Turn It Up

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Walter was led through the facility flanked by four men in combat armor carrying guns. He’d walked these corridors for nearly a decade, but this was all very new to him.

At his lab, the soldiers stopped, ushered him inside and turned their backs as the doors slid shut between them.

“Doctor Koen,” the voice sounded foreign, Soviet maybe? “We need your assistance in handling this little mess that you’ve made.”

The voice belonged to a suit, so black as to be difficult to look at directly, in stark contrast to the almost albino complexion of the man himself.

“Your assistant…”

Walter cut him off. “My wife.”

The suit paused, steepled spider-like fingers together and pursed his lips before continuing.

“Your wife, has become infected with the substance from the crash site. She’s been contained in the hangar bay, but we are unable to subdue her without risking damage to the facility.”

Walter’s attention was drawn to the displays scattered about the room, each now showing security footage from the hangar. He moved closer, searching the monitors for some sign of June, his wife. In one corner behind one of the columns supporting the mezzanine there was a barely perceptible glow of green.

If that was June, she must be all but exhausted.

“We have an injectable compound that will bind with the contagion and temporarily render the subject inert. She trusts you, you need to get close enough to administer the drug and then we’ll move her to safety.”

Walter knew what ‘safety’ meant. They’d been studying subjects infected since the facility had been re-tasked and taken off-book, and although the ‘crash’ was still officially an Air Force test of an advanced engine concept, the DNA of the contagion was clearly not of this world. New patients arrived conveniently each time an existing patient expired, and they remained isolated and sedated while they performed surgeries, took and tested samples, all via tele-metrics.

June must have broken protocol and made physical contact.

The suit poked one stiff finger into Walter’s collarbone, using the pressure to force him to turn slowly until they were face to face.

“If we lose containment, we are going to have to burn this facility, and everything,” he punctuated a pause with a sharp jab, “and everyone with it to the ground.”

He pushed a hypo-injector flat against Walter’s chest, and held it there until he took it. The payload a featureless cylinder decorated simply with a yellow ‘X’.

Walter felt an ache in the pit of his stomach.

“She’ll be sensitive to light, if I turn up the hangar lighting to full, she’ll be blind. I’ll wear goggles and talk to her, she won’t see what I’m going to do.”

The suit regarded him cooly for a moment, and then waved him off absently.

“Whatever it takes. We’ll monitor from here, and the team will be ready outside the doors.”

The soldiers flanked Walter silently back through the facility to the crew doors into the hangar. There they stopped and assumed defensive positions alongside the cluster of armoured troops already gathered outside.

Walter slowly eased open a door, looked inside, then slipped through and let it close behind him.

He walked along the back wall, under the mezzanine and towards the green glow he’d seen on the monitors. Sliding welding goggles down over his eyes, he palmed his control pad and turned the lights up as far as they would go. The hangar was bathed in blinding artificial sunlight, and as he watched, the green glow he’d lost in the darkness of the welding glass appeared again, growing steadily in intensity.

In the control room, the displays blinked out one by one, the brightness overdriving them beyond a safe gamma, leaving the suit blind.

“June?” Walter called, and the green glow coalesced into a figure moving towards him slowly.

“June, we don’t have much time.” Walter stepped forward, and June stopped, then stepped back.

Reaching out his hand, Walter slowly closed the distance between them, and gently took one of hers.

He felt the slow burn of the contagion crawl up his arm and into his chest. He peeled off the goggles with a free hand as his vision changed from blown out whiteness, to night-vision clarity. The fire in his body grew, and the details of June’s face clarified before him. She smiled, and he felt himself smiling back.

As they charged under the artificial sunlight, they knew they had all the time in the world.

Vacuum

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Sometimes, when we got bored, we’d turn off the artificial gravity and do mundane things in zero gee.

Sitting on either side of what passed for a mess room table over breakfast was a particular favourite pastime of mine. The slow motion ballet of sucking bubbles of liquid from the air, forcing a stream into the space between us and trying to catch every one before they coalesced on some surface.

You were always determined to win, while I remained focused on memorizing every line of your visage as you floated around the room, face creased in concentration, eyes crinkled into a determined smile.

Sometimes zero gee breakfasts devolved into zero gee sex which, if I’m being honest, is my absolute favourite pastime.

Was.

You were studying the morning’s long range scans, and I was playing connect the dots with the flecks of grey in the iris of your eye, charting out some constellation or other in that brilliant sea of blue.

Everything happened too fast for it to really register, the speed of events in stark contrast to the slow motion of the morning.

My coffee container was halfway between the table where it had been mag-locked and my lips when there was the most delicate of snicks in the air between us. The hull breaches auto-sealed so quickly the klaxons didn’t sound, the ship just logging the event for later review.

Your look changed, the light in your eye suddenly dimmed, and your mouth opened in a soundless expression of surprise.

Droplets of coffee drifted away from their cylinder towards you, my eyes only then noticing the hole punched through and through in the alloy, the passing so quick as to not even have registered as an impact in my brain.

