Ringer

The bar is loud tonight, crowded with paunchy men in faded sports tees and flannel shirts. They’re from out of town, here for the big tool expo, but they’ve claimed ownership of the bar and driven out almost all the regulars – except me. Jenna is the only one working tonight, but she refuses to let me help, even though we both knew before seven that it would be a hectic night.

“Your license is expired, Jess,” she whispered when I offered. “You got your new job, what, six months ago?”

“So? My license lapsed, not my ability to pour a beer.”

A group of six entered and her shoulders sagged briefly. “Maybe later.”

So here I am, sipping a two-hour-old porter, waiting for Jenna to crack and accept my help.

One of the out-of-towners, his head shaved in an attempt to outflank his baldness, accidentally elbows me when he comes up for another round.

“Sorry.”

I say nothing. He forgets about me immediately. His Red Sox tee is too small for him. He and his friends have taken over the dart board right next to the bar. While he’s gone, one of his friends sticks a fresh hole in the wall. I helped repaint that wall just last year.

“Hey, sweetheart,” he calls to Jenna. “Three more?”

Jenna is down at the other end, serving another horde of outsiders.

“Hey!” Red Sox barks. Jenna looks up, two pint glasses in her hands. Red Sox taps his wrist with one finger – today, sweetheart.

I look up at him, debating intervening. He stares at Jenna – all over Jenna – as she fills his glasses and slides them across the bar.

“Better be faster next time if you expect a tip.” He raises an eyebrow as if he just benevolently imposed some wisdom on her. Jenna’s smile never fractures, but I recognize the furious tension of her eyebrows when we exchange a glance.

People say we have the same smile, but that’s where the similarities end. She’s taller, blonder, and older by eight minutes. We probably weigh the same, but hers is distributed in a way that racks up more “sweetheart” and “baby” in one night than I’ve heard in a lifetime. We both worked behind that bar for almost three years before I started at the bank.

“Hey, sweetheart!” Red Sox is pointing at a bullseye, presumably his. I glimpse gold on his finger – a wedding ring he hadn’t even bothered removing. “You got a nice prize for the winner? A kiss, maybe?”

Whooping all around the bar. Jenna’s smile becomes icy before she teasingly waves him off. If any other regulars were still here, he’d be thrown out, or at least shouted down. But it’s just me tonight, and while I can bench 150, I try not to get in bar fights with strangers anymore.

Besides, like Mom always said, violence isn’t always the answer. I got real good at darts while I worked here, and when this place isn’t overrun with entitled outsiders, the other regulars and I play at least once a week.

“I’ll take that bet,” I say, standing.

A different kind of whooping, now. Jenna winks conspiratorially – neither of us feels inclined to tell people we’re related.

Red Sox yields the floor with a smirk. The friend who put a hole in the wall is too young for the Pink Floyd shirt he’s wearing, but not too young to snicker at me with the others. They sound like chimpanzees.

But they fall silent as I rack up t15, ring, d17; d20, bull, t18. It’s over quickly.

The rest of the bar has already gone back to hollering at each other over their cheap beers, the contest forgotten. Red Sox flushes to match the faded letters on his shirt.

“Hey, Jenna,” I call. “Smoochy, smoochy.”

She rolls her eyes as I tap my cheek. I am rewarded with a kiss, an exaggerated “mwah” like our aunt used to do, and a smirk aimed over my shoulder at Red Sox.

“What is this, some kind of hustle?” he snaps.

“Just good, clean fun.” I drain the last of my lukewarm porter. “Wouldn’t want to upset your wife…”

Red Sox leaves as I reclaim my barstool. He mutters something I don’t quite hear – probably for the best – as he passes. Pink Floyd, though, bobs his head ruefully at Jenna and leaves a twenty on the bar.

Much Obliged

The moment comes when they ask you for another long week on another long project and you can’t find the shape of yes in your mouth anymore. At first, the extra assignments felt flattering – like compliments, like trust. Now they feel like links in a lengthening chain.

You know they aren’t really asking. They know you have no choice.

So you chew on your retorts and swallow the acidic no that had threatened to burst free like flame and find the agreeable yes they want.

The moment passes safely.

This was going to be my entry for yw#308 but my week got away from me. What’s up, moonshine grid?

Save

Goodnight, VerreTek

I am blinking amid the restricted servers and I don’t remember why I’m here.

