It’s time for a new car. I’ve driven the old Pinto for nearly 44 years and at long last I’m rid of it. Gladiola and I made the decision a few days ago and last night, in the gloom and heat, I drove it to the Cliffs of Destruction. As the silvery moon rose between Jupiter and Mars, I released the emergency brake, slid out through the driver’s door and watched it roll over the edge. It disappeared from view, then could be heard to crash on the rocks. Though I’d taken care to empty the fuel tank, it exploded on impact anyway, then quickly was swallowed by an enormous wave. I couldn’t help but think as I called a helicopter taxi service, this can’t be good for the environment. There must be a better way to dispose of old cars.
So now Gladiola and I are on a new car search, and I have to say how proud I am of the world’s automakers. They’ve really risen to the challenge and almost overnight are producing cars that not only don’t cause too much environmental damage, they actually reverse it. Amazing.
I’ve read the brochures, and here’s a partial list of features:
My car will have all the latest technology
My car will do zero to sixty in a respectable 3.4 seconds
My car will be made solely from reclaimed materials
My car will generate zero pollution and one day, after decades of driving, it will biodegrade into a fully functioning tomato patch
My car will filter pollutants from the atmosphere and convert those pollutants into highly nutritious energy bars automatically distributed to those in need
My car will use photosynthesis to convert CO2 to oxygen making it a negative zero carbon emitter
My car will use anti-gravity technology for propulsion with a hover range of slightly above ground level to 40 feet above traffic
My car will have a retractable in-dash record player
My car will repel dirt and water and never require cleaning
My car will transfer the life energy from my passengers to me, the driver, thus slowly reversing the aging process. This is important as I’ve become flabby and potato-faced.
My car will cost about 27,000 dollars, give or take.
On the morning of his 60th birthday, Anvil Atkinson found beneath the newspaper on the doorstep a plain box with his name on it in the ancient language of calligraphy. He picked it up along with the newspaper, glancing at the headline, Eastern Seaboard Evacuation Continues. And then the subhead, Sea Level Rise not Caused by Human Activity, Would have Happened Anyway.
The coffee had finished brewing and he poured his first cup, set the box and newspaper on the kitchen counter, and pulled up a stool. He unfolded the paper and opened it, laying it out so pages two and three were open. In a minute, a toasted bagel would announce itself as ready with a ding from the toaster oven, and he’d put the plate on top of the newspaper. The bagel had already been pre-buttered before toasting, and he’d apply a layer of cream cheese atop that. The newspaper will catch crumbs and absorb the rings from the coffee cup, as well as provide tidbits of news from across the land.
He reached into a bathrobe pocket, removed his carving knife, opened it, and slit the tape running down the middle of the box, then cutting the bit that extended over the sides. He opened it.
“Oooh, a package,” Meryl Atkinson cooed. “Who’s it from?”
“I didn’t hear you come in, Mer,” he said. “You didn’t send it?”
“Nope, not from me,” she said. “Happy birthday,” and she kissed him on the forehead. “Well, open it. I can’t take the suspense.”
The toaster oven, as expected, announced the readiness of the bagel. “I’ll get that for you,” Meryl said.
Anvil pulled aside the tissue paper, revealing an eight inch square envelope with his name on it, again in calligraphy. He examined it and decided it was machine printed and not handwritten. The card inside read in large block type, So you’ve made it to 60. Congratulations. Then in smaller print, it said, Please enjoy these complimentary gifts, courtesy of your government.
He pulled out the first item, a black leather fanny pack. “That’s real leather,” Meryl said, sniffing the material. “Can I borrow it some time?”
“Not ’til you’re sixty,” Anvil said.
Next, he pulled out a pair of red sweatpants. He stood and held them up to his body. They were at least one size too big. “Perfect,” he said, smiling.
“Very nice,” Meryl agreed. “You’ll be very comfortable in them…but, why red? You never wear red.”
“Oh, I’m sure they have their reasons,” Anvil said. “They always do.”
Meryl handed him the plate with the now cream-cheesed bagel and rubbed his back. Something on page three of the newspaper caught her attention. It was one of those fun lifestyle articles and she read the headline out loud, Ten Ways to Make Money Under Authoritarian Rule.