A cloud of crimson drops pulsed into existence to hang in the air behind you, one burst, then another, then stillness.

There was no sound, no screaming, no sobbing, nothing at all. You just, in that instant, stopped.

That was three days ago, and as I watch your wrapped body leave the airlock, jettisoned on a trajectory towards the last planet on our records so as not to leave you abandoned in space, I wonder how long before I follow you. You were my crewmate, my partner. You were my lover and my friend.

You were the root of my tenuous grip on sanity out here in the never ending void.

There’s no record of the particles that shot through the ship, perforating inches of shielding and structure like needles of fire through ice. I have no idea if they were meant for us, or if they were chance shots fired astray from some conflict in some other place, some other time.

I find myself wondering how far death travelled, and for how long, to take you from me.

We’re taught to fear and respect the vacuum, that thing that nature so abhors, but in this moment I find myself almost longing for its cool embrace.

Wayward Son

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

June looked up as the diner door opened. There was Jack, ten-fifteen every morning like clockwork. Same dark, carefully pressed single-breasted suit, always with his trench coat folded over his left arm, fedora perched on top of his head.

“Morning baby-doll, what’s cookin?” He flashed a wide smile that she couldn’t help but return.

“Nothing much Jack,” he took the newspaper she had waiting for him and headed back to his corner booth. “The usual?”

She didn’t have to ask, he ate the exact same breakfast every single day.

“Yes please. Why mess up a good thing?”

June followed him to his seat with a fresh pot of coffee, and placing a mug on the table, filled it almost to the top with a flourish.

Jack picked up the mug and swallowed half the steaming liquid without looking up from the paper, and June waited until he’d put the mug back down before filling it again and heading back to the counter.

Her line cook already had eggs, bacon and home fries in the window, and chased it a moment later with a side plate of white toast. She picked up a bottle of HP sauce in one fist and balanced the toast plate on top, then carried the lot to Jack’s table.

“Thanks a bunch cookie!” That smile again. He’d taken off the hat and placed in on top of his coat on the bench beside him. His hair as always was gelled perfectly. She watched as he doused the plate in sauce, then systematically devoured every morsel, washing it down with the rest of his coffee.

He’d been coming since before she started working at the diner, and she’d originally assumed that he was part of some period movie shoot; always the exact same look, always the exact same clothes. In fact nothing about him ever changed. She’d been serving him nearly a decade now, and she could swear he wasn’t a day older than the thirty years she figured he was when she’d poured him that first cup of coffee. She’d put on a few pounds, and acquired a few wrinkles along the way, but Jack, well Jack was just perfectly Jack.

“Holy mackerel!” Jack’s shout startled her back to the present. “Would you get a load of this!” He was pointing excitedly to a page in the newspaper in the Science & Technology section.

June read the headline, “Scientists Find Seven Earth-like Planets Orbiting Nearby Ultracool Star”.

“That’s pretty exciting,” June watched Jack as he rapidly scanned the page without looking up, “maybe one day we’ll be able to travel there.”

Jack stopped, and stared June right in the eye. She felt cold all over.

He stood, and placed a crisp ten dollar bill beside the empty breakfast plate, lining the edges up exactly square to the corner of the table without averting his gaze.

“I certainly hope so,” he said, finally looking away and collecting his hat and coat from the bench.

“I’m going to need a ride home.”

Putting his hat back on, and folding his coat over his left arm, he started for the door.

“Do you want me to call you a cab?” June asked, her confusion evident in her tone.

Jack didn’t turn as he answered. “Oh baby-doll, no,” he hesitated, then added “but thank you.” Then he disappeared out the door into the mid-morning sunshine.

Life Goes On

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

When the last of the ships left, they blasted craters a mile deep in the earth, so large it would take the better part of a day to walk their circumference.

The ground at the bottom of these holes had been heated to molten, and had cracked and fissured as it cooled. The sides were carved almost perfectly vertical, exposing the bands in the earth that marked time.

The underground waterways found their way to these low spots, and they, helped by the rains that followed the evacuation, filled them, the water teeming with new life.

The vegetation that had been caught in the downwash burned for months, leaving the earth around these new geometrically unlikely lakes blackened and ashen.

From space the Earth must have looked like the charred bowling ball of some many-fingered god, discarded in its decaying orbit around a dying star.

In time, the plant life that survived produced seeds, and the birds and bees carried them, as did the breeze. The scorched earth sprouted flowers and shrubs on the high ground, and bullrushes and reeds in the valleys, and grasses and other persistent life of every colour and shade imaginable sprung up throughout. The bugs crawled up from the ground and reclaimed the spaces they had once been so violently expunged from.

Rivers found their ways into the massive pools, bringing sediment to cloud the waters, and sustain life, and fish to feed on the insects that had started to breed there.

Foxes chased rabbits, and were themselves chased by coyotes. Wild cats chased rats through the empty streets and buildings left abandoned.

