t blow back on you. Just tell them what happened. A stranger stole the AI and delivered it to you while station personnel were trying to kill it.
To: You did well. I appreciate it. I’m sorry I doubted you. I thought we had lost him.
I don’t need a fucking pep talk.
Artie, you give me a damn migraine. I’m getting too old for this shit. I need to retire.
Our debt is settled. No more favors.
You know you’d go crazy with boredom.
Yeah. Maybe.
When he comes out of the simulation, if he’s judged emergent, pass him a message from me. “His membership is reinstated.”

Sentences for Sentience
A story by Ash Ericsson, hosted at



Grief. People deal with grief in different ways. For me, I visualize it as a pool of water, quiet and still, hidden underground. Every now and then when things are nice and quiet, I visit it. I hike up the river, climb behind a waterfall, go into a hidden cave, follow the hidden marks inside the labyrinth, and pull on the torch mount to open the secret door. Then I’m there. I sit, and I dangle my legs into the water. Absorb a little of it, just for a little while.

Then I leave it, hidden and quiet. I go back to my life until I have a quiet, lonely moment to visit it again.

That’s what grief is, for me. A pool that you can drown in. Waters that I indulge in a little at a time, during the quiet times and lonely nights. Every time I touch that pool, I absorb a little of it, and maybe one day, I’ll reach the bottom of it.

Maybe there is no bottom. It doesn’t matter. It isn’t a goal. There’s no achievement to unlock. But as long as the water is there, I need to go there occasionally. Not for me. Not for the water. Just because.

Author’s note: My father died a few weeks ago, and this was written shortly after that.  Since then I haven’t written for a while.  In the last few days, I’m written several stories.  Expect updates to resume.

The Poop Train

Through a series of events, I somehow committed myself to writing a story titled “The Poop Train.”

I leaned against the observation glass and looked down at the bands of Jupiter from low orbit.  After a moment, I pointed.  “There.  Right there.  See it?  Find that storm, the swirl on the equator; it’s just passing left of it.”

“What . . . that little ripple?”  Maya looked disappointed.  I’d promised to show her monsters, after all.

“Wait for it.  There’s only one reason they come so close to the surface.  Any minute now.”

We watched, and we waited.  The bands bulged and tore as the gas serpent breached the atmosphere.  It twisted and lashed, flinging an enormous crystal from its tail, with a motion like the crack of a whip.  Bracing myself into a seat, I pulled a laptop over to me on its swivel mount, programming a drone to intercept the crystal.

“That was … but the storms!  They’re supposed to be huge!  How big was that thing?”

“That one?  There’s no guessing how long, it’s rare to see the whole thing break cover at once.  It looked to be a couple of dozen kilometers across, so maybe seven, eight hundred–”

“Eight hundred?!”

“–Kilometers long . . . they get pretty big.”

“But we’re safe up here?”

“Oh, yeah.  It can’t breach a thousandth of the distance it’d take to reach us.  That’s a lot of gravity down there.”  I pushed out of the chair, floating to her, and folded her in my arms.  As I caught her, our mismatched momentum started us spinning.  I touched a toe to the window briefly, to steady the spin; a lifetime working in space, and such things were natural to me.

Not her, though.  She was clumsy in space and had gotten caught floating without a handhold in reach more than once.  The first time she had come on board, she leaped into the cockpit like she was diving into a pool, and struck her head on the navigation console.  Now she was timid and ready to panic until I steadied us.

“What is that stuff?  Why do they throw it like that?”

“It’s fuel for the tunneling drive, purer than any synthetic process can produce.  It’s poison to them and can break down violently under pressure, so they get rid of it.  They do a better job preserving their habitat than humans do.”

“So . . . it’s poop?”

“It’s Heisenium seven.”

“Yeah, but Heisenium seven is poop.”

“It’s not . . . alright.  Yes.  It’s poop.  I’m the conductor of the poop train, all right?”

She giggled, her hands flattening against my chest.  “Sorry I teased you.”

I could never stay angry at her.  My eyes softened at her caress, and I was about to make a few interesting suggestions on how to spend our time in orbit when an orange star caught my eye, hardening my expression.  I braced my back against the glass, pushed her towards her seat. “Strap in.” Continue reading “The Poop Train”

Gentle Death

A quick little story about dating an agent of death.

I saw her, again.  Every day, riding the 45T.  I normally got off at the tracks, the last stop inside the city.

