Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer
Nikki sat on the edge of the bed. The neon flicker from the motel sign outside bathed the room in intermittent blue through the thin fabric of the curtains.
The girl behind her stirred, then rolled towards her and curled almost fetal around Nikki’s bare waist, propping herself up on one slender elbow.
In a few hours this girl would be well on her way to three days of the deepest sleep of her life, before waking to an empty room, an empty bed, and having been relieved of a week’s memories.
There would be nationwide warrants waiting when she stumbled back into the world.
Nikki already was starting to adopt her physique, and once she’d uplinked with her soon to be sleeping companion, she’d become the United Nations translator completely, from the big lower lip pout to the way she smiled ever so slightly when she said ‘bottom’, enunciating the t’s crisply.
By this time tomorrow, she’d be in another hotel room, with another carefully chosen partner playing the chameleon yet again to secure the means of her exit from the country.
So many faces, so many bodies, so many personalities written and unwritten, scribed and erased into the malleable matter of her mind and body. It was supposed to be clean, surgical, but the original tech was designed to load in minor abilities into unused spaces, like how to surf, or speak a foreign language. The physical rewriting was dark ops, and nobody had ever intended it to be used so completely, and so many times. There were countless latent memory fragments that drifted up through her consciousness, she wasn’t sure which were hers and which were crosstalk and shrapnel.
“Hey babe, what’s the matter?” That voice, Nikki had to be careful to modulate her reply for fear of already sounding just like her.
“Nothing, just restless, can’t sleep.” A half truth. The stimulants coursing through her own system would keep her lit up for days. Plenty of time to come down when she was safely out of reach. Besides, the head crash made the unwiring easier to get through.
“You look like you’re a million miles away,” the girl ran her fingers up Nikki’s back and scratched gently through the hair at the base of her skull, like one might rub a cat, “where are you baby?”
“Where am I?”, Nikki thought to herself, “that’s the easy part, the real question is who am I?”
She wasn’t sure she knew herself anymore.
Author : Steve Smith, Staff Writer
My eyes were the first to go. They’d been deteriorating since my mid thirties, and after a bacterial infection in my early forties I couldn’t focus on anything anymore.
I had coverage, so I had them replaced.
I remember the change was immediate and incredible; I could see things close to me with incomprehensible fidelity, and see things miles away with striking clarity. I could make out things of interest that I couldn’t easily get to, at least not in any reasonable amount of time.
So I had them replace my legs too.
There was no more forgetting why I was walking towards some far-off things that had caught my eye, I could sprint there in almost no time without even getting winded. I ran everywhere, exploring, it was a new dawn of discovery.
It was on one such exploration that I lost my footing and fell, tumbling in a flailing jumble of limbs across the gravel and glasphalt, breaking both my arms.
It was good that I had coverage.
It would have taken months for my bones to knit, and for the physio to get them strong again. I was in and out in a few days with brand new ones.
From there it seemed like every few months there was something else that needed replacing, or upgrading. No longer having limbs wreaked havoc on my circulation, and while they were replacing my heart it seemed only natural to replace my lungs and digestive system, ‘while we’re in there…’, the doctor had said.
It was covered, so why not?
I’ve got a hundred year warranty on all my parts now, so I figure I’m good for the long haul.
You look familiar, do I know you?
Wife? You’re funny, I’m sure I would remember if I had a wife.
You do remind me of a girl I used to know, back in the day. Prettiest thing I’d ever laid eyes on.
My eyes were the first to go, they’d been deteriorating since my mid thirties…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.