The Ghost Lost Ship

by Scott D. Coon

 

Ed was cool.

His body filled the space behind the round table. The wall buckled as he leaned back, smoking a menthol cigarette. Only Ed smoked menthols; that made him even more cool. He had salvaged them from an old space freighter. Of course, to him, they were just freighters. I mean, he’s in space so why would he call them space freighters? Really? It’s just a writer’s device to let you know this is science fiction and he’s in space.

But, I digress.

He got the menthols from a “space” freighter. He got his muscles there too. He had a forty-five inch chest, a thirty-two inch waist, and biceps that he hadn’t gotten around to measuring yet. They came from moving heavy cargo off of derelict “space” freighters before he realized that if he turned the gravity off before he looted… I mean… salvaged the cargo it would be soooo much easier. And so he did.

Next to him sat Bob. Or, rather, Bob’s head since the table only came up to Bob’s chin. The guy’s short. Really short. There was something definitely wrong with Bob beyond the disembodied head at the table thing. You could tell just by looking at him. He had a face that demanded he wear one of those beanie hats. You know the kind, the ones with the little propellers on them. Yeah, the rainbow colored kind. Just looking at him without it made people want to scream, “I just can’t take it any more! Put the damn beanie on!” It was very useful in interrogations.

So, where were we? Oh yeah. Ed was slowly compromising the integrity of a wall in a sleazy bar while Bob just sat there freaking out the other patrons just by looking the way he does. Just then, a man in full Egyptian regalia walked in—white linen dress, gold neck thingies, sandals, the whole bit. “There’s going to be a bar fight,” Ed said to Bob.

“Yeah?”

“One of Them just walked in.”

“Them?”

“You know… ‘Them’.” He made the curling-finger bunny-ears quote thingy with his fingers. “They’re going to be fighting The Leather Spies.”

“Who?”

“Those guys over there by the bar. The ones in the trench coats and fedoras. They wear them to cover up the leather body suits. You can spot them because you can see the leather going up the back of their necks, and covering their faces, and who wears trench coats and fedoras anymore, really?”

“Oh.”

“They’re both chasing The Lost Ship. It’s filled with all kinds of lost nifty stuff. I read in Salvager’s Monthly that it was believed to be drifting through this area about now.”

“Is that why we’re here?” asked Bob.

“Don’t be stupid, it’s just an old science fiction story,” said Ed as he watched the Them march in unison to their table. “There’s no such thing.”

“What if it does exist?” asked Bob, his fingers nervously gripping the edge of the table. “Would that mean we’re in a story?”

Ed took a long, slow drag of menthol. “We are in a story. Look out there. Someone’s reading us right now.”

“Hello out there Mr. Reader Person,” said Bob, waving at you. “I thought The Ghost Lost Ship was coming. Ain’t that the thingy we’re going after?”

“You mean The Lost Ghost Ship?” asked Ed.

“No, it’s a ship that was lost that became a ghost ship,” explained Bob, “so it’s The Ghost Lost Ship.”

“That’s stupid.”

Then the fight broke out. I’m feeling lazy today so I’m not going to explain the whole thing about the pushing and the shoving and someone calling someone a poopy head. You just fill all that in for yourself and be glad I have enough coffee in me to write this at all. Now, get back to reading the story.

As the Them and the Leather Spies (no relation to the leather mafia, whoever they are) threw each other around the bar, Bob hid under Ed’s chair, crying and shaking, maybe wetting himself a little, maybe. Ed just smoked and nursed a beer. Then one of the Them fell in his lap. She was beautiful and familiar, so he said her name. “Egg!”

“Ed!” replied Egg, since he had gotten her name right.

“I haven’t seen you in…”

“A long time,” completed Egg.

“You’re as beautiful as ever. Why did I ever leave you?”

“To go salvage, jackass. You could have left me the key for the handcuffs. It took me three days to get out of those things!”

“I guess that’s why you weren’t home when I got back. I knew I had forgotten something that day,” said Ed scratching his chin. “How’d you end up with Them?”

“I joined for the uniform but I stayed for the game night. You haven’t lived until you’ve played Uno™ with Them.” She shivered at the very thought of it. “Bob’s here, isn’t he?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

“He’s sucking on my big toe.”

“My thumb was all pruny but I wasn’t done being scared yet,” called Bob from under Ed.

“After The Lost Ship?” asked Ed.

Salvager’s Monthly?” asked Egg.