I remember details – keystrokes – but I can’t remember anything beyond VerreTek’s last firewall. I’m holding a drive, though. I realize, with a jolt of pride and terror, that I was successful. The encryption did its job erasing any memory of what I read, but I got through. I have the data.

“Miss Palmer? Are you in here?”

Booted feet, a harsh voice. They know full well I’m here. There are no security warnings on my screen, so nothing I did during my hack attracted attention, but somehow, I’m suspicious.

I check the time and swear silently. I’ve been in here for 20 minutes – way longer than permitted. The encryption must have messed with my perception of time.

“Miss Palmer?”

“Yes?” I call as innocently as possible. I hide the drive in the pocket I sewed into my bra – lined with a few square inches of inordinately expensive scan-deterring fabric – and dart three rows away, where I pretend to be working on a terminal. I sabotaged it yesterday to give myself an excuse to be here.

Two security guards appear at the end of the row. “Miss Palmer, you don’t have clearance to be here unaccompanied for more than ten minutes.”

“I’m so sorry!” I gesture to the terminal, its black screen helpfully flashing a scattered assortment of green cursors. “This should’ve been a really easy fix and I totally lost track of time –”

“Would you come with us, please?”

Again, they aren’t asking.

[]

They walk me back and forth through two scanners, wave around me with three types of detector wands, and pat me down. Nothing picks up the tiny drive.

They could order a strip search, but I’m a nineteen-year-old girl with a spotless record and prodigy-level encryption skills. VerreTek isn’t really concerned about me. They just have to put in the time to make it look like they bothered.

I just have to outlast them. So, for the next few hours, I lie – sort of.

Hour one. “What were you doing in the restricted servers?”

“Fixing a broken terminal.”

“Some secure files were accessed from another terminal in the same room.”

“I never saw any secure files.” It’s not entirely true – I saw them, I just don’t remember them. But it’s enough to fool the lie detector, and that’s all that matters.

[]

Hour two. “What were you doing in the restricted servers?”

“Fixing a broken terminal.”

[]

Hour three. “Your work record indicates you should have had no problem fixing the broken terminal.”

“That thing hadn’t gotten a software update in three years. It wasn’t compatible with the new ports.”

The lie detector trembles, but the guards are tired. Just a little longer and I’ll be done with this place, and all the evil it protects, for good.

[]

Hour four. “Sorry for the inconvenience, Miss Palmer. You’re free to go.”

I’m not sure how an innocent should react. I go for indignant. “What about the secure files?”

“What about them?”

“Did they trace the hack?”

“I think that’s a little above your pay grade.”

“That’s my job – if something’s failed, I need to –”

“If something failed, you’ll just have another long day tomorrow.” He gestures at the door. “If we have more questions, we’ll find you.”

[]

I don’t even think about the drive until I’m safely back home. With the biomonitors on the bus and the constant sweep of surveillance trucks and sentry bots, just elevating my heart rate an unusual amount could get me in trouble.

I don’t even know yet if it would be worth it.

In my room, I listen for the slow grind of the surveillance sweeper. It passes, right on schedule, and I activate my camera. I hook up the drive and start to read.

It’s like recalling an old dream, or hearing a story someone swears involved you, but you can’t remember. All of VerreTek’s secrets – bribery, blackmail, weapons deals, black-bag disappearances – they’re all locked under the memory-inhibiting encryption I help improve.

Helped improve.

I read their secrets aloud for the camera, my insurance. By the time the next sweeper passes, I’m powered down again, only now I remember everything I’ve read.

I send a secure message to my contact: Have VT data. Please advise.

The response is quick: 1800 bus to LA. 

I lie awake after that. What I’ve read is hard to forget – only now I wish I could. At least tomorrow I’ll be doing something about it.

Farewell from the Undercity

“You have everything you need?”

I zipped up my backpack and closed the trunk. It was raining – a good excuse to have my hood up. “I hope so. Who knows?”

I resisted the urge to look up when a siren wailed by overhead – probably just someone speeding, or weaving between buildings off the approved flight paths. No one knew what I’d done, or what I was planning, and even if they did, they wouldn’t be looking for me among the ground transportation. I said a silent farewell to my beautiful black skycar – Hedy, I’d named her – parked back at home. I’d entrusted it, like most of my things, to Matt.