“Sounds interesting,” Anvil said, biting into the bagel. “Delicious. Thanks Mer.”
There were a few more odds and ends in the box: A visor. A pair of compression socks. Tongue depressors. Finally, the one thing he was most looking forward to, the watch.
He held it in his hand staring at it. It was blank. He felt the three tiny metal nubs on the back of the device, the part that would touch him. They were smooth and cold. He hesitated a moment. “Mer, which hand should I put it on?”
This was an important decision as, once on, the watch was never coming off. It would bond with you. The prongs served two purposes. First, they formed a data connection with the wearer, and second, the wearer’s electrical impulses powered the unit, a kind of bio-mechanical symbiosis.
“Just put it on your left wrist. If you wear it on the right, it will feel weird.”
Anvil removed the Hamilton watch he’d worn every day for nearly forty years, except when swimming or while in the boxing ring. He put the new watch on and felt a faint static electric zap when he did. Where the prongs touched him, his wrist tingled. A plain white light blinked slowly on the face, then sped up. He knew from what his older friends told him that the watch was calibrating, setting itself, syncing with his vital functions and data, and most importantly, to the communication center in his brain. This way, if he wanted the time, he would merely think time and glance at the watch. Same thing for weather, messages, quarantines, curfews and other civil safety alerts. A world of information.
In just a few seconds, the watch had completed calibrating, and he thought, time. The current time displayed.
Meryl said, “it looks good on you.”
“Not bad,” he said. And again he hesitated because the one thing he wanted to see was his number, the watch’s greatest feature. It calculated the number based on the wearer’s current health, activity level, DNA, family history, environmental conditions, and so on, and displayed the number in years, months, and days.
He thought it and it displayed 23:9:7. Twenty three years, nine months, and seven days. That was how long the watch calculated Anvil Atkinson had left to live. Not bad. Not a huge number, but not bad. He took another bite from the bagel and it dropped to 23:6:4. A gulp of coffee, and it rose to 23:7:18.
The device had an official name, but everyone called it “The Deathwatch.”
Over the next few days, Anvil thought constantly about the number, watching it rise and fall depending on what he was doing. Slight increases to the number were caused by exercise, sleep, and working in the garden. Decreases: driving a car, eating meat, watching the news.
As the months progressed, the headlines continued to worsen and his number dropped beneath twenty years. Anvil wondered if this was because of the state of the world, or if it was because of his reaction to those conditions.
The Twenty-Years War had started to spread and one day there was a biological incident far away, but still on native soil, dropping his number to 15:3:11. Food shortages had begun and he and Meryl were thankful for the vegetable garden. However, though the plants grew lush and green, they stopped bearing fruit. The number dropped to 7:6:5. Meryl contracted a strange fungal disease causing her skin to bruise and bones to snap. She died, and his number dropped to 3:6:2.
After the funeral, Anvil and a few friends sat in his back yard in their visors and red sweatpants, talking as the sun went down through the murk. Anvil brought out his last bottle of whiskey and poured drinks. Each had a Deathwatch, and they compared their numbers. They talking about how bad things were, how the authorities had really screwed things up, how maybe those in charge didn’t know what they were doing, and how maybe folks had misplaced their trust. How maybe someone should do something.
As they spoke, the numbers on their watches raced backwards until each one flashed zeros. They each felt a tingle where the prongs of their watches met their skin, and then their watches, all at the same time, unlatched themselves and dropped to the ground. A vehicle pulled up and men wearing that ubiquitous armband of the state carrying scatter-guns poured out, trampling the vegetable garden as they approached the group. “On my signal,” the one in charge said.
My phone vibrates in my jacket pocket. It’s a familiar number but I don’t remember whose it is. I don’t answer calls unless I’m certain about them and I hold the phone through three vibrations before answering. “This is Norm.”
“Hey, it’s me,” Golding says as if I’ve been eagerly awaiting his call, as if we drink beer and play poker and take vacations with our families together.
“Listen, Golding, they’re closing the doors on the plane.”
“I’ll leave voicemail…”
“You do that,” and I hang up.