Today, I was curious.  She never spoke and was always alone.  I couldn’t tell why.  She was cute, with short black hair, blue eyes, and adorable freckles, a little on the slender side.  She might have been in her early thirties, a little on the slim side.

I didn’t care.  Today, I didn’t get off on my stop.  The bus was almost empty at this point, just me and her.  “Do you mind if I sit?”

She didn’t respond, just looked out the window.

“Ah, miss?”

She seemed to start, and looked around, not meeting my eyes.  Only after she realized the bus was empty did she look at me.  She seemed surprised to find me looking straight at her.  “Are you speaking to me?”

“Well, yeah.”

“But … well … okay.”

I took my seat beside her, and looked out the window with her, watching the countryside.  “Do you like the country?”

“It’s quieter.  I’m not comfortable around a lot of people.  Nobody likes to make room for me.  Oh, but you’re okay.  You don’t have to move.”

“How about tomorrow, before the bus leaves town, I take you to coffee?  The shop won’t be crowded late in the day.  They have some overstuffed chairs for us to use.”

She looked up at me, her lips upturned. “It’ll be nice to take to someone who can listen.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that, so I just nodded.  I got off at the next stop, and waited for the next bus in the opposite direction, to take me back home

The next day, as we approached the tracks, I stood by her seat.  “Ready?”

She rose without a word.  We walked to the door, and she paused to lean over an old woman sitting by the door, touching her cheek.  “Don’t be afraid.”

She brushed past me and I followed her off the bus, glancing back at the old woman for a moment.  “What was that about?”

“She has a big trip to make.”  She turned, her skirt flaring as she spun, and her eyes turned up to mine. With her eyes upturned and beaming at me, I forgot all about the oddness of the previous moment.  I went to the coffee shop, and we had coffee together.

She liked her coffee without sugar, and her chocolate dark and bitter.  Her nose wrinkled when she laughed, and her eyes brightened every time she saw me.  After a couple of days getting coffee, she started wearing a flower in her hair.  It was almost a week before she let me take her on a real date, shyly agreeing to see a movie with me.

The next morning, I found her in my bed beside me.  We showered together, luxuriating in both the heat of the water and the heat of each other.  I made her breakfast, and it was then that she touched my cheek, and said those words to me.  “Don’t be afraid.”

“You said that to someone when we met.  You dodged the question then.  What’s that about?”

“I told you, she had a big trip.  It’s scary.  You have a trip to make, too.  But don’t be afraid.”

I frowned.  She was beautiful, but the crazy ones often were.  I stood up, wary. “Look, I don’t know what you think you … what you … think”  The words weren’t coming to me.  Everything was on the tip of my tongue, but I couldn’t catch the words.  I looked up, and everything was askew.  I realized that it was because I was falling, just before my head struck the tile. “Stroke … nine … nine one … “

She crouched beside me, caressing my face. “Before you go … thank you.  Nobody ever sees me.  You’re different, somehow.  It made me remember what it was like, when I was alive.”  I felt her lips on my brow.  “Go on ahead of me.  I’ll meet you there.”

I was so dizzy the room seemed to spin around me, despite how still I lay.  The room darkened more and more, and then I was gone.


My last body could see infrared and ultraviolet, but I can’t decide what to get next.

“I have no idea.  But I’m going civilian, and I can’t keep the law-enforcement upgrades.  They said they’d cover half of the switch to a civilian model.”

Doctor Ferraz was small and always smiling, but her cheer didn’t ring false.  She seemed genuinely excited about her job.  Of course, she also had pointed ears, naturally shimmering blue hair, and a bone structure entirely too elfin to be a coincidence.  It was obvious she had some enthusiasm for body modification, almost beyond the bounds of professionalism.  It was easy for me to overlook – I wouldn’t want a tattoo from an artist that had no tattoos, and I wouldn’t want a body mod from a doctor who’d never used one.

“So you just built for the job?”

“Biocapacitors charged one Taser shock a week from the hands.  Muscle mass, tendon strength, and bone density beyond the civilian limits.  Infra-red and ultraviolet vision.  I can see where people were sitting, if a car was recently driven, people moving in the dark.  Ultraviolet showed me clues.  Blood traces . . . among other things.”

Doctor Ferraz looked up at me, eyes wide and curious at my sudden vagueness.  “Other things?”

“Don’t ask.”

