“Please be seated in the main cabin or stay within your private quarters until we have docked. We will arrive at Harlow Station space ship port in one hour.” Came the jovial Virtual Voice over the intercom system. It sounded different from the usual placid sounding female one that seemingly was used everywhere. The game show host sound was so slick I could almost see “his” perfect teeth. Even Jonah had started making fun of the Virtual Voice’s inflection and tone the third day into the trip.
They really should change that.
“Can we visit Harlow Water Park, daddy? Please?” Asked Mary from her bedroom.
“Yeah, dad. Can we?” Jonah came into the living room just after the Virtual Voice finished the announcement.
“Now kids, remember what we discussed,” chided Pam. “If we’re going to Harlowe Station Water Park then on the first day we arrive at Vepaja we’ll be staying inside.”
“But-” began Jonah.
“No buts! Listen to your mom. Besides, the water park here is huge and takes at least two days to explore. Our ship will only be docked at the Harlow port station for six hours.”
“Aww!” They both whined. But that was pretty much the end of the discussion.
Harlow Station was very small, located between an Earth and Venus pathway. Small, gilded, well-to-do, it was mostly a gated community of wealthy retirees. It was very nice, well kept, full of well-heeled folks – and boring as all get out.
My own dad would come here to visit my grandparents when I was little and that was before they’d built the water park. There was absolutely nothing at Harlow Station back then if you were a kid. Back then, middle class folks were allowed to live there too. My dad’s folks fit within that range by the time my grandfather had retired as an old cruise spaceship captain. Years later the middle class had been priced out of the station. Now only rich folks could afford to live here.
The only attraction worth seeing was the water park and it was simply a massive water park with a few concession stands dotted here and there with a movie theater pool added recently. A place the retirees could take the visiting grand kids to, if they cared.
As you can see, I have issues with the place and I wasn’t in any hurry to get off the ship.
We were riding aboard the Silver Goddess, the flagship of the Star Line shipping line, the only line that carried civilian passengers to the planet Venus, making our way comfortably to the famed and beautiful first city on Venus, Vepaja. I rented a large luxury suite cabin with a living room, dining room, kitchenette and three bedrooms. Jonah gazed longingly out the window of the living room watching hundreds of kids with their parents de-board the ship and into the station under a vast, twinkling starry sky.
“Remember son, we’re going hunting when we get there. Perhaps we’ll catch something,” I said, smiling.
“Well, I’m not going to die or anything. It just would have been nice, is all. But I’m sure Vepaja will be a lot more fun.” He settled down by the main family console to play Tetris again. That’s the spirit, son! I was definitely going to make up for everything once we arrived. Mary still whined over the disappointment.
“Come sweetie. Help me with deciding on what we’ll eat for dinner.” Pam was great at redirecting the kids. “Oh, honey, are we’re going to eat in or are we dining at the ship’s buffet dining room tonight?”
“I think we’ll eat in tonight,” I said.
“I want pizza, mommy!” Mary pouted.
“I want pizza too,” said Jonah not turning around from the console. Several stacks of blocks were raining down on the screen. There was a sound at the treat dispenser. One of the ship’s labor mechs was making its way down the hall outside refilling the treat dispensers on our floor.
“Oh!” Jonah paused the game and jumped up and heading straight for the popcorn dispenser machine for another huge bowl of rainbow popcorn. That was about the only thing that would break his concentration on a good game of Tetris.
“Jonah! Just a small bowl of rainbow popcorn now. I don’t want you to ruin your appetite for dinner,” Pam warned.
Having finished combing over the copious notes Robin sent me about Vartan’s future plans for U-Net I sat back and watched my family, feeling contented. I was thoroughly enjoying the trip so far. The Star Line ships were the fastest civilian space shipping line in the solar system. It cut down the traveling time to Venus from a usual three months to twenty-five, just under one.
The ship itself was a luxury vacation. Plenty of spacious suites and outside cabins. Ballrooms, a large library, family style restaurants and much fancier ones, gilded auditoriums for shows, dance halls and gyms and even an indoor golf course.
We had a jacuzzi in our room as well and our luxury suite came with room service. The Silver Goddess was not a beauty in exterior design, it looked like a huge sea tortoise and was large enough to carry two thousand people. More like the Silver Turtle. It was built to withstand the harsh, powerful pressures of Venus’s atmosphere. Venus now had a special, advanced bio-dome equipped with technology built in to regulate the intense pressures there so that humans traveling to or living there would live in an earth-like pressurized environment. But even so, the ships there were different and had to be when going to and from space and entering inside the bio-dome. Climate temperature was also regulated. I hear that even inside the bio-dome Venus’s climate is slightly warmer than Jamaica.
“So what else should go along with that pizza? We need to eat some vegetables, you know.” Mary made a face.
“A kale radish cucumber orange salad would be nice, Pam.” Pam smiled and noted that on her data pad with Marybear looking on worriedly.
“I wouldn’t mind having another jalapeno sunset again,” I shifted in my love seat, glancing at my wife who gave me a mild disapproving look, “but I don’t want to over-do it.” I flexed my bionic arm and began going through the physical therapy exercises. Jonah came over bringing my medicine bag with the needles and medications. He set the bowl of colorful popcorn aside. Jonah was fascinated with my new arm and also seemed concerned about the healing process which touched me.
