The Jones family sat at a center table in the hotel restaurant, waiting for their dinner to arrive. A couple in the corner murmured over dessert. Otherwise, the room was empty.
“Children,” said Mary Jones. “Please try to have fun. We’ve been anticipating this trip for so long.”
“Maybe you and Dad have been anticipating it – looking forward to sitting around on this deserted piece of rock,” said Janie Jones. “I haven’t. Meagan is over on Mars right now, not stuck on some stupid asteroid.”
“It’s a luxury location,” said Joe Jones. “This trip is costing me an arm and a leg. Also, Asteroid Prixill is not a rock. It’s mostly iron, nickel, platinum, and volatile minerals.”
Janie rolled her eyes.
“Fred Jones,” said Mary Jones to her son, “please join us in the real world. Turn off whatever is running in your ear or your implant or your pocket. This is a family trip. We’d like your mind present as well as your body.”
No reaction from Fred, Janie’s older brother, absorbed in some virtual reality game in some virtual reality universe.
“I begged you,” Joe Jones said to his wife. “A vacation for grownups. Just you and me. Nobody in their right mind brings teenagers along on a trip like this. We should have left them home.”
“You can say that again,” Janie said.
“Family is family,” Mary Jones said. “Let’s not have this discussion again, please. We’re all here and we’re all going to enjoy it. The family nest will be empty soon enough. I want to have fun with my children before they’re all grown up.”
A busboy brought them bread in a basket and packets of butter in a bowl. Like practically everything else in the hotel, the basket and bowl were magnetized. Large as the asteroid was, its gravity was of the mildest. The Jones family members all wore seat belts.
“Was that young man making eyes at you?” Joe Jones said to his daughter as the busboy float-walked over to clear the corner couple’s dishes.
“If you mean, was he flirting with me, the answer is yes,” Janie said.
“Remember the ground rules,” Joe said. “Mother and I are your chaperones on this trip. No dates with strange boys.”
Janie drummed her fingers. The corners of her mouth drew down. Her eyes followed the busboy, a strapping young man.
The following morning, the family took a shuttle tour through a rhenium mine on Asteroid SX454b. A guide explained to them – they were the only four present – that rhenium is one of the rarest elements in Earth’s crust. Very expensive, it is especially favored for use in jet and rocket engines. It has the highest boiling point of all metals and the third-highest melting point.
Joe found this interesting. Rhenium. He was already planning a follow-up tour for them to a rhodium mine. Mary felt that at least they were spending vacation time in a productive and instructive way. Janie was bored out of her mind and let everyone know it, repeatedly. Fred, tagging along, seemed to be somewhere else, far, far away.
When they got back to the hotel, Joe hurried to schedule another tour. He was disappointed to learn that the Rhodium tour had been canceled due to lack of interest. Unbelievable. Instead, he booked an excursion to view odd-shaped asteroids, including visits to at least thirty variously shaped like animals and religious figures. When he got back to their room, or chamber, he found Janie begging and pleading to be allowed to go on a teen outing to a hollow asteroid with low-grav dancing inside. Many chaperones were to be provided, she assured them. Joe wanted to say no. He felt sure that when Janie saw the asteroid shaped like a raccoon, she would be entranced. Mary overruled him. That afternoon, Janie joined the other lucky teens on a tour shuttle. The last thing Joe and Mary saw was Janie and the grinning busboy disappearing from view into the ship, his hand on her back but moving down, and not drawn lower by gravity, as there wasn’t any.
Without Janie, with Fred in dreamland, and with Mary professing a little headache, Joe sadly canceled the asteroid tour. The three of them were sitting in their room waiting for the start of tea time when an alarm klaxon began to sound. Joe hurried to the emergency instructions on the back of the hotel-room door.
“My gosh!” he said. “We’ve got to make our way to the lifeboats!”
Mary sprang up.
“Freddy! Emergency!” Joe shouted.
“Freddy, get up, get up!” Mary shouted.
Fred lay on his bed, oblivious. Somewhere, in some distant and unreal galaxy, he and his online friends were engaged in a monstrous, titanic struggle, with the fate of trillions of souls hanging in the balance.
Joe and Mary grasped his shoulders and shook.
“Fred!” his mother said. “You’ve got to come to. We’re evacuating.”
His eyelids lifted. His eyes wobbled, then focused on his mother’s distraught face.
“No time to be lost!” his dad said. “To the lifeboats!”
“Why?” Fred said.
“The alarm has sounded,” Joe said. “We don’t know why.”
“Hang on a minute,” Fred said. He closed his eyes. The klaxon continued, its racket enormous. People raced by in the hall, shouting, screaming.
Fred opened his eyes.
“It’s a false alarm,” he said.
“How do you know that?” said his mother.
Fred tapped his head.
“Folks are out in the halls trampling each other,” he said. “Even if this were an emergency, each room doubles as a survival unit. Leaving it would be a mistake. It’s safer in here.”
“Are you absolutely sure about this, Son?” his dad said. “That alarm sounds like it means business. Why don’t they turn it off?”
“They’re trying to.”
“Why haven’t they announced that it’s a false alarm?” his mom said.
“They have,” Fred said, tapping his head again. “Everybody is being told, right now, by their kids.”
He lay back on the bed. Returned to wherever he had been before, doing whatever he had been doing before. The alarm fell silent. The sounds of panic in the hall subsided.
“Say, Fred,” said his mother. “Fred!”
The boy’s eyes opened. He frowned.
“We are on vacation, aren’t we?” he said.
“One last thing,” his mother said. “Your sister is only fourteen, you know.”
“She’s over on another asteroid with a kid who’s at least a couple of years older than her. I’m very worried.”
“Is this the last interruption?” Fred said.
“Yes. I promise.”
Fred closed his eyes. The minutes dragged by. He opened his eyes.
“She’ll be OK,” he said.
“I spoke to the busboy. He’ll look after her, rather than… you know…”
“Thank the Lord,” Mary said. “How did you convince him?”
Fred laughed out loud.
“Convince him?” he said. “Do you have any idea who I am in the multiverse? No, of course you don’t. If he bothers Janie in any way, takes advantage of her, whatever, that kid won’t be able to touch anything with a chip in it for the rest of his life, or at least until he grows up, which is pretty much the same thing.”