New character: Golding. To be honest, I don’t know why I brought this guy in, and the part that follows, well, it may just be the first thread that once pulled, unravels everything. It begins with a flashback:
I’m ten, with my buddies Ira and Robbie. We’re in the woods behind our development, a damp place with steep paths and hidden hazards like poison ivy and hornet nests in rotting logs. We wander around and shoot at things with cap pistols and slingshots we make from fallen branches and old cut-up bicycle tire tubes. We hunt for arrowheads and hunks of quartz rock.
Darby Creek snakes through the woods and leads to an old quarry where we will soon crawl through a chain link fence to swim. It’s a shallow rocky creek that runs fast after a good day of rain. We pull crayfish from it until the day old washing machines and tires and shopping carts stick up out of the muck. We become scavengers and one day the story goes that a boy from our school gets himself trapped in a rusting old refrigerator and suffocates.
Ira says, “Normalizer, see that squirrel?” on a branch far away. It’s sitting there licking its little hands and grooming its head. “Think I can hit it?”
“No way,” Robbie says.
“Bet you a dollar I can.”
Robbie and I reach into our respective pockets right away and pull out change and count it. “I got it,” Robbie says. “You’re on.”
“I only have sixty-three cents.”
Ira licks a finger and holds it up in the air. “You have to adjust for the wind.”
He lines it up, carefully adjusting his back hand, the one holding the rock in the tire tube band. We’re standing behind him and he’s taking forever to get his aim. Finally, he turns his head back to us, his slingshot aimed toward the squirrel. “Watch this,” and he releases his shot still looking back at us and away from the target.
The rock whooshes out of his slingshot and smacks squarely into the squirrel, knocking it out of its perch. It lands with a rustle in the leaves below. We three stand with our mouths open. “Holy crap,” Robbie says.
We race to the spot where the squirrel landed. “Poke him,” Robbie orders. “See if he’s dead.”
I pick up a stick and poke it lightly. It doesn’t move. There’s a smudge of blood on its head. “I think it’s dead,” I say.
“Check again,” Ira says, his voice a shaky whisper.
I poke it again, a little bit harder, and when I do, Robbie bumps me and the stick plunges into the squirrel’s belly. “Look what you did Norm. You killed him.”
“Didn’t. It was already dead.”
Robbie punches me in the arm and says, “You killed him. You have to bury him.”
“Ow. All right.”
I kick with my sneaker heel at the soft muddy ground and soon have a large enough indent for the body. Using the leaves as a scoop, I push it into the hole and kick some mud and leaves over it.
“There,” I say. “Can we go swimming already?”
“You’re going swimming? You going to the quarry? I’m coming,” says Golding, appearing from behind a tree. His nasally voice, perpetually on the verge of a sneeze,
We trudge to the site of the old quarry, my friends and I and Golding. It is one of those hot, humid days that nowadays stretch into October. Golding is new and I don’t like him.
“What happened to that squirrel? Did you kill that squirrel?” he says.
“We found him,” Robbie says.
“How come you made Norman bury him? Why would you do that?”
Robbie shakes his head at him. “We felt like it. Shut up.”
We get to the edge of the quarry and Robbie peels off his t-shirt and All-Stars and jumps into the water. He disappears taking a trail of bubbles with him and emerges, whooping, “Come on in. The water’s great!”
Ira follows and then it is just me and Golding, standing there, looking down at my two friends splashing in the water, their voices echoing off the quarry’s gray-black walls. “C’mon Normie, jump in.”
“You afraid?” Golding says in my ear. “Afraid of the water?”
“I’m not scared,” I shout.
“No one said you were scared,” Ira says.
“He doesn’t count.” See, nobody liked Golding.
I’m not afraid of the water even though it’s cold and will shock the breath out of me. I can swim and I’ve swum here before. It’s the time and distance between launching and landing where it feels like I’m caught on an invisible hook struggling to climb my way down out of the air, a moment that passes like an hour.
“Just close your eyes and lean forward. The water’s great!”
I can’t do it. I find a zig-zag path on the rocky wall down to the surface, dip my toe and slide in. It’s freezing cold and when I come up I gasp. “Water’s great!”
Golding takes off his stupid alligator shirt and slips backward, hitting his head on rock and falls straight down into the water. Robbie and Ira swim to him while I tread water and think, let’s just tell everyone we found his body floating here.