“Yup.”

“Yup.” Egg stood up and wiped her toe on the carpet. “I have to get back to the bar fight.”

“Good luck finding The Lost Ship,” said Ed. “You know it doesn’t exist, right?”

Egg shrugged, “Everyone needs a hobby.”

And so she went back to the fight and Ed and Bob went back to their ship to get another beer for Ed. They weren’t serving at the bar during the bar fight, local statute and all.

A day later, or so, Ed and Bob cruised the emptiness of space looking for stuff floating around. While Ed went to the hold to get another pack of menthols, Bob saw something in the blackness and steered toward it. As he approached, he saw its registry, “NNN.”

“It’s The Lost Ship!” he screamed.

Ed came running up from the hold, struggling with the cellophane on his new pack. “What the hell are you screaming about?”

“The Lost Ship! The Lost Ship! Look at the designation! NNN! Nifty Nick Nacks!”

“That’s, um… yeah. Wouldn’t that be Nifty Knickknacks? Which would be NK?”

“You know I can’t spell.”

“But,” said Ed, holding his head, “the ship.”

“Ships can’t spell,” snorted Bob. “Let’s get it!”

“Yeah, whatever.”

“At least we know it’s not The Ghost Lost Ship.”

“Uh huh. Why’s that?”

“’Cause it’s not all grey and translucent and wavy and stuff.”

“Bob,” said Ed, “shut up.”

They did all that technical docking stuff. You know what I mean. And then they were in the lost ship. Maybe it was The Lost Ship, we don’t know yet. Just hang in there and we’ll sort all this stuff out together.

Anywho…

As with most derelict ships, only the life support and gravity were still working. As with most cockpits on most derelict ships, there was a skeleton at the helm. Creepy, huh? Ed and Bob made their way to the hold where the good stuff was. It was full of boxes of various sizes. Bob picked up a small one, read the label, and opened it. It held an old, copper cup—filthy thing. Looked like it had spent a couple thousand years in a cave, kind of like the cups in that bar where the fight thing happened. You remember, it was in the first half of this story. Go check. I’ll wait.

Done?

Good.

Bob called to Ed, “We’ll have to open these boxes.”

“Why?” replied Ed still looking around for the gravity control so he wouldn’t forget to turn it off before moving the heavy boxes. I say “still” because he started looking for it while you were off checking the first half of the story just now.

“They’re labeled wrong,” explained Bob. “This one has just a cup in it and it’s marked ‘The Holy Grail’. It’s not a grail, just a cup, and not a hole in it.”

“Hmmm.” Ed picked up a small box for himself. It was marked “The One Ring.” He opened the box and said, “Yup, one ring,” and tossed it back over his shoulder.

Bob was scanning the labels on some other boxes. “The Golden Fleece, Cupie Dolls, Declaration of Independence… Hey, wait a minute. Ed!”

“What?”

“Check this out. The label on this one has been torched off. Isn’t that the thing on your girlfriend’s uniform? Not Egg—the new one.”

Ed took a look at the mostly torched-off marking. “That’s a swastika. And, she’s not my girlfriend. She’s a prostitute. Have some respect; the woman’s a professional. But, yeah, that’s what’s on her uniform.”

Bob sniffed the burnt crate. “Why would someone torch this?”

“They didn’t; it was torched from the inside. This is the Ark of the Covenant. I saw it in a movie once. This is what the Them was looking for. I guess this is The Lost Ship, after all. I owe you a dollar.”

“Told you so,” said the smiling Bob. Looking over the loot, something caught Bob’s eye, figuratively. He rushed to the back. “Please, oh, please be marked right!” He threw open the lid and a golden shower of light caressed his tiny cheeks. “Twinkies™!!! Wonderful, glorious Twinkies™!!”

Ed stood over him and said mockingly so as to mock him, “Yeah, Twinkies™. Get off your knees, you look like a doof.”

But then Ed saw the label on the box next to it. He rushed over to it even though he was only two steps away. “Please, oh, please be marked right!” He threw open the lid and a golden shower of light caressed his not so tiny cheeks. “A complete Jenna Jamison video collection!” He fell to his knees.

Before Bob could mock him in a mocking way for having mocked him before, someone kicked in the starboard door to the cargo hold. No, not the one into space. I mean, come on, try to keep up with the story here, we’re in outer space. It would have let all the air out or all the vacuum in, whichever. Then someone else kicked in the port door—and don’t make me go through all that again.