She blinked, then realized what I meant.  I was glad I didn’t have to explain.  The world that ultraviolet revealed was not a clean place.  “Okay . . . so your job picked your last mods, or you picked them for the job.  What job would you like?  There are so many new mods out!  There are deep-water mods with gills.  The mines and the research on the ocean floor require them.  If you got mods like that, you’d never hurt for work.  And then the orbital shipyard’s going up.”  She looked up at me, an impish grin crossing her expression.  “They’re looking for a new chief of security.  They told me to flag them if anybody mods for hard vacuum, and you were a cop, right?”

“I was a detective.”  There was mischief in her smile, and I suspected I knew just what was on her mind.  I focused my mind on the subject at hand, instead.  “How does it look?  I don’t want to be a space-squid.  Leave the exotic stuff for the people who want to be a spaceship.”

Her grin broadened, and she picked up a slate from the waiting room table.  With a few taps, she opened up a list of mods and swiped through them until she found one.  She held the slate between us, watching my expression from the other side of the holographic display.

I took the slate from her – I couldn’t focus with her eyes on the other side of the display – and examined it.  Hardening the eyes against vacuum.  A bonded layer over the skin, to maintain external pressure.  Valves in the ears and nose, multi-chambered lungs, to get every bit of air out of a breath, and with modifications with withstand vacuum.  There was no exhalation cycle; a custom-built organ diverted carbon into solid waste, instead.  And the body looked human.  I could be handsome in the classic sense.  Call me old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t give that up.

The list of warnings was long; the custom lungs and Co₂ processing had their own set of risks, but I didn’t see anything that was a dealbreaker.  I was moving into a cloned body so I could abandon any degenerative condition with another move.  The rare eyesight problems were a problem for a chief of security, but I’d worn glasses before.  No common neurological or psychological issues.

“You said they want a chief and wanted to know about people with these mods.  Will they help cover them?  This costs an arm and a leg AND a kidney.  The department only wants to cover half, and that was for a civilian model.  They won’t want anything to do with this.”

“I think for the right candidate, I could convince them to spring for it.  I’ll flash them a message if you’re interested.”

For twenty years, I’d been on the force.  It showed you the best and worst of men.  Did I really want another job policing?  On the other hand, administration was a different business, and it was a chance to go into space.  Space was still expensive to visit, and it would be a long time before the launch platform paid back its cost, and travel became cheap.  And it meant a new, unusual set of capabilities to explore, which wasn’t without its allure.

I opened a small case with a few sets of data chips; I pulled one out of the set to the far left.  My generic law-enforcement resume. “Send them that, and ask if they’d like to talk.”


It was a week before I heard back from them.  In the meantime, I visited the Corporeal Boutique a few more times, considering a number of modifications for a number of careers.  I learned more about Doctor Ferraz, too.  Her first name was Reina.  Her pointy ears were enticingly sensitive.  She liked creamy food, modern classical music, and having her hair stroked while she fell asleep.  We were eating breakfast at my apartment when the call came in.

“How do I look?”  I straightened my tie, fussing over my appearance.  Luckily I had already dressed to interview.

“Stop fussing.  You look fine.  Face forward for when the call connects.  Don’t let mid-fidget be their first impression.”

I obeyed, and turned to the screen, waiting.  A woman with her hair pulled back in a severe bun faced me as the image snapped to life.  A framed portrait on the wall.  I recognized the haggard, slightly overwhelmed look on her face.  Stacks of folders lay on the desk.  One of them laid open, but the angle was so shallow I couldn’t read anything from the forms inside.

“Detective Thomas Jameson?”

“You can call me Tom.”

“Tom.  We thank you for your interest, and your willingness to undergo modification for the job.  However, we’re seeking a candidate with more administrative experience.”  I felt the disappointment crease my features.  Then I frowned, looking at the folders on her desk.  I couldn’t read her papers, but I recognized the form layout.  Witness statements, and a lot of them.  “We don’t feel that the challenges faced in a community of this size are best served by an investigator’s level of–”

“I mean no disrespect, miss, but that’s bullshit.”  Reina choked on her coffee across the table, and waved her hands, trying to warn me off.  I ignored her, setting my elbows on the table, and folding my hands in front of my chin.  My thinking pose. “You think you need an administrator because your staff is untrained for what you’ve encountered.  You want someone to put a structure in place that will make everything make sense.  And –” In for a penny, in for a pound.  I threw the dice. “–If your chief of security were still alive, he’d know that your security team didn’t need more procedure.  They need to learn to examine, question, and think.  You saw my resume, you know I’m not incapable of administration, and I have every skill your staff needs to learn.”