Yeah, the zombies are coming and Norm is going on a business trip. He doesn’t travel well. He doesn’t know it yet, but everything seems ominous to him.
Love in the Time Before Zombies Chapter 2.1
I’m impatient and intolerant and feel confined in airports and on airplanes. Travel exhausts me, which is why I take prescription amphetamines and constantly drink espresso.
A few minutes ago, Jill slept while I put on my consultant’s uniform: gray slacks, white shirt, and blue sport coat. I paused to stare at my wife’s sleeping body. She wore a tank top and boxer shorts. I kissed her on the cheek. “Mmmm,” she said. “Come here!” She grabbed my collar and pulled me onto the bed. “This will only take a minute,” she said.
“I have a minute.”
Jill makes sure we get a quickie in before I travel so she can draw upon recent raunchy memories in case my plane crashes or Peruvians kidnap me. Afterward, I kissed her on the cheek again. “See you in a few days.”
“I might not really love you,” she said, her eyes closed, already returning to sleep.
On the way to the airport, there’s little traffic, but an ominous – see what I mean about ubiquitous ominousness – van sideswipes us on the 125th street ramp to the Triboro Bridge. It’s one of those beat up windowless vans you see a lot of in the city. The words “Ken’s Contracting” are stenciled unevenly on the side in black, a corona of fine black a couple of inches from the letters, where the excess spray from the can collected.
Dave’s Lincoln had scraped against the side of the van as we merged into a single lane, hitting the van’s dangling side view mirror and ripping it from its duct taped mooring. Glass shatters, maybe the headlamp, and that, combined with the caffeine and other drugs kicking in, really gets my heart going.
“Criminy,” Dave says. He slows down and looks in his rear view mirror, considering whether to stop.
He pulls over. The van drives up behind us and instead of stopping, it accelerates into us, sending my face lurching forward into the back of the headrest.
“JFC!” Dave yells. He gets out of the car.
“What is wrong with you? Are you out of your mind?” He doesn’t curse. He speaks clearly and enunciates very well. He controls the tone of his voice the way a TV preacher does.
I click open the door, but as I move to open it, Dave slams it shut with his hip. Just as well. I’m woozy. I touch my face with my fingers and wince when I feel the area beneath my left eye. No blood yet, but it hurts and already is puffing up. There are loud voices coming from outside the window, but I can’t make out what they’re saying. Then the front door opens and Dave reaches in, and just as quickly, is outside again. Something has been smashed. I turn my head around and through the tinted rear window see that Dave is holding a big black pipe. He swings it and shatters a headlight. The three men slowly back away from Dave. One of the men runs back into the van through the sliding door, it behind him. Dave holds the pipe above his head and wiggles it. One gets in the driver’s door. The other is standing his ground, yelling at Dave in another language. Dave takes a step towards the man, who finally yields and retreats to the passenger door. The driver guns it straight at Dave who sidesteps, spins, and swings the black pipe into a taillight, shattering it. Dave gets into the car.
He puts the pipe down. It’s actually a big, metal flashlight, dinged and scraped in a couple of places and wrapped in duct tape at the handle. He flicks the switch. “Perfectly good flashlight, ruined.” He drops it onto the seat. He looks at me through the mirror. “That’s one nasty looking bruise. You OK?”
I nod. My face hurts and so does my head. I might have a concussion. “Christ, Dave, you scared the daylights out of those guys.”
He smiles. “I could have taken all three of them if it came to it.” Despite that unscheduled interaction, we arrive early. The limo has a long scrape mark on the passenger side, and the rear end is dented. It will be a long day for Dave. I hand him a fifty.
“No need to do that,” he says.
“No,” I say. “I owe you. Get yourself a nice breakfast somewhere.”
At the airport club, I have a drink – I know, I know, it’s not even seven in the morning. My father used to joke, “Does your face hurt?” And like the punchline, I whisper, “No, but it’s killing me.” The aspirin has helped to bring down the swelling, but everything throbs in time with the beating of my heart.
“Norman?” It’s Colleen, a business analyst on the project, in charge of infrastructure.
“Colleen?” I say. “What are you doing in New York?”