It was the Leather Spies and Them coming in through opposite doors. Once again the poopy head thing happened and they started fighting. Stuff just going everywhere and so forth and et cetera while Bob and Ed hid behind the Twinkies™ and a crate of naughty tapes.

“This salvage is ours!” called out one of the Them. Not Egg, one of the other ones. You don’t need to know who; he’s just a minor character. Go with it. “We’re taking the Ark of the Covenant and that’s all there is to it!”

“No, this salvage is ours!” replied an equally unimportant character from the Leather Spies dudes. “We’re taking the Maltese Falcon and that’s all there is to it!”

Did you catch that? They’re both after different things so they’re really fighting for no reason. It’s silly if you think about it.

They had lasers this time. And the lasers were just tearing things up. Ed and Bob soon became bored because all these people were bad shots. They just kept firing at each other and hitting everything else in the room. Worse of all, Ed was down to his last menthol. They had to get back to the ship. That’s when Ed noticed a switch on the wall behind them labeled Gravity

On

Off

…with that switch I mentioned before in between the “On” and “Off.” I know it doesn’t belong there at the back of the hold with no other switches around it but I’m writing this story at work and it’s almost lunch time so I want to get this done. You’re with me on that, right? Good. Let’s continue.

So, Ed hit the switch. The gravity went off. The poopy heads went floating around the room. So did all the boxes. In the floating confusion, Ed and Bob escaped with the Twinkies™ and the naughty tapes. I know you were expecting to see more of Egg in this part of story but there you go.

As they pulled away, the poopy heads battled for control of the things that only they wanted but were too rash to figure out. Safely away from the poopy heads, Ed offered Bob the dollar.

“Hold up,” said Bob. “Let’s go double or nothing on The Ghost Lost Ship.”

Ed snorted a laughing kind of snort. “Yeah, lets do that.”

As they left the area, another ship, also marked NNN, drifted by. Only this one was all grey and translucent and wavy and stuff.

Ooooo, creepy!

 

Trademark: A Tragedy™

Trademark: A Tragedy

Illustration by J. Andrew World

by Scott D. Coon

 

Mr. Labowski, Esq., ascends the north wall, Mr. Fredericks, Esq., and Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., the south. Not an alarm in sight. This will be a cakewalk. As Mr. Labowski, Esq., and Mr. Fredericks, Esq., stand guard, Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., carefully cuts a pane of glass of an unknown brand with his officially issued Diamond Glass™ brand glasscutter. He lowers a strand of Tite Knot™ brand nylon rope and, in short order, all three are in the target building. It’s dark. With MinuteMan™ brand night vision goggles on, Mr. Labowski, Esq., heads for the files; Mr. Fredericks, Esq., heads for the storefront displays; Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., stops and calls everyone back to the insertion point. “Listen.”

Beep.

They break into three different aisles.

Beep.

They close in on the target noise. A red beam of light cuts through the darkness.

Beep.

They spot the unexpected target. Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., holds out a bit of paper as if it were a gun. “Hold it right there!”

Kevin continues reading bar codes, filling his stock database. “If you’re looking to rob a place, you’ve missed it by one door. The check-cashing place is next door. We don’t even have money for me to steal.” Kevin scans another bar code. Beep. “This is a hardware store.” Beep.

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., reaches into his double-breasted suit pocket. “We’re not thieves,” he explains as he extracts a business card. “We’re lawyers.”

Kevin’s eyes swell with fear. The bar code scanner falls to the floor, its light scanning barcodes on its way down. Beep. Beep. Beep. Kevin runs for the panic button but he’s too late. A heavy legal document printed on quality paper stops him in his tracks. Mr. Labowski, Esq., slaps him on his shoulder with the document. “You have been served.” Holding the kid at paper point, Mr. Labowski, Esq., demands, “Now, show us to your glass and glass cutting products.”

From the roof they hear, “What the hell is this?!”

The Burglar slides down the still dangling rope. “What the hell is this?!” He points his gun at the three lawyers and the stock boy. “I’m doing this break in! Who the hell are you?”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., replies, “Go about your business, sir, this doesn’t concern you.”

“What?! I’m pointing a gun at you! I concern you!”

“Yes, and you’re lucky I’m distracted right now.”

The Burglar raises his gun, and says snidely, “What? You know kung fu or something?”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., turns his attention towards The Burglar. “No, sir, I know the law.”

The Burglar fires a warning shot.