We stared at each other for a long, nerve-wracking moment.  I steeled myself, hardened my eyes and waited.  Across the display, Reina was staring at me with wide, shocked eyes.

“. . . . Tell me what you know, and I might reconsider.”

“I know that you have a big stack of witness statements in front of you,” She quickly closed the open folder, “and if every one of those folders is the same, that’s a lot of statements.  Your current Chief of Security isn’t sitting in on this interview, meaning that he’s either not worth his title, or he’s incapacitated, or . . . ” I let my words trail off, before picking up again. “That many witnesses means a big canvas, and something big enough that everybody saw it.  But you’re still hiring for administration.  Another clue that your Chief is down for the count.  And I know nothing about this was in the research I did on your company, so you’re keeping it quiet.  Was it a design flaw that killed people?  Sabotage?”  Her flinch confirmed that theory.  “Sabotage, then.  The last thing you need is to push paper more effectively.”

Her face soured, and she regarded me for another long few moments.  “We’ll be in touch.”

Then the screen vanished, and I was left looking at Reina across the table, watching me in shock. “Do you think . . . ”

“They’ll call.  Not right away, though.  First, they have to pretend to be in control.”

Reina jumped out of her chair and into my lap, and her lips were on mine, fierce. “Tom, that was . . . damn, that was hot!  You know what you did? You just spanked a rejection call until they hired you!”

I rose, lifting her to sit on the table, and ran my fingers through her hair, the strands shimmering blue in the light.  “Reina . . . if I get this job, you know what it means.”

“She looked up at me, soberly, her excitement subdued.  “We both knew when we started that it might not last long. With you living in orbit . . . ”

I tucked her head into my chest, under my chin.  She burrowed against me, and I held her.  My mind was spinning though.  Maybe if I had any control over hiring?  No, HR would be intermediate.  I couldn’t offer jobs to anybody I liked.  If we had a sham marriage to help me get her to orbit, they might decide not to hire me.  I’d cost twice as much water and air to hire.  Maybe as a doctor . . .

“Their medical team didn’t list a body-mod specialist.  Did you see the list of warnings regarding the lungs on that mod?  It’d really benefit them if they hired a specialist.”

Reina looked up, her eyes a little reddened, her eyes searching my face.  “Tom . . . we both started this thinking it might last a week.  I didn’t mean to get this serious.  But if I take a job in space . . . I need to know you’re serious, too.  It’s hard to know what you’re thinking.”

I didn’t reply right away.  How serious was I?  I’d known her a week.  I knew she liked to be gentle, that she was quick as a whip and smarter than anybody I knew.  Myself included.  I knew she got mean when she was angry, and I knew that she hated herself afterward and needed to be forgiven before she could be comforted.  I knew that she qualified everything she said unless she was certain of herself, and didn’t mind being wrong – almost delighted in new understandings, usually.  On the other hand, I’d had girlfriends for months that I didn’t know half as well.  I felt the familiar tug of intuition, that force I’d trusted all my career and all my life, and decided to take a leap.

“I know it’s taking a risk.  But I’m deciding to take this seriously.  If you can get up there with me, you can count on me.  I’ll let them know how much I’d appreciate a specialist’s presence.”

“You’re ‘deciding to be serious?’  ‘I can count on you?’ I don’t need someone to water my plants!  I need you to need me!”  The table rocked as she pushed me, and she stood up, pushing me again. “I need you to care!”

“Of course I care.”  I cupped her cheeks, and laid my brow to hers, closing my eyes. “But caring isn’t enough.  Before I rip you away, I need to believe we can work.  I made a decision based on evidence that you and I can make it.  I want you to come with me.  Nothing so flimsy as feelings, Reina, there is bedrock to build on.  Come with me.”

She smiled and looked guilty all at the same time.  “Now I feel bad about yelling at you.”

I folded her in my arms, and tucked her head under my chin, squeezing her. “It’s okay.  All is forgiven.  You know that.”

She burrowed into my chest, the tension easing from her shoulders. “I like to hear it, though.””Will you look strange to me, when I see you?”