“I spent the weekend with my boyfriend – he lives in the Village. Remember, we had this same conversation Friday at the airport in North Carolina?”
I don’t remember. I rub the back of my head feeling for the bump, but it’s my forehead that’s bruised, I remember now. “There’s blood on my shirt,” I say.
“Yes,” she confirms.
“I was in an accident this morning,” I tell her. “Nosebleed. Nothing serious.”
“Let me see that,” she says, and pokes the bruise on my forehead with a finger. “Are you all right?”
I ignore the question. “What’s on your calendar this morning,” I say. She’s the infrastructure team lead. “Where are your people on the cabling on nine?”
“Finished two weeks ago. We’re on eleven now.”
“On schedule? What’s the date?”
She tells me, but I’m not listening. I open my tablet. “I have a few emails to catch up on.” I sit down at a chair looking out over the jetways and runways. One jet takes off. Another lands.
Everyday violent encounter or harbinger of doom? You decide. But don’t worry about Colleen. She doesn’t have much more to do here. She’s young and smart and will soon make partner, and shortly thereafter spin off her own tech company. She’ll get to enjoy a marvelous lifestyle before putting all of her time, brilliance, and resources into preserving the natural world, before the zombies come and claw it all to pieces.
Norm and Jill are afraid that the world is unraveling and that soon, civilization will collapse.
Some people are waiting for the time of the zombies to come, both fearing it and desperately craving it. They want apocalypse, burning cities, every man for himself. They stock up on weapons and canned food and reading glasses. They build bunkers and become survivalists. They learn which insects and weeds to eat and how to shoot a crossbow. They watch zombie TV and wait for the time of the zombies to come.
Some people don’t want to be lumped in with the zombies, don’t want to go down in a hail of bullets, or the shrapnel of a fertilizer bomb. Norm and Jill are like that, but they’re afraid it’s coming and there’s no stopping it. They came into being about six years ago. They and two little children living in an apartment in New York, exactly like the one I lived in, growing more fearful as 25,000 words accumulated until one day they just stopped mid-paragraph. It was titled, Love in the Time Before Zombies. A lot people don’t like that title because they think it’s derivative. *
Norm is kind of like me, only better at his job. But dumber, too. Jill is loosely based on my wife. I say loosely because it’s safer for me that way, you understand.
They have two barely sketched out kids, Brian and Dot. Little is known of them other than that they both like cute, cuddly things. We don’t know their ages, what color hair they have, whether they’re plump or skinny or ordinary or exceptional. Their names will change a half dozen or more times.
The story starts with a line that violates the first of Walt the Dog’s Rules of Writing: “Unless you’re Pat Conroy, don’t use weather to start a story. Even in the prologue.”
Love in the Time Before Zombies Chapter 1, Verse 1
Lightning flashes on the gray sky across the river over New Jersey, and then it strikes startlingly nearby. Thunder follows an instant later and she flinches in the bed beside me, but doesn’t wake. She can sleep through anything. Most nights, I can’t even fall asleep.
In a moment, Brian’s tousled head appears in the door. He rubs his eyes. “What was that?”
“Just thunder,” I say. “It’s just a storm.”
“Can I get in bed with you?”
I pull the covers aside for him and he runs to the bed, clambers up and over me and lands between Jill and me. She murmurs something, licks her lips and rolls onto her side, draping an arm over Brian as another blast of thunder shakes the room. I hear a scream, pounding footsteps and Dot bounds into our bedroom, her hands covering her mouth, tears on her little cheeks and she too dives onto the bed.
“Mommy, mommy, mommy!” she shrieks.
Jill wraps her arms around Dot, cradling her, kissing her hair. “Shhhh, my little punctuation mark. It’s OK. Mommy’s right here.”
So, the story continues and eventually the storm subsides, and frankly, some of the sentences I make up are overblown and self-important and embarrassing. The kids fall asleep and Jill is quiet and Norm starts to drift off when she says, “Norm, how are we doing? I mean, how much do we have in the bank?”
That line about money is supposed to be important to our understanding of this couple. Jill the money manager, the financial wiz is suddenly worried about money. Norm says he’ll check their account balances in the morning and she insists he do it right then and there. He does and when he comes back to bed, she’s asleep.