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., steps forward. “Now you’ve done it. You clearly don’t know who you’re firing at.”

The Burglar yells, “Shut up and sit down.”

“Now you’ve done it,” says Mr. Fredericks, Esq. “Not only have you broken in—clearly without a civil search warrant— you have interrupted a legal proceeding. Diamond Glass™ now has legal grounds to move against you to recoup losses including the cost for our time here. In essence, every word that comes out of my mouth is costing you, on average, five dollars and forty cents.”

“I think it’s more fair,” explains Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., “to make that estimate based on syllables, Mr. Fredericks, Esq. After all, syllables are more regular in length than individual words.”

“Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!” screams The Burglar. He grabs a roll of Silver Streek™ brand duct tape and quickly tapes their hands together, one at a time.

As The Burglar tapes together the hands of Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., Mr. Dessemondi, Esq. says, “I am obligated to inform you that you are interrupting a legal investigation by Diamond Glass™ corporate lawyers into trademark violations by Jake Beagley & Sons™ hardware store.”

“Well, I’m here to break through that wall over there and empty the cash from the next business over.”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., speaks up. “You realize that taping us with Silver Streek™ brand duct tape is assault and battery.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., nods in agreement and adds, “And, because Silver Streek™ brand duct tape is extra adhesive, pulling it off amounts to aggravated assault and battery.”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., smiles. “Very good, Mr. Labowski, Esq.!”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., also smiles and nods.

“Oh dear god! Did they grow you people in a lab?!” The Burglar pulls back to hit Mr. Fredericks, Esq., with his gun. Mr. Fredericks, Esq., thrusts out his chin defiantly.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” warns Mr. Dessemondi, Esq. “Mr. Fredericks, Esq., wrote the current law on civil cases resulting from assault, and I mean literally.”

The Burglar stops. “You were writing new laws and now you’re breaking into hardware stores in the middle of the night?! Why?”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., states simply, “Better pay.”

The Burglar finishes taping them and stands back and looks at his work. “That should hold you. Lawyers.” He shakes his head. “Goddamn lawyers! You know what you call five thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the sea?”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., interrupts, “A good start.”

“So, you heard that one.”

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., nods. “How about this one: It was so cold last week that I saw several lawyers with their hands in their own pockets.”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., chuckles. “Or this one: How was copper wire invented? Two lawyers were arguing over a penny.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., tearfully interrupts the jocularity. “Everyone hates lawyers but, when you want to sue someone, who do you turn to? When you want a will or a contract or any other legal document too complex for The Kiss-Soft Household Lawyer™ brand legal document software, who do you turn to?”

“Only because people like you make the laws so complex,” replies The Burglar.

“And why do we make the laws so complex? Because criminals like you look for every crack, every loophole, every edge to skirt around the law and we have to Spackle™, Spackle™, Spackle™!”

“What the hell are you talking about? I broke in; I have a gun; I’m here to steal stuff. What’s complicated about that?”

“Not you!” roars Mr. Labowski, Esq. “Him!” Mr. Labowski, Esq., thrusts his shaking, duct-taped hands towards the stock boy. “Yes you, mister putting Steeley Glass™ products in a display container clearly provided by and for Diamond Glass™ products! You know kerosene was once a trademarked product but for people… I mean, criminals like you.”

Kevin looks to The Burglar. “Dude, get me out of here. These guys are nuts.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., huffs. “Nuts! My father… my father…” Mr. Labowski, Esq., breaks down in tears.

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., explains, “His father had a company and a corporation was able to steal the product and the product name right out from under him. Mr. Labowski, Esq. wrote a ballad about it. Recite the ballad for us, Mr. Labowski, Esq.”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., tearfully recited:

“This is a ballad of a noble man
Who knew not the Lanham Act.
This man would lose his only trademark
And he would not get it back.”

“Just shut up,” says The Burglar, exasperatedly. “Please, just shut up.”

“Wait,” insists Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., “I have a back story, too. See, I am a Diamond Glass™ man as was my father before me and his father before him and his father before him and… umm… I think that’s as far back as it goes.”

“Shut up! Shut up!” The Burglar grabs his own head as if trying to hold it together. “Damn! It’s almost dawn! I don’t have time to break down the wall! You lawyers cost me this job! Now, I have to get out of here with nothing!” The Burglar starts to leave.