He looked up, but only briefly. The siren flew past, as I’d expected. Matt’s fingers tapped anxiously on the worn steering wheel. Whether it was impatience to get back to flying Hedy around, or concern for my safety, I couldn’t tell. “Someone’s picking you up there?”

Safety, then. Baby brother did care. “Yes.” I couldn’t say who – I knew her name and face, but that was all, and that was secret. She knew much more about me: when I was arriving, who my contacts were, what I offered.

Matt knew I couldn’t say more. He stuck his hand out the window.

“A handshake? That’s it?”

He made a face, the pinched smirk he always got when he knew he’d said something dumb, or gotten caught skipping chores. But he put the old sedan in park, jumped out, and hugged me tight.

“Be safe, Sara.”

“Kinda late for that.” I default to sarcasm when I’m frightened. Matt was not amused, so I squeezed his arm. He’d finally be taller than me if I – next time I saw him. “You, too.”

Headlights rounded the corner and I had to rush down the block. The bus was here. I had my backpack and three flash drives of stolen data and a burner phone and no more credit cards. A lone patrol bot trundled across the intersection and I forced myself not to freeze and stare at it. It kept rolling – it hadn’t even registered my presence. I was sweating, my heart racing, my hands trembling. I was terrible at this.

But this was who I was now.

I didn’t look back until I was safe on the bus, ticket taken, bribe paid to “lose” said ticket and scrub my face from the bus’s cameras. The bus was mostly empty; no one took ground buses anymore unless they had to, not if they could afford to make the trip by air. The other occupants avoided looking at each other. I wondered where they were all going, if their small bags were full of secrets like mine.

Matt was still sitting in the shadows, engine running, one yellow headlight glaring down the litter-strewn road. I couldn’t see through the neon gleaming on his windshield and I wished suddenly for one last look at him. He still had one more year of high school. He’d shown rare, earnest love and I’d teased him for it and those would be our last words.

I stared into that headlight until the bus lurched away, ancient engine growling. Matt’s face was still hidden. Not even the dread of punishment that kept me up some nights gnawed at me the way this regret did.

So I did what I knew I shouldn’t: I faced the window, letting the neon undercity lights and the amber street lamps expose me, and I waved. It was barely movement, just a showing of my fingers above the edge of the rain-streaked window, but I hoped he saw. I hoped I’d see him again.

Then he was gone – and so, I realized, was Sara. I draped my rain jacket over my front like a blanket and watched the patrol bots and the burned-out chassis and the blue-lit diners go by. Sara had left home burdened by fear and regret. Whoever disembarked, she might still be afraid, but she’d have left the regret behind. There wouldn’t be room for it in her bag.

Half an Hour

The streets were even quieter than usual. Cassie held tight to Shay’s hand as they walked to the corner store. They were out of juice; Cassie didn’t think they’d need any, but Shay was five and demanding, so they went.

The Benson boys were the only other ones out, leaning against the boarded-up window on their usual corner, sharing a cigarette. Their mother had qualified – she was a physics professor – but she’d refused to leave her family, so they simply came and took her late one night while her husband swore and her boys sobbed.

Cassie liked to think Jason had qualified and just hadn’t gotten the chance to tell her before he left. It was better than many of the alternatives.

“Look, Mommy!” Shay pointed, her eyes wide with delight. “Rocket ships!”

Cassie looked south first. If they were launching from the south, that meant shuttles, more of the qualified being borne to the station that awaited high in the thermosphere. You could see it at night, if you knew where and when to look, a bright white dot racing east as if escaping something, only to retread its path two hours later.

The southern skies were clear – but to the north, nine white lines arced ever higher like a pen sketching a fresh blueprint.

Then the shuttles launched.

Cassie looked away. The Benson boys stared at the silvery trails, cigarette forgotten.

“I want to watch them!” Shay cried as Cassie resumed walking.

“We can watch from home, sweetie.”

“They’ll be all gone!”

“There will still be plenty,” Cassie murmured. And they continued towards the store.

Inside, Wendy was on duty, taking off her nametag while she stared at the breaking news. She managed a smile for them, but tears filled her eyes when she spotted Shay. Cassie waved, but made sure Shay walked on her other side, where she couldn’t see Wendy and ask what had made her sad. They had perhaps half an hour; they’d spend it well, without tears.

