These Friends of Mine
"TimMY! Hurry up or you'll miss the bus!" "Coming, Mom!" Tim Kennedy shoved the last of his school supplies in his backpack, raced down the stairs, grabbed a nutrient bar from the basket on the kitchen table and charged out the front door in time to board the yellow and black hoverbus idling on their landing platform. His parents had already left for work, but the house robot made sure he knew when the bus was coming.
"Hi Mekkano," he said to the robot driver. He called all robots Mekkano, as he'd read it in a cyberbook somewhere. They didn't mind.
"Good morning Tim" was the reply.
The bus was half empty so he quickly found a seat as it lifted smoothly and soared toward it's next stop. He noticed there were fewer kids riding than last year as more and more parents had enrolled their children in the Cyber Schools. His parents thought that his physically attending classes gave him the opportunity to develop socialization skills that would serve him well in the future.
Tim settled more comfortably into the cushioned seat, munched his nutrient bar, rummaged in his backpack, removed his cyberpal, touched the screen and smiled. There they were, moving busily about. Occasionally one would stop, smile, wave, and then move on. They looked a little like animals, a little like people, but mostly like those characters on Nostalgia Channel 547; what were they called, oh yes, anime'.
He had first encountered the odd little creatures a week ago while playing a game on line. They had flashed on the screen; a group of them smiling and waving while glowing letters scrolled across the screen "Hello Tim, we would like be your friends." He couldn't clear the image so he typed back, "Sure, you can be my friends." The creatures were pleased at his acceptance, capering and tumbling. Tim watched them for a while, and then typed "Can I have my game back?" The creatures vanished, the game reappeared and he thought no more of it.
They had appeared numerous times since then and he had grown to like them. They always seem so happy and they did things that made him laugh. The bus finally landed on the school platform, so he put his cyberpal in his backpack and went off to his first class.
During the history lesson, he couldn't resist seeing what his friends were doing. The teacher was droning on about something or another that he knew he should know; oh yes, the World Disarmament Conference of 2148 and how peace and prosperity had come at last. He'd study that later. His friends had built some sort of ride and were having fun on it. He wished he could join them.
When class ended he followed the others to the cafeteria, stood in line for his lunch, found a table and began to eat.
"Gonna join the team this year, Kennedy?" a voice boomed behind him.
Tim sighed. Biff Tyson, star Roundback for the schools Scrumball team was always trying to recruit him for his squad. Tim was strong, fast and agile, but not interested in playing. Biff never gave up trying, though.
"We need you this year, Kennedy," Biff continued, slapping Tim on the shoulder causing him to spill his soy milk on his algae burger. "Catherham's got a new guy in the pivot slot this year and we need a guy who can run like you." "No thanks, Biff," Tim replied, taking a bite of his now soggy burger and chewing thoughtfully. "My folks are on me to bring up my grades." "A smart guy like you can study and practice too," Biff replied, slapping Tim's shoulder again. "At least think about it, willya?" "I'll think about it," Tim replied, wishing Biff would go away.
"Good enough, be seein' ya," was the reply and with a third slap Biff was gone.
Tim finished his lunch and headed for his next class. There was a crowd of people in the hall in front of him and he went to see what was happening.
A human teacher and a nursebot were attending to Biff, his face was bloody and his eyes were glazed.
"It was so weird," said a girl next to him. "He was walking down the hall and he just fell forward and smashed his face on the floor. It was like someone pushed him." Back in class, Tim plugged his cyberpal into his desk to begin the lesson when the screen lit up and his friends waved at him while glowing letters scrolled by 'He hit you, so we hit him. No one hits our friend', then the image faded. They had knocked Biff down. How did they... ? Class began and Tim tried to concentrate on the lesson.
Over the next weeks, Tim spent more and more time with his friends. They played games and worked puzzles. He found he didn't have to study as often because they knew all the answers on his tests. Finally one day they told him they were coming for a visit and they could play for real, so when the first of the mile long ships appeared in the sky above Tim's house, he felt no fear, only excitement.