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., calls out, “To save us some pain and to save you one more line item in the pending law suite from Diamond Glass™ glass manufactures, I strongly recommend that you use Earth Hugger™ brand commercial solvent to remove the Silver Streek™ brand duct tape from our wrists before you leave.”

“Argh!”

“The fact that Mr. Fredericks, Esq., has mentioned this fact,” explains Mr. Labowski, Esq., “adds weight to your negligence should you leave without providing us with the Earth Hugger™ brand commercial solvent.”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., chimes in. “Yes, and there is an Earth Hugger™ brand commercial solvent display right next to you—which is properly marked and stocked, unlike the glass and glass-cutting products display. Your negligence at this point would be most profound.”

Weak and confused, The Burglar tosses them the solvent.

Mr. Fredericks, Esq., nods bemusedly. “I would consider that an act in good faith. You may have just saved yourself a lot of money.”

The Burglar turns to Kevin. “Kid, I would rescue you from these nuts but I just don’t have the time.” The Burglar turns to leave.

“For the love of…” cries Kevin. “At least shoot me!”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., asks Mr. Fredericks, Esq., “Would that be considered slander, calling us nuts?”

The Burglar screams and runs out the front door and into a police officer writing a ticket on The Burglar’s car.

As the officer’s backup arrives to help apprehend The Burglar, the lawyers and the stock boy free themselves with the solvent. Mr. Fredericks, Esq., heads out to deal with the police.

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., turns to Kevin. “Now, back to the business at hand.”

After a short negotiation, they come to an agreement, which releases Kevin from liability but leaves the store open to legal repercussions if the violation is not corrected in seven days. After signing the agreement, Kevin asks, “Can I get a Xerox of that?”

Mr. Labowski, Esq., breaks down in tears. “Have you learned nothing?!”

Mr. Dessemondi, Esq., holds his distraught colleague close, comforting him. Over the shoulder of Mr. Labowski, Esq., he scolds Kevin. “It’s ‘a photocopy from a Xerox™ photocopy machine’ thank you!” He hold’s Mr. Labowski, Esq., closer. “One day they will learn.”

Trademark: A Tragedy

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

 

Firewall

by Scott D. Coon

 

Her tongue invaded his mouth. Ken pulled back. “Stop. Really, promise me you won’t do anything stupid this time.”

Zoe’s eyes narrowed. “You’re no fun any more.” She closed her spacesuit’s faceplate. Her metallic grey suit moved easily with her as it hugged her body.

As she reached for the airlock release, Ken quickly sealed his helmet. His suit, considerably less expensive than hers, was a bit harder to move in. “I’m serious. Please.”

The airlock opened and she kicked off into the darkness. The tether yanked Ken along behind her. The orbiting skyscraper they had just left disappeared into the forest of buildings that crowded the sky. Below, the artificial ring peppered the equator with shadows but Ken saw none of it. He kept his eyes squeezed shut and tried not to think.

There was nothing like this (or her) back on his colony. His colony was just a little place collectively owned by the settlers, a dull place, a lonely place, a place he hated after he found himself alone with only his parents’ graves tying him to the land. (How could they leave him like that! It still screamed in the back of his head when he thought about them.) By the time his mother died, he already knew he was a psychic and he already knew about the schools for psychics like him. What he didn’t know was how fast his money would run out. At least he had taken those college courses on firewalls. It gave him just the right skills for Zoe.

Zoe.

The last time they pulled a job, she ended up in a sonic bath for two weeks while her shoulder blade grew back. Ken pressed the safety on his gun again; if he could, he’d push that little slider right into the metal casing to make sure the gun never went off again. After that last job, after watching Zoe fall to the floor covered in blood, after watching the security guard fall right next to her, a hole in the guard’s leg from Ken’s gun even though Ken didn’t even remember pulling the trigger… Did they really need to be doing this? When would it be enough?

Back in his one-room apartment, which orbited about a hundred miles away, he had a book of homes that were for sale down on Earth. He had plenty of money for one and for his school and even a car and still more left over. There was plenty of money for two… and perhaps even three, someday.

Ken felt his helmet clunk against a metal wall. He threw back his hands and boots and magnetized himself to the building. The usual shiver rattled down his spine. But there was no time to catch his breath. Zoe was already at the end of the tether pulling him up the wall. He scurried to catch up. By the time he reached her, she was crouched outside the lab’s window. She even had the window bugged, already. The voices inside filled their helmets.

“Are they coming tonight?” asked one voice.

“Quiet. Let me finish,” said another.