The arm had healed fine. So far, my body wasn’t rejecting it. I went through my exercises again. These days it wasn’t painful. Jonah poked at the skin gingerly. I still marveled at it at times. It looked exactly and nearly felt like my other arm except there were no hair follicles there. The skin was smooth and fresh looking. And I was noticing the strength in it was much stronger than in my other arm. The funny thing about it though was that sometimes at night I could feel my other lost arm, the ghost arm tingling. It would hurt at times and felt as if there were no limb there until I lifted it up just to be sure the bionic arm was really there. These sensations came when I had certain kinds of dreams.
“I wish I had a bionic arm, dad. So cool.”
“I don’t know, son. It’s cool what technology and medicine can do for you but it’s usually better to have your own God-given limbs. Be glad yours are still intact. When my real arm got chopped off the pain was something I’d never experienced before. Ever. I still have a hard time verbalizing what that pain felt like. It was like a thousand million knives stabbing and ripping at me all at once. Even that description pales in comparison.”
“That sounds like a close explanation, dad. But at least now when someone tries to hurt you, you can smash them a good one!” said Jonah hopefully. I smiled.
“You’re probably right about that.” I could think of a few dodgy folks out there that needed a good face smashing. But anyway. . .
With Les Baxter’s Space Escapade album playing in the background and Pam and Mary preparing the dining room table for dinner, I settled down by Jonah to play classic Tetris. And got another sound beating by him once again.
“Dad, don’t break the remote again!” said Jonah. I’d gone through two already, not quite understanding my own strength with the bionic arm. The door chime rang.
“Come in!” I called. The doors opened and in walked a prim, newly polished courtesy mech carrying a large silver tray of a large pepperoni pizza, a salad and a liter of dry soda.
“Please set it on the dining room table there,” directed Pam. The mech dutifully obeyed.
“Will you and the family be leaving on excursion to Harlowe Station, Mr. Astor?”
“No. We’ll be staying here.”
“Very good, sir. I should inform you that drinks at the Buddha Bar are half price until disembarkation for Vepaja. The jalapeno sunset is seventy-five percent off regular price until tomorrow.” I perked up.
“Really?” Pam raised an eyebrow.
“Oh yes. And they have a fine selection of scotch to choose from at half price as well.” Pam shook her head.
“But they have a fine selection of scotches there!” I must have sounded like Jonah whining. She got out the silverware and checked for spots before setting them on the table, shooting me another disapproving glance.
“Come with me,” I coaxed. She shook her head.
“I’m on a green cleanse for this month. No thanks, honey.”
“Aw come on, Pam!”
“Let’s eat dinner and we’ll go for a walk on the garden promenade of the ship,” she said. I pretended to sulk. Okay, maybe it wasn’t really pretending.
“Can we stay here?” asked Mary. She had run to her bedroom and grabbed her teddy bear, Reese.
“No. You guys are coming with us. This is a vacation. A luxury vacation that your father’s boss is paying for. Let’s enjoy it to the fullest instead of sitting glued to holo-screens in the cabin all day.” And that ended the discussion.
We sat down to eat. Yeah, I’d say the huge time out with the news and entertainment feeds Pam and I had decided on was an excellent idea for the kids. They were allowed to play some classic games here and there. I just don’t know why she suddenly wouldn’t have a drink with me or even wanted me to have one. I looked over at my comlink device and saw a green light beeping. There was a message. I decided that I’d get to it later.
As the ship’s Virtual Voice system sounded out the last port of call I saw in the wide dining room windows the glass and steel glistening structure of the water park in the distance. It looked like a small city in and of itself. A pretty but rather dull one, I imagined. I was glad to leave it in the distance.
Pam had her data pad by her plate.
“Now Pam, after you were scolding the kids-”
“This is different, Bob,” she said gently. “I’m looking over the itinerary.”
“Let me see it. Let’s do some final planning on what we all want to see once we arrive.” She handed it to me.
“Oh! I don’t want to forget! I want to visit the Crake Shopping Mall.” She looked positively radiant at the mention of shopping. Mary beamed as well.
“Okay. Sure,” I said. I never understood a woman’s fascination with shopping for clothes, skin care stuff or whatever. Or home décor. Pam loved skin care. Spent a small fortune on it. It paid off, but still. If you’ve seen one gleaming, vast shopping center you’ve seen them all. But if it made her happy I wasn’t going to spoil her fun.
“And how about the Pyramid of Dreams, guys? I hear that’s supposed to be the highlight of everyone’s trip once they get there.” Both of my kids shouted a resounding “yes” at this.
The Pyramid was an astounding one thousand feet structure, covered in gold and bronze facade bricks. Inside was a mixture of ancient Egyptian style fused with Art Nouveau. It was a luxury hotel with a casino, holo-theaters, vintage film theaters, several Egyptian artifact museums, an interactive aviator museum, holo-program complex, an indoor desert flower and plant garden and a zoo. One could stay there for the entire trip and simply get lost, it was said. I would have booked rooms inside the Pyramid’s main complex or at least its surrounding satellite lodges on the grounds but all the rooms were sold out! None were available until next year! But we got some very nice accommodations at the Queen of the Night hotel.
