The Last Question and A Pail of Air

A short and sweet blog today to point you to two excellent science fiction short stories: The Last Question by Isaac Asimov, and A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber.

1. A Pail of Air by Fritz Leiber

There is no atmosphere… bitter cold… only way you can breathe is to dig up a pail of liquid oxygen and heat it…

Set in a post-apocalyptic world where the Earth has been dragged far from the sun’s orbit, this is one creepy little tale that nonetheless grabbed — and held! — my attention. Well, I say it’s creepy, but then it takes an unexpected twist. You’ll have to read it to find out.

Read it now.

2. The Last Question by Isaac Asimov

Several trillion years of human history in the space of a short story…

Perhaps a little less immediately accessible, but a really interesting take on the creation of the universe.

Read it now.

What did you think of these stories?

SPEECH RECOGNITION

I wake up in a bed I do not recognize. My left temple is throbbing unnaturally and the shining white ceiling only makes it more difficult to see.

I bring the duvet up to my nose, contemplate going back to sleep. But when I close my eyes my head begins spinning wildly, and I have to choke back the nausea.

Awake it is, then. I turn my head to the side. There is another pillow next to mine, the centre still indented from the weight of another’s head.

The memories return: a flash of black hair, green eyes. I’d met him at the bar when I’d gone up to order a round. All of a sudden I can remember kissing him in the streetlight, but for the life of me I cannot remember his name.

I glance under the blankets. Still wearing yesterday’s clothes, although that could mean anything.

So where is he, then? I turn my head to either side, searching for clues. It’s a luxurious room, but impersonal; the duvet I’m clutching is goose down, but the painting above the bed is a mass-produced print. I’m definitely in an upper scale hotel. That’s right, wasn’t he a tourist?

That’s when I spot the small black box installed on the ceiling, and realize just how upper class this hotel is. If I’m not mistake, that box is an AI. This room had its own AI! Despite the clenching of my stomach and the vile taste in my mouth, I cannot contain the sudden surge of excitement. I have a vague recollection of talking to the AI last night; let’s see if I can remember how it works.

“Computer?” I say tentatively.

As soon as I speak, the AI powers out of snooze and comes to full attention, brightening the lamps in the room up to daylight levels.

I cringe, shield my head. “Dim lights!”

When it’s safe to look, I poke my head back out from under the blankets and push myself up to a sitting position, leaning back against the wall to catch my breath. In the corner of the room is a kitchenette, separated from the bedroom by a breakfast bar.

I sit up properly, now, eyeing the distance. It’s about twenty steps: far too far in my condition.

“Computer,” I say smugly, “make tea.”

A smooth, cultured female voice replies, the source of the sound impossible to pinpoint: “What did you say?”

Ah, yes. One has to enunciate things carefully for computers. I clear my throat. “Make. Tea.”

“What did you say?”

“Tea. Make tea. T. E. A.”

“What did you say?”

Okay. I rub my forehead. This requires some lateral thinking. “Boil water,” I then say.

No response.

“Kettle, on!”

“Command not found.”

I scream in frustration and flop back down onto the bed. That black box is laughing at me, I know it. I glare up at the ceiling, crawl over to the foot of the bed to better scowl at it. “What’s a girl got to do to get breakfast around here, huh?”

Finally, the AI seems to pick up on my words. “You would like breakfast, is that right? Just say yes or no.”

“Yes!”

“What did you say?”

“Yesssssssssssssss.” I probably look like a complete idiot, crouched on hands and knees on the bed, hissing at the ceiling. Oh well.

The light in the kitchenette brightens. Success! Something is happening! I wait for the AI magic to begin, ready to be impressed. Everyone talks about these miracles of science, these must-have gadgets that simplify even the hardest of tasks.

“Kitchen is fully stocked,” the AI says. “Please proceed to the kitchen to prepare your breakfast.”

To prepare my—?

“You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I tell the black box, shaking my fist at it. “You can’t even make tea? What’s the use of an AI if it can’t make tea?!”

A door behind me opens. I look over my shoulder, watch my mystery man walk into the room with a towel around his waist, fresh out of the shower.

He takes in the scene: me crouched on the bed, hand in middair, as the AI says for the umpteenth time: “What did you say?”

“Not this again,” he says.

FEELING BLUE

I have come to realize that fashion forever follows nature. Polka dot dresses reminiscent of ladybirds, the black-and-white zebra stripes on high heels, the comfy jumpers with kangaroo pouches…. All the animals imported from Earth have been faithfully copied until there is nothing left to copy. And now this… Blue skin, highlighter-bright.

As a young lady of certain repute — sufficient to garner attention, yet not quite enough to make up the rules — I must conform to fashion’s dictates. So here I sit spreading blue tincture down my arm in preparation for tonight’s festivities. It’s our gold anniversary: 50 Earth years since we colonized Venus.

I say we but of course I played no part in the original settlement — why I was only decanted seventeen years ago! Some of the first colonists still have to wear firmasuits to hold their bodies in place; their bodies are too old to adjust to the gee here, but I never have had to, hence the blue skin.

I’ve heard on Earth girls brown their skin in the sun, and during the cold months tint their skin orange to recapture the warmth. Orange like the sky of Venus, like the endless canyon and deserts… It was Rosca who decided if the Earthmen wear a tribute to us, we should wear a tribute to them.

Blue is a rare colour here on Venus. But on Earth — or at least on the holograms of Earth I’ve seen — you can drown in blueness. Blue sky, blue flowers, why even rivers and lakes and oceans of blue that you can bathe in without protection! (That last I’m not sure about; surely whatever turns the water blue is noxious?)

The thought of so much blueness fills me with a strange longing. Or maybe it is the thought of so much water — the only water in my room, other than that in my body, is the quarter-full tear jar in my pocket. We’re a nation that carries our grief with us, always. It’s our best form of currency. When I fill up this tear jar I’m going to trade it in for something exciting… I don’t know what yet. Perhaps flight lessons, although mother says I should save up for a family permit. As if I am interested in starting a family now!

After what happened with Cajk, I don’t think I shall ever speak to boys again. He… he… I expect he will be there tonight with her. I saw her in the compound last week, carrying an Adsa shopping bag of all things. I imagine she buys discount tinctures there and will attend the party tonight with skin more green than blue. But I shouldn’t judge; mother says it’s unbecoming.

Although I simply cannot stop thinking about it. I don’t understand how she appeals to Cajk! I thought… I was under the impression what we shared was special. I was ready to — well, you know.

Just a minute while I put some tincture on my lips. There, all done. I’m blue everywhere. Even my insides feel blue. What a fanciful thought! But perhaps they are… Perhaps the tincture has seeped through and tainted the bottled-up grief with its colour. As if I need anymore tainting.

Perhaps that’s why Cajk left me: he realized I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t worthy.

Oh! I’m crying. I better put down the dictaphone and catch my tears.