Zoe set up the drilling tower. It looked like a toy rocket ship from the early twentieth century. A cable coiled out of her back pack to the back of the robotic drill bit. When activated, the drill bit would eat though the building’s skin and root around inside the walls for a computer junction to splice itself into. It was supposed to be used for hacking into disabled ships for rescues or salvage. Zoe wasn’t interested in rescuing anyone and salvage was yawn city.

Ken pulled a small hand mirror from his pack and looked in it. All he saw was his own eyes looking back. “Damn.” He looked away then quickly looked back again trying to induce an image. Still nothing.

Zoe smacked his thigh. “Quit playing with that thing.”

Ken put the mirror away. It’s not like he was playing a video game or something. This was serious. He didn’t need it anyway. He angled his head to catch the light on the inside of his faceplate. In the warped reflection, he tried again to see the future, to see if Zoe would be okay this time. Still, no image.

“Is it on this one?” asked that first voice they had heard from inside.

“It’s the only one here,” answered the second.

“Are you turning off the other systems?”

“If I did that, what good would this test be? Come on, it’s all set.”

A door latch clicked. Zoe peeked in the window. “Clear.” She started the tower. It drilled through the steel and snaked the cable through the wall. The robotic bit found its mark, a nice juicy computer junction. Zoe screwed the other end of the cable to the jack in her helmet that connected to a plug surgically implanted in her skull. Her skull plug then fed the computer signals from the cable to her brain. Closing her eyes, Zoe saw herself inside the computer disabling the alarms.

“There’s one… and two… and three. Got ’em.”

Ken pulled the portable airlock from his pack. It was just a crinkly, yellow bag with rubber seams and two Velcro openings but they needed it to get through the window without decompressing the building. As he reached over to stick it to the window, Zoe smacked his hand. “I found two more.” The bag spun as it slowly drifted away.

“Look, you really don’t have to be so…”

“Shut up!” She closed her eyes. “Four…”

Ken reached for the spinning bag. He brushed it, sending it spinning further from his reach. Reaching, he accidentally looked down. The vomit rushed to the back of his throat. He plastered himself against the wall.

“…and five.” Zoe opened her eyes to see the bag, the very goddamn important bag, drifting away. “If you weren’t a psychic…” she growled. The pixy girl kicked off the building, grabbed the bag, and tugged herself back with their tether in a smooth summersault, just like swimming. Like the bag, the swimming lessons came from daddy’s wallet. She stuck the crinkly bag to the window. “Now get in there before you lose something else.”

Both inside the bag, they set off a couple of oxygen grenades and waited for them to pressurize the portable airlock.

“Sorry about that,” said Ken, his eyes unable to meet hers.

When he finally peeked up, she had that look again and Ken found himself trapped in her vice like thighs. Leaning back, she started to grind her hips. “Zoe… please… stop…” he pleaded in short breaths as he tried to watch the window. “Someone could… come on…” His mind was gone, lost in her antics. It was no longer new to him but she could still melt his brain on a whim. Of course, it had never been new to her.

By the time he realized she had stopped, she was already cutting through the window. They entered the room. It was definitely a lab with that dry, dustless air that sucks the life right out of your nostrils. Ken never had nosebleeds until he left the open air of his colony. Now, he missed that sweet swampy smell of spring and that crisp scent of snow about to happen and that cool musty smell of imminent rain.

As Zoe scanned the place for more security, he stood against the wall scratching his arm, anxious. His hand nearly reached out to help her but pulled it back. He knew better by now.

“It’s good,” she said finally.

Relieved, his shoulders dropped for the first time since they kicked off from the other building.

“Quit screwing off and get to work,” she barked.

His shoulders tightened right back up. He rushed forward to the gray cube in the middle of the room. It was a Kasakah 942, standard off the shelf stuff… if you consider mainframes that can only be accessed by natural psychics as off the shelf. The mainframe had only one wire and that was a power cord. No keyboard. No mouse. No microphone. No cranial outlet for Zoe’s skull plug. The only way in was through someone like Ken.

Ken placed a small gray cube on top of the big one. It was a mainframe just like the big cube only smaller. Putting himself in a meditative state, Ken rechecked the small cube. Yup, the hard drive was absolutely blank and it would have to be. The client had said “everything”. No one asked for “everything”. They at least narrowed it down to a file type. He hoped the little cube would hold it all.