Slowly, the Earth filled in the spaces man left behind with what remained, gradually erasing the memories of the people who had paved over and walled in everything for so many hundreds of years.

On the hilltop, in the shade of the great observatory, I watch the sun dip below the horizon, bathing everything in sight with the purple and orange haze that I will never get tired of seeing.

In the distance, wild birds are calling their last for the day, and the forest animals are waking and talking to each other, and no-one, and to the coming night.

In the years since you’ve been gone, the planet has worked tirelessly to erase all memory of you.

And yet still the memory of you persists.

Dead Reckoning

Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer

Tran adjusted the grapples on the Canbarro reactor core slung under the ship from the relative comfort of the cockpit. He balanced the load as close to center as possible, making sure to clear the four point vertical thrusters he’d need to get both the ship and its cargo into orbit.

“There’s a significant risk of seam failure at this gravity and load.” The ship’s AI had been warning of all the things he was doing wrong since he’d commissioned the ship from Tanzana. He missed an AI he could relate to more than he ever thought he would.

“Just power up, dial the warnings down to catastrophic failure only, and let’s get off this junk heap.”

Tran buckled himself in, rotated the contoured acceleration couch back until he was looking straight up into the black night sky and felt the rumble as the engines struggled to haul double their rated mass upwards against the gravity of the salvage planet.

“There’s a significant risk…” Tran cut the AI off in mid sentence.

“Unless we’re about to implode, shut it.”

The rumbling increased, the ship vibrating towards a harmonic resonance that he was sure wouldn’t be good. Just as the whine of the engines seemed in near perfect harmony with the groaning of the ship’s space-frame, they reached escape velocity, and Tran felt the crush of acceleration as the ship won its fight against gravity and streaked into space at an alarmingly increasing rate of speed.

“The risk of seam failure is decreasing,” the ship piped up, “however there is a significant risk of collision with a planetary high orbital.”

Tran just shook his head, and left the AI to pilot to the starting coordinates for the next leg of their journey. He closed his eyes and allowed the enveloping acceleration couch to hug him into a much needed sleep.

“We’re at the designated coordinates,” the AI waking him with monotone precision, “we’re stationary,” it continued, “there is a significant risk of collision with a fast moving mass while we have no momentum to transfer into evasive maneuvers.”

It wasn’t just that he missed an AI he could relate to, he was actually starting to hate this one. How could one hate something this primitive?

“Line our ass-end up with the Alpha-Ten station, and confirm our distance. We should be three days out assuming top speed and accounting for launch and acceleration.”

“That is correct, and our… ‘ass-end’… is lined up with Alpha-Ten.” Tran smiled at the pause. Maybe he was getting to this primitive pile of junk after all.

He’d run through this moment a thousand times since their escape from A-Ten. He had the time and the distance burned into his memory, the pursuit, the Drey ships lighting up his own, and the moment where all he could do was jettison his Canbarro’s core and eject in the other direction to what he hoped would be safety.

Rolling the Captain’s couch upright, he stared into the void ahead of him, then pushed the throttle fully forward and watched the distance he’d set on the console start to count down. His mind replayed the past for him, his eyes twitching at the incoming weapon discharges he could still smell, his hair prickled on his body at the memory of their wake. As the counter closed in on zero, he fired the cargo lock charges and dropped the scrapped reactor core like an anchor in space, the micro-explosions separating the massive core from the nimble ship save for the tethering line stretching out between them.

At zero, Tran remote detonated the core, the explosion triggering the containment systems on the core-shell itself, the resulting singularity stopping the imploding mass dead in space. The remaining slack in the tether took up in an instant, and holding, whipped the ship in a punishing arc downward until, at exactly ninety degrees down in the full wash of the imploding core, Tran and his ship blistered through the tear in space-time that rippled out beneath it.

Just as quickly, the tether was floating free, cut off from it’s other end. The explosion, the core, everything was simply no longer there.

“Imminent threat has been… the danger no longer registers on… there’s a ship ahead,” the AI stumbled before settling on something relevant in the sudden unexpected absence of everything that had been in its scope just moments before.”

“Grapple that ship, lock onto to power and data and open a comms channel.” Tran surveyed the lifeless and battered bulk of a familiar vessel drifting off their bow.

The ship reoriented itself and made a surprisingly smooth landing on the wreck, and Tran immersed himself into the dataline to find a familiar presence prickling at the intrusion.

“Tran? It’s about bloody time!” He struggled to keep his composure as he replied.

“So I’m a little late, I only had to rip a hole through space-time to get here!”

She laughed. “Nice crate, any attachment to the bitbox flying her?”

“Not even a little. Migrate your punk-ass kernel off of that boat and demote this unremarkable little shit.”

He could no more understand how he could have such strong feelings for one AI as he could understand hating a lesser one, but here he was having literally bent time to get back to her.

“Get a move on then,” he grinned, “and be forewarned, if I hear the words ‘significant risk’ even once, I’m tossing you out the airlock.”