Love in the Time Before Zombies, is a pre-apocalyptic tale. I mean, once you have zombies, you have the apocalypse, and these events are all the things that happen leading right up to that. These may be pre-zombie times, but make no mistake about it, the zombies are coming.
* As Bob Dylan sang, “if there’s an original thought out there, I could sure use it right now.”
“What is this, a lock?” Guy, a throwaway character asked, picking it up off a shelf where it served as a dutiful bookend in the mystery section.
“Careful. Careful, it’s a time machine,” Susannah Fontaine-Williams said.
“No, really, what is this?” he demanded, picking it up. It looked like a square padlock without the latch on top. Just a dark, metal box with a numbered dial in the middle, It was simple and beautiful and he couldn’t take his eyes off it. He turned the dial one notch and it clicked.
“Did you not hear me?!?” she said. “Keep doing that and you’ll end up back in the bronze age or at an inquisition and you’re not ready. Just look at how you’re dressed.”
“Oh come on,” he said, testing the resistance of the dial. “There’s no such thing as a time machine.”
Susannah scoffed and shook her head.
“Just don’t touch that dial unless you’re sure you know what’s going to happen,” she said. “I mean, maybe some day you can use it. I have no plans to. Just…make sure you know what you’re doing first.”
“Susannah, where did you get this?”
She sat down on Big Orange, the bright orange sofa so large its pieces wouldn’t fit on the freight elevator, even with the ceiling removed. She had to enlist a small cadre of men with extreme musculature to carry it up the twelve flights of stairs. Even then, it wouldn’t fit through the doorway to the room, and it had to be widened. The doorway, I mean, not the room.
Susannah smoothed the front of her jeans. She wore her Lees high-waisted in a way that stopped being stylish long before she was born, her blouse tucked in, daring anyone to think she looked frumpy. She didn’t. She took a deep breath, then stood, and walked to the window, then back to the now wide enough doorway, then just back and forth.
“He said he was my son.” She looked to her guest for a reaction.
“As you know, I don’t have any children,” she continued. In her mind, an image of Bob and the triplets flashed, one of whom was a boy…or was it two, but then she never was certain that they were even real. She had seen the resemblance in his face – especially in the eyes and the way he’d dubiously raise an eyebrow – despite his ragged appearance. He had presented her with a photo of the two of them on the steps of the New York Public Library, Susannah an older woman than now, and he an un-weathered teen version of himself. The photo could have been doctored. It could have been real.
“Anyway, he had come back to this time to fix something,” she continued. She extended her hand palm up to him and glanced at the lock.” He handed it back to her and she returned it to the shelf, removing the book at the end of the row, Jasper Fforde’s “The Eyre Affair.”
“What did he come back to fix?” I said.
“Oh, that doesn’t matter. He told me about it, but it was just a bunch of nonsense.”
“Well, if he erased something from history, then you’d never know otherwise, would you? What did he tell you? Come on, tell me.”
She settled back onto Big Orange, running a thumb over the pages of the book. Thwip. Thwip.
Walt walked in, jumped on the couch, put his head on her lap and looked up at her.
“Yes, you’re right,” she said to Walt, her eyes on Guy. “Just a bunch of gibberish.”
Walt jumped down and wagging his tail, came over to Guy.
“Walt, good boy. Who’s a good boy?”
Susannah’s phone rang. “Yes?” she answered, walking out of the room.
Guy quickly went back over to the book shelf. He picked up the lock. “What do you think, Walt? Is this a time machine? Is your mom just yanking my chain?”
He turned the lock over and etched on the back in tiny print, was a list. Fortunately, there was an onyx-handled magnifying glass one shelf down. The first line read:
Til að hreinsa skífuna skaltu snúa til vinstri þriggja snúninga.
“It’s Icelandic,” Susannah said, leaning on the doorway. It says, “To clear the dial, spin it left three full revolutions.”
“I suppose because it was made in Iceland some time far into the future. Now, put it back, please.”
“Now, that was the studio calling. I have to run.” She hooked her arm in his and led him to the door. She leaned in and kissed him, ruffling his hair. “I’ll call you later?”
Guy gasped, “yes, please,” as she pushed him through the door. He took a step to the elevator, turned and said, “Wait. Kills who?” Guy said. “Was I killed?”