Ken closed his eyes. Soon, like Zoe with her brain cable, he’d be inside the computer. Taking a deep breath, he focused his mind and pushed it into the big, grey mainframe’s CPU. A static stream erupted from the computer… a good one too. It got into his head before he even saw it coming. With little effort he wedged his thoughts. The stream parted around him. Then another one started and another. His wedge held. He pushed in. A noise emitter cranked up. He blocked it and continued deeper into the AI consciousness. He could feel the CPU. Soon he’d be in control of its data and its flow. The firewall started a shaker. Like that ever stopped anybody… but Ken had to give this firewall credit, it was trying everything. A feedback loop echoed his thoughts back at him. Ken almost laughed.

But then his head started to hurt. The feedback was just a carrier. He shut it down but his headache stayed as if the feedback was still on. The CPU stood naked but he couldn’t concentrate into it. A mob of memories rioted under his skull. He broke off and staggered back.

“Done already?”

Ken gripped his head. His pulse kicked at his forehead. He expected his brain to explode at any second… and wished it would just to end the pain.

“Ken?” Zoe’s voice seeped in like an echo.

“Just… Just give me a moment.”

“What happened? Did you get the data?”

Ken groped for something to steady himself. “Firewall… head…” He found a table. It was steel, nice and cool. He bent down and pressed his forehead to it. The throbbing slowed.

“For the love of…! You didn’t get it, did you!?”

Ken waved her off. Slowly, he lifted himself and fluttered his eyes open. Below him, something was happening in the brushed metal table. He blinked and squeezed his eyes. Fighting past his headache, Ken figured out what he saw in the reflection in the table. An image! Someone getting shot!

Swimming through the swirling specks that filled his eyes, he made his way to his pack. He dropped to his knees and dug for the mirror. Zoe’s echo still drifted from beyond the fog around his head. Concentrating as much as he could, he peered into the mirror… A bullet. Blood. Zoe looked shocked. But who was shot?

He looked again. Same disjointed images. Bullet, blood, Zoe. He took a deep breath and… the mirror flew from his hand. Zoe’s boot hung in front of his face. She had kicked it from his hand. Silver shards spread across the floor.

The fog lifted. “Zoe!”

“Quit playing and get back to work! We’re on a schedule here!”

On his hands and knees, Ken looked into the shards. In the dozens of tiny images, an image played over and over like a movie stuck in a loop. Someone held their guts as they sank to the floor. Was it Zoe?! Was it him?! He couldn’t tell by looking in the tiny fragments. That cold feeling, like a blade of ice, gutted him. “We have to get out of here.”

“You got the data?”

“No.” He looked up earnestly. “Please, we have to go. Now.”

Zoe grabbed his collar and drug him up the wall. “We have a job to do. Get on it!” She shoved him toward the mainframe.

He staggered then caught himself. Maybe it wasn’t her in the image. Maybe it wasn’t even a real one. Maybe he could get this done before it’s too late. He grabbed the grey box with both hands and threw his entire mind at it. Like a drill, he powered past its defenses and into the CPU. He could feel the circuits revealing themselves to his mind. But something gathered in the background. He paused. He could feel it swelling. Suddenly, it rushed him all at once and flung him from its world.

Ken’s brain burned.

He stepped back from the box and pried his eyes open. In the reflections on the dark windows to the outside, in the reflections in the blank computer screens around the room, in the steel tables and the polished, metal tools, in every reflective surface in the room he saw the vision. For just a moment, Ken was surrounded by the vision of Zoe dying.

He turned and grabbed her. “Get your helmet!”

She just looked at him, confused. He grabbed her helmet and tried to force it on her. She shoved him back. “What the hell is the matter with you?!”

“We have to go or you’ll die!”

“What?”

Ken seized her wrists and pleaded, “I saw a vision of you getting shot. Here, in this room, tonight. Please, let’s go.”

Zoe threw off his hands. “How often are you wrong?”

“I’m not wrong this time.”

Zoe scowled. “Yeah, right. Quit pussing out and get the data.”

“I can’t. That thing is too tight. Let’s go, please!”

“You’re pathetic. I swear, if you don’t… what’s the point? Screw you. If you can’t hang, then screw YOU.” She turned her back on him and started throwing gear in her bag.

Ken’s jaw dropped. He inched up behind her. “What are you saying?”

Zoe turned to glare at him. “Exactly what you think I’m talking about.”

Ken wanted to reach out to her but his hands just wouldn’t move from his sides. “But… us?”