First, a bottle of wine. Next, ice cream sandwiches – Shay pointed excitedly at the box with the polar bear. Both items went on the conveyor belt.

“But Mommy, you forgot juice!”

“We’re getting ice cream instead.” What five-year-old could argue with that?

Wendy’s keys were out on the counter, her nametag propped up on the top row of her keyboard. The news overhead was a tangle of white contrails – more rockets had launched, many more, very few of them shuttles.

“How does ‘on the house’ sound?” Wendy asked wryly.

“At least pretend?” Cassie mimed scanning. “For her?”

Wendy’s lips compressed, restraining tears, but she scanned the wine and the ice cream and bagged them. She said a price and Cassie handed over a twenty.

Wendy shook her head. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Please?” Cassie whispered. Shay was fidgeting, eyeing the polar bear through the translucent bag.

Wendy opened the drawer and counted out change as swiftly and precisely as she always did. She pressed the coins into Cassie’s hand and squeezed it. Nothing could possibly be said.

Cassie looked back as they left: Wendy was staring up at the news, shredding the twenty into precise confetti.

Back at home, Cassie poured the wine and unwrapped an ice cream sandwich for Shay, who had forgotten all about juice. Fifteen minutes left, perhaps. Ten? The news would have accurate tracking, but Cassie left the TV off. Upstairs, their last remaining neighbors were packing. Cassie hadn’t known their names, didn’t know where they’d go. Their next-door neighbors, the Blackburns, had gone to stay with family upstate. They all knew it wasn’t far enough, but Cassie had wished them well.

She looked around the kitchen, the spaghetti pot still soaking, Shay’s leftover cereal by the sink. The clean dishes in the rack were dry. She thought about putting them away, but instead she opened a cabinet and found one of the gold-rimmed champagne flutes. She poured her wine into the new glass and set the old in the sink.

She turned back to Shay, who was already sticky with ice cream. “Do you want to watch the rockets?”

Shay beamed. “Yeah!”

The small deck faced east. They could see uninterrupted sky, the blue and white china-plate designs becoming ever more complex. The quiet surprised her, but she was grateful for it. She lifted Shay onto her lap.

“Can you count them?” she whispered, brushing trembling fingers through the brown curls.

Shay pointed. “One…two…three…”

Save

02:39 UTC

 “We got a good picture now.”

A television hummed in the small family room, broadcasting news that no one was really listening to anymore. Mommy and Daddy and their friends were all on their feet, cheering, clinking beer bottles. Wendy was watching from the top of the stairs. She was supposed to be in bed, but how could she have possibly slept, with those men walking around on that shining crescent out her window?

Onscreen, gray shapes and those impossible words: LIVE FROM THE SURFACE OF THE MOON. They’d landed a whole six hours ago and were just now actually getting to walk on the Moon, and everyone in the world got to watch, live, from an unfathomable two hundred thousand miles away.

“Here he comes!” Mrs. Clawson, who believed in little green men, was the only grown-up still paying attention to the screen. The others hushed. Halfway through clinking bottles with Mr. Watson, Daddy spotted Wendy, her face scrunched between the balusters. She shrank back, torn between fear of her inevitable punishment and wanting to see Commander Armstrong set foot on the Moon.

“Someone’s coming down the ladder!” Mommy whispered.

“There’s a foot coming down,” Walter Cronkite echoed.

Wendy mimed pleading at Daddy, who grinned and gestured downstairs. She skidded down the carpeted steps and climbed into his lap.

The hulking, space-suited figure was making its way down the ladder with agonizing slowness. Wendy’s foot twitched impatiently, and she saw Daddy’s finger tapping against his bottle. No one spoke.

More huge words: ARMSTRONG ON MOON. More clinking glass, and amazed murmurs instead of cheers. Mrs. Clawson dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.

“Pretty incredible, huh, kiddo?” Daddy said.

“Can I stay up and watch more?” Wendy whispered.

“That’s one small step for man…”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Save

Small Mercies

I envy – and I recognize my
irony – those who can pray
praises to fill a censer,
certain of their hope.
Open and raw,
Abba, Father, I cry only
leniency, relief, mercy.
See me? Small though I am?

Oh, I am worn out,
outdone, overrun,
run down. I need filling up.
Upon this rock, I listen:
Envy grows no good fruit –
root down my soul, water me.
Even here, tenderly, meekly,
leaves unfurl, silver and new.