Susannah opened The Eyre Affair to where the photo bookmarked it. She and her son, on the library steps, sometime in the future. The other Susannah sat down next to her on Big Orange. “I love that photo,” she said. “Which one of us do you think it is?”
“Oh, it’s got to be you. You’re much more the marrying type.” They laughed, each thinking how much they liked having the other around.
Ed. note. Check in next time for the transcripts of a panel discussion by famous authors: Is using the crowd-pleasing device of time travel to fix narrative a cop out or a best practice?
The Morgan Fairchild, a Model Nine residential rocket, had just cleared the atmosphere and begun approaching a low earth orbit. Oates heard two quick pings, then what sounded like a can of soda opening. A gong sounded, then the voice, so calm, so matter-of-fact it could put you to sleep. “Hull breach, decks three and four. Hull breach, decks three and four.” It was ANDREA, the ship’s artificial intelligence.
“Uhhhh, check that,” Oates said.
“We have a hull breach on decks
three and four. Would you like me to call support, Passenger Oates?”
“Can’t you just fix the hull
“I’m sorry, the base Model Nine
can’t do that. Would you like to upgrade? I can contact customer support.”
“Yes, the upgrade sounds like a
good idea,” Oates said.
“I’m sorry, Model Nines must be docked
for upgrades. Would you like me to contact support, anyway?”
“Yeah, do that.”
The ship gonged again. Kath was in
the basement – deck three. The Morgan Fairchild, as far as Oates knew, had only
three decks. Main was deck two, the basement was three, and the attic was one.
It was supposed to be a joke, naming the decks for the floors of a house, but
it ended up just being confusing.
“We’re third in the support
queue,” ANDREA said.
“The wait is less than eight
“What is the status of ship’s
systems?” Oates said, thinking Kath would ask that if she weren’t downstairs
“The ship is losing air. I
recommend sealing the basement.”
“Kath’s down there.”
“Passenger Kath’s head has pierced
through both decks three and four…,” said ANDREA.
“I didn’t know we had a deck
four,” said Oates.
“Deck four is very narrow. It’s used
to channel wires, tubes, and fuel, and it’s no longer pressurized.”
“I see,” said Oates.
“Passenger Kath in all probability is dead. Would you like me to seal the basement to prevent further loss of atmosphere? Air at 64%.”
“No, wait. I want to have a look,” Oates said, unstrapping himself. He slid down the rails to the basement. From her shoulders down, Kath’s body was sticking into the room through the wall, her legs and torso parallel to the floor. He pulled her legs, but the suction was too strong, and she didn’t budge. He didn’t know what a dead body felt like, but it must have been something like this. He could feel the air rushing toward the opening in which her head was lodged.
“Sir, support is picking up.”
Oates liked that ANDREA called him, “sir.”
He returned to the main deck and
strapped himself in.
“Good morning, passenger, how are
you today?” the voice said. “My name is Amir. To whom am I speaking?”
“Yeah, this is Oates. ANDREA tells
me there’s a hull breach.”
“For quality assurance purposes,
this call may be recorded. After the call, would you mind staying on the line
and answering a few survey questions so that we may serve you better?”
“Yeah. No. What? Look, the ship is
leaking, and my girlfriend’s head is sticking out into space.” Protruding would have been a better
word, he thought. Protruding into space.
“That’s unfortunate, sir. Let’s
see if we can fix the problem together. Now, according to our records, you’re
in a base Model Nine, the Morgan Fairchild?
“Have you upgraded to the latest
“I don’t know…I thought we signed
up for automatic updates.”
“Let me check that for you. You’re
running version 9.13. The current version is 9.22. Would you like to download
“Wait. I thought I had to be
docked. What does that have to do with the leak?”
“Sir, I can’t do any remote
analysis and repair unless you’re on the latest version of the software.”
“Air at 54%,” ANDREA chimed in.
“Oh, that’s not good,” Amir said.
“I’ve gone ahead and started the update. You may notice a slight lag in
performance during the download.”
The lights in the cabin dimmed
while the screens displayed a progress bar.
“While the system updates, would
you mind taking our online survey? Your opinion is important to us, and your
ratings can influence other people’s purchasing decisions.”