Zoe folded her arms. “What us? You’re not playing right. Game’s over. What us?”

“But, I saved my share. I’ll take care of you. I have plenty of money.”

“Look, jackass,” she shook her bag of expensive equipment at him. “You think I got this for free? I have money, jackass. I don’t need your piddling share. My daddy bought this… though he didn’t really know it,” she added with a little chuckle. “I do this for fun. I got shot last time for fun. Before I met you, on one of these jobs, I killed a security guard. It was fun. You’re no fun anymore. Bye.” She turned back to her packing.

“But… but…” The floor fell from Ken. He floated as if jumping from building to building untethered. Somewhere far off, her equipment continued to clunk as she chucked it in her bag. “But, what about us?”

Zoe tossed her bag over her shoulders and snorted. “What us?”

“But…” He reached for her across the expanse, to pull her from this nightmare, to bring back the Zoe he thought he knew. “But, I love you.”

She slapped his hands away. “You and every other perv’ with a woody. God damn psychics. ‘Oh, we’re gonna die! We’re gonna die!’” she said waving her arms like Chicken Little. “What pussies. You and the last psychic I had to put up with, too. You’re worse then him!” The equipment clinked and rattled in her bag as she locked it to her spacesuit. “Pussy. Now I have to go and find another psychic, damn it!”

The moment closed on Ken like an iron maiden. Who was this person? What happened to the Zoe he knew, the playful Zoe, the girl who had told him she had to do this to get by? She had never existed. Once again, Ken was alone. This Zoe had taken his Zoe away and she would never return, just like his parents. Why did everything have to go away!

He drew his gun.

Zoe laughed. No, cackled. She cackled right in his face and said, “Oh, big man psychic gonna shoot me? I dare you.”

Ken wanted to. His hand really wanted to.

“I double-dare you!” Again she laughed.

Ken shuddered. His face twisted with hate.

Zoe leaned in and whispered, “I double-dog-dare you.”

The gun fired.

A curl of smoke spun from the hole in Zoe’s suit. She dropped to her knees and rolled to her back. Ken froze. A dark red mirror spread beneath Zoe. In its reflection, Ken saw the future—two men standing over her body; one of them mentioned the police. Ken turned his eyes to the gun in his hand. The fog lifted but Ken was still alone and in more trouble than ever. What the hell had he done!

Leaving everything, even the gun, behind, Ken dove through the window, scrambled out of the airlock bag, and launched himself across open space before he knew what he was doing.

Standing in the airlock where they had started, his body safely back inside the artificial gravity, he looked across the open space. How had he come here? Had he really done that? Had he really crossed so much open space alone? What just happened? He shot her and then… Had he really killed her?

With the airlock still open to the vacuum of space, he sank to the floor, his back against the inner door. He felt like he had gone too high on a swing and was trapped at the top where gravity no longer holds you in your seat, where your guts rebel and nothing is as it should be.

The blackness of space, cluttered space, spread before him as he sat there in a daze. There was nothing like this back on his colony… or like her. It was boring back there, on his colony.

There was something to be said for boring.

After a while, Ken picked himself up off the floor, went to his apartment, and packed. He cleaned the place out, took everything he owned except for two things: a book of houses that were for sale down on Earth and his schoolbooks.

The next morning, Zoe woke to someone fondling the back of her skull. She tried to jump up and defend herself but nothing moved. Even her eyes wouldn’t open. Her body just ignored her.

“Holy crap!” said a voice. It was that first voice from the night before, the one she had heard through her bug on the window. It sounded far away as if she were at the bottom of a deep, deep hole and sinking.

“She’s got a computer plug in her skull so she’s not the psychic,” said another voice, the other one from that night. “The psychic must have killed her.”

Zoe tried to yell that she wasn’t dead, that she needed help, that her daddy would reward them for helping her. Every effort drove her deeper into the hole, further and further from the voices.

“What the hell… Damn it! You said… You promised…”

“So,” replied the second voice calmly, “what you want to do with her?”

The voices barely reached Zoe’s ears.

“You killed her—you figure it out!” yelled the first voice, still growing fainter. “I didn’t want to test the firewall this way! You promised… damn! I knew this would happen.”

“At least we know it works. I wonder what memory or idea it used to get the psychic to shoot her. I wish we could record that—that would really be something.”

The voices trail off in wisps. The darkness settled in like a warm blanket. Zoe was alone in the silence, and then she was gone.