We went over again what we wanted to do and see each day. We’d be there for two weeks. After dinner Pam prepared the kids to walk the ship promenade. I looked over my messages again. There was a message from Robin. The new U-net headquarters was up and running and everyone officially part of the little group were on their way, including Diamond.
Robin needed me to call back for an important conference. Pam gave me a curious but knowing look.
“I’ll take the kids out, honey,” she offered. Pam was no longer angry with these interruptions, of which I was thankful. But no matter what, I was still going to spend time with my family. These things just had to be integrated in, is all.
“Thanks, honey. I’ll catch up with you soon. It won’t be long.” she and the kids were out the door and I finally contacted Robin. A surprising voice that I nearly didn’t recognize came on the line instead. It wasn’t Robin’s. The holoscreen jumped alive and the figure before me was sleek, dark and imposing. Looked like he’d had an upgrade. It was Magnum. The mech’s hard, bright cybernetic blue eyes seemed to bore fire hot holes into my face as he stared. The Virtual Voice answered in before he spoke.
“This call is coming from the private secured channel of Magnum 9.0.1. Will you accept this call?”
“You may begin communications.”
“Greetings, Mr Astor,” came Magnum’s rough no-nonsense voice at the other end.
“Hello. Didn’t expect to see you.”
“Robin is on her way to Langrenus to the new headquarters. Her comlink system is having technical trouble so she instructed me to contact you. I assume she has already contacted you by mail?”
“After your holiday is done when can we expect to see you in person at headquarters? You are the first and foremost U-net agent. It is important for you to be present at some point.” Magnum admonished. I felt as if I were being disciplined. I opened my mouth to say something but at first nothing came out. He was right. I was the first agent. I needed to be there.
“At the least, probably in about three weeks.”
“That’s better than nothing. Let me debrief you on what’s happened so far. We’ve received unsubstantiated reports about a threat growing near the perimeter of the solar system from the loyalists, near the outer planets. Somewhere possibly near Saturn but information at this time is not solid. If you can get any information while you are on Venus please inform us immediately. Also, Ms. Vartan has finished her main experiments on the creature we captured near the Hussa mine and she is now in the process of building a new powerful weapon using the DNA of this alien being.” I was stunned to hear it. I shouldn’t have been, but I was. This was a dangerous slope in my opinion. But if we had this at our disposal, what else might we do? Why not use it? We faced extinction. I still didn’t like it.
This brought back the unpleasant memory of my own forced experimentation. Soon it would be time to face that issue. To find out what was happening to me. I was changing. Subtle changes, not physical ones either, at least not yet. But I wasn’t the same man I was back then. Thanks to Dr. Dorn and his evil, illegal experiments with the fiorjah alien.
“Mr Astor, are you still there?”
“Oh, uh, yes. Sorry about that, Magnum. I was just thinking of something.”
“I see. I thought the holo-screen froze up.” No, just my brain. “Is this hesitation something that has to do with Ms. Vartan’s new weaponized DNA project?”
“And of the creature we have in captivity? Yeah. I don’t like it.” Very perceptive for a mech. But then, Magnum was something else entirely. Like Will. Almost alive in a way that I couldn’t quite explain.
“Well. . .,” he seemed to pause before finishing and it surprised me that I was now referring to Magnum as he. When did that happen? Interesting times. “Try to think of that creature the way it thinks about you. Something useful to use and then discard. Because that is what it would have done to the human race had it ever gotten its way. You are saving your people from unwanted and undeserved destruction from dangerous enemies. This creature, which sought to use your DNA is only reaping what it has sown, so to speak. Think no more of it and focus on the task of saving your own. And your family.”
He was right. And yet, still, a slippery slop was dangerous. Such an outlook could turn any decent man into a monster. I was out here fighting the monsters in the dark. I didn’t want to turn into one of them.
But I had my family and my love for them that saved me, reigned me in from such a callous ideology taking over. Diamond had his brother, with whom lately he had started speaking to again. Who did Robin have? Or Ellen?
“So is this weapon going to be a living being?”
“That, I don’t know yet. But even if it is a sentient being or weapon, hard choices must be made, Mr. Astor. I am sure you’ve made many already when it comes to life and death. It must be done in all arenas of life. The future that we face requires it. Either choose the rights of those who would destroy you and take away your right to exist, or choose your own survival. This weapon will be unique, the only one of its kind, and it will be powerful. Most importantly, this weapon is necessary.”
“Right.” And I’m just a cog doing what I’m told. Again. Oh well. Moping time was over.
All kinds of dark and disturbing thoughts came with that word captivity. It wasn’t right but we had a right to survive and on our own terms. It was time to drop the conflicted thought pattern and move forward.
“Magnum, tell me more about the plans to build this weapon.”
“Concrete knowledge is still limited. We are in the preliminary stages but I will do my best. What do you wish to know?”