Except for the screen, the ship
went dark and silent and suddenly cold. Oates could see his breath, a puffy
cloud, hovering. Then the lights flickered on and everything came to life.
“Air at 41%,” ANDREA said.
“Okay,” Amir said. “I see you have
a hull breach on three and four.”
“And you’re quickly losing air.
Why don’t we seal off deck three from the main cabin? That should kill the
“Wouldn’t that kill Kath, too.”
“It looks like Passenger Kath’s
head is in the cold, dark void of space. I’m sure she’s dead.”
Oates rubbed his temples. This was supposed to be a ride into the rest of their lives, an escape from the ruined earth. Everyone who could was getting away from the once-green world that could now barely support cockroaches and moss.
People like Kath and Oates couldn’t afford a place on the massive satellites designed for the world’s richest, but they could buy a simple old Model Nine, and join it with other Nines. Plus, it was compatible with the new Model Tens and farming pods. They could start a life in space. They were already overdue to meet up with the Petrovskys on the Victoria Principal. Now Kath – the only one who knew how the ship worked – was dead. Who would fix things? Who would he cuddle with at night? Who would make everything better?
“Air at 34%,” ANDREA said.
“Sir, I’ve gone ahead and sealed
off decks three and four while you think things over.”
“Atmosphere stable. Air at 37%.”
Amir continued, “Try to maneuver
your ship into a stable orbit while you plan your next steps.”
Oates pressed the gas pedal, a
silly option, but one Kath insisted upon. It reminded her of a vintage GTO, a
muscle car she had inherited from her grandfather.
“Thrusters inoperable,” ANDREA
“Let me troubleshoot that for
you,” Amir said.
“Thanks,” Oates said, bewildered
and a little bit lightheaded.
“It looks like Passenger Kath’s
head has severed the fuel line and fuel is leaking out into space,” Amir said,
“Can you fix that?” Oates said.
“Fuel at 14%,” ANDREA said.
“You’ll need to go down to deck
three and manually repair the line.”
“I see,” Oates said.
“Put on your approved space suit.”
“My space suit…”
“Your space suit,” ANDREA said,
“is in the basement.”
“What do you recommend?” Oates
“Eject?” Amir said, for the first
time appearing as flummoxed as Oates.
“Eject?!? To what?”
“Orbit degrading,” ANDREA said,
her voice calm and reassuring. “Hull failure is imminent.”
There was a knock on the basement
door. Then a pounding.
“Oates, let me in. Open this door
“Kath? Is that you, Kath?”
“Of course, it’s me. Who else
would it be?” Kath said.
“Opening the basement door will
result in complete cabin depressurization,” ANDREA said.
“I thought it was you, but your
voice is a little bit muffled. I’ve missed you so much. How are you alive?”
“I’m wearing a space suit. Like
you’re supposed to.”
“Great. Yeah, I should have thought
to do that. It’s great you’re not dead,” Oates said.
“Ask her to fix the leak in the
fuel line,” Amir said.
“Kath, did you hear that??
“What? I have a splitting
“Can you fix the fuel line?” Oates
“Why can’t you do it?”
“I’m locked out of the basement. I
can’t open the door until the pressure has equalized.”
“Do you think Kath can take a
moment to fill out a survey?” Amir said. “Just a short one.”
“It’s really hot down here,” Kath
“That’s just the atmospheric friction,”
Amir said. “If you’re skimming the atmosphere, that’s bad news. I’m sending you
“Hull has been compromised,” ANDREA
said. The vessel shook. There was an explosion.
But Kath, now helmetless, drifted
by the window toward the earth below, a look of surprise on her face. As she
entered the atmosphere a moment later, her body glowed red, sprouted flames and
disappeared in a flash.
“Your warranty covers catastrophic
failure,” Amir said. “You’ll have the option of a pro-rated refund, or a credit
toward a Model 10.”
“But Kath’s gone. What difference
does it make?” Oates said, dizzy, angry, confused.
“Hull failure on decks one through four,” ANDREA said.
“Listen, you don’t have much time,
I’m going to read out the questions and fill in the form for you.”
“Question 1: On a scale of one
through five, with five being the best…”