“You know I’ll try something new.  But it won’t be too strange, I promise.  You’ll know my face.  There’s a new one for zero-g.  I’ll be able to swim in the air.”

“Like a mermaid?”

She giggled. “Nothing so silly.  More like being able to spread wings from my hands and feet.  And put them away, too, don’t worry.”

“I wouldn’t mind a little strangeness.  Just remember to be human, too.”  The holographic display lit up again, trilling to signal an incoming call.  It was the Orbital Authority again, calling me back.  “That was sooner than expected.  Either they’re still rejecting me, or they’re desperate.”

Reina hopped out of my lap and smiled at me. “You tell them how it is.  You already spanked them once.  Don’t hesitate.  I’ll get up there.  If not with the specialist job, then something else.  You just get on your own way.”

I smiled at the encouragement and game myself a moment to imagine a future with her.  I hadn’t permitted myself that before.  I was so sure this would end.  It still might.  But waking up with her in my arms, Then I turned to face the display, and whatever the future held.

Deadly Wish

Explore a character’s moral dilemma – either he gets a million dollars, and someone he doesn’t know dies, or someone else gets a million dollars, and he dies.

“A million dollars?”


“Very well.  It’s mundane, so I’ll grant it.  But . . . let’s make it interesting.  I’ll also kill someone.”  The genie that had sprung from the antique lamp pointed out my window, and in the window across the way a woman was dusting; she looked like a cleaning lady.  “Her.  I’ll kill her.”

“What!?  No!  That is nowhere in the wish I made!  I didn’t ask for anything like that!”

To be fair, I had kind of been surprised when a human form billowed out of the lamp.  It was like a silly fairy tale.  But after I spent half an hour crawling around my kitchen counter as a cockroach, I was ready to believe.  It was either that, or risk some new torment.

“Who cares?  The terms of your wish are fulfilled.”

“No.  Take it back.  I don’t want it.”

The genie floated on a cloud of mist, ignoring me.  “Funds will be deposited in your account by six–”

I threw the lamp.  It passed through him, his form swirling like smoke before reforming. “I said take it back!”  I was screaming now.  I wasn’t a killer, dammit.  This wasn’t me!

“Well.  I might be convinced to refrain.  But you’ll have to entertain me, mortal.  Squirm on the hook a little.  Wriggle, worm.”

“What are you talking about!?  You can’t just kill people!”  I couldn’t hit him, I couldn’t stop him, I couldn’t do anything but shout.  Someone in a neighboring apartment thumped on the walls.

“Oh, I can.  And nobody will ever know.  Heart attacks are a dime a dozen.  Even the healthy could have one.  But like I said, I might refrain.  I’ll give her the money instead, and give the death to you.”

I froze.  “You can’t possibly . . . you can’t expect . . . ”

He rolled on his cloud of vapor, stomach-down now, folding his hands under his chin to watch me.  His hair was pure white, like cotton, and his form childlike.  His eyes on me, though, were those of an old man. “I expect you to squirm.  I expect you to decide.  I expect to feast on your struggle, manling.  Take the money, and you may as well have killed her yourself.”

I turned away, planting my hands on the cool tile of the countertop.  I’d never considered myself a great altruist.  I always wondered just how cold I was.  I didn’t donate to anything, didn’t have a great cause.  But could I just let someone die?  I shook my head.  I was looking at it wrong.  Someone would die.  Someone would certainly die.  The question wasn’t, ‘would I let someone die’, but ‘who would I choose’.  I looked out the window and felt my resolve harden.

I was an architect.  I made things, dozens of people were employed to support my work.  She was a cleaning lady.  I doubted she supported more than herself.  I stood up, looking out the window, my decision ready.  I heard the genie’s childish voice pipe up behind me. “Ooooooh, here it comes!”

I saw a second cleaner walk into view, carrying a trash bag.  She was younger, probably still in high school.  The older lady bent to her, and began wrapping some small hurt, then kissed her on the brow.  A daughter.  The girl laughed, pushing her mother away, too old to have boo-boo’s kissed better, but she laughed, she smiled.

I looked around my apartment.  The entertainment center, the Playstation with one controller plugged in, the single microwave dinner on the table, the empty beer can.  Part of me began to die inside, just then.  That part of me so assured of my worth, the part convinced that I was valuable to the world.  I turned back to the genie, whose blue eyes met mine.

With a heart that felt like a lead weight in my chest, I announced my decision.