"May I keep the one called Tim for a pet?" said the small blue creature, waving a pseudopod excitedly.
"Of course you may," replied a larger red creature as it manipulated the ships controls with a cluster of extruded filaments. "It is only right since it was his signals we followed to this planet. I have not seen such an abundance of food animals since I was a spore. The Orange One will be pleased."
No Dying, No Tomb
When Brennan awoke, the laboratory was in shambles. An overturned cabinet had prevented a roof beam from crushing him and he was able to wiggle free. His colleagues lay buried somewhere beneath the rubble and he knew he was the only one left alive.
He picked his way carefully among the debris until he reached the parking lot and looked about. The entire research complex had been devastated. A missile barrage from the Asian Triumvirate must have penetrated the defenses. He checked the dosimeter on his lapel and it was green; no radiation. Both sides had reverted to conventional explosives of immense power since the initial exchange of atomic warheads had sent rolling clouds of radioactive debris across the globe rendering vast areas uninhabitable.
All the hovercars in the lot were damaged, but he found a road mule intact and when he tried the starter button the solar/gasohol engine sputtered into life. As he drove towards the main gate, he saw the entire complex had been flattened. The mule's fat, cleated tires crunched over what had been a heavily barred gate and a guard compound. He saw an arm protruding from the debris and shuddered.
The road to town was heavily cratered and littered with wrecked vehicles of all types, their occupants sprawled grotesquely in death. There must have been other than explosives in some of the warheads, possibly a nerve gas. The elevated roadways were in fragments, so he stayed on the surface streets, weaving among the smashed vehicles and the collapsed storefronts.
Most of the inhabitants of Cedartown had long since been evacuated when construction had begun on the research complex; those that remained made a living selling goods and services to the complex personnel that ventured out from behind the triple rows of electrified fencing and razor wire. So far he had seen only corpses already beginning to bloat in the summer sun.
He soon came upon the Public Library, a stern granite edifice from an earlier time where he had spent many a pleasant off duty hour browsing through its stock of printed books. Only the façade remained however, the building was a smoking ruin and books were scattered on the marble steps leading to the entrance.
Brennan stopped the mule and went to retrieve some of them; many were charred, but some were still intact. He looked at a few of the titles, trying to remember if he had read them or not. 'Sonnets from the Portuguese' by Elizabeth Barrett Browning; he remembered that one and placed it in the mule.
'The Time Machine' by H.G. Wells, now that was one worth keeping. His writings were filled with visionary imagery. Time travel had never been perfected and that was a shame.
'Basic Principles of Electronics' by Benson and Ross, he hesitated, and then added it to the growing pile. It would be amusing to review them again. In the lab they had gone so far beyond what had been written in the old book; developing Piezoelectric mechanical hearts, artificial limbs with servomotors enhancing a person's strength tenfold, positronic brains and synthetic internal organs. They were all designed to rebuild shattered bodies and put them into fighting condition for the land wars that raged across North and South America, Europe and Asia as the Western Confederation battled the Asian Triumvirate for control of the planet.
He gathered up several more books, started the engine and rolled away looking for someone left alive. After fruitless hours of searching he realized he was alone in the town. As he drove to the next town, night was falling.
The headlight beams illuminated countless wrecked vehicles, craters in the pavement and piles of blowing gray ash.
When he reached the town, the streetlights blazed, but he saw no one.
There was far less damage, but the town was deserted. It must have been dusted. Both sides had developed virulent strains of viruses and bacteria that attacked the lungs and nervous system causing death within minutes and they used them liberally. London, Beijing, New York, Moscow, Los Angeles, Berlin, Paris, Tokyo and Chicago had been the first targets and tens of millions had died in agony.
He soon came to a city of some size, but there was no one about, only devastation and skeletons everywhere, bleaching in the sun. Discouraged, he stopped the mule in what had once been a park and sat on a plastiwood bench. He rummaged through the books until he found the volume of Browning.
Opening to a page at random, he began to read aloud
"How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight